Reading incest: tyranny, subversion, and the preservation of patriarchy

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Karen Crady Summers (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Denise Baker

Abstract: British literature is rich in stories crafted around the problem of incest. Incest has long been seen as a universal, or near-universal, taboo, yet dynasties have been founded upon it--and have fallen because of it. This dissertation explores usage of the incest theme in the medieval and early modern literary periods, and into the mid-eighteenth century, a time which saw the emergence of a new form of literature named by one of its creators as Gothic. While incest remains firmly taboo across this long period of time, writers and storytellers appropriate it to reflect some of the anxieties attendant upon their times. To understand the usefulness of incest in mirroring societal disarray across centuries, it is necessary to first understand the historical background of consanguineous relationships, a history which is full of ambiguities and contradictions. Thus incest seems a natural choice for John Gower, who relies on incest in his Confessio Amantis, and in Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, where it is used to allegorize the misdeeds of tyrannical kings who fail to rule wisely, and lead themselves and their people to misery. Given the popularity of drama in the early modern period, it is through this genre that the usage of incest best reveals the anxieties of this age, anxieties which include not only tyrannical kings but also the risks of increasing female autonomy. Incest in Shakespeare's Pericles, Beaumont and Fletcher's A King, and No King and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi works to showcase the dangers of uncertainty when it comes to matters of inheritance, especially when the inheritance involves the throne. Added to this is the fear that rising female agency might eventually succeed in completely undermining the patriarchal and monarchical social structures that were still believed by many to be divinely ordained. By the mid-eighteenth century, changes in economic and political systems appeared to threaten the institution of the family, and incest proved to be a useful metaphor for expressing these anxieties. I conclude that reading incest across four centuries of literary works reveals that while societal threats change over time, a common desire to preserve, uphold, and defend patriarchy remains.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2011
Early modern drama, Gothic, Gower, Incest, Medieval, Patriarchy
Incest in literature
Patriarchy in literature
English literature $y Early modern, 1500-1700 $x History and criticism
English literature $y Middle English, 1100-1500 $x History and criticism

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