Competing discourses of love and sexuality in the relationships between men and women in Renaissance drama
This thesis is an examination of the ways in which competing discourses of love and sexuality, ranging from the literary and philosophical to the religious, have influenced the portrayal of men and women in the drama of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The structure of the thesis is in two parts: the first concerns what might be termed normative relationships, underlying which is the ideal of mutual affection in marriage, and the second, relationships which undermine, or challenge that ideal. My central proposition is that the conflict between the demands of the body and the spirit, rooted in the ascetic heritage of the Middle Ages, lies at the heart of all discourse on love and sexuality. This is demonstrated in the tension between the Petrarchan idealisation of love and women, and their denigration; between sublimation and sexual fulfilment. Underlying the idealism associated with love is the fear of disillusionment and betrayal, arising out of a deep-rooted association of sexuality with sin, which finds expression in anxiety about female sexuality. The playwrights dramatise these tensions, placing them in a context of changing values in which traditional views of morality come into conflict with a cynical acceptance of human frailty.