About Ruth Evans

I am a medievalist and I work in the Department of English at Saint Louis University. My research interests are Chaucer, medieval drama, medieval women writers, feminist criticism, sexuality, critical theory, and memory.

Desire in Twelfth Night

I know Adam will be posting on Twelfth Night on Monday, but I just wanted to throw out a few comments about Act I, as we try to find ways of talking about the kinds of desires that appear to be circulating in the play. I say “appear,” because desire in a sexual sense – in the sense of having a particular sexual aim or being evidence of a prior sexual identity or sexual orientation or gender construction (“heteronormativity”) – may not be what is at stake at all. But in any case we have learnt not to label these desires too quickly as “homoerotic” or “heterosexual” – or even as “homosocial.”
     At the beginning TN’s main plot is that of thwarted love: Orsino loves Olivia, but she does not reciprocate his love because she has sworn to mourn her brother for seven years. Her refusal fans the flames of Orsino’s desire (see 1.1.32-40). Indeed, privation and deferral are the very condition of his desire. An audience in 1602 would have recognized this as a convention of courtly love. Orsino’s absolute fidelity to Olivia and his ability to wait for seven long years proves that he has a refined nature and that she is a prize worth having. More accurately, his ability to wait constructs her as a prized object.
However, this initial set-up – in many ways a highly conventional one – is complicated by the comic sub-plot, in which there is a deflation both of Olivia’s mourning (“What a plague means my niece to take the death of her brother thus? I am sure care’s an enemy of life” (1.3.1-2), and of sexual desire, which is treated by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew solely as a subject for bawdy jokes and an occasion for male-male bonding over sexual prowess. Is this just a contrast of genres? Courtly romance vs. knockabout farce? Two comically incompatible views of human love?
     But the courtly love theme is also complicated by Viola’s disguise and by her sudden falling in love with Orsino. What do we make of Orsino’s fulsome appreciation of Cesario/Viola’s feminine appearance in 1.4.29-34 (“Diana’s lip … etc.”)? She is evidently not completely passing as a man, which leaves the door open for a comic playing on gender ambiguity. In TN, this is a source of pleasure, not anxiety, in contrast to the real life case of the hermaphrodite Thomas/Thomasina Hall (Jones 2011, 37), where his/her case caused anxiety because a decision about a legal settlement hung on it.
     But Viola’s disguise belongs to a different discourse: it seems to provide an opportunity for multiplying the delight in female appearance that is celebrated in countless Renaissance lyrics. And Viola’s clothes do not unambiguously define her as a man, since Orsino finds her body female. In other words, what’s at stake may be less gender ambiguity – and the opportunities this provides for displaced or misplaced desires – than the chance to praise female beauty – to find new ways of praising that beauty, and thus to exhibit a masculine command of rhetoric. I confess that do not have a clear argument about the function of Viola’s disguise. I recognize the force of Lorna Hutson’s argument about the platy’s participation in “a humanistic literary culture” (1996, 160), but I don’t want to underplay my sense that the play is deeply attractive precisely because it uses wayward desires as a vehicle for talking about that culture.

Lanval’s “sexual orientation”?

The queen got angry;                          275
in her wrath, she insulted him:
“Lanval,” she said, “I am sure
you don’t care for such pleasure;
people have often told me
that you have no interest in women.   280
You have fine-looking boys
with whom you enjoy yourself.
Base coward, lousy cripple,
My lord made a bad mistake
When he let you stay with him.          285
Marie de France, Lanval.

How are we supposed to read Guinevere’s accusation? Is she saying (as countless student essays on the internet claim) that she is accusing Lanval of being gay? As you know, James Schultz’s chapter argues persuasively that “The Middle Ages had no notion of sexual orientation” (2006, 57). This should at the very least give us pause before we assume that Guinevere is accusing Lanval of same-sex preference or that his sexual identity is what is at stake.

The context for Guinevere’s angry speech is this. She sees Lanval, with a group of other knights, from a window and goes down with her ladies to meet him. Finding him alone, she declares her love for him and asks him to tell her all his desire. Lanval replies that he has “no desire” to love her, and that he does not want to betray his faith to the king because he would never do anything to harm his lord. The audience/reader has had no prior evidence that Guinevere – who is incidentally only ever named in the poem as “the queen” – is in love with Lanval or that Lanval has ever given her any cause to believe this. As we know from the profession of love made to Lanval by the mysterious lady “from far away” (112), it is not a complete novelty for an aristocratic lady to declare her love for a knight: in other words, such a declaration does not necessarily break with gender expectations. A contemporary audience/reader would also be familiar with the Arthurian tradition of Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair. So we cannot view Guinevere’s profession of extramarital love as entirely unexpected or novel. But we do know that Lanval’s lady has sworn him to secrecy and we are also told that at the moment that Guinevere approaches him Lanval is “impatient / to hold his love” (254-5), so we may recognize that Guinevere’s sudden profession of love may be a plot strategy that is designed to test Lanval. The poem does not, after all, furnish any motivation for Guinevere’s sudden declaration of love. Lanval makes it very clear to Guinevere that there is a conflict of interests: his feudal obligation to his lord trumps his obligation to reciprocate Guinevere’s love, even though she is his social superior. We know – though Guinevere does not – that Lanval is not free to love Guinevere, even if he were so inclined, but he seems to have found a diplomatic and courtly way of refusing her awkward advance, even though knights are supposed to pay attention to women. However, his initial response – “let me be!” (269) – may be a little abrupt. Marie does not guide the reader’s reaction to his words, but we all know that Lanval must parry her, and that he should try to remain courtly. All of this seems reasonable, although the poem’s silences – about motivation, about appropriate courtly refusal – leave some doubts.

It’s all too easy to see Guinevere’s accusation in modern terms: a spurned woman retaliates by accusing the man she fancies of being gay. But in the twelfth century Lanval would not have been able to declare a sexual orientation, either “heterosexual” or “gay” (neither term, of course, is medieval). As Foucault points out, until the late nineteenth-century sodomy (if that is indeed what Guinevere is hinting at) was “a category of forbidden acts, not evidence of a “singular nature” (43). And, as Schultz points out, the modern opposition straight/gay was not a medieval opposition: the distinction was rather between abstinence and activity (55), between types of lust that were more or less reasonable, or more or less natural (Aquinas). Guinevere’s accusation does not work in the same way as it does today: as an insult based on the assumption 1) that an individual has a sexual orientation; 2) that that orientation always remains the same; 3) that gay is opposed to straight; 4) that to be gay is insulting to a man whose desires are supposed to be directed towards women (that is, that to be gay is to be less than a man). Incidentally, one can see that in modern usage “gay” as a term of insult invokes gender identity (less than a man) as much as sexual identity. These modern assumptions do not map onto medieval usage.

So, if Lanval does not have a sexual identity as we understand it today, how shall we interpret Guinevere’s accusation? Let’s look more closely at her taunts. She says that he doesn’t care “for such pleasure” (278), but all that means is that he refuses to love her: refuses, in other words, to play the game of love. She says that people have often told her that he has “no interest in women” (279-80), but the reference to what other people say is a commonly-used rhetorical ploy – it can’t be proved, and Lanval would be uncourtly to press her for names – and the fact that he has no interest in women might only mean that he hasn’t yet succumbed to the game of love. Two centuries later Chaucer’s Troilus goes around despising men who fall in love, but only because he hasn’t yet fallen under the spell. It’s not because he’s “gay.” Similarly, Guinevere’s taunt that he has “fine-looking boys / with whom you enjoy yourself” (281-2) may just mean that he spends his leisure time in the company of men, not that he prefers men sexually to women. We know that Lanval has been hanging out with Gawain and Yvain, but this “homosociality” is clearly part of courtly culture, and is a prime way of ensuring the support and loyalty of other knights (vital, as it turns out for the plot). Referring to this passage in Lanval, Ruth Karras says, “Warriors could engage in male bonding, but they were not supposed to ignore women” (146), and this is why Lanval’s behavior is unacceptable. She reads this as to do with reproduction: men’s withdrawal from women would draw them away from reproduction, although I have to say that I find this unlikely as an explanation here.

Guinevere’s accusation “Base coward, lousy cripple” (283) is interesting. In some of Marie’s other lais, physical disability is sometimes an indirect reference to impotence (in Chaitivel for example). Guinevere may well intend an insult to Lanval’s sexual prowess, but that is nothing to do with his sexual orientation.

The passage raises a complex of issues that are hard to disentangle: loyalty to one’s lord, the need to be courteous to one’s lord’s wife, male bonding, social expectations for aristocratic men, the need for Lanval to conceal his secret love. None of these, however, is to do with his supposed “gayness.”

However, for several medievalists the passage IS evidence of same-sex desire. Anna Kłosowska argues that “Lanval is a frankly sexual and playful narrative” (133), and that “Guinevere’s speech brings God’s retribution to bear on same-sex acts, and portrays same-sex desire as uncourtly, just as one would expect.” She goes on: “But same-sex preference is also described in identical terms as a preference for the opposite sex” (134). It’s hard to do justice to Kłosowska’s complex argument, but it’s clear that she DOES read this speech in terms of an accusation of same-sex preference.

In a similar vein, although with a very different line of thinking, Steven Kruger argues that this passage is “particularly interesting for the complicated ways in which it intertwines misogyny, the hetero- and homoerotic, and the homosocial. The depiction of the queen’s attempt at seduction depends on misogyny, as does Lanval’s self-defense. This defense also counterposes male homosocial loyalty (Lanval’s commitment to the king) and sexuality (his refusal of the queen), even as the queen’s attack pits the homoerotic against the properly homosocial — ‘my lord made a bad mistake when he let you stay with him.’ Heterosexual desire leads to the queen’s attempt at seduction; it also (though secretly) motivates Lanval’s rejection of her approach. Lanval’s (hidden) heterosexuality — the fact that he has been pledged to secrecy by his lover — is what leads the queen to accuse him of homosexuality, and in turn it is this accusation that forces Lanval rashly to reveal the existence of his beloved. Since, in the terms of the story, this revelation endangers the love affair, we here have the defense against homosexuality paradoxically and intriguingly threatening the continuation of the heterosexual affair. In any case, the queen’s accusation against Lanval threatens to take away his knightly manhood, to turn him into a “base coward [and] lousy cripple” (1993, 33).

Kłosowska is aware of Schultz’s argument; Kruger was writing before Schultz’s book appeared. You might also like to check out the views expressed here:


Karras, Ruth Mazo. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. New York and London: Routledge, 2005.
Kłosowska, Anna. Queer Love in the Middle Ages. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Kruger, Steven F. “Racial/Religious and Sexual Queerness in the Middle Ages.” Medieval Feminist Forum 16.1 (1993): 32-36.
Schultz, James A. “The Danger of Heterosexuality.” Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness and the History of Sexuality. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 2006. 51-62.

Michael Foucault: The History of Sexuality Vol 1 and “power”

A quick follow-up to our discussion of Foucault’s social constructionist theory of sexual identities (and, incidentally, in case you know her book, Judith Butler could not have written Gender Trouble without Foucault).

Classic theories of power (e.g. Marx’s) assume that those who wield economic power wield social power as well, and therefore control representations of social relations. Such theories assume that if the oppressed can wrest control of the means of production from those in positions of economic power they can then represent their own interests. Such revolutionary thinking (and it’s been true of feminism as well as Marxism) assumes that economic control = control of representations, that is, control of how your group is represented in literature, art, advertising, journalism, etc. It’s what lay behind movements such as William Morris’s artisanal production in the late 19th century and feminist presses in the 1970s.

F contests both the model of revolutionary thinking and the notion that power comes from those who wield control of the means of production. He is also a theorist of the pleasure that comes with power.

As you said in class, he talks instead of “perpetual spirals of power and pleasure” (45) and of “a network of pleasures and powers linked together at multiple points” (46). The spatial metaphors here — spirals, networks — suggest a much more diffuse model of how power operates. It’s linked to what he argues about the proliferation of discourses about sexuality from the late 18th century onwards. As various institutions (medicine, psychiatry, demography, criminology, etc.) developed ever more intricate ways of talking about sexuality, measuring sexuality, putting sexuality into discourse, providing labels for an array of sexualities that didn’t exist before as sexual identities, so the web of discourses allows for an intrusion into people’s lives, a mapping of people’s lives, a constant questioning of their practices, that makes it hard to see all this as a way of simply, sternly saying no to wayward sex, of forbidding people to behave in certain ways (though I agree that it absolutely did proscribe and regulate sexual behavior) because it also involves pleasure: the pleasure of the interrogators and scientists and social regulators.

F is trying to make the point that the forbidding itself is pleasurable because it allows for multiple ways of relishing the exercise of power (see pp. 44-45 in particular). It’s a critique of Victorian prudishness because it underlines the fact that we get a kick from talking about what is forbidden: in specifying a range of new, aberrant sexual identities the inventors and users of these 19th-century emergent discourses were not just saying no to these identities: they took pleasure in drawing them out and implanting them in bodies. Power and pleasure were linked.

I can think of several objections to this model. But we can discuss these ideas in class.

One important point is that those who protest against sexual repression, who demand liberation from sexual restraint, need to understand that it’s not just a simple case of demanding that sex be spoken openly about – because it already IS being endlessly spoken about, albeit in a range of specific discourses.

But I’d also hang on to F’s main point about sexual identity being a 19th-century invention. This is a powerful insight. It raises all kinds of questions about whether or not premodern subjects though of themselves as having sexual identities. Undoubtedly, they practiced many sexual acts, but were these the expression of a prior or essential identity, as we feel so strongly today?

F’s book is about what constitutes the “truth” of the self. It may be that premodern subjects did not feel that sexual identity was the “truth” about themselves, did not feel that their sexuality (had they been able to conceive of this as what Foucault calls a “singular nature”) was the expression of their innermost being.