“O, Keep Me From Their Worse Than Killing Lust”: Ideologies of Rape and Mutilation in Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

  • Robin L. Bott
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

The telling and retelling of the sensational tale of Virginius and Virginia in the literature of Medieval and Early Modern England indicates this society’s concern with the social and political consequences of sexual access to women. Recorded first by the Roman historian Livy, the story of Virginius and Virginia is a tale of political intrigue intertwined with an additional tale of threatened rape and subsequent murder. Apius, a corrupt judge, desires Virginia, the chaste daughter of Virginius, who murders his daughter to counter Apius’s plot to obtain her. When Apius tries to punish Virginius, the Roman people rise up and overthrow Apius, who commits suicide.1 This version of the story provides the text of Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale and other medieval works. By the sixteenth century, however, there are two versions of the Virginius and Virginia story, Livy’s version in which Virginius kills his daughter before she is defiled, and an alternate version, in which Virginius murders Virginia after she is raped.2 Medieval and Early Modern accounts of this story are almost always told as an exemplum of evil government; the moral is that men who use their authority for evil purposes are always punished.3 In these redactions of the tale, however, as the Virginiuses who have helped to restore a righteous reign step to the forefront, the Virginias who have endured unspeakable harms fade into the background.

Keywords

Europe Hunt Arena Kelly Abate 

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Notes

  1. 2.
    In David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) p. 974, Bevington maintains that both versions detailing Virginia’s murder before and after her rape were current in the Early Modern period. Besides the Physician’s Tale, medieval versions of the story are found in Boccaccio’s De claribus mulieribus, Gower’s Confessio Amantis, and The Roman de la Rose. Early modern versions of the tale include John Webster’s and/or John Heywood’s Appius and Virginia (pub. 1654) and a later 1709 play of the same name by John Dennis. J. C. Maxwell, in Maxwell, J. C., ed., Titus Andronicus (London: Routledge, 1987), p. 119, cites examples of the alternative version, including George Chapman’s Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany (no date given), and Ludowicke Lloyd’s The Pilgrimage of Princes (1573) and The Consent of Time (1590).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Larry Benson, ed., The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 902.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    For further reading on this subject, see Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic of Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), pp. 157–210. For arguments about the role of women in homosocial bonding, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), and Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).Google Scholar
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    In Hali Meithhad, in Medieval English Prose for Women, ed. Bella Millet and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990), pp. 2–43, the narrator discusses the pros and cons of each role. Spiritual value is placed upon each position, with the maid most blessed because of her virginity, the widow second most blessed because, although she is not a virgin, she is now living a chaste life, and the wife third most blessed because she is living chastely within the bounds of marriage. Although in the Church virginity has top priority in the Middle Ages while marriage gets more of the focus during the Early Modern period, this hierarchy of sexual access is common to both periods.Google Scholar
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    William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), V, i, 177–78.Google Scholar
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    In Patricia Frances Cholakian, Rape and Writing in the Heptameron of Marguerite of Navarre (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), p. 13, Cholakian argues that during the Early Modern period, “a woman’s honor could signify her reputation, what was known about her chastity in public, that is, what she was worth in the eyes of society.”Google Scholar
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    Marion Wynne-Davies, “‘The Swallowing Womb’: Consumed and Consuming Women in Titus Andronicus,” in The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 133.Google Scholar
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    Kathryn Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), pp. 8–9.Google Scholar
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    Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), pp. 17–18. Punishments for rapists in Medieval and Early Modern England included death, marrying him to his victim, and/or paying remuneration to the victims father or husband. For rehearsals of the rape laws that illuminate Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s days, see Henry Ansgar Kelly, “Meanings and Uses of Raptus in Chaucer’s Time,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 20 (1998): 101–66; Christopher Cannon (this volume), and Kathryn Gravdal.Google Scholar
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    Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury, “Introduction: Feminist Theory and Medieval ‘Body Politics,’” in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, ed. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. ix.Google Scholar
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    Peggy McCracken, “The Body Politic and the Queen’s Adulterous Body in French Romance,” in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, ed. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), pp. 46, 50.Google Scholar
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    Geoffrey Chaucer, The Physician’s Tale, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), lines 91–92. Further citations to this tale will be noted in the text by line numbers.Google Scholar
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    Linda Lomperis, “Unruly Bodies and Ruling Practices: Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale as Socially Symbolic Act,” in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, ed. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 29.Google Scholar
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    William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), V, iii, 87. Further references to this play will be noted in the text by Act, scene and line numbers.Google Scholar
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    Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver, “Introduction: Rereading Rape,” in Rape and Representation, ed. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 1.Google Scholar
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    Coppélia Kahn, “Lucrece: The Sexual Politics of Subjectivity,” in Rape and Representation, ed. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 143.Google Scholar
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    A. Robin Bowers, “Emblem and Rape in Shakespeare’s Lucrèce and Titus Andronicus,” Studies in Iconography 10 (1984–86): 79.Google Scholar
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    Stephanie H. Jed, Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 3.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

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  • Robin L. Bott

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