Chastity in The Rape of Lucrece and A Woman Killed with Kindness
Renaissance England has been labeled a culture of shame - a society in which an individual's identity was primarily constructed by the way in which his or her "reputation" or "honor" was perceived by others. A woman's public reputation was always based on her virginity or chastity. Just as women were considered the property of their fathers or husbands, a woman's chastity was an asset owned by and exchanged between the men who possessed her. (Gutierrez, 272) A man's public reputation was therefore determined not only by his own qualities, but also by his wife's reputation for chastity. Conversely, a woman's unchastity was a liability to her husband. Rape and adultery were seen as equally compromising the chastity of the female body and equally blighting to a husband's reputation. The fact that a man's identity - his socially constructed honor - was so dependent upon the chastity of his wife was a source of anxiety because he could not control his wife's sexuality, protect it, or even detect its transgressions. (Breitenberg, ch.4) Several works of Renaissance literature address this masculine anxiety and attempt to assuage it by proposing the death (frequently self-inflicted) of the unchaste woman as a means of restoring male honor. In The Rape of Lucrece, although Lucrece's mind remains chaste, her unchaste body must die as a testament to the purity of her mind. In A Woman Killed with Kindness, the adulteress is unchaste in both body and mind. After her husband spares her life, Anne is able to restore the chastity of her mind through repentance. However, she still must die to publicly restore her husband's honor.
The commodification of Lucrece's cha...
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...w that, regardless of the degree of a woman's innocence or complicity, once her physical chastity has been lost, she must kill herself in order to restore her honor and her husband's reputation. Works Cited
1. Breitenberg, Mark. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1996.
2. Gutierrez, Nancy A. "The Irresolution of Melodrama: the Meaning of Adultery in A Woman Killed with Kindness." Exemplaria, Vol.1, No. 2. Fall, 1989. Pg.265-285.
3. Heywood, Thomas. "A Woman Killed with Kindness." Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1961.
4. Panek, Jennifer. "Punishing Adultery in A Woman Killed with Kindness." Studies in English Literature, Vol. 34, No.2. Spring, 1994. Pg. 357-375.
5. Shakespeare, William. "The Rape of Lucrece." The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1974.