- Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare's Time by Jeffrey Masten
"Can we talk?" Dr. Ruth's brash invitation came to mind as I read Jeffrey Masten's circumspect, erudite, and at times irreverent new monograph Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare's Time, a book that, among other things, is invested in reinvigorating and deepening "conversation" about sex and sexuality in the fullest sense—"the action of consorting or having dealings with others" (83)—but also communicating the rich range of meanings present in obsolete definitions, etymologies, paleographies, editorial glosses, and printing mechanisms, all of which are enmeshed in, proximate to, and speaking with wider questions of cultural, material, and affective practices in the early modern period. This capacious and lively study brings into conversation two key areas of literary studies [End Page 176] that—it becomes glaringly apparent as one reads this book—have languished from not engaging in intercourse. While philology typically devotes its energies to investigating the etymologies, circulation, and transformations of words, Masten's "renewed historical philology" (15) looks to the history of words as sites for recovering nonnormative identities, eroticisms, sexual practices, bodies, and affects. While the observation that the conceptual and discursive histories of desire, sex, and gender are imbricated may not be new, Masten's queer philology transcends this truism by showing that any nuanced history of what we call "sexuality" cannot be unearthed without working through the structures of the English language. As Masten aptly summarizes, the "comprehension of sex will require philology" (16), and Queer Philologies demonstrates, with wit, verve, and a survey of wonderful archival images of letters and words, what philology has to offer the history of sexuality and what the history of sexuality has to offer the discipline of philology.
Masten's sumptuous tour through the etymologies, textual transmissions, and production and technologies of language introduces us to the playful, erotic, and deeply serious synchronic circulations of language and meaning around sex and sexualities in early modern England. The book begins with an amuse-bouche, featuring a brief discussion of the letter Q, a letter whose promiscuous tail served as an affront to the humanist project of establishing a proper orthography. After a short chapter on authorship and attribution, two preoccupations that have driven mid-twentieth-century studies of the relationship between Shakespeare and his compositors, Queer Philologies goes on to treat three lexicons that have had significant bearing on historical analyses of male same-sex relations in early modern England: those surrounding friendship, pederasty, and sodomy. The last quarter of the book is devoted to the editorial practices that have shaped the production and reception of Shakespeare's works and explores the cultural implications of scholarly discussions of early modern generic categories and modern editorial glosses of Shakespeare's Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and Sir Thomas More, which Masten revisits to elucidate the fuller discursive contexts of sex and sexuality in these plays.
The payoffs of Masten's conjoining of queer theory and textual studies are consistently unexpected and amply rewarding. A few salient examples: a pathbreaking exploration of the playwright Christopher Marlowe as neither queer nor straight but rather as a playwright embedded in and the product of a complex discourse of homoeroticism that compelled him to "speak with" rather than in "alienation from" his culture (95). While much has been written about boy players as objects of homoerotic desire, Masten is the first to reveal the myriad visual representations of boys in written texts and to analyze the cultural valences of emblems featuring eroticized boys. Finally, contra contemporary queer theorists who apprehend male homosexual relations in terms of an active-passive binary, Masten illuminates an [End Page 177] early modern discourse about the fundament that regards the anus not as a site of derogation but as a generative foundation.
Importantly, this is a book that produces new kinds of inquiries and archives and that is rigorously self-reflective about its own methodological assumptions and approaches. Such self...