The English Renaissance
The Renaissance was a rediscovery of the ideas of the Greeks and Romans that happened at the end of the Middle Ages in Europe. From old books and copies of old books kept in monasteries or brought from Arab lands, Europe was exposed to new (or very old) systems of government, to other religions and ways of seeing the world, and to different forms of art and architecture.
The movement had started in Italy. A few English writers had been interested in it before, but it really took off under Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth spent lavishly on the arts, hoping for royal propaganda to shore up her dangerous position as a female monarch in a man’s world, and as a Protestant monarch of a nation divided along the faultline of religion.
The writers of the English Renaissance often saw themselves as trying to build a hybrid civilization. They wanted to borrow some of the glory and brilliance of Greece and Rome, and mix it with their native culture. The problem, though, was that these great works of the past were often full of male love, and occasionally mentioned female love. The first of these was considered sinful and punishable by death in England, and the second was largely ignored.
The Romans were less of a problem for the English writers. Their portrayals of homosexuality were mocking as often as they were open-minded – making fun of the “effeminacy” of some homosexuals. Still, even the very serious Roman poet Virgil wrote sympathetically of a romance between male shepherds.
The ideas of the Greeks were more difficult to merge with English culture. The official line often repeated by the Athenians was that women were not intelligent enough to experience true love, which could only exist between two men. Their works are full of celebrations of male-male romance.
To take just one example, in Plato’s Symposium, there is a debate about the preferred sexual positions of the heroes Achilles and Patroclus, a musing on the origins of sexual orientations, and claims that love between men ends tyranny or leads them closer to the divine. It’s also a major work of philosophy, and so the Renaissance couldn’t ignore it. The solution was to develop a misleading translation – “lovers” often became “friends,” for example, and “he” became “she.”
Some writers in the Renaissance lamented that the wise Greeks had fallen into the “unnatural sin” – it was their way of dealing with the very different values expressed in these stories. Others refused to translate certain works into English, and historian John Boswell notes that until 1968, one well-known series of translations of classic Greek texts into English put the homosexually explicit passages in Latin or Italian. Others favoured out-and-out dishonesty in misleading translations. Some just fell back on the old stereotype that there was no homosexuality in Britain, so these stories could not influence anyone on British soil.
Some writers and teachers, however, seemed attracted to the writings of the Greeks for the same reason that they made others nervous. Schoolmasters who taught Latin and Greek were stereotyped as homosexuals and paedophiles, considered the same thing in British law then.
There also seems to have been some truth to the stereotype. Many of Europe’s sodomy cases were directed at teachers, and in 1541, schoolmaster Nicholas Udall — author of the first English comedy for the stage — was sentenced to a year in prison for having sex with two of his male students. Perhaps these Greek and Latin scholars saw something of themselves reflected back in those old books that they couldn’t find in their own culture — perhaps they found solace in the past.
The English Theatre
The two greatest writers for the English Renaissance stage – Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare – had classes in Latin, and would have known the homoerotic verses of the Roman poets Ovid, Horace, and Virgil. These were not only required reading in these classes, but children had to actually recite them for practice.
Marlowe was the braver of the two playwrights. He wrote a play about the love affair between King Edward II and his partner Piers Gaveston. Marlowe’s works are infused with an intense homoeroticism. In his poem Hero and Leander, the god of the ocean becomes obsessed with Leander as he swims, thinking he’s another Ganymede (the Greek god Zeus’s male lover, whose name had become Renaissance slang for a young man with an older man for a lover).
Shakespeare was less daring – his queerest works were his sonnets, poems which detail a (probably autobiographical) bisexual love triangle. These were circulated only among his friends, and likely not intended for publication – they may have even been published without his consent. The first 126 of these of these sonnets are addressed to a young man, and Sonnet 20 is actually quite sexually explicit. In their current order, Shakespeare seems to court the love of a young man, has his heart broken, and falls for a “dark lady” who also has the young man as a lover. Many have suggested, though, that the sonnets are in the incorrect order, and so the love triangle works the other way around, and the romance with the young man comes after.
For two centuries, these sonnets were not re-published. After that, they were published in a censored version. In 1793, one Shakespeare expert, George Steevens, said that the sonnets were so disgusting for their bisexuality that “The strongest act of Parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service.”
For the stage, though, Shakespeare never put on anything riskier than As You Like It. This is a play about a woman (played by a young man in drag) who disguises herself as a man, and then allows another man to court her. In disguise, she takes the name Ganymede. The Taming of the Shrew begins with a similar drag scene, in which a man named Christopher Sly keeps trying to get into the skirts of a boy disguised as his wife. Almost no screen or stage version of the play includes this first scene.
It wasn’t just the content of these plays that earned the English theatre a very queer reputation, nor the fact that they were often inspired by the Greek and Roman classics. Renaissance theatre was an all-male club, and teenage boys played all the women’s roles. In the first production of Romeo and Juliet, for example, the role of Juliet was played by a boy named Robert Goffe.
Not surprisingly, the Renaissance writers and playwrights drew the ire of the Puritans, who I’ll turn to my next instalment.
Sources: This is originally a three-part instalment that I divided into pieces. I have my sources in part three.