- Sexual Types: Embodiment, Agency, and Dramatic Character from Shakespeare to Shirley by Mario DiGangi
Mario DiGangi’s book is motivated by dissatisfaction with a basic premise of much scholarship on early modern sexuality: the assumption that early modern England did not yet possess the notion of distinctive sexual identities. Intertwined with all facets of social life, early modern sexuality is thus difficult to recover as a distinct phenomenon. DiGangi argues that early modern sexuality is right in front of us in the form of several discrete “sexual types” that classified persons in terms of their sexuality, which therefore made sexuality visible and apparent within early modern culture. Because these “sexual types” were widely known in early modern England, it was therefore possible for dramatists to use them as shorthands to signal the presence of sexuality to theater audiences.
Each of DiGangi’s chapters focuses on one of six sexual types, and the chapters are arranged in pairs that link discussion of analogous sexual types for men and [End Page 232] women. Thus, chapter 1 discusses the (presumptively male) sodomite in, among other contexts, a scandalous court case and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, while chapter 2 addresses the female tribade through a whole spectrum of medical writings as well as some plays by Shakespeare. This pair is followed by chapters on the narcissistic courtier (primarily in Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels) and the citizen wife (in Middleton and Dekker’s Roaring Girl as well as other written evidence about Moll Cutpurse). The book concludes with a pair of chapters on the bawd in a wide range of plays and the monstrous favorite in political writings and plays by Massinger, Killigrew, and especially Shirley.
The burden of proof here is to persuade us that these six sexual types are a real part of early modern culture rather than scholarly heuristics and that they are, at their core, sexual types in which the sexuality is evident and obvious. But the difficult interpretive work that DiGangi must often do in order to define his types and to make them reveal a sexual charge places both claims in some doubt. This is true even in his discussion of so canonical a figure as the sodomite. DiGangi is quite dissatisfied with some of the foundational studies on early modern sexuality by Alan Bray and Jonathan Goldberg, which framed sodomy as a confused category in which same-sex sexuality is noticed only when it appears together with broad social and moral transgressions. “I will consider,” writes DiGangi, “how previous scholarship has overlooked the sodomite’s function as a familiar sexual type in early modern English culture. . . . I will consider the possibility that early moderns could, in fact, recognize sodomites as social actors, whether on the stage or on the street” (22–23). Indeed, DiGangi seems to posit the “sodomite” as an early modern avatar of the nineteenth-century “homosexual.” But in practice, his analysis operates in ways quite familiar from other scholarly discussions of sodomy, honing in on legal, moral, and political scandals as pressure points that make the threat of same-sex sexuality crystallize in the figure of the sodomite. This raises a question for an argument that claims to show that the “sodomite” has a positive existence grounded on sexuality.
The sodomite may be, to some extent, a special case, but DiGangi’s discussion of his other sexual types is also marked by interpretive moves that call into doubt the central claims that sexual types have a positive reality in early modern culture and that they are inherently sexual. DiGangi argues, for example, that the citizen wife is at once socially respectable and susceptible to the accusation of sexual availability, and thus a sexual type, because of the nature of selling on an open market. In this instance, there is little doubt that the citizen wife is a social stereotype in early modern culture, but DiGangi’s assertion that she is a sexual type leads him to...