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  • Disorderly Love: Sodomy Revisited in Marlowe’s Edward II
  • Jonathan Crewe

One of the most important developments in criticism since the beginning of the 1980s has been the formation of an academic consensus within the early modern field and somewhat beyond it regarding the nature and representation of homosexuality in the early modern period. Before that time, not only did no consensus exist, but stigma, taboo, anxiety, and misinformation bedeviled the topic. Among English literary critics who wrote before the 1980s, William Empson stands out for his incisive, witty engagement with homosexuality, in relation especially to Shakespeare, but to Marlowe, as well. In general, however, criticism not only tended to avoid the topic or pontificate about immaturity or perversion, but also possessed no historical or analytic terms for dealing with same-sex relations in literature.1

As everyone knows, that situation changed dramatically with the publication of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, volume 1, first in French in 1976 and then in English translation in 1978. Foucault’s key points included the proposition that homosexuality was “invented” by nineteenth-century sexologists, and that the term is therefore anachronistic as applied to any earlier period. By the same token, the nineteenth-century invention of homosexuality established the homosexual as a category of identity, whereas in earlier times same-sex relations constituted behaviors rather than expressions of an identity categorically separate from that of the heterosexual. According to Foucault, what would have been termed homosexuality (primarily meaning male homosexuality) in 1976 would once have been covered by the term sodomy. For Foucault, however, “sodomy” was “that utterly incoherent category” that did not exclusively apply to male same-sex relations.2 Furthermore, Foucault’s positing of a history rather than merely a nature of sexuality meant that sexuality would always manifest distinctively within a given historical matrix and in relation to a distinctive set of coordinates. [End Page 385]

Following Foucault, most critics have accepted sodomy as the historically appropriate term for discussing early modern sexual relationships between men. Everyone since Foucault has been at pains to emphasize that term did not definitively or exclusively designate male-male relationships. Not only could it encompass illicit sexuality between men and women, but also forms of disorderly verbal conduct entailing no sexual activity. Some have noted that the term masculine love coexisted with sodomy and have speculated about its currency as an alternative designation. It appears prominently in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis.3 Whatever its classical or biblical provenance may be, however, the term masculine love occurs rarely in early modern English texts, and does not appear to offer a particularly consequential, idealizing alternative to sodomy.4 Evidently, sodomy remained the governing term.

In the early modern English field, another landmark publication was Alan Bray’s Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982), which argued, inter alia, that sodomy (linked to bestiality under English law) could encompass heterosexual adultery.5 The term designated a perceived threat to sexual, hence political, order rather than same-sex relations exclusively: atheism and sedition were typically linked to sodomy in denunciations or legal charges. The discourse and practice of same-sex relations may have varied more significantly on the continent than in England during the sixteenth century, both as regards the humanistic philosophies of same-sex attraction and as regards the representation of same-sex relations between women. Antisodomy laws were unevenly formulated and enforced among different European principalities.6 Nevertheless, the discourse of sodomy remained the dominant one.

Before proceeding with this narrative of consensus formation, I will note parenthetically that neither Foucault nor Bray makes an issue of one conspicuous type of male same-sex relationship represented in early modern writing, namely, pederasty. The sexual pursuit of a boy or young man by an older one constitutes a “classic” format inherited from Greek antiquity and deeply embedded as a pedagogical pederasty in all-male academic institutions and in the broader culture. One notable sodomy conviction in 1541, under the so-called Buggery Act of Henry VIII (1533), was that of Nicholas Udall, a prominent English humanist and headmaster of Eton College, who was charged with sexual and physical abuse of pupils.7 (Although buggery was a hanging...


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