Sexuality in Early Modern English Literature

Introduction: Relevance of the Topic to Early Modern Literature

Although most of the early modern English plays seem innocent to the present-day audience, in fact, exploration of sexuality, ranging from playful and comic to tragic and taboo, was one of the most popular topics among playwrights. Sexuality in the early drama is much deeper and more complex than what is enacted or uttered. Stage performances often fail to achieve the desired response in the minds of spectators as they do not take into account the implicit meaning behind erotic scenes (Traub 2015).

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But how can we account for the fact that the taboo topic was so popular and relevant in early modern literature? This requires a deeper insight into the historic period. The Renaissance could be referred neither to medieval nor to modern and took an intermediate position: The decaying views and beliefs existed side by side with the new, emerging reality with an entirely different perception of the world, emphasizing individualism, mobility, development, and communication.

At the same time, none of the new values could shake the belief in moral order and chastity–it kept its position until the late 18th century. Furthermore, people continued to believe that the organization of the society corresponded to the order God imposed upon it, which still meant that disobedience and deviations from the initial design would be severely punished (Farley-Hills 2016).

In Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s plays energy often takes the form of love, sexual desire, and even lust: While many characters are morally repugnant to the present-day audience, they were still extremely attractive for the audience of that time as they manifested all concealed passions the people could not allow themselves to show sticking to religious virtue (Ribner 2017).

Thus, the paper at hand will attempt to analyze the nature of sexuality in two pieces of drama, demonstrative in this respect: The Changeling and The Revenger’s Tragedy.

Sexual Energy in The Changeling

Even though sexuality is one of the major themes developed in the play, written by Middleton and Rowley, it is far from being jovial and optimistic. Human nature is shown as dark and self-destructive. The lives of the main characters have to end tragically to restore the moral order: “Justice hath so right/ The guilty hit, that innocence is quit/ By proclamation, and may joy again”. Thus, for the world to be fair and meaningful, some people have to be sacrificed (the attitude that is far from being unique for the poets and playwrights of the period) (Farley-Hills 2016, p. 160). Such an outcome of the story is meant to demonstrate that every human being has inner forces that can lead him/her either to deplorable consequences if a person fails to control those passions.

The playwrights’ approach in this play is unique not in the idea that they try to communicate to the viewer but in his persistent belief that even intelligent people of morals are not able to identify what is good and what is evil until it is too late. The authors show that there is a powerful sexual energy in every man that counteracts his sense of virtue (Williams 2016). Furthermore, even those who are naturally good cannot see the difference between actions initiated by a sense of moral duty and those initiated by corruption–this inevitably leads to a tragic fall.

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However, the major tragedy of the play is not connected with death. On the contrary, death is seen as a logical outcome. What is tragic is moral ugliness concealed by the beauty of appearances and the failure to discern the difference between reality and deception.

Every character of the play turns out to be altogether different from what the viewer may expect: Diaphanta, who is witty and enjoys joking on morally ambiguous topics, is virtuous; Beatrice, who appears to be innocent and shy, is far from being so; Antonio and Franciscus, seemingly harmless, are lustful and dangerous–the play has a lot of secrets in store. The truth is revealed gradually until we see all masks fall and real faces show.

The authors’ interpretation of the tragedy is also quite unprecedented and original for the drama of that time. They treat all the characters ironically and even mock certain conventions existing in plays: De Flores, who is the only person who does not have any disguise and whose disfigured appearance corresponds to his malice, is seen by others as a man of virtue. Characters claiming to be reasonable and shrewd fail to see the vice when it is shown without any covering.

De Flores is a physical representation of lust, sexual desire, and irrationality that are powerful and destructive. He is indeed more than just one of the characters since he embodies the dramatist’s understanding of sexual nature driving human lives. In all Middleton’s later works, every major character seems to be involved in a kind of hidden sexual activity, ranging from innocent flirting to insect and rape.

He satirizes everyone, even the clergy and the faithful as he believes that every person is prone to vice. In many cases, sex is treated rather humorously than seriously, it is devoid of any sacredness and is no longer a taboo topic. Even when the poet ends a play at a wedding he wants to show that the crime is punished as a nobleman has to marry a whore, which is an outcome that he deserves (Eliot 2014).

Due to The Changeling and the authors’ focus on the sexual nature of men, they won a reputation of harsh realists, who do not hide human atrocities and never show any compassion to weaknesses (Eliot 2014). Men are depicted as fallen creatures as their malicious thoughts and evil actions happen contrary to their reason. That is why so many characters in this and other plays are amoral and follow their worst impulses without any doubt.

However, it is worth noticing that they are not deprived of intelligence and wit. The characters are multidimensional and powerful as they are driven by an incomparable force. Even women, such as Beatrice, demonstrate cunning, relentlessness, and power (we see that Alsemero is no match for her in terms of intelligence) (Budekhin 2016). This allows concluding that the authors are simultaneously fascinated and repelled by what they discover in vicious people; even De Flores, ugly both outside and inside, seems more significant and manly than Alsemero, who is incapable of a deed (“Blood-guiltiness becomes a fouler visage”) (Farley-Hills 2016, p. 168).

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Men of action cannot help appealing to the audience although we do not approve of these actions. Yet, despite this dubious feeling, they do not leave any room for their redemption and salvation (Williams 2016). Once a character opts for sin, he is damned and will inevitably be punished. Moreover, the villains are not forced to repent as it would sound false: While De Flores is dying, he is speaking about the murder he committed as well as about taking Beatrice’s virginity, claiming that he regrets nothing and does not ask for forgiveness. At this moment, his energy reaches its peak making all other characters dull and pale in comparison.

Spectators feel the power of the character’s sexuality; it does not seem ridiculous or unbecoming. On the contrary, lust is shown as comic as in farces when characters do not admit the nature of the feelings and claim that they act out of love. When real desire reveals itself, the characters feel helpless. They already understand that they are doomed and do not try to struggle against it. Furthermore, lust is paralleled with murder: The closeness of these two concepts is shown in the same imagery used for both. The authors use puns when they refer to sex and murder: Beatrice says that De Flores should “take” Piracque to his “fury”, which is associated with sexual intercourse (Budekhin 2016).

This connection is not a random one: The man who can give way to real desire is capable of any action, no matter how horrible it may seem (Budekhin 2016). In contrast to this character, the others are quite helpless and miserable in their romantic feelings. This lust gives him power and dominance as he sees into other characters’ intentions and strivings. De Flores is a man, who does not have any illusion since he does not believe in the nobility of human nature; neither does the dramatist.

Thus, the action of the play is made possible due to such realistic characters that seek sexual satisfaction and use intellectual power to control others while they are deluded by romantic love. Even though sexual desire is connected with murder, blood, death, cruelty, and shame, it cannot be avoided or replaced. Moreover, it serves to reveal the essence of every character in the play. The audience is encouraged to think about what is real and what is fake when life is freed from dramatic conventions.

Violent Sexuality in The Revenger’s Tragedy

It seems that The Revenger’s Tragedy goes even further than The Changeling in creating an appalling mix of violence, murder, adultery, cheating, rape, and other favorite components of Elizabethan drama. In this play, Middleton allows himself to fall into extremities in every impulse: Characters devise numerous revenge plans that do not prevent them from satisfying other needs. In many respects, the image of sexuality in The Revenger’s Tragedy is cultivated to the point of being absurd and satirical as the sin itself is balanced with mockery.

The author develops several plots, involving intricate schemes, double-dealing, numerous seductions, and sexual exploits that are rather difficult to follow although they are meant to shock spectators and engulf their attention. What is the most intriguing in the play is that Middleton brings misogynistic ideas that existed in the society of the time to the stage. The idea of punishing women for revealing their sexual energy is quite clearly traced throughout the play.

It becomes a kind of dark comedy: Lust and blood are mixed in a continuous orgy, balancing on the verge of unreality, which makes the audience perceive the characters as grotesque parodies to people. Although the play is a tragedy, the viewer cannot help catching its farcical air and therefore cannot feel real compassion to those who fall victim to their desires (Gottlieb 2015). We cannot pity characters because their actions and intentions are devoid of any emotional weight, their passions are purely physical, and no genuine feeling is shown for creating a contrast.

Even though the play can be classified as a traditional ‘tragedy of the blood’ typical of the period, The Revenger’s Tragedy still features certain elements that step away from the conventions accepted in the Jacobean drama as Middleton believed that this would contribute to its message. First, the action takes place in Italy instead of England: The place was not chosen by chance as the Italian society was considered to be corrupt, perverted, violent, and revengeful.

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It was quite repulsive to noble and decent Englishmen, although the society of England was no less vicious (Gibbons 2014). Placing the action in Italy allowed Middleton to be more open in terms of sexuality while making a play a social satire at the same time. It could be easily predicted that the English audience would be delighted to see Italians depicted in such an unattractive fashion. Although this topic was already touched upon in earlier plays, here Middleton already assures the viewer that the state of ideal morality and chastity is unattainable, no matter how hard a person may try to overcome the dark side of his/her nature. Characters are constantly caught between their public and private personas–such contrasts make them look ridiculous, weak, and repugnant (Gibbons 2014).

The Revenger’s Tragedy can also be referred to as the so-called ‘crisis literature’ as it mocks contemporary drama, the popularity of which was already on the decline (Gottlieb 2015). Although parodies existed in all periods of drama development, this literature is unique not in ridicule but the approach to the audience: Such drama creates a close link with spectators and suggests discussing topics that would be appealing and comprehensible. This allows dramatists to be more open on taboo subjects as it is clear that such topics always evoke the viewer’s interest. Their exaggeration provides an opportunity to show how vain and ridiculous human sexuality, when it is hot hidden behind social order, actually is.

Thus, all the characters of the play do not act as real people but rather as allegories of different qualities. They are not realistic personalities as the dramatist did not intend to make them true-to-life. All these characteristics can be easily read by the characters’ speaking names: Lussurioso stands for lust, Ambitioso–for ambition, Vindice symbolizes revenge, Castiza represents chastity, Supervacuo is extremely stupid, etc.–and none of them possess more than one conspicuous quality.

Although most of them believe that their intentions are noble, their morality is deteriorating with the course of the play. Some of them even admit that they do not regret committing crimes: For example, Junior claims that Lord Antonio’s wife was charming so he could not resist raping her (even though he knows that she committed suicide afterward). The woman’s action also demonstrates that female sexuality must be suppressed as her purity is the only value that she has as a human being in society.

Women are equal to gold, which means that they are perceived as inanimate objects, a sign of prosperity (Oh, / Weren’t for gold and women, there would be no / damnation”) (Gibbons 2014, 54). Middleton goes even further by claiming that men are not to blame in their lust as women tempt them by their looks.

Thus, although Middleton does not seem to change his views on sexuality, the topic is developed a bit differently in this play if we compare it to The Changeling. There is no contrast between the character’s appearance and their real nature: It is revealed already in their names. Their lust is claiming and assertive, no one seems to hide it. Women’s position is shown as the position of victims who have to reconcile themselves to their fate. Their sexuality brings misery to everyone; however, it is equated to wealth and power.

Conclusion

Even though in Jacobean drama sexuality still ranged among the taboo topics that could not be openly discussed, dramatists still devised numerous ways to address it. In many aspects, the interest of the public in this subject is explained by the nature of the society, which stood between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. People preserved their old religious views but were ready to investigate the news. That is why all protagonists were, young, strong, powerful, and sexually energetic, who frequently violated morality, were especially attractive to the public.

Reference List

Budekhin, SY 2016, ‘The fall motif in the revenge tragedy of T. Middleton and W. Rowley ‘The changeling’, RUDN Journal of Studies in Literature and Journalism, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 110-118.

Eliot, TS 2014, Essays on Elizabethan drama, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.

Farley-Hills, D 2016, Jacobean drama: a critical survey of the professional drama, 1600-1625, Springer, Berlin.

Gibbons, B 2014,The revengers tragedy. A&C Black, London.

Gottlieb, CM 2015, ‘Middleton’s traffic in dead women: chaste corpses as property in The revenger’s tragedy and The lady’s tragedy’, English Literary Renaissance, vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 255-274.

Ribner, I 2017, Jacobean tragedy: the quest for moral order, Routledge, London.

Traub, V 2015, Desire and anxiety (Routledge Revivals): circulations of sexuality in Shakespearean drama, Routledge, London.

Williams, N 2016, ‘Cannot I keep that secret?: Editing and performing asides in The changeling’, Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 29-45.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, February 13). Sexuality in Early Modern English Literature. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/sexuality-in-early-modern-english-literature/

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