- Queer Renaissance Historiography: Backward Gaze
Drawing on Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon’s theory of queer unhistoricism, this rewarding collection of scholarly essays seeks to reinterpret the representations and cultural roles of homoeroticism in the English Renaissance. The title in various ways signals the volume’s project of departing from standard historicist practices. The now ubiquitous designation “early modern” seems pointedly refused (queer unhistoricism rejects the teleological implications of that terminology); likewise the term “history” itself, for it assumes a degree of certain difference from the present that unhistoricism deems inappropriate. “Backward Gaze” playfully mingles the project of discerning the past with the pleasures of “cruising” its departing backside: the unhistorical project seeks to unsettle whatever may be perceptually taken for granted. Readers should find that the volume as a whole stimulates and refreshes their thinking about our cultural past and its portrayals of sex, erotic desire, and human relations. Some will find its value in blazing trails they wish to follow, others in clarifying how, where, and why they wish to diverge.
The volume is perspicuously written and structured, with essays primarily addressing historiographical methods and approaches framing a substantial core of studies that mainly present readings of English texts circa 1520 to 1670. That framing apparatus includes a short preface from the series editors Noreen Giffney and Michael O’Rourke, “Renaissance Sextualities” (ix–xi); a brief general introductory chapter co-authored by [End Page 209] the volume’s editors, using the volume’s title (1–11); Will Fisher’s “A Hundred Years of Queering the Renaissance” (13–40); and Madhavi Menon’s short afterword, “Period Cramps” (229–35). Aside from Fisher’s contribution, this material seeks to situate the volume theoretically. Fisher instead shows us how the nineteenth-century writers John Addington Symonds, Walter Pater, and Havelock Ellis had already queered the Renaissance by associating artistic genius in that time with the sexual category of homosexuality emerging in their own, in order to legitimate and even valorize male same-sex desire. Hence, Fisher declares, “the Renaissance was ‘queered’ from its very inception” (31): by which he means in its Victorian historiography. The queering of the Renaissance could be dated much earlier, as such formerly well-known texts as Marsilio Ficino’s De amore (1469) indicate.
Among the ensuing essays, some are more theoretically oriented than others, such as the first, Goran Stanivuković’s “Beyond Sodomy: What is Still Queer About Early Modern Queer Studies.” Seeking to expand the queer Renaissance archive, Stanivuković advocates shifting our attention to conjecturally queer non-somatic contacts and specifically to literary manifestations of intertextual queerness, as instanced, he claims, in some specific Shakespearean texts. James M. Bromley explores non-penetrative, non-consummated body contact in Marlowe’s Hero and Leander to question the privileging of penetration in sexual and narrative outcomes and to investigate the former possibilities of non-monogamous queer intimacy. Jennifer Drouin and Julie Crawford’s essays attend respectively to the lesbian signification of Elizabethan literary depictions of Diana’s band of nymphs and to portrayals of domestic and secretarial intimacies between women in four Shakesperean plays and in Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania. The forms of female intimacy, they both argue, constitute loci of political dissent. Exploring homosociality in an elite Tudor household, Laurie Shannon examines George Cavendish’s mid-sixteenth century account of Cardinal Wolsey’s splendid male entourage and devotion to the king’s pleasures. Vin Nardizzi finds literary plant-grafting tropes a rich reservoir of Elizabethan sexual comment as in Shakespeare’s Henriad, where Hal’s relations to Falstaff and the princess Catherine, Nardizzi argues, both thus appear to be sodomitical mixtures. Turning to some lyrics by Marvell, illuminated by Slavoj Žižek’s concept of the parallax, Stephen Guy-Bray identifies interplay between sexual difference and sameness that indicates queer historiography should define how “different kinds of difference” may affect sexuality’s past and present expressions. In the final two chapters, the poet Katherine Philips’s feminine homoeroticism re-evaluates “the terms and [End Page 210] logics of...