Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia features two knights who commit instances of violent sex, for which they are sentenced to death. Ultimately, they are saved, and this essay asks why—and how—the language of self-abjection is used in the service of justice. Exploring the rhetorics of mercy and masochism, the essay examines the poetic justifications for violent sex that draw on the Petrarchan tradition. Sidney’s prose romance explores the social and narrative implications for living out the conventions of erotic poetry. His suffering lover occludes his violent actions by insisting that love is a mutual injury, and thus he is a victim too. Since it contains conventional apologies for ravishment, and provocations to touch, the blazon may also be considered a precursor to violent sex. Finally, Sidney rescues his knights, unpersuasively, with a marvelous and “strange conceit” that replaces the demands of justice with the demands of romance as a genre.

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