Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Mario DiGangi

Committee Members

Tanya Pollard

William Fisher

Subject Categories

Dramatic Literature, Criticism and Theory | Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Literature in English, British Isles | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Performance Studies


Shakespeare, pregnancy, queer theory, feminist theory, LGBTQ studies


Bringing together queer and feminist theory, this dissertation examines Shakespeare’s representations of pregnancy divorced from their promised duration and promised end, revealing that the pregnant body is not wholly symbolic of futurity, chastity, or even heterosexual desire. In queer readings of Shakespeare’s plays and in the methodological debates that inform them, the pregnant body has been conspicuously absent, despite being often subsumed into definitions of heteronormativity and procreative reproduction. In feminist work on Shakespeare’s pregnant characters, scholars largely conflate pregnancy with maternity instead of considering the ways in which these women might engage in non-heterosexual forms of intimacy and eroticism. The assumptions that only straight women get pregnant; that every pregnancy ends in the birth of a healthy, legitimate child; and that pregnancy always reproduces the family in a recognizable form continue to obscure what I call “queer pregnancies” in Shakespeare’s plays.

In this dissertation, alternatively, I draw from archival texts—botanicals, pamphlets, gynecological manuals, and conduct books—to demonstrate how Shakespeare’s representations of pregnancy challenged the dominant ideologies of companionate marriage and chastity in the period, as well as male surgeons’ attempts to enter the birthing chamber and gain control of gynecological knowledge. Through these readings, I put the pregnant body in conversation with queer theory more broadly, offering new contributions to Shakespeare studies and the genealogy of lesbian and bisexual history.

The introductory chapter, “The Then and There of Queer Pregnancy,” contextualizes my reading of pregnancy in relationship to early modern medical texts as well as existing feminist scholarship on pregnancy in Shakespeare’s plays. I conjure the flowering woman found within The Compleat Midwifes Practice Enlarged(1656), the skin on her stomach that once obscured her child peeled back—a forced blooming—as a point of entry into the yet-to-be explored relationship between pregnancy, queer theory, and lesbian-like communities. In the second chapter, “Conception in Titus Andronicus,” I argue that Tamora’s pregnancy narrative troubles temporalities of conception and resists the oversimplification of sexual practice and identity—the only mixed-race child on the early modern stage is shaped by female jouissance, by insatiable, destructive, and all-consuming desire. In the third chapter, “Abortion in Hamlet,” I argue that Ophelia can be read as an herb-woman, in that her rue and bawdy incantations link her to representations of abortion across early modern drama as well as to queer theory’s antisocial thesis. In the fourth chapter, “Fruition in The Winter’s Tale,” I argue that Hermione’s pregnancy is most queer in its unexpected temporalities; she is spread of late into goodly bulk, delivered before her time, and slides “o’er sixteen years” in a lesbian-like lying-in ceremony before being reunited with her daughter, Perdita. Hermione’s trajectory demonstrates that even the most legitimate pregnancy in Shakespeare’s plays is a problem, and the solution, for Hermione, is to seek refuge in the company of another woman for sixteen years. Finally, in the fifth chapter, “Generation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I circle back to the beginning of Shakespeare’s canon to excavate a vision of lesbian pregnancy, centering the Indian votaress’s pregnancy as object of study. The Indian votaress’s pregnancy offers a compelling vision of futurity, of world-making and love between women, in an insolvent present when the conditions of possibility for potentially pregnant people rarely extend beyond the authoritarian policing of men who win love and obedience through the use of swords, poisons, and injuries.

Together, these chapters show how, from the young boy actor who shoved a cushion under his costume to embody big-bellied women on stage, to the inextricable relationship between pregnant women and dramatic types charged with threatening sexuality—the bawd, the witch, the herb-woman—the pregnant body can be queer in Shakespeare’s canon, a body that militates against the heteronormative order of things. Queering pregnancy, revising the frameworks through which pregnancy is read in Shakespeare’s plays and beyond, not only illuminates pregnancies that were previously obscured, but also demonstrates that we have never been modern, to use Bruno Latour’s phrase, when it comes to knowing and regulating the pregnant body.

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