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Erotic Beasts and Social Monsters: Shakespeare, Jonson, and Comic Androgyny

By Grace Tiffany | Go to book overview

1
Erotic Beasts and Social Monsters:
Two Forms of Classical and
Renaissance Androgyny

There could be no relationship to that which is absolute other.

—Joseph Campbell, “Love and the Goddess”

“Because life as experienced is fragmented,” Robert Kimbrough writes, “androgyny, of necessity, looks beyond duality back to a time when personhood experienced innate wholeness and unity, a time 'back there,' 'once-upon-a-time,' 'in the beginning.'”1 Kimbrough's words, intended to explain the baffling power of the androgynous characters who control Shakespeare's comic plots, also begin to define the larger, older, multivisaged mythic “character” who was a central inspiration for Portia, Rosalind, and Viola, as well as for Bottom, Benedick, Petruchio, and many other Shakespearean comic figures who in some sense defy conventional gender distinctions. The task of this book is to distinguish this ancient mythic androgyne and the nonindividuated human community it represents from the newer satiric androgyne, the literary and stage presentation of whom supports a militant and masculine individualism that attacks the transgressive presence of all gender-conflating behaviors and symbols. In Renaissance England, the satirically presented androgynous figure achieved its most colorful embodiment in the comedies of Ben Jonson, but the vision of masculine self-sufficiency that informs Jonsonian humors comedy derives from a misogynistic classical ethic that, as early as the seventh century B.C., confronted and warred with the older myth of the sacred androgyne.

The androgyne's originary status in numerous mythologies suggests its transcultural value as a symbol of the sum of human capabilities, primarily the capabilities for sexual interaction, procreation, and communal understanding. Cultures that were initially widely separated

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