From the Bible and Oedipus Rex to Game of Thrones and Taboo, incestuous relationships have appeared throughout human history, literature, and popular culture. Though we may quickly assume its moral implications today, the legal and religious definitions of incest have had a complicated past …

In classical societies like ancient Greece, marriage and sexual intercourse were forbidden between ascendants and descendants, but some communities, such as Athens, were more tolerant of marriage between extended relations in communities (Archibald 12). To maintain their dynastic power, the Egyptians embraced various forms of incestuous unions: Tutankhamun married his sister, Ankhesenpaaten, and Cleopatra married each of her two younger brothers. Meanwhile, Roman emperors sought stricter definitions for incest and marriage practices in local groups but, despite their laws, were still forced to issue “stern” edicts “spelling them out again and insisting on their observance” (Archibald 15).

Historically, incest existed in European culture as part of a larger tapestry of “unnatural” sex acts. Consanguineous relations were often prosecuted or discussed under the broader legal and religious terms that included fornication, adultery, and sodomy. Despite its general association with such acts, however, the definition and nature of a truly “incestuous” relationship was of real concern for the communities of medieval Europe. When the Catholic Church sought to outline and outlaw degrees of “affinity” in marriage through canon law, parishes full of interrelated neighbors suffered under somewhat arbitrary rules.  In the eighth century, for example, the Church shifted the method for calculating generational degrees, effectively reducing the pool of eligible partners by half and close-knit villages increasingly struggled to obey their religion while producing families (Archibald 28). In fact, the strain on small populations became so great that Canon 50 in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 eventually “reduced the prohibited degrees of affinity from seven to four” in order to allow more marriages (Archibald 40).

In early modern England, these definitions of incest were of particular interest because royal families used arguably incestuous marriages to maintain power, consolidate wealth, and limit claimants to the throne. King Henry VIII sent this tradition into some disarray when he cited the Mosaic Law of Leviticus to annul his marriage to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. As a consequence of these conflicts between the habits of the powerful elite and the prescriptions of religious doctrine, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were “openly concerned with defining and redefining the incest prohibition” because the definition “had an immediate bearing on the nature of English monarchy and on the particular authority of individual rulers” (Boehrer 21).

Plays of that period likewise grappled with these questions of incest, morality, and social (in)stability. In some, characters fulfill their incestuous desires and threaten whole families, while others avoid consummation or eventually discover some misunderstanding; some stories embrace the tragic consequences of unchecked passion or familial betrayal and others use the threat of incest to examine civic duty or religious fealty.  In John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1633), the risks are high. Siblings Giovanni and Annabella submit to their love for one another and their destructive secret rips away at spiritual convictions, romantic devotions, and familial loyalties. In contrast, John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont’s A King and No King (1619) explores a monarch’s private pain in a public space. King Arbaces struggles against his unexpected desire for the sister he hardly knows and slowly entangles his entire court in his personal turmoil and moral conflict.

Stories that invoke incest usually seek to express some critical break down in either a character’s moral order or the world at large. In early modern drama, characters who embrace incest specifically threaten to breach the social contract that expands family coalitions and produces viable heirs. They are selfish and dangerous liaisons that “rupture” the societal aims and religious prescriptions of marriage and intercourse (Guy-Bray 141). During Brave Spirits Theatre’s repertory of A King and No King and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, audiences will have the unique opportunity to see two plays about brothers and sisters who wrestle with those potential ruptures. What do we think about how these couples respect or disrespect their roles in their world? How do we react to the people around them who allow or disavow their love? What are the rules? What if these couples defy them all?


– Claire Kimball, Production Dramaturg


Archibald, Elizabeth. Incest and the Medieval Imagination. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. Monarchy and Incest in Renaissance England: Literature, Culture, Kinship, and Kingship. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Guy-Bray, Stephen. “The Shame of Siblings in David and Bethsabe.” Sibling Relations and Gender in the Early Modern World: Sisters, Brothers and Others, edited by Naomi J. Miller and Naomi Yavneh, Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006, pp. 140-149.

edited 3.12.17