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English Literature: Renaissance  
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Sodomy and Religious Controversy

In addition, homophobic insults were frequently exchanged in the era's religious controversies. Indeed, sodomy was often considered a clerical vice, and the statute in which it was codified as a felony, 25 Henry VIII, chapter 6, was part of a whole panoply of legislation passed by the Reformation Parliament of 1533-1534 attacking the Roman Catholic Church. The scapegoating of homosexuals and the use of homophobia for political ends have long and ignoble histories.

The Appeal to Classical Precedents

Significantly, however, not all Renaissance discourse about homosexuality is either sodomitical or satiric. The revival of classical learning made available, at least to the educated, a rich body of literature in which homosexuality was constructed differently.

The classical literature of homosexuality provided Renaissance writers and readers a pantheon of homosexual heroes, a catalogue of images, and a set of references by which homosexual desire could be encoded into their own literature and by which they could interpret their own experience.

Admittedly, this classical heritage was never entirely secure. Translators of classical texts contained homoeroticism by directly countering it with Christian condemnation and by interpreting the works tendentiously, as in Philemon Holland's "Summarie" of Plutarch's "Of Love" that he prefaces to his 1603 translation or Thomas Heywood's disapproving representations of the Jupiter-Ganymede relationship in his Pleasant Dialogues and Dramas (1637), which are loose translations of Lucian's Dialogues of the Gods.

And most of the many imitations or adaptations of homoerotic classical literature discreetly heterosexualized their sources, as in Jonson's famous lyric "To Celia," which is cobbled together from discrete passages of Philostratus's letters to a boy with whom he was infatuated.

Moreover, the classical literature of homosexuality was subject to Christian culture's tendency to deny the physical. The works of Ovid no less than Plato were Christianized. Even the myth of Ganymede, the most pervasive symbol of homosexuality in the era, could be interpreted--following Xenophon--as an allegory of spiritual ascent. Neoplatonic philosophers could celebrate passionate love between men but were careful to insist that it be purely spiritual.

Still, despite the containment and denial to which it was subject, the classical legacy powerfully suggested to Renaissance writers and readers the possibility of alternatives to the sodomitical construction of homosexuality that dominated the period's legal and moral discourse.

In the poetry of the Renaissance, classical sources and allusions frequently served as a kind of excuse for homoeroticism, as it also did for much of the Neoplatonic philosophy of the time.

Richard Barnfield

Barnfield, for example, disingenuously cites the classical source of his Spenserean pastoral The Affectionate Shepherd as a license for its homoeroticism in his preface to Cynthia. With Certain Sonnets, and the Legend of Cassandra.

"Some there were, that did interpret The Affectionate Shepheard, otherwise then (in truth) I meant, touching the subject thereof, to wit, the love of a Shepheard to a boy: a fault, the which I will not excuse, because I never made," he insists, and adds by way of justification: "Onely this, I will unshaddow my conceit: being nothing else, but an imitation of Virgill, in the second Eglogue of Alexis."

It is difficult to determine how much Barnfield's blithe self-confidence in the sufficiency of this lame explanation is simple naiveté and to what extent it is a brazen bluff designed to conceal deep-seated anxiety.

Certainly, Barnfield was well aware of the moral transgression involved in the affectionate shepherd's love for Ganymede. "If it be sinne to love a Lovely Lad; / Oh then sinne I," the shepherd jauntily announces early in the poem.

But Barnfield's appeal to classical precedence serves him well enough to allow him to proceed breezily to even more homoerotic poems in Certaine Sonnets, a collection whose protective veneer of classical imitation is far more tenuous than that which allegedly excuses The Affectionate Shepherd.

Virgil's second eclogue, which tells the story of the shepherd Corydon's unrequited love for Alexis, inspired not only The Affectionate Shepherd but several other poems of the period.

Christopher Marlowe's Pastoral Verse

Marlowe's "Come live with me, and be my love," for example, is a brilliant recital of the country pleasures with which Corydon attempts to woo Alexis. Imagining an idyllic, self-contained golden age far removed from the demands and constraints of Elizabethan society, the poem is charming and seductive. Yet what is most striking about it as an adaptation of the second eclogue is not that it contains homoerotic innuendoes but, quite to the contrary, that it suppresses the unapologetic homoeroticism of its source.

Marlowe's nongendered representation of desire in this poem may query the universalizing assumptions of his age's dominant sexual ideology, but his suppression of the overt homoeroticism of Virgil's text also reveals the cultural anxieties surrounding homosexuality in the period.

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