Does everyone agree on a definition? And does that definition hold when considering literary production in other times and places? Sex before Sex makes clear that we cannot simply transfer our contemporary notions of what constitutes a sex act into the past and expect them to be true for the people who were then reading literature and watching plays.
Through incisive interpretations of a wide range of literary texts, including Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors, Paradise Lost , the figure of Lucretia, and pornographic poetry, this collection queries what might constitute sex in the absence of a widely accepted definition and how a historicized concept of sex affects the kinds of arguments that can be made about early modern sexualities.
Luxon, Dartmouth College; Nicholas F. James M. Bromley is assistant professor of English at Miami University. He is the author of Intimacy and Sexuality in the Age of Shakespeare. Will Stockton is associate professor of English at Clemson University.
Marriage in the Renaissance and Shakespeare's As You Like It
Valerie Traub is the Frederick G. Sex before Sex engages questions about method and the future of queer studies. Reflective hyper-awareness of the most productive practices of critical methodologies is what makes Sex before Sex an engaging and provocative read. Orthodox Shakespeare scholars are just as hesitant. Since then, scholars such as Alan Bray, Bruce R. Smith, and Charles Summers have been providing us with extensive and definitive research into early modern views on sexuality. The term homosexual did not exist until a distinct homosexual subculture developed in the late nineteenth century Smith Desire 11— This of course does not mean that homoerotic feelings and behavior did not exist until the nineteenth century.
Evidence of homosexual desires and behavior are to be found in every culture on earth and at every time and place in history——most obviously among our cultural ancestors, the ancient Greeks, for whom it was a prominent cultural feature. But even in cultures where it was not officially accepted, it has often been tolerated as a secondary form of human sexuality.
In the sixteenth century, the more tolerant attitudes towards all forms of sexual behavior that had characterized pagan and medieval Catholic cultures were undergoing a process of reversal by the rigid moral standards of the Protestant Reformation. The closest that early modern English comes to a term for homosexuality is sodomy. But to the Elizabethans, sodomy was solely an act; it was not a lifestyle. In other words, if a man committed an act of sodomy, what he did was called buggering and the participants were not considered to be anything other than ordinary men who had committed the crime of buggery.
The concept of being a homosexual, that is, of homosexuality as a permanent condition, did not yet exist DiGangi Drama 4. Henry VIII, in his efforts to seize wealth and power from the Church, created the first anti-sodomy law as part of a whole panoply of legislation attacking the Roman Catholic Church and passed by the Reformation Parliament of ———a law revoked under his daughter, the Catholic Mary Tudor.
Course: Shakespeare and Identity – The Rosenbach
Her Protestant sister, Queen Elizabeth, made sodomy a felony again under a statute passed by Parliament in —, this time punishable by death Crompton — The concept of homosexual intercourse between women did not yet exist. For these and other reasons, most literary works involving same-sex attraction were not openly published. Could this have something to do with the fact that works by Shakespeare have such an uneven publishing history, with roughly a half remaining unpublished until the First Folio in ?
And, we might add, a few female friendships as well. In spite of the anti-sodomy laws, the English theater in the sixteenth century had a strong cross-dressing tradition and was an especially important arena for the expression of various lewd and erotic desires Thompson 7. The theater was the target of attacks by Puritans like that of Phillip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses , who derided.
Then, these goodly pageants being done, every mate sorts to his mate, every one brings another homeward of their way very friendly, and in their secret conclaves covertly they play the sodomites or worse. And these be the fruits of plays and interludes for the most part. Smith Desire Homoeroticism on the English stage was inescapable, because, for a variety of reasons, plays in England were performed solely by the boy companies or by youths and men in the adult companies.
Indeed, seductive boy actors had the reputation of sexually arousing men Greenblatt These were referred to in sermons and Puritan pamphlets as ganymedes , minions , catamites , or ingles , Elizabethan slang terms for youths used for sexual purposes. Shall I have my son a stager now, an ingle for players? Male servants and pages also had the reputation of being used for sexual purposes.
This charge is repeated in by Michael Drayton in his The Moone-Calfe , where the theaters are denounced as one of the haunts of the sodomite Bray 54— Puritans were particularly offended by boy actors dressed up as women. After evaluating the sexual themes and context of the theaters, present-day writer Stephen Orgel concludes that Rainolds had a valid point 7— It was also at this time that women were finally allowed to act at the theaters.
However, once women were allowed on the stage, they, like the boys before them, were scorned in the popular mind as little more than whores. Thus Shakespeare cleverly took advantage of the all-male configuration of his company to give additional meaning to the phrase, double entendre.
And despite the traditional finale, wherein all issues of class and gender must be resolved in favor of social norms, this play actually ends on a note of gender confusion. If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not. And I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, or sweet breaths will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.
Above all, since As You Like It is clearly a holiday play, it is on the most obvious level a reflection of the holiday pastime known as mumming and disguising , in which cross-dressing for both men and women was a constant, and in which, for that reason, an Elizabethan audience would see no particular significance. One thing we can be certain of where Shakespeare is concerned, any ambiguities and confusions are purposeful and intended to reinforce his message.
Nor are they limited to a single interpretation, something we might already have gathered from the title—— As You Like It. Shakespeare made use of the same trope in the last act of Merry Wives of Windsor where both Dr. Caius and Slender are tricked into marrying boys. He used it again in the Induction to Taming of the Shrew , in which a page is dressed up as a woman to fool a bumpkin into thinking the boy is his wife.
Shakespeare, whoever he was, was certainly impressed by Giulio Romano. In Twelfth Night , the confusions about gender are the most complex of all. Two of his dramas also rely on female-to-male cross-dressing as a means of creating tension and dramatic excitement: Portia in Merchant of Venice and Imogen in Cymbeline.
More openly sexual than the light-hearted gender-bending of the comedies is the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida. They think my little stomach to the war And your great love to me restrains you thus.
Come, come, thou boy-queller, show thy face! Know what it is to meet Achilles angry! In Richard II Shakespeare portrays homoerotic love in a much more negative way, one that leads to the overthrow of a king. Bolingbroke implies that the male favorites have prevented the royal couple from harmoniously occupying their bed and producing an heir to the throne, while raising the specter of sodomy.
The dilemma of an older man in love with a younger one who is at the same time attracted to a woman is also explored in Twelfth Night , and also in the Sonnets. Both the Antonios of Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night portray a strong homosexual bond in the face of the impending marriage of their beloved to a woman. Unlike characters that are torn between their love for a man and a woman, neither Antonio shows any interest in a woman.
The melancholy that plagues Antonio at the beginning of the play is understood when Bassanio leaves for Belmont to marry Portia. Antonio, I am married to a wife Which is as dear to me as life itself, But life itself, my wife, and all the world Are not with me esteemed above thy life. I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all Here to this devil, to deliver you.
The sexual relationship between the two men is now over perhaps , but thanks to the trusting magnanimity of Portia, their love at least may continue. Later, when Sebastian thanks Antonio for all the efforts he has taken to rescue him, Antonio replies:. I could not stay behind you. In the last act, Antonio describes his sacrifices:.
Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna, c. Sebastian was a favorite subject of Renaissance painters, who invariably portrayed his beautiful semi-nude body bound to a column or post and stabbed with a dozen arrows, making it both a homoerotically charged object of desire and a source of solace for the rejected homosexual. Sebastian and Bassanio, who can erotically respond to both sexes, are clear examples of this recurring theme of bi-sexuality, while both Antonios, whose desires appear to be limited to males, are two of the few who are purely homosexual. The author seems to relish this sexual intrigue and the ultimate solution that preserves the open relationship.
For instance, in King Lear, the Fool nonchalantly reveals his own sexual bias as he lists what not to trust:. He will spare neither man, woman, nor child. Scenes like the following that express erotic desires in combat and death seem out of place and add nothing to the story. As with Achilles and Patroclus, it is often combat that brings out undertones of eroticism in male friendship Smith Desire In Coriolanus for example, the warrior Aufidius welcomes his archenemy in undeniably erotic terms:.
Know thou first, I loved the maid I married; never man Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here, Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart Than when I first my wedded mistress saw Bestride my threshold. In several cases, in order to maintain their friendship one friend will rather bizarrely offer to give up the woman he loves to the other.
This kind of male-to-male bonding had been expressed in English literature before Shakespeare. In this play, the bond between two friends is most clearly demonstrated at the end when Valentine graciously offers his beloved Silvia to his friend Proteus, following his attempt to rape her! Silvia is to be disposed of as if she were cattle. It is noteworthy that Sylvia has no lines in this scene. As with Bassanio and Antonio, though Valentine is marrying, he is concerned not to lose the love or the company of Proteus.
Similar feelings of generosity may be expressed in Sonnet 40 concerning a relationship that seems to be developing between the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady. Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all; What hast thou then more than thou hadst before? No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call; All mine was thine before thou hadst this more. Essentially, Shakespeare did not portray sexual identity as rigidly polarized, nor did he present homosexual and heterosexual desires as incompatible or mutually exclusive.
Shakespeare portrays almost as many different kinds of human sexual response as he has characters, thereby calling into question, whether purposely or not, sexual roles as defined by tradition. These seem to be aimed at a particular audience that found this theme appealing. Dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, this interest shows up not in the plot situation in which the aggressive goddess Venus falls in love with the adolescent Adonis, but in the perspective that the likely mostly male readers are invited to take toward that situation.
The center of erotic attention is not her body, but that of Adonis. As Bruce Smith notes:. Wooed by Venus, Adonis blushes like a maiden l. His face is hairless l. When, in desperation, Venus wrestles this paragon of beauty to the ground, the reader joins Venus in the active role of ravishing him Shakespeare Now quick desire hath caught the yielding prey, And glutton-like she feeds, yet never filleth. The fact that this poem was dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the young Earl of Southampton, who according to his biographers, seems to match the physical and psychological description of Adonis, is revealing.
Would Southampton have identified with Adonis? Is Adonis modeled on the same aloof youth of the Sonnets? Finally, probably from frustration, and seen from the perspective shared by Venus and the reader, the goring of Adonis by a wild boar is portrayed as an act of rape or seduction:. The poem focuses again on the familiar theme of two male allies set apart by a woman Smith Shakespeare 6. What he is actually saying is that there is no other dedication with such homoerotic overtones.
Many others have also noted the similarity in tone and language to the tone used in addressing the Fair Youth in the Sonnets. They have been interpreted to prove almost any scenario. Shakespeare is not a partisan of the noble savage who lives by instinct alone: rather, it is the savage in man that he fears and detests. The service that Mistress Overdone provides is fine—indeed, needed—as a safety valve, but as a model of all intimate human relations it is the primrose path to earthly perdition.
In fact, none of the major characters in the play regards sex as merely a biological or animal function and therefore of no moral concern. Of course, to regard sex only as a moral problem, as an impulse to be repressed at all costs, as Angelo does, is as deforming as to regard it as having no moral importance. His love of Juliet and his sincere promise to marry her, therefore, extenuate his conduct in his own eyes and, he hopes, in the eyes of others.
But you only offer extenuation when you believe you have done wrong, or at least behaved less than ideally, in the first place. So Claudio is not claiming that he is innocent, only that his sin of not waiting for all the formalities to be completed is not a mortal one. If Angelo had merely fined Claudio and given him a stern lecture, the drama would have ended there and then.
But though Claudio accepts his guilt, he also points out that he is the victim of the zeitgeist of leniency in Vienna. From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty. As surfeit is father to much fast, So every scope by the immoderate use, Turns to restraint. And, like everyone else in Vienna, Claudio has taken advantage of this liberty without much thought for the consequences:.
Our natures do pursue Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die. In other words, restraints upon our natural inclinations, which left to themselves do not automatically lead us to do what is good for us and often indeed lead us to evil, are not only necessary; they are the indispensable condition of civilized existence. There is a vice that most I do abhor, And most desire should meet the blow of justice, For which I would not plead, but that I must.
Outraged, she replies:. But this response shows a lack of historical understanding and imagination. Throughout most of history, chastity has been honored as an important virtue, precisely because it helps to control and civilize sexual relations. But Isabella knows that a society that places no value at all on chastity will not place much value on fidelity either: and then we are back to the free-for-all and all its attendant problems.
She fears not only for her own soul if she sins, but for that of society. But if virtues and ideals all of which are impossible to achieve perfectly are part of what makes us human, Shakespeare implies that they, too, must be proportionate. At the end of the play, Isabella abandons her chastity and marries the Duke, suggesting that there is a time and place for such restraint, but it is not over the whole course of a human life.
Carried to an extreme, chastity will cease to be a virtue and become, if not a vice, at least a stimulus to vice. If Angelo had not been so militantly chaste, he would have been far less likely to make his wicked attempt on Isabella.
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Perhaps more surprisingly, Lucio, the rake and libertine, also sees the value of chastity. I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted, By your renouncement an immortal spirit And to be talked with in sincerity, As with a saint. These are not the words of someone who thinks that sex is of no moral import. On the contrary, they are the words of someone who takes St. His own conduct, however, is a living refutation of the impossibility of imposing the Pauline view by force, as Angelo tries to do. He is not himself licentious, being a studious and cultivated man, nor does he approve of licentiousness in others.
He says to Pompey:. Fie, sirrah, a bawd, a wicked bawd! The evil that thou causest to be done, That is thy means to live. Say to thyself, From their abominable and beastly touches I drink, I eat, array myself and live. Canst thou believe thy living is a life, So stinkingly depending? This is not just rhetoric: the Duke, still disguised as a friar and acting, presumably, on religious authority, has Pompey carted off to jail. By beastliness, the Duke means sexuality without the human qualities of love and commitment: for without love, sex is merely animal—beastly in the most literal sense.