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date: 07 August 2020

(p. 247) Sexualities

It may seem surprising that a number of the seven essays in this section focus on ‘marriage’ and ‘the family’, key preoccupations of the initial outpouring of feminist Shakespeare scholarship in the 1980s. Approached through the lens of queer studies, however, marriage may appear less securely patriarchal and concepts of the family potentially more flexible than previously thought. Julie Crawford positions her analysis about early modern marriage and the family in the context of the US Supreme Court decision to legalize gay and lesbian marriage, precisely to resist the privileging of the romantic dyad as the only legitimate family form. Crawford challenges the presumptive knowledge about marriage that configures it as ‘the terminus for all same-sex relationships’ and ‘the solely determinative fact of early modern family life’. Providing a genealogy of how feminist, gay, and queer criticism has unwittingly contributed to the view of marriage as ‘restrictive and dyadic’ and its relation to homoeroticism as ‘dominant and deterministic’, Crawford turns to feminist historians’ attempts to ‘reclaim both the household and the family from this restrictive view’. Taking her cue from how this body of work diversifies the conjugal unit, she argues that this historiography does not merely create a place for homoeroticism within the history of the family, but helps to reclaim ‘modes of family life in which marriage’ is not ‘the centre of the family’. This revision of family, Crawford argues, can be seen in Shakespeare’s plays. Yet, the point of her return to Shakespeare is not to seek ‘lost possibilities in the past’, but to engage in ‘a productively deconstructive encounter with … the “fictitious unity” of the sexual regimes of the present’ and, to advocate ‘for the recognition of other kinds of family formations than those based solely in marriage’.

Kathryn Schwarz also locates her ‘impulse to reach beyond heterosexual dyads’ in terms of a critique of ‘domestic coupledom’, but she finds in Shakespeare’s plays a less flexible vision of attachment. Shakespeare’s comedies, she maintains, ‘present marriage as an extreme sexual practice, which, like all such practices, must be approached with considerable respect for its risks’. Schwarz’s reconsideration of the truism ‘comedies end (p. 248) in marriage’ reiterates Crawford’s concern that ‘the push towards suitable pairs reduces networks to far narrower commitments’, but she anatomizes the ‘social death’ that this push towards heterosexual coupledom imposes. Offering Richard III’s wooing of Anne over her husband’s corpse as a ‘shorthand for the marriages produced in Shakespearean comedies’, she unpacks the logic that defines ‘death and marriage as mutual causations’. The insight that comedies bind ‘socialized desire to social death’ in a logic of patrilineal succession means that ‘[s]ubjects propelled by exclusive desire and predestinate choice build narrow spaces of self-replication’, in which ‘injurious attachments replace dynamic intercourse with taxonomies of stillness’. The social death indexed to romantic marriage is propelled by ‘a misconceived instrumentality’ that misperceives marriage not only as individualized desire but providential history. Nevertheless, Shakespearean comedy’s ‘body count’, which places ‘exploitable and expendable bodies directly in our line of view’, can also train attention on melancholic figures and their ‘ad hoc intensities’, which gesture towards ‘a more commodious system of persons and bonds’ like those described by Crawford.

Likewise refusing the narrowing of options for attachment as being the sine qua non of erotic desire, Stockton places the question of Romeo and Juliet’s ‘marital urgency’ within the critical context of both the Supreme Court decision and the queer critique of futurity that has been influentially theorized in relation to the death drive. In an effort to reconcile presentism with historicism, he hones in on these methods’ respective claims on behalf of ‘the then and the now’. Situating his work within arguments about ‘the temporality of queerness’ and providing a brief account of the authorizing appeals made by presentists and historicists, he argues that both ‘camps’ have reified each others’ critical practices and fetishized the ‘then’ and the ‘now’, thereby exaggerating antagonisms. Side-stepping both ‘methodological vanguardism’ and the principled queer refusal of futurity, he finds in the video shorts of Sassy Gay Friend a gay, queer, and feminist intervention that, in disarming the seduction of the play’s equation of love and death, locates the friend ‘on the side of life, against the ostensible queerness of the death drive, and against Juliet’s suicidal embrace of the fierce urgency of now’.

Also taking up Romeo and Juliet (alongside Antony and Cleopatra) to explore the link between tragedy and queerness, Melissa Sanchez aims to expose ‘the impure motives and conflicted identifications’ that render heterosexual desire more ambivalent and perverse than it typically is given credit for. Treating heteroeroticism as ‘a site of tension rather than a monolithic structure’, she explores the forms of agency available to female subjects, including ‘pleasure, self-preservation, and self-promotion’. Genre is important here, for ‘tragedy as a genre is particularly concerned with the uncertain relation between freedom and determinism, agency and fate’; although tragedy ‘assumes that no action can be truly “free” ’, it also holds subjects accountable for their choices. Important as well is the ‘worldly situation in which one must act’. The kind of ‘uncertain agency’ she discovers in Juliet and Cleopatra is ‘based on conflicting desires and quotidian interests as well as the selfless ideals and ethical principles to which feminism in the abstract has committed itself’; this enables feminists ‘to reassess the relationship between patriarchy and heteroeroticism that tragedy has been largely assumed to sustain’ and to acknowledge that ‘challenges to heteronormative ideology may not always take the predictable and clear-cut form of refusing heteroerotic romance or marriage’.

(p. 249) Investment in complex pleasures is redoubled in Carol Thomas Neely’s essay which, by tracking a dizzying array of ‘perverse’ desires in The Merry Wives of Windsor, also argues against a monolithic view of heterosexuality. Extending the purview beyond female characters’ deviations from normative expectations, she details multiple characters’ pleasure in imagining or engaging in acts of erotic domination and violent revenge, humiliation and punishment, voyeurism, exhibitionism, fetishism, cuckoldry, and adultery. Such aggressive libidinal fantasies, she argues, ‘trouble assumptions of binary sexualities and fixed gender identity’. The multiple erotic triangles she anatomizes ‘fluidly form and reform’ between men, between women, and across genders, whether ‘old and young, single and married’. Marriage in Merry Wives is shown to be counter-intuitively ‘achieved and sustained by means of … same sex bonds and rivalries, with multiplying perverse pleasures, and with potentials for cuckoldry’.

How the early moderns represented early modern sexual practices, including their ‘perverse pleasures’, is the question animating Will Fisher’s contextualization of Venus and Adonis within a history of oral sex. Contrary to the dominant historiography that describes cunnilingus as largely unknown in the early modern era and, when acknowledged, roundly condemned, he presents an archive of materials that present a much more nuanced set of meanings. His analysis of medical writing, religious discourses, satire, popular literature, and pornography from 1600 to 1700 supports a reading of Venus’s invitation to Adonis to treat her body as a ‘park’ and to ‘[s]‌tray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie’ as an early representation of a woman’s invitation to her lover to pleasure her with his tongue. When this appropriation of the classical tradition of ‘landscape pornography’ is viewed in relation to post-Civil War pornography—which sometimes insists that cunnilingus was considered desirable not only by women but by men—Venus and Adonis appears less satiric of women’s erotic desires and more playfully appreciative of the range of satisfactions available to both men and women.

Although each of these essays takes some of its coordinates from queer theory, they do not speak with one voice. If Stockton, for instance, refutes the anti-normativity of Juliet’s death wish, Sanchez argues that Juliet’s choice of death provides a ‘disruptive response to the simplified equation of female heteroeroticism with the violence of normativity’. In emphasizing how desire circulates within Shakespearean comedy, Neely and Schwarz suggest that characters are slotted into premade positions, with the point of comedy being less individual desire than the filling of the slot. Nonetheless, their assessment of this circulation of desire reveals differing perspectives. In accord with a psychoanalytic understanding of fantasy, Neely celebrates polymorphous perversity as it infiltrates every relationship of Merry Wives, arguing that it undoes hierarchy. Merging her psychoanalytic perspective with political philosophy, Schwarz asks of desire’s circulation in Merchant of Venice, ‘what subsumptions and eliminations attend all that liberated erotic energy, and what damage do they do?’ ‘Who counts enough to be enumerated within those more capacious erotic arrangements?, How secure is each subject’s worth?, and, In what sense does anyone make an informed, effective choice?’

Such questions implicitly underlie Karen Raber’s essay, which takes issue with the human exceptionalism that structures most treatments of sexuality, even those informed by an expansive sense of queer. Exploring the ‘erotic contact zone’ that structures the relationship of horse to rider—‘the sheer basic material encounter zone that is constituted (p. 250) by the horse’s back and the rider’s posterior’—she argues that the corporeal relations of Hotspur and Prince Hal to their mounts differ significantly. From the perspective of cognitive ecology, the horse in highly skilled riding functions as a form of ‘extended mind’, becoming ‘a reciprocal portion of that construct, the “horse-man”, which is always understood in early modern formulations as the temporary and provisional union of one perceiving and embodied creature with another’. The relationship of horse to rider carries important implications for our understanding of the play’s historical narrative of bodily rule: ‘Hal’s bodily dissociation’ from the kind of erotic connection that Hotspur enjoys with his horse

… makes possible his more complete participation in and control over a system of human dominion, spread across a wider array of social structures and groups…. Hal’s supposed triumph over Hotspur … proleptically performs Cartesianism’s abstraction of mind from body, and the reduction of equine other to mere machinery.

Thus rejecting distinctions between subjects and objects, interiority and exteriority, her reading gestures towards the collective, interanimating agencies that are foregrounded in several essays in Part V, ‘Embodied Worlds, Reconfigured Agencies’.