The Itch That Can’t Be Scratched: The Poor Hermaphrodite of the One-Sex Model

For my post I will be drawing from Ovid’s Hermaphroditus and Salmacis as well as Thomas Laqueur’s chapter “Destiny Is Anatomy”, but in the name of good discussion I will naturally encourage you all to connect with the other texts we have read for this week as well. As I am interested in writing about pleasure for our final paper, the terrifyingly named “genital itch” that Laqueur mentions grabbed my attention (44). This itch can be described as a process of attraction, where the “sperma and catamenia generate heat in the genital regions, [and] both put pressure on the sexual organs that are prepared to respond to their stimuli…to spur coition” (44). In trying to track the buildup of sexual passion, Aristotle points to the buildup of fluids within the body that create this “itch”. He even goes so far as to say same sex relations existed because of the sheer power such an itch caused, where, naturally, “great pleasure is to be had from scratching” (44).

With this in mind, Ovid’s story becomes particularly interesting when one considers poor Hermaphroditus’ prayer to Mercurie and Venus. After emerging from the pool, he (she?) emerges a “toy of double shape” and “his limes were weakened so/ That out fro thence but halfe a man he was” (Book IV 468-9, 472-3). This does not seem a positive description, and despite his fusing with another person, he is described as less than what he was. His sexual organ is hinted at with “toy”, but in describing it as such the text seems to be demeaning its newfound “double shape”. So why then ask that “whoso commes within this Well may so be weakened there” and effectively “diminish” other men who take a swim (477)? It may be that he is cruel, but it also seems that this newly, doubly sexed individual has realized that he too will have an itch that cannot be scratched.

Before his change, there is quite a struggle between the Nymph and the beautiful boy. They “strive, struggle, wrest and writhe”, and although it may be unnecessary to say considering their nakedness, Laqueur notes that within the male-female sex act is a power struggle between the male and female seed  (Book IV 459) (Laqueur 40). The quarrel between the Nymph and the boy can be re-imagined as arousing, though for the Nymph this hardly needs to be said. When combined, this arousal, I think, remains. To be a hermaphrodite is not a condemnation in and of itself, but to exist as the only hermaphrodite is to condemn such a person to forever feel the itch. In order to satisfy both sexual organs, Hermaphroditus must ideally find another person possessing the same “double shape”. The story then seems to be trying to resolve the issue of satisfaction inherent in Hermaphroditus’ dilemma, which exists as the “desire/ The which their double shaped sonne had made” (479-80).

Perhaps, though, he merely recognizes a new emerging identity that cannot exist within his previous culture. Laqueur states that “Aristotle, who was immensely concerned about the sex of free men and women, recognized no sex among slaves” (54). Men were citizens, women were free, and slaves were slaves, beings who “are without sex because their gender does not matter politically” (54). I wonder then, if Hermaphroditus has a fear that is working in the other direction; would he/she, as a dual-sexed person, not fit into this model and therefore be genderless, even made a slave? His last act then, to create others like himself, also stands as the creation of a new society, where the traditional model is broken to accommodate the doubly-sexed. Are there other interpretations that you see within the story? How else do hermaphrodites create problems with the traditional “hammer and anvil” model of sexuality?

The Fifteen Books Of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Trans. Arthur Golding. London: B.F., 2002. Print.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body And Gender From The Greeks To Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.

Bloodshed in The Duchess of Malfi and Eve’s Apology

Last week, we discussed Foucault’s ideas concerning the significance of blood during the Middle Ages. According to Foucault, to a society concerned about death, “blood was a reality with a symbolic function” that held significance to both human biology and the organization of medieval structures of power (Foucault 147). Comparatively, modern society is concerned about life and procreation, and sex now plays the role blood once did. In this post, I would like to focus on a certain aspect of blood, namely the notion of “bloodshed,” and examine how it is represented in The Duchess of Malfi and Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women, as well as what implications these representations may have for sexuality.

The plot of The Duchess of Malfi is based around a struggle for control over a bloodline. Ferdinand and the Cardinal attempt to dissuade their widowed sister, the Duchess, from remarrying and thereby continuing her own branch of their shared bloodline. When their efforts fail, they begin to target her and her family, attempting to blockade the channels of blood she has produced through her marriage to Antonio and through their offspring. To do this, Ferdinand and the Cardinal resort to having them killed, a literal cessation of blood flow. Thus, in The Duchess of Malfi, control over blood and its flow is synonymous with power, in accordance with Foucault’s thoughts regarding the cultural value of blood.

Bloodshed (or rather, lack thereof) also plays a role in the plot, but its significance does not seem as straightforward. The two brothers attempt to regulate the Duchess’s bloodline, but without “spilling” any of her blood. Initially, they try to coerce the Duchess not to remarry through intimidation rather than violence; they try to quarantine her instead of immediately disposing of her. Even when she is ultimately killed, it is through strangulation—no blood is actually drawn, even though Ferdinand has earlier threatened her with his father’s knife (1.3.38) and given her a poniard with which to kill herself (3.2.69). This decision regarding the method of her execution appears to be deliberate and meaningful. In her critical piece, “Drowned in Blood,” Ariane M. Balizet discusses how Ferdinand views the Duchess as a “contamination” to his own bloodline that he must “purge” (Balizet 32). Perhaps, then, this bloodless execution is performed to contain the alleged bad blood within its impure vessel, safeguarding Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s bloodline from their sister’s infected blood. Contrarily, before her execution, the Duchess says, “I have so much obedience in my blood, / I wish it in their veins to do them good” (4.2.148-149). She claims that her own blood is pure, and her brothers are actually the one who possess the impure blood. If this is true, then her brothers’ decision to kill her without bloodshed may instead be motivated by a fear that any exposure of her blood will reveal her as innocent and them as contaminated.

The notion of bloodshed also appears in other medieval texts, but in non-medical contexts, such as in Aemelia Lanyer’s Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women. Referring to Pontius Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus, Lanyer writes, “Why wilt thou be a reprobate with Saul / To seek the death of him that is so good, / For thy soul’s health to shed his dearest blood?” (Lanyer 94-96). She argues that such a fault as sending Jesus to his death would be just as great as Eve partaking of the forbidden fruit. As such, it ought to restore the equality between man and woman once enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. Man, as represented by Pilate, would refrain from this bloodshed, then, not to avoid contamination, but condemnation.

I argue that in both of these cases, exacting bloodshed results in a loss of power on the part of the executor. Moreover, if, as Foucault claims, the “symbolics of blood” have transitioned into an “analytics of sexuality,” then the medieval significance of bloodshed has certain implications about modern conceptions of sexuality (Foucault 148). To draw or spill blood was to reveal its visible and tangible nature, which, like sex, was accepted only under certain settings and within certain discourses. The costs of violating these accepted discourses was a loss of power or social standing. Today, we can see similar consequences being imposed upon those who draw sex from out of the recesses of privacy and into public view.


Works Cited

Balizet, Ariane M. “’Drowned in Blood’: Honor, Bloodline, and Domestic Ideology in The Duchess of Malfi and El médico de su honra.” Comparative Literature Studies 49.1 (2012): 23-49. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print.

Lanyer, Aemelia. Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 1433-1436. Print.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 1572-1647. Print.

“The Virgin Community” and female sexuality in The Nun of Watton


For this week’s launch post, I’d like to look more closely at the Virgin Community of Nuns in The Nun of Watton and draw some conclusions on how their actions complicate attitudes toward female sexuality.

This is a devastating and grotesque tale that Aelred pens to show the miraculous restoration of a rebellious young girl back into the respectable ranks of a virgin nun community.  However, there can be no doubt that this redemption came at the cost of many torturous and unimaginable cruelties. Not only is she most likely raped and abandoned by her lover in the loss of her virginity, but immediately after the sinful nun confessed, the community of nuns “clapped their hands together and fell on her, ripping the veil from her head. Some believed that she should be burned,… skinned alive,… [or] tied to a tree and roasted over charcoal” (Aelred 454).  The older nuns manage to avoid her death at the hands of the younger nuns by having her “stripped, stretched out, and whipped without any mercy,”  after this the nuns chained and locked her in a prison cell (Aelred 454).  Soon the nuns begin to see reminding evidence of her egregious sin through her pregnancy.  Again, only protection of the fetus by the older nuns is what saves her from abuse and torture at the hands of the younger nuns.  And through all of this, “she bore all these ills patiently, crying out that she deserved yet greater punishment” (Aelred 454-455). Until this point, one might argue that this might simply be the story of a young nun who finally saw the error of her “girlish” ways.  However, beyond that, I argue that this story, particularly the actions of the demonic “nun unit” (thank you Bridget for that handy term) from beatings to bloody castration, has wide implications for virginity as the honored sect of female sexuality.

Other than the sinful nun, the other nuns of the community are rarely separated or singled out except by age as “younger and older”, which is not very descriptive either. Together, they form “a community united by their devotion to virginity but… that unity takes them across the line from perfect to monstrous virginity” (Salih 159).  Keeping them faceless, shallow, and impulsive characters, allows the audience to more easily demonize not only their brutal actions, but also their personalities, as outrageous and cruel.  It is very easy to take this virgin community and transplant their monstrous devotion to any tale with a convent involved.  Because of this, it is much easier now to associate nuns’ defense of virginity with impulsive and passionate cruelty, rather than piety or the typical passive or weak response we’re used to associating with women in narratives.  It is also relatively easy, from this, to conclude that female sexuality, individual and communal, needs guarding and policing.

A complication in this narrative is the sinful nun’s seemingly compliant attitude toward her punishment and confinement after her confession.  Until she was “caught in the talons of the hawk,” this rebellious virgin nun was “flirtatous.. indecorous… suggestive” (Aelred 454, 453).  Did all this rebellion disappear because she was raped?  Does Aelred do some objective interpretation here to achieve his planned poetic justice? I’m inclined to think that it’s more related to the second question.  Also, her compliant nature throughout the rest of the narrative after her sexuality is revealed reinforces the idea of female sexuality as the weaker, submissive counterpart to the male.  Aelred does double duty here: he shows the importance of humbly accepting a punishment for the sake of the community, and he continues to render individual female sexuality as submissive.

And what does this say about virginity and female sexuality? It shows, quite obviously, the lengths to which the community will go to protect or regain their communal virginity.  The cost, however, is the dignity of one of their own; and, after reading such an account, it would be quite difficult to not see why the male clergy, who still held all the power over any monastic community, felt female sexuality should be policed so rigorously.  Although the ideal of the virgin was highly valued during the Middle Ages, it seems to allow this strange paradox wherein a physically impossible ideal for women is mercilessly punishable by women and only leads the requirements to be lifted higher, making the ideal more impossible.  Virginity is female sexuality via social coercion, merely masked with honor. For the virgin community, it’s not a sexual identity; it’s life or death.


Works Cited

Aelred of Rievaulx. “The Nun of Watton.” The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. Trans. John Boswell. New York: Pantheon, 1988. 452-58. Print.

Salih, Sarah. “The Nun of Watton.” Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England. Cambridge: Brewer, 2001. 152-65. Print.

“I Wol You Nat Deceive”: The Pardoner’s Layers of Deception (The Ultimate Salesman)

For this week’s blog post, I would like to examine the character of the Pardoner. I have a few ideas about his peculiar and ambiguous characterization, and I am really curious to know what you all think about him. The Pardoner commits offenses against the morality of Chaucer’s time; “he is not only a ‘geldyng or a mare’ (II. 669-91) but also both a ‘pardoner’ peddling false relics (II. 692-706)” (McAlpine 8). I see a common thread moving through each of the Pardoner’s roles, and the link seems to be the paradoxical idea of open deception. The reader encounters a character who calls attention to his differentness; he “flaunt[s] his friendship with the Summoner” (McAlpine 15), makes no effort to cover his ambiguous face as “dischevelee save his cappe he rood al bare” (685), and he acknowledges his use of false relics. I would like to suggest that despite the unsavory nature of his character, the Pardoner is weaving a complex veil. The more he exposes to us, the more we become aware that he may be one step ahead as he slowly reveals a more complicated intention, making curious allusions to Church debates, sodomitical practices, etc and forcing the reader think about his true motivation. I think that the Pardoner builds a strong defense to protect his precarious position in society by layering openness with deception, and that his ambiguous external appearance is merely an extension of the Pardoner’s manipulation. How can he be prosecuted if he complicates his crimes and confuses his companions?

There is something unique about a man with “A vois he hadde as smal as hath a goot” (690) choosing to sing loudly to his male companion: “Of Rouncival, his freend and his compeer/ That straight was conmen fro the Court of Rome/ ful loude he soong, ‘Com hider, love, to me’” (General Prologue 672-6). I would like to use this song as an example of the Pardoner’s peculiar body and behavior, and not as evidence of a homosexual relationship with the Summoner. Whether the blurring of the gender line is biological (if the Pardoner is a eunuch from birth or by some act of castration) or a choice on the Pardoner’s part (if he chooses to adopt potentially effeminate traits) we are left with a sexually ambiguous character who flaunts this sexual ambiguity in front of his companions. We have all seen through past texts that gender deception in the Middle Ages is extremely dangerous; “in such cases [of sodomy] the gender-conforming parties do not seem to have been punished as severely as their gender-bending associates” (Mills 74). Therefore, no matter the Pardoner’s backstory, he must assume a defensive position to both sell his pardons successfully and occupy his unusual position.

I suggest a reading of the Pardoner where he is neither a victim of circumstance nor a greasy charlatan, but rather an intelligent master of artifice. He subtly weaves manipulation into his story by telling a tale that incorporates most of the commonplace sins (avarice, gluttony, violence, etc) while including a personification of never-ending Purgatory with the character of the Old Man who cannot die. Intense feelings of guilt for the sins and fear of punishment would likely leave the Pardoner’s companions wishing for a temporal pardon despite their logical knowledge that the pardons are false. The Pardoner simultaneously does his business and protects himself by subtly “exploiting the potential self-deceit in those he imagines condemn him, [and he] attempts to convict his customers of being themselves ‘envoluped in synne’” (McAlpine 16). By calling attention to the sins of his customers, he downplays his own sins while urging them to buy his pardons.

In the Pardoner’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue, the narrative voice shifts to a tone of certainty, openness, and rhetorical persuasion. The Pardoner’s technique of disclosing to his companions that “for myn entente is not but for to winne/ And nothing for correction of sinne” (115-6) is brilliant; who better to sell to sinners than a sinner? The trick seems to be an angle of familiarity and self-deprecation; by confessing to engaging in the falsehood his companions may already suspect, he makes them feel special, and by appearing as a potential eunuch or queerly gendered being, he makes himself seem nonthreatening. Therefore, the Pardoner avoids trying to make purchasing a pardon seem logical and instead relies on guilt, fear, and a level of intimacy (however falsely constructed) to do the selling for him.

Finally, I argue that the Pardoner is somewhat successful in his sales pitch. Although the Host does not respond well to the Pardoner’s suggestion to “unbokele anoon they purs” (657) and purchase a relic, the reader can see that the Pardoner has succeeded in making one sale: the Knight urges the Host to forgive and kiss the Pardoner. The Host is clearly unconvinced by the Pardoner’s sales pitch; in his outburst he calls attention to the Pardoner’s ambiguous sexuality and false salesmanship “thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech/ And swere it were a relik of a saint…I wolde I hadde thy coilons in myn hand…Lat cutte hem of” (663-666). However, because the Knight is of a higher social standing than the Host, I read the tidy close of the Epilogue as the Pardoner landing the sale that counts the most: The Pardoner sold no relics, but he sold the Knight on himself. The group going to Canterbury essentially represents a microcosm of the larger society (including a member of each main class and trade,) and therefore when the Knight allows the Pardoner to remain a safely established member of the group, I argue that the Pardoner’s sales technique is ultimately successful.


 McAlpine, Monica E. “The Pardoner’s Homosexuality and How it Matters.” PMLA 95.1 (1980): 8-22.

Chaucer’s General Prologue and the Pardoner’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue. 

Mills, Robert. “Homosexuality: Specters of Sodom.” 

Gender as Ambiguous and Performative in Twelfth Night and in the Case of John/Eleanor

As I made my way through this week’s readings, I couldn’t help but draw connections between the case of John/Eleanor Rykener and Twelfth Night. Despite the fact that the John/Eleanor case is nonfiction from the late 14th century, while Twelfth Night is fiction from the early 17th century, I think that the common theme of crossdressing calls for some analysis of these two together.

I find both the ambiguity and the performative nature of gender in each of these sources to be particularly worthy of discussion.

As I noted in response to Adam’s post on Friday, Twelfth Night deals heavily with what Casey Charles calls a masked but “decided anxiety about what is feared to be the actual fluidity of gender” in sixteenth- and seventeeth-century Europe (Charles 124). That is, if Viola can transform into Cesario, and Cesario into Viola, and if Cesario is indistinguishable from Sebastian, then what is gender? How set and defined (i.e. not fluid, unambiguous) can gender possibly be? Moreover, Charles explains that Viola/Cesario “collapses the polarities upon which heterosexuality is based by becoming an object of desire whose ambiguity renders the distinction between homo- and hetero-erotic attraction difficult to decipher” (6). Ambiguous or fluid gender, then, has consequences for desire as well.

Similarly, in the Rykener case, there seems to be an ambiguity and fluidity to John/Eleanor’s gender. John/Eleanor was presumably raised as John, yet lived a sizeable portion of his/her life as Eleanor, whether as a prostitute, an embroideress, or a tapster. John/Eleanor reported having sex with men (“as a woman”) for pay, and with women (“as a man”) not for pay. And, as Ruth Mazo Karras and David Lorenzo Boyd point out, John/Eleanor’s gender was so ambiguous that court officials seemed unable to classify him/her either as a prostitute (defined most simply as a woman who had sex outside of marriage, though also with implications of selling oneself—hence a classification only applicable to woman) or as a sodomite (101). Furthermore, John/Eleanor’s gender ambiguity, much like Viola/Cesario’s, carries with it implications for sexual desire, as we can see when Carolyn Dinshaw questions the motivations of the men who solicited John/Eleanor: “…are those clerks really unsuspecting, or might they want a feminized man, or a phallic woman? Might they want something that’s not a woman but not a man either, something that seems to them neither fully masculine nor fully feminine? Is this what makes them ‘ignotos’—not only unsuspecting, bur profoundly unknown themselves, because what they want is unheard of?” (Dinshaw 110-111).

In light of this apparent ambiguity of gender, a whole host of new questions arises for Viola/Cesario and John/Eleanor. What makes gender—clothing? behavior? biological sex? personal preference? sexual positions? Who defines gender? Must one fit completely into the “male” or “female” categories, or are there spaces between or outside of this dichotomy? Both Twelfth Night and the Rykener case seem to deal with questions like these using the idea of gender as performative. In Twelfth Night, Charles argues that “the effects of Viola’s cross-dressing point to the socially constructed nature of gender in Shakespeare’s play” (122); her success in presenting herself as Cesario “consequently points to the constructedness and performative nature of gender itself” (123). In the case of John/Eleanor, Karras and Boyd point out that the court document does refer to Rykener as a man when s/he is the penetrative sexual partner (i.e. when s/he has sex with women), but it “repeatedly treats Rykener as a woman” as well, gendering him/her female whenever s/he takes on the “passive”/“penetrated” role (109). It seems that, for Rykener too, then “gender was seen as performative”: “it was behavior and not intrinsic nature that made one a man or a woman” (109).

What do you all think about this whole gender ambiguity / gender as performance idea? What implications might it have for sexuality? 

Homoerotic Love and the End of Twelfth Night

Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night derives much of its hilarity from disguises causing same-sex love: the page Cesario loving “his” master Duke Orsino, the Duke’s love Olivia falling in love with a disguised Viola, etc. Though as we’ve discussed in class that there were no terms for “homosexual” or “heterosexual” in this era, it is clear that the play is making a statement about sexuality and love, the rigidity made apparent in Orsino’s final speech when he claims that Viola will remain a man and not become his lover until her clothes are found and changed (5.1.385-7). With all of this same sex love either openly (Antonio for Sebastian) or inadvertently taking place, Shakespeare is using this homoerotic attraction in particular “as a means to of dramatizing the socially constructed basis of sexuality that is determined by gender identity” (Casey, 122). However, despite what seems to be some legitimate feelings in these same-sex relationships, the end of the play ends characteristic of a Shakespearean comedy with that of a marriage (two in this case)—or, as Casey puts it, finishing with a clear “bias towards heterosexual marriage” at the play’s conclusion (121). Despite much of the romance for the first four acts dealing with those, at least from a socially constructed standpoint, being from the same sex, all seems to be “right” in Shakespeare’s world by the end of the play—the disguises are off, the difference between Sebastian and Viola is discovered, and everyone ends up in a happily, socially approvable marriage. Because of this ending, I question what Shakespeare is really trying to accomplish in the play. After all, according to Casey’s article, 16th century Europe, despite not having the specific terms to define them yet, was arguably more “patriarchal, homophobic, and misogynistic” than even today, and Shakespeare was deeply engrained in that society (124). Is same sex love something to be laughed at and poke fun of, and those guilty of it worthy of only our condemnation? Is the only appropriate ending for a life affirming, socially appropriate marriage, feelings be damned?
An important character to look at to affirm my point is Antonio, who is the only character in the play who knowingly engages in same-sex love. Unlike the ambiguousness of a lesbian relationship between Viola and Olivia in both Act 1 Scene 5 and Act 3 Scene 1, Antonio’s homoerotic feelings for Sebastian are clear. Antonio spends three months with the man he saved from sea, an explicable amount of time when compared to Viola’s relationship with the captain who saved her. He openly talks of his love for Sebastian and begs to be his “servant” (2.1.31-2), and, despite a most certainly ill fate awaiting him in Orsino’s court, he follows Sebastian because he “adores” him, which makes the “danger seem sport” (2.1.42-3). Later, he talks about his “desire” for Sebastian and his “willing love” that puts him in the hands of his enemies (3.3.5-12). Finally, when he believes Sebastian has betrayed him when mistaking Viola for his love, Antonio plays the part of spurned lover, claiming that his god is a “vile idol” (3.4.349) and accepts his arrest a defeated man. Clearly, Antonio’s love and passion is on par with that of Viola for Orsino or Toby for Maria, to name a few. However, his homoerotic love contrasts from the comic same-sex relationships from earlier. Shakespeare makes mock of the socially constructed gender roles, especially in Ser Andrew and Cesario’s “duel.” However, Antonio disrupts these normative concepts of sexuality and gender by being the most masculine character in the play—starkly contrasting from the knights Ser Andrew and Ser Toby, and even the Duke, Antonio is “aggressive, bold, eloquent, faithful, and uncompromising” (137). Clearly, his character, and subsequently his homoerotic love, is different than those the play makes mock of, which makes his ending all the sadder. During the resolution and comic final scene capped by marriage, Antonio, outspoken for most of the play on almost every matter, is strangely silent while his beloved joins hands with a socially appropriate woman. In Shakespeare, as Casey puts it, “silence is often the most telling form of disappointment” (138). Like Viola describes Olivia’s love for her early in the play, Antonio’s love proves to be “thriftless” as he ends up alone, with only the antagonist Malvolio and the dim-witted Ser Andrew facing similar fates. Given Antonio’s admirable character through much of the play, it would seem odd that a character as brave and noble as he would be likened to the spurned and arrogant Malvolio, but, because his love is the “wrong type” for the 16th century Renaissance, the term “homosexual” yet to be coined not withstanding, Antonio’s final isolation suggests what I explored above—that, despite being a play that turns gender roles on their head, in the end there was no place for homoerotic love in Shakespeare’s world except for the purpose of comedy and condemnation. What do you guys think?

Works Cited
Charles, Casey. “Gender Trouble in Twelfth Night.” Theatre Journal 49.2 (1997): 121-41. JSTOR. Web. 14 Sept. 2013.
Shakespeare, William. “Twelfth Night.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 1189-250. Print.

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.