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English Literature: Renaissance  
 
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Homosexuality is writ large in the literature of the English Renaissance, but its inscription is only rarely direct and unambiguous.

With the exception of a few crucially significant but atypical texts like William Shakespeare's Sonnets (1595?), Christopher Marlowe's Edward II (1593), Richard Barnfield's The Affectionate Shepherd (1594) and Certaine Sonnets (1595), or John Donne's remarkable dramatic monologue in a lesbian voice, "Sapho to Philaenis" (1613?), in the English Renaissance tends to be expressed implicitly rather than explicitly, seen from the outside rather than from the inside, and is nearly always shadowed by a penumbra of religious and social disapproval.

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The essential context in which male homoeroticism is textualized in the Renaissance is a pervasive tempered by a classical heritage of homoerotic literature and philosophy and a massively power structure whose institutions probably facilitated homosexual relations even as it condemned them.

The statute making a capital offense was apparently enforced only against males and only in cases of rape, most often that of an underaged boy, but that law nevertheless effectively codified the period's official disapproval of homosexual contacts.

Sodomitical Literature

Although sodomy was defined as the sin not to be named among Christians, it was actually named quite often. There is, in fact, a considerable body of sodomitical literature in the Renaissance, that is, works in which same-sex sexual relations are construed in terms of the biblical prohibition that justified the destruction of the Cities of the Plain.

In these texts, homosexuality is linked not only with other social and gender transgressions such as adultery and cross-dressing, but also with heresy, treason, and witchcraft.

In the so-called Baines libel attributed to Christopher Marlowe, for example, the famous statements "That St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned alwaies in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma" and "That all they that love not Tobacco & Boies were fooles" are tellingly interspersed with atheistic and seditious claims. In such texts, homosexuality is collapsed into a large category of undifferentiated vice and associated particularly with heresy and lèse majesté.

Sodomitical discourse is found most pristinely in the moral and legal writings that denounce same-sex relations, such as the anonymous pamphlet describing the trial and execution of a seventeenth-century bishop, The Life and Death of John Atherton (1640), and in numerous sermons.

Satirical Literature

But it can also be seen in satires that figure forth homoeroticism as the quintessence of debauchery. In such varied works as John Bale's Scriptorum Catalogus (1555-1559), John Marston's Certain Satyres (1598) and The Scourge of Villainie (1598), Donne's "Satire I" and "Metempsychosis" (1601), Michael Drayton's The Moon-Calf (1627), and some of Ben Jonson's Epigrammes (1616), homosexual desire is attacked as immoderate, ridiculous, symbolic of social decay, contrary to nature, and threatening to the political order.

The virulence of the satires against sodomites may be evidence that there was at least a rudimentary homosexual subculture in London during the period. Most interesting in this regard are several diary entries and other manuscript accounts from the early years of the seventeenth century attacking King James I and his relationships with his favorites, and depicting the Court as a center of homosexual activity.

The Restraints of Cultural and Personal Anxiety

Discourse about same-sex desire in the Renaissance is typically constrained by personal and cultural anxiety, as evidenced, for example, by the orthographical and linguistic peculiarities of Robert Burton's disquisition on homosexuality in his influential Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which incorporates a large amount of curious (mis)information on the subject.

Tellingly, the discussion of homosexuality is written in Latin and presented in a way that calls attention to itself: Burton's own sentences are presented in italics, whereas his quotations are printed in roman type, reversing the normal format of the rest of the book.

Lesbianism and the Violation of Social Boundaries

Lesbianism is almost invisible in the period. The cultural anxieties relating to female sexuality centered on heterosexual trangressions; nevertheless, the charge of lesbianism could be used to stigmatize women who violated social boundaries.

Jonson, for example, hints at lesbianism in his attack on Cecilia Bulstrode for composing verse--in Jonson's view an unfeminine pursuit--in "An Epigram on the Court Pucell," a poem in which he coins the term Tribade.

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William Shakespeare created cross-dressing roles in his transvestite comedies and made same-sex desire an important component in his other plays.
  
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