Reflections on our ATW Workshop: Sex and Marriage: Then and Now

by Jessica C. Murphy

Workshop Description

Taking “Taxonomies of Time” as its primary theme, this workshop will explore the similarities and differences between the topics of gender, sexuality, and marriage in the early modern and modern worlds. In particular, the workshop will focus on the regulation and representation of female bodies in relationship to marriage. We are interested in looking at the early modern period alongside our own as well as how ideas about women’s bodies compare when outside of marriage (before and after) or within marriage. Workshop participants will put excerpts from early modern texts, including The Duchess of Malfi, in conversation with relevant current events, including the heated public debates over same-sex marriage and birth control. Our hope is that workshop discussion will encourage participants to think comparatively about issues of sex and marriage across time and across the boundaries of the institution itself (before, during, and after marriage).

Workshop Texts

Liptak, Adam. “Justices Rule in Favor of Hobby Lobby.” The New York Times 30 June 2014. (4 pages)

—. “Supreme Court to Decide Marriage Rights for Gay Couples Nationwide.” The New York Times 16 Jan. 2015. (4 pages)

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet (Act 3, scene 5) from Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, 2nd Edition. 2nd edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008. 949-954.

Webster, John, The Duchess of Malfi  (Act 2) from Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1475-1488.

Workshop Summary

The three small groups with which we opened the workshop discussed 1. the married female body in The Duchess of Malfi, 2. the pregnant female body in The Duchess of Malfi, and 3. sex and the unmarried female body in Romeo and Juliet.

All three groups discovered that the female body functions as a site of interpretation. When Capulet, for instance, first enters Juliet’s room the morning after she has consummated her secret marriage to Romeo, he immediately tries to read the situation through her body. Bosola similarly spends a good portion of the second act of Duchess trying to understand her body.

In the Romeo and Juliet group, we discussed the possibility that Capulet’s use of the term “greensick carrion” is not as silly as it might at first appear. Perhaps he knows it as a way to get his daughter married in a hurry.

The group discussing the Duchess’s marriage focused on the tension between the demands  that her brothers made and her responses to them. The Duchess defies her brothers’ prohibition against marriage, but the Duchess appears on the surface to agree to fulfill their expectations.  The performance of submission is a kind of ritual in itself, and frequent examples exist of a gap between the language of submission and action. The Duchess’s performance works up until the point that her body reveals her secret marriage; her pregnant body reveals the truth of her secret marriage.

The group discussing the pregnant body discussed the fetishization of the symptoms or clues of pregnancy and the men’s bewilderment about women. The legibility of the Duchess’s pregnant body is contrasted with the legibility of the nativity “birth certificate.” It is the men of the play who reveal the pregnancy to the audience, not the women; the audience, too, must “read” both the text and the body.

We came together to talk about the possibilities for cross-period comparisons. One of the questions that seems to be relevant to both the early modern texts and our current-day debates is “Who gets to decide?” A week after our workshop, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion in Obergfell v. Hodges, arguing that the “Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.” ( The opposition to same-sex marriage continues, and one of its arguments is that the Supreme Court does not have the right to decide this (see, for example, Ken Paxton’s opinion letter to Dan Patrick

Katie Kalpin Smith, Sara Keeth, and Jessica C. Murphy