Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature

By Melissa E. Sanchez | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
“Accessory Yieldings”
Consent without Agency in The Rape
of Lucrece and Pericles

Unlike Sidney and Spenser, both of whom suggest that the virtuous individual can reform government, Shakespeare depicts the problem of tyranny as more systemic and therefore less tractable. This difference is clear in Shakespeare’s use of the analogy between rape and tyranny in The Rape of Lucrece and Pericles, two works that examine the physical and psychological consequences of sexual assault. Sidney and Spenser portray truly virtuous women as inviolable, and thus endorse a hagiographic logic that is skeptical about the possibility of rape. As Karen Bamford has argued, saints’ tales deny the reality of rape by suggesting that if a woman can “freely” choose death instead of sex then assault is really seduction.1 As we have seen, this hagiographic logic is not limited to medieval Catholic texts but also shapes early modern Protestant politics. Shakespeare explores the limits of such logic by representing situations in which women are helpless to withstand their assailants but nonetheless suffer physical effects of sexual activity like pregnancy and disease. These corporeal remainders of sex manifest the more abstract shame and stigma that surround rape, the sense that woman are somehow tainted by sex, even if they have had no choice about it.

Hagiographic views of female virtue evoke the Roman concept of stuprum, the pollution assumed to follow from any form of illicit sex, whether consensual or not. In Lucrece and Pericles, Shakespeare gives stuprum political meaning, suggesting that

1. Bamford, Sexual Violence, 33. See also Helms, “Eloquence Rewarded”; Gossett, “Introduction,” 71–72, 113; and Kelly, Performing Virginity, 42–61.

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