Chapter 2 — So Like Her Father

[Print edition page number: 15]

Cario bragges and sweares his wife’s a maide,
Louely Lucrece, or Diana rather:
Some sacred Saint in womans clothes arraide,
And why? His children are so like their father:
Yet Cario’s cousoned, do what e’re he can,
She thinks of him, lies with another man.
(Weever 1922/1599, 8)

In 1600, Godfrey of Bulloigne, or the Recoverie of Jerusalem. Done into English Heroicall verse, by Edward Fairfax, Gent., became the first English translation of the complete text of Torquato Tasso’s 1581 epic romance, Gerusalem Liberata. According to its editors, Godfrey of Bulloigne is a “very free translation”; that is, Fairfax’s text is not an exact rendering of Tasso’s poem, rather it seeks to produce a “readerly” version of the poem (Fairfax 1981/1600). Of the extant adaptations of and borrowings from Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, Tasso’s Gerusalem Liberata reflects an author’s decision to adapt the text to coincide with cultural ideologies and, in the narrative retelling of Heliodorus’s love story, to change the ending. Gerusalem Liberata first appeared in 1580 in a pirated version, then in 1581 in an authorized publication. Within two decades, English writers were translating and/or borrowing from Tasso’s text. In 1594, Richard Carew (translator) “offered readers the first part of ‘An Heroicall Poem’ by Torquato Tasso” (Fairfax 1981/1600, 20). Other writers influenced by Tasso’s epic romance include Edmund Spenser, whose Book Twelve of the Faerie Queene is clearly indebted to Tasso’s heroine, Clorinda.

Godfrey of Bulloigne takes as its subject matter one of the most long lasting conflicts in human history — the military, ideological, and political tension between Christianity and Islam. In the poem, Heliodorus’s Charikliea is recast as the female warrior Clorinda and Theagenes surfaces as the Christian knight Tancred. Like Charikliea, Clorinda is fierce in her defense[16] of her virtue, and once she falls in love with Tancred, she becomes a romantic emblem of fidelity and chastity. Where the two heroines differ is in their attitude towards warfare. On the one hand, Charikliea wears armor only to defend herself and her virtue. Clorinda, on the other hand, discovers a passion for battle and dedicates herself to it. Even so, she is not oblivious to her status as a maiden. Among her retinue, Clorinda travels with a Eunuch and several maids and though this detail affirms her as an ideal of chastity, the reader is not allowed to forget her attendants are Egyptians.

When the reader is first introduced to Clorinda in Book II, our heroine is described as “a warriour bold vnwares approched neare, / In vncouth arms yclad and strange disguise, / From countries far but new arrived there, / A savage tigress on her helmet lies” (Fairfax 1981/1600, 2:38). In the next line we discover that this image is “the famous badge” by which she was “well known,” signaling both her ferocity and great cunning in battle. The next stanza reveals more about Clorinda’s personality; she refuses all things “feminine” — “her lofty hand would of itself refuse / To touch the dainty needle, or nice thread” — and she engages in jousts, hunts, and the training of horses (2:39). The narrative stops short of reproducing Heliodorus’s unwarlike heroine since Charikliea has patriarchal guardians while Clorinda answers to no patriarchal or masculine authority except her liege Soliman, the Egyptian ruler for whom she has taken up arms. Initially, the differences between the two romance heroines is enough to appear insignificant except for two telling moments. The first occurs when Fairfax recounts the lineage of one of the non-Christian women, Armida. The second moment is when Clorinda’s lineage is revealed by Arsetes.

As the war rages on, Satan decides to intervene on behalf of the Egyptian army and sends his “neece” Armida on a mission of seduction. When she is brought before Godfrey, Armida informs him and retinue of her lineage:

Prince Arbilan that reigned in his life
On fair Damascus, was my noble sire,
Born of mean race he was, yet got to wife
The Queen Chariclia, such was the fire[17]
Of her hot love, but soon the fatal knife
Had cut the thread that kept their joys entire,
For so mishap her cruel lot had cast,
My birth, her death; my first day, was her last. (4:43)

This naming is unexpected yet at this point the connection to Aethiopica hasn’t been entirely clear. This is no longer the case. Any parallels to Heliodorus’s heroine is quickly negated by the naming of Armida’s mother and the language that describes her relationship with Prince Arbilan. Queen Chariclia’s husband is described as being of a “mean race,” and their relationship is defined solely in sexual terms: “the fire / Of her hot love.”

The naming of the Queen constitutes a doubling of her foreignness: she is Ethiopian and Damascene by marriage. As if to underscore this sense of otherness, Fairfax translates Tasso’s “in minor sorte nacque” as “a mean race.” Fairfax’s use of the word “race” rather than “birth” (which is what the word nacque would signify) is an interesting semantic and semiotic choice. On the one hand, it is obvious that Fairfax intends to convey the sense of the word that conveys social status, indicating Arbilan’s lineage is of a lesser order than Queen Chariclia (he is a prince to her queen). On the other hand, it is also clear that nacque is affected by its syntactical relationship to Damascus and thus its meaning is inflected by the word’s ideological identification with two different geographical locations, Damascus and Ethiopia.

Armida’s parentage symbolically gestures towards the embodiment of a problematic religious and racial (i.e., color) subjectivity. Her father’s status as Prince of Damascus reveals his Islamic affiliation, while her mother’s name bespeaks an Ethiopian heritage as Heliodorus’s heroine who eventually becomes Queen of Ethiopia. Reading the semantic intersections of non-Christian nomenclature within Godfrey of Bulloigne, we cannot but help noticing the ideological shift that takes place vis-à-vis Ethiopia in the poem. None of the Ethiopians in Godfrey of Bulloigne are depicted as Christians. In fact, the Ethiopians, led by Assimiro of Meroe (the southern and Islamic part of Ethiopia) fight on the side of Soliman and his warriors. It is this specificity that Armida draws attention to when she speaks her mother’s name, not the Christian northern Ethiopia or the Hellenic[18] understanding of Ethiopia that frames Heliodorus’s novel. What the poem is doing is localizing Ethiopia in terms of Blackness and Islam.

David Quint asks of Tasso’s epic romance, and the question has bearing on Fairfax’s translation, “why is Clorinda an Ethiopian?” (Quint 1993, 235). The answer, Quint posits, lies in the complex interplay between the Renaissance engagement with the epic tradition and the religious politics that defined late medieval and Renaissance Europe. Despite its long historical engagement with Christianity, Ethiopia remained a divided state: the southern portion aligned with Islam while the northern part practiced a Coptic form of Christian theology. At the same time, the Ethiopian has a “literary genealogy” that marks their alien-ness vis-à-vis the “West” and, importantly, Christianity (Quint 1993). In most depictions, Renaissance literature engaged the Ethiopian as part of a somatic spectrum of “a sliding scale of skin color” where the Ethiopian represented the darker end of the scale (Brakke 2001). Yet the visual representations stood at odds with this normative representation as Elizabeth McGrath illustrates in her study of the artistic renderings of the Ethiopian female signifier that stands behind Heliodorus’s romance, Andromeda. As McGrath writes,

for his white Ethiopian Andromeda Heliodorus was probably influenced by images he had seen of the rescue by Perseus, such as those which survive in ancient paintings and mosaics. He was probably influenced too by the ekphrastic descriptions of pictures of the subject by Hellenistic writers; for even though these accounts universally locate the event in Ethiopia — and regard it as a part of Africa — they either imply or explicitly state that Andromeda is pale-skinned. (McGrath 1992, p. 2–3)

Renaissance and early modern artists, on the other hand, offered a range of Ethiopian Andromedas — from “European” to clearly sub-Saharan African in features and color (Galer Smith 2019).

The plates included in McGrath’s essay reflect the variants in depiction. In Hendrick Goltizus’s 1583 painting, Andromeda is clearly “white,” while in Abraham van Diepenbeeck’s 1632–35 painting, Andromeda’s skin is darker and her hair distinctly curly or wavy. J. J. von Sandrart’s “Rescue of Andromeda” offers the most explicitly “Black” Andromeda (McGrath 1992, Plates 1–3, respectively).[19] One of the more intriguing renditions is that of van Diepenbeeck, who produced his illustration sometime during his stay in Paris. The illustration was commissioned by Jacques Favereau for a book of illustrations probably based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Michel de Marolles assumed responsibility for the project upon Favereau’s death and the work was published with the title Tableaux du Temple des Muses in 1655. van Diepenbeeck’s illustration was roundly condemned by Marolles

for showing the heroine this way without, according to [Marolles], any ancient authority. [Marolles] admits that Andromeda “was perhaps from a black family, being an Ethiopian but expresses amazement that the artist has shown her with “a Moorish colour”, for she was the most beautiful woman alive, so that presumably she would have been white, albeit African. After all, he notes, the learned Heliodorus made Chariclea both Ethiopian and white. In any case, he continues, the ancient poets would obviously have mentioned it, had Andromeda really been dark-skinned. (McGrath 1992, 13, emphasis added)

Quint’s argument that Tasso’s “Clorinda is clearly a composite of … two figures” drawn from Virgil’s Aeneid: “the Ethiopian Memnon, the son of the goddess Dawn, and Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons,” both of whom were killed by Achilles, only makes sense if we ignore the complications of the visual and narrative framework generated by Clorinda’s links to Andromeda (Quint 1993, 238–39). Where Quint’s analysis succeeds is in suggestively reading Clorinda as part of the papal intervention in Ethiopian Christianity. If, as Quint asserts, the Ethiopian is the heretical interiority of Christianity, then Clorinda as a “white” European “soul in search of baptism” does not produce the same exegetical impact as a “white” Ethiopian “soul in search of baptism” (243). What seems so significant about the Ethiopian that it had to be incorporated into Tasso’s plot, and into the main love relationship in the text, is that the figure, Black and Christian, represents the paradoxical subject that cannot be assimilated nor ignored. In effect, the answer to Quint’s question is accounted for in Godfrey of Bulloigne when the reader and Clorinda discover the truth of Clorinda’s lineage, and the clear destabilization that a living Clorinda[20] threatens. Clorinda’s subjectivity becomes the interdiction of Heliodorus’s “passing” narrative and the generic and ideological possibilities it holds for Renaissance Christian societies. Clorinda is a white-presenting Ethiopian, to return to Quint’s query, because of racism and an ideology of colorism that makes her white supremacy’s greatest fear, the unrecognizable Black subject.

The White-presenting Ethiopian

Kept awake by her “working thought, / Which thirsted still for fame and warlike praise” (Fairfax 1981/1600, 12:2), but aware of the limits her gender imposes, Clorinda decides to put to rest her “thoughts … full of … strange desire” (2:5). To Argantes, who has “accompanied the maid, / From place to place,” she reveals her plan to secretly enter the Christian war camp and set fire to the towers. Acutely conscious of the dangers she faces in undertaking the mission, Clorinda gives her household into the care of her constant companion, the warrior Argantes: “But if it fortune such my chance should be / That to this town I never turn again, / Mine Eunuch (whom I dearly love) with thee / I leave, my faithful maids, and all my train” (12:6). Argantes refuses, declaring that her “fellow have I been in arms, / And will be still, in praise, in death, in harms” (12:7).

After consultation with Soliman, the king, who approves the plan, Clorinda returns to her chamber and

there her silver arms off rent
Her helm, her shield, her hauberk shining bright,
An armour black as jet or coal she hent,
Wherein without plume her self she dight;
For thus disguis’d amid her foes she meant
To pass unseen by help of friendly night. (12:18)

Arsetes (“her Eunuch old”), discovering her intent, endeavors to dissuade her from the mission. When it is clear that his pleas have failed, Arsetes tells Clorinda to “Attend a while, strange things unfold I will; / Hear both thy birth and high estate declar’d” (12:20).[21]

It is here that the clearest appropriation of Heliodorus’s narrative about Charikliea’s racial identity surfaces. In this storytelling, the only changes made are to the principal characters’ names, religious beliefs, and the description of the painting that hangs in the Ethiopian Queen’s chamber. Arsetes informs Clorinda that her parents are royalty and her father, Senapus, “rul’d, and yet perchance doth reign / In mighty Ethiopia and her deserts waste.” In addition, Arsetes informs her that “the lore of Christ both he [Senapus] and all his train / Of people black, hath kept and long embraced” (12:21). Arsetes then relates the circumstances of Clorinda’s birth and how she came to perceive herself as an Egyptian:

. . . . . .12:23
. . . . . .Her prison was a chamber, painted round
With goodly portraits and with stories old,
As white as snow there stood a virgin bound,
Besides a dragon fierce, a champion bold
the monster did with poinant speare through wound,
The gored beast lay dead upon the mold;
The gentle queen before this image laid,
She plain’d, she mourn’d, she wept, she sigh’d she prayed:

. . . . . .12:24
. . . . . .At last with child she proved, and forth she brought
(And thou art she) a daughter fair and bright,
In her thy colour white new terror wrought,
She wondered on thy face with strange affright;
But yet she purposed in her fearful thought
To hide thee from the king thy father’s sight,
Least thy bright hue should his suspect approve,
For seldom a crow begets a silver dove.

. . . . . .12:25
. . . . . .And to her spouse to show she was disposed
A negro’s babe, late born, in room of thee,
And for the tower wherein she lay enclosed
Was with her damsels only one and mee,[22]
To me, on whose true faith she most reposed,
She gave thee, ere thou couldest christened bee.

Clearly a storyteller, Arsetes provides both Clorinda and the epic’s readers greater insight into Clorinda’s childhood and what motivates her warlike actions. Arsetes’s narrative extends for another fifteen stanzas and includes a number of fantastic details (a tigress who nursed Clorinda, friendly winds, and dreams) about his endeavors to fulfill his promise to Clorinda’s mother to keep the royal princess safe and to see her baptized as a Christian — only the latter promise has not been fulfilled.

A look at Thomas Underdowne’s translation of the same plotline in Aethiopica reveals the level of transformation Heliodorus’s denouement undergoes in Godfrey of Bulloigne, however. In Underdowne’s text, Calasiris, the Egyptian eunuch to whom Charikliea’s mother entrusted her daughter, is called to Charikliea’s adoptive father’s (Caricles) home. Caricles has attempted to wed his daughter to his “sisters sonne”; however, Charikliea, in love with Theagenes, refuses and threatens suicide if her adoptive father attempts force. Calasiris, recognizing that “some God taketh on him to hinder this businesse,” asks Caricles to show him Charikliea’s “fascia” or a band of cloth worn to indicate status. Upon the fascia “were Æethiopian letters, not common, but suche as the princes use, which are like the letters that the Egyptians use in their holy affayers” (Underdowne 1967/1587, 107). The writing proves to be a letter from “Persina, Queene of the Aethiopians to her daughter” (107). The letter tells of Persina’s infertility, her pregnancy, and the circumstances of her daughter’s birth:

After Hidaspes had bene married to me ten years, and we had never a child, we happened to rest after dinner in the summer, for that we were heavy a sleep, at which time your father had to do with me, swearing that by a dream he was commanded to do so, and I by and by perceived my self with child.… But thou were born white, which color is strange amonge the Aethiopians: I knew the reason, because I looked upon the picture of Andromeda naked, while my husband had to do with me. (107–108)[23]

The frightened Queen tells Hidaspes that the child was born dead, then “privily laid thee forth, with the greatest riches that [she] had, for a reward to him that shall find thee, and take thee up” (108).

Persina’s anxiety and fear, not surprisingly, reflects her internalization of longstanding patriarchal anxieties about women’s sexuality. The Queen rightly intuits the outcome that Charikliea’s incredulous birth will engender should she present the child to the king; thus her only recourse to protect both her honor and the life of her child is the deception she undertakes. Persina’s solution, however, is a temporary one as Heliodorus’s romance makes clear. The abandoned child, now an adult and with full knowledge of her lineage and racial history, returns to claim her identity. Heliodorus produces the necessary romance denouement while at the same time underscoring the idea that all generative anomalies can be explained. The story of Persina became part of medical lore on reproduction. In The Works of that Famous Chirugeon Ambrose Parey, Ambroise Paré uses the story of Persina to illustrate the various types of anomalies that can arise in the process of reproduction (Paré 1678). Two sections of Paré’s Oeuvres focused specifically on issues related to human generation, male and female sexuality, and the nature or properties of “seed” or semen.

In Books 24 and 25, Paré undertakes to clarify for his readers the philosophical debates about the process of generation and its properties. In particular, Paré is concerned that his readers have a precise understanding of what exactly is the nature of “seed.” According to Paré, “in the seed lieth both the procreative and formative power. As for example, in the power of the melon-seed are situate the stalks, branches, leaves, flowers, fruit, form, colour, smell, taste, seed, and all” (535). Like numerous treatises before it, Paré’s work finds the agricultural analogy most useful for framing his explanation of the importance of seed to generation. Paré replicates classical and medieval assumptions about the differences and hierarchy that exist between male seed and female seed. In particular, Paré reiterates the idea that the sexual difference extant as a property of seed has serious implications for the production of children. Paré observes that[24]

Children are more like the Father than the Mother, because that in the time of copulation, the mind of the woman is more fixed on her husband than the mind of the husband on, or towards his wife: for in the time of copulation or conception, the forms or the likeness of those things that are conceived and kept in mind, are transported and impressed in the child or issue (535).

Paré discusses such issues as the effect of the female imagination on reproduction, the significance of erotic foreplay to conception, and the need for mothers to nurse their infants as part of the general discussion of the seed’s relation to the process of generation. In this explanation, Persina’s story becomes the groundwork for an insistence on regulating the female imagination in relation to conception. As further evidence, he recounts the tale of Hippocrates who “saved a princess accused of adultery, because she had given birth to a child as Black as a Moor, her husband and she both having white skin; which woman was absolved upon Hippocrates’ persuasion that it was [caused by] the portrait of a Moor, similar to the child, which was customarily attached to her bed” (Paré 1982/1573, 38). Paré then goes on to advise that “it is necessary that women — at the hour of conception and when the child is not yet formed (which takes thirty to thirty-five days for males and forty or forty-two, as Hippocrates says, for females) — not be forced to look at or to imagine monstrous things” (39–40).

The pervasiveness of Paré’s theories continue well into the seventeenth century, in particular the idea of paternal resemblance. The English physician Helkiah Crooke takes up the issue of semblance in Microcosmogria: A Description of the Body of Man (Crooke 1651). Crooke asks, “Whence it cometh that Children are like their Parents?” Crooke begins philosophically,

as among Philosophers there is a three-fold form of every Creature: the first Specificall; the second of the Sex; and the third of the Individuum or particular by which it is that and no other thing: So among Physitians there is a three-fold similitude: the first in specie, i.[e.,] in the kind, the second in the Sex, the third in the fashion or feature or individual figure. (Book V, 225).[25]

The third similitude, according to Crooke, consists of the “figure, Form, and Accidents of the Individuum. This Galen in his second Book De Semine, will have to consist in the differences of the parts, and in the conformation of the Members. By this one is white, another black, one hawk-nosed, another flat or saddle-nosed” (Book V, 226).

In other words, the third similitude is at work when the child resembles neither parent but some other relative or “unknown friend.” Because of this “similitude,” Crooke suggests, we find that

The Infant sometimes is altogether like the Mother, sometimes altogether like the Father, other sometimes like them both, that is, in some parts resembling the Mother, in others the Father. Oftentimes he resembleth neither the Father nor the Mother, but the Grandfather or the great Grandfather, sometimes he will be like an unknown friend, as for example, an Æethiopian or such like who never had hand in his generation. Of all these similitudes wee have many Examples in Authors of approved credit. (Book V, 226)

For this reason, in the John Weever epigram that opens this chapter, Cario can publicly celebrate his wife’s virtue, swearing she is a “maide” and comparing her to “Lucrece, or Diana,” even though his children are fathered by another man (Weever 1922/1599). Cario’s declaration is based on his belief that “his children are so like their father” in their appearance that there can be no question as to his wife’s fidelity. Yet, the satiric conclusion of the epigram makes clear that Cario has been thoroughly cuckolded; his wife has in fact “cousoned” him, for “she thinks of him” as she “lies with another man.”

Two points need to be made about the ideological implications of Weever’s tale. First, the narrative highlights Cario’s lack of familiarity with reproductive theories about generation; in spite of his evocation of Lucrece and Diana (emblems of chastity), his insistence that because the children look like him his wife’s fidelity is proven is indicative of his gullibility. Cario’s wife, on the other hand, clearly knows the prevailing theories on female imagination and conception. Second, despite the examples drawn from “authority” (whether Hippocrates, Galen, Paré, or Crooke), the narrative of Cario and his wife identifies an underlying nervousness about[26] paternity that is not easily suppressed. For a woman to commit adultery is problematic enough. For her to pass another man’s offspring into her husband’s line is alarming, especially if the child’s physical appearance cannot be accounted for through paternal resemblance. Ironically, what distinguishes the experience of Cario’s wife and Persina is not an active imagination but the matter of skin color.

Heliodorus’s romance resolves the dilemma of resemblance and paternity by ensuring that despite her whiteness Charikliea is patrilineally recognizable through a literal physical signifier (a black mark on her arm). Acknowledged by her “Black” father, Charikliea and Theagenes are incorporated into the Ethiopian royal family as Hiadpses’s heirs. As Judith Perkins writes, “the ending of the Aethiopica explicitly abolishes the antitheses of difference and concludes with a celebration of the unity of disparate elements” (Perkins 1999, 209). While the Aethiopica makes clear it is Charikliea’s lineage not her color that matters in the end, it is her color and her race that condition Renaissance and early modern reactions to Heliodorus’s romance. More to the point, it is the seeming invisibility of Charikliea’s “Blackness” that needs to be perceptible and in conformity with the colorism surfacing in early modern conceptualizations of race. For the poet Tasso, who borrowed heavily from Heliodorus, and his English translator Fairfax, the solution was simple: change the ending.

Until Book 12, both Clorinda and the reader are ignorant of her racial and romance genealogies. Only when Arsetes narrates her “history” does the reader recognize the Heliodorian imprint. Unlike Charikliea, however, Clorinda refuses to embrace her Ethiopian identity — “I will this faith [Islam] obserue, it seemes me true, / Which from my cradle age thou taught me hast; / I will not change it for religion new” (Fairfax 1981/1600, 12:41). As long as Clorinda’s Ethiopian or “Black” origin remains concealed, it is simultaneously a problem and not. Once Clorinda (and by extension, the reader) possess knowledge of her identity, her subjectivity is irrevocably altered. Repudiating her “Black” Ethiopian and Christian subjectivity, Clorinda chooses to remain as she is — a white-passing Egyptian. Even so, the knowledge of her newly discovered identity requires a visible sign, just as Charikliea’s readmission into the Ethiopian royal family required a marker. Where Charikliea had a black birthmark to denote her relationship to Ethiopia’s King and Queen, Clorinda has only Arsetes’s tale.[27]

Choosing black armor instead of her usual silver, Clorinda signals a discursive realignment in the narrative. The black armor functions on two levels: first, it literally conceals her identity as she enters and sets fire to the Christian camp; and second, it becomes the allegorical simulacrum for her “Blackness” — in other words, a second skin. A symbolic act of reversion, Clorinda’s armor effaces the idealized image the poem has created and replaces it with an otherness that metaphorically ties her to Blackness and thus indistinguishable from the other women aligned with the Islamic forces. In the ideological mirror that the black surface of Clorinda’s armor creates, we see Persina’s failure to control her imagination; in the poet naming Armida’s mother Chariclia, we witness the literary genealogy that ties Clorinda to Blackness and paganism; and finally, the necessity for Clorinda’s subsequent albeit temporary appearance as a “demonic simulacrum” serves to remind Tancred of his religious and racial obligations.

Because Godfrey of Bulloigne frames Clorinda’s whiteness within the religious and anti-Blackness ideologies that inform early modern English culture, the racecraft that worked in Aethiopica will not work for Clorinda. While Charikliea eventually becomes reunited with her parents and weds her beloved Theagenes, Clorinda never meets her Ethiopian parents. As to the romance’s “happy ending,” Clorinda is slain by her beloved Tancred — a love story that has been in state of perpetual deferral because of his Christianity and her allegiance to Islam. The couple’s meetings for the most part take place on the battlefield and are both comical and poignant since the lovers fail to recognize each other until after they have exchanged blows. However, just when we, as readers, expect the lovers’ dilemma to be resolved in typical romance fashion, the narrative thwarts our desire (just as it continually thwarts Tancred’s) with the revelation of Clorinda’s racial identity and decision to externalize what has been hidden most of her life.

After a particularly fierce battle between Clorinda and Tancred,
… the fatal hour arrives,
That her sweet life must leave that tender hold,
His sword into her bosom deep he drives,
And bathed in lukewarm blood his iron cold,[28]
Between her breasts the cruel weapon rives
Her curious square, embossed with swelling gold. (Fairfax 1981/1600, 12:64)

As she lies dying, Clorinda elects to convert to her parents’ religion and asks Tancred to “save my soul, baptism I dying crave” (12:66). Tancred complies with her request, and she “smile[s] and sa[ys], ‘I die in peace’” (12:68). Clorinda dies in the arms of the “white” Christian prince she loves, newly baptized into the Christian faith.

The death of Clorinda marks the end of one of the more powerful warriors in Godfrey of Bulloigne and signals the eventual success of the Christian knights against the Islamic forces defending Jerusalem. There is, in my view, one “end” that her death fails to achieve: the erasure of the problem that her Ethiopian origin intrudes upon the schematic of racial thinking in Renaissance and early modern European cultures — white passing. In part, this failure occurs because any literary translation, adaptation or evocation of Charikliea cannot help but elicit two sets of racializing codes associated with her place of birth and the skin color of her parents (not to mention Charikliea’s white-presenting subjectivity). The first set of attributes are engrained in the cultural beliefs of the world Heliodorus inhabited, where a concept of racial identity was defined primarily along patrilineal and class lines. This isn’t to say colorism wasn’t an issue in Greek culture, just that Heliodorus apparently didn’t view it as a deterrent to Aethiopica’s happily ever after. The second set of codes are those that tie race and colorism together and place them in the service of English white supremacy.

This factor makes it difficult to interpret Clorinda as anything other than a negative. As the epic battle between Tancred and Clorinda draws to an end, the language and imagery shifts. The mortally wounded heroine prays but, ironically, not to Islam but within a Christian frame: “A spirit new did her those prayers teach, / Spirit of hope, of charities, and faith; / and though her life to Christ rebellious were, / Yet died she his child and handmaid dear” (Fairfax 1981/1600, 12:65). Are we to read her death as the separation of body and soul so that her lineal and anti-Christian “Blackness” can be whitewashed, especially in light of the spectrum of African enslavement based on color and geography? I suspect the answer is no.[29] What is clear is that, for all her “whiteness,” Clorinda cannot escape the stigma that her place of birth and her parents’ skin color imposes on her subjectivity. The legitimacy of her suitability as a potential wife for Tancred, assuming her conversion to Christianity, is called into question not only by the details of her birth but also by the contradictions created by those details. Clorinda cannot be neatly categorized: she is “neither black nor white yet both”; she is both marked and unmarked, her body readable and unreadable.

It is this unreadability that Charikliea introduces into early modern English adaptations and translations of Heliodorus’s romance. Perkins argues, as a “passing” narrative, Heliodorus’s Aethiopica “functions … to interrogate the whole notion of ‘identity’ as a given either/or dichotomy, a given ontological condition” (Perkins 1999, 198). Furthermore, for Perkins, Heliodorus uses “the figure of the white maiden who is ‘really’ black as a trope to figure the permeability of a category even more constitutive of his Hellenic culture than white/black, that is the categorical opposition of Hellenic/other” (202). Charikliea becomes the bodily site where issues of legitimacy and racial/national identity become negotiated; and the reading of the fascia is the act that instantiated her relationship to Ethiopia and by extension to Blackness, and of course engenders a need for resolution. In other words, Perkins writes, “An Ethiopian who is not black must, by definition, not be an Ethiopian; she is a counterfeit” (208). Of course, Charikliea is both and Heliodorus’s narrative “goal” is to prove that “identity … to be not necessarily an either/or category — either real or counterfeit — but a both/and category — both different and legitimate” (208).

Nowhere is this more amply illustrated than when Sisimithres demands that Charikliea “bare” her arm, for “there is nothing indecent in laying bare that which will confirm your parentage and descent” (Reardon 1989, 569). Charikliea does so, revealing “a mark, like a ring of ebony staining the ivory of her arm!” Of this denouement, Perkins cogently observes, “the dictum that it is never ‘unseemly’ … to show the proof of your parentage and race … may resonate for all those ‘passing’ in Greco-Roman culture” (Perkins 1999, 208). In his translation, Underdowne describes Charikliea’s identifying mark as being “in a manner a mole, much like to the strakes [strips] that Elephants have” (Reardon 1989, 569).[30]

The assimilation of Heliodorus’s romance into seventeenth-century English literary texts created an interesting dilemma for Aethiopica’s adapters and appropriators where the political and cultural economy of the transatlantic slave trade narrowed and constrained the racial significance of colorism. In the introduction to Critical White Studies, the editors begin with what seems a straightforward question: “Are you white? (Or, do you have a friend who is?) If so, how do you know?” (Delgado and Stefancic 1997, xvii). While early modern authors may not have explicitly posed these questions as the driving force behind their use of Heliodorus’s romance, English writers who made use of Aethiopica implicitly endeavored to answer these questions for their audience. The shift to “scientific” reasoning and measurements for racial taxonomies — somatic and physiological markers — contributed greatly to the ideology of colorism that marks early modern preoccupation with whiteness. However, if whiteness is to be seen as the “privileged marker” of racial identity within early modern England’s political economy and thus needs no explanation, how does one deal with the problematics created by Heliodorus’s Aethiopica?

Not surprisingly, Heliodorus provides an answer through a suggestive reading of Charikliea’s white-presenting body as the eloquent articulation of interiority and, I would argue, this is the reading Fairfax/Tasso must grapple with in their appropriation. To deal with the conundrum that is a white-presenting, Black body, writers made use of the one central tell in early modern English literature for marking whiteness — the ability to blush. In other words, to foreground the invisibility of whiteness it must be made visible. The reader is frequently reminded of Charikliea’s color through blushes, paleness, and the familiar comparison to lilies. The blush, the paleness, and the flower tropes serve to heighten not just the Ethiopian Charikliea’s proximity to “whiteness” but also her distance from Blackness. In a curious turn, the presumed invisibility of the “blush” on Black skin reinforces this intriguing sleight of hand within the ideology of colorism. Naturally, in a historical and economic moment, the seventeenth century, where Blackness functions as negative, Charikliea’s ability to blush becomes an investment in the anti-Blackness at the center of English white supremacy. In the end, despite the historical context embedded in Godfrey of Bulloigne, the text remains caught in the nexus[31] of Aethiopica’s romance ending through its appropriation of Heliodorus’s heroine even as early modern England’s political economy conceptualizes and interprets racial identity differently.

Unlike the Fairfax/Tasso poem, William Lisle’s The Faire Æthiopian (1631) and its dramatic offspring, John Gough’s “trage-comedie” The Strange Discovery (1640), were based on Underdowne’s translation. Because Gough’s “trage-comedie” adheres closely to Lisle’s The Faire Æthiopian, I want to focus attention on Lisle’s text and the several references to Chariclea’s shifting skin color (i.e., the ability to blush or grow pale): “Chariclia’s colour went and came the while” (Book X, 725); “Her colour’s gone, her all-delighting grace / With pearly shower allayed” (Book III, 268–69); “your colour, here so peregrine, / Doth plainly show you can be none of mine. / Then said Sisimithres, the child was white” (Lisle 2011/1631, Book X, 725). Because Lisle’s verse romance remains consistent with Heliodorus’s text, Chariclia’s race becomes visible only when she is reunited with her Ethiopian parents and successfully proves her chastity by enduring a trial by fire and, after doing so, declares Hydapses to be her father:

But of Blood royal, to your self full near.
The King it scorned, and her, for words so vain
And new devised; she reports again,
With sober countenance and behavior mild;
Most royal father scorn not so your child! (Book X, 294–98)

The angry king admits that he had a daughter but she “quickly” died. Chariclia then tells Hydapses that she will present “two kinds of Arguments, as I am told, / are chiefly used in proof: the first enrolled by writing are, the second firmly stand on witness unexcepted on either hand” (Book X, 311–14).

Chariclia offers her father the cradle band and letter her mother had placed with her. Sisimithres affirms Chariclia’s account, telling the king, “I am he that took her from the Queene,” and cared for the child for seven years before placing her with Charicles. Sisimithres explains that he took action to ensure that Hydapses leave an heir. Sisimithres then calls for the picture of Andromeda, Hydapses’s ancestor, to be placed next to Chariclia[32] and “all that looked on them admitting said; / O father know your child, mistrust not mother, / For, but by life, we know not the one from the other” (Book X, 400–402). Determined to leave no doubt in the king’s mind, Sisimithres offers the final evidence to support Chariclia’s claim:

Royal Descent,
And Crown, and Scepter is weighty consequent:
And truth most weighty of all: another sign
I know, may best the Imperial cause define.
Your left arme (Lady) show; ’tis no disgrace
To show a naked arme in such a case.
If you be that same royal child I knew,
Above your elbow a mark there is of blue.
She showed, and so it was; like an [azure] ring
On polished Ivory; this when saw the King,
He was persuaded. (Book X, 407–17)

Convinced by the indisputable physical evidence (Chariclia’s birthmark and her striking resemblance to Andromeda), the verbal affirmation of a trusted member of the Ethiopian court (Sismisthres), Charicles’ account of his adoption and raising of Chariclia, and the Queen’s claim of ownership of the letters and jewels that Chariclia presented as evidence, Hydapses acknowledges Chariclia as his daughter and heir.

The Faire Æthiopian’s sense of itself as a verse translation of Heliodorus’s ends with this familial reconciliation, yet Lisle seems concerned about letting the tale stand on its own merits. The lingering effects of Chariclia’s white-presenting Blackness may have led Lisle to add a codicil to his verse poem in which he color codes the induction of Chariclia and Theagenes into the Ethiopian royal power structure:

Then on their head he set in full renown,
The white silk Turban with the Blakemore Crown:
And two by two to Meroë they ride;
Persina with her new-come daughter Bride;
Hydaspes with his son Theagenes;
And Priest of Delphos with Sisimithres:[33]
There are many days together and many nights
They celebrate with joy the nuptial rites. (Book X, 891–98)

Newly incorporated into the Black “body politic” of Ethiopia, yet still somatically “white,” Chariclia leaves open-ended the question of racial subjectivity. Is she “translated” by her incorporation into the Ethiopian community? Or does she symbolically circumvent the type of closure colorism was initiating within early modern racism? In the end, Lisle descriptively frames Chariclia’s return to the Ethiopian community with language to signal her “Blackness”: “the white silk Turban with the Blakemore Crown”; “A curly-head black-boy”; “Memnon, fair Aurora’s son” — the Ethiopian warrior who fought on the side of the Greeks during the Trojan War; and Andromeda and Perseus, whose image set into motion Chariclia’s history.

Ultimately, it is the Andromeda and Perseus narrative that stablizes the romance’s miraculous storyline, creating a portrait of what “Ethiopian” can signify in a world where Black and white were becoming stable markers of racial subjectivity. In Lisle’s romance, Andromeda’s own Ethiopian-ness was being redefined so that Lisle’s description of her “picture fair, in black King’s chamber seen, / That Fair-one made be borne of Blackmore Queen” (Lisle, 913–914) stood in contrast to a shifting depiction of Andromeda in the visual arts, which may have given rise to is the presence of a Black Andromeda as part of Renaissance and early modern English literary culture. We have to wonder how influential Godfrey of Bulloigne, The Faire Æthiopian, and of course Underdowne’s translation of Aethiopika may have influenced Nahum Tate to give late seventeenth-century English readers another translation of Heliodorus’s romance: The Triumphs of Love and Constancy a Romance, Containing the Heroick Amours of Theagenes & Chariclea: In Ten Books, 1686).

That Aethiopica appeared in such a variety of generic forms attests to the early modern English reading public’s obvious fascination with and consumption of Heliodorus’s romance. What is also striking is that a text framed by an ideology of colorism and that illuminated the possibility of white passing, achieved such popularity in a world increasingly pushing an ideology of white supremacy as part of its global colonizing agenda. Perhaps these translators and adapters recognized, as Geraldine Heng has[34] cogently argued, “romance … as a genre of the nation: a literary medium that solicits or invents the cultural means by which the … nation might be most productively conceptualized, and projected, for a diverse society of people otherwise ranged along numerous internal divides” (Heng 2003, 6). Although, it is ironic that while Heliodorus’s Aethiopica offered the early modern English literary and cultural imagination both a remarkable genre, the romance, to “conceptualize” and “project” a national identity centered in “whiteness,” it was Fairfax’s Godfrey of Bulloigne that gave the cultural imagination license to police the white-passing body, and when all else failed, to kill off the Black body.


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Race and Romance: Coloring the Past Copyright © 2022 by Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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