In Marlowe’s Edward II, the royal favourite Gaveston plans delicious entertainments which ‘may draw the pliant king which way I please’. He will introduce musicians to the court, ‘wanton poets’, Italian masques by night, and ‘pleasing shows’. Edward, walking abroad, is to encounter pages dressed as ‘sylvan nymphs’, and
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive tree,
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring.
The ambiguity of those concealed ‘parts’ is striking. The ‘lovely boy’ in the water is pretending to be the goddess Diana, surprised when wearing next to nothing by the hapless Actaeon. The genitals so teasingly obscured purport to be female. But the performer is male. The sexual equipment behind the olive leaves – and the fictional pretence – is not that of Diana, and the men who would ‘delight to see’ it (including, as Gaveston is well aware, King Edward himself) are not lovers of women. Marlowe was sailing characteristically close to the wind in this passage, and indeed in Edward II as a whole. Even allowing, as Alan Bray scrupulously does in Homosexuality in Renaissance England, for an element of exaggeration and possible misrepresentation in the famous ‘Baines note’, in which the dramatist is reported as saying that Christ enjoyed carnal relations with John, the beloved disciple, and that all men who did not love tobacco and boys were fools, Marlowe’s own bias seems unusually clear.
Sexual relations between man and man (or man and beast) became a capital offence in England in 1533. Demoted briefly to the status of a minor crime during the reign of Mary, as part of a general reaction against the severity of much Henrician legislation, sodomy was reinstated as a felony under Elizabeth in 1563, allegedly in response to an increase of the practice. Elizabethan censorship, especially of stage plays, was strict. It is astonishing in retrospect that Marlowe should have been able to present the erotic feelings of one man for another so openly and sympathetically in his work – particularly when compared with the fulminations or evasiveness of other contemporary writers.
Although the Shakespeare of the Sonnets was also drawn to a ‘lovely boy’, he went out of his way, early in the sequence, to proclaim indifference – indeed, a degree of resentment – with regard to his friend’s male parts. The ‘master mistress’ of the poet’s passion should, according to Sonnet 20, have been born a woman. Unfortunately, great creating Nature fell in love with such perfect beauty and, being heterosexual herself,
by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
Shakespeare’s better angel, as a result, is ‘prick’d ... out for women’s pleasure’, including, as it develops, that of the poet’s own girlfriend. Not every reader of the Sonnets will feel inclined to believe that this disclaimer dismisses the issue, and that Dr Rowse is right to categorise Shakespeare as a firm and undeviating ‘hetero’. The precise nature of the love which the author of Sonnets 1-126 feels for the young man is hard for us to pin down, but then it may well have been puzzlingly undefinable for Shakespeare himself. So, after all, is Antonio’s obsession with Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, or the ‘witchcraft’ that enslaves another Antonio, in Twelfth Night, to the young Sebastian. Uncertainty over the sexual ‘purity’ of certain male relationships is not peculiar to Shakespeare’s work. When Truewit, in Jonson’s Epicoene, congratulates his friend Clerimont on ‘his mistress abroad and his ingle [i.e. catamite] at home’, is it or is it not merely a joke?
Arguably, drama constituted something of a special case. (It was sometimes alleged that boy players were victimised sexually, like the wretched Alfred in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, by adult members of the company, or by their aristocratic patrons.) And yet a similarly blurred and cautious attitude towards homosexuality as something which might be accepted rather than execrated or punished can be found in 16th and 17th-century writers who never concerned themselves with the stage. E.K., for instance, becomes almost comically nervous when trying to explain Hobbinol’s unrequited love for Colin Clout in the January eclogue of Spenser’s The Shepherd’s Calendar. Pederasty, when divorced from the body, was ‘much to be praeferred before gynerastice’ (the Spenser of The Faerie Queene would not have agreed), ‘but yet let no man thinke, that herein I stand with Lucian or hys develish disciple Unico Aretino, in defence of execrable and horrible sinnes of forbidden – unlawful fleshlinesse ... ’ Richard Barnfield, after allowing a lovesick Arcadian to pour out his passion for ‘Ganymede’ in The Affectionate Shepherd, took refuge somewhat disingenuously in the explanation that the poem was ‘nothing else but an imitation of Vergil in the second Eclogue, of Alexis’. Marlowe’s lucid and un-scandalised acknowledgment of exactly what kind of sexuality he is dealing with in Edward’s love for Gaveston, or Neptune’s pursuit of the naked Leander, comes to look very much like an exception in the period rather than the rule.
Alan Bray’s Homosexuality in Renaissance England is a social rather than a literary study. Sensitively aware of the unreliability of literary evidence as a guide to actual behaviour, especially in a period much given to Classical imitation, he calls upon it sparingly. But this taut, fine, consistently intelligent book possesses as one of its several virtues an ability to illuminate a good deal of the poetry and drama of the period in the course of its investigation of religious, legal and moral attitudes. Bray begins by trying to understand how homosexuality fitted into the mental universe of the 16th and 17th centuries, approaching the past as nearly as possible in its own terms. He concludes that, until the 18th century, sodomy was officially regarded, not as something towards which certain individuals might have a disposition, but as a terrible crime to which any man might be susceptible, wrapped up in the same awful package as incest and adultery, not to mention heresy and treason. Although often associated with sorcery – the product of a witch’s union with an incubus was likely to be a sodomite – and its practitioners darkly linked with werewolves and basilisks, homosexuality was not really under the patronage of the Devil, for the interesting reason that it was an aberration so horrendous as to fall entirely outside the created order. Even Satan found it dismaying, while God was capable of destroying an entire society, as he had the Biblical cities of the plain, merely because of a few homosexuals within it.
If the case against homosexuality in the Renaissance was so cataclysmically black, and the penalties so dire, how did it manage to flourish as it did, quietly but often openly, among all social classes, and not just in the wicked metropolis of London but in rural communities and small towns? This is the question with which Bray is chiefly concerned. The answers he suggests are worth consideration. The evidence he has assembled from assize records and other sources indicates that although the death sentence was occasionally imposed (especially in times of social upheaval or disaster, when God seemed to require immediate placation), most men who committed homosexual acts managed to do so without being regarded as werewolves either by their neighbours or by themselves. Usually, they were not even brought to trial. Leniency was especially marked when the relationship was contained within an established, often patriarchal institution. Bray singles out the educational system, the household (master/servant relations, as well as offences involving young labourers or apprentices seeking an outlet among themselves for sexual energies which would have to wait for many years before finding a socially-sanctioned release in marriage) and, less convincingly, homosexual prostitution. The important factor, Bray argues, is that there was ‘little or no social pressure for someone to define for himself what his sexuality was. And the way homosexuality was conceived of and understood did not encourage him to make that connection had he wished to, which was unlikely.’ Until the 18th century, when the establishment of the so-called ‘molly houses’ gave rise to a conscious homosexual subculture with its own distinctive way of dressing and behaving – and also to persecution on a scale hitherto unknown – there existed an extraordinary lack of contact between the myths and symbols of homosexuality and the thing itself.
If Bray is right, then King James I had something in common with Meredith Davy. Davy was a Somerset labourer accused in 1630 of having unlawful sexual relations over a period of time (and especially after he had been drinking) with the apprentice who shared his bed. The evidence was overwhelming, and yet Davy appeared genuinely bewildered in court when his behaviour was given its name. James, for his part, who was enamoured of handsome young men virtually all his life, and to whom Buckingham could write affectionately about their first night together at Farnham, when ‘the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog’, assured his son sternly in Basilikon Doron that homosexuality was one of those ‘horrible crimes’ that a king was ‘bound in all conscience never to forgive’. These do not look like cases of ordinary hypocrisy. The king and the labouring man both seem to have made the same, extraordinary psychological separation between sodomy and what they themselves felt and did. Bray does not concern himself with Shakespeare. But his book may help to explain how it was that, although he freely confessed his lust for a Dark Lady he didn’t much like and sometimes found almost ugly, Shakespeare could repudiate any homosexual interest in Sonnet 20, while remaining obsessed with a young man whose character also left much to be desired, but whose physical beauty he evidently found tantalising.
Although her main interest is feminist, Lisa Jardine is also concerned with the question of homosexuality in Renaissance England. Still Harping on Daughters sets out to explode the idea that Elizabethan and Jacobean women enjoyed any significant degree of emancipation, either in real life, or as dramatic characters in plays written by men. Her aim (rather unfortunately expressed) ‘is to disrupt a little, to dislodge a few sacred cows which are fast coming to take hold on feminist Shakespeare criticism, as on much other Shakespeare criticism’. Dr Jardine believes that Rainoldes and those other anti-theatrical polemicists whose indictment of stage plays involved a claim that the ‘male effeminacy’ of boys playing female parts aroused ‘tainted’ passions among the male members of the audience were in effect telling the truth. (Dr Jardine does not speculate on the response of the women spectators.) The boys were meant to be ‘sexually enticing qua transvestied boys, and ... the plays encourage the audience to view them as such.’ In effect, there would be little difference between Gaveston’s presentation of Dian to Edward II and his friends and a performance of Twelfth Night at The Globe, except that Viola and Olivia must have worn a few more clothes. Within Edward II itself, Dr Jardine opines, the effect produced by the sight of Gaveston embracing the king, and the boy-actor who played Isabella fawning on ‘her’ husband, would have been much the same.
This argument scarcely gives the boy actors much credit for professional skill, and yet there is a grain of truth in it. As Alan Bray reminds his readers, ‘ganymede’ was one of the more frequent and polite terms for a catamite in the period. In the theatre, there must indeed have been something dizzying about Orlando’s courtship of a boy actor playing the part of Rosalind, who pretends to be a youth called Ganymede who is masquerading as Rosalind. And yet it does not seem helpful to confound, as Dr Jardine does, the Rosalind within the comedy, who playfully crosses and re-crosses the boundaries between male and female in response to the demands of a fictional situation, with the Rosalind of the epilogue: an actor still wearing women’s clothes, but acknowledging the presence of the theatre audience (‘saucily provoking’ them, according to Dr Jardine), and admitting to being male, now the play is done. Here, and elsewhere, Dr Jardine seems both heavy-handed in her approach and insensitive to tone. She pounces on the unfortunate Julia, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, because, intending to dress as a page on her journey in search of Proteus, to ‘prevent/The loose encounters of lascivious men’, but not wanting to cut off her hair, she proposes to ‘knit it up in silken strings / With twenty odd-conceited true-love knots’. ‘If Julia were really concerned to appear as a “well-reputed page”,’ Dr Jardine announces solemnly, ‘to avoid the “loose encounters of lascivious men”, she would not purpose to adopt a hair-style “knit-up in silken strings/With twenty odd-conceited true-love knots”: a style inveighed against as decadent and immoral by stage polemicists and dress reformers. Nor would she and Lucetta launch into a discussion of comparative breeches fashion which focuses on ornamental covering for the genitals – another favourite target for the moral indignation of contemporary pamphleteers.’ (Lucetta has teased her mistress by telling her that she ought to have ‘a codpiece to stick pins on’ if she wants to be truly in the vanguard of male fashion.) This kind of simplistic use of moral pamphlets and religious tracts as a guide to the proper interpretation of Shakespeare and other dramatists, regardless of the quality of the verse, or the nature and mood of the character who is speaking it, is characteristic of the book.
John Bayley once observed that Leavis’s view of Othello seems uncomfortably like that of Iago. Dr Jardine contrives to go Leavis one better. She produces Iago’s Desdemona, a woman wilful and culpably ‘strong’, whose ‘driving sensuality’ has impelled her into the arms of a big, black man, and maintains that this was how her character would have been read, not only by Iago, but by Shakespeare and the Jacobean audience. Apparently, Desdemona’s anxious badinage with Iago while waiting for the arrival of Othello’s ship ‘sets her up as active temptress, scold, “husband-beater” and cuckolder: an appropriate talismanic threat’, while her ability to comment ‘favourably on a man other than her husband’, as she does in remarking to Emilia that ‘this Lodovico is a proper man’, displays her ‘sensual drive’, thus qualifying audience sympathy for her even as she nears death. She is, in fact, only slightly less guilty than Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, a woman ‘lower in her sexual drive than “a beast that wants discourse of reason” ’. Both characters become acceptable, as opposed to ‘surreally-threatening’, or ‘not-women’, only after suffering reduces them to Patient Griselda figures – door-mats, as it seems, constituting an unquestioned Elizabethan and Jacobean feminine ideal.
In general, Dr Jardine seems much happier and more at ease when outlining the views of Rainoldes, Stubbes or the homilists and pamphleteers than she does with the complexities of poetry and drama. It also needs to be said that despite the inclusiveness claimed by the subtitle of her book, the number of plays she takes into account is very small: some Marlowe, Shakespeare and Webster, a very limited amount of Heywood and Middleton, and a thin sprinkling of others. Massinger, whose treatment of women is consistently thoughtful, is never mentioned, nor – apart from one glancing reference to The Faithful Shepherdess – is Fletcher. Ford is noticed in one sentence, which, like many of the statements in this book, happens to be wrong. (The female protagonist in ‘Tis pity she’s a whore is called Annabella, not ‘Angelina’, and the fact that her brutal husband Soranzo and his henchman have no sympathy for her in her pregnancy can scarcely be assumed to reflect the attitude of the play as a whole.) Individual plays which would seem to demand attention in a study of this kind – Fletcher’s sequel to Shakespeare’s story of Kate and Petruchio, The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed, Middleton’s No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s, Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West, Dekker and Middleton’s The Honest Whore, Rowley’s A New Wonder, A Woman Never Vexed, or the anonymous Fair Em – neither make an appearance nor seem to have formed part of the author’s background reading.
Equally distorting are Lisa Jardine’s highly selective and inaccurate accounts of the plays with which she does deal. It is not really very sensible to say that Jonson’s The Silent Woman ‘contrasts the ideal of “the woman who holds her tongue” of the title, with the learned woman – the archetypal strumpet’, when the only character in the comedy who subscribes to this ‘ideal’ of female taciturnity, old Morose, is the object of satire because of his inability to tolerate the sound of anyone’s voice but his own, and the so-called ‘collegiate ladies’ are only spuriously ‘learned’. Again, Jardine quotes Leonato’s rebuke in Much Ado about Nothing – ‘By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue’ – to demonstrate that Beatrice, like all those Renaissance heroines we customarily describe as witty and high-spirited, was intended to come across as a culpable scold. She passes over Don Pedro’s praise of the lady’s fluency: ‘Your silence most offends me, and to be merry best becomes you ... ’
According to Dr Jardine, failure to recognise that silence is ‘female virtue incarnate’ – a woman’s tongue being a kind of penis, linked with her sensuality – was, for Jacobeans, Lear’s great moral mistake in the love trial. Presumably Don Pedro, who has just half-jestingly proposed marriage to Beatrice, and been tactfully refused, can congratulate himself on escaping disaster, despite having committed Lear’s blunder. Lear is said to reach ‘final enlightenment’ when he remembers of the dead Cordelia that
Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle and low – an excellent thing in woman.
Here, at the end of the tragedy, ‘womankind is redeemed by Cordelia’s modest silence, now recognised for its true worth.’ It does not seem to occur to Jardine that the king is talking, lovingly although still paternally, about the pitch and timbre of Cordelia’s voice, not praising her reticence.
Yet it is probably a good thing that this book should have been written. By forcing to an extreme the view of Shakespeare as what we should now call a ‘woman-hater’ – a view anticipated, in their own ways, by Leslie Fiedler and Marilyn French – it does at least have the merit of demonstrating just how far the misogynist line can be taken. If Jardine’s interpretations of plays by Shakespeare and other contemporary dramatists are correct, these works ought to be removed from all school and university curricula, except as peculiarly dispiriting object lessons in social history, and the prejudices of the past. Certainly they ought no longer to be performed.
Although Linda Bamber is also unconvinced by the idea that Shakespeare should be considered a feminist writer, her approach in Comic Women, Tragic Men is far more reasonable than Jardine’s, and also genuinely responsive to the plays. Shakespeare, she argues, invariably writes from a male point of view. The feminine in his work is always the Other, in distinction to the Self, and understood from the outside rather than from within. But it is precisely from a dialectic between Self and Other that his plays are constructed. We should not, Bamber claims, be interrogating them for an answer to the question: ‘What is Shakespeare’s image of women?’ Rather, we should ask, ‘What is the nature of Otherness?’ as embodied in female characters. And how does it differ, not only among individual plays, but according to whether Shakespeare happens to be writing tragedy, history, comedy or romance? In most of the tragedies, Bamber contends, ‘the woman is the microcosm of the tragic, eccentric outside world.’ Apart from Macbeth and Coriolanus, where misogyny seems to be present within the text as a whole, rather than something projected by the tormented psyche of the hero, the protagonist tends to move from a conventional attitude to women, through distrust and hatred, towards final acceptance, or love. In the history plays, on the other hand, the dialectic between masculine Self and feminine Other is absent. Either women have falsified their gender, like Margaret of Anjou and La Pucelle in the Henry VI plays, or they are mere adjuncts to men, bearing them sons, but offering no challenge to the dominant male myth. In Shakespearean comedy, the feminine ‘begins as a shrew but develops into a comic heroine’. In the ‘festive comedies’, the feminine Other ‘presides over areas of experience to which masculine authority is irrelevant’, coming to the fore when and where ‘the social system is temporarily subverted.’ Finally, in the romances, the nature of the feminine is again ‘congruent with the nature of the world outside the Self’, capable of being utterly lost, but also miraculously restored.
In its actual deployment, the argument here baldly summarised is both provocative and intelligent. On the whole, Comic Women, Tragic Men strikes me as the best single book on Shakespeare’s women that I have read. Inevitably, it has its shortcomings, some of them the product of the very tightness and consistency with which a complicated thesis is worked out. Bamber is sometimes guilty of conveniently forgetting about plays which constitute an embarrassment to her argument. Thus, in maintaining that women in the histories serve the male myth without influencing or participating in it, she not only omits to mention the fact that it is Hotspur’s widow Kate who prevents Northumberland from supporting the rebels in 2 Henry IV, but entirely ignores the existence of King John, Neither Constance nor Elinor, in that play, fits easily into her scheme. She also bypasses Romeo and Juliet, perhaps because it would be difficult not to concede that its heroine changes and grows in the course of the tragedy, something the feminine Other is not supposed to do.
Bamber drastically simplifies Coriolanus in order to accommodate it to her needs. It cannot, surely, be said that the crafty Aufidius is ‘an exact reflection’ of the eponymous hero. Or that Virgilia – who stubbornly refuses to yield to her mother-in-law in the small but significant argument they have about her leaving the house in Act One, and speaks before her in the crucial encounter with Coriolanus in Act Five – is a mere nonentity, who ‘must submit to Volumnia’s demands, her speeches, her values’. Does Coriolanus himself really lose our interest because, unlike other tragic heroes, he has no moment when he ‘understands the uselessness of his aggression, his powerlessness to revenge himself against his destiny’? What is happening in the scene in which he holds his mother ‘by the hand, silent’, if not precisely this?
Ms Bamber also succumbs, on occasion, to the temptation to quote selectively from Shakespeare in ways that make the text seem more supportive of her position than it actually is. What she describes derisively as the ‘little mouse of self-accusation’ that Gertrude produces in the closet scene, in response to ‘the mountainous labours of Hamlet’s rage’ – ‘O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain’ – becomes a beast of more respectable size as soon as you remember that the queen has also confessed:
Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.
Similarly, Ms Bamber’s characterisation of the nature presented in the betrothal masque of The Tempest as ‘cold, hard and sterile’ quietly forgets Ceres’s celebration of ‘Earth’s increase, foison plenty ... ’
If, as it ought, this book goes into a second edition, a number of factual errors should be corrected. Bottom is a weaver, not a ‘tinker’, Berowne’s lady in Love’s Labour’s Lost is Rosaline, not ‘Rosalind’, and she is not to be confused with the Princess of France, Isabel mourns her husband’s deposition, not his ‘demise’, in the garden scene of Richard II, there is no indication that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know what is contained in Claudius’s commission, nothing in the text suggests that Enobarbus tells Antony that ‘Cleopatra is “quitting” him’ after he has watched her behaviour with Thidias, and it is unfair to Shakespeare’s Prospero to say that, unlike Auden’s character in The Sea and the Mirror, he would be incapable of saying, ‘Ariel, Ariel, How I shall miss you,’ when Auden’s line derives, in fact, from Shakespeare’s, ‘Why that’s my dainty Ariel! I shall miss thee ... ’.
At the end of the day, I suspect that of the three books discussed here Alan Bray’s will prove to be the most lasting and influential. It genuinely breaks new ground. Written from a position quite as committed as the one implied by the feminism of Jardine and Bamber, it is nonetheless far less concerned to prove a case than to try and uncover truth in an area of the past where truth is notoriously difficult to come by. In his Introduction, Bray asks that his book be judged according to three criteria: its capacity to explain the various fragments from the past now coming to light which bear upon homosexuality, and its ability both to illuminate our own world as history has shaped it, and to change present attitudes. That is an ambitious programme, and only time can reveal the full measure of Bray’s success. But what can be said now is that this book ought to be taken account of in future studies of Shakespeare, of the author of Edward II, and their contemporaries – not just for its own sake, but because it is only by confronting the whole spectrum of Elizabethan and Jacobean sexuality that we can move towards a truer understanding of relations between men and women, as well as between members of the same sex, as they are presented in the literature of Renaissance England.