That Night at Farnham

Anne Barton

  • Homosexuality in Renaissance England by Alan Bray
    Gay Men’s Press, 149 pp, £7.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 907040 16 0
  • Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare by Linda Bamber
    Stanford, 211 pp, $18.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 8047 1126 7
  • Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare by Lisa Jardine
    Harvester, 202 pp, £18.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 7108 0436 9

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.

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