University of Sussex
Potter, Charlotte.pdf (9.84 MB)

Unfixed virginity: metaphor and defloration in early modern drama

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posted on 2023-06-10, 04:11 authored by Charlotte Amy PotterCharlotte Amy Potter
This project examines how virginity was conceptualized through metaphor and used as a metaphor in early modern drama. It posits that the relationship between virginity and metaphor was destabilising and that virginity functioned as a primarily imaginative idea. Writers, especially playwrights, were aware of and capitalized on this instability. Modern editors and scholars have foreclosed discussions of virginity by reducing virginity to a simpler construction, often ignoring or flattening paradoxical or contradictory moments in plays. This thesis constitutes a project of ‘unfixing virginity’: it challenges editorial amendments, instead prioritising uncertainty (unfixing in the sense of undoing changes) to reveal an early modern sense of virginity which is unfixed (fluid, transient, and intangible). The embodied nature of performance and the limits of representation on the stage make drama a rich area in which to examine virginity. This thesis explores the implications for virginity when moments of defloration are unstaged, enabling a reassessment of the bedtrick and other ‘representational lacunae’ such as unstaged wedding nights in early modern plays. This thesis further contests the assumption that early modern virginity should be specifically associated with the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, as emphasis on their exceptional nature obscures investigation into virginity on its own terms. My approach of ‘unfixed virginity’ reflects how virginity was circulating at a much broader imaginative level across culture, a metaphorical concept produced within a patriarchal social context. The thesis is divided into three chapters which each theorize a different yet cumulative sense of ‘unfixed virginity’. This is applied to a structural and close reading analysis of early modern plays. Chapter 1 focuses on ‘fractured virginity’ in All’s Well that Ends Well and The Changeling. Chapter 2 focuses on ‘recycled virginity’ in Romeo and Juliet. Chapter 3 focuses on ‘perspectival virginity’ in Henry V.


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University of Sussex

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