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Shakespeare, William (1564-1616)  
 
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Those conflicted circumstances explain, perhaps, why homoerotic desire on the early modern stage so often ends in violence. Coriolanus finishes his political career by practically begging Aufidius and his men to chop him to pieces with their swords; Patroclus is brutally murdered by Hector; Achilles takes his revenge by butchering Hector; Suffolk and York are martyred by the French; Othello is tricked by Iago into destroying himself; Mercutio is thrust through with a sword.

In the eroticized politics of plays like these, we witness in a particularly extreme form the conflict between homophobia and homoeroticism that characterized early modern England. Christian dogma may have condemned sodomy, but in a rigidly patriarchal society, male homoeroticism had a certain political utility. It strengthened and solidified male bonds.

Sponsor Message.

Female Bonding

From the frequency with which such plots of male bonding are played out in Shakespeare's scripts, we might easily conclude that early modern theater was an exclusively male concern and that any erotic interplay in that theater occurred solely among males. In plays written by men and acted by men in a culture dominated by men, what place could there possibly be for the erotic experience of women?

Such a place does exist, Valerie Traub argues in Desire and Anxiety, but it exists apart from men, and it is all the more interesting for its separateness. In a patriarchal society like "Elizabethan" England, female eroticism was deemed important only insofar as it concerned men. Hence the huge value placed on female virginity before marriage and on chastity afterward.

It was not so much moral considerations that compelled a woman to allow no man but her husband into her body but economic and political considerations. On the legitimacy of a man's offspring depended the whole legal system of transferring property in the arena of business and transferring title in the arena of honor.

Female eroticism that was not directly concerned with men--that is, female eroticism that we would label "lesbian"--was another matter entirely. As far as early modern men were concerned, out of presence was out of mind.

The sodomy statutes reflect this male myopia. Interpreting the laws for would-be prosecutors, Sir Edward Coke in his Institutes of the Laws of England (Part 3, 1644) catalogs all the possible variations in sexual crime: " is a detestable and abominable sin, amongst Christians not to be named, committed by carnall knowledge against the ordinance of the Creator and order of nature, by mankind with mankind, or with brute beast, or by womankind with brute beast."

Womankind with womankind seems not to have struck Coke as a possibility--or at least as a possibility in which the law would be interested. The case of womankind with beast was another matter, precisely because the beast in question was assumed to be male.

Women as well as men are covered by the sodomy statutes, Coke explains, because the wording is

if any person, &c. which extend as well to a woman as to a man, and therefore if she commit Buggery with a beast, she is a person that commits Buggery with a beast, to which end this word [person] was used. And the rather, for that somewhat before the making of this Act, a great Lady had committed Buggery with a Baboon, and conceived by it, &c.

Of all the et ceteras in the world, this is one we would most like to have filled in.

The autonomy of female eroticism was, in a way, enhanced by the all-male composition of Shakespeare's company. One effect of having boy actors play women's parts was to separate gender roles from sexual roles. In the circumstances of Shakespeare's theater, the differences that make characters desire one another sexually are played out within the same gender.

Physically, that is the case with males; imaginatively, it is also the case with females. Julia and her maid Lucetta in The Two Gentlemen of Verona are the earliest in a series of closely bonded female pairs who sometimes speak of their affection for one another in terms that are graphically physical.

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