‘A seale of Virgin waxe at hand / Without impression there doeth stand’: Hymenal Seals in English Renaissance Literature

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This essay combines literary criticism with archival work in order to explore the relationship between two material signs that were often connected figuratively in English Renaissance literature, the seal and the hymen. While the seal authorised, authenticated and secured letters and other documents, many thought the hymen did the same for virginal female bodies. Looking at plays and poems in relation to the material culture of sealing in early-modern England, I analyse metaphors and similes which represent the seal as a kind of epistolary hymen and the hymen as a kind of human seal. In doing so, I demonstrate how Shakespeare, Donne and other authors drew on material and rhetorical traditions as they engaged with this reversible analogy. The essay focuses on the paradoxical fact that defloration was rhetorically linked with both the stamping and breaking of seals, acts of creation and destruction respectively. I conclude by discussing aspects of the hymenal seal that destabilise its status as reliable sign of patriarchal authority, especially the possibility of counterfeiting.
Original languageEnglish
Article number113
Pages (from-to)94
JournalLives and Letters
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012

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