Chastity in The Rape of Lucrece and A Woman Killed with Kindness
Renaissance England has been labeled a culture of shame - a society in which an individual's identity was primarily constructed by the way in which his or her "reputation" or "honor" was perceived by others. A woman's public reputation was always based on her virginity or chastity. Just as women were considered the property of their fathers or husbands, a woman's chastity was an asset owned by and exchanged between the men who possessed her. (Gutierrez, 272) A man's public reputation was therefore determined not only by his own qualities, but also by his wife's reputation for chastity. Conversely, a woman's unchastity was a liability to her husband. Rape and adultery were seen as equally compromising the chastity of the female body and equally blighting to a husband's reputation. The fact that a man's identity - his socially constructed honor - was so dependent upon the chastity of his wife was a source of anxiety because he could not control his wife's sexuality, protect it, or even detect its transgressions. (Breitenberg, ch.4) Several works of Renaissance literature address this masculine anxiety and attempt to assuage it by proposing the death (frequently self-inflicted) of the unchaste woman as a means of restoring male honor. In The Rape of Lucrece, although Lucrece's mind remains chaste, her unchaste body must die as a testament to the purity of her mind. In A Woman Killed with Kindness, the adulteress is unchaste in both body and mind. After her husband spares her life, Anne is able to restore the chastity of her mind through repentance. However, she still must die to publicly restore her husband's honor.
The commodification of Lucrece's chastity is established at the very beginning of The Rape of Lucrece, when her husband, Collatine, brags of her chastity to other men, including Tarquin, Lucrece's future rapist, in terms of material value: Happ'ly that name of "chaste" unhapp'ly set This bateless edge on (Tarquin's) keen appetite; … For (Collatine) the night before, in Tarquin's tent, Unlock'd the treasure of his happy state; What priceless wealth the heavens had him lent In the possession of his beauteous mate; (Ln. 8-18)
Collatine values Lucrece's chastity in very mercantile terms, making her the object of Tarquin's admiration, thereby endangering her: …why is Collatine the publisher Of that rich jewel he should keep unknown From thievish ears because it is his own? (Ln. 33-35)
This is a paradox arising from the commodification of female chastity. In order for a husband's reputation to profit from the chastity of his wife, the value of that chastity must be publicized. Yet, this very publication endangers it. (Breitenberg, 100) In this case, Collatine's praise of his wife's chastity leads Tarquin to covet her and destroy her chastity, the source of her value. After she is raped, Lucrece is only unchaste in body; her mind is still chaste because...