Hero, Resurrected and Reimagined: Silence, Slander, and Performative Chastity on the Renaissance Stage

Smith, Maille-Rose, English, University of Virginia
Kinney, Clare, English, University of Virginia

Renaissance conduct books emphasize the importance of chastity as a virtue of femininity but at times offer mixed signals about the proper “performance” of chastity. This fact is of particular interest in plays of the period, in which the plot motif of the slandered or violated heroine frequently appears across several dramatic genres. By staging varying outcomes for heroines that perform chastity, these works offer their own perspectives on the social prescriptions of the conduct books. My project explores these issues most specifically through the misuse and “resurrection” of Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, but also through the discussion of threatened or abused chastity, as represented in some plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

The fungible nature of the conduct book scripts and the dramatic scripts reflects masculine anxieties surrounding women’s changeability and their ability to deceive. Once a heroine has lost her reputation, she must often die to be “resurrected” as pure in the eyes of influential male characters. This thesis observes how a heroine must navigate the two scripts to perform chastity for both the powerful men onstage and for the audience, without being labeled a deceiver. I posit that in the case of Much Ado About Nothing, the fragility of this dual performance necessitates Hero’s death, so that she may enact yet another ideal feminine role: the conduct book role of “moral teacher.” In the epilogue, I offer brief case studies of Hero on the stage and onscreen; actors’ embodiments and re-embodiments of Hero as a unique character complicate her textual blankness. This thesis demonstrates how the embodiment of Hero onstage as a multifaceted, expressive individual, as opposed to a chaste lady stereotype, may challenge her “dramatic object” status.

BA (Bachelor of Arts)
Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Theatre, Plays, Heroines, Chastity, Honor, Performance, Femininity, Virtue, Hero, Deception, Chaste, Deceive, Renaissance, Renaissance drama, Conduct books
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