James M. Bromley. Intimacy and Sexuality in the Age of Shakespeare.
As courtrooms and chat rooms across the nation fiercely debate which couples have the right to have their until-death-do-you-part unions recognized under law, some queer theorists have asked us to consider why marriage is considered the sine qua non of intimate relationality in the first place. James M. Bromley's book offers an important contribution to this conversation by providing a history of marriage's association with intimacy. Bromley locates "in the age of Shakespeare" an alternate conception of intimacy that, had it not ultimately been foreclosed, would have made the current marriage debates virtually moot. According to Bromley, the definition of intimacy often taken for granted today began to be codified in the early modern period, ultimately becoming the foundation for modern views of intimacy as inextricably linked to coupledom and heterosexual monogamy in particular. Marriage has come to be seen as the most privileged form of heterosexual monogamy because it presumably balances perfectly two key elements: interiorized desire and futurity. The first of these is the view of desire as internal to the subject such that to become intimate with another is to pursue "interpsychic connectedness" (4), penetrating beneath the surface of the body to something deeper below. The second key element in modern definitions of intimacy, Bromley explains, is the sense of a relationships potential to last into the future, evinced especially through the expectation that marriages produce offspring. Bromley's book shows that this two-part definition of intimacy was not fully instantiated in the early modern period, however; thus, it was still possible then to imagine "alternate forms of relationality" and to "challenge the authority of couple form intimacy" (2). For early modern writers, the intimate could be fleeting and nonpenetrative (as in the unconsummated desire in Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander); nonreproductive (as in the anal pleasures of William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well); surface-level (as in the sadomasochistic skin markings that create pleasure in Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy); and experienced not between two individuals but among a group (as in the erotic exchanges of the cloistered nuns imagined in the anonymous The Merry Devil of Edmonton). Bromley demonstrates how a range of literary texts, including poetry, prose, and drama, represent these alternate forms of relationality, which he calls "failures of intimacy" (3)--failures not because they are unable to provide satisfaction and pleasure but because they do not interiorize desire and/or allow access to futurity.
The book's most original contribution to early modern studies and the history of sexuality can be found in its rethinking of interiority, an area that has received so much attention by scholars within and beyond these fields in the last several decades that there would appear to be nothing more to say on the subject. But Bromley points out that there is much at stake in querying the assumption, for instance, that desire is located on the inside of a body. He observes that critical approaches to inwardness--many of which are grounded in psychoanalytic views of desire and subjectivity--tend to be so invested in a distinction between internal and external spheres, with the former seen as hierarchically superior to the latter, that they overlook relationships that "reverse this hierarchy, make the external and internal equivalent, or completely avoid the distinction altogether" (13). In these latter relationships, intersubjective knowledge is not a precondition for or evidence of intimacy, as intimate pleasure can be found through "corporeal proximity and even anonymity" (14). The significance of Bromley's insights becomes especially clear in his discussion of masochism, a sexual practice that "locates pleasures at the body's surface, uncoupling inwardness from affective relations" (80). Insofar as the masochist sets the terms of his or her submission, this sexual practice has the potential to destabilize the supposedly entrenched social hierarchies of places like the Renaissance court, as it is depicted in Thomas Middleton's The Nice Valour. When the character Lapet in this play calls attention to the bruises he has taken, he uses his body's surface "as a transit point" (97) through which the theater audience may identify with him and imagine participating in this alternative form of sexual pleasure. The chapter on masochism is among several that showcase Bromley's keen and welcome attentiveness to the intersections between sexuality and gender. For instance, the pleasures of submission are not identically claimed by male and female characters, and Middleton's play explores the "gendered limits to the radical possibilities of masochism" and the degree to which "the volitional embrace of the position of a 'taker' is a male prerogative" (104). Bromley further argues that Middleton ultimately counters those limits by destabilizing gender identity itself.
In terms of methodology, each of the book's chapters focuses on one alternative form of intimacy through close readings of literary texts. Comparative Drama's readers will be most interested in chapters 2, 3, and 4, which focus on plays, though chapter 1 is worth perusing insofar as it sets up Bromley's overall method of reading texts against the grain: he resists the ideology of closure in texts that, while they introduce a range of alternatives to conventional heterosexual monogamy, ultimately seem to endorse the latter when they culminate in celebrations of marriage. Bromley maintains that simply by representing alternate pleasures, the texts open them up to readers as viable possibilities, regardless of what happens at the text's conclusion. As a technique of literary analysis, this kind of reading is not in and of itself novel. Indeed, reading against the grain of texts might be considered a staple of feminist and queer literary criticism, with many scholars challenging, for example, the "happy" endings of Shakespeare's comedies. But "non-teleological reading" (32) is particularly resonant and fitting in a project concerned with non-teleological forms of sexual practice and relationships that eschew investment in posterity. As Bromley puts it most clearly, "our sexual vocabulary, insofar as consummation is equated with penetration, conveys a teleological sense that penetration is the highest form of sexual activity, and our narrative vocabulary conveys a teleological sense that narrative ends are a privileged location for a text's meanings" (36).
Bromley's choices of texts are thoughtful, and the chapters offer detailed analyses of both canonical as well as many lesser-studied plays, including Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster. For readers unfamiliar with some of the plays Bromley discusses, the close analysis can be challenging to follow, but worth the effort as the texts beautifully illustrate and unpack the book's central arguments. Drama scholars might wish that Bromley had given more sustained attention to the distinctiveness of each of the literary forms he considers, however. For instance, given Bromley's fascinating discussion of interiority and futurity, one cannot help but wonder whether drama may have some privileged place in this study. After all, plays present character through exterior trappings more than internal cogitation and, in their temporal boundedness (a few hours' traffic on the stage), they appear to resist posterity. That said, Bromley's close readings of texts, regardless of genre, are persuasive and enlightening.
These close readings are informed by scholarship on the history and theory of sexuality, and especially by queer theorists Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant, whose important work on marriage and heteronormativity has not been as widely used by scholars working outside the modern American context. Bromley's dialogue with these scholars enriches not only his readings of literary texts, but also modern debates about marriage and "non-normative" forms of sexual practice. In his introduction Bromley aligns his cross-temporal approach with the "ahistoricism" advocated by some other queer theorists and critics like Madhavi Menon. This claim is not entirely convincing, for the book is, on the whole, deeply invested in historicist methods of reading literature. For instance, chapter 4 insists on the Spanish Armada as "an important historical context" (115) for Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay's critique of isolationism and the play's failure, in the end, to endorse the same-sex pleasures of the convent as a viable alternative to marriage. Bromley may adapt modern terminology from queer theory, but his primary project is to describe the "historical processes" (7) by which intimacy becomes associated with intersubjectivity/depth, futurity, heterosexual monogamy, and ultimately marriage. I point this out not as a critique of the book's method, but simply as a caveat to the book's advertising. Intimacy and Sexuality in the Age of Shakespeare does not so much challenge conventional approaches to history and temporality--as some other queer scholarship in and out of early modern studies has been attempting to do--as it does model the payoffs of carefully integrating historically informed literary criticism with modern theoretical approaches, such that each speaks back to the other. In terms of meeting this goal, the book is extremely successful. Bromley's grasp of the field of Renaissance sexuality studies, as well as queer theory, is abundantly evident in every chapter, making the book as informative as it is compelling.
University of California, Davis
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2012|
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