Female Sexuality in the Early Modern Era

Published: 2019-09-27
Female Sexuality in the Early Modern Era
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Female Women Literature Human sexuality
Pages: 8
Wordcount: 2012 words
17 min read

When one reads Hamlet or the Duchess of Malfi, the most obvious perspective that one can get is female sexuality in the modern era. In the Elizabethan era, the males were the heads of the households, the figureheads who were responsible for procuring and protecting the needs of their wives, property and children. On the other hand, the females were seen as the extensions of the male possessions or property who were first tethered to their fathers households and then later tethered to their husbands. During this period, the relations that women had were deemed to be paradoxically both threatening and necessary to the accomplishment of adult masculine identity. At the time, being a man was signified by the father and a husband, and yet at the times dominant gender ideologies assumed the intellectual and moral inferiority of women, and typically portrayed the sexual passion of women as being emasculating. The construction of women in the Duchess of Malfi and the Hamlet was as the more sexual of the two genders and as such, the males in the society felt justified in their constant patriarchal policing by a brother, husband, and father.

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In the two plays, the construction of women gender roles was primarily organized around issues of sexuality thus, female virginity and the roles of women in marriage became a major focus point in this period. In Hamlet, the tension revolves around the evidence of Gertrudes sexual desire in her marriage to Claudius. It has to be comprehended that in spite of Hamlets acceptance of the Ghosts command of vengeance, the true goal that Ghost had seemed to be the re- establishment of his own legitimacy of his paternity that had been challenged by his own mothers remarriage. This was with regard to her ready acceptance of Claudius as a replacement for Old Hamlet. The failure of Gertrude to differentiate between his uncle and father threatened to collapse the two paternal figures that were represented in the play to one. This created an indistinct or perhaps a spectral paternal figure which complicates the inheritance of Hamlets identity to her father. The only option that Hamlet has is to de-sexualize his mother so as to effectively force her to retain the memory of his dead father who had issued a command to be remembered. In order to do so, Hamlet can only accomplish his goal by ensuring that Gertrude abstains from any sexual relations with Claudius.

It has to be comprehended that Gertrudes sexuality complicates Hamlets inheritance of identity. This is because the play has been constructed in a manner that Gertrudes sexuality is the central preoccupation of the play. This is owing to the point that the main tension in the play is as a result of Gertrudes sexuality. If one positions Gertrudes sexuality as the key focus of the play, then Hamlets preoccupation can be seen to be as a consequence of a feminine authority that is expressed by Gertrudes sexual body (Muraoka, Baasten & Peursen, 2003). One can then conclude that Hamlets psychological grief to be deemed as unmanly at the modern era. On the other hand, Claudius suggests that the task of mourning or in other words intense mourning is the responsibility of a woman. With regard to this assumption, Hamlet does not think that his mother had accomplished his womanly duties or his feminine task since she remarried too quickly after the death of her husband. This means that if individuals imagine that in some sense a womans body is responsible for the memory of the husband due to the fact that she must be part of the production of his heirs, then it seems that the memory in the play is on some level that is tied to the female body (Feingold, 1984).

The play Hamlet utilizes the word rank to describe the site of Gertrudes sexual transgression. In the play, there seem to likely to be a connection to the bed as a site of sexual transgression with the imagery of the garden. It is however in the bed that Gertrude had ostensibly transgressed her boundaries with regards to the roles of the mother and those of the wife. There are various implications from Hamlet that emphasizes Gertrudes gender roles in relation to female sexuality. On a practical level, one may consider the transgression infects the play. This is because Gertrudes gender roles seem to conceptualize the disorders that seem to lurk at the dark edges of the play. In some sense, one may note that the transgressions of Gertrudes gender roles were in some way responsible for the deaths of the prince and the two kings. This may, however, bot be in the literal sense, but her remarriage can be considered as being certainly responsible for the trajectory of the play. This means that in an indirect sense, Gertrudes transgression of her gender roles leads to a disorder that can only be reestablished by the insertion of a male character and in this instance the introduction of Fortinbras at the end of the play. Therefore, one may read the gendered subtext of Hamlet as anxiety about the ramifications of gender role transgression, or the potential for disorder in the unregulated female body. One can thus conclude that gender was an ordering principle in the early modern English era. Furthermore, the regulation of gender was seen as a metaphor for social mobility due to the early modern ideological conflation of the state and the family. According to Faustberg et al. (2004), the choice if Claudius by Gertrude as a husband in a sense is a sort of imperfect agency that in some way subverts the regulatory gender matrix of the play in that it multiplies the gender roles and therefore identifies Gertrudes character. All in all, one could legitimately argue that the play is ultimately unsuccessful in ensuring that it regulates Gertrudes sexuality. This is because Gertrude seems to occupy a distinctly complex position in the play because she tends to evade regulation

In the Duchess of Malfi, Webster explores the female sexual transgression in the play. Regardless of the fact that the Duchess may not have played or acted precisely in her body politic, there are some parts in the play that she acted in political ways. With the power of a sovereign prince, power of her body politic, the Duchess violated the existing patriarchal conventions of marriage in the modern era in the bid to create her own state. In order to do so, the play was constructed in such a way that her character was drawn upon an ideology of marriage that was quite distinct from the dynastic union that her brothers had fondly spoken of. In this instance, the Duchess chose a man who was considered to be below her class not only as a consort but as a husband. In this instance, a man that was not only to support her as a ruler but also to support her as a woman. The marriage of the Duchess occasioned much critical concern due to two fundamental reasons. The first reason was that the marriage was a duchess and an individual who was below her class and the second reason was a marriage that did not have the consent of the two brothers. It has to be comprehended that the character of Antonio in the play has been represented as an individual whose nobility of character validated him to be the Duchesss free choice of him as a future husband. However, the nature of Antonios character can be considered as being a direct juxtaposition of Webster of contrasting discourses in the play. This was in direct contrast to the custom that placed the women under the control of their male family members in a long humanistic tradition that recognized the vitality of importance of nobility of the character of the man and in some sense validated a womans right to a free choice of a husband. Fifteen and sixteenth-century women may have been coerced or forced into propertied, dynastic or political marriages, but they theoretically had the option of entering the marriages as a result of free choice.

When Webster has the Duchess to choose a husband who is below her rank, he calls on a tradition that can be viewed as being in direct contrast to the one that he had initially presented as influencing the Aragonian Brothers. One can thus conclude that this is a reflection of these two discourses of the play, one that validates the male members rights over the bodies of their female counterparts as property and one that mandates a womans free choice as a moral necessity. The two differences in the Duchess of Malfi play in regard with the discourses of play in women serves to foreground the character of Duchess and the dilemma that she has as a woman and as a sovereign ruler. Since the brothers are depicted to support that tradition that validates the power of the patriarch family over the women, the Duchess, on the other hand, can be seen as challenging that discourse either by consciously harking to back the tradition or creating a new one, at least philosophically, granting women a certain measure of autonomy.

Furthermore, in the Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess is represented as an individual who is manifesting her political authority by engaging in a marriage that is irregular- a marriage that has not been sanctified by the church. The marriage thereby created a status of virtual matrimony at the precise moment that they decided to get married and as such it was without future action on the persons who were concerned. At the time, such a marriage resulted in a physical consummation that was still valid even though it was irregular and the action was deplored. Even though the Duchess recognized the traditional role of the church in legitimizing her marriage contract, the Duchess challenges her brothers by validating and recognizing Antonios personal worth over his social position and exercising her womans freedom of choice (Lublin, 2011).

In the marriage of the Duchess in regard to its ramifications, the Duchess can be seen as being subversive in her character in the play. At the time, marriage was seen as a major means to control female sexuality and as a means to legitimize the various means of inheritance between governments and patriarchal families. It is thus safe to say that by challenging the institution of marriage, the Duchess challenges the very essence of gender relations that was within the patriarchal early modern society. The marriage can then be seen to represent the major conflict between the Duchesss natural body and political bodies in the play.

Webster has represented the marriage between the Duchess and Antonio to change over time in the play. The first scene presents the Duchess as a wife in the new private life that she had created, and the new private life represented an inversion of the traditional Renaissance marriage whereby the man had total control over his wife. It is also very evident in the play that Antonio is not exactly a subject to his wife in the same manner that women in the Renaissance period were expected to be subjects to their husbands. Antonio even goes further to joke that his rule was only in the night. In the second scene, the Duchess is represented as an individual who is radically different from the traditional picture of Renaissance women. This is because the duchess is not only in a position that she can command her husband especially in matters that regard his sexual desires and also refusing him but also being represented as a woman who enjoys her sexuality thoroughly (Hines, 2010).

What is notable about the drama is that the Duchesss sexualized body is the focus of the play. The extraordinary picture that Webster paints in the play in regard to marriage contrasts sharply with the prevailing early modern notion that the women were marginalized creatures who required domination by men (Marcus, 2009). Regardless of the extent that one may applaud this idealistic, compassionate and egalitarian...

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