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Sin, sacredness, and childbirth in early modern drama.

IN Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheap side, Master Allwit depicts his wife's "lying in"--the period following childbirth--as a scene of extravagance and mystery:
   A lady lies not in like her; there's her embossings,
   Embroiderings, spanglings, and I know not what,
   As if she lay with all the gaudy shops
   In Gresham's Burse about her; then her restoratives,
   Able to set up a young 'pothecary,
   And richly stock the foreman of a drug shop;
   Her sugar by whole loaves, her wines by rundlets. (1)

Allwit's references to so many mercantile details suggest his preoccupation with the excess of material and monetary goods required for such an occasion. Allwit describes a woman who gorges and guzzles her way through childbirth recovery, consuming with a ravenous appetite. He also exoticizes his wife's lying in, revealing simultaneously a sense of confusion and enchantment regarding this feminine space filled with "I know not what."

Allwit's description of his wife's lying in, like many other representations of childbirth rituals in the period, both creates and responds to male fears and fantasies about the mystery of female spaces. Indeed, the female exclusivity of the birthroom has proven problematic for historians since most of the surviving accounts of early modern childbirth were created by those who were barred from the actual experience--men. (2)

The childbirth experience was not only restricted to women and characterized by their excess, but also fraught with female ritual, making it particularly suspicious theological terrain for reformers in early modern England. While the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary facilitated a view of women as vessels of divine intervention, Protestantism called for a radical shift in how spiritual women perceived themselves and were perceived by others. The Protestant attempt at redefining the role and redirecting the actions of women was an emphasis on female piety within the context of marriage and motherhood. Thus, throughout the period of reformation in England, female domesticity and female spirituality became virtually synonymous.

In this essay, I shall argue that representations of childbirth rituals in works such as Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi reflect male anxieties about the female-managed birth process and engage emerging Protestant perceptions of female piety. (3) While Middleton's play emphasizes the threat posed by uncontainable female bodies and words through its portrayal of Mistress Allwit's lying in, The Winter's Tale and The Duchess of Malfi accentuate the ambiguity of the cultural practice of churching, the ritualized ending to the lying-in period for most women. In contrast to Protestant teaching, these works offer views of pregnancy and childbirth that suggest contamination. Much like the place of worship, the birthroom was a site of confrontation for reformers, the ground upon which theology and practice had to meet. One result of this encounter was a gendered and spiritualized battle of narratives--one based on sin and the other on sacredness--situated within the context of early modern childbirth practices.

Since motherhood was an expected stage in the life of any early modern wife, childbirth must have taken on a unique significance for the Protestant woman who was taught she was created for and charged with fulfilling that purpose alone. Thus, to figure this calling as indicative of a uniquely intimate relationship between herself and God was one way in which she could further spiritualize her domesticity. In an insightful analysis, Jennifer Hellwarth argues that the prayers concerning childbirth in Thomas Bentley's The Monument of Matrones (1582) render "the relationship between the pregnant woman and God" a decidedly "privileged" one. (4) In one such prayer, the woman views herself as specifically chosen for the sacred task: "Therefore, oh heavenlie father, I yield thee most hartie thanks, that thou has vouchsafed to count me worthie, and made me the ... receptacle of this thy most excellent worke." In another prayer, she refers to God not only as her "Allmightie and mercifull father," but also as her husband--the one who has "fructified [her] wombe" out of his "bountifull goodness" and "gratious blessing"--aligning the pregnant woman with the virgin Mary and rendering the notion of sin in conception absurd, since it is the work of God. (5) No masculine counterpart existed for pregnancy; in this way, the woman's relationship to God was unique.

The notion that childbirth was linked to transgression offered a competing narrative to the one that rendered it sacred, and was a means of asserting masculine authority within the female-dominated context of birthing rituals. Writers and preachers reminded women that their pain in childbirth was the consequence of Eve's sin, in which they all shared, and which they should bear with patience and humility. Martin Luther's suggestion for comforting a childbearing woman offers a concise summary of the conventional Protestant view. One ought to offer encouragement:
   not by repeating St. Margaret legends or other silly wives' tales
   but by speaking thus, 'Dear Grete, remember that you are a woman,
   and that this work of God in you is pleasing to him.... Work with
   all your might to bring forth the child. Should it mean your death,
   then depart happily, for you will die in a noble deed and in
   subservience to God. (6)

Luther dismisses any comforts other than faith in God as "silly wives' tales," a phrase that resonates with the term "gossips" as well as the suspicion of women's birthroom stories. His idea of encouragement to the delivering mother is to remind her of her subordinate position: "remember that you are a woman." Through such a statement, Luther both insinuates the justice of the physical pain of childbirth as punishment for Eve's sin and affirms the Protestant idea of motherhood as a woman's vocation.

Judging from contemporary accounts, even an upright Protestant woman--a woman who believed her death in childbirth would be "in subservience to God"--could succumb to the temptation of "popish" assurances in her desperate state. The possibility that women might easily slip into questioning divine authority by falling back on female (and Catholic) traditions in dire circumstances was especially threatening since the usually midwife-managed birthroom was devoid of male regulation.

Secret Spaces: Spiritual Anxiety and Birthroom Stories

Women's birthroom stories both could and could not be trusted simply because of the atmosphere in which they were generated. The birthroom, or "lying-in chamber," was a place of enclosure and therefore a place of exclusion--in the words of Hellwarth, "a kind of womb ... even more impenetrable than the womb it resembled." (7) The birthroom itself, which "was supposed to be kept warm, dark, and snug," was an ideal manifestation of the feminine secrecy and intimacy that pushed men to the periphery of the entire process. (8) Additionally, throughout her delivery, lying-in, and churching, a woman would be accompanied by female attendants, commonly called "gossips." Such terminology reinforces the idea of uncontrollable female speech outside the limits of male authority, an idea that corresponds with images of feminine appetite and abundance like Master Allwit's. When represented in literature, "gossips" are often the greatest cause for the husband's discomfort. According to Caroline Bicks, "these fictional groups of women appeared either in taverns or birthrooms, usually to tell stories of marital dissatisfaction." (9) The prologue to Samuel Rowlands' Tis Merrie when Gossips Meete offers a defense on behalf of the women it portrays:
   Pray let us not be too much play'd upon.
   Wee met indeed, it's true, and past and gon:
   Merry wee were, yet free from all offence,
   And there was no man charg'd with our expence;
   Unto a penny wee our reckoning payd:
   Then who can blame the Widdow, Wife and Mayde,
   For meeting, and kind drinking each with other? (10)

Even this playful justification of gossips' gatherings alludes to the female autonomy inherent in such meetings. Just as "no man" is "charg'd" for the women's "expence," neither is he "charg'd" with their keeping; that is, accountability for or regulation of the gossips' behavior is entrusted to no man. Instead, the women pay their own "reckoning," a sign of independence and self-rule.

Though men writing on the subject frequently dismissed what actually went on among gossips as nothing more than idle chatter, their obsessive treatment of the topic suggests that they must have feared otherwise. In reality, the presence of female attendants during childbirth was practical--they were needed to care for the mother as well as the newborn child. In his manual The ladies companion, or, The English midwife, William Sermon warns that the newly delivered woman ought to be kept from sleeping too much, "to prevent which," he advises, "let them be entertained with some pleasing discourse ..." (11) This is one of the services a good gossip provides. Like many other female rituals, however, the period of upsitting and lying in was vulnerable to ridicule and suspicion. As Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry note, these gatherings were "frequently satirized in literature--gossips swarmed around the mother from the instant of birth, expecting fancy foods, swigging celebratory spirits." (12)

Certainly, calling on a newly delivered mother was an occasion for socializing and entertainment. In Shakespeare's Coriolanus, when Valeria persists in urging the unwavering Virgilia to go "visit the good lady that lies in," Volumnia finally insists that her daughter-in-law should not accompany them in her current state since she would "but disease our better mirth" (1.3.66, 73, 99). That Valeria's invitation is an interruption of women's work is clear--Virgilia is sewing when she is asked to "lay aside [her] stitchery" and "play the idle housewife" by accompanying the other women to the lying in (1.3.65-66)--as is the expectation that the outing would involve "much mirth" (1.3.104). Not only was the lying-in a period during which the wife accepted visitors and gifts, but it was also "a topsy-turvy time" when the husband provisionally performed a number of the domestic tasks his wife was unable to carry out. (13) Childbirth, and the activities surrounding it, impacted masculinity on several levels, and as Bicks observes, "the voyeurisitic nature" of satirical representations of these events gave the male audience "some measure of control over these emasculating women." (14) Men could either confirm or combat women's narratives, in other words, through narratives of their own.

Women's birthroom stories were slippery because they were generated in a space in which female speech was outside the limits of male authority; men feared what truths might unfold in the all-female space, yet discredited any such talk even as their paranoia gave it credence. In his study on early modern male anxiety, Mark Breitenberg observes that since the only satisfactory answer for the jealous man's doubts is the "empirical, visible proof" to which he has no access, he "reads and over-reads those signs available to him." (15) Even if the women's story verifies the husband's paternity, it is then suspect because it cannot be proven.

Male anxiety regarding paternity is expressed through cuckold jokes in much early modern drama. At the opening of Much Ado About Nothing, for example, Leonato responds to Don Pedro's comment that Hero must be his daughter with the nervous joke, "Her mother hath many times told me so" (1.1.86). Similarly, Prospero tells Miranda in The Tempest, "Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and / She said thou was my daughter" (1.2.56-57). The real danger for men, then, was that among the rubbish of rumor and meaningless prattle male writers imagined these women exchanging could have been a scrap of truth, such as a gossip's secret revealed in a moment of drunkenness or a mother's confession spilled forth under the duress of extreme pain. Indeed, revealing of the child's real father was commonly believed to take place in the throes of labor. (16) For this reason, midwives had to take an oath in which they swore to verify the paternity of the child's father and to "prevent the replacing of the child (or no child) with another's progeny," as Bicks observes. (17) The midwife, in fact, was credited with a great deal of authority. The Byrth of Mankinde, the English translation of the Eucharius Roesslin's work The Rose Garden for Pregnant Women and Midwives (1513), shows the midwife's power during the birth: "the Midwife herselfe shall ... with her handes, first annoynted with the oyle of Almondes, or the Oyle of white Lillie, rule and direct everything as shall seeme best." (18) It was thought that the midwife had control over even such things as the length of the penis if the child was a boy, depending on how she cut the umbilical cord. (19)

Likely because of the power with which she was endowed, writings about and representations of the early modern midwife contain a trace of the mystery and magic associated with contemporary constructions of the witch. Her association with the secret remedies and "charms" of childbirth strengthens such a connection, and makes it feasible to render the reformers' suspicion of birth rituals and churching as a renunciation of what they perceived as female attempts to "counterfeit" God and his male ministers. The leap from the divine to the diabolical seems a short one--the mysteries of pregnancy and all-female ritual register a similar threat to reformers as do witches and even the Antichrist himself, the Catholic pope. Even as the midwife was charged to prevent the "replacing" of one child for another, she was herself seen by some as a replacement, one who enabled those women in her care to replace faith in God with the counterfeit assurances against which writers like Luther warned.

After the birth, as during, the midwife retained her position of authority, continuing to "rule and direct everything as shall seeme best" when it came to matters of dispute or controversy over paternity. Just as this woman's aptitude at severing the umbilical cord was believed to reduce or increase the newborn boy's penis, the midwife's testimony could either affirm or deny the grown man's masculinity. The entire period of lying-in, a time during which his house was overrun with female visitors and attendants, served to remind the husband "of his inferior powers when it came to telling stories about his spouse and her offspring." (20) He could never know for certain which of their stories was authentic, and he could not rely on his own stories to trump theirs; he was, after all, an outsider. Aaron the Moor certainly understood this when he killed the birth attendants who helped to deliver his illegitimate son in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Aaron questions the nurse after the delivery, "how many saw the child?" to which she responds, "Cornelia, the midwife, and myself, / And no one else but the delivered empress" (4.2.139-41). He immediately kills the nurse, answering Demetrius' reproach in the following way: "Shall she live to betray this guilt of ours--/ A long-tongued, babbling gossip?" (4.2.148-49). Aaron then reveals his plan to also dispose of the midwife--"But send the midwife presently to me. / The midwife and the nurse well made away, / Then let the ladies tattle what they please"--indicating his awareness that the credibility of a midwife's story would overpower any story he might invent. The "ladies" may "tattle what they please" once the sources of authority are "well made away."

Birth and Rebirth: Maternity, Sin, and Salvation

Suspicion of the exclusively female birthroom both informed and was informed by the rhetoric of sin and purification associated with childbirth. Such rhetoric culminated in the churching ceremony, undergone by the new mother at the end of her lying-in period in order to be properly integrated back into her community. As a Christian remnant of the Hebraic purification rite described in Leviticus 12, churching was a controversial practice in Reformation England. As Jeanne Roberts points out, "the association of birth and pollution was strong in the ancient Hebraic tradition," and it was precisely this association that bothered Protestants when it came to a woman's reentry into society after childbirth. (21) The notion that childbirth was contaminating was part of a set of laws from which Christ was believed to have set Christians free, and the idea that a ceremony could effect purification clashed with the Protestant view that God alone holds the power to accomplish such things. The 1549 edition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer included a service for "The Purification of Women," but immediate protests resulted in a change in the title in 1552 to "The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-Birth Commonly Called the Churching of Women." For those who denied the power of (or the need for) a cleansing ritual, the practice became instead a celebration of the woman's safe delivery; for those who insisted upon the contamination involved in childbirth, however, the ritual remained a purification rite that was, according to David Cressy, "almost penitential." (22)

Despite reformers' insistence to the contrary, the contextualization of childbirth as a spiritual experience involving sin and sanctification left many religious writers unable to separate childbirth from the notion of contamination. Childbirth was associated with the sin of Eve, just as the concept of original sin was associated with the sin of Adam, a connection John Donne makes explicit by including the following explanation of original sin in his sermon "preached at Essex House, at the Churching of the Lady Doncaster" (1618): "The body, being without sinne, and the soule, being without sinne, yet in the first minute, that this body and soule meet, and are united, we become in that instant, guilty of Adams sinne, committed six thousand years before." (23) Donne's sermon is permeated with images of pollution: "Our mothers," he claims, "conceived us in sin; and being wrapped up in uncleanness there, can any Man bring a cleane thing out offilthinesse? There is not one ..." (24) The entire process of giving birth was, in fact, viewed as a metaphor for fallen humanity--because of our sinful nature, we find ourselves laden with a burden from which we must be delivered through affliction, relying solely on our faith in God for rescue. Implicit in this metaphor is the notion that the isolation and danger of childbirth represent death, while the mother's recovery and reentry into community represent resurrection. Donne's sermon for the churching of Frances Egerton makes clear this connection:
   God having rais'd his honorable servant, and hand-maid here
   present, to a sense of the Curse, that lyes upon women, for the
   transgression of the first woman, which is painfull, and dangerous
   Child-birth; and given her also, a sense of the last glorious
   resurrection, in having rais'd her, from that Bed of weaknesse, to
   the ability of coming into his presence, here in his house. (25)

The woman's experience of giving birth is linked to woman's "Curse" and to "weaknesse," while "the ability of coming into his presence"--to church, among the society from which she has been temporarily barred--is an act of redemption. By figuring birth as a symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ, Donne and other writers attributed to women privileges to which no man had access. The alignment of women with Christ on this level may have intensified male anxieties already aroused by men's exclusion from the events of childbirth. Men could neither participate in the physical aspects of birth, nor share in the spiritual association with Christ that came of it.

The most important element of the churching service--presumably the sole reason for it--seems to be the delivered woman's offering of thanks. Such a service might well have provided the only public arena in which this could occur, and even then it had to be authorized by the male priest. The priest begins the service by addressing the woman: "Forasmuche as it hath pleased almyghtye God of hys goodness to geve you safe delyveraunce, and hath preserved you in the great danger of childbirth: ye shal therefore geve heartye thankes unto God and praye." (26) The service that follows is set up as the woman's prayer of thanksgiving to God for his protection and deliverance. Indeed, the words of the service, comprised mostly of Psalm 121, focus clearly on deliverance rather than purification:
   I have lifte up myne eyes unto the hylles, from whence commeth
   my help.

   My helpe cometh even from the Lord: which hath made
   heaven and earth.

   He wyll not suffer thy foote to be moved: and he that kepeth
   the, wil not slepe.

   Beholde, he that kepeth Israeli: shall neyther slomber nor

   The Lorde hym selfe is thy keeper: the Lorde is thy defence
   upon thy ryght hande.

   So that the sonne shall not burne the by daye, neither the
   moone by night.

   The Lorde shal preserve the from al evil: yea, it is even he that
   shal kepe thy soule.

   The Lorde shal preserve thy goinge out, and thy commynge in:
   from thys tyme forth for evermore. (27)

Though nothing in the service suggests a need for purification from the contamination involved in the childbirth process, the woman's experience is associated with the "evil" from which "the Lord shal preserve" her. This passage, in fact, seems less like an offering of thanks for past deliverance and more like a petition for future protection, or more accurately, a blessing bestowed that speaks into existence the preservation of the Lord upon the woman.

The commentary in the Geneva Bible introduces this particular psalm as one that "teacheth that the faithful ought onely to loke for helpe at God ... Who onely doeth mainteine, preserve and prosper his Church." (28) Such a comment is a typical representation of the anti-Catholic tenor of the Geneva Bible--another reminder that the rituals of popery usurp the power which belongs to God alone. This particular note is of interest because of the implications it has for the selection of Psalm 121 for the churching service. Wfiat appeared previously to be an expression of gratitude for past deliverance, or of faith in future deliverance, becomes now more like an oath of loyalty extracted from the new mother clarifying her status as a good Protestant woman. The passage could then be read even as a sort of confession, a public renunciation of any superstitious aids she might have called on in her time of travail, an act of penitence and renewed religious commitment. In this way, the words of the service have more to do with purification than they might seem to at first glance.

A subtle change in the first verse of this passage emphasizes its oath-like nature--the Geneva Bible's "I Wil lift mine eyes unto the mountains, from whence mine helpe shal come" becomes in the churching service "I have lyfte up myne eyes unto the hylles, from whence commeth my help." The suggestion of the past tense in the service's "I have lyfte up," a public assurance of the woman's private thoughts and behavior, heightens the confessional tone of the passage. This reading of the churching service is consistent with the ending prayer, in which the priest asks God to help the woman "faithfully live, and walke in her vocation, accordyng to thy wil, in this lyfe present, and also may be partaker of everlasting glory in the lyfe to come ...," (29) The prayer serves as a charge to the woman, a reminder of her "vocation" as a wife and mother, echoing the prayer at the end of the Prayer Book's service for confirmation, in which the priest asks God to defend the child "with thy heavenly grace that he may continue thine for ever, and daiely encrease in thy holy spirite more and more, untill he come unto they everlasting kingdom." (30) The woman has undergone, it would seem, a new baptism.

Narratives of Childbirth in Middleton, Shakespeare, and Webster

Childbirth thus created a site of spiritual negotiation. The all-female interaction, conversation, and supervision of the birthroom generated intense curiosity and anxiety in men, who were denied direct access to it, and the implications of the churching ceremony confirmed the contamination associated with the process, despite Protestant revisionism. The female characters of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside seem to validate the cultural and religious suspicion of the childbirth experience. As act 3, scene 2 of the play begins, the audience sees "A bed thrust out upon the stage, Allwit's wife in it." The audience, male and female alike, is brought into the very bedchamber in which the private and mysterious rituals of childbirth take place. Mistress Allwit is, according to David Bevington, "an embodiment of domestic abundance." (31) Further, she is surrounded by other female figures of excess, women whose seemingly boundless verbal facility and capacity for consumption are the source of much dread and disdain. The scene stages the destructive potential of female appetites and the "leakiness" of women's words. (32) We see, for example, how secrets are told among tipsy women when the Fourth Gossip is able to elicit some scandalous information from the Third, saying "Wine can do that I see, that friendship cannot" (3.2.110).

The entrance of Tim into the scene provides a striking realization of male anxiety with regard to female spaces. All of the men in the audience are in Tim's position--sent to "thrust 'mongst married wives," where they are out of place (3.2.142). Tim's mother, Maudlin, describes him as "bashful" and explains that "in the university they're kept still to men and ne'er trained up to women's company" (3.2.133-35). The same could surely have been said about many male members of the audience, especially regarding the details of labor and delivery. For a man to even talk about childbirth would have been unusual since that would have been thought "an indelicate intrusion into the female domain"; for a man to actually insert himself into the physical space of childbirth must have seemed strange. (33) This is, in part, why the scene is funny. Maudlin is aware of the intimidating nature of the situation, and urges it all the more for that reason. "Prithee call him up among the women," she tells the nurse, " 'Twill embolden him well, for he wants nothing but audacity" (3.2.120-22). She wishes to toughen him up, and to be "among the women" presumably requires the sort of courage she thinks he is lacking.

In keeping with the comparison of the birthroom to the womb, Tim's presence in this environment has several implications. Once in the company of his mother and the other women, he is so infantilized, to use Bevington's term, that he has little more agency than Mistress Allwit's newborn baby. Tim's insertion into this female "womb" also leaves him in the vulnerable position of being sexually objectified. His mother claims he lacks "audacity" and his actions prove her right--Tim is no match for the Gossips, who presently maul him with their unwanted kisses. Tim responds vehemently to this series of violations. After Lady Kix kisses him, for example, he cries: "Oh, this is horrible! She wets as she kisses. Your handkercher, sweet tutor, to wipe them off, as fast as they come on!" (3.2.181-83). Of the second kisser he says: "This is intolerable. This woman has a villainous sweet breath, did she not stink of comfits. Help me, sweet tutor, or I shall rub my lips off." Implicit in Tim's reactions is not only a sense of outrage at being imposed upon, but a sense of disgust at being exposed to the contamination of these female bodies. He must "wipe" off the kisses "as fast as they come on," and does so vigorously. Tim is horrified to find himself surrounded by "leaky" women. The play consistently represents women as uncontainable--not only the newly delivered Mistress Allwit, but also her gossips, who "wet" as they kiss and discharge "villainous" odors; Maudlin, who talks incessantly; and Maudlin's daughter Moll, whose self-awareness and sexual desires thwart her father's repeated attempts to lock her up. The fact that Mistress All wit's baby is a girl suggests the inevitability of this cycle's continuation.

Like A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, The Winter's Tale implies the association of childbirth with contamination and, consequently, with sin. In this play, however, it is the connection of childbirth to sacredness--specifically the alignment of the woman with Christ--that ultimately resonates through images of resurrection and redemption. When Leontes summons Hermione forth for trial during the middle of her lying-in period, she is understandably baffled by his cruelty in denying her, his queen, the "childbed privilege," a right that belongs to "women of all fashion." (34) Leontes' unreasonable demand of Hermione is likely motivated by the belief that women frequently disclosed the identity of their child's father during labor or lying-in, a notion that would have exacerbated his already extravagant jealousy. Leontes could also be reacting to his wife's pregnancy not only as evidence of infidelity, but as a signifier of her sexuality in general. Jeanne Roberts observes that "when faced with the fact of birth, the male's greatest difficulty seems to be in harmonizing Virgin and 'Whore,'" resulting in literary representations in which births are "clouded, ominous, divisive, or catastrophic." (35) Leontes interprets Hermione's pregnancy as an indication of her misconduct--"let her sport herself / With what she's big with, [to Hermione] for 'tis Polixenes / Has made thee swell thus"--misreading her pregnancy as proof of her guilt.

Only when Hermione collapses at the news of her son's death does Leontes transfer his suspicion to sorrow. His clarity is conspicuously sudden as he repents of his "jealousies": "I'll reconcile me to Polixenes, / New woo my queen, recall the good Camillo," he vows (3.2.153-54). Upon hearing that Hermione has died, Leontes claims that the cause of her death shall be his "shame perpetual" (3.2.236). A woman who died in childbirth became a martyr of sorts, one who died "in a noble deed and in subservience to God," in Luther's words. In contrast, the safely delivered mother was immediately rendered suspect--"teetering on the edge of institutional infidelity," Caroline Bicks observes, "because of her time spent confined at home and away from an organized Christian community." (36) Hermione is just such a woman. While she is living, she has no chance of restoration. Her trial is perfunctory, something of which Hermione herself is well aware:
   Since what I am to say must be but that
   Which contradicts my accusation, and
   The testimony on my part no other
   But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me
   To say 'Not guilty.' Mine integrity
   Being counted as falsehood shall, as I express it
   Be so received.

Even before she testifies, Hermione is condemned by virtue of the fact that she is standing trial in the first place. The same could be said of the newly delivered mother: even as she comes to the church, she is scrutinized as a "green woman," one that "should stay at home, refrain from sexual intercourse, and not participate in the sacraments of the church" until she has properly reentered society after her potentially transgressive isolation. (37)

When Leontes initially accuses Hermione, in fact, he does so by intruding upon an all-female gathering much like a meeting of gossips, a gathering in which tales are told. Bicks accounts for the presence of young Mamillius among the ladies in act 2, scene 1 by calling him the play's "central gossiping figure," especially since he is the spinner of the "winter's tale"; however, the boy's presence in this female gathering is much like Tim's in A Chaste Maid. (38) Mamillius' rejection of the First Lady's offer to be his "play-fellow" recalls the scene from Middleton's play: "You'll kiss me hard," he complains, "and speak to me as if / I were a baby still" (2.1.6-7). Leontes removes Mamillius from this gathering of women, expressing a fear of contamination by the boy's mother as he does so: "I am glad you did not nurse him. / Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you / Have too much blood in him" (2.1.59-61). Leontes concludes that his son is safer out of his mother's potentially infectious reach: "he shall not come about her" (2.1.61). It is no coincidence that Leontes chooses to confront Hermione at just this moment, in the midst of an all-female gathering that resembles the birthroom.

Like Hermione, the Duchess in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi embodies female sexuality in a way that threatens those men under whose control she is supposed to be. Mary Beth Rose claims that the "erotic identity" of the work's title character "is omni-present in the play and central to it." (39) The closeness in proximity of the Duchess's giving birth and her imprisonment by Ferdinand allows for a connection between the penance through which Ferdinand forces the Duchess to go and the purification ritual of churching. (40) Although the events are actually separated by years, the dramaturgy of the play pushes them together, calling attention to the correlation between the two. This correlation implies that though the Duchess's chief transgression appears to be her clandestine marriage to Antonio, what is most unsettling about the Duchess's behavior is her bearing of this man's children. Pregnancy and childbirth are in this play, as in many early modern works, tainted by male suspicion. Bosola's discovery of the Duchess's condition communicates as much: "so, so, there's no question but her tetchiness and most vulturous eating of the apricocks are apparent signs of breeding." (41) The certain and "apparent signs" of pregnancy are irritability and appetite, showing the "vulturous" nature of female sexuality. To her brothers, especially Ferdinand, the Duchess's pregnancies are signs of her sexual capacity as well as sources of pollution.

As in The Winter's Tale, the audience is enticed to imagine the birthroom scene, hearing only descriptions rather than being allowed to watch. Both plays omit most of the stages that normally accompanied childbirth: "blessing of the marriage bed, rites and charms to insure fertility, birth, washing, parental acknowledgment, naming, gift giving, welcoming into family and community, and later the 'purification' or 'thanksgiving' of the mother." (42) These rituals are not entirely removed from The Duchess of Malfi--Delio asks when the Duchess goes into labor if Antonio has "prepared / Those ladies to attend her" and arranged for the midwife to come, for example, and upon his child's birth, Antonio has "set a figure for's nativity" (2.1.153-54; 2.2.75). Such rituals were so well known to the audience that a mere mention would likely have been enough to call to mind their full performance.

Ferdinand is obsessive in his quest for the proper modes of punishment and purification for his sister, a manifestation of his fear that her contamination might, as Antonio states in the beginning of the play, like "some cursed example of poison near the head, / Death and diseases through the whole land spread" (1.1.14). Ferdinand takes this idea to the extreme; he views his sister's body as corrupt and in need of "desperate physic," her blood as "infected" and in need of purging (2.5.23, 26). He visualizes her in the sexual act, "haply with some strong-thighed bargeman"; he also refers frequently to her "bastards," indicating his disgust not just with the Duchess' sexuality but with her reproductivity (2.5.41,43, 29). The Duchess's "shameful act of sin" necessitates penance and purification, which Ferdinand imagines will require an agent no less powerful than fire: he would "have their bodies / Burnt in a coal-pit with the ventage stooped ... Or else to boil their bastard to a cullis" (2.5.67-68, 73). Ferdinand's sense of personal responsibility in the righteous correction of his sister leads to what Ellen Caldwell calls the play's "invasive procedures," which are manifestations of "the age's desire not only to lend autonomy to the individual, but also to assail that privacy through legal and religious procedures of interrogation." (43) If the play, as Caldwell claims, "exposes the perverse pleasures of those who seek to violate the secrets of the bedchamber, the closet, the womb, the heart," it also calls attention to the ineffectiveness of such violation--the Duchess's "power resides," after all, "in keeping her secret." (44)

The Duchess is the object of masculine anxiety not only due to her sensual and procreative capacity. As a female ruler, and also a widow--free from the immediate control of a husband--the Duchess gives the men around her reason to be anxious. Rose compares the Duchess to the cross-dressed heroine of comedies: "the Duchess' widowhood, with its temporary and limited freedoms, can be viewed in aesthetic terms as the symbolic equivalent of an androgynous disguise," an apt description in terms of the Duchess's gender ambiguity throughout the play. (45) Since widows represented a threat to patriarchal structures precisely because of their ambiguity--neither maid nor wife and thus under the control of neither father nor husband--there emerged in early modern culture a discourse of widowhood based on masculine anxiety. (46) This discourse focused not on widows' economic and political freedoms, but portrayed them as "imperious in their chambers crowded with suitors, and lusty and demanding in their sexuality." (47) In his contribution to Thomas Overbury's The Overburian Characters (1614), Webster distinguishes a vertuous widdow, one who "thinkes shee hath traveld all the world in one man" from an ordinarie widdow, one for whom "the end of her husband beginnes in teares; and the end of her teares beginnes in a husband." (48) He also describes the vertuous widdow as "a Relique, that without any superstition in the world, though she will not be kist, yet may be reverenc't," an image to which the Duchess herself alludes when she asks Ferdinand why she should "of all the other princes of the world /, Be cased up like a holy relic" and not allowed to marry (13.2.135-36). Indeed, that the Duchess resists the Catholic metaphor--she does not wish to be a "holy relic"--and favors instead the prospect of marriage and maternity aligns her with Protestant notions of female piety.

The only space in which the audience views a moment of exclusively female intimacy is not the Duchess' bedchamber or birthroom, but her prison. Cariola tells the Duchess she looks like a mere representation of herself, "like to your picture in the gallery, / A deal of life in show, but none in practice; / Or rather like some revered monument / Whose ruins are even pitied" (4.2.32-33). The imagery recalls Hermione's "statue" at the end of A Winter's Tale. Both women die--the Duchess physically and Hermione emotionally--as martyrs, and each ends up as a sort of "holy relic," to use the Duchess's phrase. The Protestant metaphor for childbirth placed the woman in a similar position: she was deemed a sinner who must suffer the consequences of sin before she could obtain salvation. The greater the faith with which she approached her travail, the greater her spiritual reward.

The Duchess receives news of her impending death with "so much obedience in [her] blood" that she makes no effort to resist (4.2.151). In response to Cariola's cry of despair, the Duchess stoically replies "Peace, it affrights me not" (4.2.154). She later assures Bosola that she is terrified by the prospect of her death "not a whit" (4.2.197). John Knott notes that "Foxe's Reformation martyrs ... may turn away from wives and children at the end but make arrangements for their care." (49) The Duchess reacts similarly, as her final words to Cariola are just such instructions for the care of her children: "I pray thee, look thou giv'st my little boy / Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl / Say her prayers ere she sleep" (4.2.185-87). In another Christ-like gesture of nobility, the Duchess offers forgiveness to her executioners (4.2.189). In her response to her brothers' cruelty, the Duchess actualizes the martyr's belief that "the way to defeat power wielded by the authority" was to prove that "the soul could remain untouched whatever punishment was inflicted on the body." For martyrs, "to feel a holy joy in the face of death was a sign of divine support," and the Duchess reflects that "holy joy" as she begs, "Come, violent death" (4.2.215).

Caldwell connects the Duchess's resistance to "the tortures of isolation, separation, and fragmentation" not only to the resolve of a martyr, but also of a "witch." (50) The two do have points of intersection--chiefly, the shared methodology that led to the inevitable death of the person accused of being either. That is, the only innocent witch (or heretic) is a dead one. To die nobly--as the Protestant woman whose death in childbirth is "in subservience to God"--is the only proof of innocence available. In contrast to the Duchess, Cariola faces the prospect of death in panic, begging for mercy and offering one reason after another why she should be spared. It is Cariola's final excuse--"I am quick with child" (4.2.234)--that prompts Bosola to finally order her death. Like Shakespeare's Joan of Arc, who uses a similar tactic in I Henry VI--"I am with child, ye bloody homicides. / Murder not then the fruit within my womb" (5.6.63-64)--Cariola chooses the wrong ploy in her desperation, punctuating the play's exploration of pregnancy as a form of pollution. Ferdinand's regret at the news of his sister's death is much like Leontes' grief: "Why didst thou not pity her? ... I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits, / Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done't" (4.2.254, 259-60). While the Duchess is not allowed a full resurrection as Hermione is--the restoration that fulfills the same purpose as the churching service--she is allowed a brief moment of rebirth, even before her final appearance in the play as the disembodied voice called "Echo." Although the Duchess seemed to be dead, after his confrontation with Ferdinand, Bosola exclaims, "She stirs; here's life ... She's warm, she breathes ..." (4.2.321, 323). Her brief resurrection allows the Duchess the opportunity to cry "Mercy!" Although this could be an exclamation of joy at hearing that Antonio still lives, it also recalls Bosola's statement just a few lines earlier: "And heaven in it seems to ope, that late was shut, / To take me up to mercy." This connection makes the Duchess' outburst seem more like a prayer, perhaps a faint echo of the confessional nature of the churching service (4.2.327-28).

In an attempt to purge the processes of childbirth and churching of Catholic remnants and as a rebuttal to the association of women with sacredness through pregnancy and birth, the Protestant emphasis on sin and redemption reinforced a narrative that linked childbirth to contamination. Middleton's play shows how men answered the stories generated in female spaces with stories of their own: Mistress Allwit, a new mother who holds a particular power through her experience of childbirth, becomes an image of grotesque abundance and Maudlin, the representative of maternal authority, becomes merely a loquacious gossip. Such stories render possibilities of female sacredness rather as proof of sin. Shakespeare and Webster seem to make claims about the pollution of pregnancy and childbirth only to undermine them in the end. Still, both Hermione and the Duchess are figures of female royalty caught between competing narratives of femininity--one associated with the sin and contamination, the other associated with sacredness and martyrdom, along with its own particular subversiveness--complicating the Protestant equation of female spirituality with wifehood and motherhood.


(1.) Thomas Middleton, "A Chaste Maid in Cheapside," English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, ed. David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Eric Ramussen (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002), 1.2.30-38. All other references to this work are from this edition.

(2.) David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 16; Caroline Bicks, Midwiving Subjects in Shakespeare's England (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2003), 17; and Mary Abbot, Life Cycles in England 1560-1720: Cradle to Grave (London: Routledge, 1996), 51.

(3.) For more on changing perceptions of female piety, see Christine Peters, Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender and Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

(4.) Jennifer Wynne Hellwarth, The Reproductive Unconscious in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 2002), 76.

(5.) Thomas Bentley, The fift lampe of virginitie conteining sundrie forms of Christian praiers and meditations, to bee vsed onlie of and for all sorts and degrees of women . . . (1582), Early English Books Online (Ann Arbor: UMI 1999-) University of North Texas Library, Denton, TX. May 2, 2014,102, 95.

(6.) Martin Luther, Luther's Works, ed. Walther I. Brandt, vol. 45 (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1962), 40.

(7.) Jennifer Wynne Hellwarth, The Reproductive Unconscious in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, 8.

(8.) Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death, 53.

(9.) Bicks offers a useful history of the term "gossip," Midwiving Subjects, 27; see also David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death, 55-56.

(10.) Samuel Rowlands, Well met Gossip: or, 'Tis Merry when Gossips meet (1656), Early English Books Online (Ann Arbor: UMI 1999-) University of North Texas Library, Denton, TX. July 21, 2014.

(11.) William Sermon, The ladies companion, or, The English midwife printed for Edward Thomas (1671), Early English Books Online (Ann Arbor: UMI 1999-) University of North Texas Library, Denton, TX. May 2, 2014.

(12.) Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry, True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 27.

(13.) Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death, 35.

(14.) Bicks, Midwiving Subjects, 29.

(15.) Mark Breitenberg, Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 178.

(16.) Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 194.

(17.) Bicks, Midwiving Subjects, 24.

(18.) Eucharius Roesslin, The Rose Garden for Pregnant Women and Midwives (1513), trans. Thomas Reynalde, The byrth of mankinde, otherwise named The womans booke. Setfoorth in English by Thomas Raynalde phisition (1604), Early English Books Online (Ann Arbor: UMI 1999-) University of North Texas Library, Denton, TX. May 2, 2014. 101.

(19.) Bicks, Midwiving Subjects, 42.

(20.) Ibid., 25.

(21.) Jeanne Addison Roberts, "Shakespeare's Maimed Birth Rites," True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 126.

(22.) Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death, 208.

(23.) John Donne, "Sermon Preached at Essex House, at the Churching of the Lady Doncaster" (1618), Sermons of John Donne, edited by George Potter and Evelyn Simpson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953-62), John Donne Sermons Collection, project ed. Kimberly Johnson, Harold B. Lee Library Collections (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University) May 2, 2014. < docviewer.exe?CISOROOT = /JohnDonne&CISOPTR = 3191>, 5.

(24.) John Donne, "Sermon Preached at Essex House, at the Churching of the Lady Doncaster" (1618), 4.

(25.) John Donne, " Sermon Preached at the Churching of the Countess of Bridgewater, [Second Sermon]" (1621 or 1623), Sermons of John Donne, edited by George Potter and Evelyn Simpson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953-1962), John Donne Sermons Collection, project ed. Kimberly Johnson, Harold B. Lee Library Collections (Provo: Brigham Young University) May 2, 2014. <http://content = /JohnDonne&CISOPTR = 31 93>, 1.

(26.) "The Thankesgevinge of Women After Childe Byrthe, Communelye Called The Churchynge of Women," The Prayer-Book of Queen Elizabeth 1559 (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1909), 140.

(27.) "The Thankesgevinge of Women After Childe Byrthe," 140.

(28.) William Whittingham, The Bible and Holy Scriptures conteyned in the Olde and Newe Testament. Translated according to the Ebrue and Greke, and conferred with the best translations in diuers languges ... (1561)), Early English Books Online (Ann Arbor: UMI 1999-) University of North Texas Library, Denton, TX. May 2, 2014.

(29.) "The Thankesgevinge of Women After Childe Byrthe," 141.

(30.) "Confirmacion, Wherein is Conteined a Catechisme for Children," The Prayer-Book of Queen Elizabeth 1559 (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1909), 120.

(31.) David Bevington, Introduction to "A Chaste Maid in Cheapside," English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, ed. David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Eric Ramussen (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002), 1457.

(32.) David Bevington, Introduction, 1457; see also Gail Kern Paster's connection between "excessive verbal fluency" and the "liquid expressiveness" of female bodies, or "leaky vessels" in The Body Embarrassed (Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), 25.

(33.) Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death, 20.

(34.) William Shakespeare, "The Winter's Tale," The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1997), 3.2.101-2. All references to the works of Shakespeare are from this edition.

(35.) Jeanne Addison Roberts, "Shakespeare's Maimed Birth Rites," 128.

(36.) Bicks, Midwiving Subjects, 166.

(37.) Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death, 203.

(38.) Bicks, Midwiving Subjects, 36.

(39.) Mary Beth Rose, "The Heroics of Marriage in Renaissance Tragedy," The Duchess of Malfi, ed. Dympna Callaghan (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), 128.

(40.) Frank Whigham argues that once he imprisons the Duchess, "Ferdinand appropriates and adapts from the two ritual-purification practices of "churching" and the charivari," "Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi," Incest and the Literary Imagination, ed. Elizabeth Barnes (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2002) , 69.

(41.) John Webster, "The Duchess of Malfi" The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century, 7th ed., vol. 1b, ed. George M. Logan, Stephen Greenblatt, and Barbara K. Lewalski (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2000), 2.2.1-2. All other references to The Duchess of Malfi are from this source.

(42.) Roberts, "Shakespeare's Maimed Birth Rites," 128.

(43.) Ellen Caldwell, "Invasive Procedures in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi," in Women, Violence, and English Renaissance Literature, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Sharon Beehler (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2003), 149-86.

(44.) Ellen Caldwell, "Invasive Procedures," 178; 150.

(45.) Rose, "The Heroics of Marriage in Renaissance Tragedy," 130.

(46.) Arthur F. Kinney, "Introduction to The Duchess of Malfi." Renaissance Drama: An Anthology of Plays and Entertainments, ed. Arthur F. Kinney (1999, reprint. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 561. Kinney offers numerous examples of these conflicting ideas: Juan Luis Vives' Instruction for a Christian Woman, which discourages remarriage among widows, is pitted against Protestant writers such as Thomas Becon, William Perkins, William Gouge, and Andrew Kingsmill, who stand in favor of a widow's right to remarry.

(47.) Vivien Brodsky, "Widows in Late Elizabethan London: Remarriage, Economic Opportunity and Family Orientations," in The World We Have Gained: Histories of Population and Social Structure, ed. Lloyd Bonfield, Richard M. Smith, and Keith Wrightson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 125.

(48.) Thomas Overbury, The Overburian Characters (1616), ed. W. J. Paylor (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1936), 70-71.

(49.) John R. Knott, Discourses of Martyrdom in English Literature, 1563-1694 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 46.

(50.) Ellen Caldwell, "Invasive Procedures," 150.
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Author:Reynolds, Paige Martin
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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