Shakespeare’s representations of female sexuality often expose male anxieties that converge with a modern understanding of evolutionary psychology. In this essay, the following is axiomatic: natural selection favours genotypes that encourage behaviours that secure replication.
Shakespeare dramatises the results of this axiom with breathtaking precision. A surreptitious example is his preoccupation with mortality. In Sonnet 1, the solution to death is gene transmission (or reproduction): ‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’ (1.1). In Sonnet 18, it is meme transmission through durable verse: ‘When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st’ (18.12), which has a double meaning: lines of verse and genetic lineage, both of which involve transcending death and its inexorable partner, time. Time’s relentless march is audible in Sonnet 12’s staccato, tick-tock rhythm: ‘When I do count the clock that tells the time’ (12.1); gene transmission usurps death in the final lines: 'And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence/Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence' (12.13-14). In an example from his dramatic works, the childless, dying Hamlet implores Horatio to 'Tell my story': (5.2.291), because, like the speaker in Sonnet 18, he understands that reputation is a kind of immortality. However, the transmission of genes through sex is nature’s primary continuum and it is the primary basis of evolutionary explanations for human (and other animal) behaviours.
In a world without DNA tests cuckold paranoia is ‘selectively’ justified and reputation - particularly female reputation - is vital. To our egalitarian sensibilities this sounds controversial, but think about it from a cold, genetic point of view: allocating precious resources to the care of false offspring is an existential threat. Shakespeare often dramatises this anxiety in his representations of fatherhood. Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the eponymous Cymbeline, for instance, have a fifty percent genetic stake in their respective offspring. They also have, roughly, a twenty-five percent genetic stake in their offspring’s offspring and so on and so forth. This fact goes some way towards explaining their plot-propelling anxieties and their stock role as blocking agents to the young lovers at the centres of their respective plays. Consider Cymbeline’s disapproval of Posthumus: ‘Thou’rt poison to my blood’ (1.1.129), which has an overtly genetic texture. It is no surprise that Shakespeare, a peerless observer of ‘folk psychology’ (Wilkinson, 1999, p.82), dramatises male emotions ranging from idolatry and lust, to fear and misogyny. Nor is it surprising that he often exposes a patriarchal system that seeks to control the sexual conduct of women. Comparing and contrasting these representations in Hamlet, Cymbeline and selected sonnets in the light of Darwinian anthropology is primarily a cultural materialist approach. However, it also nods to Marxist literary theory, but instead of examining the material circumstances that result from the mode of production and the social struggle between classes, this essay will examine the social circumstances that result from the mode of reproduction and the social struggle between the sexes.
In The Descent of Man, Darwin speculates that all positive social feelings originate ... in the bonding between mothers and infants (1:80)’ (Carroll, 2010, p.245). In Act 1 of his titular play, Hamlet laments his parents' lost relationship and invokes food imagery that registers Gertrude's sensuality:
...Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on (1.143-145)
If Darwin is right, we might question the Prince’s rose-tinted remembrances. His social feelings are profoundly negative even before his dead father’s supernatural revelation. The world is ‘weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable’ (1.2.133). Unlike the narrator in Sonnet 12, who lamented annihilation, Hamlet abhors existence itself. His speech is suddenly energised as enjambment increases the pace (1.2.137-157) and emphasises Hamlet’s disgust at Gertrude’s hasty marriage. He describes the world as an ‘unweeded garden’ (1.2.135). A garden is a space in which humans impose order on nature. The image registers control, or its lack. It also invokes the axiomatic garden corrupted by Eve in the monotheistic myth. Disorder reflects Hamlet’s inner world, which recoils from his mother’s suddenly public sexuality. Directors and actors have non-textually-informed choices. Is Gertrude demure? Or does she respond to Claudius with ill-concealed lust? How do silent courtiers react? Hamlet’s dialogue is the dominant textual representation. He compares Gertrude’s behaviour unfavourably with an animal’s: ‘a beast that wants discourse of reason/Would have mourned longer’ (1.2.150-151). The human capacity for ‘godlike’ reason – a trait that separates us from other animals – is a central theme in Hamlet (2.2.296). But there is also the sense that Gertrude (in Hamlet’s view) offends human nature; that she deviates from expected social norms. Images of ‘incestuous sheets’ and ‘great dexterity’ vividly emphasise the sense of unnatural lust. Hamlet’s language is shaped to communicate moral outrage.
Speculations on the speed of Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius include the possibility of their long-running affair (Bloom, 2003, p.58-59). However, the text is opaque, and as L.C. Knights (1906-1997) warns, assumptions beyond the text can be misleading (Brown and Johnson, 2000a, p.115-129). An evolutionary interpretation is safer because its explanatory power does not rely on meta-textual events. The Royal marriage is swift. Even Horatio agrees (1.2.178). But it is not incest in the consanguineous sense. There are good Darwinian reasons for Gertrude’s behaviour. The female genotype tends to encourage securing high status males (Wright, 1996, p.60). In the ancestral environment, this reproductive strategy was selectively favoured because it gave offspring the best chance of survival. Gertrude’s swift action serves a real evolutionary function, particularly as Claudius and Hamlet share twenty-five percent of their genes, which should encourage a quasi-paternal tendency: ‘But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son’ (1.2.64). The fast marriage insures continuity and fosters stability. This is after all a marriage of state. It seems difficult to explain Hamlet’s profound disgust. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Gertrude is not enough (Brown and Johnson, 2000a, p.183-184).
Since Earnest Jones (1879-1958), Hamlet’s reaction to his mother’s sexuality has seemed complex. Film directors often register Oedipal theory, particularly in the closet scene. In Olivier (1948), Branagh (1996), and Doran (2009), for instance, a bed dominates the mise-en-scène and becomes a stage and symbol for Hamlet and Gertrude’s most intimate interaction. The text probably supports this ‘visual poetry’ (Hindle, et al, 2009, p.34), but not necessarily in an Oedipal sense. There are words that a grimly committed Freudian might pounce on – ‘penetrable’ or ‘tongue’ perhaps (3.4.35, 38) – and Hamlet’s denunciation of his mother is excruciating to say the least. The garden metaphor reappears: ‘do not spread the compost o’er the weeds/To make them ranker’ (3.4.142-143). The language of corruption is repeatedly set against its antitheses: ‘virtue’, ‘grace’, ‘modesty’ (3.4.40, 41, 74, 143, 145, 151). Freud was onto something. And Jones was right: Hamlet’s emotional state clearly relates to his mother’s sexuality. But there is no evidence that the Oedipus complex is a universal or even a common phenomenon (except perhaps as a meme). We know that evolution selects against incest. It is therefore relatively rare in nature. Hamlet’s primary concern is keeping his mother from Claudius’s bed not guiding her into his own: ‘Refrain tonight’ (3.4.152). The half-line indicates a pause that stifles Hamlet’s tirade and emphasises his earnest. In a striking reversal of the parent-child relationship, Gertrude asks her son how she should behave: ‘What shall I do?’ (3.4.164). This is key. Hamlet assumes the patriarchal role. His response is monosyllabic and cold; a controlled texture that contrasts with his earlier heat. He is seeking to control his mother’s sexuality: ‘Not this by no means that I bid you do’ (3.4.165). The negative sense allows him to list Gertrude’s transgressions. In the next line, the word ‘bloat’ creates a subtle but audible vomiting sound. It alliterates with ‘bed’ and the sickness connection is clear. According to Jacqueline Jones, Hamlet enacts a ‘negative representation of femininity’ (Brown and Johnson, 2000a, p.191). This analysis seems right, but incomplete and too simplistic. Surely Hamlet, in part, enacts early modern male anxieties about female sexuality. The Prince’s language is consistent with the Darwinian prediction that males (selectively inclined to cuckold paranoia) will seek to control the sexual behaviour of women. This does not reinforce an Oedipal explanation for Hamlet. A moth spiralling towards candle flame is not committing suicide. It is following a selective impulse to navigate towards sunlight (Dawkins, 2007, p.201). Similarly, Hamlet’s control impulse is a selective response to overt female sexuality.
Cymbeline’s outrage is expressed in similar terms to Hamlet’s: ‘basest thing’, ‘poison’, ‘disloyal’, ‘past grace’ (1.1.126, 129, 132, 137). But, unlike Gertrude, Innogen linguistically holds her own. She picks up her father’s short lines:
Cymbeline: Thou took’st a beggar, wouldst have made my throne
A seat for baseness.
Innogen: No, I rather added
A lustre to it. (1.1.142-143)
Innogen’s language implies a wilful performance. She completes Cymbeline’s lines and usurps their energy. She considers herself a better judge of husband. Her choice contrasts with Gertrude’s though, because Posthumus is socially inferior. According to Hamlet, Claudius is genetically inferior, ‘a mildewed ear’ (3.4.63). But the Prince's descriptions of his father are hyperbolic: he is ‘Hyperion’; he ‘might not beteem the winds of heaven/Visit [Gertrude’s] face too roughly’ (1.2.141-142). This rhetoric registers implausibility. But the fact that Hamlet thinks in comparative terms is striking. Claudius’s high status and genetic relationship with her son explains why Gertrude chose to marry him. Innogen’s decision is different but also seems selectively justified. Importantly, men praise Posthumus. His reputation is superior:
I do not think
So fair an outward and such stuff within
Endows a man but he. (1.1.22-24)
Cloten, on the other hand, is a ‘thing/Too bad for bad report’ (1.1.16-17). Even his name implies ‘clot’: a mass or dolt; even, perhaps, coagulated blood, a definition that somehow hints at genetic deficiency. Lowborn Posthumus beats him physically: ‘how long a fool you [Cloten] were upon the ground’ (1.3.20-21). Cloten is ignorant of this aside. His ridicule registers the cuckold, whereby horns were visible to everyone except the victim. On the other hand, Innogen believes that Cloten’s headless corpse is Posthumus (4.2.297-334). We might therefore assume their physical similarity. But language ultimately defines Shakespeare’s characters, and the dramatic language renders Cloten inferior in terms of reputation. Innogen’s judgement is right; Cymbeline is wrong. Yet Innogen’s behaviour subverts the social order that Cymbeline – and by extension society – demands. There is a tension between their reproductive strategies:
Innogen: Would I were
A neather’s daughter, and my Leonatus
Our neighbour shepherd’s son.
Cymbeline: Thou foolish thing. (1.1.148-151)
The dramatic representation of Innogen’s position clearly demands sympathy. But her behaviour probably unsettled contemporary spectators. Female sexual autonomy exposes Cymbeline’s impotence and Cloten’s inferiority. It threatens the notion of patriarchy. (This might have registered social subversion, but Cymbeline is under the influence of his queen (2.2.55). He is effeminate. His poor judgement is apparently the consequence of a scheming, uncontrolled woman, not a flawed system.) The text shows that sexual desire informs Innogen’s choice. Her use of the word ‘lustre’ (1.1.143) has the sense of vitality, but there is its obvious derivative – ‘lust’. Innogen compares her suitors in animalistic terms: ‘I chose an eagle/And did avoid a puttock’ (1.1.140-141). This recalls the animal imagery in Hamlet. Innogen’s intention is obviously different, but her language is telling. To some extent, at a base or genetic level, she chose Posthumus because he is a ‘fitter’ animal. A superior male triggered the chemical reaction we call desire and Innogen acted upon it. She therefore demonstrates behaviour that is autonomous, because she defied the social imperatives of duty and obedience, and heteronomous, because she acted upon her genetic impulse. This is the same uncontrolled nature, perhaps, that Hamlet resents in Gertrude.
There is a tension in both plays between how potential mates are valued. Innogen marries down; Hamlet’s Ophelia might have married up. In Branagh’s 1996 film, Hamlet and Ophelia are physical lovers. There seems limited textual evidence to support this. Laertes:
For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward not permanent… (1.3.5-8)
‘[B]lood’ and ‘primy nature’ register sensuality, perhaps physicality. Some kind of post-coital disgust exacerbated by Gertrude’s behaviour might explain Hamlet’s mistreatment of Ophelia later in the play. But unlike Innogen, Ophelia obeys her blocking father. If contemporary attitudes favoured obedience, she is surely beyond reproach, an anti-Innogen perhaps. Besides, chaste Ophelia contrasts with sensual Gertrude so her virtue seems dramatically important. Polonius evokes flame and burning as metaphors for sexual passion (1.3.116, 117, 120). Antithetical religious terms describe Hamlet’s advances: ‘unholy suits’, ‘sanctified and pious bawds’ (1.3.129, 130). Passion threatens Ophelia’s virtue, and burning evokes the eternal punishment for sinners. By warning against Hamlet’s potential 'love and then leave them' behaviour (1.4.127-128), Polonius exposes a standard male reproductive strategy (Dawkins, 1976, p.162-165). He is concerned with maintaining control over his genetic investment: ‘Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers,/Not of the dye which their investments show’. Studies by Trivers show that chastity is the correct reproductive strategy for females wishing to ‘marry up’ the social ladder (Wright, 1996, p.82). By provoking Ophelia’s sense of religious duty, Polonius activates the patriarchal system that exists to regulate her sexuality. Her deviation reduces the chances of social advancement and stains his reputation: ‘you’ll tender me a fool’ (1.4.109). He repeatedly puns on Ophelia’s ‘tender’: she means ‘offers’ (1.4.109), but he means ‘value’ (1.4.107). According to Laertes, Ophelia is ‘unvalued’ (or common) compared to Hamlet (1.3.10-19). Gertrude contradicts him: ‘I hoped thou [Ophelia] shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife’ (5.1.227), but this ‘comedic’ outcome is not possible in Hamlet because tragedies end with death. (Cymbeline is a tragicomedy and ends with reconciliation – albeit at a price.) Ophelia is chattel. This is less explicit in Cymbeline’s father/daughter exchange. Innogen makes the clearest reference herself: Posthumus is ‘A man worth any woman, over-buys me/Almost the sum he pays’ (1.1.147-148). However, like Cloten, Posthumus discovers that female sexuality affects the male’s value too.
Posthumus’s vulnerability to female sexuality is most obvious when Giacomo convinces him of Innogen’s infidelity. But it also registers in the wager scene. He professes himself Innogen’s ‘adorer’ (1.4.58); a seemingly uncontroversial assertion of spousal devotion. However, Giacomo’s response is subtle: ‘a kind of hand-in-hand comparison’ (1.4.60-61), or a comparison claiming equality. In our supposedly egalitarian Age, this simply registers the proscribed balance of power in a relationship. But the notion of sex equality negates the point of patriarchy. According to the biblical Paul, ‘the man is the head of a woman’ (1 Cor. 11:3). Posthumus has married up. Innogen has already demonstrated sexual independence by choosing him despite her father’s wishes. While not exactly shrewish, nor is she tame. Innogen is beyond the patriarchal system. Her father could not control her. Her husband claims equality not headship. He takes the bet because his reputation is now bound to Innogen’s sexual behaviour. As Giacomo points out, ‘[Posthumus] must be weighted rather by her value than his own’ (1.4.12). The wager diminishes Innogen’s intrinsic value in favour of her sexual reputation.
Yet Innogen is autonomous not promiscuous. Her rejection of Giacomo is decisive: ‘Away, I do condemn mine ears that have/So long attended thee’ (1.6.142-143). Having used the polite ‘you’ pronoun, she now addresses him as ‘thee’ and establishes her social power. The ‘trunk’ scene dramatizes an abhorrent male strategy for usurping this power – rape. Innogen is suddenly vulnerable. She is beyond the patriarchal system and therefore beyond its protection. An earlier metaphor adds another layer of meaning: ‘My lord, I fear,/Has forgot Britain’ (1.6.113-114). Innogen represents Britain itself, and her potential violation by a foreigner implies the fate of a disordered nation. Giacomo’s language communicates the sexual danger: ‘Tarquin’, for instance, registers The Rape of Lucrece. Cymbeline’s precise date is uncertain, but, unlike the earlier Hamlet, Shakespeare might have written it for Blackfriars, the indoor theatre (Greenblatt, et al, 1997, p.2956). Giacomo creeping from a trunk on the Globe stage in daylight was probably darkly comic. But in the more intimate Blackfriars, with artificial lighting, it was probably unsettling, albeit voyeuristic and exciting.
Giacomo uses Innogen’s sexuality against her. The union of her autonomy and his slander activates Posthumus’s cuckold paranoia. His earlier confidence: ‘Your Italy contains none so accomplished a courtier to convince the honour of my mistress’ (1.4.83-84), contrasts with his anguish: ‘She hath bought the name of whore thus dearly’ (2.5.128). Prose in the former registers the base business of gambling Innogen’s sexuality. Now verse communicates Posthumus’s anguish. The line registers cost, shattered emotion, ruined reputation, and, of course, with its feminine ending, ‘dearly’, the source of woe. Repeated assonance gives an audible texture: ‘Cried ‘O!’ and mounted; found no opposition’ (2.5.17). Posthumus’s language: ‘lying’, ‘flattering’, ‘deceiving’, ‘lust and rank thoughts’ ‘revenges’ (2.5.22-24), recalls Hamlet’s first soliloquy, but the misogyny is more pernicious. Posthumus asserts that these are male vices caused by ‘the woman’s part’ (2.5.22). As Shapiro argues, Cymbeline dramatizes male anxieties about female infidelity (Brown and Johnson, 2000b, p.16). In evolutionary terms, Innogen’s dramatic trajectory registers the ‘Madonna-whore dichotomy’ (Symons, in Wright, 1994, p.72). As Polonius implies, short-term sexual relationships with as many women as possible is a standard male reproduction strategy. Therefore, promiscuous females are gratefully accepted, but the anti-cuckoldry mechanism rules them out as a long-term guarantee. A safer genetic investment is the Madonna: sexually aloof, demure, restrained. The Madonna demands more time, commitment and resources, but the pay off is less chance of cuckoldry. Innogen is not promiscuous, but her autonomy allows Giacomo to trigger Posthumus’s cuckold paranoia. In the end, to ensure the genre-defining, patriarchal reconciliation denied to the tragedy Hamlet, she must become the Madonna, the demure paragon admired by Schlegel (1772-1829) and Hazlitt (1778-1830) (Brown and Johnson, 2000b, p.7), and lamented by the suffragette-era critic, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) (ibid, p.11).
However, Shakespeare’s representation of female sexuality in the sonnets seems to complicate this Darwinian reductionism. He generally maintains the form established by Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and others (Brown and Johnson, 2000b, p.53): fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with a complex rhyme structure, comprising three quatrains and a couplet, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Sonnets articulate thoughts, explore ideas, and persuade. They usually involve an unattainable love object in the Petrarchan tradition. A married or high status woman, for instance, such as the love object in Philip Sidney’s (1554-1586) Astrophel and Stella sequence (1591). Female sexuality is often idealised and metaphorical. Wyatt, for instance, uses the device of a failed hunt (1503-42). Sonnets expressed ideas in an intellectually elite way, as the introduction to Tottel’s Micellany (1557) pompously explains: ‘by reding … learne to be more skilfull, and … purge that swinelike grossenesse …’ (Holton, et al, 2011, p.3).
But Shakespeare often subverts these conventions whilst maintaining Wyatt’s form. Sonnet 140, for instance, is generally included in the ‘dark lady’ sequence (sonnets 127-152), and its love object is all too attainable. The first quatrain establishes a complete thought:
Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press
My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain,
Lest sorrow lend me words, and words express
The manner of my pity-wanting pain. (140.1-4)
Shakespeare registers the pity-seeking convention; the rationale being that virtuous women are tender and moved to love by their admirer’s suffering. However, the acerbic texture: ‘Be wise as thou art cruel’, establishes the woman’s cruelty not her virtue. It also questions her wisdom – an odd opening for a genre of poetry that usually offers hyperbolic praise. The word ‘press’ is sibilant and ends the line with a serpentine hiss that registers danger. Its rhyme, ‘express’, ends a line which twice repeats the noun ‘words’. Words are the danger here. Threat simmers beneath the pity-seeking convention.
For the sonnet narrator, a synthetic display of love is sufficient: ‘Though not to love, yet, love, to tell me so’ (140.6). The monosyllabic tone recalls Hamlet’s ‘closet scene’ controlling texture (3.4.165), while a medical metaphor registers a tradition whereby love is a sickness:
As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,
No news but health from their physicians know; (140-7-8)
But the turn in the third quatrain subverts this convention:
For if I should despair I should grow mad,
And in my madness might speak ill of thee. (140.9-10)
The narrator reveals an underlying threat. Conventionally desire is a kind of sickness that produces poetic praise, but Shakespeare represents it as madness that can produce slander. Poetic praise and slander register Innogen’s dramatic trajectory. However, in the context of the Dark Lady sequence, the love object is possibly a prostitute. This alters the summation of female value, because chastity is not the speaker’s primary concern. The sonneteer traditionally idolises the Madonna; Shakespeare’s narrator solicits the whore. Hamlet and Cymbeline, tragedy and tragicomedy respectively, involve great personages whose sexual conduct has state-level implications. Sonnet 140 seems concerned with private individuals and offers a more pragmatic representation of female sexuality. Of course, Posthumus manages a pragmatic turn, but only after Innogen’s death:
Must murder wives much better than themselves
For wrying but a little! (5.1.3-5)
On the other hand, reputation is important in both genres – even to the sonnet’s love object, who was probably lowborn and possibly a prostitute - if not the narrator’s threat has no force. The final couplet encapsulates his intent. To paraphrase: even if you do not love me, attend to me exclusively or I will slander you. It is about control. Themes relating to female sexuality – the male control impulse, reputation and value – appear in the more personal sonnet form too.
However, pragmatism about female sexuality finds extraordinary expression in Sonnet 138.
When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties. (138.1-4)
The first quatrain immediately registers a sense of irony. The word ‘lies’ puns: telling untruths and lying down, presumably with another man or other men. Punning is a word game. And this opening creates the sense of a game. The speaker is fully aware of his love object’s lies (in both senses), but chooses to believe her. Shakespeare does not write ‘pretend to’ believe. His narrator deliberately deludes himself. Paradoxically, this is impossible. After all, he explains the true situation in the sonnet. Indeed, the word ‘truth’ in the first line is ironic, because its antithesis, ‘lies’, immediately subverts it; and yet there is a sense that the speaker is telling the truth about lying, about subtlety. Pretending to be an ‘untutor’d youth’ implies the opposite. Perhaps like Plato’s Cephalus this ‘older’ speaker can now relax.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best, (138.5-6)
However, another pun in the second quatrain, ‘vainly’, meaning conceited, but also ‘in vain’, or not yielding the desired result, reveals that the love object is also aware of the game – she is an equal player.
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress'd. (138.7-8)
The game continues with yet more puns: ‘Simply’, ‘simple’, ‘credit’. Another paradox: the speaker is simple, or foolish, and knows it, but it also registers the simple strategy (or clever subterfuge) that the uses to maintain the relationship. The overt sense of ‘credit’ is, of course, ‘believe’, but the implication is crediting or paying the love object for sex and affection. The dark lady’s sexuality is a commodity, like Ophelia’s in Hamlet. The difference is ownership. The sonnet speaker cannot control this woman’s sexuality. He must play a game and delude himself to placate his cuckold paranoia.
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter'd be. (138.13-14)
Puns in the final couplet – ‘lie’ and ‘lies’ – restate the conceit, and there is a sense of equal exchange that contrasts with Cymbeline’s resolutely patriarchal ending.
Shakespeare’s representations of female sexuality converge with the predictions of evolutionary psychology. Themes such as control, reputation and value form the basis of a patriarchal society. His drama exposes the male emotions and behaviours that reinforce it. However, reproduction in human society is not a zero-sum game. Cuckold anxiety and subjugation are not ineluctable certainties. They are tendencies that were selectively favoured in the ancestral environment. In the more personal sonnet form, pragmatism and irony temper these themes, because, as Shakespeare might have come to understand, human reason and equality can emancipate men and women from their genetic shackles.
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