Fancy's Images: Contexts, Settings, and Perspectives in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

By Charles R. Forker | Go to book overview

10 "A Little More than Kin, and Less than Kind": Incest, Intimacy, Narcissism, and Identity in Elizabethan and Stuart Drama

I

After Shakespeare makes Hamlet bemoan the "most wicked speed" with which his mother and uncle have posted to "incestuous sheets" ( Hamlet, I.ii.156-157), the hero sustains the shock of learning from the Ghost that "the royal bed of Denmark," now "A couch for luxury and damned incest" ( I.v.83-84), shelters not only a fratricide but also a probable adulteress. In this sequence the dramatist was raising a sensational subject guaranteed simultaneously to horrify and attract sophisticated thinkers and ignorant groundlings alike. That Renaissance culture was fascinated by forbidden forms of sexuality--especially desire within the confines of the family--is attested by the popularity of the subject in the poetry, prose fiction, and drama of the period. Spenser, for instance, touched upon it in The Faerie Queene ( III.vii.47, 48; III.xi.3, 4), allegorizing the most extreme form of unchastity imaginable in the twin giants Ollyphant and Argante, monsters incestuously conceived by a Titaness in union with her own son, who reduplicated the incest of their conception by uniting with each other while still in the womb. More centrally, Milton adapted Saint James's homily on the unholy triad of lust, sin, and death ( James 1:15) in a similarly double incest: in Paradise Lost ( II, 761-767) Satan fathers Death upon Sin (his own daughter); then Death rapes the figure who has become both his mother and his sister.

Arthurian romance also made much of incest. In Malory's redaction of the legend, for instance, King Arthur begets his bastard son Mordred upon his sister Morgause; then Mordred compounds the incestuous circumstances of his engendering by seeking to commit adultery with Guenevere, his stepmother--a notorious example of the "bold bawdrye" of which Ascham so disapproved in The Scholemaster ( 1570). 1 Since Arthur expires from a wound inflicted by Mordred, incest might well be thought to condition the events leading to his death. Thomas Hughes's Senecan tragedy, The Misfortunes of Arthur ( 1588), incorporated the tradition of fatal incest and transmitted it to the stage. Continental writers of fiction who treated incest include such well-known names as Marguerite of Navarre, Basile, Bandello, Cinthio, and Montemayor, many of whose tales readily found their way into English. 2 Greene's Pandosto ( Shakespeare's source

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