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English Literature: Renaissance  
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Sir Francis Bacon

The prose works of Sir Francis Bacon are far more serious than the romances, but they are also revealing. Bacon hints at his homosexual attraction in his 1625 revisions and augmentations of his Essayes, especially "Of Friendship," which celebrates friendship at the expense of familial relationships; "Of Marriage and the Single Life," which tends to privilege singleness in comparison to the marital state; and "Of Beauty," which tellingly discusses only examples of male beauty.

Yet in the "feast of the family" section of his utopian work about the land of Bensalem, New Atlantis (1610), Bacon exalts patriarchy and characterizes "masculine love" negatively. As Joseph Cady has written,

it may have been at some emotional cost, or at least significant personal compromise, that Bacon--involved in a "late," childless, and pro forma marriage himself and attracted predominantly or exclusively to his own sex-- composed this paean to marriage, the patriarchal family, and biological creation and depicted his ideal commonwealth as having absolutely "no touch" of "masculine love."

Homoeroticism in the Theater

The English theater, with its transvestite tradition, was an especially important arena for the expression of erotic desires and aversions. The target of attacks by Puritans such as Phillip Stubbes who in his Anatomie of Abuses (1583) charged that stage plays incited viewers to "play the Sodomits, or worse," Renaissance theater depicted a surprisingly wide range of sexual possibilities.

Shakespeare's Transvestite Comedies

Those possibilities are apparent in Shakespeare's As You Like It (1598), for example, in which a boy actor plays a young woman, Rosalind, who disguises herself as Ganymede who pretends to be a woman and is wooed by both Orlando and Phebe and is herself deeply attached to her cousin Celia. Although the play's conclusion pairs off the characters in conventional heterosexual couples, that pairing is conspicuously arbitrary in a play that privileges subjectivity and stresses the importance of imagining alternatives.

Indeed, Shakespeare's transvestite comedies, including Twelfth Night (1601), encourage the audience not merely to delight in mistaken identities, but also to value the liminal freedom that the plays indulge, especially the (temporary) release from oppressive social conventions. As Valerie Traub has emphasized, in Shakespeare's comedies homoeroticism--both male and female--"is constructed . . . as merely one more mode of desire."

Same-Sex Desire in Other Shakespearean Plays

Same-sex desire is also an important component in Shakespeare's other dramas. The relationship of Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida (1602) is explicitly sexual; Thersites characterizes Patroclus as Achilles' "masculine whore."

But the nonsexual bonding in such plays as Coriolanus (1606), Love's Labor's Lost (1594), and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613) is also infused with romantic and erotic feeling, as are the more complicated relationships of Romeo and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (1594) and Othello and Iago in Othello (1604).

The Shakespearean play that most poignantly depicts romantic friendship between males is The Merchant of Venice (1596), where the love of Antonio and Bassanio exists alongside Bassanio's need to marry. The dilemma of an older man who loves a younger one who may be attracted to a woman or who, at least, is expected to marry and reproduce is also explored in Twelfth Night, as well as in Shakespeare's sonnet sequence and in other poetry of the period.

Indeed, the triangular relationship that exists between Antonio who loves Bassanio who loves Portia is fairly common in Renaissance homoerotic literature and reflects the fact that in the Renaissance sexual identity was not rigidly binarized--that is, homosexuality and heterosexuality were not seen as essential and exclusive categories to which all individuals were routinely and permanently assigned.

Gender Issues in Jonson's Plays

Gender issues and same-sex desire are significant as well in other playwrights of the period, such as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher whose collaborations have recently been the subject of scholarly investigation, but the works of Marlowe and Jonson are particularly interesting in this regard.

In the plays of Ben Jonson, homosexuality appears at several junctures. In Sejanus (1603), the protagonist is accused of homosexual prostitution and described as a "stale catamite," while Tiberius, the "voluptuous Caesar," is said to satisfy his "strange, and new-commented lusts" on boys and girls alike. The violent conclusion of the play, in which the anti-hero title character meets the same fate as that decreed for sodomites under English law, may reflect homophobia on the part of Jonson and pander to the prejudices of his audience.

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