At a time when the moral nature of women was questioned, anxiety surrounding female sexuality invaded many public areas, and various writers took to addressing those anxieties. The possibility for women to fantasize and act on their sexual desires defies norms for the period. The cultural construction that framed female sexuality was a limiting one that barred women from actively engaging in their sexual desires. This thesis focuses on three major genres for the period: ballads, plays, and prose romances. By critically analyzing these genres for their construction of female sexual agency, readers can begin to understand how authors described sexual agency and how they used it to influence their various audience members.
Chapter One, “Desire, Death, and the Broadside Ballad,” focuses on broadside ballads. Broadside ballads were published on a single sheet of paper and typically featured an illustration alongside their text. This chapter focuses explicitly on murderous wife ballads, which is a sub-genre that featured women who murdered their husband. By the end of each ballad, the murderous wife is executed and silenced. In many cases, the murderous wife would articulate her motive lying behind the want to commit adultery, which shows active agents in control of their sexuality. Having a murderous wife articulate her desire, especially towards someone outside of her marriage, would have been extremely transgressive. Balladeers used these women’s stories to turn a profit and further push against women discovering their agency and to remind listeners of the extremes that can happen to a woman who becomes independent, and they knew that sensationalizing these rare criminal acts would reinforce anxieties among many about these acts happening to other people.
Chapter Two, “Tyrannous Agency: Shakespeare and Female Desire,” moves away from broadside ballads to discuss Shakespeare’s construction of female sexual agency through an examination of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Othello. As two plays that are vastly opposite of one another both in genre and storyline, they feature similarities in the construction and limitation of female sexual agency. Because they are plays, the dissemination of the play’s formulation of female sexual desire begins to narrow to those who have access to the play in comparison to ballads. Whereas ballads were cheap and available everywhere to listen to and buy, plays only operated in the playhouses, and one had to pay admission to enter said playhouse. By focusing on Emilia, Bianca, Titania, and Hermia, this chapter argues that the female characters in each play featured in this chapter convey a strong message about the supposed importance of women acquiescing control to the men in their lives over their sexuality, which strips them of much sexual agency.
Chapter Three, “Lady Mary Wroth’s The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania and the Challenge of Female Sexual Desire,” complicates the argument about female agency with its focus on The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania by Lady Mary Wroth, a pastoral romance. Urania occupies a unique space in terms of readership. Ballads were ubiquitous, but access to Urania was limited by its temporary publication. The construction of female desire in the text vastly differs from that of the broadside ballads. Although Urania had a limited release, the text attempts to confront the condemnation that surrounds female sexual agency in other genres and entreats the readers to see the issue that plagues the other genres. Although Urania’s representation of sexual agency is limited for women, and women at various points of the romance are isolated from the male counterparts, by giving a voice to the tormented women in the text and allowing them to share their stories, the text advocates for a community to be built that allows women in the early modern period to begin discussing their own stories and hopefully begin to enact change.
This thesis aims to enlighten views on the presentation of female desire in the early modern period. By complicating the concept of sexual agency, I aspire to further understand realities for women of the period through these works. Women were constantly bombarded with denial of sexual agency, and by opening the conversation on this topic, I aim to emulate Urania’s attempt at creating a community by which we, as scholars, can further understand the inner workings of the patriarchal constructions in the early modern period.