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English Literature: Renaissance  
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In Epicoene (1609), which features the marriage of a (disguised) boy to a man, Clerimont is said to keep "his mistris abroad, and his engle [or boy kept for sexual purposes] at home." Some critics have seen the play as condemnatory of gender and sexual transgressions, but others have seen Jonson's treatment of same-sex eroticism as genial in spirit. Jonson complicates and deepens the master-servant relationship of Volpone and Mosca in Volpone (1606) by infusing it with a subtle homoeroticism that is occasionally made explicit, as when Volpone describes his "parasite" as "my pride / My joy, my tickling, my delight!"

The Frank Homoeroticism of Marlowe's Plays

The Renaissance playwright who depicted homoeroticism most openly was not Shakespeare or Jonson but Marlowe. Homoerotic incidents are featured in most of his plays, including Dido, Queen of Carthage (1587) and The Massacre of Paris (1592); but Edward II, his great tragedy of a man torn between his hereditary role as king and his love for another man, is his most radical exploration of homosexual love.

Ending with the murder of the king by the assassin Lightborn, who thrusts a hot spit into the monarch's bowels, the play daringly inverts the Renaissance's sexual categories. The assassin and his employers are unmasked as truly sodomitical, whereas the apparent sodomite, the suffering king, is revealed as the bare, forked animal, unaccommodated man. In the work's revised economy of meaning, as crystallized in Lightborn's gruesome imitation of homosexual lovemaking, sodomy comes to signify not homosexuality but conspiracy, rape, and murder.

The play is also noteworthy for linking the love of Edward and Gaveston with a catalogue of homosexual lovers culled from classical history and myth. By appealing to a classical past when homosexuality was not only not a grave offense, but even a mark of distinction, associated with mighty kings and great philosophers, Marlowe resists his age's dominant construction of homosexuality as sodomitical.

Claude J. Summers

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literature >> Overview:  Elegy

A poetic response to the death of a greatly loved person, the elegy has had since classical times a homoerotic component.

literature >> Overview:  Romantic Friendship: Female

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, intimate, exclusive, and often erotic romantic friendships between women were largely perceived as normal and socially acceptable.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century

The United Kingdom has a rich and vibrant legacy of queer cultural expression despite a long history of severe legal sanctions against male-male sexual acts and other manifestations of sexual and gender deviance.

social sciences >> Atherton, John

John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, was hanged in Ireland for sodomy under a law that he had helped to institute.

literature >> Bacon, Sir Francis

Although he condemned homosexuality in his more magisterial, philosophical works, Bacon inserted homosexual innuendo elsewhere in his writings, particularly in several essays.

literature >> Barnfield, Richard

The English Renaissance poet Richard Barnfield wrote two volumes of homoerotic verse.

literature >> Donne, John

England's supreme poet of heterosexual love in the late Renaissance, John Donne also wrote a series of homoerotic verse letters to a young man and a remarkable dramatic monologue in a lesbian voice.

literature >> Jonson, Ben

Playwright and poet Ben Jonson was probably never himself involved in same-sex sexual relationships, but he deserves attention for his depictions of same-sex relationships in both dramatic and nondramatic works.

literature >> Lucian

In Lucian's satiric works, homosexuality is treated as one of a related series of personal traits that characterize villainy, pretension, and ignorance, while the Erôtes of pseudo-Lucian advocates male-male love as honorable and as a sign of social progress.

literature >> Marlowe, Christopher

Christopher Marlowe represents homoerotic situations and incidents in his plays and poems more frequently and more variously that any other major English Renaissance writer.

literature >> Milton, John

While Milton accepted the biblical condemnation of sodomy, some of his works suggest that his attitude toward same-sex relations was enlightened for his age.

literature >> Philips, Katherine

Two-thirds of the poems of Katherine Philips, "The Matchless Orinda," concern erotic relationships among women.

literature >> Plato

Among Greek writers on homosexual themes, Plato is preeminent not only as a major philosopher but also as the greatest master of Greek prose.

literature >> Plutarch

No ancient is more instructive about pederasty than the Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.


Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men's Press, 1982.

Bredbeck, Gregory. Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.

_____. "Sodomy and Society: The Case of Christopher Marlowe." Southwest Review 69 (1984): 371-378.

Saslow, James. Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

Schleiner, Winfried. "Burton's Use of praeteritio in Discussing Same-Sex Relationships." Renaissance Discourses of Desire. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, eds. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. 159-178.

_____. "'That Matter Which Ought Not To Be Heard Of': Homophobic Slurs in Renaissance Cultural Politics." Journal of Homosexuality 26.4 (1994): 41-75.

Smith, Bruce. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Summers, Claude J. "Homosexuality and Renaissance Literature, or the Anxieties of Anachronism." South Central Review 9.1 (Spring 1992): 2-23.

_____, ed. Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Context. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 1992.

_____. "Marlowe and Constructions of Renaissance Homosexuality." Canadienne Revue de Littérature Comparée 21 (1994): 27-44.

Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Eroticism in Shakespearean Drama. London: Routledge, 1992.

_____. "Recent Studies in Homoeroticism." English Literary Renaissance 30.2 (2000): 284-312.


    Citation Information
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: English Literature: Renaissance  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 25, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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