And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long

Shall far outpass the power of human telling:

For none can guess its grace, till he become the place

In which the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.

Bianco of Sienna, 1362[1]

To apply a phrase from Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, early-modern English descriptions, definitions, and representations of womankind were a thoroughly “mingled yarn” (4.3.71).[2] The main strands of that yarn — a word that, appropriately, means both “weaving material” and “story” — were an inherited classical notion, rooted in the medical theories of Galen and Aristotle, that women were lesser or incomplete men, and a Biblical view of women as either vessels of corruption or, conversely, deliverers of astonishing redemption. The classical and Biblical perspectives, which overlap at some points and diverge in others, are (like all perspectives) present in Shakespeare. Most strongly and consistently promoted in his plays, however, is the view that likens woman to theater itself as a space of ultimate possibility: a ground for and a conveyer of the miraculous, whose wonder is best understood in Christian terms.

Shakespeare’s argument contends with the classically derived idea that, in Greta Perletti’s words, “the female body is an imperfect and inferior organism” compared to the male.[3] Aristotle describes woman as “a male deformed,” a being composed of matter insufficiently invested with the masculine inspiriting form.[4] He introduces the analogy between the female body and the earth-bound seed, which is given generative force and ultimate shape by a quality that “the male introduces” (since growth or movement, unlike matter, partakes of spirit, which for Aristotle is by definition male).[5] In the second century Aristotle’s views were echoed and expanded in the works of the Greek physicist Galen, who argued that women’s relative amorphousness and instability gave rise to excess humoral fluids which were always in danger of spillage and in need of control.[6] In the early 1990s the “sexologist” historian Thomas Laqueur popularized the notion that this single-sex/humoral model of human biology dominated Renaissance thought about women and accounted for such anti-feminism as existed in the early modern period.[7] However, important as Aristotle and Galen were as classical auctoritates, a culture bursting with competing religious and philosophical ideas, all vigorously disseminated via thriving playhouses, sermons, and print media, cannot credibly be said to have been ruled by any one definition of such a complex creature as a female human being. As Shakespeare’s Cymbeline asks, “Who is’t can read a woman?” (Cymbeline, 5.5.48). Thus Laqueur’s claims have rightly been challenged by Renaissance scholars such as Patricia Parker, Janet Adelman, and Gail Kern Paster, who accuse him of “overlooking counter-examples” which would “reverse” his conclusions.[8]

Such counter-examples abounded in a culture radically influenced not just by classical thought but by the Christian tradition, which stressed women’s crucial role in bringing both sin and, later, redemption into the world, while men stood by gawking. Genesis recounts Eve’s dubious initiative in original wrongdoing (Gen. 3:6),[9] while St. Paul, in First Timothy, emphasizes her spiritual guilt (“the woman . . . was in the transgression” [2:14]). While Eve’s story comports in some measure with the classical notion of women’s unruliness when not controlled or given reasonable “form” by man – as well as with pagan myths of feminine mischief-making, like that of Pandora’s box – the mystery of human redemption, by means of Mary’s sexless pregnancy, is foreign to the classical tradition, and  has no parallel in Aristotelian thought.[10] The Bible’s stories of Mary’s and other miraculous pregnancies treat the formless void of the womb as a holy space, a “nothing” whose very emptiness charges it with power, making it a stage on which God’s wonders may appear. Barren or virginal women visited by God’s power are hosts of a mystery, a secret assisted and represented by the natural hiddenness of their inner parts, and accentuated, according to the sacred texts, by the private, unexpressed meditations of the women themselves. Sarah “laughed within herself” when she conceived at the age of ninety (Gen. 18:12). Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, “hid herself” in contemplation of her amazing late-life pregnancy (Luke 1:24). The Virgin Mary “kept” the prophecies she heard about her newborn child, “and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary’s inward reflectiveness was frequently emphasized in her Renaissance visual representations, such as the Annunciations of Fra Angelico (c. 1440, fig. 1) and Piero della Francesca (c. 1455, fig. 2). In a quasi-comic (though profoundly theological) register, the earlier medieval English play Joseph’s Trouble about Mary conveyed the Virgin Birth’s mystery through Mary’s calm demeanor and brief, enigmatic replies to Joseph’s persistent challenges regarding the child’s paternity: “Whose is’t Mary?” “Sir, God’s and yours.” “Whose is the child thou art withal?” “Yours sir, and the king’s of bliss” (ll. 103, 158-59).[11]

During the English Reformation, the image of Mary the mother, a mysterious “intercessor between life and death,” gained an additional potent secrecy when paintings and statues of her were hidden to avoid their destruction (as Carol Banks has noted),[12] and when the Holy Family’s stage representation was banned. And, of course, the wonder of the Incarnation by means of her body was repeatedly stressed in vernacular sermons and absorbed by individual Christian readers in an increasingly Biblically literate culture. Thus, quasi-medical Aristotelian and Galenic references to women’s natural biological unruliness were continually tempered or contested by the Christian myth of woman as a staging ground for the highest good.

Certainly, though,  the Galenic view was still common. Susan Straub correctly notes sixteenth- and seventeenth-century instructional works’ “conventional association of the disorderly landscape with the breeding female body,” observing that “[i]n medical texts, the womb is frequently likened to the earth or soil,” a “garden or fertile field waiting to be tilled and sowed by the husband.” She concludes, rightly, that this is “discourse” that “minimalizes maternal power.”[13]  Many Elizabethan and Jacobean horticultural works use the language of human biology to describe the earth, not as potent in itself, but as the “female” ground for masculine seed.[14] Yet in Renaissance culture, garden imagery inevitably also carried mythic reference to a lost Edenic paradise, whose recovery involved feminine participation in the birthing of wonders. The linking of woman, not just to treacherous Eve, but to a prelapsarian Eden was common in various literary media, as well as on the stage. Louis Montrose has written of early English explorers’ comparisons of the lush Americas to a perfect woman (evident in the naming of Virginia); and in “Eden and the New World in Shakespeare’s Tempest,” I have noted the Pilgrims’ descriptions of New England as a restored Paradise.[15] In “Elegy 19,” John Donne refers to his “hallowed” and “angelic” lover as “my America, my newfound land,”[16] associating a woman’s love – a new heaven – with a wondrous new earth. In Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling (1622), the hero Alsemero links Beatrice-Joanna with “man’s first creation, the place blest, / And … his right home back, if he achieve it” (1.1.8-9).[17] As Adrienne Redding writes, English Renaissance literature of various kinds paired “Eden and female sexual space.”[18] While the association between woman and sinful temptation was a cultural constant, so also was this vigorous defense of woman’s primal wholesomeness.

We see both things in Act One of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. There King Polixenes jokingly blames his and his childhood friend Leontes’ “fallenness” on the wives who awakened their ardor when the boys came of age. Before they met women, the youths “frisked” like “twinn’d lambs … i’th’sun,” and “knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing.” The pregnant Queen Hermione sets him straight: “Grace to boot! / Of this make no conclusion, lest you say / Your queen and I are devils” (1.2.67-82). In this play, the real deviltry occurs not in Eden or in adolescence but in the civil court, where Leontes falsely accuses his wife of murder and adultery. In contrast to that public, masculine forum, the play’s feminine spaces – the queen’s pleasant “garden” in which she and her guest innocently confer; the cell where, aided by women, she births her child; the mysterious “remov’d house” where her loyal friend Paulina preserves her life; and, of course, her own swelling womb – are as wholesome as they are shrouded.[19]

Paige Martin Reynolds writes of the holy “mystery” of such “female spaces” in early-modern culture, noting that the birthroom in particular was a place “fraught with female ritual.” She quotes a prescribed early-modern Protestant prayer for pregnant women that echoes Mary’s Magnificat: “Therefore, oh heavenlie father, I yield thee most hartie thanks, that thou has vouchsafed to count me worthie, and made me the . . . receptacle of this thy most excellent worke.”[20] The nature of the receptacle was genuinely opaque. Elizabeth Steinway observes that during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, “[w]omen’s bodies were especially difficult to obtain for dissection purposes because men were more regularly the subject of convictions by hanging,” and only the bodies of the executed were legally available for medical study. Thus, females were closed books. Donne playfully refers to them as such in “Elegy 19”: women are “mystic books, which only we / Whom their imputed grace will dignify / Must see revealed” (ll. 41-43).[21] Women’s zones – birthing rooms, wombs, internal sex organs, minds – were, like Heaven, hidden from the world’s eyes. Biology, art, law, and custom collaborated in a situation by which females “defied outward legibility,” their inward parts remaining “site[s] of mystery and secrecy,”[22] guarded voids from which life issued as if by miracle.

When we turn again to Shakespeare, we find him repeatedly expressing this mystery of women’s invisible, empty “nothing” enabling, paradoxically, everything. His characters frequently use “nothing” in its bawdy sense, to signify (via pun) a women’s reproductive apparatus —commonly though falsely construed as an empty space — and, metonymically, a woman herself. Superficially, the term seems disparagingly to cast women in Aristotelian terms, as half-formed creatures, having “no thing” (no penis), thus defining them by what they lack, a meaning implicit in Hamlet’s lewd comments to Ophelia during his tragedy’s Mousetrap scene:

Ophelia I think nothing, my lord.

Hamlet That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

Ophelia What is, my lord?

Hamlet Nothing.[23]

The title of Much Ado about Nothing, whose plot centers on an allegation of feminine unchastity, also bears this secondary meaning. The accusation of licentious behavior is false, or “nothing,” and, further, the play concerns what did or didn’t happen to a woman’s nothing, her vagina. In both The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, female characters posing as men borrow the language of anatomical deficiency to describe the real selves under their men’s clothing. Portia tells Nerissa that in masculine garb they will seem “accomplished / With that we lack” (Merchant 3.4.61-62). The cross-dressed Viola complains to the audience, “A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man” (Twelfth Night 3.4.302-03). Yet their lack of male physical attributes, their “nothing,” comports with a hidden generative capability. Rosalind, Viola, Portia, and even tragic Ophelia are hiding secret love, and, with it, their bodies’ fertile potential for life’s renewal. “You lack a man’s heart,” Oliver rebukes the cross-dressed Rosalind, when her display of fear for her beloved Orlando threatens to undermine her disguise. “There is more in it,” Celia enigmatically responds (5.1.164, 159).

Indeed, there is much more. Viola’s quiet guarding of love for Orsino keeps her potent heart invisible. She is “Patience on a monument” (Twelfth Night 2.4.114), maintaining silence about her desires. Yet her patience is what Carol Banks calls an “active power,”[24] and what it hides is “love indeed” (2.4.114-15) – “in deed,” or in action, as, against her private will, she serves Orsino in his love suit to Olivia. In The Merchant of Venice, disguised as a youth, Portia, like young Jesus astonishing the temple elders (Luke 2:46-47), has been radically underestimated by her audience, to ultimate wondrous effect. Her unprepossessing appearance creates the conditions for amazement, when she stuns all hearers with her wisdom. And, in a tragic mode, Ophelia’s deferential reserve (“I think nothing, my lord”) shrouds a hidden sexual knowledge – perhaps one that has issued in pregnancy – hinted at in her mad songs.[25] “Her speech is nothing,” a courtier tells Queen Gertrude (4.5.7). But in Shakespeare’s women, what looks and sounds like nothing is always something, and is often something miraculous.

Shakespeare’s argument regarding the rich power of “nothing” becomes clearer when we look at his wider use of the term. “Nothing” most famously appears, and is most eloquently defended, in Cordelia’s response to King Lear’s demand that she verbally express how much she loves him, in order to gain her inheritance. When she claims she can say “Nothing,” Lear wrongly responds, “Nothing will come of nothing” (King Lear 1.1.89-90). “Lear agrees with Aristotle,” Frank Kermode notes, “but Christian philosophy knew that God created the world ex nihilo.[26] Accordingly, Cordelia’s “nothingness” – seen later when, Christlike, she empties herself of personal will to do her “father[’s] . . . business” (4.4.23-24) — makes her a tool capable of divine love and service, as a tuned instrument is capable of music. “Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds / Reverb no hollowness,” Kent reminds Lear early on (1.1.153-54). On a similar note, Donne prays in a poem, “I shall be made thy music.”[27] “Nothing” is also something special and magnificent in The Merchant of Venice. There, having won Portia, Bassanio can only express his joy by calling it “every something,” which, “being blent together, / turns to a wild of nothing” (3.2.181-82). And in The Winter’s Tale, Leontes concedes the frightening power of imagination’s “nothing” to “co-join with something” and issue in a force which transforms one’s spiritual experience (1.2.143-44). “Nothing” is fantasy, which can cloud the reasoning mind, yet, as we find by The Winter’s Tale’s end, fantasy, the imagination, can also align with awakened “faith” to heal old wounds, and bring the dead back to life (5.3.95).

“Nothing,” then, is finally aligned not only with fertility and sexual or filial love, but with the creative imagination. It is a word Shakespeare uses specifically to express the “feminine” power of theater to work productively on the minds of the audience. As Duke Theseus says, the poet – who is also the playwright – birthing his works, “gives to aery nothing / a local habitation and a name” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1.16-17). By some mysterious process, the “inner space” of the playhouse – “beyond scrutiny, concealed where other people cannot perceive it” – actually “surpasses” what the “real” world offers.[28] In the empty “working-house of thought,” which is the brain and also the stage, poet, actors, and audience engender language and action in living stories that change hearts (see Henry V  5.Cho.23). According to Theseus, the poet/playwright creates ex nihilo, exercising what at least one noted Renaissance moral philosopher considered humans’ most Godlike faculty. Anticipating Shakespeare’s references to the fecund poetic imagination, Philip Sidney claimed: “[T]he heavenly Maker . . . having made man to His own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature: which in nothing he showeth so much as in poetry, when with the force of a divine breath he bringeth things forth surpassing [Nature’s] doings.”[29] For Shakespeare, this miracle-producing imagination was linked with regions which, by their very uncluttered hollowness, were capable of hosting wonders: miracles such as eloquent poetry giving form to inchoate thought; and joyful reconciliations and redemptions vicariously experienced through the power of communal faith. Chief among these holy regions were two spaces, the round playhouse, a “wooden O” in which, with audience indulgence, great things might appear (Henry V Pro.13); and the fantasized body of a woman, a “wombed” one, often clad in the garments of a boy.

Shakespeare’s rare references to the boy actor playing his cross-dressed female characters — to the “thing” Portia, Viola, or Rosalind lacks, but the boy playing her has — correspond, again paradoxically, to his closing of the imaginative portal, and not to its opening. Rather than show the hidden truth, these disclosures hide it. After all, mystery is generated by theatrical faith, and sustained by the audience’s “belief,” not that the female characters are really male, but that they are secretly women. The boy actor begins As You Like It’s epilogue as though he’s still representing Rosalind (“the lady the epilogue”) and ends by admitting he’s a boy (“if I were a woman”). This last is not a revelation, but a re-drawing of the veil. Through this speech, Shakespeare undoes his play’s spell, returning his audience from the sacred imagining space to the ordinary world. The Taming of the Shrew works in reverse, first providing an induction introducing the theater audience to the male actors who portray the comedy’s young women, then refusing to return to the original frame, and concluding with a line emphasizing the miracle of domestic harmony achieved through willing imaginative role-play: “’Tis a wonder, by your leave, that [the wife] will be tamed so” (5.2.189, my emphasis).[30] Imagining the absence of the male actor, and thus the presence of the female, is crucial to comic catharsis in all Shakespeare’s “transvestite” comedies. These include not just As You Like It, whose dream-vision is punctured by the epilogue, but the plays which sustain the boy-is-a-girl fantasy: The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, and even The Winter’s Tale (wherein Perdita, played by a boy, briefly dresses as one [4.4.650-59]). Indeed, the magical mystery is doubled at Twelfth Nights end, which leaves its heroine still dressed as the youth “Cesario,” rendering her a wholly imaginative creation unassisted even by a woman’s costume (what Anne Barton calls “an unknown Viola only guessed at beneath her masculine attire”).[31] In Ben Jonson’s Epicene, one of the “humors comedies” which hilariously modify but remain rooted in Galenic theory, the plot works otherwise, in a non-Shakespearean direction, when the boy playing a woman (within the plot), discards his  wig to reveal that the anti-social Morose’s “wife” – Epicene — is actually male.[32] In Jonson, biological reality trumps theatrical fantasy. The comic outcome depends on the male appearing, his presence something irreducibly more than the imaginary female. Where Jonson is classical and satiric, Shakespeare is Christian and mythic.[33] His plays’ joyous outcomes depend, not on the existence of a “thing” beneath the costume, but on something which, though less funny, is incalculably better: a woman with her loving “nothing.” For Shakespeare, the fantasized “no-thinged” but wombed female is symbolically aligned with the rounded space of the playhouse, its infinite possibilities implicit in its empty but imaginatively fertile “O.”

Sometimes the two wonders – the potent playhouse and the life-bearing womb, or a woman’s miraculously living progeny – are visually joined in Shakespeare, doubling the wondrous effect, and deriving additional emotional value from symbolic allusiveness to Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. In the last scene of All’s Well that Ends Well, theatrical subterfuge creates the conditions for the spectacular appearance of Helena, who, after being cruelly slighted and thought dead, appears before astonished onlookers, living and heavy with child, to embrace her erring husband. In The Winter’s Tale, the restoration to Leontes of Hermione and her (and his) long-lost daughter is completed in a moving scene which stresses the power of love joined to theatrical art, as a statue (either “real,” or one played by Hermione) comes to life (5.3). In both scenes, theater and motherhood are redemptive, restoring fractured family relationships through the spectacular revelation of a Christian mystery more astounding than any stage effect: longsuffering love.

What of the alternative tradition – found in both Ancient and early modern biological texts, and owing something to Biblical thought – of the womb as a vessel of evil or disorder?[34] Janet Adelman has noted the co-existence in Shakespeare of positive views of women’s gestation and this darker perspective, whereby the womb bequeaths spiritual deformity. We see the latter In Henry VI, part 3, where the morally and physically twisted Richard of Gloucester blames Nature for betraying him in “his mother’s womb” (3.2.153).[35] As Richard Madelaine notes, the view that women’s inner sexual and generative spaces can be corrosive is also expressed in King Lear, where Edgar refers to his bastard brother’s mother’s womb as a “dark and vicious place” (5.3.173).[36] This blaming of wombs for their offspring’s evil is, however, a mark of tragic perspective, which must ultimately contend with the simple wisdom of The Tempest’s Miranda: “Good wombs have borne bad sons” (1.2.120). As You Like It’s Rosalind agrees: “Treason is not inherited” (1.3.61). We will look fruitlessly in Shakespeare for examples of trans-generational evil, of wickedness derived from either parent. Far more common are the instances of evil siblings overmatched by good ones (Edgar defeats Edmund), and of children who re-present the virtues of their fathers or mothers.

Examples of the latter are numerous, but a prominent one is The Winter’s Tale’s Perdita, Queen Hermione’s displaced daughter, whose every action “smacks of something greater” than her surroundings, and whose “graciousness” revives memories of her mother (4.4.158, 5.1.134). Early in the play, overcome by tragic suspicion, Leontes has maligned the pregnant Hermione’s womb as a corrupt locale that “will let in and out the enemy” (1.2.205). In act five, Hermione’s soul and body – and Leontes’ imagination – are fully redeemed with the reappearance of the adult Perdita, the ripe fruit of Hermione’s womb. The queenly mother then emerges, an enlivened statue, from a secret stage recess, the earlier-curtained discovery space. Embracing her daughter, she confirms the miraculous power of both theater and the hidden womb to deliver redemptive wonders.[37]

Yet the space of the theater, the internal space of the womb, or the combination of both, is not a staging space for wonder simply because it is bare. As As You Like It’s Celia says to Oliver, “There’s more in it.” Emptiness – nothingness –makes love’s triumphs possible because it is ground cleared for the planting of miracles, which, in Shakespeare, John Cox has eloquently described as instances of “human improvement.”[38]

To understand how a hollow or empty space is a fit metaphor for the soul in process of redemption, we may consider some crucial Biblical references to the Christian of either sex as a receptacle to be filled by the Holy Spirit. In Romans 9:21 and 23, God is the “potter” who can make all of us “vessels of mercy.” In Second Thessalonians 4:4, Paul bids every Christian “possess his vessel” – his body – “in holiness,” an instruction repeated in Second Timothy 2:21. In Mark 2:22, Jesus counsels his followers to make themselves into “new vessels” or skins to contain, not the “old wine” of Adam, but the “new wine” of Christ, the bridegroom. Crucial to this preparation is a purgation or emptying of the self of personal will and a surrender to God’s. The Christian must “purge himself” of folly and sin (2 Timothy 2:21-23). As St. Augustine writes, “I . . . cast myself aside and choose you instead.”[39] Just as the Church is Biblically pictured in feminine terms, as the bride (Matt. 25, Rev. 18:23), the soul waiting for grace is aptly represented in early-modern writings by the woman or wombed one, waiting for conception and enduring delivery. The widely read sixteenth-century sermon “An Homily of the State of Matrimony,” states that it is women whose bodies most make them “relinquish the liberty of their own rule, in the pain of their travailing, in the bringing up of their children.” In other words, women’s “hollow” physiology all but enforces the putting aside of private will, which is the necessary condition of salvation. In childbearing married women have “committed” their “adventures” to God “in most sure trust of help”[40] – a considerable decision, in an age when infant mortality was in some years as high as 40%, and death in childbirth an ever-present fear.[41]

Thus Shakespeare found that “hollow” female characters – who suspend their will to host new life, or simply to show loyalty and harbor hope – were ideal representatives, not just of lively human beings, but of the Christlike virtues of patience, self-abnegation, forbearance, sacrifice, and love. “I must be patient, till the heavens look / With an aspect more favorable,” says the pregnant Hermione, enduring the punishment of prison (The Winter’s Tale 2.1.106-07). Serving her beloved in secret, Viola sits “like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief” (Twelfth Night 2.4.114-15). As “Time . . . unfold[s]” her sisters’ treachery, Cordelia – not only a daughter, but a figure of Christ — risks her life to assist her ailing father, and demonstrates the hidden potency of her “Nothing” (King Lear 1.1.280). Here and elsewhere,  Shakespeare’s women justify a holy paradox. As with Christ, who emptied himself of divine “reputation” to assume a human shape (Phil. 2:7), apparent absence can hide a profoundly redemptive presence. That which looks empty may be, like the stage’s “aery nothing,” a house of wonders.

Fig. 1. Fra Angelico, “Annunciation,” 1440-45, Convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy

Fig. 2, Piero della Francesco, “Annunciation,” 1452-58, Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy

Citation Information

Grace Tiffany, “Who is’t can read a woman?” An Unexpected Journal: Shakespeare & Cultural Apologetics 5, no. 4. (Advent 2022), 90-104.


[1] Bianco of Sienna, “Come Down, O Love Divine,” 1362, trans. Richard Littledale, 1867. In Glory to God, hymnal (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), no. 282.

[2] All quotations of Shakespeare’s plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

[3] Greta Perletti, “’A Thing Like Death’: Medical Representations of Female Bodies in Shakespeare’s Plays.” Gender Studies 2013, 12(1): 93-111, 97.

[4] Aristotle, from Generation of Animals, excerpted in A New Aristotle Reader, ed. and trans. J. L. Ackrill (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987), 241-52, Book II, 737a, 249.

[5] Ibid, Book I, 731a, 244.

[6] Perletti, 98.

[7] Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), 25.

[8] Paster, “The Unbearable Coldness of Female Being: Women’s Imperfection and the Humoral Economy,” English Literary Renaissance 28 (3): 416-40, 417. See also Patricia Parker, “Gender Ideology, Gender Change: The Case of Marie Germain,” Critical Inquiry 19 (1993): 348-39, and Janet Adelman, “Making Defect Perfection: Shakespeare and the One-Sex Model,” in Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage, ed. Viviana Comensoli and Anne Russell (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1999, 23-52.

[9] All Biblical references are to The Geneva Bible, a facsimile of the 1599 edition (Ozark, MO: L. L. Brown, 2003).

[10] This is not to say the Virgin Birth story lacks analogies in pagan myth, such as that of Dionysus, the god born of union between Zeus and the human woman Semele.

[11] The Pewterers and Founders, Josephs Trouble about Mary, in York Mystery Plays: A Selection in Modern Spelling, ed. Richard Beadle and Pamela M. King (NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), 48-58.

[12] Carol Banks, “’You are pictures out of doors . . . . saints in your injuries’: Picturing the Female Body in Shakespeare’s Plays,” Womens Writing: The Elizabethan to the Victorian Period 8 (2): 295-311, 296.

[13] Susan Straub, “Botany and the Maternal Body in Titus Andronicus,” Renaissance Papers 2017: 139-54, 139-43. The 1637 “The Expert Midwife,” likens women to a “field” in which the stirring up of “copious seed of [women’s] own” is always a threat. (See Jacob Rueff, The Expert Midwife, or an Excellent and Most Necessary Treatise of the Generation and Birth of Man [London, 1637], 139.)

[14] Claire Duncan, “’Nature’s Bastards’: Grafted Generation in Early Modern England,” Renaissance and Reformation 38:2 (2020): 121-48.

[15] Louis Montrose, “The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery,” in New World Encounters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 177-217, and Grace Tiffany, “Eden and the New World in Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” in Critical Essays on the Myth of the American Adam, ed. Viorica Patea and María Eugenia Díaz (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2001), 45-52.

[16] John Donne, “Elegy 19: To His Mistress, Going to Bed,” The Complete English Poems, ed. A. J. Smith (NY: Penguin, 1971), 125.

[17] Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, The Changeling, ed. George Walton Williams (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966).

[18] Adrienne Redding, “Liminal Gardens: Edenic Iconography and the Disruption of Sexual Difference in Tragedy,” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 46 (2015): 141-69, 147. See also Christy Desmet’s comments on “the sanctity of Mariana’s hortus conclusus” (closed garden) in Measure for Measure, in Reading Shakespeares Characters (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 152.

[19] See The Winter’s Tale, 1.2.8, 2.1.124, and 5.2.107.

[20] Paige Martin Reynolds, “Sin, Sacredness, and Childbirth in Early Modern Drama,” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 28 (2015): 30-48,  31.

[21] Donne, “Elegy 19,” 125.

[22] Elizabeth Steinway, “In Search of Alternative Kinship: Pregnancy without Proof in Alls Well that Ends Well,” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 33 (2020): 274-96 (275-76). See also Lori Schroeder Haslem’s comments on the “mysteries” of female sexuality as highlighted in Shakespeare’s plays, in “Riddles, Female, Space, and Closure in Alls Well that Ends Well,” English Language Notes 38.4 (2001), 19-33.

[23] Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.2.118-121.

[24] Banks, 306.

[25] In “Impregnating Ophelia,” Maurice Hunt reviews and supports long-standing arguments that Shakespeare implies, in Hamlet‘s fourth act, that Ophelia is pregnant. See Neophilologus 89:4 (October, 2005): 641-63.

[26] Frank Kermode, Introduction to King Lear, in The Riverside Shakespeare, 1249-54, 1253.

[27] John Donne, “Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness,” 347.

[28] The language is that of Katherine Eisaman Maus, in Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4.

[29] From Philip Sidney, “The Defense of Poesy,” excerpted in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century / The Early Seventeenth Century, Vol. B, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al., Ninth Edition (NY: Norton, 2012), 1044-83, 1050. Sujata Iyengar notes the common Renaissance imagination between the womb and the creative imagination: “The womb’s generative quality parallels it to the brain, especially in the ventricle or compartment of fantasy.” Shakespeares Medical Language: A Dictionary (NY: Bloomsbury, 2011), 359.

[30] Amy Smith provides an excellent discussion of the integral nature of theatrical performance to marital peace in “Performing Marriage with a Difference: Wooing, Wedding, and Bedding in The Taming of the Shrew,” Comparative Drama 36: 3 / 4 (Fall/Winter 2002-03): 289-320.

[31] Anne Barton, Essays: Mostly Shakespearean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 109.

[32] See Ben Jonson, Epicene, or The Silent Woman, esp. 5.4, in Ben Jonson: The Alchemist and Other Plays, ed. Gordon Campbell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 119-210.

[33] Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor, is an exception. An experiment in the alternative humors comic tradition, it is relatively Jonsonian partly in that its climax involves two boys, dressed as female “brides,” who puncture undeserving grooms’ romantic fantasies by revealing their true sex (5.5). It’s the least “Shakespearean” comedy he ever wrote. (See the discussion of this play in chapter 4 of my Erotic Beasts and Social Monsters: Shakespeare, Jonson, and Comic Androgyny [Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995].)

[34] “Therefore I have called thee a transgressor from the womb” (Isaiah 48:8), “The wicked are strangers from the womb” (Psalms 58:3), “In sin hath my mother conceived me” (Psalms 51:5).

[35] Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origins in Shakespeares Plays (NY: Routledge, 1992), 1.

[36] Richard Madelaine, “’The dark and vicious place’: The Location of Sexual Transgression and Its Punishment on the Early Modern Stage,” Parergon 22:1 (2005): 159-83.

[37] Jennifer Low also notes a likeness between the mysterious enclosed space of the female body and that of the stage’s recess or discovery space, which is often used to represent a woman’s private room or closet. See “’Bodied Forth’: Spectator, Stage, and Actor in the Early Modern Theater,” Comparative Drama 39:1 (Spring, 2005): 1-29. See also Julia Lupton’s “The Religious Turn (To Theory) in Shakespeare Studies,” English Language Notes 44:1 (Spring, 2006): 145-49, which argues the holiness of the stage space which delivers Hermione back to “Dear life” (5.1.103).

[38] Cox’s remarks were delivered in a paper called “Grace and ‘Nature’s Miracle’ in Shakespeare,” in a session organized and chaired by Joe Ricke, at the 45th International Congress for Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2010.

[39] Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin, 1961), 207.

[40] “An Homily of the State of Matrimony,” in The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents, ed. Russ McDonald (NY: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 278-87, 281. The thirty-fifth article of the Thirty-nine Articles of The Church of England prescribed that the Book of Homilies was “to be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the People.” “On the State of Matrimony” was included as the eighteenth homily in the The Second Book of Homilies, published in 1571.

[41] See Samuel X. Radbill, “Pediatrics,” in Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Allen G. Debus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 252-53. See also discussions of maternal mortality in Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (NY: Harper and Row, 1979),  52, 55; and Louise Schwartz, “17th-Century Childbirth: ‘exquisite torment and infinite grace’,” The Lancet 377:9776 (4/30/11): 1486-87.