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"What the age might call sodomy" and homosexuality in certain studies of Shakespeare's plays.

A salient development in Shakespeare studies over the past two decades or so has been the amount of attention devoted to the same-sex desire represented in the plays and sonnets. The topic is one that editorial and other commentators had failed to recognize or had suppressed for nearly two centuries, and its emergence was one of the many fortunate results of the gay liberation movement. That movement certainly had a pronounced effect on the direction my own scholarship would take. During the later 1970s and early 1980s I was at work on my study of the Sonnets, Such Is My Love, and I could not and would not have undertaken such a book, on what I called "the grand masterpiece of homoerotic poetry" (1), very much earlier. And even during those years the ascendancy, the strong academic presence, and the esteem since achieved by gay and lesbian studies and then queer theory were hardly foreseeable. Practitioners of the discipline(s), usually members of English departments, have by now created a considerable body of critical and scholarly work focused on Shakespeare's imagination of sexualities of different kinds. Here I propose to examine and evaluate some of that work. (1)

I must confess at the outset to finding much of it methodologically and hermeneutically flawed, so that, instead of celebrating it as I should prefer to do, I have to perform the regrettable task of disclosing its shortcomings. Too often the writers in question exhibit a deficiency in exegetical skills, with close reading generally contemned by them as new-critical formalism. Most of them insist on adopting a historico-theoretical approach to literature, the one that largely derives from writings of the social historian Alan Bray and of Michel Foucault as a historian of sexuality. Regarded as authoritative, they provide the conceptual grounds that enable lesbian and gay Shakespeareans to problematize the notions of "sodomy" and "homosexuality," with the first accepted, the second tabooed. My procedure will be, first, to discuss the conception of sodomy and its use and misuse in the Shakespearean commentary; next to discuss homosexuality and how it is dealt with there; and, in concluding, to venture some recommendations to whoever may take on future scholarly projects on the sexualities in Shakespeare.


"Sodomy" (in Latin sodomia), or the sin of Sodom (Sodoma in the Vulgate), derives, of course, from the name of the city that, along with Gomorrah, is destroyed by fire and brimstone in Genesis 19. The word sodomia dates from the mid-eleventh century, originating in the theological discourse of St. Peter Damian. He conceived of the vice as restricted to males, and in his Book of Gomorrah listed the four increasingly grave sexual forms it may take: self-pollution, the mutual handling and rubbing of male organs, intercourse "between the thighs," and penetration "in the rear" (Jordan 29, 46). It would be another two centuries before the foremost medieval theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, provided his lucid and rigorous taxonomy of sexual sins. Those that preclude generation, the proper end of sexual acts, are thereby sins against nature (peccata contra naturam), and they are more grievous than the sins that do not preclude reproduction, such as fornication or adultery, and thus accord with nature (peccata secumdum naturam). He distinguishes four unnatural vices, which are, in an ascending order of culpability: 1. masturbation (mollities); 2. heterosexual relations where the reproductive organs are improperly employed; 3. the sodomitical vice (vitium sodomiticum), committed with someone of the same sex; and 4. bestiality, committed with a member of a different species. Within this category of violations of nature, sodomy signifies carnal relations between men or between women, though St. Thomas puts greater emphasis on the former, which he refers to as coitus masculorum, anal intercourse between men (Summa 2a2ae. 154,11), or else as concubitus masculorum, men's sleeping together (Jordan 146), which may designate a wider range of sexual practices.

The word "sodomy" entered the English language at the end of the thirteenth century. The OED defines it as "an unnatural form of sexual intercourse, esp. that of one man with another," citing six examples of this usage in English between 1297 and 1650; the definitions of "sodomite" and "sodomitical" cite further early examples.

During the reign of Henry VIII, in 1533-34, Parliament passed "an act for the punishment of the vice of buggery." This statute made sodomy a felony punishable by hanging, which replaced "the traditional biblical punishment of death by fire," then still in effect on the Continent. Sir Edward Coke, in a passage from his mid-seventeenth century Institutes, writes of buggery, which he elsewhere says is the English name for the "sin of Sodom," that it is "amongst Christians not to be named," a sin "against the ordinance of the Creator and the order of nature," and is committed "by mankind with mankind, or with brute beast, or by womankind with brute beast" (Smith 43-45, 50-51).

In the theological, lexical, and legal data assembled above, sodomy is conceived of as sex between men, though the conception also covers solitary sex for Damian, sex between women for Aquinas, and sex between humans and animals for Coke.

By now some readers may be thinking, but what is the point of this excursion into medieval and Renaissance sodomy, what has it got to do with Shakespeare? The answer is ... nothing--directly, at least, nothing at all. Shakespeare, despite his formidable vocabulary, nowhere uses the word "sodomy," or its siblings "sodomite" or "sodomitical," or its equivalent "buggery," or other related terms such as "catamite" or "ingle" (which were pederastic boy-toys), or "ganymede" as a common noun rather than a name, or pederast. He did not eschew these words because he neglected to write about same sex desire; it's rather that his more-than-tolerant, his humane, discerning, affirmative attitude toward that desire, when he chose to write about it in the Sonnets and elsewhere, ruled out the intrusion of such derogatory diction. Although never encountered in Shakespeare's works, sodomy plays a prominent role in the commentary of gay and lesbian Shake-speareans. As Gloucester asks Kent, "Do you smell a fault?" (1.1.16).

For information on this topic these commentators do not go to medieval theologians, or even to the OED, but they heavily rely on two sources: Volume I: An Introduction to Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality and Alan Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England.

Most often cited in Foucault are the pages wherein he contrasts sodomy with its nineteenth-century substitute, homosexuality. The two are comparable because he thinks of both in terms of sexual relations between men. Of sodomy he writes that "it was a category of forbidden acts"--namely, male-with-male sexual acts--whose "[male] perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject" of "ancient civil or canonical [anti-sodomy] codes" (43). He also says that sodomy "was once 'the' great sin against nature," that is, one of several such sins, a Thomistic echo, though he suggests that it was deemed the gravest one; and he calls it "that utterly confused category." He apparently explains this when he goes on to observe how the "extreme severity" of the punishment (death by fire) went along with a widespread tolerance of the practice (101). But the distinction between the sodomite as a "temporary aberration" and the homosexual as a "species," between sodomy as "a category of forbidden acts" and homosexuality as referential to a "personage," an identity or orientation (43), is the point that gay and lesbian scholars have most eagerly seized upon and made axiomatic.

David Halperin offers in "Forgetting Foucault" a powerful and persuasive critique of their position. He maintains that practitioners of "queer theory" and "academic 'critical theory'" (111), from their "dogmatic and care-less misreadings" of An Introduction, misconstrue Foucault (100); they do so by mistaking his "discursive analysis" for "a historical assertion," one that
   has licensed us ... to remake his strategic distinction between the
   sodomite and the homosexual into a conceptual distinction between
   sexual acts and sexual identities, into a bogus theoretical doctrine,
   and into a patently false set of historical premises (111).

This is a much-needed corrective to a lot of misguided thinking about sexual history. Corroborative evidence that sodomy could be understood as a "category of persons, not just of acts" (100) can be found in St. Thomas, for whom the sin is habitual and a psychological illness existing in some from childhood and in others from birth (Commentary 641); in his mentor St. Albert the Great, for whom the vice is hardly a "temporary aberration," persistence being one of its features, that is, the habit, once acquired, almost never goes away (Jordan 134-35); and in Dante. In Purgatorio 26, on the topmost ledge of the mountain two groups of repentant sinners run through the fire in opposite directions, with sodomitical souls in one group and heterosexual souls in the other. Thus does Dante recognize two types of persons with set and separate sexual tendencies (Pequigney, "Sodomy" 31-32).

Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982), which covers a period from around 1550 to the later seventeenth century, pictures a society violently antipathetic to male homosexuality (it was hardly aware of the female type) (79, 17). However, though subject to capital punishment, homosexual activity was rarely prosecuted, and despite the abhorrence it evoked, it was widespread. Those who engaged in it managed to evade the prohibition by mentally disassociating what they did in bed from "the fearful sin of sodomy" (76-79). As to what they did, Bray provides a transhistorical answer: "the ways of making love do not change over the centuries" (67-69, 57). It is rather remarkable that the vast majority of men who made love together in early modern England neither thought that they were committing sodomy nor regarded themselves as sodomites.

Bray believes that "apparently homosexual themes in Renaissance literature need to be treated with extreme caution" by the social historian (65). He exercises such caution by paying no heed to--and in the case of Richard Barnfield explaining away--the evidential value of those Renaissance works that put homoerotic themes in a positive or even a neutral light, including and most notably the poetry and dramas of Marlowe and Shakespeare. (2)

"Sodomy" during that period nearly always indicated male homosexuality, though sometimes bestiality, and in rare instances a heterosexual vice such as prostitution (14). The sin was "often closely associated with other sexual sins"; the "trio of adultery, incest, and rape" could "lead to" sodomy; and it might be "linked" to treason, witchcraft, and heresy (italics mine). Bray here posits an affiliation but not a fusion or identity between sodomy and these other vices. He may subsume them under the broader heading of debauchery, but he normally keeps them distinct from one another (14-16, 20-21).

The preeminence of sodomy in so many studies of Renaissance literature in recent years--to which the very titles Sodomy and Interpretation, by Gregory Bredbeck, and Sodometries, by Jonathan Goldberg, bear witness--is due not only to the influence of Bray and Foucault, but importantly to the influence that the various expositors exert on one another. Many of them characterize sodomy in a curious and dubious way. For Mario DiGangi, for example, "sodomite" was a term that "meant more than 'a man who has sex with another man,'" also indicating that "this particular man was treasonous, monstrous, heretical, and so on" (4; emphasis added). Bredbeck holds that while "sodomy meant 'sodomy,'" it also meant (sexually) "bestiality, lesbianism, heterosexual anal intercourse, [and] adultery," and (non-sexually) "minority or alien status, heresy, political insurgence, witchcraft and sorcery, ad infinitum" (xi-xii; emphasis mine). One does not know--is not told--where these expanded and indefinitely expansible conceptions of sodomy come from. I surmise from misapprehending Bray when he postulates certain connections between sodomy and other, specific, separate sexual and non-sexual vices. But these and other gay and lesbian scholars fail to grasp his distinctions and proceed to incorporate a much wider range of different vices into an open-ended, unprecedented, aberrant concept of sodomy. This drift away from the traditional meaning is carried even further by Jonathan Goldberg, who in Sodometries asserts that sodomy "functions neither solely to designate sex between men, nor is it only (perhaps not even primarily), a sexual term" (70; italics mine). He gives the Introduction therein the title "That Utterly Confused Category"; he intones the phrase throughout, indifferent to what Foucault meant by it; for him it serves as a license to define sodomy any way he pleases. (3) When gay and lesbian professors so miscomprehend the prose of contemporary historians whom they adulate, how will they fare when encountering the language of Shakespeare? That is a question I shall turn to now, sticking with Professor Goldberg. He is a leading light--very productive, much quoted--of the dominant clique in the Renaissance area of gay/lesbian literary studies and queer theory. (4)

Queering the Renaissance is a collection of essays edited by him, and in his own essay, on Romeo and Juliet, he argues that "the sexual field in which desire operates is the forbidden desire named sodomy" (228). Sodomy throughout the play takes only one form, that of anal sexuality performed by male or opposite-sex partners. The title is "Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs." (5) That last sound is a phonetic pun that announces the subject to be the open arse, or arses, of the young lovers. The title is precariously based on two passages, one a dialogue between Romeo and the Nurse and the other a monologue by Mercutio. When the Nurse asks, "Doth not rosemary and Romeo begin both with a letter?" Romeo answers, "Both with an R"--R1. And R2 comes with her rejoinder: "Ah, mocker, that's the dog's name. R is for the--." (6) The word she stops short of saying is probably "arse," which sounded to her as though it starts with an r. The Rs standing alone are called "open" for the sake of the titular gag, and while one R is Romeo's, neither is Juliet's; and the Nurse's conjectured, unuttered "arse" is no one's in particular.

The term "open arse" is feasibly Mercutio's. About to give up searching for Romeo after the Capulet ball, he imagines him sitting "under a medler tree" and wishing "his mistress" [i.e. Rosaline]
     were that kind of fruit
   As maids call medlers, when they laugh alone.
   O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
   An open[-arse], thou a pop'rine pear! (2.1.34-38)

Here the editorial emendation "arse" (the Folio has "open, or") is a convincing one, supported as it is by the fact that open-arse is a dialect name for the medler; and the poperine pear is supposed to resemble the male genitals. Anal intercourse, then, is adverted to, though just this once, and then in the optative mood, when Mercutio jokingly and lasciviously envisions it between Romeo and the chaste Rosaline, and hers is the fantasied "open arse." That is something, however, that is never ascribed to the two protagonists or any other character. The title is a true index to the contents, both in divulging them and in anticipating them as a falsification of the play.

Goldberg reads the tragedy as an orgy of "what the period might call sodomy" (225), here always buggery, the sole sex act referred to. The illusory sightings of anal coitus scattered through the essay include the following: Mercutio wants to share Romeo's bed and lie there under him; Romeo would make love to Tybalt and take him "from behind" (230-31); he also will take Night, personified as female, "from behind" (226-27); Romeo is twice penetrated from the rear by Cupid, and "Rosaline, armed like Diana, [may] hit his [posterior] mark" (231). Romeo and Juliet can have each other anally, "for either member of [a] couple could assume either position" (232). Their union, even when "legitimated by marriage"--as if marriage could have legitimated anal copulation--"continues to summon its allure from the unspeakable terrain of sodomy" (228). Juliet is "a dangerous flower" for Romeo to pluck, "dangerous ... because the desires she represents are closely allied to the forbidden sexual acts more usually thought of as taking place between men" (227). Yes, the young virginal lovers experience the joy of buggery on their wedding night!

Metaphors are consistently misconstrued. Juliet prays night to take the radiant Romeo after her death, and "cut him out in little stars ... to make the face of heaven so fine" etc. (3.2.21-23); Goldberg explicates the lines, "When she thinks about having sex with Romeo, she imagines cutting him up in little pieces" (226). He makes her a sadist as well as a sodomite. When Romeo exclaims on "the light through yonder window" that "It is the east, and Juliet is the sun" (2.2.2-3), the sun, being male, turns her into a male, and she becomes his Apollo (225). Juliet's "That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet" (2.2.43-44) is said to "liken [Romeo's name] to the rose that remains itself whatever it is called" (221). No, she does not compare a name with a flower; rather, she analogizes the word for rose with her beloved's name of Montague. This figurative rose is made to bear enormous interpretative weight: it is "most literally Rosaline's name misspelled" (227), and Juliet is "that rose, and thereby Rosaline renamed," while another "identification ... locates Romeo in the place of the rose, and thus in Rosaline's place" (221-222). This is part of "the infinite replaceability of the rose" and the "plot of replacement" which has characters constantly supplanting one another (223, 225).

This "plot" is related to the idea of gender destabilization, the way males morph into females and vice versa. As Juliet is "masculinized" by Romeo's sun-metaphor, so is he, as he says, "made ... effeminate" by her "beauty" (3.1.115-17). The adjective "effeminate" here means deficient in virile virtues such as valor, as the context should make clear, and carries no suggestion of a sex or gender change. Rosaline "is so little of a woman that she might as well be a man," and for the rest of the essay she is regarded as one (224).

"Readings" of Romeo and Juliet, "written from whatever position"--in particular from the contested formalist and feminist positions--"that seek to enforce a compulsory heterosexuality" and "gender binarism" have to be opposed on "ideological grounds," for such readings "must be complicit with the domestication of women and with the scapegoating of men (often by palming off the ills of heterosexuality on homosexuality)" (227). This may strike one as less a serious political and social agenda, which this critical performance would fail to advance in any case, than a tactic of coercion: either you give up thinking that Romeo and Juliet have fixed genders, heterosexual desires, and sexual intercourse, and adopt my ano-sodomitical view of the play, or you abet the oppression of women and gays.

Between Goldberg's account of the drama and its literal detail the discrepancy is radical. Only the names of the dramatis personae remain the same, and even then he may assign new parts, as he does in giving Rosaline a major role. She also functions for him as a principal conductor of "energy." He often alludes to a kind of energy that suffuses Romeo and Juliet but is not contained within it, for it is not conceived of as an autonomous work such as formalism would assume it to be; the energies break out of its boundaries and flow through Rosaline in unbroken currents from the tragedy into the dark-lady sonnets and into the Rosaline and Rosalind of Love's Labor's Lost and As You Like It. (7) Just what these energies are, how they traverse separate works, and how to detect them are questions never raised. Insofar as literary theory connotes the elucidation of critical methodology, this criticism is untheorized.

Professor Goldberg has another, later essay that he calls "The Anus in Coriolanus." This play also deals with anal erotics, but here the anal penetration takes a quite different and distinctly modern form. What "motivated this inquiry" (266) is the impassioned speech Aufidius makes when he welcomes the fugitive Coriolanus to his house in Actium. He says,
   Thou has beat me out
   Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
   Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me;
   We have been down together in my sleep,
   Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throats ... (4.5.121-25)

"Fisting" means grasping (OED). But not for Goldberg, to whom these lines imply "a relationship between the fisted throat and the vagina," on the basis of Aufidius's having just associated the arrival of his enemy with the arrival of his "wedded mistress" at his threshold (4.5.117-18). The throats in the dream are here understood not as grasped externally but as entered internally by a fist thrust into the mouth. As cavities they then enable the vaginal association--and an anal one. "[T]he scene of fisting also must be read as a displacement of anal sex to the mouth" (266-67; italics mine). This statement is cryptic until glossed in Goldberg's second footnote. There we learn that he distributed a pictorial "image" when he presented the essay as a paper at the 1994 meeting of the Shakespeare Association (260). The image, drawn to illustrate a work of fiction, "shows a fist emerging from a throat against an intestinal background." This "fisted throat ... is connected viscerally to a suggestion of anal fisting," and the "image thus makes explicit what I argue for in [this] reading of Coriolanus" (269 n2; emphasis added). "Fisting," the shortened form of a cruder term, is a practice invented by gay men in the late 1960s. It consists of one man's inserting his clenched fist and forearm into the rectum of another. Foucault reportedly called the practice "our century's only brand-new contribution to the sexual armamentarium" (Halperin, Saint Foucault 92). Goldberg's phrase "the scene of fisting" (267), while fitting for a San Francisco bathhouse or sex club of the 1970s, is a bizarre prochronism with regard to any Jacobean or ancient Roman scene. Yet anal fisting, symbolized by the fist against intestines in the illustration, is the form of sex that Aufidius supposedly dreams of enjoying with Coriolanus. Goldberg goes even further, with the suggestion that "Aufidius's dream [as interpreted by him] may be Shakespeare's, too" (269). (8)

Holding that "hetero- and homosexuality are profound misnomers for the organization of sex in Shakespeare's time" ("Romeo" 227), Goldberg discards these outmoded categories and, from a postmodern perspective, replaces them with the notions of copulative and fisted anal sex. His typical maneuver is to project the critic's libidinous fantasies, in a Rorschach-like manner, upon disobliging texts.


"A commonplace of gay and lesbian studies," writes Mario DiGangi, is that "'homosexuality' is a modern concept that cannot be applied, without a great deal of historical distortion, to the early modern period" (1). The concept is inapplicable because considered anachronistic, not only for its origin in nineteenth-century medical and social science, but also for always denoting historically distorted sexual orientation or identity. This "commonplace" derives mainly from the passage wherein Foucault juxtaposes sodomy with homosexuality (43), as that passage is understood by most gay/lesbian/queer scholars in departments of literature. (9)

"Homosexual" is the ordinary, everyday word for "sexual desire or behavior directed toward a person or persons of one's own sex" (Random House Unabridged Dictionary). That is a typical dictionary definition and indisputably a record of current English usage. Those who would restrict or tailor this meaning to fit their doctrines are misguided. The word may but does not necessarily imply sexual orientation. In the sentence, for example, "He is not homosexual but indulged in prison in homosexual sex," the first use of the term refers to sexual identity, the second to sexual acts.

A Greek-Latin hybrid (homo is the Greek for "same"), "homosexual" was coined in Germany in 1869 by a writer, translator, and advocate of justice for the sexually oppressed male minority whose name was Karoly Maria Kertbeny. He also coined "heterosexual" (Encyclopedia 1: 532, 659-60). He made the rather dubious claim for himself of an opposite-sex orientation. If true, he would be the first person ever to be labeled, but certainly not therefore the first one in history to be, heterosexual; or if the claim is disingenuous, the first person ever self-designated, but by no means the first to be, homosexual. His invention turned out to be quite consequential, and his hitting on the Greek element homo- especially fortuitous. Besides winning out over rival terms to become the standard signifier (Hertzer 11-12, 15-18), "homosexual" proved remarkably fruitful, engendering the basic vocabulary used to discuss same-gender erotics for well over a century. The offspring includes the homo- words "homoerotic," "homophile," "homosocial," and "homophobia," and the adjectives "same-sex" (with homo Englished) (10) and "male-male"/"female/female" (where homo/"same" is implicit in the repetition). And "heterosexual" could not have existed unless and until its counterpart had set up the need for it. "Bisexual" is likely to have sprung from "homo-" and "hetero-." The originative word and its spin-offs are the sine qua non of writings about homosexuality as we know them.

Medical and psychiatric scientists, then, did not devise "homosexual"; they borrowed the term instead. Not until 1892 did it, along with "heterosexual" and "bisexuality," move from German into English-in C. G. Chaddock's translation of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis. Bray, however, moves back the birth date in England, not of the signifier but of the personality type he deems signified, to the late seventeenth century (114). Though conceived by Kertbeny, the word "heterosexual," appropriated from him, first appeared in print in 1880 in a pamphlet by a German zoological professor (Herzer 6; Encyclopedia I: 660). Yet the word has met with unquestioning acceptance in the commentary, where one keeps running across it in the odd coupling of "homoerotic" and "heterosexual." "Homoerotic," with both its elements Greek, is etiologically more graceful than "homosexual," and it has become the favored replacement word among gay/lesbian scholars. They are apparently unaware of its source. The originator, in German, was a colleague of Freud, Sandor Ferenczi, who, Freud has written, gave "homosexuality" the "better name" of "homo-eroticism" (7: 146-47). Hence this later synonym, translated into English in 1916 (OED), did emerge out of psychoanalysis, carries the same baggage as the word displaced, and yet is arbitrarily thought to be perfectly suitable for studies of the Renaissance. Those who would police terminology should really be better informed. To keep on using "homoerotic" and "heterosexual" or "same-sex," while prohibiting "homosexual" as time-restricted and misleading, makes little sense in light of the background of these terms.

Stephen Orgel does not shy away from choosing the widely censured word. In Impersonations he identifies Antonio and Sebastian in Twelfth Night and Achilles and Patroclus as the only two "overtly homosexual couple[s] in Shakespeare" (51). He is roughly correct about the former pair, whose love I take up at length in "The Two Antonios," but more about that later. The main if not exclusive reason for believing the Greek couple of Troilus and Cressida to be homosexual is provided by Thersites when he contemptuously calls Patroclus Achilles's "brach" (2.1.114) and later his "Male varlot" and "masculine whore" (5.1.15-17). For Orgel these allegations are valid; for Gregory Bredbeck they are "slurs." For him Thersites's "construction" of a "sodomitical Patroclus," even buttressed by Ulysses' "catamitical" characterization of him at the Greek council, is fictitious, because incompatible with the heroic status and actions of the character (39-40, 43)--as if homoeroticism and heroism could not cohere in the same person. Antonio is presented in Twelfth Night as homosexual and also noble and courageous. On the question of sexual intimacy between Achilles and Patroclus, some support can be found for an answer either way. That any sexual desire in the friendship might be one-sided is something to consider, and something else is Achilles as bisexual (as Sebastian is). We get from one writer a homosexual and from the other a non-sodomitical Patroclus. One does not show himself to have, nor seems to have, sufficiently delved into the wealth of textual evidence pertaining to this question; the other delves more into it but does not reason to a reliable conclusion.

The language Thersites adopts in making the charge is insulting and degrading. His are, I believe, the only homophobic remarks to be found anywhere in the plays. Thersites is of course no authorial mouthpiece. He is scurrilous, nasty, jaundiced, and his homophobia is in keeping with his character. Still, Shakespeare refrains from putting "sodomite" in his mouth (but Bredbeck puts the concept in his mind), possibly because that medieval term would be out of place in the speech of an ancient Greek. But I doubt that that is why, since anachronisms turn up often enough in Shakespeare. A more likely reason is his being "sodomy"-phobic.

One overtly homosexual couple in Shakespeare that Orgel either over-looked or chose not to mention is the male couple of the Sonnets, the poet and "the master mistress of [his] passion" (20. 2). Their amorous liaison, particularly as manifested in sonnets 1-126, is the most extensive, fully developed, and in-depth representation of love in the Shakespearean canon. Antonio's erotic attachment to the young Sebastian, though on a much smaller scale, is the nearest thing the plays have to offer to the sonneteer's romantic love for the young beauty. Although gay and lesbian commentators are inclined to spot amorous bonds between friends of the same gender in the plays, doing so at times carelessly and mistakenly, they often decline, for some reason, to recognize how the friendship in the love-sonnet sequence is depicted as sexual in both desire and practice.

In "The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice" I argue that the shared love between Antonio and Sebastian is amorous, is eros, in contrast to that between Antonio, merchant of Venice, and Bassanio, which is amicable, non-sexual friendship. No prior studies of the two comedies had made such a distinction; the large majority of them had missed or denied a sexual dimension to either friendship, and the others had affirmed the amatory nature of the love of the Antonio(s) discussed. My approach was, fundamentally, to collect and analyze the textual evidence that could and did secure the homoerotic character of the Antonio-Sebastian relationship; and in examining it I sought criteria for determining whether or not the amity of Antonio and Bassanio is likewise presented as homosexual. That it is not was the conclusion clearly indicated by the criteria ascertained (220-21). I use the expression "same-sex love" in the title not because I eschew "homosexual" but to allude to both the male love which is and that which is not erotic. An alternative would have been "homosocial"--it does once occur within the article--which refers indifferently to erotic and non-erotic male bonding; the word appeals to many precisely because of this inherent ambiguousness (214). DiGangi dismisses. "The Two Antonios" out of hand because my use of "homosexual" (instead of just "homoerotic") and of "bisexual" (instead of what?) automatically attributes to the characters "a modern notion of 'sexual orientation'" (163).

The main plot of Twelfth Night orchestrates variations on the theme of bisexuality. The word here bears its normal English sense of "sexually responsive to both sexes" (Random House Unabridged). The variations are manifested in these four characters: Sebastian, who attracts and responds erotically to both Olivia and Antonio; Olivia, "betroth'd both to a maid and man" (5.1.265)--the maid being Viola-Cesario and the man her twin and masculine displacement Sebastian; Viola, "all the daughters of my father's house, / And all the brothers too" (2.4.120-21), in her blending of genders being homo- and heterosexually desired and responsive; and Orsino, who proposes marriage to a girl he has known and come to love only as a male servant, has seen only in masculine attire, has addressed only with the masculine name Caesario and never once as Viola, and who when proposing to her calls her "boy" (5.1.267). The homoerotic element of these bisexual proclivities, I contend, will not vanish but will persist in the characters in diverse ways even after marriage (206-10).

Antonio is the exception. His desire remains fixed on one male. He does not suffer on that account, though the critical consensus has it that he does, and that Antonio the Venetian merchant does as well. Bachelors if not something worse, deviants, both are uniquely unpartnered, sad and lonely figures at the end, dejected and rejected. That misapprehension is intruded upon both comedies by expositors and directors with attitudes more conventional and conservative and less generous than Shakespeare's. It can be established with solid textual backing that each Antonio is a welcomed member of the felicitous community that emerges at closure, and that each is even incorporated, though each in a different way, in the marriage of his friend (206, 218-20). So lucky Sebastian ends up with his adoring companion besides a rich and gorgeous wife, with two loves of comfort and delight. And bisexuality provides another affinity between Twelfth Night and the Sonnets, where the poet gives expression to passionate love for his "master mistress" and lustful passion for his female mistress.

Valerie Traub says at the outset of "The (In)Significance of 'Lesbian' Desire in Early Modern England" that "lesbian desire" in her title is "a deliberate come-on," and that she will eschew "lesbian" thereafter, because the term is even later than "the medico-scientific label of homosexuality" and neither belonged to the "conceptual framework" of Shakespeare's time (62-63). Neither did "homoerotic" or "heterosexual," but all the same she employs these words repeatedly. Even odder is her choice of "femme." The term appears throughout the essay, in expressions such as "'femme-femme' love" or "femme woman," and is used "not a little anachronistically" and despite the fact that it might connote "modern erotic identity" (69, 83). The word seems to have been lifted from homosexual slang, which it may have entered in the 1960s, and it denotes not all lesbians but just those of a certain type, the opposite type of those defined as "butch."

The "theatrical 'femme'" is so called because she is the subject of "female homoerotic desire" and is a character in plays, those of Shakespeare and a few other dramatists; and her kind is important for supplying the only record we have of such desire as it existed in early modern England. This thesis will be successfully argued, then, insofar as Traub persuasively shows that the characters selected for examination--those from Shakespeare being Titania and Helena in A Midsummer's Night's Dream and Celia in As You Like It--do harbor and express sexual love for a female companion.

The fairy subplot of the earlier comedy supposedly stages "the eradication of homoerotic desire," that of Titania for her votaress and the mother of the changeling boy. This boy, the focus of the conflict between Titania and Oberon, is, we are told, the "representative of female-oriented (sic) erotic bonds" and "the manifest link of a prior homoerotic affection between [the two] women" (72). This assignment of homoeroticism to the female friendship is simply asserted, absent any textual evidence whatsoever. Oberon does take revenge by inflicting a sexual humiliation on his queen, but her offence is very clearly her refusal to surrender the boy and not her infatuation with his mother, and it's her handing him over that resolves the conflict.

A slightly better case can be made in the instances of Helena's response to Hermia in the same play and of Celia's to Rosalind in As You Like It, for Traub can cite avid speeches in which intimacies of girlhood and adolescence are recollected in adversity. In quoting at length one of Helena's, she leaves out the lines just before that tell of "sister's vows" and "school-days friendship, childhood innocence" (3.2.199-212), and ignores the undermining later line that brands Hermia "a vixen when she went to school" (3.2.224). Traub jumps to the conclusion that the girls' love recalled in these speeches is amatory, which is doubtful despite such phrases as Helena's "two seeming bodies, but one heart," or Celia's "... like Juno's swans / Still we went, coupled and inseparable" (1.3.75-76)--phrases that hardly seem in context to convey erotic intimations. Polixenes in The Winter's Tale, recalling the happy, carefree boyhood days he spent with Leontes, describes a stage of innocence that preceded the advent of puberty and desire for the opposite sex (1.2.67-74). Hermia is recalling the same kind of state, and the difference between their speeches is gender-based, reflecting commonly recognized differences between boys' and girls' behaviors. The love she recounts is pre-venereal, without sensuality, and transmuted with the sexual awakening that occurs, as a comedic rule quite suddenly, when the right man comes along, an Orlando or Demetrius or Lysander, with whom the young woman spontaneously falls in love. But Traub takes quite another view of the matter. For her the female love is homoerotic, though "not a psychosexual necessity--that is, a developmental movement through progressive erotic stages," such as a Freudian might see it. Rather, "an economic, political imperative" is imposed with the "onset of marriage," when "each woman is resecured in the patriarchal, reproductive order," and when the "independent desires of female bodies become a focus of male anxiety and heterosexual retribution" (72-73). The marriages that conclude these comedies, then, far from bringing happiness and desire-fulfillment to the young lovers, arouse anxious and hostile feelings in the men and mean for the brides a homoerotic paradise lost. This postmodern version of the comedies, largely determined by the critic's choice of historical/theoretical and lesbian/feminist approaches, departs significantly from the critical version attainable through an exacting perusal of the two comic scripts. Lesbian, gay, and feminist social agendas are great causes, to be sure, but they are served less effectively by literary criticism that contains doubtful readings of Shakespeare.

The one clear-cut reference to lesbianism that might be attributable to Shakespeare occurs in The Two Noble Kinsmen (2.2.118-52), in an increasingly lascivious exchange between Emilia and her waiting-woman not cited by Traub. She does succeed in locating homoerotic "theatrical 'femmes'" in two non-Shakespearean Jacobean plays, one by Heywood and one by Shirley. Her essay, however questionable in some respects, is informative in others, and well written.


At first glance my title may appear to contain a redundancy, since "sodomy" and "homosexuality" can be used synonymously, and in the middle ages and Renaissance the former term as a rule signified same-gender, usually male, sexual relations. "Sodomy," a medieval concept, was available to Shakespeare, as the other concept, dating from the nineteenth century, was not. Yet he chose never to employ the word itself, or any of its related forms, or other derogatory locutions akin to it, such as "catamite." Lesbian and gay critics have passed over or played down that omission, but it is noteworthy that whenever his subject was erotic experience, hetero- or homo-, in the Sonnets, the comedies, or elsewhere, he did not and would not brand it sodomitical. I suspect he was repelled by the whole idea, which would have posed a threat to his persona in the Sonnets. That is confirmed by 121, "Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed." Here the speaker defends himself against nameless accusers who, as my explication shows in Such Is My Love (98-101), think him "vile" for his passionate liaison with the fair friend. Our "just pleasure" is by them "deem'd" vile, though blameless in "our feeling"; they willfully "count bad" the erotic involvement that "I think good"; "By their rank thoughts my [amorous] deeds must not be shown" (lines 1-4, 8, 12). The vice the homophobic reproachers have in mind, while unspecified, is unmistakable: sodomy is the charge the poet resists letting sully his sexual love for the youth.

The source of "homosexual" is often wrongly supposed to have been scientific; the source of "sodomy" is known to be theology, whence it carries strong homophobic connotations. The sexual sense of "homosexual" is built in and kept intact; the sexual sense of "sodomy" is diluted and sometimes lost in commentaries by gay and lesbian Shakespeareans. They would banish "homosexual" from discourse on Renaissance literature for being anachronistic and thus distortive and implicative of essentialism. (11) "Sodomy," which they espouse, while not anachronistic, has turned out, as I hope to have shown, to be the distorting conception.

Both concepts are involved in the historicizing and theorizing processes. To repudiate the word "homosexuality" in one's own study and decry its presence in other studies, while resorting to "sodomy" instead, would seem to comprise the historicist part. A doctrinaire distinction between sodomitical acts and homosexual identity seems to constitute the theoretical part. This entrenched doctrine is disputable. Sodomy could be more than a category of forbidden acts, could be conceived of as habitual, a personality trait, even as inborn; and "homosexual" can refer to acts as well as to identities. If the sodomite was the juridical subject of legal codes, so is the homosexual the juridical subject of so-called sodomy laws, still in effect in some states. These laws criminalize acts, not sexual orientation. A mistaken assumption that the word imports orientation only and never acts helps account for the concerted efforts to proscribe it. But a funny thing happens when the homosexuality thrown out one door sneaks back in at another, though disguised, usually as homoeroticism, or with another alias, such as the adjectives "same-sex" or "male-male"/"female-female." "Homoeroticism" is an exact synonym, though for being later and psychoanalytically generated and endorsed by Freud, it should, logically, have been even more disallowable. Kertbeny's creation "homosexual" is, in fact, the matrix of a number of the terms that serve to convey same-gender sexual attraction, and of other such derivatives as "homophobic" and "homosocial." Yet a group of gay/lesbian literary scholars with a clique mentality--they praise, support, and cite one another, they follow a party line, and they disparage those who do not--endeavor to saddle the word with a coinage fallacy and undue semantic limits.

In closing I want to suggest ways in which future studies of Shakespeare might avoid some of the difficulties that have beset various recent studies. Sodomy, whatever part it may have played in early modern thought about same-sex intimacies, has little or no place in Shakespearean criticism, where it is textually unwarranted and largely counterproductive. The notion should be withdrawn and rethought, if not dropped altogether. The ill-considered ban on the term "homosexual" dogmatically and aggressively imposed by some expositors should certainly be dropped. (12) These recommendations principally pertain to gay and lesbian specialists in Shakespeare. But my other recommendations have a wider range of pertinence. Misconceived and misapplied theory and cultural contextualizations are not restricted to lesbian/gay scholarship, but occur whenever alien ideas or ungermane historical data are imposed on intractable texts. Most of the discursive problems encountered in the commentaries examined above result from misapprehensions of literary works and (ir)relevant documents.

And that brings me to my final and most important recommendation: the precedence to be accorded the Shakespearean text. Having been lost sight of in gay/lesbian and other criticism, it should be restored to priority, and precise and informed scrutiny of the dramatic and poetic language resurrected. Close reading or textual analysis seems to be a fading or lost art, and how detrimental that is to literary studies is shown by some of the critical performances appraised above. Accurate and disciplined exegesis need not be an end in itself, as its disparagement as formalism suggests, but is a practice instrumental and indispensable to any approach to literature--feminist, say, or new historicist or Marxist, as well as gay/lesbian. The study of the sexualities imagined by Shakespeare, in their homo- and bi- or hetero-sexual variations, is a vital scholarly enterprise, and a far-from-finished one. I very much hope that some students and younger professors of literature in lesbian/gay or gender studies will undertake the work yet to be done and manage to avoid the mistakes made by some of their predecessors.

NOTE: The title of this article is incorrectly given on the original page 117, in the page headings, and in the table of contents. The author's title is the one printed below on this insert.


1. This discussion supplements one in the last section of my "Standpoints on the Sexualities of the Sonnets" (32-45). There my procedure, judgments, and conclusions are in line with those here. That article, however, focuses on commentary on Shakespeare's Sonnets, this on studies of his plays.

2. For an excellent exposition of homosexuality in the works of Marlowe; see Claude Summers ("Marlowe" 34-43); he also offers a trenchant assessment of Bray's methodology and conclusions (27-34).

3. Even if "sodomy" were as multivalent as these scholars contend, the context would ordinarily make the word's meaning clear. Marlowe is alleged to have said, for instance, "that St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ ... and that he used him as the sinners of Sodom" (Bray 64). Here is blasphemy, no doubt, but it is the speaker's, and he is obviously not thinking of the male bedfellows as engaging in witchcraft, heresy, or anything other than sex.

4. Among a few dissenting voices is, most notably, that of Claude Summers, whose insightful critiques of Sodometries occur in "Marlowe" (28-31) and in his review of the book.

5. In the table of contents the italics are reversed to produce the altered title "Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs." The writer has a weakness for zany titles.

6. 2.4.205-10. All citations of Shakespeare will be to The Riverside Shakespeare.

7. Inasmuch as roses attract this energy, it ought to seek out the young man rather than the dark lady in the Sonnets, where he, not she, is the rose (cf. 109. 13-14; 54; 99. 8-13).

8. Anal sexuality shows up quite a lot in Shakespeare's works when construed by this professor. He manages to discover in the exchange between Henry and Burgundy on the subject of betrothal, near the end of Henry V (5.2.306-14), that "gender difference is transgressed ... through anal sexual relations," and some of Henry's lines (312-14) are "ambiguous," for "it is not clear whether the king imagines himself taken a tergo or whether that is how he imagines having Katharine." And "the old bedpresser" Falstaff "knows where to get the prince ... in the latter end." Hal, comparing the male sun to a "fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta" in 1 Henry IV (1.2.9-10), refers to himself in drag and "virtually admits his pleasure lies" in being used anally ("Desiring Hal," Sodometries 158, 174). With regard to The Merchant of Venice, "ring and anus are identical" in Latin--a "point not lost in the final scene" ("Anus," 269n); and for anal allusions in A Midsummer Night's Dream, see 265, 270n.

9. Foucault constructs in this paragraph a very ugly composite portrait of the homosexual drawn from the writings of experts in mental health of the later nineteenth century (43). One should not presume, though some of his readers do, that the attitudes of these professionals are all preserved intact in "homosexual" when we use it today. In "Forgetting Foucault" David Halperin maintains his long-held opinion that the word is inapplicable to sexual behaviors before 1876 or so. He promotes this belief by encumbering the term with three "conceptual entities"--one psychiatric, one psychoanalytic, and one sociological--that, as exposited, are not compatible among themselves, and supposes that the word, whenever used, carries this complex semantic load (108). In borrowing a term a discipline does not thereby own it. In "One Hundred Years," however, Halperin did include a common-sense, realistic definition and one in accord with that furnished by dictionaries of English: "the modern term 'homosexual' does indeed refer to any person, whether ancient or modern, who seeks sexual contact with another person of the same sex" (28; emphasis added).

The Renaissance had, in "masculine love," a term equivalent to "homosexuality," as Joseph Cady has demonstrated. But the term had pejorative connotations (22) and does not occur in Shakespeare.

10. The adjective "same-sex" was first used by Margaret Mead in 1949. but with the different sense it bears in "the same-sex parent" (OED, under "same"). The word in its synonymity with "homosexual" feasibly derived therefrom. "Bisexual" as adjective and noun did not enter English before 1914, later than the form "bisexuality" (OED).

11. In Alan Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England and Bruce Smith's Homosexuality in Shakespeare's England, as also in K. J. Dover's classic study, Greek Homosexuality, the term occurs not only in the titles but throughout the studies, and this has not led them into "historical distortion." It may be just a coincidence that these books are so much better than those cited above with "sodomy" in their titles.

12. Some may wish to use "homosexual" as an adjective but not as a noun in referring to early modern figures, a practice I myself follow, actually, though without getting upset when somebody labels such a figure a homosexual. I think it far preferable so to label Antonio, Sebastian's lover, than to call him a sodomite, a marker that would be a real violation of Shakespeare's invention and intention.

Works Cited

Aquinas, St. Thomas. Commentary on the "Nicomachean Ethics." Trans. C. I. Litzinger, O. P. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1964.

______. Summa theologiae. Latin text with English trans. by the Dominican Fathers. 61 vols. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.

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

Bredbeck, Gregory W. Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Cady, Joseph. "'Masculine Love,' Renaissance Writing, and the 'New Invention' of Homosexuality." Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Context. Ed. Claude J. Summers. New York and London: Haworth Press, 1992. 9-40.

DiGangi, Mario. The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. Ed. Wayne R. Dynes. 2 vols. New York and London: Garland, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Freud, Sigmund. "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality." "I. The Sexual Aberrations." SE. Ed. James Stratchey. Vol. 7. London: The Hogarth Press, 1953. 135-72.

Goldberg, Jonathan. "The Anus in Coriolanus." Historicism, Psychoanalysis, and Early Modern Culture. Ed. Carla Massio and Douglas Trevor. New York and London: Routledge, 2000. 260-71.

______, ed. Queering the Renaissance. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1994.

______. "Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs." Goldberg, Queering 218-35.

______. Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992.

Halperin, David M. "Forgetting Foucault: Acts, Identities, and the History of Sexuality." Representations 63 (1998): 93-120.

______. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.

______. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Herzer, Manfred. "Kertbeny and the Nameless Love." Journal of Homosexuality 12 (1985): 1-23.

Jordan, Mark D. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Orgel, Stephen. Impersonations: The performance of gender in Shakespeare's England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Pequigney, Joseph. "Sodomy in Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio." Representations 36 (1991): 22-42.

______. "Standpoints on the Sexualities of the Sonnets." The Shakespearean International Yearbook. Ed. John M. Mucciolo, Graham Bradshaw, and Angus Fletcher. Vol. 2. Aldershot, Eng.: Ashgate, 2002. 32-46.

______. Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

______. "The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice." English Literary Renaissance 22 (1992): 201-21.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Smith, Bruce R. Homosexuality in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Summers, Claude. "Marlowe and Constructions of Renaissance Homosexuality." Canadian Review of Comparative Literature (1994): 27-44.

______. Rev. of Sodometries, by Jonathan Goldberg. Journal of Homosexuality 29 (1995): 119-23.

Traub, Valerie. "The (In)Significance of 'Lesbian' Desire in Early Modern England." Goldberg, Queering 62-83.

Joseph Pequigney

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