In Ben Jonson’s rambunctious 1614 city comedy, Bartholomew Fair, the gargantuan, infantile protagonist, a young aristocrat named Bartholomew Cokes, careens through the fair that shares his name on the day he is supposed to marry (spoiler alert: he never makes it to the altar), buying and eating everything in sight: gingerbread children, hobbyhorses, dolls, drums, gloves, and all manner of carnival commodities. He rhapsodizes on how he longs to listen to the siren song of the cutpurses who work the Fair, to feel their nimble fingers picking his pocket. At the climax of the play, he falls head over heels in love with the puppets in a puppet show, and invites the whole Fair back to his house for non-wedding revelry. How to fit this whirlwind of desire and consumption into the world of early modern sexuality? How to categorize the desire of a character who is a bottomless, promiscuous vortex of want—who wants everything except what he is supposed to want (marriage to a woman), and whose want is not the least bit satiated, no matter how much he consumes?
Bartholomew Fair’s other plot involves a Puritan named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, who debates at length whether it’s okay to go to the Fair as long as you don’t look around at the stalls, whether it’s okay to look around as long as you don’t like what you see, and whether it’s okay to eat the Fair’s signature dish of delectable roast pig as long as you don’t look around for it, but only passively sniff it out, letting the pig find you. Zeal-of-the-Land Busy ends the play by getting into a fight with the troupe of puppets, which he loses. He gets flashed by a puppet-ghost proving it does not have any genitals, and he ends up in the stocks for his hostility toward the pleasures of the Fair. How should an analysis of the erotic economy of Bartholomew Fair account for these two characters, these two opposite poles of bottomless desire, one gluttonous and driven by an unquenchable appetite to consume and incorporate objects, and the other annihilating and consumed by an insatiable need to disavow and destroy them?
In another comedy from around the same time (c. 1610), this one a tragicomedy called Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding, by masters of tragicomedy Samuel Beaumont and John Fletcher (who, not incidentally, lived together in a flat with “one bed,” “one coat,” and “one wench between them”),1 a captive prince and a princess conduct their forbidden love affair by commissioning a beautiful servant boy to “bear their hidden love” back and forth—a boy who becomes an inseparable part of their relationship.2 How to describe this boy’s erotic function? Neither dominant nor submissive, he is instrumental to the ostensibly straight romance. In fact, he becomes the central affective stylist of their love, until his intimacy with the princess raises suspicions of impropriety. After a tearful reckoning in which they all threaten to stab themselves and beg to be stabbed by one another to prove their honesty, the beautiful boy confesses that he is actually a girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to be used in just this situation. In the play’s resolution, all three of them continue to live together in a blissful domestic triad.
One way of asking the question this book seeks to answer is, what do we call these formations of desire, and others like them, in early modern drama and prose literature? They’re something, to be sure—something outlandish, excessive, overwrought, peculiar, surprising, and in-between. But are they queer? In what sense could or should that word apply? What does it say about these and other shapes of fancy to call them queer, and what does it open up about the idea of queerness to use it or to appeal to it here? The word “queer” bespeaks an unexpected twist, turn, or crossing. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explains in 1993, early in the life of queer theory, “The word ‘queer’ itself means across—it comes from the Indo-European root -twerkw, which also yields the German quer (transverse), Latin torquere (to twist), English athwart.”3 “Queer” in this sense becomes an adverb rather than an adjective; a term that describes dramatic motion, rather than a category label.4 From this (actually quite old) reframing of queerness, this book formulates a new way of reading for desire in literature. An adverbial queer analytic, as I develop and use it here, can illuminate the moments in texts where desire makes strange motions, takes strange shapes, or goes awry—and not even in the expected ways. It can account for turns of feeling that—although insistently, ineffably askew—may not result in anything as historically legible as same-sex sex acts or same-gender-desiring social identities. It can ultimately reveal that, at times, what is queer about the shape of desire or erotic energy in an early modern text is not a person, an act, or an identity, but rather the larger system or structure through which affects and relations circulate.
The literature of Shakespeare and his contemporaries is dripping with eros; it is often called timeless, yet much scholarly energy has been spent describing its particular historical time. This book builds on a wealth of previous scholarship devoted to mapping the landscape of sex in early modern England through its literary canon. Much of that work is trained on important historical questions about who was doing what, when, and with whom, and how they thought about it.5 Some of the desires archived in early modern literature are relatively more accepted relations—such as homosocial friendship, or eroticized relations of power and service—that made up the complex, contested regime of the early modern “normal,” which was by no means what we would call exclusively “straight.”6 Other desires to be found there are more recognizably part of the history and prehistory of homosexuality: same-sex erotic acts (such as sodomy, a crime punishable by death) and deviant social types (like mannish women, effeminate tailors, and early dandies), which were specifically disciplined as sexually suspect.7
And then there are still other desires—desires that are neither of these two things. The modes of feeling and expression that are my subject here do not map easily onto this distinction between condoned and condemned. Nor do they fit into a definition of queerness that refers exclusively to same-sex contact; they do not really depend on the participants’ matching genitals or matching genders. Instead, they are made queer by a twist to their shape—by their strange proliferations, their unaccountable excesses of intensity, their atypical and errant crossings. They wander into attachments to the wrong objects, too many objects, or none at all. These erotic dynamics have mostly escaped notice, both of early modern society’s regimes for disciplining sexuality, and of modern scholars’ methods for recognizing and naming queerness. They may attract quizzical interest, suspicion, or ridicule, or they may be part of the violent apparatus of power itself. But what interests me about them, and what induces me to rethink the notion of queerness around them, are their structural qualities of secrecy, impossibility, or excess—not how or whether they were disciplined, or whether they registered as nonnormative, or even sexual, in the period. In other words, certain “shapes of fancy” in literature are recognizable as queer because of how, and not by whom, they are expressed. My archive is a collection of dramatic figurations and structures, all of which fall athwart (to use Sedgwick’s term), in different ways, of extant categorizations for desire.
The four affective modes unpacked in the following chapters are:
- 1. The desire to be made instrumental to others’ erotic ends as an end in itself—that is, the pleasure of being used.
- 2. The bottomless, free-floating, promiscuous appetite that refuses to differentiate among objects at all, desiring everything in sight and never being satiated.
- 3. The paranoid suspicion that makes true what it suspects, knitting together the accused witch and the witchfinder in a violent collaborative dynamic of projection and desire.
- 4. The melancholic ideations that failed Protestant would-be colonizers express about the Native American people, places, and objects they encountered, then lost.
Each chapter of this book traces one of these modes of desiring through a different iconic early modern scene: being used in scenes of cross-dressed romance; bottomless desire in scenes of commodity consumption; projective paranoia in witch trial interrogations; and melancholic loss in Atlantic colonial encounters. These plots and settings (gender disguises, city markets and court patronage economies, witch trials, Atlantic voyages) have become canonized, in large part through the Renaissance scholarship of the twentieth century, as some of the definitive images and moments of the period. Critics working from materialist, religious, and historical paradigms have used them as sites for explaining contemporary ideologies of embodiment, gender, capitalism, demonism, nationhood, and racial difference. Each of these scenes is thus marked by a history of canonical critical readings that have both made them iconic and populated them with received meanings—which has kept us from attending to their more subtle, structural currents of desire. In the readings that follow, I expose the currents of eros running underneath these well-trod pathways through Renaissance literature by examining the structures, trajectories, and styles by which desire is produced and transmitted.
These “shapes of fancy” include some impulses that signal what Carla Freccero calls a “certain unsettling in relation to heteronormativity,” a disturbance or departure from some normative trajectory of desire.8 But they also include urges and attachments that circumvent or refuse received notions of erotic investment altogether. In redefining queerness as an affective mode, I am departing from the governing questions asked under the historicist paradigm—“How did people think about this in the period?” and “What acts and/or persons were specifically suspected and condemned as queer?”9—to ask instead, “What queer desires potentially go unnoticed by that approach?” By accounting for these more diffuse modalities of feeling, I want to reach toward the goal proposed by Eve Sedgwick of articulating “some ways of understanding human desire that might be quite to the side of prohibition and repression.”10 And, thinking along the same lines as Adam Philips, I am interested in the “unforbidden pleasures” that have always filled out the tapestry of human life, but that we have not had the language to articulate under interpretive systems focused on prohibition—a bias shared by Western religious and legal codes and by certain received readings of Foucault and of psychoanalysis.11 I trace these four affective modes through early modern drama and prose in order to ask other questions—questions about what it means to read literature, such as:
- 1. What counts as desire, and how is desire constituted in text and performance? What are the features of a text that can have, speak, or be animated by desire?
Psychoanalytically informed literary criticism has long moved past imputing a coherent subjectivity to authors or analyzing characters as though they were imaginary people. Desire can reside in every formal nook and cranny of a play or narrative—in a stage sequence, a scene change, a turn of phrase, an interjection, an offhand descriptive term, a stage direction, an aside, an image, a silence.12 Here I argue that something very much like Peter Brooks’s notion of “narrative desire” operates in drama and nonfictional prose as well as in fiction: desire as a motor driving the action, shaping the contours of what the work shows and when, which the reader or spectator then apprehends and uses to make meaning from the text or performance.13
- 2. On what grounds can readers and spectators recognize erotic feeling or erotic energy in a text?
The immaterial, ineffable, often perverse phenomena this book attends to are inherently problematic to historicize. They often have a vexed, unclear relationship to ideology. They raise the question of how we as readers can recognize something we are able to call erotic, and what we define the erotic against. When we recognize desire in texts from distant times, places, and cultures, what acts of readerly identification are involved in that recognition, and to what consequence?14 What readers experience as the trace of desire in a literary text is often called “affect”: embodied states of feeling, figured in language. The “turn to affect,” starting from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s reading of Spinoza’s Ethics in A Thousand Plateaus and continued in the work of thinkers like Brian Massumi and Teresa Brennan, has marshaled the idea of affect for literary criticism as a concept that permits feeling and its expression—involuntary as well as willed, collective as well as individual—to be an object of analysis, without the assumptions of interiority or the self-contained Cartesian body that attend the concept of emotion.15 Sparked by Sedgwick’s engagement with the affect theory of Silvan Tomkins, queer theorists in particular—among them Heather Love, Lauren Berlant, and Ann Cvetkovich—have articulated a language of affect that knits together mood, relationality, embodiment, and nonverbal and linguistic expression.16 In other words, affects are legible. Their textual residues, their aesthetic and libidinal effects, constitute a body of significations—content that can be read. My approach to desire is founded in affect theory’s claims that states of feeling are communicable and transmissible, both in life and through art; that they can be archived; and that they can have surprising historical persistence.
There is a wealth of scholarship on the history of feeling in the early modern period, and on representations and theories of emotion, humoral theory, and the passions, chiefly exemplified by the work of Gail Kern Paster.17 The object of that work’s analysis—the figurative manifestations of bodily affect in literature as well as the tacit, fantasmatic systems, economies, and theories that can be extrapolated from such traces—is closely related to mine. In fact, early modern discourses of affect seem to cry out for a queer analysis. The literature is replete with languages of dangerous excess, threatening copiousness, embarrassment, intemperance, degeneration, permeability, and involuntary compulsion. By rethinking queerness as a collection of affective stances in this book, I perform a queer reading of the language of early modern affect. I take a rich, complicated vocabulary for constructing embodied feeling in the past, and connect it to a history of desire that is now called sexuality, a history that includes the present.18
- 3. What is the precise relation between desire and queerness? What, if anything, does queerness necessarily have to do with sex, or with identity?
Out of Alan Bray’s foundational work on homosexuality in Renaissance England and the wealth of scholarship that followed it, mostly on the social and political meanings of sodomy between men, the premise that sexuality was conceptualized in the period as a matter of “acts, not identities” came to define the field, both for those who agreed and those who questioned it.19 In this book, I depart from the terms of this long-standing debate. Indeed, as Valerie Traub crucially reminds us, Bray did not remain within the acts-or-identities paradigm either, turning to the dynamics of affect and love animating same-gender social bonds in his later book, The Friend.20 I contend that queerness can instead be a quality of affect staged in a text. However, it would be a lie to say that I am uninterested in acts.21 These texts are made of acts. In their dramatic liveliness, they stage vivid representations of characters acting in and on their worlds: speaking, emoting, consuming, destroying, making, losing, and indeed romancing and having various forms of sex. My readings are intimately concerned with parsing the various figured acts that plays and pamphlets stage, half-stage, indirectly describe, allude to, wink at, or refuse to stage. Crucially, I treat genital, nongenital, and perhaps-genital acts together as equally salient transmissions of desire. What is decentered in my analysis are the historical questions of what evidence these acts might furnish about contemporary sexual practices, and whether and which of these acts are linked to operative social categories. This book explores how jettisoning those agendas, and approaching figurations of eros instead from a posture of unknowingness and openness to affect, can open up new nuances of meaning for the present as well as the past—revealing both to be replete with what Sedgwick calls “unexpectedly plural, varied, and contradictory” understandings of desire, with effects that resonate beyond the confines of any discrete historical moment.22 What emerges from this shift is a reconception of what we regard as the literary trace of queerness, and a new theory of how desires—especially weirdly, unconventionally nonnormative ones—are held and communicated in texts.
While The Shapes of Fancy expands the utility of the word “queer” beyond individual persons, acts, or historical models, the connection between queerness and desire is one that I emphatically do not jettison. To me, queerness is inalienably a phenomenon occurring in the realm of desire. But that realm is more capacious than we have thought, exceeding not only genital eroticism but also sometimes the boundaries of the human. The notion that desire can circulate at larger scales than that of the discrete human subject is both very old and very new. In fact, as the turn toward other-than-human models of agency and vitality in the recent theoretical conversation known as posthumanist thought has shown, the history of collective and transmaterialist ideas of affect and animacy (in the sense of that word provocatively offered by Mel Y. Chen, “a quality of agency, awareness, mobility, or liveness”) is much longer and more global than the relative temporal and cultural blip—constructed and promulgated by early modern Europeans and now largely belied by recent knowledge produced in biology, ecology, and physics—that centered the individual human.23 Though recent work in feminist and queer theory shares these ontological concerns regarding the nature of life and matter,24 scholars have not yet fully pondered the implications of the posthumanist turn for rewriting the history of sexuality, or for rethinking the models of desire operative in early modern literature. I argue here that desire is not always oriented toward or confined to natural human bodies. Rather, it is often staged through prosthetic material objects—clothing and accessories, animals, body parts, instruments, ornaments—that carry erotic charges, altering the shape of desire in the scene.25 Material things transmit affect, mediate relations, engender connections, and indicate or hold investment. At times they seem to possess agency or animation in their own right. Thus, in a systemic model of queerness, human and nonhuman materials participate in the same affective networks, congealing feeling and transmitting desire—both within the worlds created in texts, and through time, to us. Queerness, in this larger dramatic and structural sense, is that which crosses, that which sits athwart, that which thwarts and torques existing categorizations. Queerness uses the materials to hand in surprising and inventive ways to transmit desire (not always successfully); it flouts expected timelines and trajectories of proper development; it spins into backward motion, or stands stubbornly still; it upends expected orders of similitude and difference; it generates weirdness and excess, wallows in the degraded, and emphasizes its own artifice.
If queer is these specific, new, oblique things, it is decidedly not, then, “anything” or “everything.”
For one thing, queerness has a history, and it is the history of activism, art, and knowledge production around same-sex eroticism. To use the term “queer” to describe these additional vagaries of desire beyond object choice is to place them, very deliberately, within the historical penumbra of dissident desiring, next to the stories and fates of subjects past and present who have suffered much more explicitly from the violence of heteronormativity. This is an essentially beholden, indebted intellectual move. It would be impossible to recognize the feelings, affective stances, and relationalities described in this book as queer without the epistemological frameworks of queer scholarship and activism that have taught me to query the political and aesthetic meanings of desire itself.26 Moreover, each of the qualities I explore in the following chapters is rooted in that history. Every one of this book’s guiding affects—being used; having more than one partner; bottomless appetite; roving, promiscuous receptivity; refusing marriage; being paranoid and/or being persecuted; secret projective sexual suspicion; longing for impossible metamorphosis and lost, unspeakable love objects—has been used to characterize same-sex desire and same-sex desiring people, or has been a fruitful, communally cultivated value of queer cultures and cultural productions, or both.
For another thing, my definitional extension of “queer” to the level of representational systems is not a limitless expansion. It is a frame shift that opens up new realms of specific content, which can then be described and elaborated. This imperative—to create new groupings and orders of description in which the elements reveal new attributes and relationships as a result of the new organizing framework—draws not only on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of deterritorialization and reterritorialization in rhizomatic thought,27 but also on Sedgwick’s insistence on the proliferating specificity of difference in the realm of desire in her introduction to Epistemology of the Closet. Sedgwick’s Axiom 1, “People are different from each other,” blossoms into a list of some of the axes of desire, besides gender of object choice, along which people can cleave apart and together, the most salient of which to me here may be, “To some people, the nimbus of ‘the sexual’ seems scarcely to extend beyond the boundaries of discrete genital acts; to others, it enfolds them loosely or floats virtually free of them.”28 Sedgwick’s reading practice is decidedly not about exploding erotic binaries into the infinite free play of multiplicity. “To the contrary,” she writes, “a deconstructive understanding of these binarisms makes it possible to identify them as sites that are particularly densely charged with lasting potentials for powerful manipulation—through precisely the mechanisms of self-contradictory definition, or more succinctly, the double bind.”29 Maggie Nelson describes Sedgwick’s emphasis on specificity in The Argonauts. Sedgwick’s thought, she writes, is relentlessly trained on “talking and writing about that which is more than one, and more than two, but less than infinity.”30 More than one, more than two, but less than infinity: this range contains many configurations that we don’t have ready language to talk about, once we’ve noticed that the familiar binary logics of sexual sameness versus difference, historical repression versus license, or lover and love object don’t begin to cover the complex and contradictory reality of desire. Nelson goes on to insist: “This finitude is important. It makes possible the great mantra, the great invitation, of Sedgwick’s work, which is to ‘pluralize and specify. [. . .] This is an activity that demands an attentiveness—a relentlessness, even—whose very rigor tips it into ardor.’”31
This book illuminates some of the things that, in Sedgwick’s words, “we know and need to know about ourselves and each other with which we have, as far as I can see, so far created for ourselves almost no theoretical room to deal.”32 “A tiny number of inconceivably coarse axes of categorization have been painstakingly inscribed,” she argues, “in current critical and political thought: gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation are pretty much the available distinctions.”33 But we know, from the textual complexity of lived experience, that “even people who share all or most of our own positionings along these crude axes may still be different enough from us, and from each other, to seem like all but different species.”34 What we do with those “rich, unsystematic resources” of knowledge—especially oppressed people, especially through “the precious, devalued arts of gossip”—Sedgwick calls “nonce taxonomy,” “the making and unmaking and remaking and redissolution of hundreds of old and new categorical imaginings concerning all the kinds it may take to make up a world.”35 Inspired by Sedgwick, I want to think outside of the indispensable, yet still coarse, identity markers that have been so definitive in politically engaged criticism—the markers of bodily sex and social gender; the markers of historical oppression—to document some of the “reservoir of unrationalized nonce-taxonomic energies” that I see swirling and circulating through early modern literature.36 This new map of affective modes produces a new kind of desire, one that looks different from the desire explicated in more historicist studies. Desire in this book is diffuse and distributed throughout scenes, not confined to binary subject/object relations. Though it is predicated on an interplay between identification and otherness, it is not defined by sexual sameness or sexual difference in the realms of anatomy or gender. And though it is discursively constituted, it constantly escapes categorization. All of this yields a more expansive—and accurate—picture of the world, in that it serves to get some of the stances and impulses we have not yet had words to describe named and included on the vast, submerged continent of queerness, alongside the various more familiar forms of homoeroticism and homosociality.
- 4. How does the mind work? How stable or accessible is the human psyche in history?
This is perhaps the most daunting of the other questions I explore in what follows. One of the most compelling vocabularies, to me, for making and pondering interpretive frameworks is that of psychoanalysis, because it takes eros to be an originary and inherent quality of language as well as a primary vector of access to texts. Each of the qualitatively queer structures of desire I unpack in the following chapters is subtended by a different psychoanalytic concept traced through a different textual archive: fetishistic instrumentalization, polymorphous perversity, paranoia, melancholia. These terms provide a vocabulary for linking the literary figurations of the past to structures of desire that are part of the discourse of sexuality today. One of my aims is to expand the utility of psychoanalytic terms for early modern literary studies beyond a concern with excavating the complex history of the subject, or interiority, or the unconscious.37 I also deliberately want to refuse the anxiety of anachronism over using concepts that postdate early modern literature to read it—an anxiety seldom applied to historical materialist concepts with the same scrutiny as it is to psychic or erotic ones.38
My definition of desire is a psychoanalytic one: a craving or affinity that is infused with both the pleasure of investment (however ideational) and the pain of irremediable lack. Desire is a feeling—in all of the complex embodied and linguistic ways that that is signified in texts—that can be occulted as well as explicit. It can attach to collectivities or to formal features as easily as to human subjects or objects. Desire can be negative as well as positive; it can include heightened states of aversion, agitation, and rage. In including nonalloerotic (non-partner-directed) states and objectless desires within the scope of my readings, I am considering the field of the erotic as potentially extending far beyond genitality to include the whole range of possible libidinal investments. I am drawn to this appealingly weak definition of the sexual, which sees eros as a constitutive force infusing all of life, and refuses any final demarcation between erotic and nonerotic forms of desire.39 As Elizabeth Freeman argues, the historical, performative, and erotic methodologies (“sex as technique, rather than topic”) enabled by this psychoanalytic model can yield “such an expansive sense of what sex is that it obliterates any distinction between the sexual and the nonsexual.” She goes on to ask, “Wasn’t my being queer, in the first instance, about finding sex where it was not supposed to be, failing to find it where it was, finding that sex was not, after all, what I thought it was?”40
Historically (dating back to Freud), the tradition of psychoanalytic criticism about early modern literature has mostly centered on the Oedipal family romance, on drama (specifically tragedy), and on Shakespeare.41 The Shapes of Fancy breaks out of that mold, offering a more diffuse and distributed psychoanalytic account of how desire is staged, one in which eros is a structuring condition of texts, not something that inheres in imagined interiorities or anxieties of sexual difference. To reduce psychoanalytic concerns to the normative telos of the Oedipal plot obscures a deep and pervasive affinity for perverse erotic impulses throughout Freud’s theory. Jonathan Dollimore argues that polymorphous perversity is the originary human state for Freud, and that it continually subverts the violent, fragile process of forming a “normal,” alloerotic, heterosexual, subjectivity: “Freud is unrelenting in finding perversion, especially homosexuality, in those places where it is conventionally thought to be most absent, and where identity is dependent upon that supposed absence.”42 Despite how Freud is sometimes used as an avatar of a “modern” heteronormative understanding of sexuality, a closer look reveals that there is no seamless, unitary modern model to appeal to; indeed, the same could be said of the narrative proffered in Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Part 1. Even at the supposed Victorian ur-moment of modernity, eroticism is not confined to the genitals, to the individuated subject, or to any one way of interfacing between bodies and the world. It has never been totalizingly contained by the discursive apparatus of any time.
In pursuit of a more supple psychoanalytic theory, I gravitate toward the work of critics who deemphasize the Oedipal narrative, decenter sexual difference, and seek to complicate (“pluralize, and specify”) the unified drive theory plots of orthodox Freudianism, namely those inspired by the theories of Melanie Klein and Donald W. Winnicott.43 The contribution of the British object relations school that most informs my approach here is their emphasis on the flexibility of desire in moving between danger and safety, sociable and antisocial impulses, forbidden and unforbidden pleasures. Rather than collapsing desire into a streamlined narrative, Klein in particular acknowledges currents of multiplicity and internal conflict (as Sedgwick describes it, “the invitingly chunky affordances” of her concepts) that Freud smooths out in his endeavor to construct strong theories of development and drive.44 Greater interpretive nuance is possible for a theory describing affective life, Sedgwick asserts, because it is “qualitative,” and thus allows for ambivalent, shifting readings of the world. It allows for how we are “equipped from birth to apprehend a qualitative essence in different kinds of life experiences.”45 This, along with what Sedgwick calls the “almost literal-minded animism” of Klein’s psychic object world, make it particularly well suited to a book focused on reading, and on reading early modern texts in particular.46 The plays and pamphlets I read here, like “human mental life” in Klein’s model, are populated not with abstractions or repressions “but with things, things with physical properties, including people and hacked-off bits of people.”47 It is these psychic, figural, bodily, and made things that make up the material substrate in which I ground my close readings of affective stances, stylistic tropes, and registers of expression.
This book is in one sense an experiment in adapting and using a set of theoretical tools honed on and in a series of later historical moments (sometimes lumped together as “modern”), stretching over multiple, overlayered, thick pasts and into the present, to draw out unarticulated erotic content in Renaissance archives. It carries the questions asked and the insights enabled by psychoanalytic theory (and the strain of queer literary theory that draws on it, exemplified in the work of Sedgwick and Heather Love), from its origins in the Victorian-to-modernist time frame, further back through time to early modern archives. This move layers in other temporal dimensions, in a field of sexuality studies that has mostly been concerned with the axis of oscillation between an historical “then” and a readerly “now,” when in fact we also have much to learn from attending to the vast sea of representations in between those two moments. All of this is premised on my contention that what a specific historical and cultural moment knows about itself (even if we, from our distant vantage point, could tell) does not delimit all that can be said about the desires operating in its literature. I am informed here by Wai Chee Dimock’s theory of resonance, which sees texts’ meanings as “traveling frequencies” resonating through time, altered by their contacts in each idiosyncratic instance of reception, “causing unexpected vibrations in unexpected places.”48 Time in this model is not a neat contextual container but a “destabilizing force,” “deadening some words and quickening others,” allowing texts to acquire “a semantic life that is an effect of the present, rather than of the age when the text was produced.”49
I am reading, and reading for, desires that are not fully described by any sexual or social terms in their own moment. The following chapters thread between the dual imperatives of theoretical expansion and textual rootedness, temporal unmooring and thick historicizing. At times I analyze conventional erotic or sexual tropes, but then my readings go on to blur distinctions between historically sexual and nonsexual, marked and unmarked impulses. By describing the ways in which affective structures can cross definitional regimes and types of evidence, this reading practice makes itself portable to other periods, other genres, other archives. The texts discussed here are a set of supersaturated case studies. Not by any means the only places these affective dynamics appear, they are illustrative in their very particularity. They are examples to think with. I intend for them to open up other vectors of reading for desire; to enable readers to notice these, and variants of these, modes of feeling in other texts (from this and other historical moments); and to invite readers to use these methods to develop and test new “nonce taxonomies.”50
I navigate a subtle and historiographically delicate interplay here between considerations of production-side textual phenomena and reception-side interpretive phenomena. This is not a new history of sexuality, in which I discover new early modern ideologies about desire; nor am I simply “reading queerness into” early modern texts. Both of these are valuable projects to which other scholars are dedicated, but I am engaged in another, third endeavor. What this book uncovers, through an affectively attuned and temporally mobile queer reading practice, is a layer of erotic resonances that exist in a meso-level space in between the best-guess reconstructions of historical inquiry (what happened, and how people thought about it) and the motivated ideations of presentist interpretation (what we read into texts). While I do not make claims about how early modern subjects thought or behaved, the affective and erotic content I address in these texts is really there. It’s really there in the figural sense, in the way that literary reading makes visible—a way of seeing, which, I contend, is as valid as materialist historical research. While language and aesthetic production (and erotic desire, which manifests in and through them) take wildly different forms in every time and place, they exist. They are legible. Desire, like language and culture, is at once radically various and contingent, and centrally constitutive of the human.51 Psychoanalytic theory has given us the interpretive tools to flesh out the dream worlds of literary texts. And reader-response theory has given us the tools to understand how texts continue to dream in the world through us—to describe how their affective imaginaries can exceed the explicit ideological parameters of their own times and places. The readings in the following chapters draw out hauntings from undecided futures, which are visible only retrospectively, through the thick web of discourses, desires, and interpretive traditions that have come after.52 One might call this presentist, but not if presentist means a projection of the present onto the past. By presentist, I mean nothing more than an accurate sense of how multiple—and how very much not guaranteed to lead to any one or another future outcome—any present really is. History, after all, includes now.
In short, this book is about much more than these four select “shapes of fancy” and how they revise a working definition of queerness for current early modern literary studies and queer theory—although it does do that. It demonstrates how eros in any text is both situated, grounded in the historical conditions of its production and reception—circulating among bodies and material objects—and yet always and everywhere, escaping them. It asks how textual figurations of strong feeling—like bottomless hunger, thwarted longing, or being used to others’ ends—can reach across centuries to titillate and disturb in unexpected ways. It interrogates how such transtemporal hailings alter existing schemas of sexuality, periodization, historical change, and historical time. These fundamental theoretical questions are applicable far beyond my archive of early modern texts. They go to questions of what reading is, how readers make meaning, and how reading works across time.
I want to pursue the idea that queerness can inhere in dramatic systems through a case study in excess, a play from late in the life of the commercial London theater before it was shut down by Puritan authorities: Richard Brome’s 1638 comedy The Antipodes. This play is structured by several kinds of inversion and deviance. Its queerness, however, permeates its entire dramatic economy, far in excess of any particular homoerotic dynamic. At the center of the play is a melancholic young husband, ironically named Peregrine, who so gorges himself on reading travel narratives that he is unable to consummate his marriage with his wife of three years.
In tender years he always loved to read,
Reports of travel and of voyages.
And when young boys like him would tire themselves
With sports and pastimes and restore their spirits
Again by meat and sleep, he would whole days
And nights (sometimes by stealth) be on such books
As might convey his fancy round the world. (1.1.131–37)53
Right away, we can see Peregrine as a kind of queer figure in that he refuses an insertive, heterosexual role. His case involves nothing so straightforward as a homoerotic love object, though. Instead, Peregrine is consumed by a surfeit of reading, born out of an overwhelming, crippling desire to be elsewhere, to escape his life by displacing himself:
His mind was all on fire to be abroad;
Nothing but travel still was all his aim.
There was no voyage or foreign expedition
Be said to be in hand, but he made suit
To be made one in it. (1.1.139–43)
In his father’s narrative, Peregrine’s abnormal predilection dates back to early childhood, then fans into full flame when he’s a young man. But an itinerant voyager was not what Peregrine’s parents wanted him to be when he grew up:
His mother and
Myself opposed him still in all and, strongly
Against his will, still held him in and won
Him into marriage, hoping that would call
In his extravagant thoughts. But all prevail’d not,
Nor stay’d him—though at home—from travelling
So far beyond himself that now, too late,
I wish he had gone abroad to meet his fate. (1.1.143–50)
In an old and durable story, Peregrine’s parents’ best efforts to normalize his desire have utterly backfired. Their prohibition on traveling abroad, the involuntary marriage they force him into in order to “call in his extravagant thoughts”—none of it has worked. Now he is so consumed with the desire to read that the reading, and the desire for more reading, consumes his life, distracting him from all normal duties, including (especially) his conjugal ones.
Here, then, is the first methodological point I will use The Antipodes to think through. What are the stakes of calling Peregrine’s obsession queer, of connecting this dramatization of deviant desire from 1638 to the larger history of something called sexuality? I make these claims by means of what Wai Chee Dimock calls a diachronic historicism, in which texts’ changing, traveling resonances move across long temporal spans, picking up losses and distortions, sounding different vibrations in new contexts, and developing significant dialogues with resonances from other times.54 Here I connect this comedy’s representation of excessive reading to a genealogy of queer resonances echoing forward in time from 1638. If, for example, we are able to see the queerness of Peregrine’s passive resistance, it is thanks to the negative turn in psychoanalytically inflected queer theory, formulated by Leo Bersani and promulgated by Lee Edelman and others, which posits that queerness can inhere in antirelational, antisocial, unproductive, and self- and other-destructive affects.55 This theory, forged in the crucible of the AIDS epidemic, rejects a definition of queerness as strictly a positive social fact (an act, a relationship, a group identity). Rather, it insists on the queer political and affective content of antisocial refusal (like Peregrine’s), annihilation, and loss. It acknowledges extreme negative affects as just as intense, and just as constitutive of queerness, as any positive passion, resisting the affective imperatives of political agency and identitarian pride. Queer theorists of bad feeling—including Ann Cvetkovich, Jack Halberstam, Lauren Berlant, and Heather Love—have extended the notion of queerness beyond a requirement of direct, purposeful transgression against normativity, elaborating the queer potentials of depression, failure, stasis, and loss as forms of passive resistance, or merely queer existence.56 With the insight that of course queerness is, and has been, sometimes not agentive, constructive, or even voluntary, this work has further plumbed the queer resonances of things not done: of stagnation, error, passivity, and blockage like the one that afflicts Peregrine.
To name Peregrine’s impasse as a species of queerness is to see its libidinal and cultural content as part of the history of dissident desiring that gave us the term “queer” in the first place. Peregrine’s obsession with reading travelogues calls forth a history of desire that is seen as a problem: a history of outsize predilections that embarrass everyone but the desirer; a history of pleasures stigmatized as frivolous and freeloading; and a history of disappointed parental expectations. Moreover, Peregrine’s fantasy is trained on a desperate desire for escape from life as it is, to an exotic elsewhere—any elsewhere. Feeling along with José Esteban Muñoz that “the here and now is a prison house,” Peregrine seems almost to be following Muñoz’s queer utopian injunction “to think and feel a then and there.”57 His desperation for escape is both the cause and the effect of his not exactly consensual marriage to a woman. His inability to accomplish the act of marital consummation—the symptom that finally spurs his parents to bring him in for a course of early modern “conversion therapy”—is a particularly evocative form of passive refusal to comply with compulsory heterosexuality. In other words, Peregrine’s bizarre fixation is only legible as a mode of erotic relation to the world in light of a history of queer affects and politics stretching over the ensuing centuries between that moment and the present.
Reading texts that are the products of a four-hundred-years-bygone popular culture requires retheorizing how affect, identification, and difference work across historical distance. One of my objectives here is to turn the conversation about early modern sexuality away from the intensely productive recent critical debates about the writing of history, toward pondering the reading of literature instead. Literary theory strives to account for how desire—and not just individual desire—structures narrative; to account for the multilayered complexes of production-side and reception-side desires that generate texts; and to account for how readers make meaning from language, both within the psyche and communally. In the interest of developing new literary methods for perceiving affective linkages between our time and others, this book argues for the critical utility—and theoretical productivity—of an identificatory mode of reading. By identificatory, I do not mean identitarian (shaped by a prior identity). I mean what Carolyn Dinshaw calls “a queer historical impulse, an impulse toward making connections across time between, on the one hand, lives, texts, and other cultural phenomena left out of sexual categories back then, and, on the other, those left out of current sexual categories now.”58 Dinshaw’s queer, historically desiring, yet uncategorized reader is the active maker of affective relations with the past— fictive, fashioned, made relations in which “discourses, people, places, and things, in their very indeterminateness” are put into contact, made to touch.59 But readerly identification can also feel less voluntary, like the shock of being identified, being hailed, by something in a text. I am thinking here of the queer hailing that Sedgwick calls camp-recognition, which asks, “what if the right audience for this were exactly me?,” and which wonders if there might be others out there who “can see it from the same ‘perverse’ angle.” Sedgwick’s camp subject acknowledges that these perceptions derive from fantasy—although fantasies, including the fantasy that “whoever made this was gay too,” are “not infrequently true.”60
I want to use Dinshaw’s and Sedgwick’s models of identification to construct a new queer theory of reading. It must be grounded in reader-response theory, particularly the idea that there is no reading without reading for something, even if that something is not explicitly present to consciousness. This is because the phenomenon we call reading is an “interaction,” as Wolfgang Iser describes it, between a desiring, imagining reader and a text. The text structures and provokes the reader’s ideations through its constitutive blanks, silences, and negations every bit as much as through its content.61 Reading is thus the reader’s act of assembling meaning, through a dynamic process akin to a performance’s realization of a script, from the repertoire provided by the formal features of the text. There is nothing innocent or objective about the reader, however. In Roland Barthes’s phrasing, “this ‘I’ which approaches the text is itself already a plurality of other texts, of codes which are infinite, or more precisely, lost (whose origin is lost).”62 The process of intertextuality, as Barthes describes it here, applies not only to the body of conventions, citations, and codes (what Kristeva calls a “mosaic of quotations”) that go into a text’s production, but also to the complex of available codes and other texts—from multiple historical moments—that the reader brings to the interaction.63 As readers, we are intertextual clouds of citations. When the texts being read are four hundred years old, the available structures and codes (what Barthes calls the “already read”) in the interaction must consist—must even mostly consist—of citations and codes from the time after, the time in between the text’s production and its being read.64 Intertexuality thus works retrospectively. What is “already read” in a present reader’s interaction with an early modern text has not, from the point of view of the text’s history, yet been written. This is one of the ways in which reading does strange things to time. We are reading The Antipodes from the future, with an intertextual lens (inextricable from our very eyes and minds) of material that Richard Brome and his players dreamed not of.
That the deviant desire dramatized onstage in The Antipodes is an obsession with reading is a stroke of metaresonance that Barthes would have loved. Peregrine’s problem evokes the history of reading as a queer form of escape—imaginative escape for the materially and socially immobilized, particularly as used by protoqueer young people. This queer history, not coincidentally, forms part of the basis for Sedgwick’s defense of readerly identification in her theory of reparative reading—the child or adolescent “reading for important news about herself, without knowing what form that news will take.”65 Reparative reading emerges out of Sedgwick’s imperative—which I share—to ask what else is happening in a text, what else is it doing, that goes unnoticed by a “paranoid reading” practice of anticipating and exposing the historical power dynamics congealed there. Sedgwick locates that something else in the reader, with a call to openly own and reclaim reparative motives of love and pleasure with respect to one’s objects of study. “The desire of a reparative impulse,” as she puts it, “is additive and accretive. [. . .] it wants to assemble and confer plenitude on an object [such as a text or textual object or author-object] that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self.”66 The meanings readers may make out of the urgency of their own need are thus as unpredictable as the objects of culture, high and low, to which they will attach.
The content of Peregrine’s reading desire is a hodgepodge of strange beasts from the widely circulated cheap printed pamphlets recounting foreign and wondrous phenomena. He is characterized as pregnant with these marvels, as needing a “man-midwife” to “deliver him of a huge tympany of news—of monsters,/Pygmies and giants, apes and crocodiles, men upon women/And women upon men, the strangest doings” (1.1.177–81). One source of these images is the long cultural afterlife of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a fanciful travel tale from the fourteenth century that combines material from a number of preexisting narratives of travel to the East with vernacularized versions of wondrous late ancient and classical legends (such as the kingdom of Prester John, pygmies, giants, and anthropophagi). This plot point is a satirical commentary on print culture. As innovative historicist work has demonstrated, the reading and enjoyment of cheap print pamphlets was an intensely popular and communal activity in the period, involving shared oral recitation and performance of printed texts, as well as public debate over its content.67 One historical sense in which Peregrine’s desire for reading may be called queer, then, is that it is suspiciously private. He spends “whole days/And nights (sometimes by stealth)” alone in his room, even hiding the extent of his consumption—an autoerotic, antisocial relation to what could be a social act. The play consistently points up the thematic connection between reading and sex, as well as the connection between the desire for reading and the desire for travel stirred by the burgeoning long-distance trade industry, both of which depend on incitement of a desire to be elsewhere. How easily, especially when attempts are made to thwart and deny them, these desires can grow in the wrong direction, out of control, feeding on themselves until they reach an intensity that obstructs normative social and sexual life. Moreover, Peregrine’s reading frenzy is queer in its structure as well as in its social effects. Like Bartholomew Cokes and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, whom I mentioned in the opening paragraphs—and also, famously, like Duke Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, with his ruminations on whether “music be the food of love”—Peregrine’s desire is directed not toward any object that could actually fulfill it, but toward desire itself.68 A bottomless desire for reading is a desire for one’s senses and imagination to continually be stimulated by new images, which breed new desires.
Though plays watched by audiences in the London commercial theater and prose narratives circulated in cheap print pamphlets are of course two very different kinds of texts, I bring them together here in order to make visible their commonalities as forms of popular media trading in desire.69 Both plays and prose narratives dramatize desire within a finite frame of temporal, spatial, and material constraints. Both kinds of media incite and channel the imaginative appetites of their respective audiences. Prose tracts stage the operations of desire through bodies and things via a combination of written description and visual representation (woodcuts and engravings). The text also functions as a thing, bodying forth events for a reader who was not present, inviting its audience—its readers—to imagine a scene transpiring in the mind’s eye. In the theater, many of the same material things that attract meaning in printed pamphlets and tracts are also physically present on the stage, in their doubled roles as stage properties. The theatrical prop becomes a player, giving a material body to the thing it represents, engendering affective connection in the fleeting space and time of the theater.
An intertextual model of reading makes Brome’s analogy between reading and theater explicit. A text is the set of instructions that guides a reading, just as a script guides a dramatic performance. As I read Iser’s theorization, each act of reading is a performance in that it is an idiosyncratic, participatory, made realization, a “reconstitution” of that script.70 Shoshana Felman also describes the theatrical quality of reading, which, she says, begins not with the text but with the text’s effect on the reader: “The very act of telling, of narration, proceeds then from the potentially infinite repercussion of an effect of reading.” This performative action is in turn embodied in the text’s telling of its story: “Narrative as such turns out to be the trace of the action of a reading; it is, in fact, reading as action.”71 How much more true this is for theater, when the storytellers, whose performances furnish the frame for the audience’s experience, are not narratorial voices inside the text but subjective, embodied readers of the text. Actors read their parts, and companies of actors and directors playing multiple, shifting roles collectively read playwrights’ plays.72 A performance of a play is, in a technical sense, reading. The meaning of a theatrical performance, in the view of Keir Elam, is produced out of an “interaction” that is essentially intertextual in nature. What Elam calls the theatrical “frame,” the event in which an audience member participates, is, in both its production and its reception, made up of and decoded by other texts.73 Theater is apprehended through a communal process of reception conditioned by the spectator’s “horizon of expectations” (an idea from Hans Jauss’s aesthetics of reception), made up of every kind of preexisting knowledge and influence.74 “Every spectator’s interpretation of the text is in effect a new construction of it according to the cultural and ideological disposition of the subject,” Elam concludes. “It is the spectator who must make sense of the performance for himself.”75 But performance is also embodied. Printed dramatic texts are memorial traces (sometimes many years after) of a communal, bodily transmission of affect experienced within the ritualized, aesthetic constraints of medium, genre, time, and space. What would it look like to seriously ponder the implications of these theoretical claims—which, it must be noted, locate the production of meaning in the historically specific and contingent phenomena of the texts and codes available to each reader or spectator in each interaction—for the study of premodern sexuality? The following chapters represent one attempt to find out: to rehabilitate old theoretical tools and develop new ones in order to think more deeply about what it means to read literature, about what reading is, and what it can do.
In a Queer Time and Place
The cure in The Antipodes runs queerer than the disease. To cure him, Peregrine’s father calls in a madcap doctor, who prescribes not bodily physic but “medicine of the mind, which he infuses/So skillfully, yet by familiar ways,/That it begets both wonder and delight” in onlookers (1.1.24–26). The “medicine of the mind” he prescribes for Peregrine is a fantastical cure by drama, a play within a play put on by a troupe of players in a huge London house under the patronage of a “fantastic lord” who dresses like a bizarre pauper. The play they stage is a risky, carnivalesque dramatization of faux travel to the Antipodes, an upside-down land on the other side of the world, where everything is the opposite of how it is in England. This psychotherapy-by-drama plot is at once a topical commentary on the pleasures and dangers of the theater and a meditation (which can travel beyond its topical moment) on the nature of desiring. Desire, in the economy of this play, is not removed by disciplining the desirer or by supplying the desirer with an appropriate satiating object. No, wayward or excessive desire is addressed by transgressing further and more explicitly. Desire is solved by being further inflamed—by theater, which, like reading, is an art form predicated on the stoking and inviting of new desires and identifications in its viewers.
Peregrine’s crippling longing to be elsewhere is dealt with by going all in—by giving him a sleeping draught and taking him elsewhere to show him a theatrical “anti-London” of class, gender, and customary backwardness. The play’s pervasive pro-transgression, pro-excess, pro-fiction, pro-displacement model of desire cured by more desire gives it an overarching queer dramatic structure, within which a riot of other forms of stylistic and relational queerness is staged. One of the ways in which a cure by drama works on Peregrine—or on any of us, for that matter—is by bending time, creating the finite, enchanted, defamiliarized time apart of performance. The displacement Peregrine experiences is, he thinks, spatial, to the furthest possible land from England on the globe—though in fact it is chemical, psychic, affective, and theatrical: he hasn’t gone anywhere. It is also, crucially, temporal. Peregrine is transported into the space of the show in a pharmaceutical time warp brought about by Hughball’s sleeping draught. He is told he has slept for eight months, the duration of the entire voyage to the Antipodes. So in addition to the lie about where he is, Peregrine does not know when he is. What’s more, the fantastical images from Mandeville that fill his head, that condition what he expects to see, are from a three-hundred-year-old book. Peregrine’s standpoint is a rich metaphor for our situation as readers of early modern literature. We may think we know when, not to mention where, we are, but we may well be wrong. And our sense of distance or difference from our objects of study has far-reaching effects on our readings of the desires we encounter there.
Using spatial defamiliarization to comment on temporal defamiliarization is appropriate to the methodological conversation I’m intervening in here, for the original emphasis on historical alterity, the otherness of the past, in New Historicist criticism emerges from the influence of anthropology, particularly Clifford Geertz, on the early work of Stephen Greenblatt.76 Historicism’s decades of predominance in early modern studies engendered an enduring critical stance that “the past is a foreign country,” which must be approached ethnographically, disavowing all assumptions of comparability between past and present forms. The history of this mapping-on of space to time is a circular one, however. As Johannes Fabian points out, the construction of spatial alterity itself in the ethnographic paradigm is deeply reliant on narratives construing the other-space, the object-space, as temporally before the space of the looker, and expected to become more like it in a possible future.77 The anthropological location of the other in space that attracted Greenblatt is thus predicated on a distancing temporal fiction, and on a colonial fantasy of the other’s progress toward a foreknown present.
That Peregrine’s displacement in The Antipodes is explicitly fictional particularly foregrounds the interplay of alterity and identification, difference and likeness, in reading and spectatorship. This is of course the same oscillation that shapes our critical stance toward early modern texts, both in terms of content, in asking what factors of anatomy, gender, or status constitute a like (homo) or unlike (hetero) coupling in a given context, and in terms of method, in questioning what proportions of identification and difference structure our relations to sexualities—and texts—from the past, and why.78 In this respect, The Antipodes can even be read as a fable dramatizing the terms of the debate within early modern sexuality studies over the differing agendas and methodologies of historicism and queer theory—and over the larger critical values and imperatives they enable and hinder.79 This book, while squarely a part of that conversation, sits athwart the opposition between history and theory that has structured recent critical exchanges. It is not my aim to invent-discover (to use Bruno Latour’s term) a new taxonomy of early modern eroticisms, or of buried sexual types.80 Instead, this book teases out the ways in which the temporal moments embodied in textual artifacts are made porous, lingering, sticky, jarring, and otherwise heterogeneous by the operations of affect and desire in reading. In both form and content, I read The Antipodes as a dramatization of what is called queer temporality—the idea that historical time and historical change are not a linear, one-way progression.81 Reading texts this way means remaining alert to the ways in which the past is still, uncannily, with us in the present.82 This is what Shakespeare means when he has Hamlet say “The time is out of joint,” as he is trying to make sense of the ethical and affective memorial demands made on him by the return of a specter from the past (1.5.189).83 Jacques Derrida spins this line into a theory of the disjointure always present within historical time: “‘The time is out of joint’: time is dislocated, disarticulated, dislodged, time is run down, on the run and run down, deranged, both out of order and mad. Time is off its hinges, time is off-course, beside itself, disadjusted. Says Hamlet.”84 The point I take from Derrida’s meditation on the out-of-jointness of any one time to itself is that the phantasms of desire that erupt in culture, which seem to come from the past or the future, are radically epistemologically and ontologically undecidable in their meanings. Or, to put it another way, as Hamlet has just said of the specter addressing him with its own unresolved desires, “There are more things in heaven and earth” than are dreamt of in any one, cohesive early modern philosophy (1.5.168). To take Derrida’s out-of-joint model as an historiographic stance toward early modern literature means that reading can work both ways through time. Not only can Shakespeare be used to understand later chapters in European history, but the retrospective hauntings of later moments can be used to read Shakespeare.
I use this idea to mine the queer potential of past aesthetic forms. Instead of locating queerness in a supposedly “modern” future, I look backward instead, to passé, “over,” or dated styles of thinking and being for what they reveal of the complicated currents of sexuality in time. In their pioneering studies of queer temporality and queer history, Jack Halberstam and Heather Love argue that certain “backward” queer styles of being (the gender inversion of butch and drag aesthetics, for instance; refusals of the respectability and assimilation offered by modern, liberal gay rights; recalcitrant shame; and resolutely isolated or unaffiliated queer life) have the power to thwart the expected trajectories of maturation, development, and progress imposed by heteronormativity and neoliberal capitalism on both individual and cultural scales.85 I find in their call to attend to affects (and critical stances) supposedly consigned to the past—to ask what and who gets plowed under in a modernizing, supersession narrative of the history of sexuality—a crucial intervention for how to think about eros in early modern texts. I read the strange backwardnesses of desire in Renaissance texts as forms of queerness that are absolutely not “over,” that are still around, haunting and complicating the present.
When I mention at parties that I am writing a book about queer desires that have no clear or necessary relationship to consummation, and that do not correspond to coherent, politically legible sexual identities, I am sometimes met with the assumption that such disjointed urges belong only to the distant past of early modern England—that by and large we live today in a state of basic coherence between desire, act, and social identity, in the bright modern light of gay pride. This is far from the truth. In fact, this narrative reflects only a quite recent and limited perspective of white-normative, bourgeois, metropolitan, gender-conforming, secular, liberal-individualist, post-Stonewall, settler colonial and Western European gay and lesbian subjecthood. Anyone aware of the experiences of older (or underage), rural or small town, Southern, nonwhite, trans/genderqueer/gender-nonconforming, poor and working-class, intergenerationally and communally obligated, religious, non-Western, or other so-called closeted queer subjects—that is, the majority of queers who live and have lived in the world—will recognize that there is still an urgent need to attend to and excavate the affects of unlegitimated, undocumented, even unarticulated or unexpressed queer desires, because such longings and such lives do not belong to the past. They are still very much here, now; they are as much a part of the present as the readier images of self-realization. As Sedgwick contends in Epistemology of the Closet’s axiom 5, “The historical search for a Great Paradigm Shift may obscure the present conditions of sexual identity,” the underlying structural problem with the dominant historical accounts of homosexuality (Michel Foucault’s, David Halperin’s) is that they are premised on a “unidirectional narrative of supersession,” in which one distinct past model of same-sex relations and gender identity is eclipsed by another—and the superseded model then drops out of the frame. That is not how reality works, today or ever; as my fellow Mississippian William Faulkner puts it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”86 I want to attend instead to what Sedgwick calls the “relations enabled by the unrationalized coexistence of different models during the times they do co-exist.”87
This is what I take from Latour’s assertion that “we have never been modern”: that the modernizing narrative of ascendant individuation, secularization, rights, and notions of identity has never been the whole, or even an accurate, story; that the messy interdependences supposedly superseded in modernity’s work of individuating purification have instead never gone anywhere.88 I want to read with an awareness of what Elizabeth Freeman calls “temporal drag,” the visceral pull of the past on the present,89 and an alertness to what Jonathan Goldberg calls the “non-self-identity of any historical moment” to itself.90 I think it is important to note where fantasies of historical difference are fantasies of progress—not that difference (and change) do not exist. They do, but their status ought to be questioned, not assumed. The idea of modernity can only be constituted by its others, by what is abjected as nonmodern. The quest to isolate difference and change in the past risks making the huge and erroneous assumption that there exists a coherent “homosexuality as we conceive of it today,” which can be contrasted to that past.91 The present is then reified as foreknown, inevitable, homogenized, and renaturalized by having its history told in this linear fashion—when in reality history is an unruly, rushing river, its every moment full of continually becoming forms whose mutations are not determined in advance.
Early modern England, with its ultracanonical literary tradition organized around the mythologized figure of Shakespeare, is a particularly susceptible and thus important site for dismantling the fixation on the absence or presence of sexual identity. It has functioned in the cultural imaginary as a locus of obsession with the “before” of “homosexuality as we conceive of it today”—a moment just before, when a commercial theater of men and boys and its supposedly sexually fluid star playwright could be thrillingly construed as other than gay, yet, at the same time, a teleological before, defined in terms of the heteronormative/homophobic regime that it confirms, in its very beforeness, as incipient, fully formed, just around the bend of history. The culture war version of this has taken the form of a fixation on whether Shakespeare and company “were gay” or “had no access to that concept”—neither of which would begin to encompass reality, even if we could access it (we can’t).92 Even as this book steps aside from what Dimock calls synchronic historicism, the effort to pin down what specific terms and discourses of sexuality were available “in the same slice of time,” I want to draw attention to the ideological work done by centering the question for so long93—most urgently to the risks of assuming that only those desires officially named and registered in contemporary social discourses existed or mattered. Instead, I see the textual shapes of erotic desire, then and now, as Dimock sees texts themselves: “emerging phenomena, activated and to some extent constituted by the passage of time.” “The ‘object’ of literary studies,” she continues, “is thus an object with an unstable ontology, since a text can resonate only insofar as it is touched by the effects of its travels.”94 Desire then becomes the kind of complex, networked, active object, crossing between archival registers and orders of knowledge and disciplinary tools, that concerns Bruno Latour: “these strange situations that the intellectual culture in which we live does not know how to categorize.”95
For who, in any time, has ever lived in a state of perfect coherence between the totality of their invisible desires, the sum of their bodily acts, and their definitive social identity? I would not suppose this to be true of anyone, no matter how flawlessly, obediently heteronormative—or how liberated, enlightened, and gay—in all appearances. This is not how desire works, and not (I feel safe in assuming) how it has ever worked. In departing from archivally legible acts and identities for more nebulous traces of feeling, I link the uncategorized impulses and longings in early modern literature to those still experienced in the present, by acknowledging that not all erotic feelings contain the desire to act; not all desires to act result in acts; not all acts carried out are seen or recorded, in any archive; and not all archived acts are set down or read in the expected ways, then or now.96 To ask it another way: Are you perfectly sure that when whoever has survived to do historical research on this planet in five hundred years (admittedly a best-case scenario in light of looming environmental catastrophe, but supposing someone does) tries to reconstruct early twenty-first-century sexualities, they will be able to read the totality of your desires in the archive?
“The Fancies Were Begot”
Meanwhile, The Antipodes posits its own theory of how desire is generated, which is worthy of detailed attention, as it provides a beautiful example of how close reading can complicate models of historical change. At the beginning of act 2, the madcap doctor and the odd lord plot together over the performance: “Your fancy and my cure shall be cried up/Miraculous. Oh, you’re the lord of fancy,” gushes the doctor, to which Letoy demurs, “I’m not ambitious of that title, sir.” His reasoning is that “fancy”—a term with complex early modern meanings having to do with the ability to envision and materialize one’s desire or artistic creation, which I unpack in more etymological detail in chapter 2—is more powerful and pervasive than any one artist of it (2.1.5–7). Letoy describes “fancy” as a force that is simultaneously ancient and sempiternal, and endlessly novel and self-renewing: “Ages before the fancies were begot,/And shall beget still new to the world’s end” (2.1.8–9). The way this couplet situates fancy in historical time encapsulates one of the arguments of this book: no one is lord of fancy, as its “begetting” is shared across time, between us and those who lived and fancied “ages before.” The vagaries of desire that can be imagined (or staged) now have most probably been “begot,” “ages before,” whether they were recorded or remembered. But at the same time, this is not to say that the shape of desire is at all static or fixed throughout time. Instead, it “shall beget still new to the world’s end.” This model of fancy’s begetting does not hew to a unidirectional line of progress or development. It is constantly generating new forms of itself from itself, multiplying through history in unpredictable ways. Its ongoing new begetting is not figured in terms of sexual generation, but instead as an asexually propagating organism that grows and reproduces collectively, as desires are spread communally through the longue durée of culture.
Letoy’s notion of fancy describes how desire paradoxically abides by both constancy and change, and how constant self-refreshing generativity can be itself a kind of constancy—if we assume that fancy in every age is just as actively begetting “still new” forms of itself, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. This must change how we read. We are not, then, looking at a literary text as a record of the ideologies of desire available to be thought and expressed at a moment in time. Every text (drama, nonfiction prose, poetic, etc.) is instead a moving target, its idiosyncratic set of imaginative representations archiving a teeming assemblage of cultural desires: residual and emergent and otherwise/unspecified shapes of fancy (the otherwise/unspecified category being what chiefly interests me here)—which is itself in motion through time, and undergoing constant alteration as soon as it exists in the world through being produced, viewed, and read.
Moreover, the constant, unpredictable generation of new forms of fancy, persisting from “ages before,” can serve as the common ground for a paradoxical form of readerly identification: the certainty that we do not “Know What That Means” (in Eve Sedgwick’s words) with respect to the ideological and erotic content of specific literary forms.97 Letoy’s model of how the theater generates audience desire puts the lie to the idea that there is one single early modern audience reception of this, or any other, play. Though others have parsed the topical political valences of Brome’s satire,98 more recent work on the diversity of early modern audiences and the social effects of theater has advanced the position that even in ideological terms—not to mention aesthetic ones—there was no single agenda guiding how spectators or readers would have responded to its incitements, nor one public consensus about what they meant.99 It is frequently acknowledged that the fictional travel in The Antipodes does not comment or conjecture on life in any real place on the globe. Only incidentally a satire of London custom, it is for the most part a dramatic exercise in inversion and identification, giving the play of comparison and difference free rein for the delectation—and sexual aid—of one participant/reader. But there is nothing “mere” about the “pleasure and amelioration” it affords Peregrine; he enters it and is altered by it.100 To me, this is one of the most important things that happens in theater, and in reading, regardless of the text’s date of production. It engenders a fictive, feverish displacement that is at once deranging and curative, giving rise to identifications that cannot be predicted in advance.
The Antipodes partakes in queer formal experimentation in the explicitness with which it draws attention to its own artificiality, highlighting its hybrid and citational structure. Letoy tells his favorite actor to give his “incorrigible” desire for verbal improvisation free rein: “Take license to yourself to add unto/Your parts your own free fancy” (2.1.93–94). This pleasure-generating performance practice is construed as archaic and dated—part of the rougher, merrier past of the theater, as it was done “in the days of [the great Elizabethan-era fools] Tarleton and Kemp” (2.1.101). Brome is playing with historical time and style here. A self-consciously literary protégé and imitator of Jonson, he is known for this kind of fanciful treatment of contemporary concerns. Brome’s plays are not realist; they take place in a world of escalating, outrageous fiction that heralds the novel. So this innovative, therapeutic theatrical experiment—the first appearance on the English stage of any kind of psychiatry or mental therapy—in this late, decadent Caroline play, is mining the anachronistic, defamiliarizing potential of supposedly superseded dramatic forms. Letoy’s play also experiments with the thrill of immersive, participatory theater, centuries before Sleep No More (a 2011 site-specific adaptation of Macbeth staged throughout a fictional 1930s Scottish hotel), drawing on the archaic history of ambulatory, site-based performance dating back to the medieval town cycle plays. Peregrine and his wife, as well as Blaze (the owner of the house) and Blaze’s wife, shall be “not alone/Spectators, but, as we will carry it, actors/To fill your comic scenes with double mirth” (2.1.41–43). The “odd lord” leads them, in masks, to a margin of the stage where they can comment on the action and even join in. These formal properties add up to a demonstration of the queer potential of past aesthetic forms. As Valerie Rohy, who thinks about many of these same questions in later literary canons, puts it: “As queer theory has turned back to the question of temporality, it has discovered in itself the ageless anachronism whose other name is literariness.”101 I intend the moments of anachronism I have entertained here, both external to the text and within it, as reading exercises that raise real methodological questions. How does the act of reading work, in the disjointed time of lived experience? In what sense is reading inescapably historical? In what sense can reading be seen as constitutively queer? And how do these theoretical claims fit together and alter each other?
The World Turned Upside Down
Cast in a seductively liminal role where he is both the audience for the play and a leading character, Peregrine gives himself over to the altered state of theater. Letoy’s players enact a world where all power dynamics are reversed, and transgressions forbidden in England are not only licensed but required. Women rule over their husbands; they order the reluctant men to have sex with and impregnate other women. Servants in “the Antipodes” rule over their meekly submissive masters. The law declines to lock anyone up—except when a maid sexually harasses a gentleman who rejects her advances, then lies to the constable about it, she is believed and he is taken away. A “man-scold” is mocked and ducked for talking back to his wife. Poets are richly remunerated for their poems, and aging parents are sent off to school. Topically, the inset metadrama stages a substantive debate about sexual norms and mores, presenting a set of real alternatives to the existing sexual order of married, heteronormative monogamy. Critics have frequently pointed out that in order to protect himself, Brome skirts around making any critique of the political order—his anti-London is not a republic, or anything other than a municipal government within a monarchy, like actual London. And Peregrine is reminded that “the Antipodes” is the opposite of England “only in custom.” But the critique of custom it stages is very much a political one, even a politically queer one. It asks the onstage spectators and the audience to imagine a world in which married spouses do not have exclusive sexual rights over one another’s bodies, and a world in which groups of people of various ages and social statuses are knitted together in complex domestic arrangements that intermingle new biological, social, and economic relations of kinship (where servants command their masters to have children with other servants and masters, and wives maintain a claim to the children their husbands sire with other women). This world of inversion does not include any explicitly same-sex pairings, but it is queer in that it challenges the larger structure of naturalized, hierarchized sexual difference, the patriarchal social order thought to inevitably arise from it, and the moralizing assumptions that keep it in place. Peregrine takes the point exactly when, watching it all unfold, he asks, “Can men and women be so contrary/In all that we hold proper to each sex?” (4.1.160–61). Suddenly, what is “proper to each sex” is a matter of what “we hold” it to be. Why should all power and property attach to men rather than women? Why should a person’s only chance at having a child depend on the fertility of their sole legal spouse? Indeed, what the play within the play is doing looks a lot like queer theory: dramatizing and thinking through how sexual life could be ordered otherwise, and in the process inviting its spectators (both inside and outside of the text) to insert themselves and their desires into its thought experiment wherever they feel moved to do so.
The play within the play oscillates wildly between success and crisis, as its dramatic frame only incompletely contains Peregrine. On a mad run, he breaks into the tiring-house where the players store their costumes and props, and, believing himself to be in an exotic enchanted castle, takes a sword from the wall and ransacks the storage gallery of fantastical beasts of wood and fabric. To hear the hysterical leading player tell it, he “kills monster after monster, takes the puppets/Prisoner, knocks down the Cyclops, tumbles all/Our jiggumbobs and trinkets to the wall” (3.1.306–8). He cuts the hanging devils’ masks and painted skin coats all to pieces in a fury; then, “with a reverent hand,” he takes the stage crown and royal robes out of a prop closet, and “crowns himself King of the Antipodes, and believes/He has justly gain’d the kingdom by his conquest” (3.1.314–17). This unexpected swerve into a fantasy of kingship is first incorporated into the play by Byplay’s improvisational skill, and eventually breaks the frame altogether.102
At the climax of the play within the play, Peregrine cements his “kingship” by going to bed with the “daughter” of the last king—played by his actual wife, Martha, brought into the action in order to get the sex, and the possible child, she craves. The consummation takes place in a mock exotic wedding tableau that is at once a send-up of the fantasy of colonial rulership through the traffic in women, and a sex role-playing game that functions—barely—to compensate for Peregrine’s uncooperative desire. Peregrine is told that the state over which he newly rules presents to him “the daughter/The only child and heir apparent of/Our late deposed and deceased sovereign,/Who with his dying breath bequeath’d her to you” (4.1.441–44). Even in this utterly artificial mock royal wedding, a totally implausible narrative of legitimacy is still supplied to the delusional conqueror—and though the story does not square at all with his supposed seizure of the kingdom by puppet slaughter, he does not question it. Nor does he question, or react, to the sudden news that his wife is dead—or to the claim that “her fleeting spirit/Is flown into and animates this princess” (4.1.448–49). The closer he gets to heterosexual congress, the further away Peregrine seems to drift, dissociating “back again to Mandeville madness” (4.1.466) and musing that he has read of a far-off people “where on the wedding night the husband hires/Another man to couple with his bride/To clear the dangerous passage of a maidenhead” (4.1.463–65)—after all, “she may be of that serpentine generation/That stings of-times to death, as Mandeville writes” (4.1.467–68). Out of time and out of excuses, he is told, “For the safety of your kingdom you must do it” (4.1.474), then escorted out.
It Takes a Crowd
Meanwhile, in the interstitial spaces of the drama’s unfolding, offstage, in the margins of the play within a play—margins as ample and affording of various dalliances as the many rooms of the house—the sexual initiation of Peregrine’s wife, Martha, has already taken place without him. She has been aided to joy—and stoked into a state of further desire—by the lady of the house, a knowing married woman named Barbara. Valerie Traub uses this lesbian sexual initiation to elaborate on the dynamics of ignorance, knowledge, and power around procreative sex and female touch.103 But in addition to introducing female/female erotic pedagogy into the play, the sexual assistance plot contributes to the play’s overarching queer dramatic economy: a world in which a surfeit of desire is addressed by venturing into still more forms of desire, and supposedly dyadic and marital sex acts actually end up being anything but. In a major subplot running through the play, Peregrine and his wife are not the only patients with a sex problem targeted by the theatrical cure. Peregrine’s father, the one who hired the “Doctor,” is also being driven mad—but with anxiety that his much younger second wife, Diana, will give her favors to other men. The Doctor has a performance-based cure for Old Joyless too: he stokes his jealousy to a fever pitch by having Letoy attempt to seduce Diana in front of him. Letoy leads them through a sadistic mind game, tormenting him and tempting her, then threatening her when she rejects him—until he reveals that Diana is his long-lost daughter, abandoned when he suspected his wife of infidelity, and the whole performance of seduction was a test of her virtue. This plot stages another therapy by surfeit, this one a form of extreme desensitization by exposure to what one fears most. What makes it queer is that the cure is to be found in giving up on policing purity and embracing the defilement one fears. Barbara’s husband, the owner of the house, is also a satisfied former patient, immune to jealousy ever since “he knew the worst/He could by his wife” (5.2.253–54)—which includes, it is strongly implied, a former and perhaps ongoing affair with the Doctor. The husbands cured in this way discover that, once free to give up the paranoid position of terrible, anticipatory alertness to the dangers posed by their wives’ sexuality, they can access a depressive position and live on, repairing and enjoying their marriages in this fallen state.104 As a bonus, the seduction is revealed at the last minute to have—ostensibly—been a ruse, the wife pure after all. Even though this may not be true, from the husbands’ perspective it does not matter; the change is wrought in them when they see themselves cuckolded and are liberated from the anxiety of enforcing monogamy.
Thus, in the resolution of The Antipodes, the potentially reproductive heterosexual consummation that is supposed to furnish the normativizing ends of the play and the play within a play actually (like Peregrine) fulfills its function in a hilariously roundabout, hyperbolically multiplied and mediated fashion. First, it is not a dyadic sex act. The stage is crowded with bodies whose movements and speech and exertions are all required as part of a massive communal effort to get a single sex organ in (or near!) another sex organ. The crowded quality of the sex does not by itself depart from a contemporary sexual norm. Rather, heterosexuality called for a good deal of publicity and communal interest in sex and reproduction in early modern England, including gossip, surveillance, and festivity around the consummation of marriages.105 In a way, sex is most crowded at its most socially normative: in ordinary, non-Antipodean, straight wedding ceremonies, which are also communal acts of theater coordinated to facilitate the completion of heterosexual sex. But Traub observes that through its intensively sexualized performances and metaperformances of voyeurism, The Antipodes comes particularly “close to making sex public.”106 Theatrical artifice works on Peregrine’s desire by pointing up and making bizarrely, hyperbolically explicit the ritual functions that are implicit in the wedding ceremony (the creation of a bounded, ritual time and space, special dress, narrative trappings giving the illusion that the groom has won the bride through conquest). What queers this act of communally effectuated sex is the sheer excess of its metatheatrical ruse, and the antisocial refusal it aims to cure.
The spectacle has to compensate for fact that the marital sex act has not happened at the right dramatic moment; it is three years overdue. Just as Peregrine’s reading habit failed to conform to the normative balance of public and ideational pleasures, in marriage he has failed to link the public rite to the expected genital activity. The cure by drama must layer illusions of time travel and spatial displacement on top of this delay. It only works if it can stimulate and sustain the fantasy that the sex is not what it is—that Peregrine is not where he is or when he is, and that his wife is not who she is. All of this ludic artifice adds up to a climax that dramatically denaturalizes the male penetrative act at the center of patriarchy, making it a joke. This sex is theatrically queer. It is brought about not by masculine action but by time-bending drug trips, elaborate deceptions, and art that points up its own artifice. It depends on fantastic noblemen who flout sumptuary customs and own troupes of players for their own pleasure; secret sexual instruction and group sex in spare rooms; self-referential love letters to the theater; overstuffed wardrobe closets and overblown verbal styles; and—creepily, presciently—sneaky uses of emergent discourses of the mind to make a space for desires that would have no way to find expression otherwise. (There is another available reading of The Antipodes as an early psychotherapeutic narrative that would point up other ambivalences in the text, such as working-through versus conversion and aversion models, and the open question of therapy’s normativizing agenda.) The play’s cure by drama can be seen as a collective act of professional (indentured?) therapeutic sex work through role-playing; and the Doctor’s services a perverse form of sadomasochistic sex therapy, offering not a cuckolding fantasy but the real thing.
Furthermore, even in the actual bedchamber, there is evidence that the couple is not alone. Barbara is there. Indeed, she confirms that she thinks penetration was accomplished, “not fathom-deep, I think, but to the scantling/Of a child-getting, I dare well imagine” (5.1.28–29). It is fair to wonder how close an onlooker would have to be to know this; it invites us to imagine that Barbara is a participant in the consummation itself, effecting it and making it a threesome. This instrumental relational mode will be examined in much greater detail in chapter 1. However, Doctor Hughball is there too, supervising the conjugal relations—making it easy to expand the possible triad by imagining that the two facilitators accompanied, or perhaps demonstrated for, the married couple. The father’s sickness and his cure are also simultaneous with Peregrine’s therapeutic sojourn; their wives are even the same age. Though they have different manifest content, Peregrine’s neurosis around reading and sex shares a structure with his father’s paranoid jealousy: travel literature and cuckolding anxiety, respectively, expand into fixations that consume all available space. This can, notably, be read as an early representation of a psychodynamic, rather than humoral or spiritual, transmission of mental patterns between parents and children.
Ironically, after using his travel obsession to avoid sex, Peregrine ends up traveling—after a fashion—to have sex, in a dysfunctional inversion of the exotic travel trope. The sexual conquest that is supposed to have been his domestic patriarchal right (and obligation) can only take place in an imaginary space: a multiply delusional state of chemical alteration, pretended displacement, theatrical illusion, fake conquest, and mock marriage, all in order to sexually possess his own wife. In sum, the climactic sex in The Antipodes may be the queerest act of heterosexual intercourse in early modern drama. Even as the play moves toward its end, consummation is not brought about by making people want the right things, or by disciplining them out of their odd desires. The ineradicable queerness of how desire works is allowed to stand, and is integral to the resolution.
The Shape of Things to Come
The four chapters that follow each draw on dramatic features found in The Antipodes to interrogate the categories of “queer” and “erotic” as they come unmoored from individual human subjects. The first chapter, “Getting Used, and Liking It,” takes up the desire to be made instrumental to others’ erotic ends in two comedies where a supposedly heterosexual couple cannot do it alone. They use an ambiguously gendered third party as an erotic go-between, effecting dynamics that turn out not to be “straight,” or even dyadic, at all. In Beaumont and Fletcher’s tragicomedy Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding, the passionately instrumentalized, secretly cross-dressed servant boy, called Bellario, is used as a communications device to transmit desire between the hero, Philaster, and the princess, Arethusa. The chapter juxtaposes Bellario’s submissive ecstasy at being used against the transgressive erotic prowess of Mary Frith, the real-life masculine woman known as Moll Cutpurse, embodied onstage in Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Roaring Girl (1611). These queer go-betweens get used, with their willing and enthusiastic participation, as technologies of affective and erotic transmission, effectively becoming prosthetic sexual instruments with an attraction and agency of their own, all the more potent for their virtuosity as both tools and objects. This chapter also touches on the queer excesses that result when a ruse is concocted to cure desire by surfeit—in this case a wayward son’s announcement of the notorious genderqueer cutpurse, the Roaring Girl, as his intended bride.107 Moll Cutpurse accomplishes the heterosexual couple’s union—with the son’s actual fiancée dressed in menswear from Moll’s tailor—largely through the phobic disturbances that her gender and sexuality incite in the forbidding father of the groom.
Being made instrumental is a queer relational mode that expands our understanding of early modern erotic dynamics beyond more commonly understood notions of service or triangulation. Instrumentality subverts the binary distinctions between agency and passivity, man and woman, servant and master, lover and beloved, natural and artificial; it ultimately calls into question the definition of sex as an act that involves only two people, or only human bodies. Considering three-way, instrumentalizing erotic bonds as forms of queer relationality opens up the possibility of noticing other erotic groupings in literature, including group erotic configurations that include some instances of heteroeroticism as part of a larger queer erotic structure, and collectivities composed of a mix of taboo and uncensured eroticisms (e.g., the vectors of queer identification and desire among ex-suitors, siblings, and new spouses that is preserved as a four-way love relationship at the end of Twelfth Night). All of this yields a picture of early modern eros that allows us to consider female, male, cross-gendered, and more complexly gendered desires as part of the same erotic system.
Peregrine’s bottomless appetite for reading finds structural echoes in chapter 2, “Everything That Moves,” in which promiscuous desires or fancies, although they may be marked with sexual and gendered meanings, nonetheless spread out to infuse the entire structure of the comedies in which they operate. This chapter takes up the insatiable, all-consuming desire for too many objects at once, embodied by the ravenous man-child Bartholomew Cokes and the equally ravenous, self-disavowing Puritan Zeal-of-the-Land Busy who rampage through Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614); and by the perpetually dissatisfied Duke Orsino, whose desire is the central problem in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1601). It examines how the indiscriminate appetites of capricious fancy and voracious hunger give rise to queer economies of generation in both the material and aesthetic realms. Bartholomew Cokes’s abortive wedding day rampage through the Fair, destroying what he cannot buy or incorporate within himself, is read as a kind of antireproductive, uncontained queer hunger that can be considered through Freud’s notion of non–heterosexually differentiated polymorphous perversity, or even Leo Bersani’s defiantly antisocial queer appetites.108 The insatiable model of desire in this chapter is predicated on lack: it grows by feeding on itself, proceeding out of lack and back into lack again. I juxtapose Cokes with Twelfth Night’s Orsino, both of whom are bottomless vortices of want. If they attain something they seek, then they instantly desire something else; they do not know what they want, and they want everything—except marriage with an appropriate woman. Rather than commodities in the market, the goods Orsino desires are courtly service and masculine friendship, but the libidinal orientation figured in his speeches is a similarly proliferative lack. His endlessly impressionable romantic “fancy” operates according to an asexual mechanism of fantastical generativity that produces only more and more mercurial desires.
My reading of Twelfth Night brings to light an historical connection between the psychic and material/aesthetic realms of desire. I trace how the language of “fancy,” which in the 1500s means the ability to conjure imaginary forms—particularly artistic objects—in the mind’s eye, shifts in meaning over the next three centuries to a term that denigrates aesthetic and ornamental desires as unproductive, effeminate, and sexually suspect. I trace the afterlife of early modern fancy not to solve for the origins of its pejorative connotations, but in the belief that words are thick with constantly changing resonances (in Dimock’s sense, traveling frequencies), which lexicographers only incompletely and belatedly record, and that looking at the circulations of affect around a word can make visible surprising convergences and valences of meaning unrecoverable by empirical means.109 In tracing out the erotic mechanisms of which Orsino and Bartholomew Cokes are early avatars, I uncover an emergent economy for the production and reproduction of desire in which prodigious consumption functions as capitalism’s monstrous, queer double of sexual reproduction.
With the third and fourth chapters, this book takes a dark turn. The systems of communal pleasure produced in the commercial theater give way to two historical affective systems founded in projection and violence: witch hunts and colonialism. Chapter 3, “It Takes One to Know One,” unpacks the erotic structure of the early modern witch hunt through two key examples of sensationalistic popular literature from the witch trials that roiled Scotland and England from the 1590s through the 1620s. The final chapter, “Lost Worlds, Lost Selves,” takes up documents of failed Protestant colonial ventures in the Atlantic: Jean de Léry’s sojourn to the doomed French colony in Brazil, and Thomas Herriot’s and John White’s willfully projective reports and images from the already lost English venture at Roanoke. The desires explored in The Shapes of Fancy thus progress from more positive affects—from the mutually gratifying stance of getting used; through the roving, insatiable energies of fancy and the double-edged ambivalence of free-floating lack—to the negative affects of paranoia and melancholia. These last two chapters turn away from straightforwardly erotic or relational desires organized around gratification (the go-between’s satisfaction in a specific way of being used; the voracious desirers who want to consume everything and nothing). Rather, they address the erotic dynamics animating entire discursive systems of knowledge production (about witches, and about Native American people) in scenes of profound historical violence against gendered and raced bodies.
This turn to violence is politically unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Since its reclamation as an activist rallying cry circa 1990, “queer” has often been defined by its liberatory political force. Its earliest theoretical explications detail its potential to expand the ambit of what sexual politics can disrupt and change about the world: heteronormativity, wider realms of cultural production, subcultural survival, canon formation, pedagogy, political dissent, work, nationalism, the family, the ideology of everyday life.110 “Queer” has had such a productive and varied life as a term of opposition to structures of power that it has, in many contexts, been difficult or impossible to notice moments in texts where it does something besides contesting norms—moments where a turn of desire that can be called queer affect or queer eros is implicated with, even constitutive of, the apparatus of historical power and violence.111 It has happened, though, and it keeps happening. It happened in the nineteenth century, in the homoerotic and colonialist discourses through which European men enjoyed and consumed the bodies of young brown men and boys.112 It happens today, in popular culture’s love and theft of styles, traditions, dance moves, gestures, and linguistic forms from Black and Latinx queer and trans street and nightlife subcultures.113 It is perpetually visible in the telltale mix of paranoid homoerotic investment, disavowal, and projective rage that is the calling card of the secretly gay-desiring homophobe, an affective genealogy that includes the persecutory master-at-arms John Claggart in Melville’s Billy Budd (1924); the belligerent Roy Cohn, lawyer to Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump; and too many antigay clergymen and politicians to name.114 And, as I argue in the second half of this book, we can see it happening in early modern texts. As the critical purchase and political stakes of queer and other antihomophobic rubrics are being debated in new ways (for example, Jasbir Puar’s intervention naming deployments of queer rights and queer liberation in the service of imperialist politics as “homonationalism”), it is vital to attend to the sexist, racist, and colonialist shapes taken by queer erotic energies through history, confronting head-on the complicated intertwinings of power, violence, and desire.115
In probing the queer dynamics of early modern historical violence, the second half of The Shapes of Fancy departs from England and moves into the transnational context, in which fears of difference and the threat of foreignness are primary drivers of twisted erotic affect. It introduces two genres of writing, witch pamphlets and colonial voyage narratives, that brought new forms of desire into England from elsewhere, as alluring and threatening objects for English readers’ and audiences’ delectation. Chapter 3, “It Takes One to Know One,” turns to Scotland, recounting the production of the witch as an “internal other” in Newes from Scotland (1591), a popular pamphlet from the Edinburgh witch panic of 1590, which took place under the rule (and with the invested participation) of James VI (later James I). The chapter goes on to examine a later English witch, Elizabeth Sawyer, whose story is dramatized in John Ford, Thomas Dekker, and William Rowley’s true-life domestic tragedy The Witch of Edmonton (1621). In Newes from Scotland’s account of the presumptive witches’ detection, torture, and fantastic confessions (including a Sabbath meeting with the devil, storm-raising necromancy, and plots against the king’s life), and in The Witch of Edmonton’s dramatization of the framing process leading up to Sawyer’s trial and execution, I describe how the affective machinery of paranoid suspicion produces a witch as a kind of queer figure, defined by the deviant, blasphemous, seductive, and rebellious desires projected onto her, who must be abjected from the community in death. The witch hunt scene is, like the theatrical cure in The Antipodes, a dramatic technology for the correction of desire—not only the desires of the wayward and/or unlucky subjects taken up in its machinery, but the social desires of a whole community. It is also a purpose-driven dramatic system that collectively stokes specific fantasies in order to produce a certain kind of subject (in The Antipodes, a heterosexually functional husband; here, a witch). The dramatic drive of the witch hunt is to create something—a witch—out of the whole cloth of communal conflict and ideation. That the thing it seeks to produce never existed is no obstacle. One of the chief lessons of this book is that desire can produce anything.
This chapter goes on to link the projective dynamics of witch production to a larger history of sexual secrets and sexual persecution. The question of why and how the witch hunt is so effective in producing witchcraft confessions and the names of more implicated witches is directly, topically connected to the history of queerphobic paranoia, most memorably in the twentieth-century witch hunts for communists—and crucially, inextricably, for homosexuals—staged in the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate hearings of Joseph McCarthy. The paranoid suspicion that powers the witch trials is not so much a queer desire as a queer-producing and queer-persecuting mechanism of power. My argument here draws on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in dialogue with the object-relations psychoanalytic theory of Melanie Klein, to define paranoia as a projective form of interpretation based in negative affect, which attributes the secret malice it fears in itself to others, and thus often discursively brings about the very thing it suspects. I use Klein’s notion of part-objects to describe how the paranoid desire of the witch panic is routed through the everyday things—ropes, razors, hairs, musical instruments, cats, dogs, straw, scraps of soiled linen—that function as uncannily effective tools, both of witchcraft and of witch finding, materializing the persecutory anxieties of others and projecting them onto the body of the accused. What Sedgwick calls “paranoid reading” also shapes The Witch of Edmonton’s second plot, a violent, seemingly unrelated tale of bigamy that runs parallel to the witch plot. The bigamy plot also produces a kind of queer figure—a bigamist rather than a witch—by dramatizing the construction and collusive maintenance of a secret, deviant erotic identity. Reading the bigamy plot alongside the witchcraft plot vividly illuminates that the basis of the witch hunt’s paranoid erotics is secret sexual deviance—specifically the communal investment in using suspicions of witchcraft to occlude, then rectify, all of the other deviant desires (including, in this chapter: bigamy, master/servant rape, inheritance fraud, fornication, murder, treason, heresy, bestiality, and sodomitical group sex with the devil) whose allure must be kept at bay.
The fourth chapter, “Lost Worlds, Lost Selves,” moves into the Atlantic world, taking up the melancholic tone of belatedness and thwarted desire that suffuses two accounts of failed New World colonial ventures: Jean de Léry’s account of the short-lived French Huguenot colony in Brazil, Histoire d’un voyage (1578); and Thomas Harriot and John White’s reports from the failed English colony at Roanoke, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590). I argue that in these texts’ representations of Native American people and things, we can detect a distinctly queer and melancholic form of colonial desire, which bodies forth fantastical ideations of nonlinear, nonbiological models of relationality across time. I read Jean de Léry’s affectively overwrought narrative, saturated with homoerotic and cross-cultural longing, in which he (favorably) compares the bodies, customs, and ceremonies of the Tupinamba Indian men—his obsession—to those of the French, as voicing a queer colonial melancholia predicated on excessive identification and loss. In Léry’s Histoire, as in Harriot and White’s accounts, ethnographic technologies of description are deployed in the service of a futile, impossible affective end: to keep, hold onto, memorialize, create for public consumption, and even become something once present that is now lost (and that was never there in the exact, projectively fantastical form in which the European interlopers imagine it): the Tupinamba and Algonkian societies the voyagers have irreversibly, genocidally altered with their presence, however brief and foreclosed. What these documents narrate is the loss of a fantasy akin to Peregrine’s: the longing to be elsewhere, to live otherwise; the fantasy of another self, as imagined through the eyes of a lost, unpossessed other. They register the would-be colonizer’s longing for an impossible transformation into something he could never become in order to have something he could never have.
Like paranoia, melancholia is an erotic stance with a particularly vexed relation to the truth, reality, or presence of the love object. That is, both are investments in objects that were never really there exactly as imagined. The collective social apparatus of the witch hunt needs the witch to exist in the same way as the failed colonizer needs his perfect foil, the lost American other, to continue to be accessible to him. The impossibility of both these desires provides the narrative fuel for their respective genres of print literature. My reading of colonial desire in this chapter draws on Frantz Fanon’s and Homi Bhabha’s analyses of colonialism’s fraught psychic conflicts between identification and difference, self and other, affecting the colonizer as well as the colonized.116 My readings of Léry, Harriot, and White uncover strange resonances of affiliation and eruptions of longing, like Peregrine’s, for things to be otherwise—for another role to play, another possible outcome, another time and place in which the narrators could inhabit other relational modes, whose impossibility cannot even be mourned. These Protestant texts from early moments of failed and abandoned colonial ambition ultimately make visible how melancholia, the persistence of identification with the unmournable other in memory, is constitutive of the construction of whiteness and heterosexuality, just as it infuses the construction of gender. Far from being righted and resocialized, as Peregrine is, the voyage writers in this chapter face the absence of anything like resolution. Instead, their accounts spin colonial longing into impossible imagined futures whose echoes continue to haunt the racial politics of the present. I conclude by drawing an analogy between the affective load borne by colonial voyagers’ invested, melancholic ethnography—epitomized in the surreal queer genealogy that John White constructs through the ornate portraits of ancient Picts in his coda to the Virginia text—and the equally fantastical, identificatory investments we bear as modern critics to early modern texts. In the conclusion, “The Persistence of Fancy,” I ponder the queer political potential of readerly love under current austerity conditions in American higher education.
This is a book about interpretation—what we see, what has gone unseen, and how both are conditioned by a host of subjective desires, investments, and historical positionalities. It is a book about how to go about looking for important things that are hard to see, and an intervention into some of the methodological, disciplinary, and political norms that have made certain things harder to see and name, and others easier. It uses queer theory and early modern literature to perform some of the functions of queer theory (generating new, transportable paradigms with which to think) and some of the functions of literary criticism (close readings that bring out new resonances in old texts). Its argumentative mode is speculative and experimental; its sustaining fantasy is of a community of readers who will learn different things from reading it than I have learned writing it. And its act of faith is that reading for desire can further complicate what we think we know about historical difference, sex, feeling, and time, bodying forth new, politically vital demands and affinities between readers and the objects of our critical investment and love.