William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice


Carla Spivack


Female rule was anomalous in the sixteenth century, therefore, Elizabeth I developed a complex set of symbols, rooted in claims traditionally made by male rulers, to legitimate her claim to rule. Nonetheless, her reign was anxiety-provoking, and this article argues that the years after her death saw a backlash against female power. Part of this backlash consisted of the reworking of the symbols Elizabeth had used. This article examines this process of revision in Shakespeare's play Macbeth and, later, in the responses of King James I to claims of demonic possession.

This article draws together three historical moments - Queen Elizabeth's role in the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots; Shakespeare's rewriting of the female ruler's conscience in Lady Macbeth; and King James's response to claims of demonic possession - to analyze a period when the female body was redefined in ways that continue to animate the law today. This connection to modern jurisprudence is especially prevalent in the areas of reproductive rights and fetal protection law. This article shows that the idea of the female body as merely biological and lacking in a subjectivity comparable to the male body originated in part in early seventeenth-century England.