Chastity in The Rape of Lucrece and A Woman Killed with Kindness

analytical Essay
1620 words
1620 words

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.

In this essay, the author

  • Analyzes how renaissance literature addresses masculine anxiety by proposing the death of the unchaste woman to restore male honor.
  • Analyzes how lucrece's husband, collatine, brags of her chastity to other men, including tarquin, her future rapist.
  • Explains that collatine values lucrece's chastity in very mercantile terms, making her the object of tarquin’s admiration, thereby endangering her.
  • Analyzes the paradox arising from the commodification of female chastity.
  • Analyzes how lucrece laments the contamination of her body in terms of how it will harm her husband's honor.
  • Opines that lucrece's death restores collatine’s reputation, as he will no longer be vulnerable to public ridicule.
  • Analyzes how lucrece, a symbol of honor and chastity, is an asset to collatine in death than in life.
  • Explains that frankford offers to continue to support anne, as long as she never sees him again. this reprieve gives anne the chance to restore the chastity of her soul through purgation and penance.
  • Analyzes how frankford pardons anne by exercising christian charity and treating his adulterous wife with "kindness." anne is in the same situation as a rape victim like lucrece.
  • Analyzes how the play proposes a resolution to the conflict between the two prevalent renaissance attitudes toward adultery — that the crime both deserves death and christian forgiveness.
  • Explains breitenberg, mark, gutierrez, nancy a., heywood, thomas, panek, jennifer, et al. "punishing adultery in a woman killed with kindness."
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