Representations of Race, Rape, and Consent in Early Modern English Drama
Mendoza, Kirsten Noelle
Representations of Race, Rape, and Consent in Early Modern English Drama analyzes the intersections of raced bodies and sexual violence in theatrical performances of the late Elizabethan and early Stuart periods that experiment with the problem of shifting cultural understandings of the consent of women and racialized others in a global early modernity. Beginning with the first statutes of Westminster issued early in the reign of Edward I, English law conflated two crimes: stealing women and forcing women to submit to sexual relations. In the medieval period, rape laws protected men’s right to property. This meant that a suitor who takes a willing woman from her home could be charged with the crime of rape without having sexually violated a woman so long as her father or husband did not consent. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the legal definition of rape bore more resemblance to its present-day description; it transformed from being a crime against a woman’s father or husband to a crime against the woman herself. Despite this legal change, the persistence of medieval perceptions of women as property whose persons belonged to men continued to influence the adjudication of rape cases throughout the seventeenth century. This fraught reconceptualization of women’s self-possession and the efficacy of their consent occurred alongside England’s relentless campaigns in Ireland, expansion in the Americas, and initial attempts to enter the slave trade. As the seventeenth century progressed, the previously status-marked class of slaves—who by definition could not own property in their persons and who, therefore, were denied the ability to grant or to withhold consent— increasingly became an embodied and racialized category. The theatrical scenes of rape, seduction, and coercion that I analyze in my work address the problem of consent at a specific period of empire-building, when the taxonomies of difference would eventually come to validate the oppression of racial others. I argue that these scenes of rape were neither independent nor tangential to an imperialist agenda but, instead, central to emerging notions of political personhood, self-possession, and an English whiteness.