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“Sing Againe Syren“: The Female Musician and Sexual Enchantment in Elizabethan Life and Literature*

  • Linda Phyllis Austern (a1)


To Elizabethan observers in many disciplines, feminine beauty and music offered parallel benefits and dangers that influenced prescriptions for the actual musical behavior of contemporary Englishwomen and also the development of stock literary situations in which female musicians either caused spiritual fulfillment or physical destruction. Conflicting ideologies, based on the most respected ancient authorities and contemporary observers, attributed similarly opposite aspects to women and music, which had both come to be regarded as earthly embodiments of the divine and the damning by the final part of the sixteenth century. Women, who possessed the natures of both Mary and Eve, were regarded as agents alternately of salvation and destruction even as music was perceived as an inspiration to both heavenly rapture and carnal lust.



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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the National Conference of the Renaissance Society of America in Philadelphia on 21 March 1986 as part of its panel on Gender Theory II: The Arts of Female Practice in the Renaissance. I would like to thank three anonymous readers for Renaissance Quarterly, one of whom later identified herself as Elise Bickford Jorgens, for numerous helpful suggestions.



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1 Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella (1591), 3d sonnet, 1. 18.

2 Previous scholarship on women and music in the Renaissance has focused primarily on Italy where musical opportunities for women were greatest; see Jane Bowers, “The Emergence of Women Composers in Italy, 1566-1700,” in Bowers, Jane and Tick, Judith, eds., Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition (Urbana and Chicago, 1986), 116-67; Howard Mayer Brown, “Women Singers and Women's Songs in Fifteenth- Century Italy,” in ibid., 62-69; Anthony Newcomb, “Courtesans, Muses, or Musicians? Professional Women Musicians in Sixteenth-Century Italy,” in ibid., 90-115; and William F. Prizer, “Isabella d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia as Patrons of Music: The Frottola at Mantua and Ferrara, ”Journal of the American Musicological Society 38 (1985): 1-33.

3 Excellent summaries of the controversy concerning women in the English Renaissance are provided in Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman, rev. ed. (Mamaroneck, N.Y., 1975), 15-36, 239-71; Katherine Usher Henderson and McManus, BarbaraF., Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy About Women in England, 1540- 1640 (Urbana and Chicago, 1985); and Woodbridge, Linda, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana and Chicago, 1984), 13-136. The most comprehensive summary of the contemporary English debate concerning the merits and uses of music remains Comegys Boyd, Morrison, Elizabethan Music and Musical Criticism 2d ed. (Philadelphia, 1962), 1336 ; but see also Hollander, John, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700 (Princeton, N.J., 1961), 104-22.

4 Anger, Jane, Jane Anger her Protection for Women (London, 1589), 13. In quotations from primary sources I have retained the original spelling and punctuation, but have used standard modern spellings of authors’ names and have interchanged the complementary pairs of letters “I” / “ j , ” “u” / “v , ” “ye”/ “the,” and “w”/ “vv.”

5 Rep. in Renate Bridenthal and Koonz, Claudia, eds., Becoming Visible: Women in European History (Boston, 1977), 137-64, esp. 153-60.

6 New and Choise Characters, of Severall Authors together with that exquisite and unmatcht poem, The Wife (London, 1615), sig. B6.

7 For further discussion of Renaissance attitudes toward feminine sexuality and sexual expression, see Bullough, VernL., The Subordinate Sex: A History of Attitudes Toward Women (Urbana, 1973), 119 ; Camden, Elizabethan Woman, 27-28; Henderson and Mc- Manus, Half Humankind, 55-58; Kelly-Gadol, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?”, 152-61; Maclean, Ian, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge, 1980), 17 ; Mary Beth Rose, “Moral Conceptions of Sexual Love in Elizabethan Comedy,” Renaissance Drama, n.s. 15 (1984): 1-29, esp. 6-7; and Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance, 176-80.

8 The English Renaissance conception of practical music as representative of a greater universal harmony has been discussed in numerous scholarly works. See, for example, Linda Phyllis Austern, “Sweet Meats with Sour Sauce: The Genesis of Musical Irony in English Renaissance Drama After 1600,” The Journal of Musicology 4 (1985-86): 472-90, esp. 488-89; Bowden, William R., The English Dramatic Eyrie, 1603-42 (New Haven, 1951), 4 ; Chan, Mary, Music in the Theatre of Ben fonson (Oxford, 1980), 9-15; Dent, EdwardJ., The Foundations of English Opera (Cambridge, 1928), 2 ; Finney, Gretchen L., Musical Backgrounds for English Literature, 1580-1650 (New Brunswick, 1962), intro.; Hollander, , The Untuning of the Sky, esp. 20-50, 162-80; John H. Long, Shakespeare's Use of Music: The Final Comedies (New York, 1977), 2534 ; Mellers, Wilfred, Harmonious Meeting (London, 1965), 135-37; Pattison, Bruce, Music and Poetry of the English Renaissance (New York, 1971), 1; Sternfeld, Frederick W., “Le symbolisme musical dans quelques pieces de Shakespeare,” Les fêtes de la Renaissance (Paris, 1956), 320-33; Robin Headlam Wells, “John Dowland and Elizabethan Melanc holy,” Early Music 13 (1985): 514-28, esp. 515; and Wells, , “The Ladder of Love, ” Early Music 12 (1984): 173189 , esp. 176-80.

9 A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (London, 1597), 195.

10 A Briefe Discourse of the True (but neglected) Use of Charact'ring the Degrees by their Perfection, Imperfection, and Diminution in Measurable Musicke Against the Common Practice and Custome of These Times (London, 1614), sig. A3V. See also The Arte of English Poesie (London, 1589), 36; and Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 4th ed., “corrected and augmented by the Author” (Oxford, 1632), 540.

11 I n particular, see The Praise of Musicke (Oxenford, 1586), 40-41.

12 Ibid., 70-71.

13 Ibid., 70.

14 Ibid., 3.

15 The Anatomic of Abuses (London, 1583), sig. D4. See also Gosson, Stephen, The Schoole of Abuse (London, 1579), sigs. A8V-B3; The Praise of Musicke, 30, 58, and 66-67; Prynne, William, Histrio-Mastix: The Players Scourge, or Actors Tragedie (London, 1633), 273-90; and Stubbes, Anatomic of Abuses, sigs. 03V-06.

16 The most succinct contemporary English summary of this phenomenon is found in Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 4th ed., 15.

17 The Courtyer of Count BalAessar Castillo, trans. Thomas Hoby (London, 1561), sigs. KK4-KK4V. See also sigs. VV2V-VV3.

18 In particular, see ibid., sig. KK4V.

19 Sylva Sylvarum or a Naturall History (London, 1629), 38. A similar but earlier discussion in more arcane language is included in John Dee's preface to The Elements of Geometric of the most auncient Philosopher Euclid of Megara, trans. H[enry] Billingsley (London, 1570), sig. B2V.

20 The substantive relation between the human soul and music and the auditory pathway to spiritual ecstasy, were widely discussed by Renaissance Neoplatonists, most notably Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, long before they were adopted by English writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. See Finney, Gretchen L., “Ecstasy and Music in Seventeenth-Century England, ” Journal of the History of Ideas 8 (1947): 153-86, esp. 157, 176-86; Finney, Musical Backgrounds, 102-03, I09; Godwin, joscelyn, ed., Music, Mysticism, and Magic (London, 1986), 117-47; Hollander, Untuning of the Sky, 262-72, 294-99; Shumaker, Wayne, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns (Berkeley andLos Angeles, 1972), 132-33; and Walker, D. P., Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella (London, 1958), 8-9. The most comprehensive discussion of music, the soul, and related airy entities published in Elizabethan England is found in Agrippa, Henry Cornelius, Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Aries and Sciences, trans. Ja. San. (London, 1569), fol. 66V-70. Very brief but purely musical views of the phenomenon are given in The Praise of Musicke, 34-35, 43.

21 Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 4th ed., 297.

22 Ingpen, William, The Secrets of Numbers (London, 1624), 94 .

23 Mulcaster, Richard, Positions wherein those primitive circumstances he examined, which are necessary for the training up of children (London, 1581), 38. See also Agrippa, Vanitieand Uncertaintie, fol. 29V.

24 Sylva Sylvarum, 38.

25 The Praise of Musicke, 71.

26 Ravenscroft, Briefe Discourse, sig. A.

27 The Praise of Musicke, 92-93; see also 66-67.

28 See Bullough, Subordinate Sex, 2-4; Camden, Elizabethan Woman, 46-51; Hull, SuzanneW., Chaste, Silent and Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475-1640 (San Marino, 1982), 1-6; Diane Willen, “A Comment on Women's Education in Elizabethan England,” Topic 36(Fall 1982)166-73, esp. 66-67;andSherrinMarshall Wyntjes, “Women in the Reformation Era,” in Bridenthal and Koonz, Becoming Visible, 165-90, esp. 167- 68.

29 Mulcaster, Positions, 173.

30 Ibid., 180. This list is an abridgement of both the earlier humanistic recommendation for women's education as outlined in Courtyer, sig. CC2; and of Mulcaster's own much larger list of recommended subjects for boys, Positions, ii-iv, 183-214.

31 Courtyer, sigs. C C I - C C I V . Wind instruments were considered especially unflattering to the feminine performer because of the Classical association with Silenus and Pan and because of the Legend of Minerva, who became an object of godly derision when she puffed up her cheeks to play the pipes that she later cursed for that reason; see The Praise of Musicke, 17-18.

32 Erondelle, Pierre, The French Garden: for English Ladyes and Gentlewomen to walke in. or, a Sommer dayes labour (London, 1601), sigs. F3V-F4V.

33 Powell, Thomas, Tom of All Trades, or the Plaine Path-way to Preferment (London, 1631), sig. G3.

34 The Anatomy of Melancholy, isted. (Oxford, 1621), 586 (this edition only). Mulcaster confirms this sexual motivation and tells us that young women often forget their music when they become young wives and mothers; Positions, 178.

35 A Mirrhor mete for all Mothers, Matrones, and Maidens, intituled the Minhor of Modestie (London, [1579]), sigs. C6-C6V.

36 Praise of Musicke, 61. See also Bodenham, John, Bel- Vedere or the Garden of the Muses (London, 1600), 56; Butler, Charles, The Principles of Musik, in Singing and Setting (London, 1636), 122 ; Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 4th ed., 294-95; Courtyer, sigs. I2V-I3; Peacham, Henry, The Compleat Gentleman (London, 1622), 9698 ; ThePraiseof Musicke, 33-65; and Stubbes, Anatomic of Abuses, sigs. O4-O4V.

37 Stubbes, Anatomie of Abuses, sigs. D5-D5V.

38 The Anatomy of Melancholy, 4th ed., 448; see also 489-90, 540.

39 Gibson, Anthony, ed., A Woman's Woorth, Defended Agaist all the Men in the World (London, 1599), fols. 24-24V.

40 Anatomie of Abuses, sigs. E7V-G7V.

41 Mary Tattle-Well and Hit-Him-Home, Joan, The Womens Sharpe Revenge (London, 1640), 4142 . Lucy Apsley Hutchinson, born in 1620, associates music with the specifically feminine arts she was dutifully taught and despised as a young girl; Hutchinson, Lucy, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson with the Fragments of an Autobiography of Mrs. Hutchinson, ed. James Sutherland (London, 1973), 288 .

42 The Praise of Musicke, 36.

43 School of Abuse, 5.

44 Dorothy M. Meads, ed., The Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby 1599-1605 (Boston, 193°). 99- The diarist's 1599 is modern 1600.

45 As quoted in Joel Hurstfield and Smith, Alan G. R., eds., Elizabethan People: State and Society (London, 1972), 15 .

46 A great deal of work still remains to be done on the use of music by female characters in English Renaissance literature, especially outside of the drama; see by Linda Phyllis Austern: Music in English Children's Drama, 1597-1613 (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1984), 344-51; “Musical Parody in the Jacobean City Comedy, ” Music and Letters 66 (1985): 355-66, esp. 358-59; “Sweet Meats with Sour Sauce,” 489-90; and “Thomas Ravenscroft: Musical Chronicler of an Elizabethan Theater Company, ” Journal of the American Musicological Society 38 (1985): 238-63, esp. 260.

47 The Praise of Musicke, 58.

48 Meres, , Witts Academy: A Treasurie ofGoulden Sentences, Similes, and Examples (London, 1635), 288 .

49 Wright, , The Passions ofthe Minde in Cenerall (London, 1604), 170-71.

50 Day, John, Law-Trickes or, Who Would Have Thoughtlt (London, 1608), Act III, sig. E3V.

51 Chapman, George, Ovid's Banquet of Sence: A coronet for his Mistresse Philosophic, and his amorous Zodiacke (London, 1595), sig. B2V.

52 Ibid.,sigs. B3V-B4.

53 Sidney, , The Defence of Poesie (London, 1595), sig. F3V. An enormous amount has been written about the close relation between the lyric poetry and music of the later English Renaissance from that time to our own; the most recent, most comprehensive studies of this immense topic are Bickfordjorgens, Elise, The Well-Tun'd Word: Musical Interpretations of English Poetry 1597-1651 (Minneapolis, 1982); Maynard, Winifred, Elizabethan Lyric Poetry and its Music (Oxford, 1986); and Louise Schleiner, The Living Lyre in English Verse from Elizabeth through the Restoration (Columbia, Mo. 1984).

54 The Anatomy of Melancholy, 4th ed., 296-97. Music was widely regarded as a cure for the fashionable affliction of melancholy; see Long, John H., Shakespeare's Use of Music: A Study of the Music and its Performance in the Original Production of Seven Comedies (New York, 1977), 146; Mellers, Wilfred, “La Melancholie au debut du XVIIe siècle et la madrigal Anglais,” in Musique et poésie au XVIe siècle (Paris, 1954), 153-68, esp. 155; and Rooley, Anthony, “New Light on John Dowland's Songs of Darkness,” Early Music 11 (1983): 6-21, esp. 12.

55 Lyly, John, Love's Metamorphosis (London, 1601), Act III, scene i, sig. C4V.

56 Ibid., Act IV, scene ii, sigs. E2-E2V

57 Overbury, New and Choise Characters, sig. E3.

58 Sandys, George, Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz'd, and Represented in Figures (Oxford, 1632), 195-96.

59 Histrio-Mastix, 267.

60 Greene, Robert, Greene's Never Too Late, or, a Powder of Experience: sent to all Youthfull Gentlemen, to roote out the infectious follies, that over-reaching conceitsfoster in the springtime of their youth (London, 1590), 47-48.

61 Ibid., 44-46.

62 Ibid., 60.

* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the National Conference of the Renaissance Society of America in Philadelphia on 21 March 1986 as part of its panel on Gender Theory II: The Arts of Female Practice in the Renaissance. I would like to thank three anonymous readers for Renaissance Quarterly, one of whom later identified herself as Elise Bickford Jorgens, for numerous helpful suggestions.


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