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.
: 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
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
: 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
: 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
: 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.
If 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.
. Ed. Stephen Booth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977)