Date of Award

Winter 1982

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Cuckoldry is a complex of terms, ideas, injunctions and stereotypes attached to the notion that a wife's infidelity transformed her husband into a horned beast called a "cuckold." This complex, or lore of cuckoldry, was not merely a literary tradition but a popular conception which was beneficial to the medieval family structure with its wide kinship bonds and relatively cold husband-wife relationships. During Shakespeare's time, however, the family was changing, placing a greater stress on mutual society and paternal authority in such a way as to be incompatible with traditional cuckoldry. Consequently during the English Renaissance, literary treatments of cuckoldry also changed. Shakespeare, participating in some of these changes, created his own brand of cuckoldry, denying its universal validity.

A chapter apiece is devoted to Shakespeare's four major cuckold plays--The Merry Wives of Windsor, Othello, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale--and his two minor cuckold plays in which cuckoldry has a significant role in the sub-plot or background of the play--Much Ado About Nothing and Troilus and Cressida. Also slight references to cuckoldry can be found in several other plays. In general, Shakespeare utilizes the language of cuckoldry to debunk the stereotypes and lore of cuckoldry as he received it; especially the saws in cuckoldry which state that all husbands are virtual cuckolds, wives, especially amiable and socially active wives, are naturally wanton and given the chance will horn their husbands, and paramours who know the lore of cuckoldry can utilize it to seduce any wife at will.

For Shakespeare, cuckoldry is chimerical, born of male jealousy and perpetuated by society and slander. Shakespeare's cuckoldry plays do not depict wifely adultery at all; rather, they reveal cuckoldry to be a male delusion. In this way, the plays deny cuckoldry's veracity, portraying the propensity to commit adultery to be foreign to the majority of women. Shakespeare's cuckoldry suggests that if men banish their fears of being horned, they can live fuller and more secure lives, their wives can be more active social partners, and society can be more stable.