- Queer Theory, Historicism, and Early Modern Sexualities
There was a time in Renaissance studies when any acknowledgment of the presence of homosexuality in a poem or play was likely to be accompanied by indignant or apologetic disavowals. Publishing Shakespeare's Bawdy (1947) at a time when "all editions of Shakespeare intended for use in schools were bowdlerized," Eric Partridge protected himself by coming out as one of those rational "heterosexual persons" who must find the notion of a homosexual Shakespeare ludicrous. C. S. Lewis, writing a few years later, could not deny the overt homoeroticism of Richard Barnfield's poetry, but could still express his distaste for the poet's sexual and artistic failures: "His sonnets, like The Affectionate Shepherd, are pederastic, whether because Barnfield suffered in fact from the most uninteresting of all misfortunes or in a sheer humanist frenzy of imitation."1
During the last quarter century, literary scholars of diverse critical and political stripes have given sustained and rigorous attention not only to Renaissance homosexuality, but also to graphically sexual topics such as bestiality and enemas in A Midsummer's Night Dream and fisting in Coriolanus.2 Yet at least one recent [End Page 129] voice has suggested that such openness to the multiplicity of sexual meanings in Renaissance texts has gone too far. The exegesis of bawdy wordplay that might have seemed daring in 1947 is simply business as usual today, complains Stanley Wells in Looking for Sex in Shakespeare. Claiming that critics such as Patricia Parker continue to "seek out sexuality in previously unsuspected places and to attribute indecent meanings to characters who might, if they were able to react, be aghast to know of them," Wells laments the "currently fashionable" prominence of "lewd interpreters," whose work has the appearance "of scholarly rigour and critical sophistication" but derives largely from "fantasies released in their author's minds by the texts."3
Appropriately enough, the shaping power of "fantasy" that Wells blames for specious scholarship—the imaginative fertility of the critic's desires and identifications as they engage with literary texts—has been elsewhere championed as necessary to any properly "queer" confrontation with premodern sexuality. In a widely cited introductory essay to their 1996 anthology, Premodern Sexualities, Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero argue that queer theory can productively dislodge the "truth-effects" of critical practices that privilege historical alterity over historical continuity and that "repudiate the roles of fantasy and pleasure in the production of historiography."4 Promoting queer theory as a "pleasure-positive," epistemologically destabilizing, and anti-normalizing critical discourse, Fradenburg and Freccero intervene in what they regard as the ossified and overly schematic critical orthodoxy that has come to dominate the history of sexuality: the spurious distinction between premodern sexual acts and modern sexual identities derived from a certain reading of Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality.
Arguably, the most important theoretical development in scholarship on premodern sexualities during the last decade involves attempts to rethink this distinction between acts and identities. In How to Do the History of Homosexuality (2002), David M. Halperin challenges the "canonical reading" of Foucault that posits that "before the modern era sexual deviance could be predicated only of acts, not of persons or identities."5 Halperin goes on to argue that premodern people might have made connections between "specific sexual acts" and "the particular ethos, or sexual style, or sexual subjectivity, of those who performed them" (32). Even though Halperin reaffirms his commitment to historicism, an approach that insists on the "alterity of the past," he concurs with Fradenberg and Freccero that affirming the "pleasures of identification" with the past...