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Theme of Female Sexuality in Rossetti's and Webster's Texts

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In ‘Maude Clare’, Rossetti shows a powerful alternative type of woman – Maude Clare. The name is significant as ‘Maude’ derives from the word ‘warrior’ and connotes extreme strength and power, thus presenting women and their female sexuality as a powerful weapon that only warriors like Maude Clare and women possess. However, there are similarities between this poem and ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ as Rossetti uses the noun ‘queen’ to describe Maude Clare at the end of the first stanza to strongly resemble royalty, extravagance and possibly sexuality, themes that are also present through the description of the Duchess in the play and her being a ‘prince’. The use of royalty initiates a hierarchy in the poem as the other woman in the poem (Nell) is described by Rossetti as a ‘village maid’, perhaps someone more reserved and modest than Maude Clare. Rossetti uses interclass to exemplify the defiance of stereotypes of Victorian women and exploit those who are non-conforming. “Out of the church she followed them with a lofty step”, implies rebellion and perhaps spitefulness as the adjective ‘lofty’ suggests that Maude Clare is imposing her superiority over the couple and dominates the scene which is what some would say would be ‘brave’ of a Victorian woman but is also perceived as ridiculous and inappropriate behavior. Therefore, similar to Julia, Maude Clare is very aware of her inappropriate and subversive actions and attitude however she chooses to go against the Victorian patriarchy knowingly and weaponized her female sexuality.

As mentioned, a character that possesses Maude Clare flare and sexual prowess is that of Julia in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. Webster is able to prove female sexuality once again as a weapon and uses Julia to challenge the patriarchy and prove this in doing so. Julia is seen to have sexual relations with a number of male characters in the play, despite being married. A Jacobean audience would have been extremely judgmental to her wanton nature, especially under the religious climate of the 17th century; she would have been looked down upon for breaking the sanctified covenant of marriage under God by sexually entertaining other men outside of her marriage. The proliferation of manuals reminding women of their wifely duties and the dangers of straying from them (for example, ‘A Crystal Glass for Christian Women’ by Philip Stubbes, 1591) suggests that women such as Julia who ignore and purposely go against them were, in practice, chooses to weaponize their sexuality. However, a feminist reading, and audience would sympathize with Julia as the Jacobean patriarchy was known to weigh down most heavily on women such as Julia, and her sexually ambitious temper allows her to be as liberated as a man and use her sexuality as a weapon. In doing so, Julia claims that “The only remedy to do me good Is to kill my desire”. Julia is flirtatious with Bosola, acting against the Cardinal’s wishes and against the expected behavior of a woman in the Jacobean period. She uses a declarative and first-person pronoun to indicate her sexual desires and is seen weaponizing her sexuality to manipulate the men around her. Furthermore, the Cardinal ahead of symbolically poisoning Julia with the Bible, is suspicious and states that her “curiosity has undone thee”. In making this statement, the cardinal creates a comparison between Julia and Eve. Similar to Eve, she is tempted by curiosity in the form of lust and poisoned leading to her downfall, another misogynistic sentiment. Women in Jacobean England were widely thought to have much stronger sexual desire than men, which is one of the main reasons they were often feared as untrustworthy and why chastity was so adamantly instructed. Julia completely chooses to oppose this and does as she please. What makes Julia seemingly the most challenging and threatening character to the patriarchy is the fact that she is vividly aware of the dangers and restrictions bound by the patriarchy, however by actively choosing to go against them for personal gain and her own sexual liberation, she uses her female sexuality as weapon just as Maude Clare does.

Contrarily, Rossetti is able to also present female sexuality as a curse and extremely troublesome to women of the Victorian period. Rossetti conforms to the idea that female sexuality is indeed a curse is through the poem ‘Soeur Louise’. Rossetti was known to be extremely sympathetic to fallen women who had unfortunately succumbed to their imminent desires that stem from their sexuality. Moreover, Rossetti, being a volunteer at St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary, was quite understanding and not overly judgmental as she believed in both redemption, which was a core belief of Tractarianism, and the fact that forbidden desires such as sexual desire and lust was natural and at times unavoidable. This would have originated from another religious standpoint; Rossetti being a devout Anglican Tractarian, she was very acquainted with the Bible and particularly the form in which original sin and the female ‘curse’ was started, being that was Adam and Eve’s first temptation and it’s trickling down to the people of the humankind, specifically women. This form of desire ‘trickling’ is seen in the poem ‘Soeur Louise’. Linguistically, the semantic field of loss continues – ‘trickles’, ‘drop’, ‘dross’, and ‘prickles’. The speaker mourns the destruction that her desire has caused and regrets that her “rose of life” has become thorns instead, painfully beautiful. Interestingly, this is also something that is extremely evident in Webster’s depiction of the Duchess, he takes a more sympathetic approach regarding female desire. This seen when Julia states female desire and “modesty in ladies is but a troublesome familiar that haunts them”. Once again, this lexical field of female sexuality being beyond a woman control and a ‘curse’ is repeated; in this vivid description, an image is painted for the audience of a familiar (witches’ sidekick) cursing women with their sexuality and desires which will ‘haunt’ them for as long as they live which results them in having to repress them and keep modest. This commonplace is interesting as it is believed to be true in both the Jacobean and Victorian periods, therefore highlights even more the extent of female sexuality truly being a curse in a religious and spiritual way.

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Although it may be contrary to Websters true objective, he is seen to weaponize and glorify some aspects of female sexuality when presenting his female characters. This completely contrasts Rossetti who, being a Victorian woman, is able to depict femininity and female sexuality in both actions and consequences as far more realistic and honest whereas Webster being a man of the 17th century, is able to take a more idealistic and utopian outlook on what he perceives female sexuality to be which in this case is a weapon and a power that almost all his female characters have. With that being said, Webster is not completely tone deaf as perhaps due to him once again being male, he is able to clearly portray his male characters (when in response to female sexuality) as far more reflective of gender and social norms of the Jacobean era. In particular, Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s views on women and their use of female sexuality. They are both depicted as misogynistic hypocrites who look down on their sister for possibly choosing to remarry, going as far as to aim to control her sexuality despite being completely fine with going against God and using their male sexuality to satisfy them. This could largely be because of Jacobean standards of women; specifically, the fears of women remarrying in large part were fueled by anxieties about female sexuality in general (and of widows in particular). Women in Jacobean England were widely thought to have much stronger sexual desire than men, which is one of the main reasons they were often feared as untrustworthy and why chastity was so adamantly instructed. Specifically, Ferdinand expresses this common misogynistic rhetoric when he says to the Duchess: “And women like that part which, like the lamprey, Hath ne’er a bone in’t”, his reference to the lamprey exhibits a more apparent use of phallic imagery, flaunting his own male sexuality as a torment to the Duchess’s female sexuality. Widows, as sexually experienced women, were thought to be especially susceptible to this feminine vice. Ferdinand dwells on about this theme with particular urgency (perhaps of fear of bloodline being tainted or his own incestuous desires), declaring that to marry twice is ‘lascivious’ and then finally declaring his sister a ‘lusty widow’ before leaving the stage. Therefore, by going against society’s status quo and choosing to remarry, this has a severe impact on the Duchess’s decisions, affecting her life as a whole negatively and directs he Duchess to her untimely death, similar to all other female characters who choose to act on female sexuality. This, therefore, establishes that during the 17th century it was indeed a curse on act on female desire and sexuality as it would eventually lead to your demise.

Rossetti also highlights that male criticism and control is key in establishing that female sexuality is indeed a curse to women. ‘Goblin Market’ is a poem that presents female sexuality as both a weapon and a curse, similar to Webster’s presentation of sexuality in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and is a cautionary tale about sexual desire. From the start, it is established that it is forbidden to give in to your desires and express your sexuality, this is represented by the goblins’ fruits. Jeanie’s death is an example of the consequences of giving in to desires – punishment for her lack of self-control and is a lesson to other young girls to control this “curse” or suffer the consequences. Rossetti presents sexual desires as addicting and harmful so women should not succumb to their sexuality. The long list of fruit is exaggerated to represent the overwhelming feeling Laura is overcome with and the curse placed by men (goblins) – as well as temptation and forbidden sexuality. The dense hyperbolic description highlights the fascination Laura experiences. The repetition of the phrase “come buy, come buy” gives a sinister, seductive, and addicting tone to the goblins who are emblematic of the men in the Victorian period. Laura struggles with abstaining from the desired fruits and eventually sacrifices a lock of hair for a taste of fruit. The connection of the poem and Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’ lies in the significance of a woman’s hair; cutting hair indicates a loss of innocence and Laura willingly exchanging her hair for fruit can be seen as a metaphor for prostitution. The sexual implication of the line “she sucked until her lips were sore” shows that she is now tarnished. Laura ultimately became addicted and could never have enough, “her hair grew thin and grey” and almost leading to her death. Sexuality is clearly a curse in Laura’s case as this powerful imagery of Laura withering away conveys the consequences of her giving into desires. Therefore, this shows that as long a male sexual objectification and disapproval is involved as represented by the male goblins, women’s sexual nature will always act a curse towards them.

In conclusion, both Rossetti and Webster are able to portray an interesting argument both for and against female sexuality being a weapon or curse when delving deeper into their writings. In ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, the Duchess does not intend to use her sexuality as a weapon but instead is empowered by her sexual freedom, but this becomes a weapon and curse against her brothers’ wishes. She takes control of her relationship with Antonio and strives for happiness. Julia also weaponizes her sexuality and utilizes it for her own needs but ultimately it becomes both their downfall, and consequently, a curse also. For Rossetti, she presents the consequences of expressing your sexuality, insinuating the acting on female sexuality to be religiously sinful and enforcing her conservative beliefs. However, she did recognize the appeal of it in ‘Goblins Market’ and understood the power that sexuality and desire possesses in ‘Soeur Louise’, and there was redemption for Laura when Lizzie learns to use her sexuality as a weapon which was reflective of the sisterly salvation Rossetti discovered in St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary. Therefore, in the end, it is unequivocally clear that in the given time frame of both the 17th and 19th century, female sexuality when presenting gender in the texts is both a weapon and curse.

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Theme of Female Sexuality in Rossetti’s and Webster’s Texts. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 25, 2023, from
“Theme of Female Sexuality in Rossetti’s and Webster’s Texts.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
Theme of Female Sexuality in Rossetti’s and Webster’s Texts. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 Sept. 2023].
Theme of Female Sexuality in Rossetti’s and Webster’s Texts [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2023 Sept 25]. Available from:
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