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  • Slander, Renaissance Discourses of Sodomy, and Othello
  • Robert Matz*

“I think you think I love you,” Iago tells Cassio, who because of his fight with Roderigo and Montano has just lost the love of his general Othello. 1 How do we understand the exchanges of love in Othello that encompass not just male-female bonds but male-male bonds as well? And how do we understand these bonds of love, too, as they are involved in the ambiguity, uncertainty, betrayal, and accusation that Iago’s comment implies: “I think you think I love you”? In this essay I want to consider the ways in which Othello puts at stake not only the regulation of desire between men and women, but also between men. I want to argue that the regulation of male same-sex desire reflects on male political relationships, since this desire cements these relationships but may also be invoked—accusatorily—to disrupt them. I also want to consider how the accusation of illegitimate male-male desire intersects with other forms of desire in the play that are subject to similarly ambivalent construction as the products of conflicted and transitional social forms. For what Foucault calls the “utterly confused category” of sodomy indeed confuses, or rather fuses, a number of relationships in Othello that cross boundaries of gender, race, and status, and that the play at once represents, gives play to, and regulates. 2

While much fine work has explored the construction and regulation of female sexuality in Othello, less has focused on male-male desire in the play. 3 Sexuality has primarily been read in terms of male-female relationships, thereby sustaining the assumption that only heterosexual desires exist. 4 However, the object of a consideration of male-male desire in Othello, and in Renaissance studies more generally, should not be to identify the “homosexual” in the text. Rather, this desire needs to be understood together with the institutions that support, solicit, and regulate it, and in terms of the particular social contexts that determine the way it is represented. In these aims, I follow historian Alan Bray and the developing work of queer theory in Renaissance studies, in two important assumptions: first, that the realms of the sexual and the social are not cordoned off from one another, and, second, that the early [End Page 261] modern period recognized no distinct homosexual, or therefore heterosexual, identity. While “sodomitical” relations were condemned, sodomy was a category that could proscribe more acts than sex between men (such as adultery, bestiality, and witchcraft), and it was a sin to which all—not a distinct minority—might succumb. Moreover, the condemnation of male-male “sodomitical” sex existed in an uneasy overlay with high praise for male-male friendships. 5

The anxiety about sexuality in Othello may be understood within this framework. Just as marriage is a public, social institution that within the early modern period increasingly depended on the idea of the private affection of husband and wife, so, as Bray has argued, did the primarily male public institutions of Renaissance England function through personal alliances of affection. As Bray argues, “friend” (or “lover”) was a term that in the Renaissance included and frequently overlayed political and affective alliance: to be a powerful man’s “bedfellow” was to have a most valuable political access—and honor. 6 The highly praised alliance of friendship was frequently eroticized, yet what kept (or did not keep) the celebrated closeness of friendship from appearing to be the sin of sodomy was not the degree of physical contact, but the appropriateness of the relationship. Just as in marriage desire should follow proper alliance and social status, so too in male friendship. One’s political enemies or men seen as social climbers (Bray’s example is Francis Bacon) could be called sodomites. Sodomy was not a category; it was an accusation. But, as Bray also argues, by the more socially mobile late sixteenth century, almost any political relationship might be vulnerable to this accusation. 7 As the structures of feudal vassalage gave way to bourgeois marriage, so too did the social institutions that most completely legitimated male-male desire. Thus reading Othello within the history provided by...

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pp. 261-276
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