- Sexual Types: Embodiment, Agency, and Dramatic Character from Shakespeare to Shirley by Mario DiGangi
Mario DiGangi’s compelling new study, Sexual Types: Embodiment, Agency, and Dramatic Character from Shakespeare to Shirley, makes a significant contribution to both the history of sexuality and scholarship on early modern drama. Focusing on six easily recognized theatrical figures who embody sexual or gender transgression—the sodomite, the tribade, the narcissistic courtier, the citizen wife, the bawd, and the monstrous favorite—DiGangi argues that these “sexual types” perform important ideological work by both reproducing and resisting dominant sexual ideologies. Building on feminist, historicist, and queer studies of English Renaissance drama, DiGangi establishes the sexual type as a mediating figure that highlights the interrelationship between sexual transgression and social, economic, and political power. The very familiarity of such figures meant that although they stood in opposition to disciplinary norms of sexual behavior, they also disrupted the boundaries between the normative and the transgressive. Drawing our attention to such “definitional incoherence” (13), DiGangi offers a nuanced and persuasive account of how dramatic characters as types refracted crucial socioeconomic and political tensions in early modern England.
By including both male and female sexual types in his study, DiGangi productively departs from most queer studies of early modern texts, which tend to focus on either female or male homoeroticism but not both. He also gives equal attention to heteroerotic and homoerotic transgressions, considering, for instance, how the bawd uses same-sex intimacies to encourage illicit heterosexual liaisons. Such an inclusive methodology is both timely and welcome, promoting critical dialogue across the male/female and hetero/homo divides that are still quite prominent in scholarship on gender and sexuality in early modern England. In addition, DiGangi deploys formalist, historicist, feminist, and queer reading strategies to interrogate a wide range of dramatic and nondramatic texts, including plays by Shakespeare, Fletcher, Jonson, and Shirley, as well as sermons, diaries, pamphlets, and medical treatises. The result is a book much broader in scope and significance than its focus on six specific theatrical types might initially suggest.
Sexual Types is organized in three sections consisting of two chapters each, one of which focuses on a female sexual type and the other on a male sexual type. Uniquely, each section of the book foregrounds a different mode of argumentation, allowing DiGangi to “explore different ways of situating sexual types among literary and cultural discourses” (14). The first section is, in my view, the strongest overall; it includes chapters on the sodomite and the tribade and proceeds by analyzing a wide range of primary materials—including legal texts, medical treatises, travel narratives, and sermons—alongside well-known dramatic texts such as Shakespeare’s [End Page 306] Troilus and Cressida and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In chapter 1, DiGangi argues that the sodomite was a composite type, a representation of reviled same-sex practices who was also an oddly familiar figure. The figure of the sodomite thus helped define the boundaries of normative community while simultaneously throwing those boundaries into question. Chapter 2 argues that the figure of the tribade performs a similar double move, at once enacting a logic of substitution by imitating the male role in heteroerotic sex and disrupting that patriarchal model by highlighting the ways in which female-female intimacy is distinct from male-female relations. In the second section of the book, DiGangi turns his attention to the narcissistic courtier and the citizen wife and organizes each chapter around a detailed reading of an individual play. Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels is the subject of chapter 3, which demonstrates that the figure of the self-absorbed courtier rejects sexually and politically expedient social relationships, in the process unsettling the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate courtiership. In chapter 4, DiGangi analyzes the neglected citizen subplot of The Roaring Girl and argues that the play depicts the citizen wives as sexual types who transgress gender and erotic norms through their display of sexual and economic agency in their work as shopkeepers. Although...