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This essay takes up the issue of chaste intentionality in John Milton's A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle and Margaret Cavendish's Assaulted and Pursued Chastity. Each of these narratives presents a female protagonist who simultaneously embodies and theorizes sexual virtue, creating a problem of will: when women intentionally participate in the ideological structures that constrain their acts, whose agency is at stake? The essay locates this question in the context of early modern conduct manuals and other prescriptive codifications of feminine sexuality, in which the performance of chastity, even as it is idealized, often involves actual or potential acts of violence against patriarchal structures and the male subjects who inhabit them. Milton and Cavendish raise the stakes by creating characters whose chastity is militant even as it tends toward marriage, identifying intentional virtue as a profoundly social problem.
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