Female Sexuality at Sea in Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West and Shakespeare’s Pericles

Female Sexuality at Sea in Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West and Shakespeare’s Pericles

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From mermaids to female Navy officers, the relationship between women and the sea, in both history and literature, has been a complicated one. Mariners traditionally had conflicting superstitions involving a woman’s place on a ship, and this sense of conflict spills over into two Early Modern works of drama—namely Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West and Shakespeare’s Pericles. Bess and Marina, the main female characters of both plays, walk a fine line between captors and masters of the sea, and similarly between the roles of strong heroines who act outside of their gender-roles and hetero-normative females who are mastered by the plays’ respective male characters. Indeed, the sea seems to have either a link to independence or confinement for both female protagonists, which ultimately relates to their “proper” (non-threatening) place as traditional wives and homemakers.
In order to understand the maritime culture which both Heywood and Shakespeare work from, we must first explore the tensions of the day between women and the sea. The traditional view, across the board, in early travel “was that women had no place at sea. They weren't strong enough either physically or emotionally [and m]en would be distracted and led to vice” (“The Early Days” section 1). These ideas automatically link women to traditional gender stereotypes and reinforce the idea of women as sexual beings (whether they want to be or not), a concept which is paralleled in both Heywood and Shakespeare’s works of drama. Many superstitions also linked women to bad weather, as many sailors believed that women on ships lead to “terrible storm[s]” that were “bound to destroy the vessel and everyone on it” (sec 1).
However, these superstitions did not mean that there was no ...


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...umn, 1993), 589-609.
Helms, Lorraine. “The Saint in the Brothel: Or, Eloquence Rewarded.” Shakespeare Quarterly, 41.3 (Autumn, 1990), 319-332.
Heywood, Thomas. The Fair Maid of the West. Robert K. Turner, ed. Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 1967.
Howard, Jean E. “Gender, Race, Sexuality, and National Identity in Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West.” Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period. Margo Hendricks and Patricia A. Parker, Ed. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Rodgers, Silvia. “Feminine Power at Sea.” RAIN, 64 (Oct, 1984) 2-4.
Shakespeare. Pericles. Stephen Orgel, ed. New York: Pelican, 2001.
“The Early Days of Women at Sea.” PortCities Southampton. Plimsoll: Digital Maritime Archive. 2005. 28 Feb 2008. .
Thorne, W.B. “Pericles and the ‘Incest-Fertility’ Opposition.” Shakespeare Quarterly, 2.1 (Winter, 1971) 43-56.

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