Research Stream


Ursula Potter (2012–2013)
The University of Sydney

Green Sickness and Unruly Wombs on the Early Modern Stage

Renaissance drama is steeped in sexual tensions. It is what drives much of the humour and it clearly panders to a public fascination with women’s sexuality. This project looked at the historical and social contexts that prompted Shakespeare and colleagues to bring women’s biology to the stage so frequently. It identifies religious reform, the rise of the medical profession, and the influence of Tudor school curricula as drivers of this trend over a period of 80 years.

Alexandre Cabanel, Ophelia 1883, 600x300 Wikimedia Commons

Image: Ophelia, 1883.
Alexandre Cabanel. Wikimedia Commons.

The study, which looked at over fifty plays, traces a rise in references to green sickness (the disease of virgins) from the 1590s onwards, reveals its use as a popular plot device to generate domestic conflict, and demonstrates an increasing respect for women’s sexual health. One interesting outcome of this survey is the identification of a system of coding used to indicate the inner health of a female character on stage.

This research drew upon three primary sources of historical context for evidence of attitudes towards the womb as reflected in drama: 1) the Tudor school curriculum; 2) medical texts and case studies; and 3) religious material.

1) It was in the Tudor school classroom that dramatists first learned to either fear or revere the womb, and where they absorbed the colourful material provided by Erasmus which projected an understanding of sexuality as natural and unshameful. At the other end of the spectrum were the pedagogical works of Vives who preached fear of sexuality as the Devil’s tool. These opposing theories provided dramatists with an endless source of thematic material, and in Shakespeare’s case fuelled his preoccupation with father-daughter relations.

2) Renaissance medical theory understood the womb as a powerful, independent organ exerting its influence on the entire body and mind, and posing an unsettling challenge to male virility. Early modern dramatists exploited this understanding primarily for satirical purposes. They suggest popular perceptions of the womb’s insatiable appetite and the amount of damage it can inflict on mind and body are overrated, and men who fear it have been duped, yet, as they were fully aware, merely by bringing such material to the stage so frequently they were complicit in perpetuating such theories.

3) The theme of religious reform emerges as a contributory factor to women’s health.  Early seventeenth-century dramatists were intensely interested in ongoing debate over the conflicting demands of religious doctrine and nature on the young female body, invariably favouring a natural cure (conjugal relations) over a spiritual one (fasting and prayer). The prevalence of these conflicting theories is crystallised in the chaste love themes found in late Stuart drama.


This project led to several conference papers and to three publications:

1) ‘Navigating the Dangers of Female Puberty in Renaissance Drama’. SEL (Studies in English Literature 1500–1900) 53.2 (2013): 421–39, 497. Reprinted in Shakespearean Criticism 168 (2016): 289–98.

2) ‘“No Terence Phrase: His Tyme and Myne Are Twaine”: Erasmus, Terence, and Censorship in the Tudor Classroom ’. In The Classics in the Medieval and Renaissance Classroom: The Role of Ancient Texts in the Arts Curriculum as Revealed by Surviving Manuscripts and Early Printed Books, edited by J. F. Ruys, J. O. Ward and M. Heyworth, pp. 365–89.  Turnhout: Brepols, 2013.

3) The Unruly Womb in Early Modern English Drama. Plotting Women’s Biology on the Stage. Late Tudor and Stuart Drama: Gender, Performance, and Material Culture Series. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2019.