- Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature
This excellent study traces the ‘continuing importance of erotic fantasy’ from Elizabeth’s reign to that of Charles II, in a great range of texts, including Protestant hagiographies, Sidney’s Arcadia, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Wroth’s Urania, Caroline masques, Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, among others. Melissa E. Sanchez contends that the erotic element was always implicated in politics because, whereas ‘early modern authors understand political subjection in sexual terms, their analyses of desire are also analyses of how power works’ (p. 4). An ambitious project, Erotic Subjects is thoroughly researched and organized; moreover, it encompasses an impressive body of literature.
Chapter 1 establishes important foundations for the study; as Sanchez explains, Mary I – considered a religious tyrant by Protestant survivors and their descendants – presented a dilemma for those who had yielded, ‘even under duress’, to her religious authority, and to ‘political theorists … problems that would occupy’ them ‘for the next century’ (p. 14). In a key statement, Sanchez elaborates that ‘sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature’ provides ‘the most thorough analysis available of … the latent perversity of the erotic politics’ she has ‘been tracing’. It also offers an ‘underappreciated picture of the complexities of early modern political psychology’, which took two different forms, based alternatively on Mary I’s religious persecution of Protestants – which inspired the literature of ‘Foxean martyrdom’ – and on ‘Petrarchan courtship’, with its martyred lover and unattainable mistress. Both traditions ‘continued to shape’ the ways the English understood ‘sovereignty and obedience in the seventeenth century’ (p. 25). [End Page 246]
Chapter 2 includes discussion of Sidney’s prose romance Arcadia (c. 1578–86) which aimed at ‘political opposition’ while ‘avoid[ing] the aggressive, even anarchic, possibilities of armed revolt’ (p. 36). Thus, Sanchez observes that like Foxe, Sidney privileges the ‘heroism’ of ‘feminine endurance’ over that of ‘masculine conquest’ (p. 39); but, one wonders if Sidney was simply disinterested, or meant to appeal to the female ruler.
Chapter 3 focuses on The Faerie Queene, Sanchez arguing that though Spenser, like Sidney, uses sexual assault as an analogy for political tyranny, ‘Spenser is less optimistic’ than Sidney ‘about the possibility of … principled resistance … to unjust monarchal demands’ (p. 57). Similarly, Sanchez observes that loss of emotional control in Sidney is attributed to the weak, or to the demonic, while in Spenser, the weak or the wicked ‘are simply human’, which makes it hard ‘to distinguish between innocent and depraved desires, blissful harmony and self-destructive enthrallment’ (p. 57).
Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (Chapter 4), in turn, presents a contrast, in terms of sexual violence, with both Spenser and Sidney. While they treat the assaulted woman in an allegorical manner, the focus of Lucrece is not as with Spenser ‘the collapse of spiritual resolve’, but ‘the problem of physical defeat’ (p. 8).
A highlight in this study, Sanchez concludes in her discussion of Wroth’s Urania in Chapter 5 that the Urania’s implicit ‘political martyrdom’, which involves the subject’s ‘submission to the punishment of an unjust ruler, fails … as effective protest’, as it becomes merely a ‘form of political masochism’ (p. 117). Wroth knew similar marginalization, albeit within the aristocracy, given the crown’s growing absolutism, since she belonged to the ‘Sidney– Herbert circle’ – its views frequently at odds with the monarch’s, and openly critical of royal policy. Her position was made more marginal by her gender – something else to address in her writing.
Chapter 6 focuses on the Caroline Masque – and the dissociation between Charles I and his subjects, as he decided ‘to rule without parliaments after 1629’, thereby abandoning ‘the most widely recognized indication that he governed with the consent of the whole realm’, and refusing to appeal to the ‘people’s love’ (p. 145) – so that, as Sanchez elaborates, Charles ‘abrupt[ly] … upset … a narrative of cooperation, which seemed to confirm rumors that Charles would emulate the absolutism of Continental...