"My Little What Shall I Call Thee": Reinventing the Rape Tragedy in William Rowley's All's Lost by Lust

By Nicol, David | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

"My Little What Shall I Call Thee": Reinventing the Rape Tragedy in William Rowley's All's Lost by Lust


Nicol, David, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


IN William Rowley's tragedy All's Lost by Lust (c.1618-20), Jacinta, a Spanish noblewoman in the court of King Roderick, acquires an unacceptable social position through no fault of her own. Left alone in the castle while her father leads an army against the Moors, Jacinta is raped by Roderick and held captive, lamenting the "heavy hainous wrong" (3.1.8)1 that she has suffered. She is guarded by Roderick's henchman, Lothario, who is ebulliently aware of Jacinta's new social status. Lothario gloats that she is now a "crackt virgin" (9), taunting her with the knowledge that a woman who loses her chastity before marriage has lost any right to the three legitimate social roles available to early modern women: "Come, come, my little what shall I call thee. For it is now doubtfull what thou art; being neither maide, wife, nor (saving your reverence) widow" (14-16). Lothario adapts a well-known riddle, "neither maid, wife, nor widow," the solution to which is "whore" (Tilley, M26). He employs mock-delicacy, avoiding the abusive word while making clear how the rest of the world will now view Jacinta.

Lothario's comments epitomize the conventional attitude to the rape victim in the drama of the period. The rape victim occupies a contradictory social position: despite her lack of consent, she has experienced extramarital sex and is thus considered unchaste and unsuitable for marriage. She has become "neither maid, wife, nor widow," and there is thus no acceptable role for her in a patriarchal society (Catty, 3). Paradoxically, her lack of consent means that she is at once a chaste woman and a whore.

The representation of rape in the drama of the period can be seen as a struggle to efface this paradox. Recent feminist studies have shown that early modern literature typically obscures the victim's contradictory position by constructing narratives in which she internalizes the blame for the event. Jocelyn Catty and Karen Bamford have both shown that in plays about rape, there are only two possible outcomes (Catty, 20; Bamford, 10-11). Most of the plays are tragedies, in which the victim dies, usually by committing suicide or, less often, at the hand of a male relative. These tragedies are governed by the assumption by a male authority that "the girl should not survive her shame, / And by her presence still renew his sorrows" (Shakespeare, Titus, 5.3.40-41).2 The only alternative outcome is the solution found in a few tragicomedies, in which the victim marries the rapist, thereby preserving a form of chastity by restricting the number of her sexual partners to one.3 Underlying both of these narrative structures is an assumption that rape results in "a pollution of the female body, regardless of the victim's volition" (Catty, 15). In both tragedies and tragicomedies, the victim's suicide or marriage has the effect of "solving" the paradox of her social status so that she can no longer represent a threat to the patriarchal structure.

Rowley's play is different. Although it follows many of the conventions of the "rape tragedy," it offers a number of startling and unusual revisions to the genre. The most obvious is that Jacinta, far from committing suicide, remains noisily and energetically alive, only to be killed, against her will, in an incident that has nothing to do with the rape. The play breaks with the conventions of the "rape tragedy" in a number of other significant ways, which have the effect of reversing the demonization of the rape victim that occurs in the more conventional plays on the subject. Indeed, by transforming the typical conventions of the genre, Rowley's play moralizes on the dangers of ignoring the independent speech of women. Previous critics have noted Rowley's divergences from the genre, but have always regarded his changes as illogical or meaningless, apparently assuming that a popular playwright like Rowley would not have been capable of coherent thought, let alone of radically rethinking a genre. …

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