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The Power of the Unruly Woman in The Winter’s Tale

By: Swati Ganguly

The figure of the "unruly" woman in the culture of Early Modern Europe has long fascinated feminist scholars. The term "unruly" or disorderly refers to women whose conduct deviated from the norms of femininity prescribed by Early Modern patriarchy. Typically, such norms, expressed in the discourses of the period, comprised a woman’s silence, chastity and her place within the household. Thus, a wife with an unbridled tongue could easily be slotted as a scold or shrew, which was a legal offence and thus punishable. Perceptions of a woman’s expression of sexual desire would result in her being regarded as a "whore." Interestingly, there was always a tendency to slide between these categories. Thus, a "cross dressed" woman or a woman wearing breeches was a literal sign of the aggressive, unruly "woman on top." In a similar vein, a witch was not only a woman accused of practicing necromancy but was "devilishe of her tongue" or in other words a scold. Joan (La Pucelle) in I Henry VI, a peasant woman who appears as a cross-dressed virago and is proved to be both a whore and a witch provides the paradigmatic case of how various categories of deviant female behaviour could be collapsed in Shakespearean drama. It is therefore not surprising that feminist Shakespeareans have invested a lot of energy in tracing the "patriarchal master narrative" in his plays.


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