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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13.2 (2002) 1-34

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The Wrong Question:
Thinking through Virginity

Kathryn Schwarz

And although there be some inconveniences, irksomeness, solitariness, &c. incident to such persons, want of those comforts [. . .] embracing, dalliance, kissing, colling, &c. those furious motives and wanton pleasures a new married wife most part enjoyes; yet they are but toyes in respect [. . .] and sufficiently recompenced by those innumerable contents and incomparable priviledges of Virginity.

(Burton 570)1

My discussion begins at the intersection of two old-fashioned objects: virginity and a Shakespeare concordance. With the electronic accessibility of texts, concordances, like the paper volumes of the MLA Bibliography, have largely fallen out of use, and returning to them imposes a sense of detachment. When we look up a word electronically, we see it immediately in context, as part of a line, a passage, a play. The logic of the concordance inserts a step to give us not text but citation.

But context was something that Marvin Spevack, the editor of The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare, had thought about a great deal. In the preface to this volume, there is a section titled, “The Context,” which explains in exhaustive detail the process through which the forty-eight spaces allowed for each citation have been allotted. Spevack makes reference to “the drastic fact, albeit not widely enough appreciated, that the computer is first of all a machine, a precariously balanced mechanical system,” and explains that “most works of this kind choose perhaps the simplest, least complicated of methods: they present as context the typographical line (often the contents of one punch-card) in which the indexed word or lemma appears” (vii). Such a method, however, proves [End Page 1] inadequate to deal with the complexity of the Shakespearean text, and The Harvard Concordance evolves a new system of which, after many qualifications, Spevack concludes, “[A]ll things considered, it seems to work: it does appear to produce clear, coherent, and useful contexts” (viii). Shakespearean virginity, then, appears in a space that should by implication define it.

Represented by the words “virgin,” “virginal,” “virgin'd,” “virginities,” “virginity,” “virgin-knot,” “virgin-like,” “virgin's,” “virgins,” and “virgin-violator,” the concept of virginity is contextualized in a number of ways. It appears conditionally: “o, if a virgin, / and your affection not gone,” “hail, virgin, if you be, as those cheek-roses”; disparagingly: “loss of virginity is rational increase, and,” “virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese”; and mysteriously: “and your virginity, your old virginity, is like.” It appears under threat: “her youth and made defeat of her virginity,” “who is a whale to virginity and devours up all,” “if thou dost break her virgin-knot before / all,” “a man, / To force a spotless virgin's chastity”; and under interrogation: “how now? how a dozen of virginities?” “are you meditating on virginity?” “you say she's a virgin?” It appears as a paradox: “never virgin / got till virginity was first lost.” And, occasionally, it appears as a description: “and yet, forsooth, she is a virgin pure,” “your fresh fair virgins and your flow'ring.” 2 It repeatedly fails, however, to appear as a transparent statement. In their apparent clarity, these two last examples emphasize that failure: the first is York's condemnation of Joan la Pucelle, the second Henry V's threatened rape of Harfleur. These virgins, too, appear only in their rhetorical perversity.

Virginity, in the context of The Harvard Concordance, accumulates to something inscrutable. It is in the past, in the future, in the negative, in the subjunctive, an impossibility, a fantasy, a provocation, a performance, a lie. By its very structure, the text that tells us how to find virgins in Shakespeare posits virginity not as a fact but as a series of questions concerning the conditions of articulation—“no context, however long, can ever replace the text itself,” the preface reminds us (vii)—so that the process of “looking up,” of looking for, enacts the loss of unmediated or unqualified knowledge. 3 In so doing, the concordance reflects a larger condition of early...


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