James M. Bromley, Intimacy and Sexuality in the Age of Shakespeare.
Critics have been queering the Renaissance for some time now. In fact, it has been nearly ten years since 'Ten Years since Queering the Renaissance', an MLA paper session organised by Madhavi Menon in order to assess the impact of Jonathan Goldberg's germinal book on the field of Renaissance studies. More recently, scholars have started taking stock of what has become a rather robust body of queer Renaissance scholarship. On schedule for the 2013 Meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America is a roundtable called 'Queer and Now: New Directions'. Among those scheduled to participate in this roundtable is James M. Bromley, author of Intimacy and Sexuality in the Age of Shakespeare.
Bromley's book on what he terms 'failures of intimacy' does indeed represent a compelling new direction for queer Renaissance studies. In deploying the concept of failure, Bromley shares Judith Halberstam's interest in the queer possibilities activated by non-teleological approaches to art. But whereas Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure (2011) focuses on the queerness of failure in contemporary cultural contexts, Bromley's book considers the interplay between early modern articulations of failure and the non-teleological reading strategies available both to early modern and modern readers. Thus Bromley negotiates historical and cultural difference without foreclosing on the queer possibilities texts offer future audiences. Figured in this way, Bromley's 'failures of intimacy' are simultaneously embedded in and untethered from their milieux; what is more, they belong not only to the texts and their characters but also to audiences who at different places and times have found them meaningful.
What, then, does Bromley mean by 'failures of intimacy'? And what do they tell us about early modern and/versus contemporary figurations of intimacy and sexuality? In his introduction, Bromley historicises intimacy, arguing that '[d]uring the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the intimate sphere coalesced around relations characterized by two elements: interiorized desire and futurity' (p. 1). The increasing valuation of these elements helps explain the eventual rise of companionate marriage as the normalising model of intimacy. During early modernity, however, discourses of intimacy remained in constant flux, allowing for the articulation of alternative intimate relations bearing no resemblance to long-term monogamy and reproductive futurism. These alternative relations constitute 'failures of intimacy' only insofar as they fail to conform to marital intimacy--which is to say, they are not failures at all. Superficial and situational, these relations offer pleasurable alternatives to the increasingly dominant discourse of companionate marriage.
In privileging literary representations, Bromley aims to show that alternative intimacies are available in a wide range of texts. Thus two chapters focus primarily on poetry, three on drama. More precisely, Chapter One is devoted to Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander; Chapter Two to William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well and Cymbeline; Chapter Three to Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher's Philaster and The Maid's Tragedy and Thomas Middleton's The Nice Valour; Chapter Four to Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, the anonymous Merry Devil of Edmonton and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure; and Chapter Five to Lady Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus and The Countess of Montgomery's Urania. As this assortment suggests, Bromley endeavors to locate 'failures of intimacy' not only in an array of genres but in a diverse sampling of canonical and non-canonical works. Liberating himself from the strictures of author- and genre-specific studies, his book captures the multiplicity of alternative intimacies Renaissance texts depict.
This multiplicity is amplified by the attention given to strategies for reading. Rather in the same way that he navigates between normative and counternormative intimacies in literary works, Bromley proposes a hermeneutic that opens up, rather than cordoning off, possibilities for queer reading practices. 'Even when they are not explicitly pointed to a counternarrative by an author or a text', Bromley writes, 'readers still can perform a kind of bricolage with the unassimiable, transgressive, and pleasurable elements that are even part of representations hostile to queer affections' (p. 20). In refusing to follow the text's trajectory toward narrative closure, such readers engage in non-teleological reading practices that further expand the possibilities for intimate counternarratives.
As his methodology suggests, Bromley intends his study to be suggestive rather than exhaustive and on this count his book does not disappoint. In each chapter Bromley deftly shows how alternate intimacies find expression, even as the texts in which they appear strive to disavow them. In Chapter One Bromley models his own reading strategy, demonstrating that the middle space of Hero and Leander provides examples of intimate relations between men that are situational and non-penetrative. Chapter Two focuses on the anus as a site of pleasure that men are expected to repudiate in favor of marriage and reproductive futurism. Although All's Well and Cymbeline both stage this reorientation of desire, neither play is able to rid itself of counternarratives. Chapter Three looks at masochistic pleasures, which are concentrated at the body's surface and which reconceive domination as equitable enjoyment. Ultimately Beaumont and Fletcher's and Middleton's plays condemn such intimacies; nevertheless, they are staged for spectators to gaze upon. Chapter Four explores the alternative intimacies of convents, which threaten Protestant nationhood. The plays Bromley covers in this chapter differ in their representations of convent life--in Measure for Measure, for example, Isabella is drawn both to the convent's communal relations and its cultivation of pleasure through restraint--but the threat nuns pose to marriage and to nationhood are demonstrably clear, requiring a narrative arc toward marital closure that cannot finally dissolve fantasies about communal life exclusive of men. Chapter Five introduces cross-racial female-female affection, which Wroth represents in the bond between Pamphilia and the personification of Night. Legible in both Pamphilia to Amphilanthus and The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, this intimate counternarrative posits scenarios where white women desire black women, even if these affections are deployed to advance marriage and heterosocial coupling.
This very brief overview of the book's contents should provide at least some sense of its impressive range. All the more impressive, however, is Bromley's commitment to a methodology that accommodates diverse, even contradictory readings of Renaissance works. Indeed, there is no 'Great Paradigm Shift' to be found in Bromley's book and that is in keeping with his non-teleological approach to the texts and the practices of their readers. The epilogue does glance forward to contemporary literature and the dearth of intimate counternarratives available to couples such as Ennis and Jack in Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain. Bromley's point, though, is that while modern notions of intimacy invoke a specific form of relationality, queer readers need not accede to this normalising vision. Instead, we could accept Bromley's invitation to a queer life and the abundant diversity of counternarratives already available to us. That Bromley succeeds in striking a balance between historically informed and playfully irreverent readings of Renaissance texts leaves little doubt that Intimacy and Sexuality in the Age of Shakespeare represents an important and timely intervention in queer early modern studies.
David L. Orvis
Appalachian State University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Orvis, David L.|
|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
|Previous Article:||Andreas Hofele, Stage, Stake, and Scaffold: Humans and Animals in Shakespeare's Theatre.|
|Next Article:||Monica Matei-Chesnoiu, Re-Imagining Western European Geography in English Renaissance Drama.|