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date: 17 January 2021

Abstract and Keywords

Near the beginning of The Winter’s Tale, Leontes offers a well-known rationale for his suspicion of his wife Hermione’s infidelity: ‘From east, west, north, and south, be it concluded, / No barricado for a belly’ (1.2.204–5). This essay argues that Hermione’s prosecution for adultery and Perdita’s abandonment as a supposed bastard each evoke lower-class early modern legal institutions in which the community played a central role: the prosecution of sexual immorality by ecclesiastical courts, and the stigmatization of illegitimate reproduction encouraged by the poor laws. By applying these incongruous legal institutions to royalty, the play denaturalizes the supposed sexual purity of the nobility, representing it as part of the same social processes that produce sexual order in England’s church courts and local parishes.

Keywords: sexuality, gender, class, roguery, law, community, purgation, bastardy

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