Lovers and Silent Women

Lovers and Silent Women December 2, 2016

Dympna Callaghan points out in her Shakespeare’s Sonnets that “Petrarchan love was always unrequited and unconsummated, like Romeo’s love for the ‘fair Rosaline’ who has taken a vow of chastity in Romeo and Juliet.” Thus, the Canzoniere “detail the poet’s tormented love for Laura. Her trademark unavailability becomes crystalized when she dies, an event which does not end the sequence but simply shifts it to another register. Even before her death, the poet-lover is melancholy to the point of psychological disintegration, and the poems recount his inner anguish so as to make the interiority of the poet a new subject for literature, describing the changing moods and nuances of male desire.”

It seems to be all about Laura, but Callaghan thinks otherwise: “Petrarch and the poet’s subjective identity—whether or not it correlated with the objective “facts” of his external, historical reality—were their real subject, and even the descriptions of Laura can be properly considered as projections of his own desires, ideals, beliefs, and aspirations.” It becomes “clearer in grief that the poetic expression is ‘all about Petrarch’ rather than really about Laura; but it remains the case that all along, he has been writing about his own emotional upheaval for which Laura is more the cipher than the true subject.” In short, “the reader is not permitted to see the world from Laura’s point of view.”

Petrarch wasn’t unique in this respect, and this serves to emphasize the epochal character of the moment in Don Quixote (chs. 11–14) when Marcela the shepherdess refuses to take responsibility for the suicide of the distraught courtly lover Grisóstomo. “Why do I need to love him just because he loves me?” she demands.

Giving the woman a speaking part: Now that’s a revolution.

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