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English Literature: Renaissance  
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Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar

Those cultural anxieties come to the fore in Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), which rewrites Virgil's second eclogue with the Alexis character--Colin--as the protagonist, and reduces the Corydon figure--Hobbinol--to a minor role.

When in the Januarye eclogue Colin announces his disdain for the "clownish gifts and curtsies" of love-sick Hobbinol--"Ah foolish Hobbinol, thy gyfts bene vayne: / Colin them giues to Rosalind againe"--the commentator E.K. (probably Spenser's close friend Gabriel Harvey) anxiously intrudes with a long note:

In thys place seemeth to be some sauour of disorderly love, which the learned called paederastice: but it is gathered beside his [that is, Spenser's] meaning. For who hath red Plato his dialogue called Alcybiades, Xenophon and Maximus Tyrius of Socrates opinions, may easily perceive, that such loue is muche to be alowed and liked of, specially so meant, as Socrates vsed it: who sayth, that in deede he loued Alcybiades extremely, yet not Alcybiades person, but his soule, which is Alcybiades owne selfe. And so is paederastice much to be preferred before gynerastice, that is the loue which enflameth men with lust toward woman kind. But yet let no man thinke, that herein I stand with Lucian or hys devilish disciple Vnico Aretino, in defence of execrable and horrible sinnes of forbidden and vnlawful fleshinesse. Whose abominable errour is fully confuted of Perionius, and others.

Calling attention to the brief passage's "sauour of disorderly love" only to disavow it, E.K. first exposes and then attempts to conceal the scandal of Spenser's text. Hobbinol's apparently innocuous "clownish gifts and curtsies" require elaborate distancing from any association with sin and abomination.

The disproportion between the text and the gloss is a measure of the danger that homosexuality represented to E.K. and to Renaissance culture generally. E.K.'s unstable assertions, retractions, and contradictory clarifications in the gloss illustrate the precarious balancing act that discourse about homoeroticism is forced to perform in a society that celebrated homosociality but resolutely condemned homosexuality.

Spenser's The Faerie Queene

Spenser also represents homosexual love in Book IV of The Faerie Queene (1590). Book IV is devoted to the Legend of Friendship, and there Spenser develops an ideal of companionate marriage by drawing on the egalitarian principles of the classical masculine friendship tradition.

In Canto X, the protagonist Scudamor, in quest of virtuous Amoret, arrives at the temple of Venus. In the garden surrounding the temple, he notices thousands of lovers who "together by themselves did sport / Their spotlesse pleasures, and sweet loues content" (26.1-2). Also present in the amorous garden, but quite separate from these heterosexual lovers, are

another sort
Of louers lincked in true harts consent;
Which loued not as these, for like intent,
But on chast vertue grounded their desire,
Farre from all fraud, or fayned blandishment;
Which in their spirits kindling zealous fire,
Braue thoughts and noble deedes did euermore aspire.


These masculine lovers include such classical, biblical, and medieval pairs as the following:

Such were great Hercules, and Hylas deare;
Trew Ionathan, and Dauid trustie tryde;
Stout Theseus, and Pirithous his feare;
Pylades and Orestes by his syde;
Myld Titus and Gesippus without pryde;
Damon and Pythias whom death could not seuer.


Scudamor is so attracted by these happy couples that he momentarily wishes he could join them. But instead of remaining with these male lovers, he reluctantly departs the garden to enter the temple of Venus, at the center of which is a statue of Hermaphroditus, "both male and female, both vnder one name" (41.7). There he discovers his long sought after Amoret.

The account of the masculine lovers in the garden of Venus incisively distinguishes those who love members of their own sex from those who love individuals of the opposite sex, clearly recognizing homoeroticism as a discrete sexuality. Moreover, it takes pains to represent the male lovers as nonsodomitical.

Spenser does this by carefully linking his lovers with a tradition of masculine friendship that was frequently delibidinized to serve as an apologia for homosociality rather than homosexuality. Spenser's lovers ground their desire on the "chaste vertue" that inspires "Braue thoughts and noble deedes."

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