Medical Discourses of Virginity and the Bed-Trick in Shakespearean Drama

  • Kaara L. Peterson
Part of the Palgrave Handbooks of Literature and Science book series (PAHALISC)


Early modern medicine describes the classic virgin’s diseases of lovesickness and greensickness as maladies suffered by ‘virgins fit for a man,’ for which ‘venery is good,’ Nicholas Culpeper explains.1 The existence of the ‘marriage cure’ has gained widespread recognition as an early modern cultural phenomenon especially worth noting, given its social and ideological implications for young virginal women. Of course, lovesickness and greensickness are not the sole gynecological ailments commonly thought to be suffered by young virgins, as a quick survey of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century medical texts will reveal to readers. When Culpeper alludes to ‘all the symptoms that befall all virgins and women in their wombs, after they are ripe of age,’ he follows centuries of received writing on gynecology, discussing many possible permutations of virgins’ diseases, for ‘It is not to be expressed what miserable diseases women are subject to: both virgins and others from the womb.’2 Virginity and disease are especially, if not exclusively, tied together in the early modern imagination, though the era’s variable means of demonstrating this common bond is no longer always immediately evident to current readers. As this essay will explore, the literary plot device of the bed-trick can be seen as one particular manifestation of the early modern habit of linking female sexuality to virgins’ diseases, a good example of how common medical beliefs leave their traces on the lives of female characters represented in Renaissance drama, namely four plays by Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The Two Noble Kinsmen.


Female Character Medical Text Medical Writer Chamber Window Medical Belief 
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© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kaara L. Peterson
    • 1
  1. 1.Miami University of OhioOxfordUSA

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