What can it possibly mean within the context of a seventeenth-century English drama? This was my very first reaction when I came across the phrase “female castration” while looking through some material on William Wycherley’s The Country Wife. Although in my first post I promised to focus on the notion of writing and deception, the idea of “female castration” cannot be left unmentioned – and, after all, it may even come in handy for my investigation.
It was while reading an article by W. Gerald Marshall that I spotted the name of Peter Ackroyd and his provocative term “female castration” in connection with Margery’s cross-dressing in Wycherley’s The Country Wife. Although I have already dealt with the question of sexual identity to a brief extent, the association of clothing and transvestism in Wycherley’s work proved to be a wholly new concept to me.
The term “female castration” comes up in reference to the scene where Mr Pinchwife dresses his wife, Margery into male clothing, so that he can avoid being cuckolded. Oddly enough, Ackroyd “interprets Pinchwife’s dressing his wife in male clothes as an example of ‘transvestism’ in the history of English drama” − however, this is not to say that Margery is really a transvestite. Instead, as Marshall continues, “Ackroyd speculates that one way in which scenes involving sexual change function is to suggest a type of ‘female castration.’” This idea can be traced back to Pinchwife’s abnormal obsession with cutting off his wife from any connection with males – which explains why he keeps her “under lock and key” and dresses her into male clothing. In this sense, Marshall goes on to argue, Margery is completely deprived of her femininity and becomes practically “castrated.”
And why is this important for my research? Ironically enough, cross-dressing, although it was meant to be a weapon of Pinchwife, eventually becomes a weapon in the hands of Margery. Her lover immediately recognizes her under the disguise, and, since Pinchwife’s intervention would lead to his own public humiliation, cuckoldry becomes inevitable. In this way, Margery’s disguise, just like her writing, becomes an equally significant means in her battle for acquiring self-identity, while she has undermined the male authority – again.
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