Doctor of Philosophy
Kidnie, M. J.
This dissertation explores the complex and contradictory relationship between female speech and chaste reputation in the early modern period. I draw on J.L. Austin’s speech act theory, Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s understanding of homosociality to study the acts of speech and silence involved in the strategic construction of chaste identity in early modern drama and women’s writing and the role that female homosocial networks play in helping to support the public appearance of feminine virtue. This dissertation scrutinizes literary moments in which the chaste reputations of women writers and their theatrical counterparts are at risk, specifically in Rachel Speght’s A Mouzell for Melastomus (1617), William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1611, pub. 1623), Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam (1613), and Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters (1604-6, pub. 1608). I interrogate how these women construct the appearance of chastity through acts of speech and silence, paying particular attention to how and when these performances succeed and why they fail. In these texts, where one woman’s speech or silence produces unintended fissures in her performative production of chaste femininity, other women’s voices become a key element in the chaste reinterpretation of her voice. I argue that while strategic performances of chaste femininity allow for some personal agency over the public perception of feminine virtue, when faced with a threat to reputation, the female speaker is nevertheless placed in a double bind—her voice alone is not enough to ensure the perception of her chastity. In these instances, female homosocial bonds make all the difference. Together, as vocal collectives, other women’s voices stand witness to individual performances of chastity, speaking when and how others cannot if they are to be believed, to allow these questioned performances of chastity to seem to speak for themselves.
Summary for Lay Audience
This dissertation explores the early modern idea that a woman’s speech was related to her sexuality. I study the ways in which female characters in early modern drama and women writers work together to use speech and silence to construct and maintain reputations for chastity. The focus of this dissertation is on literary moments where chaste reputation is most at risk in Rachel Speght’s A Mouzell for Melastomus (1617), William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1611, pub. 1623), Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam (1613), and Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters (1604-6, pub 1608). I study the ways in which women’s speech and silence contributes to their appearance of chastity, paying particular attention to moments where that chastity is questioned. I argue that when chaste reputation is in jeopardy, other women’s voices are what help support women’s individual appearances of chastity. While performing the markers of what early modern society understands as chaste behaviour allows these women some agency, it is often not enough when faced to a threat to their reputation. In these instances, individual women’s voices are often not believed. Instead, it is women speaking together that allows individual voices to be heard and understood as chaste.
Templin, Lisa, "Speaking Chastity: Female Speech, Silence, and the Strategic Performance of Chaste Identity in Early Modern Drama and Women's Writing" (2022). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 8677.