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English Literature

Christina Rossetti: Cousin Kate

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Sample task

Examine the way Shakespeare presents jealousy between men and women in The Winter’s Tale

Examine how this kind of relationship is revealed in poetry, for example in Rossetti’s Cousin Kate and/or Philips’s A Married State. Refer to other poems from the poetry selection in your response.

What is your response to the pieces of literature you have read? Make links between the ways the writers have considered and presented the theme.

The theme of jealousy is another one that is explored in The Winter’s Tale. King Leontes’ overwhelming jealousy of his wife, and his fears that her friendship with King Polixenes is too close, leads directly to the (apparent) death of his wife, and the death of his son. The betrayal he fears is made even more powerful because of the closeness between him and Polixenes; they are like brothers. It is the same thing that makes the narrator of Cousin Kate so bitter – her jealousy and upset at being cast aside are linked with her relationship to Kate. She tells her "Your love was writ in sand" and that if their positions had been reversed, she would not have betrayed her cousin by accepting the lord’s hand in marriage.

The result in both The Winter’s Tale and Cousin Kate is danger to the woman involved, although in Rossetti’s poem the danger is social rather than physical – the narrator has become an "outcast thing" because she has lost her virtue. In both poem and play it is the woman who suffers, suggesting there is a power imbalance between men and women: men have the power. This is certainly true of Leontes, who can do whatever he likes to Hermione, even though she is his queen. The narrator of Cousin Kate suffers far more than the lord, because she has become "an unclean thing". Her powerlessness is emphasised by the simile comparing her to a glove – something that is easily cast aside. This imbalance is similarly reflected in Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess, and the fact the Duke has apparently had his wife killed without getting into any kind of trouble.

This injustice is a strong theme in the way that relationships are presented in both The Winter’s Tale and Cousin Kate. In both there is some kind of recompense provided by children. For the narrator of Cousin Kate, the fact that she has the lord’s son, a "gift" that his wife would give anything for, is compensation for the fact that she has been jilted and shamed. In The Winter’s Tale it is the marriage of Leontes’ long-lost daughter to Polixenes’ son that reconciles the two old friends, and brings Leontes back from the shadow that his jealousy has reduced him to. This is what allows the queen to be brought back from being a statue. However, Leontes can never recover his son Mamillius, who died as a result of his suspicion of his wife Hermione: some outcomes are permanent. It is not a universal idea, however, that children can make up for the deficiencies of relationships between their parents: Katherine Philips’s A Married State suggests both husbands and children are a cause of discomfort, and she recommends that women should avoid both. The narrator of Cousin Kate, by contrast, tells her son to "cling closer, closer yet", the repetition emphasising the powerful love that she feels for him, which has been rejected by the lord.

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