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Wanton Words

Wanton Words: Rhetoric and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 252
  • Book Info
    Wanton Words
    Book Description:

    InWanton Words, Madhavi Menon intimately and expertly couples classical and Renaissance handbooks of rhetoric with canonical Renaissance plays and demonstrates their shared propensity to speak about sex - often transgressive sex - in the same instance that they speak about the workings of language.

    While other studies of rhetoric have confined their analyses to local questions of interpretive interest, Menon introduces rhetoric into the largely medico-juridical realm of studies on Renaissance sexuality. In doing so, she suggests that rhetoric allows us to think through the erotics of language in ways that pay most attention to thefrissonof English Renaissance drama. Sustained deconstructive parsings of tropes - metaphor, metonymy, allegory, catechresis, and more - enables their wantonness to emerge in subjects usually considered unrelated to rhetoric: race inOthello, colonialism inThe Tempest, tragedy inRomeo and Juliet, and cowardice inThe Roaring Girl.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8322-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Foreplay
    (pp. 3-4)

    In a frenzied play of wits involving the letters of the alphabet, Holofernes and Moth outline an idea of language that this book will take as axiomatic. Responding to a pedantic question about a constitutive figure of speech (′What is the figure? What is the figure?′), Moth puns on a stock source of Renaissance humour and horror: horns. Referring both to the pedant′s book covered with a sheet of horn, and to the popular symbol of cuckoldry, Moth′s reply yokes together concepts that are often thought of separately: language and sexuality, tropes and the body. The delight of copulation, the...

  5. 1 Setting the Stage: Metaphor
    (pp. 5-34)

    Questions of precise terminology have been at the heart of debates on Renaissance sexuality at least since the time of Alan Bray, whose pioneering study,Homosexuality in Renaissance England, concludes that there was no such thing as homosexuality in Renaissance England. His term of choice, as it has been for most studies of Renaissance sexuality, is ′sodomy,′ indicating forcefully that our current terms for sexualities did not connote specific identities in the sixteenth century.² This difference in terminology has in turn been taken to indicate a conceptual difference between sexual regimes, marking the Renaissance as forever alienated from the present...

  6. 2 Performance Anxiety: Metonymy, Richard II, The Roaring Girl
    (pp. 35-67)

    In John Donne′s ′Sappho to Philaenis′ – often considered the earliest ′lesbian′ poem in English – Sappho dismisses her past affair with Phao in order to contemplate the beauty and symmetric perfection of two female bodies joining together:

    My two lips, eyes, thighs, differ from thy two,

    But so, as thine from one another doe;

    And, oh, no more; the likenesse being such,

    Why should they not alike in all parts touch?

    Hand to strange hand, lippe to lippe none denies;

    Why should they brest to brest? Or thighs to thighs?

    Likenesse begets such strange selfe flatterie,

    That touching my...

  7. 3 First Night: Metalepsis, Romeo and Juliet, Allʹs Well that Ends Well
    (pp. 68-93)

    In or around 1680, the earl of Rochester wrote a closet drama in which graphic sexual encounters end with fire, brimstone, and the destruction of a kingdom. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rochester called his playSodom and Gomorrah.³ The play′s trajectory moves from presenting sodomy as a ′natural′ force to ferociously clamping down on it as the Vice beyond redemption. This curious split in the narrative results in a sexual morality that develops near the end of the play and defines sodomitical debauchery as the perverted opposite of procreative sexuality. Despite its remarkable beginning in sodomy′s unremarkableness, then,Sodomenacts the process...

  8. 4 Cast in Order of Appearance: Catachresis, Othello, King John
    (pp. 94-123)

    Even though a masque of blackness was not a uniquely ′bright idea′ in 1605,³ Ben Jonson′sMasques of Blacknesse and Beavtiewere specifically commissioned by Queen Anne to be performed at court.⁴ The story ofBlacknessefeatures a band of princesses who are convinced that dark skin renders them physically unattractive. After reading in a book of English verse that darkness is a consequence of being too much in the sun, Niger′s daughters hope to escape the source of their discomfort but are unable to plot a path away from the sun′s rays.⁵ The princesses wilt in the heat of...

  9. 5 Encore! Allegory, Volpone, The Tempest
    (pp. 124-156)

    During the first half of the fifteenth century the person now designated the Wakefield Master made masterly revisions to the Nativity story in the Towneley cycle of mystery plays. The most famous of these revisions took the form of theFirstandSecond Shepherds′ Plays, which presented the story of Christ′s birth in two different, yet similar, settings: the shepherds are directed to Bethlehem to adore the Child, and once there, leave off their coarse ways to join together in singing harmonious hymns to the Lord. There are several remarkable features in these plays, not least of which is the...

  10. After Words: Henry VIII and the Ends of History
    (pp. 157-172)

    The end of this book goes back to its beginning in metaphor, both completing and complicating a circle of desire that rhetoric insists on drawing around itself and drawing itself into. This circle is also the knot that Lord Herbert, in the epigraph taken from hisLife and Raign of King Henry the Eighth, has to untie in order to convert a convoluted circle into a straight chronological line. Lord Herbert blames his trouble on the need for reconciling contradiction and singularity, veracity and variety. The king′s many faces are a challenge to the historian since they defy the project...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 173-210)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 211-230)
  13. Index
    (pp. 231-236)