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"Watch my brains a minute, and see them whirl around."
put down your binary thinking, and nobody gets hurt 
22nd-Apr-2006 02:45 pm
for blog against heteronormativity day

That was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.
      --Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta

That was another wench, and besides, the country's dead.

truepenny: The hardest thing about studying history, whether for business or pleasure or both, is wrenching yourself out of the mindset you were raised with, giving back the givens your life is built upon. Whether we agree with Freud or not, we are all his children. Americans, by and large, are also Cotton Mather's children. (Sigmund Freud and Cotton Mather--now there's a match made in hell.) We are simultaneously obsessed with sex and ashamed of it, convinced it is central to our identities and determined not to dwell on it.

The men and women of Elizabeth and James's times would be puzzled, and possibly amused, by our hand-wringing and navel-gazing. Sex was a defining characteristic, in a highly patriarchal society, but sexuality was not.

Heterosexual and homosexual, gay and straight--these are not distinctions that would have made sense to William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. (Who get to be our guinea pigs because they're easiest to talk about.) Claiming that either one of them was "gay" is as reductive and misleading as claiming that either one of them was "straight."

matociquala: They're words without meaning in this context, aren't they?

In period, one has a vocabulary to talk about same-sex relationships, and opposite-sex relationships (isn't "opposite sex" a misleading term?) but one doesn't have a vocabulary with which to define one's self by one's love affairs. I mean, one might be a bugger or a catamite or a Ganymede or whatever, but it's not the identity that being gay or straight or bisexual is. It doesn't come with the cultural baggage.

truepenny: A catamite, or a Ganymede, is also a social position. You're not being identified as a man who loves other men; you're being identified, quite specifically, as a man who is kept by another man.

matociquala: Yes. And who will eventually grow up and either have catamites of his own, or a wife, or both. Hey nonny nonny.

Which is why the "Christopher Marlowe, Gay Atheist Spy" thing makes me wince a little. Because atheist doesn't mean what we think it means, in this context, and "gay" is just a null concept. You can't be homonormative when there's no norm to, er, home in on.

Okay, Marlowe's very interested in talking about same-sex desire. Both humorously (Leander, so not interested in boys; Boys? very interested in Leander!) and in terms of its potential for tragedy (Edward II). He's interested in sex-as-transgression in general, frankly. From Dido, to Leander and Hero, to Corinna, to adultery, to sex with succubi... if it's a kink, he'll talk about it. (The bit in Hero and Leander where the two blundering virgins can't quite manage to figure out what they're supposed to do to actually have sex is really hysterical. One is left with with the impression that they do manage just about everything short of PIV, however, through the happy offices of trial and error. It's almost postmodern, really--the awkward sex with the blushing amorous lovers fumbling in the dark is not the stuff of romance.)

Shakespeare talks somewhat about same-sex desire, but it's almost always in the context of genderfuck. Women dressed as men, and men who appear to be women. The fact of the matter is that very few of his characters who think they're in love with a member of their own sex seem disturbed by this--and Rosalind isn't too put off with her prospective lover's willingness to woo her as a boy.

truepenny: She's not put off at all. It is, after all, her idea.

matociquala: Meanwhile, he also shows some very close, adoring female friendships. Whether there's implied sexuality in Hermia and Helena's friendship is kind of an open question, I think.

You know, it just occured to me. Love has absolutely nothing to do with the gender of the beloved, in Shakespeare. He just doesn't care. Marriage and social contracts and filial duty and inheritance and hierarchy, things of that nature, they are affected by the sex of the participants. But love and desire... the sex of the beloved is as meaningless to him as anything could possibly be. He's more concerned with freaking hair color.

truepenny: And if it weren't for the fact that his comedies end in marriage, you kind of wonder if he'd bother to resolve the genderfuck. Because that's the problem: Orsino can't marry Cesario, because he's a boy. But Olivia can't marry Cesario either, because he's really a girl. That's why you need Sebastian to be a place holder for Cesario, so that Viola can resurrect her female self. Because otherwise you can't get the marriages to work right. And the way that poor Antonio is left standing alone flags that. It's not that his love is less real (it could hardly be less real than Olivia's "love" for Sebastian, after all); it's that he doesn't fit in the legal/social context of marriage. As we said in an earlier post, Shakespeare's conservative. He's willing to point out the flaws in the system, to subvert the system--but he's not willing to tear the whole thing down. He's not willing to have Sebastian say, "Actually, thanks so much, but girls don't do it for me," and walk off hand in hand with Antonio.

matociquala: In my happy ending, they have a double commitment ceremony with Olivia and Viola.

Yeah, poor Antonio is really the Cheese in that play. And Orsino needs to be hit by a plot truck.

It may not even be Shakespeare himself that demands the conservative resolution, so much as his audience. I've also always felt that the speech at the end of Shrew feels a bit tacked on, a sort of "If these shadows have offended" chickening out, a pat on the head for Master Tilney. No, really, we are not subversive! See, we put the playthings back at the end.

So yes, I agree--I think if he hadn't had to deliver a tidy ending, Twelfth Night might have ended rather differently.

But then again, I'm not convinced that Marlowe was going to drown Leander, left to his own devices. Or, if he did, I think it was going to be for refusing to sleep with Neptune, rather than as divine punishment for seducing a nun.

truepenny: Divine punishment for seducing a nun is nonsense in Marlowe's world. That's pure Chapman, and stupid with it.

And the reimposition of social norms on Marlovian anarchy. It's still anachronisitic to call it heteronormativity, but if there is an Elizabethan heteronormative gesture, Chapman's ending to Hero and Leander qualifies.

matociquala: Yes. A social-normative gesture, anyway.

truepenny: I think it's also important to point out that genderfuck was not merely the property of the stage. Elizabeth used it all the time, playing off her femininity against her kingship.

matociquala: The bit in The Revengers Tragedy that refers to a woman who nobody gets into being just like a man. Elizabeth's virginity equals her masculinity. She has the heart and belly of a King; nobody can fuck her.

truepenny And that's why her virginity is so important a part of her public persona. (Since whether she died a physical virgin is, well, doubtful at best.)

And genderfuck was enough of a concern that there are pamphlets surviving that complain about the blurring of the lines between women and men: Hic Mulier (This [masculine] Woman) and Haec Vir (This [feminine] Man) are the two most famous.1 Philip Sidney's Arcadia features a man who cross-dresses as a woman so completely that the narrative refers to him as "her" when he/she is in feminine clothes (which is for most of the romance--Old or New, take your pick). Sonnet 202 is very much about the instability of gender identity; as with Antonio, the speaker's love for the fair young man is not affected, but there is no social register in which that love fits.

Sexual/romantic relationships between a man and a woman are still more acceptable than sexual/romantic relationships between two men or two women.

matociquala: Yes. Because while Shakespeare doesn't care who his characters fall in love with, society does. And society demands they fill their accepted hierarchical roles, rather than haring off on their own. So, if at the end of a comedy, things are set "right" (the hierarchy is reaffirmed) then that all has to get swept under the rug a bit.

Marlowe, interestingly, does care who his characters fall in love with. He talks about the implications of same-sex desire and how it differs from opposite-sex desire, and how adultery differs from other kinds of transgressive sex. He's less convinced that cheating on your husband is a capital-s SIN than Shakespeare in, for one thing. (I wonder if that's the opinion of an unmarried man with a violent father and a full crop of sisters, as opposed to someone who married young and was one of several brothers and the father of daughters, actually.)

And, yanno, seducing pretty nuns. Who wouldn't??

truepenny: Well, and it pleases his irreligious streak.

Marlowe's ethics are much more situational than Shakespeare's, I think. Right and wrong depend on who you are and where you are and who you're in love with. Whereas in Shakespeare, right and wrong are more absolute. You can get caught between them as Hamlet does--and a lot of times his tragedies are about proving two wrongs don't make a right--but there is right and there is wrong and you can tell the difference.

But love isn't wrong. Even when it's impossible.

1If you're interested, both these pamphlets and several others about the place of women in Elizabethan society (which is far more complicated than it's often portrayed as) are reprinted in Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640, edited by Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).

2Sonnet 20
A womans face with natures owne hand painted,
Haste thou the Master Mistris of my passion,
A womans gentle hart but not acquainted
With shifting change as is false womens fashion,
An eye more bright than theirs, lesse false in rowling:
Gilding the object where-vpon it gazeth,
A man in hew all Hews in his controwling,
Which steales mens eyes and womens soules amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a dotinge,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
    But since she prickt thee out for womens pleasure,
    Mine be thy loue and thy loues vse their treasure.
(Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. Stephen Booth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977)
22nd-Apr-2006 08:34 pm (UTC)
So really, I guess what we're saying, is that in terms of enforcing gender roles, at the end of it, Shakespeare's right there with the chair and the whip.
22nd-Apr-2006 08:36 pm (UTC)
Um, yeah. Much as I hate to say it. In the end, you'd better put your dress back on.
22nd-Apr-2006 08:38 pm (UTC)
Something I think Marlowe is, overall, opposed to. Er, not-so-metaphorically speaking.
22nd-Apr-2006 08:46 pm (UTC)
But Viola doesn't put her dress back on. Unless you're watching Trevor Nunn's film. I mean, they say she's going to, but they're apparently going to have to jump through hoops to get the damn thing.

Rosalind does, though, which is interesting -- perhaps because she's more comfortable being a boy, who knows.

(The whole thing is interesting too in light of theatrical transvestism -- the character goes back to the socially-approved position, but the actor returns to the highly problematized state of being a cross-dressed boy. Hrm.)
22nd-Apr-2006 08:51 pm (UTC)
Also, in defense of Gay Atheist Spy, I'm not sure silliness should be held up to strict scholarly standards. ;) (I do know its originator to be aware of the complications of how sexuality was perceived -- or not perceived -- in the Renaissance.)
22nd-Apr-2006 08:53 pm (UTC)
*g* I know. I know. And it shouldn't be.

It just totally gives me a wiggins.

Shakespeare in Love gives me a wiggins too. And yet, R&GaD does not.
22nd-Apr-2006 08:55 pm (UTC)
R&GAD isn't historical. Only textual.

I think it makes a difference.
22nd-Apr-2006 08:59 pm (UTC)
Shakespeare in Love doesn't bother me either, since so much of it is really a sendup of the romantic fantasy of Shakespeare. I think, anyway. It is of course entirely possible that I am a) a bad Shakespearean* b) heterosexist c) both.

*But I still totally disagree with you about Tillyard.
23rd-Apr-2006 06:31 am (UTC)
And you just know we'd all watch it if we could ever get it on TV.
22nd-Apr-2006 09:18 pm (UTC)
Long ago, I wrote a thesis about the leftover characters in Shakespeare's problem plays. I had never heard the term "genderfuck." But you make me think of that other Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice, whose situation is a pretty good parallel -- he can't walk off hand in hand with Basanio, no matter what else happens. I think of the Prince in Much Ado About Nothing, who in his actions seems more enamoured of Claudio than of Beatrice. I think of Horatio, who is left out of the general slaughter of the end of Hamlet, despite a specifically-stated desire to partake of it. He can't walk off hand-in-hand with Hamlet, not even into oblivion. I don't think this works so well with the rest of them -- Lucio in Measure for Measure, the only one unforgiven, for example. But those four, wow.

22nd-Apr-2006 09:42 pm (UTC)
Hermia and Helena can't set up shop as a couple of old spinsters with a lilac bush and Too Many Cats, either.

And somewhere, I have a spectacularly failed trunk story about just how screwed up everything that happens to Titania and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream is.
22nd-Apr-2006 10:05 pm (UTC)
Oh, yeah, Titania and Hippolyta ought to get together and trash the entire universe they're stuck in, no doubt about it.

I was restricting myself to characters left out of the endings that Shakespeare had arranged, but of course, as you demonstrate, if one just looks at the circumstances he seems willing to accept, there are a lot more people who aren't really where one might wish to see them.

(Deleted comment)
22nd-Apr-2006 09:49 pm (UTC)
I always find it very interesting that Malvolio and Antonio are both treated very cruelly in Twelfth Night--Malvolio (which I just mistyped Malvolia and now my brain hurts) by the characters in the play, and Antonio by the play itself. Viola's denial of him rips his heart out, and yet it isn't her fault.
22nd-Apr-2006 10:09 pm (UTC)
It's a tempting silliness. I once tried it more seriously (insofar as ohmigoshihaveapaperdueinthree hours can be called serious) with Claudio, Claudio, and Claudius.

Shylock and Malvolio are a very interesting pair, in terms of what they do and how Shakespeare deals with it. I always wobble between thinking they got away from him and that he knew exactly what he was doing and meant to make people uncomfortable without giving them an excuse to throw tomatoes. Or something.

I've seen a Twelfth Night where Orsino obviously has a small harem of lovely boys, whose noses are all put out of joint when Cesario shows up and smites him with Cupid's arrow, but I would love to have seen Sebastian and Antonio in bed. The Orsino so presented was not any lovelier than any other I've seen. He is so evil to Olivia and so otherwise boring that I always have trouble with the play.

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