This dissertation explores the centrality of incest and miscegenation in the early modern cultural imaginary. Incest, which occurs with surprising frequency in the drama of the period but with equally surprising scarcity in everyday social life, is frequently invoked in conjunction with miscegenation in all of its various forms (social, religious, ethnic/cultural/racial). As boundary phenomena – the two extreme ends of the spectrum of sexual alliance – incest and miscegenation served as powerful and surprisingly flexible dramatic tropes, providing a useful means of interrogating the social processes that create, instill, and redefine acceptable choices in sexual and social partners. I divide the project into two sections. In the first, I investigate the interplay among incest, social miscegenation, and social mobility. Looking at Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, I explore how these issues become filtered through the figure of the incestuous widow, whose treatment serves as both a critique of aristocratic hierarchies and a means of promoting sexual and social mobility. The second, which examines the relations between incest and ethnic miscegenation, centers on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Noting that Shakespeare takes the incestuous rape in Ovid’s tale of Philomel and replaces it with the miscegenistic rape of Lavinia, I investigate how this transposition interrogates the family’s relationship to itself and to the state. I situate my readings of these plays in a socio-political context that takes into account two different, yet intricately connected, cultural issues: the painful transition of a society still highly stratified along feudal lines to one suddenly faced with the possibilities for radical economic and political advancement; and the anxieties of a culture just as suddenly exposed, through exploration and trade, to other geographic and cultural realms. The attempt to navigate the new terrain opened up by changes in the social, political, and geographic climate, I argue, disrupts long-established institutions – the family, marriage, hierarchical stratification. Significantly, the tensions between incest and miscegenation so apparent in the period’s drama express, in part, cultural anxieties fostered by a new social openness combined with a newly heightened sense of an enticing yet threatening Other
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