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Of Chastity and Rape: Edmund Spenser Confronts Elizabeth I in The Faerie Queene

  • Susan Frye
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

By the end of the sixteenth century, the predominant meaning of the word chastity was exactly as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it today, “purity from unlawful intercourse.” “Unlawful intercourse” means sexual intercourse outside of marriage, and in the sixteenth century specifically meant a wife’s intercourse with someone other than the husband who legally possessed her body Thus, chastity rests on the assumption that women exist as the possessions of men. Within this definition a woman can only be virtuous when acting as male property, a position that ostensibly allows her only limited forms of choice—unless that woman is an unmarried and aging queen. As Elizabeth Robertson and Christine Rose discuss in their introduction to this volume, the degree to which women are perceived as consenting to rape “crystallizes … each era’s particular understanding of female subjectivity.” Within each era, too, issues of women’s consent to the passive definitions offered by rape may alter in the case of privileged women, and especially in the case of Elizabeth I. Yet her desire to define herself within definitions of the feminine that allowed her a choice of husband and finally the choice to remain single was perpetually contested by the men who surrounded her—in many cases, by the same men, like the poet Edmund Spenser, who also worked to create her image as a semi-divine virgin. It is not surprising, then, that the language such men used in their attempts to contest and contain the queen is often the discourse of rape, a discourse that groups the queen with other women, and then articulates the limited choices all women supposedly experienced within the legal definition of chastity.

Keywords

Sixteenth Century Foster Child Female Figure Court Spectacle Male Threat 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

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    On the operation of rape to assert and enforce patriarchy at all levels of society, Susan Brownmiller’s work was germinal (Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975). See also Terry Castle’s analysis of Lovelace’s rape of Clarissa for its discussion of rape as patriarchal: “The quintessential act of violence against women, it is that hidden physical threat held over the woman who tries, wittingly or unwittingly, to overstep any of the fundamental restrictions on her power—in any area” (see Clarissa’s Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson’s “Clarissa” (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 117, and on Clarissa’s rape, pp. 108–35. The most recent sociological studies on the subject of rape acknowledge this feminist argument (see Larry Baron and Murray A. Straus, Four Theories of Rape in American Society: A State-Level Analysis [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989], pp. 61–94; and Linda Brookover Bourque, Defining Rape [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989], pp. 14–58).Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Susan Frye

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