Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


Clare Carroll

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature


My dissertation is an exploration of male potency through a close examination of the tropes of the cuckold and the codpiece as presented in English dramatic works of the early modern period: I examine codpiece and cuckoldry discourses side by side, to see how one informs the other, and to perceive to what extent masculinity is affected and communicated by these discourses. My purpose here is to explore early modern views of masculinity, marriage, and sexuality through various theoretical frameworks, from Freud to Foucault.

My study argues that while the codpiece may emphasize or articulate sexual power and virility, that is, potency, the specter of cuckoldry undermines this power. It is my contention that in order to maintain mastery, the early modern male appropriates the signification of the codpiece, which is in and of itself charged with ambiguity: on the one hand it may signify concealment; on the other, exhibitionism. A close reading of Middleton and Dekker's The Roaring Girl and Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona reveals how gender is materialized and appropriated through the female codpiece, while Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Othello establish the tension between masculine identity and jealousy through the topos of cuckoldry, be it comic or tragic. My emphasis on impotence, as an undercurrent and overt theme, distinguishes my study from other scholarship in the area of gender and cultural critique .

To demonstrate my argument, I apply an eclectic approach: my analysis is formed on the basis of a cultural historicist approach, and is further extended by the deployment of psychoanalytic and gender theories. In addition, the modality of resistance in feminism reaches out to the particular interests of queer theory such as transgressive phenomena, specifically cross-dressing, and, performative aspects of gender construction.

My aim is to illuminate some of the most provocative tensions and possibilities in the study of early modern desire. Tracing as I have an evolution of thought, demonstrates that patriarchy was not monolithic and masculinity was not fixed; in fact, this evolution may have introduced a newer, heterodoxical view of ideal masculinity as tending toward the feminine. My aim, then, is to demonstrate that in early modern English drama, the tension between virility or potency and weakness or impotence as signified by codpiece and cuckoldry discourses betrays an anxious masculinity: masculine desire is represented as complex, fraught with aggression but also with fragility and vulnerability.