Elizabethan Virginity

by Cole Hayes

The play The Tempest by William Shakespeare puts a lot of emphasis in a woman’s purity. The character Miranda, who is the only female in this drama, is given a value by Ferdinand, her would-be lover, and Prospero, her father. That value of her virginity is not monetary but has significant value as a way of demonstrating how she is untouched by man and, once lost, would be the most evident proof of paternity. Female virginity during this period has also been used as a metaphor for colonialism, where the newly discovered land is represented as the virgin woman and the conquerors or discoverers of this new land are depicted as the source of the lady’s defloration, but this essay will not be covering that side Elizabethan culture in reference to virginity.

The play was written sometime around 1610-1611 and thus draws a lot of reference from Elizabethan culture. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603), who is also known as the Virgin Queen, a woman’s purity was highly prized when male suitors picked or romanced a single woman. All parties involved with the culture, men, women, the church, considered female virginity to be a desirable commodity that should be protected. In the pursuit of protecting female virginity came the need to prove a woman’s virginity. Most of the time a midwife was used to prove a woman’s untouched status but other tests were also popularized. One of the popular myths during this time was that a virgin could hold water in their hands without spilling. This myth was then put to the test by having women hold a sieve as water is poured into it and if no water escapes the sieve then she is proven pure. Queen Elizabeth herself is depicted holding a sieve in several paintings as proof of her status as a virgin queen and as a social bragging point as it was then seen. Many women would actually keep the soiled blankets from one’s first night together as bloody proof of virginity(Harris).

The reason why virginity is so protected is because a woman’s purity was prized by male suitors. This caused virgin brides to have higher dowries thus successfully making a maiden’s purity a valued commodity. With a virgin being more highly prized a wealthier man or a more noble sir who would benefit the family the most would benefit the family of the bride more. In the case of the play The Tempest Miranda’s virginity is prized by Ferdinand. He then takes her as his bride successfully reconnecting Prospero and Miranda back to the Dukedom of Milan, this was the end goal of Prospero after all. Thus can be inferred that Prospero prized his daughter’s virginity with such a high value that only a prospective ruler was worthy of taking it.








Harris, Karen L., and Lori Caskey-Sigety. The Medieval Vagina: A Historical and Hysterical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages: Snark Publishing, 2014. Print.