Article Title

Impregnable Towers and Pregnable Maidens in Early Modern English Drama


The implicitly pregnable maiden locked in a purportedly impregnable tower is a resilient, cross-cultural motif found in legends and folklore dating back to antiquity. Long before the Brothers Grimm recorded their nineteenth-century version of Rapunzel, Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh portrayed the princess Rudabeh letting down her black tresses so that her future husband Zal could climb up to her otherwise inaccessible chamber, the Christian martyr Saint Barbara was locked into a tower lest she be enticed to marry an unworthy suitor, and Perseus’ mother Danaë of classical tradition was ineffectually kept in a bronze stronghold to prevent her from ever conceiving a child. As this essay details, this motif of the maiden in the tower is also one that recurs in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English drama: pertinent examples can be found in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, Fletcher’s Women Pleas’d, Heywood’s Golden Age, Brome’s Cunning Lovers, and, perhaps most notably, Shirley’s Bird in a Cage, all of which depict the fairy tale-like imprisonment of a young, explicitly marriageable, and problematically sexualized woman. Characteristically exhibiting a metatextual self-awareness of their own plots’ relationships to precedents found in mythology, folklore, and medieval romance, these early modern plays also highlight the ways in which fairy tale towers are never—despite their commissioners’ intentions—simply microcosmic worlds unto themselves, hermetically sealed from commerce with beyond. Rather, such towers are uniformly portrayed as permeable spaces that can accommodate or even generate movement and interaction between the world within and the world without.

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