This little book of 1558 was an outspoken and uncompromising attack against the rule of women. The author, John Knox, a leading Protestant reformer from Scotland, wrote the pamphlet while in Geneva as an exile from Catholic England. The Latinate phrase ‘monstruous regiment’ means ‘unnatural rule’, and in this highly misogynistic work, Knox argues that the idea of women ruling goes against the laws of God and nature. He argues that female rule challenges the God-given authority of men over women, and that women are incompetent to rule, being weak, foolish and cruel by nature, and lacking the masculine capacities necessary to govern. Knox compares female rulers to Amazons (p. 10r), half-mythical warrior women from the new world who were portrayed as a subversive threat to social order.
His pamphlet was directed against three Catholic queens in power at the time: Mary I of England; Mary of Guise, Queen dowager and regent of Scotland; and Mary, Queen of Scots. It was particularly spurred on by the persecution of Protestants in England by Mary I. However, instead of opposing these queens on religious or individual grounds, he attacked their gender and the idea of female rule more widely. Furthermore, although his views on women were not novel or even unusual, he was particularly vehement in them, not leaving any room for exceptions and calling for women rulers to be deposed. Later that year when Elizabeth I came to the English throne, although she was a Protestant she was deeply offended by The First Blast and refused Knox entry to the country.
Shakespeare and The First Blast
Knox’s pamphlet gives us an interesting context in which to read attitudes towards women in Shakespeare’s plays. Does Lear’s view of Goneril and Regan, or Hamlet’s view of Gertrude, fit with Knox’s view of women rulers? Does the subjection of Titania to the will of Oberon seem to be a satisfactory resolution to the tension in the fairy court? And how do gendered concerns in Shakespeare’s plays resonate with opinions of the time about the gender of England’s monarchs?