Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature

By Melissa E. Sanchez | Go to book overview

Introduction

Erotic Subjects examines the intricate relationship between sexuality, politics, and literature in early modern England. A good deal of important recent scholarship has studied the politics of sexuality; this book studies the sexual dimension of politics. Throughout the following pages, I examine some surprising implications of the commonplace early modern equation of political and erotic unions—the claim that sovereign and subject, like husband and wife, are bound as much by reciprocal love as by law or necessity. Numerous scholars have observed that this translation of hierarchy into a romance between ruler and ruled shaped political discourse from the reign of Elizabeth I through that of Charles II. This work has taught us, as Arthur F. Marotti memorably insists, that “love is not love” in early modern literature. Rather, it is a discourse about power and influence, ambition and anxiety.1

This book argues that love is not “love” in another sense, one that has received little critical attention but that is equally important for understanding sixteenthand seventeenth-century political thought. What we typically think of as “love”—a beautiful and benevolent attachment to an other—rarely appears in early modern erotic literature. Instead, love tends to show up as what Lauren Berlant has called a “queer feeling.”2 Narratives of masochism, erotic violence, and cross-gendered

1. Marotti, “Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order.” Other insightful accounts of the ideological force of early modern erotic discourses include Montrose, “Figurations of Gender and Power”; Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature; Norbrook, Poetry and Politics; Sharpe, Criticism; Victoria Kahn, Wayward Contracts; Purkiss, Literature, Gender, and Politics; and Bowers, British Seduction Stories.

2. As Berlant insists, love shares the complexities of sexuality. Despite the “absorption of the fantasy of love by normativity,” love remains charged with ambivalent, aggressive, masochistic, and narcissistic impulses that disrupt the ideals it is invoked to serve (“Love, A Queer Feeling,” 443–444).

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