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Sex before Sex

Sex before Sex: Figuring the Act in Early Modern England

James M. Bromley
Will Stockton
Afterword by Valerie Traub
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Sex before Sex
    Book Description:

    What is sex exactly? Does everyone agree on a definition? And does that definition hold when considering literary production in other times and places? Sex before Sex makes clear that we cannot simply transfer our contemporary notions of what constitutes a sex act into the past and expect them to be true for the people who were then reading literature and watching plays. The contributors confront how our current critical assumptions about definitions of sex restrict our understanding of representations of sexuality in early modern England. Drawing attention to overlooked forms of sexual activity in early modern culture, from anilingus and interspecies sex to "chin-chucking" and convivial drinking, Sex before Sex offers a multifaceted view of what sex looked like before the term entered history. Through incisive interpretations of a wide range of literary texts, including Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors, Paradise Lost, the figure of Lucretia, and pornographic poetry, this collection queries what might constitute sex in the absence of a widely accepted definition and how a historicized concept of sex affects the kinds of arguments that can be made about early modern sexualities. Contributors: Holly Dugan, George Washington U; Will Fisher, CUNY-Lehman College; Stephen Guy-Bray, U of British Columbia; Melissa J. Jones, Eastern Michigan U; Thomas H. Luxon, Dartmouth College; Nicholas F. Radel, Furman U; Kathryn Schwarz, Vanderbilt U; Christine Varnado, U of Buffalo-SUNY.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-3947-6
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Introduction: Figuring Early Modern Sex
    (pp. 1-23)

    We open on an apparent misunderstanding. When Hermia and Lysander get lost in the woods in the second act of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lysander suggests that they stop and rest for the night. Hermia tells him that they should sleep apart, yet Lysander has a different idea: “One turf shall serve as pillow for us both; / One heart, one bed; two bosoms, and one troth” (2.2.47–48).¹ The knowing tone of Hermia’s response—“Nay, good Lysander; for my sake, my dear, / Lie further off yet; do not lie so near” (2.2.49–50)—prompts Lysander to protest...

  5. 1 “Invisible Sex!”: What Looks Like the Act in Early Modern Drama?
    (pp. 25-52)

    In one of the sublimely curious Internet-spawned subcultural phenomena of the past few years—the widely recognized language and iconography known as the “LOLCats” fad or “meme”—photographs of cats in absurd, anthropomorphic poses are captioned with tag lines meant to be imagined as their speech. These utterances follow a specific grammar and syntax (a hybrid of the early Internet gaming code-dialect “l33t” or “leetspeak” and the stereotype languages of “Ebonics” and Japanese “Bad Engrish”) and a stock set of idiomatic formulations. One particularly versatile LOLCat phrase is used for cats who appear to be miming a recognizable human activity:...

  6. 2 Death and Theory: Or, the Problem of Counterfactual Sex
    (pp. 53-88)

    The bond between sex and death is so familiar as to offer a chilly sort of comfort. Through figural reciprocity, each might palliate the graver dangers of the other: death is an auxesis that overstates the dissolution of sex; sex is a meiosis that undermines the finality of death. But these abstract mitigations are not secure, and a tic of notional literalism—as in Helena’s “I’ll follow thee and make a heaven of hell, / To die upon the hand I love so well” (2.1.243–44)—fuses linguistic convention to bodily risk.¹ The slippage between emblematic and corporeal modes is...

  7. 3 Spectacular Impotence: Or, Things That Hardly Ever Happen in the Critical History of Pornography
    (pp. 89-110)

    The history of English pornography is relatively straightforward—or at least that is how it is written. In his groundbreaking The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture, Walter Kendrick notes the Victorian coinage of the term pornography and explores the generic consolidation that inheres in this naming.¹ Kendrick’s influential cultural history proposes that the mode we now recognize as pornographic emerged most clearly in the nineteenth century as a backlash against an increasingly polite and increasingly discursive society. For him, it is a regulatory category defined—then and now—as an argument against decorum rather than by any textual particularity....

  8. 4 “Unmanly Passion”: Sodomitical Self-Fashioning in John Ford’s The Lover’s Melancholy and Perkin Warbeck
    (pp. 111-140)

    The title of this collection notwithstanding, there may be no such thing as sex before sex, and—as I should make clear up front considering the subject of my particular essay—no such thing as homosexuality before its emergence in the modern period. This is true even (especially) in the most literal sense. Only in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century did sex acquire its present common usage as sexual intercourse. Before that, it tended to refer to the two main categories that distinguished people according to their relation to reproduction: male or female. As for homosexuality, the word...

  9. 5 The Erotics of Chin Chucking in Seventeenth-Century England
    (pp. 141-169)

    Robert Herrick’s “The suspition upon his over-much familiarity with a Gentlewoman” is, as its title implies, a poem in which the speaker responds to rumors about the nature of his relationship with “a Gentlewoman.”¹ The speaker reassures his beloved—and anyone who happens to read the poem—that they do not have to worry about their behavior because they know that they have been “innocent” (5) and “faultless” (11): as he puts it, “where no sin / Unbolts the doore, no shame comes in” (12–13). In the following lines, the speaker claims that even though he and his beloved...

  10. 6 Rimming the Renaissance
    (pp. 171-194)

    Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610) begins with a perhaps notorious quarrel in which the title character Subtle tells Face, “I fart at thee” (1.1.1), and directs him to “Lick figs / Out at my—” (1.1.3–4).¹ With the “fart” directing us to the backside of the body, we can safely supply the missing conclusion of “arse,” which, with the command to lick, makes the barb akin to the modern “kiss my ass.”² As with many insults, such as “jerk,” “kiss my ass” draws on and intensifies meanings associated with a sexual practice—in this case, anilingus, or colloquially rimming...

  11. 7 Animal, Vegetable, Sexual: Metaphor in John Donne’s “Sappho to Philaenis” and Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden”
    (pp. 195-212)

    It is generally accepted that human reproduction is both necessary and good: the problem is the means employed. This problem would have seemed particularly evident to a culture like Renaissance England, in which the similarities between human and animal sexuality were taken as indications that sex was an unworthy activity for creatures believed to have immortal souls. Sex was something that connected humans to what were then regarded as the lower orders of creation. This attitude has not disappeared, but for my purposes here, what is most remarkable about the difference between contemporary and Renaissance sexualities is that while we...

  12. 8 Aping Rape: Animal Ravishment and Sexual Knowledge in Early Modern England
    (pp. 213-232)

    In his 1952 survey of “the sexuality of apes,” H. W. Janson muses on a peculiar European literary tradition: pervasive cultural belief in interspecies rape of human females by male apes. For Janson, representations of “ape rape” raise a paradoxical question: how did this widespread European cultural belief evolve, particularly in the early modern period, before the arrival of large, biped simians in Europe? The problem is one of scale: early modern apes seem too small to pose a serious threat to humans, female or otherwise. Although he seems willing to believe that accounts of early modern ape rape involving...

  13. 9 The Seduction of Milton’s Lady: Rape, Psychoanalysis, and the Erotics of Consumption in Comus
    (pp. 233-261)

    Does the Lady in Milton’s Comus fantasize about being raped? A qualified yet nonetheless affirmative answer to this question may help resolve the heated debate about the masque that took place between John Leonard and William Kerrigan in the early 1990s; but one would likely never know from reading most criticism on Comus, before or after, that the Lady is doing anything of the sort. The debate began when Leonard objected to Kerrigan’s Freudian interpretation of the Lady’s resistance to Comus as a case in which meaning “exude[s] its own adversary” or where “no” means “yes.”¹ This interpretation had allowed...

  14. 10 “How Human Life Began”: Sexual Reproduction in Book 8 of Paradise Lost
    (pp. 263-290)

    After listening to Raphael tell about war in heaven (book 6) and the creation of the world (book 7), and then posing a few questions about cosmic hierarchy only to be gently reminded of the worth of lowly wisdom, John Milton’s Adam volunteers to tell the archangel his story. He refers to this as the story of “how human life began” (8.250).¹ There are good reasons for regarding Adam’s offer to tell an archangel how human life began as odd. First, Raphael has only just finished telling a competing version of such an origin story to Adam and Eve (7.505...

  15. Afterword
    (pp. 291-303)

    Anyone who has broached the question of sex in the undergraduate classroom cannot have escaped the accusation, “You are reading too much (sex) into this (text).” This is perhaps especially true of Renaissance courses, in which expectations of “great literature” written in the mists of time would seem to obviate any possibility of eroticism. Teachers generally take recourse in textual glosses to explain the bawdy, scatological, and downright filthy references that punctuate even the most canonical plays and poems. Sometimes we seek assistance from the many glossaries that codify sexual allusions or assign criticism that interprets dynamics of erotic love,...

  16. Contributors
    (pp. 305-307)
  17. Index
    (pp. 309-329)