tragic republics:
feminist refusals and the politics of dissent

'Tragic Republics: Feminist Refusals and the Politics of Dissent' examines the methods of resistance to excessive and illegitimate authority displayed by a range of female actors that is afforded by both the substantive ideals of republicanism and their literary representation. Though there has been much scholarly attention devoted to the relationship between politics and literature, there has been comparatively little work done on the literary representation of republicanism or the relationship between republicanism and civil disobedience, whether by political theorists or anyone else. Yet many of republicanism’s paradigmatic examples - Lucretia’s suicide, most obviously - are arguably moments of refusal. More remarkable, however, is that women’s attempts to live according to republican virtues typically results in their deaths, whether through an act of sacrifice or deliberate suicide.

These works of feminist refusal - ranging from Thomas Middleton’s The Ghost of Lucrece (1600) to Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry (1613) to Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady (1748) to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) to Madame de Staël’s Delphine (1802) - explore the dilemmas of tyranny and rebellion through the status of the female body. They both theorize resistance (whether it is viewed as good or bad, desirable or destructive) and perform a kind of resistance to simplistic analysis. The texts thus permit me to focus on the gendered dimension of refusal and rebellion in tragedy. Why are issues of fertility, paternity, and women’s sexual activity so deeply embedded in narrative critiques of tyranny? How is this obsession with bloodlines and inheritance made manifest in discussions of honor? Why are explorations of political tyranny so often embedded in domestic dramas - why is Lucrece bound to Tarquin even after her death? why is Herod’s tyranny framed with reference to his wife, Mariam, rather than his subjects? 

My interest in this topic emerged while working on a dissertation chapter devoted to the suicide of Roxane in Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes. There, I argued that Roxane’s insurrection and suicide evoke a model established by the Roman matriarch Lucretia. Roxane’s rejection of her husband Usbek, and her destruction of his seraglio, precipitate the end of his despotic rule and offer up an emancipatory alternative, in much the same way that Lucretia’s death inaugurates republican Rome. Yet in that chapter, I did not fully grapple with the implications of Roxane’s suicide as an act of civil disobedience. During the summer of 2015, as I began to formulate this project, I organized my introductory political theory class around the themes of obedience and authority. Discussing Antigone with my students, I came to see the potential for further exploring literature, especially tragedy, in my own work. ‘Tragic Republics’ sharpens the focus of my work on the topic of republicanism, gender, and disobedience. 

This project takes quite literally the notion of a ‘theater of war,’ and examines how literary discourses surrounding women’s honor, loyalty, and virtue were transmitted to a wide audience, often by authors whose own political allegiances are sometimes murky. It is my hope that ‘Tragic Republics’ will help illuminate several matters of particular interest to political theorists, such as the place of women in the history of republicanism and the relationship between civil disobedience and republicanism. Though the archive of texts to be used is several centuries old, ‘Tragic Republics’ is motivated by twenty-first century concerns about dissent, female embodiment, and politics-as-spectacle.