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'Harlots and harlotry': the eroticisation of religious and nationalistic rhetoric in early modern England

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:45 authored by Catherine Anne Parsons
This thesis explores gendered embodiment in early-modern England as a 'semiotic field' onto which were transcribed anxieties about the contingent nature of individual and national 'masculine' identity in an era of social and religious change and flux. I examine how the construction of an emergent 'Englishness' is articulated through the employment of eroticised metaphors of religious and national opposition. Anxieties about the threat to English national stability are feminised in order to contain and distance them, where the trope of the 'worrying feminine', in the Biblical archetype of the ambitious and sexually promiscuous Whore of Babylon, becomes an 'over-coded' entity representing a spectrum of anxieties surrounding internal and external religious threats to the self-constituted identity of English Protestant masculinity. In contrast to this, chaste female virtue in the form of the Bride of Christ is used, frequently in conjunction with the trope of the 'motherland', to privilege the righteousness of the Protestant masculine agenda against a perceived lack of proper monarchical rule. Together with the insights of literary criticism and history, I draw on models from gender and identity theory and cultural theory of the body, to engage with a series of six 'moments' from 1530 to 1640. Plays by Bale, Sackville and Norton, Shakespeare, Dekker, Heywood, Middleton, Davenport, Brome, Richards and Quarles are analysed in conjunction with Spenser's poetry and polemical works by Knox, Aylmer and Stubbes. I explore the ways in which the antithetical tropes are employed and how this reflects, interacts with and works against shifting social and cultural preoccupations. I conclude that the elaborate and over-insistent emphasis upon individual and national masculine supremacy is undermined by the irreconcilable contradictions inherent in its gendered construction. I argue that these disjunctures are nonetheless revealing, since the disentangling and examination of their complexities enables new and productive insights into the cultural climate of the period.


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