Jovial Pregnancies: Couvade and Culture from Shakespeare to Milton
AuthorJohnson, Nicholas Shane
Early Modern Culture
Masculinity and Literature
Pregnancy and Authorship
Committee ChairBrown, Meg Lota
MetadataShow full item record
PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractThis study analyzes figurations of masculine pregnancy in early modern texts. Because no systematic methodology for conducting such an analysis yet exists, I have synthesized scholarship from anthropology, medicine, and psychoanalysis to construct an appropriate paradigm. Specifically, I bring together the anthropologist's "couvade," the physician's "couvade syndrome," and the psychoanalyst's gender-inflected model of the unconscious. Informed by this interdisciplinary scholarship, I offer a composite theory of couvade desire. I then apply that theoretical model to early modern figurations of masculine pregnancy. I find that the pervasive use of such figurations during the period results from ahistorical bodily disparities and historically-specific epistemological circumstances. The so-called "literary couvade" thus modulates: it directly challenges essentialist claims on the one hand, while simultaneously acknowledging the inexorable link between masculinity and a bodily incapability to give birth. Masculinity, in this model, appears disabled.Mitigating the disability, however, is a cultural imaginary unfettered by modern anatomical knowledge. Key aspects of human reproduction were still seductively obscure in the early modern period. Women birthed babies, that much was plain; but, perhaps men had a compensatory system of reproduction. Perhaps, some speculated, that system was superior to the messy, merely material capability exclusive to women. Masculinity could, in this regard, rival maternity for social significance without disclosing any act of appropriation from maternity. Such a dynamic resembles closely Rene Girard's paradigm of "mimetic desire." Crucial to mimetic desire is an indifference to the ostensible object on the part of both rival subjects. Relating this to the early modern "literary couvade," I conclude that figurations of masculine pregnancy emerge from a compensatory desire: the desire to mollify an apparent lack with the reduction in significance of the rival's manifest capability.