In 1986 the US Supreme Court in the case of Bowers v. Hardwick ruled that the Constitution of the United States recognizes no fundamental right of privacy for consensual acts of homosexual sodomy. Delivering the majority opinion, Justice Byron White declared that “sodomy was a criminal offense at common law and was forbidden by the laws of the original thirteen states when they ratified the Bill of Rights.” Homosexuals engaging in sodomy were therefore not entitled to protection against state laws, like those of Georgia, which criminalized their behavior. Yet, as commentators were quick to point out, the original laws against sodomy, including the Georgia statute under consideration, had drawn no distinction between homosexual and heterosexual sodomy. Henry VIII’s statute of 1533 had prescribed the death penalty for those convicted of “the detestable and abhomynable vice of buggery commyttid with mankynde or beaste,” but had said nothing about the gender of those involved, or indeed about fellatio, which was the offense involved in Bowers v. Hardwick. The effect of the Supreme Court’s judgment was to give tacit protection to heterosexual sodomy, but to allow states to outlaw the homosexual kind. Its objection was not to the act as such, but to the gender of the persons who committed it.

This decision, and the questionable historical assumptions which underlay it, have inspired a great deal of mordant criticism by those who know that past attitudes to homosexual behavior were much more complicated than the majority in the Supreme Court implied and who understandably resent the invocation of what Justice White described as “this Nation’s history and tradition” in support of what they regard as intolerant homophobia. During the last decade, academics have poured out a stream of books which are explicitly intended to create a usable past for today’s gays and lesbians. With the notable exception of the pioneering Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982) by Alan Bray, relatively few of these works have been by historians. Instead, so-called “queer studies” have been predominantly literary in character; and it is the English literature departments which have provided the most energetic practitioners of the new genre.

There are some obvious reasons for this. From Leaves of Grass and The Picture of Dorian Gray to Remembrance of Things Past and Death in Venice, literary texts have been crucial in the formation of the modern homosexual identity. It is poetic discourse that gives us most intimate access to the nuances of sexual desire. Moreover, it is literary scholars who, through their exposure to post-structuralist theory, have become particularly sensitive to the relativity and instability of modern categories of gender and sexuality. They are skilled in reading against the grain of the text and accustomed to detecting those “slippages” which are the clue to the presence of ambivalent meaning and desire. Unfortunately, the déformation professionnelle of many critics reared in this tradition is that they habitually express themselves in prose of such tortuous obscurity that they are unlikely to have much impact outside the academy. Bruce R. Smith’s Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England (1991) is an honorable exception, exemplary for its limpid clarity; and it remains the best single analysis of the homoerotic element in Renaissance English literature.

Both Jonathan Goldberg in his Sodometries, a collection of essays on the representation of sodomy in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, and the contributors to the collaborative volume Queering the Renaissance display an undisguised political commitment. They have scathing things to say about Bowers v. Hardwick and make no secret of their hostility to what Goldberg calls the “modern sociosexual order guaranteed by the Phallus.” They reject the idea of “compulsory heterosexuality” and regard modern society as brutally homophobic. They believe that “heterosexual masculinity” involves misogyny and violence against women and that heterosexual unions have led to “erotic and emotional deprivation” for women. Marriage is denounced as “a straitening and deforming institution” and the “bankruptcy” of the family asserted. All forms of gender and sexuality are axiomatically seen as mere “constructions,” while the practice of dividing people into “heterosexuals” and “homosexuals” is regarded as particularly novel. The notion that vaginal intercourse is somehow more “normal” than other forms of sexual congress is dismissed as “relativistic.” Implicit throughout these two books is an altogether more fluid notion of what gender and sexuality might be.

For Goldberg and his collaborators, gay history is not primarily a matter of tracing a lineage for modern sexual minorities, of “outing” the hidden homosexuals of the past, or uncovering forgotten writings. Rather, it requires a revaluation of the mainstream of history and the master-canon. Scholars should discard today’s heterosexual assumptions when approaching the past and keep a sharp eye open for the “queer” possibilities latent in canonical, supposedly heterosexual, texts. The central tenet of the contributors to Queering the Renaissance is, in the words of their editor, “that queer identity is far less easily regulated or defined in advance than legislators and courts imagine, and that literary texts are far more accessible to queer readings than most critics would allow or acknowledge.”


They therefore distance themselves from all those previous commentators who, whether Formalists, feminists, or New Historicists, have, in their view, projected anachronistically heterosexist assumptions on to the past and thereby missed or demeaned the lesbian or homosexual implications of some central Renaissance texts. (Goldberg, for example, finds “a homophobic argument” underlying the feminism of Lisa Jardine’s Still Harping on Daughters (1983), declares the work of the distinguished literary scholar C.L. Barber to be “often outrageously homophobic,” and notes with disappointment that “Stephen Greenblatt’s efforts in the field of gender and sexuality have operated within the syntax of a normative heterosexuality.”) In proposing new readings these “queer” critics seek to repudiate the “gendered foundations of knowledge that shape the profession” and “the juridical determinations of a heterosexualized scholarly imperative.”

For the ordinary student of literature, the validity of this approach must depend upon whether or not “queer” readings really do succeed in illuminating long-familiar texts. Unfortunately the mannered complexity of the prose in which some of the contributions are written does not make it easy to assess the outcome. But it is clear that some of these attempts to queer the Renaissance are queerer than others. For example, few readers are likely to agree with one contributor that Antonio’s relationship to Shylock illustrates “Shakespeare’s unsettling hypothesis…that the most compelling human bond is an S/M same-sex one,” while the attempt of another to demonstrate that Francis Bacon’s model of scientific knowledge is integrally connected with sodomitical sex sounds a note of authentically dotty absurdity:”Might we then say that Bacon’s writing in the new rubs out the old epistemological search for the hot and burning phallic torch of science…and replaces it not with a new organ, but with a new organon?”

Tedious puns of this kind are much favored. Elizabeth Pittenger’s essay on Nicholas Udall, the flogging headmaster of Eton, who was dismissed in 1541 for buggery (not “burglary,” as a modern editor tactfully suggested)is entitled “To Serve the Queere,” that being the spelling used by the Tudor versifier Thomas Tusser in his account of how he was enlisted as a boy into the choir of St. Paul’s. Pittenger admits that her pun on “queer” is “illegitimate, anachronistic, irresponsible,” but pleads that it draws attention to the ways in which Tusser’s lines “acknowledge and displace the attractiveness of boys.” The reader of queer studies has to get used to numerous playful double-entendres about “hard evidence,” “bending over backwards,” and “skeletons in the closet.” At least they inhibit the reviewer from describing the argument as penetrating.

Alongside such extravagances, however, there are some thought-provoking contributions. Dorothy Stephens convincingly demonstrates the sexual implications of the nocturnal encounter between Britomart and Amoret, two heroines of Spenser’s Faerie Queene; and, in the same spirit, Valerie Traub explores the close relationships between females in Elizabethan plays, such as Shakespeare’s Celia and Rosalind (“coupled and inseparable”) and Hermia and Helena (“two seeming bodies, but one heart”). Although the (male) playwrights usually treated heterosexuality as a more “natural” and powerful impulse, which would triumph in the end, they also recognized the existence of highly emotional friendship between women. One may doubt, however, whether Traub is right to call such friendship “erotic.” It would be more accurate to say that Shakespeare contrasts the chaste intensity of women’s love for each other with the turbulent and disruptive effects of heterosexual passion. Traub, however, goes even further beyond what would normally be regarded as evidence when she declares it “inconceivable that within the vast array of erotic choices reported by early modern culture, ‘feminine’ bodies did not meet, touch and pleasure one another.”

Same-sex desire between males is extensively treated. Richard Rambuss gets to work on Crashaw(“arguably the queerest poet of the period”) and convincingly demonstrates the homoerotic element in his ecstatic meditations on Christ’s naked body. Similar instances from Herbert and Traherne are invoked to support the conclusion that some of the best-known religious poetry of the seventeenth century is “fundamentally queer in ways recent criticism has refused to acknowledge.” Goldberg’s own book contains some thoughtful, if unnecessarily convoluted, discussions of such topics as the homoerotic element in Tudor court poetry and in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, the treatment of male-male desire in Christopher Marlowe, and the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal. Ironically, his emphatically “queer” reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet as a work which opens “trajectories of desire that cross gender difference” seems to have been missed by the London headmistress who recently became a news item in the British press for refusing to allow the children in her charge to see the play because of its blatant heterosexuality.


Another interesting example of queer criticism at work is Forrest Tyler Stevens’s discussion in Queering the Renaissance of Erasmus’s amatory letters to his young disciple, Servatius Rogerus, in which, in the role of unrequited lover, the sage feminizes the youth, reproachfully comparing him to a fickle young girl and to a cruel tigress. These letters have been treated by other critics either as mere literary exercises or as proof of Erasmus’s latent homosexuality. But Stevens is unhappy with either of these formulations, preferring to regard the letters as a product of a “conceptual universe in which there is neither a state of gender boundary nor an absolute distinction between proper and improper sexual acts.” He adds that “to rework the boundaries of possible sexual expression in early modern Europe is to dissolve the terms of the debate, the homo/hetero binarism—indeed modern sexualities at all—and the psychological restrictions surrounding those categories.”

In denying the existence of a homosexual/heterosexual distinction in the early modern period, Stevens and his fellow-contributors are following what has now become the orthodox chronology of gay history. According to this chronology, there was no concept of “a homosexual” until relatively recent times and no transhistorical “homosexuality.” For many centuries the physical desire of men for men, or at least of men for boys, was regarded as a temptation to which all males were subject and one not necessarily incompatible with an equally strong desire for women. Same-sex desire was officially disapproved of by the medieval church and by the Renaissance state, though with varying degrees of vehemence. Save in a few cases involving the rape of small boys, the Tudor laws against buggery were largely ignored in practice and prosecutions were not usually brought for sodomy unless there was some ulterior motivation, usually political. In Elizabethan England a “sodomite” was someone who committed an abominable act, but he was not a personality type.

Only in the later seventeenth century, according to this view, did there emerge a recognizable sub-category of homosexual males, so-called “mollies,” marked out by effeminate habits, a penchant for cross-dressing, and an exclusive taste for sodomital sex. This in turn generated something like modern homophobia. In eighteenth-century England the laws against buggery began to be seriously enforced against homosexual acts and in the nineteenth century medical science identified “homosexuality” as a condition. With the writings and trial of Oscar Wilde in the 1890s, the idea that the world was divided into a minority of “homosexuals” and a majority of “normal” heterosexuals became generally current. In Foucault’s words, “the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”

In early modern times, however, sexualities were a great deal fuzzier and indistinct; and this is what gives the Renaissance its particular interest to gay and lesbian critics. For they see it as a time when sexual desire was fluid and flowed freely between homosexual and heterosexual modes. The attraction of Renaissance literature is that it shows just how protean and elusive our supposed certainties about human sexuality can be. Jonathan Goldberg points out that the early Tudor poets Wyatt and Surrey both wrote poems in which they spoke “as a woman,” though the desire they expressed was often that of men for men. Homoerotic imagery was readily used by poets as a flourish or ornament in support of heterosexual love, as when the Elizabethan Thomas Lodge invoked Jupiter’s desire for Ganymede in connection with his own pursuit of a beautiful woman.1 There was a single erotic language, employed for different love-objects, regardless of gender. John Donne wrote of “rank itchie lust, desire and love” for a “plumpe muddy whore, or prostitute boy,” while Clerimont in Ben Jonson’s Epicene enjoyed “his mistress abroad and his ingle [catamite] at home,” just as the rake in the Earl of Rochester’s Sodom had his catamite on one arm and his mistress on the other.

The sexual ambiguity which has made Shakespeare’s Sonnets so contested a site of critical interpretation runs through the erotic poetry and drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As You Like It, with the boy Orlando making love to the girl Rosalind, dressed as a boy, Ganymede, and played by a boy actor, might seem to justify Goldberg’s view that “it is crucial not to act as if these plays operate within the sphere of the modern phantasm of sexual difference, with its suppositions of rigid differences in gender and the impermeability of homo- and heterosexualities.” It is easy to see why “queer” critics can persuade themselves that this was a world in which the modern categories of polarized sexuality seem out of place. One enthusiast has even claimed that it was not until the early eighteenth century that the paradigm that there are two genders founded on two biological sexes began to predominate.2 It is not surprising that in her admirably cogent afterword to Queering the Renaissance Margaret Hunt finds it necessary to warn queer historians against idealizing the Renaissance as a utopian age of “polymorphous eroticisms and loosely constructed gender boundaries,” reminding them that it was also an age of torture, public executions, and nascent imperialism.

We may doubt, however, whether sexuality was quite as fluid in Elizabethan England as these queer critics would like to believe. Reading their essays, it is easy to forget that this was a time when gender differences were sharply defined in law and practice and when the assumptions animating popular culture and morality were overwhelmingly heterosexual. In the case of As You Like It and similar plays, it was surely the audience’s firm assumption of heterosexual certainties that made the experiments in cross-dressing and gender slippage so titillating. Conversely, it is not absurd to describe some Elizabethans as “homosexual.” The homo/hetero distinction was less rigidly codified than it would subsequently become, but there were always men who never married and showed no sexual interest in women. Bruce Smith has pointed out that in contemporary satire the sodomite was a distinct type rather than a universal figure; and in Shakespeare’s Sonnets he discerns a homosexual subjectivity of a recognizably modern kind.3

Besides, the relationship of sophisticated literary passions to the life of the multitude must always remain elusive. Even among the learned it is unclear how much is to be taken literally. The first eclogue of Richard Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepheard Sicke for Love (1594) celebrates the male shepherd’s love for “a sweet-fac’d Boy”:

Cursing the Time, the Place, the sense, the sin;

I came, I saw, I viewd, I slipped in.

But in a later work Barnfield claimed that his contemporaries had misinterpreted his poem, which was no “fault,” but merely an imitation of Virgil’s second eclogue.4 Of course, many genuine homosexuals of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries have expressed their longings through renderings of ancient Greek literature, so it does not follow that Barnfield’s riposte entirely explains the poem. But one of the tasks still awaiting queer criticism is that of assessing the complex interaction in Renaissance England between a Judaeo-Christian tradition which wholly condemned sodomy and a literary milieu in which the highest importance was attached to the imitation and assimilation of classical models in which the naturalness and acceptability of pederasty were taken for granted.

Meanwhile, it is important to recognize that the workings of early modern society, like that of many others, depended almost wholly upon the development of close relationships between men. In discussing this subject Goldberg and his colleagues acknowledge that the two main intellectual influences on them, Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality apart, have been the historical work of Alan Bray and the critical writings of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.5 Bray is represented in Queering the Renaissance by his essay on male friendship in Elizabethan England, an outstandingly lucid and original piece which genuinely advances its subject. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick is not herself a contributor, though she is an editor of the series in which the volume appears and the influence is everywhere apparent of her distinction between the “minoritizing” view of homosexuality, according to which there is a distinct population of people who “really are” gay, and the “universalizing” view that no one is free from same-sex desire. (It is, of course, a disinction without a difference, for, as Sedgwick ironically observes, “the radical and irreducible incoherence” of contemporary ideas about homosexuality is that many people, herself included, hold both these views.)

Particularly fertile has been Sedgwick’s concept of “homosociality,” that is to say the intensive male bonding to be found in so many institutions, whether educational, military, economic, or political. Such bonding inevitably encourages homoerotic passions. Yet the irony is that, in the West today, the stronger the bonding, the greater the ban on homosexual relations between those concerned. As Sedgwick says, this creates a double bind:it is desirable to be “a man’s man,” but undesirable to be “interested in men.”

In early modern England this double bind was particularly intense. The official language of the time was homophobic, but practice was relaxed. For the ordinary conventions of social intercourse involved men physically embracing each other and sharing beds; while the fashionable cult of intense male friendships presupposed passionate intimacy (“one soul in bodies twain”). This is the background of that often-repeated theme in Shakespeare’s plays of the two male friends whose relationship is disrupted by the appearance on the scene of a woman with whom one of them falls in love. Indeed one of Sedgwick’s most acute insights is that even heterosexual exploits, like the cuckoldry of Restoration drama, were essentially part of this homosocial nexus. Women were counters in a game between men. As Sparkish puts it in Wycherley’s The Country Wife, “It may be I love to have rivals in a wife,” since “loving alone is as dull as eating alone.”6

The Justices of the Supreme Court who heard the case of Bowers v. Hardwick might have been surprised to learn that not even the legendary makers of New England were exempt from these intense homosocial bonds. In Queering the Renaissance Michael Warner finds “an unmistakably erotic cast” in the “bond of brotherly affection” by which John Winthrop, Sr., believed the new society of Massachusetts would be held together; and he quotes an astonishing letter in which Winthrop expresses his love for his friend Sir William Springe by comparing them to David and Jonathan, and lamenting that Springe’s wife “should have more part then my selfe in that honest heart of my deare freinde.” Yet this was the Massachusetts that utterly condemned sodomy:when a colonist was executed for that offense in 1646 Winthrop denounced him as “a monster in human shape.” The City on the Hill had to keep its distance from the Cities of the Plain. Even so, the ubiquity in the early modern period of close male relationships, whether between friend and friend, master and servant, teacher and pupil, or patron and client, was certainly great enough to justify Margaret Hunt’s conclusion that “homoerotic relations” were “thriving at the very heart of a patriarchal, heterosexist society.”

It seems difficult to do other than speculate about how often these intimate relationships between men were physically consummated. What is certain is that, as the seventeenth century wore on, the cult of male friendship dwindled and the display of affection between men became increasingly inhibited. It was to heterosexual marriage that middle-class males would increasingly look for their closest relationships. Physical intimacy between men would become suspect and the openness of Elizabethan friendship was no longer possible. With the enforcement of the sodomy laws in the eighteenth century, “homosexuality” became a blackmailable offense. It retreated into the closet and the doors were shut.

The reasons for this complex set of changes have yet to be fully established, but they are likely to take us to the heart of the social and cultural history of the early modern period. How gender identities are constituted and how specific brands of sexuality are formed are issues that are inseparably connected with the structure of power and the working of society in all its dimensions. The problem deserves to be placed high on the agenda, not just of “queer historians,” but of historians tout court.

This Issue

September 22, 1994