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The Paradox of Women: The Legal Position of Early Modern Wives and Thomas Dekker's The Honest Whore

From: ELH
Volume 69, Number 1, Spring 2002
pp. 83-102 | 10.1353/elh.2002.0007

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ELH 69.1 (2002) 83-102



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The Paradox of Women: The Legal Position of Early Modern Wives and Thomas Dekker's The Honest Whore

Barbara Kreps


The double function of marriage as the site of licensed sexuality and also as the creation of an economic unit links together two desires--sex and security--which may or may not reinforce each other and at times can enter into conflict. The relationship itself is obviously intensely private, but marriage represents at the same time a contract with the community, so that while sex and finance are to some degree regulated within the couple, these same issues are in all cultures also subject to communal laws and customs. Numerous studies focusing on gender conditions in early modern England have emphasized the extent to which sexual and financial questions were legislated to the disadvantage of women; but one purpose of this essay is to point out that there are a number of ways in which both sexual and financial matters, as far as women were concerned, were unevenly and at times conflictually provided for under the several jurisdictions of Tudor and Stuart law, and unevenly reflected and renegotiated in the literature of the period. The law's operation from general principles, from which follows its recognition of all individuals as in some way members of categories, left women few loopholes once the law had determined--long before the development of English common law--that women constituted a group for whom laws were to be made which distinguished them from men. This transformation of biological sexual difference into the disparity of legal, economic, and political gender roles created conditions which institutionally disabled almost all women--in particular married women--of whatever class; but that law makers were not blind to the difference between biological identity and the legal determination of gender roles can be seen in some special instances uncovering contradictions and double-think in the law's provisions for women, discrepancies I shall be exploring in the first part of this essay. Early modern dramatists, addressing issues of personal and social justice in their plays, frequently invoked real questions of English law, calling [End Page 83] attention to how legal praxis, in theory aiming for clarity and justice, is problematic in its application to specific circumstances. This is a tension apparently built into many of the history plays, for example, where the plots often explore and counterpoise the constitutional rights and duties of kings and the rights and duties of their subjects. In the numerous plays of the period either centrally or peripherally concerned with marriage, however--both marriage formation and the relations between husband and wife once marriage has been contracted--still other considerations than the law's sex-gender constructions are visible, and many dramatists waver between, on the one hand, depicting women as interesting and sympathetic individuals and, on the other, making dramatic use of the traditional orthodoxy that all women share an essential nature (a nature morally and intellectually inferior to that of men). As an example of this wavering, which creates one of the major fault lines in the ideology of early modern drama, I turn in the second part of this essay to Thomas Dekker's open engagement with the law and culturally defined gender roles in the two parts of The Honest Whore. 1

How thoroughly the law affected, or how truthfully literature reflected, the real lives of women is difficult to assess. Obviously the levels of companionship and satisfaction found in sexuality were highly personal, just as the real arrangements for organizing family finance, though legislated from above, were also negotiated in some way within the couple. It is far easier to have access to institutions and to know what the prescriptive principles were than it is to have full knowledge about private lives, although diaries, letters, and wills help to give some insight into how esteem and economic responsibility were distributed between individuals. Other factors also make it difficult to recover the full meaning of women's...