Status, Sodomy, and the Theater in Marlowe's Edward II

By Stymeist, David | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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Status, Sodomy, and the Theater in Marlowe's Edward II


Stymeist, David, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


Stephen Orgel contends "that English Renaissance culture does not appear to have had a morbid fear of male homoerotic behavior." (1) Similarly, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that homosexual practice during the period did not constitute a threat because of its compatibility with heterosexuality and marriage. (2) Nevertheless, sodomy could constitute a social threat in early modern England when it was combined with issues of status transgression. (3) The notable trial of Mervin Touchet, second Earl of Castlehaven, reveals a pervasive judicial anxiety over the combination of open male homoeroticism and the failure to uphold aristocratic ideals. Castlehaven was executed in 1631 on two counts of sodomy and one of abetting rape. (4) He demonstrated considerable courage in his scaffold speech by openly denying his guilt; nevertheless, "[the] sight of the headsman ... with the apprehension of his near approaching end, made him somewhat to change colour, and shew some signs of trembling passion; for his hands shook a little in undoing his bandstrings ... Then taking leave again of the lords, the doctors, and his man, saying a very short prayer by himself, he pulled down his handkerchief over his face, and laid his head upon the block; which was taken off at one blow." (5) Castlehaven's two servants, Lawrence Fitz-Patrick and Giles Broadway, were also hanged for their involvement in the sodomy charges despite Lord Dorset's promises to Fitz-Patrick of legal immunity and the fact that both Broadway and Fitz-Patrick had been coerced and/or bribed into illegal sexual acts by Castlehaven. (6) Castlehaven's trial itself contained numerous legal irregularities: he was denied the plea of "clergy," which would have prevented his civil trial and subsequent execution for the rape charge; imprisoned without adequate council in the Tower of London for six months; not allowed legal council during the trial proceedings; his wife and servants, who had taken oaths of allegiance to him, were allowed to present evidence against him; several of his jurors had shown past prejudice against Castlehaven; and the prosecution liberally expanded the legal definition of sodomy. (7) The Crown described Castlehaven's sexual conduct as a threat to sexual differentiation, morality, domestic order, and even the nation's health. One attorney argued that "never poet invented, nor historian writ of any deed so foul" and described these sexual acts as "of a pestilential nature" by which "the land is defiled" and "so abominable a sin, which brought such plagues after it" (8) Sodomy was also described as an act of emasculation, which disrupted gender norms: "the earl used [Broadway's] body as the body of a woman." (9) In this trial, which built on earlier charges against Lord Hungerford (1540) and the Earl of Oxford (1580s), the judiciary actively constructed the sodomite as a scapegoat, whose execution would cleanse society by removing the source of "plague." (10)

Nevertheless, Castlehaven was not brought to trial solely because of his "aberrant" sexuality but because of a confluence of political agendas. Building on Alan Bray's observation that sodomy was associated with atheism, witchcraft, popery, heresy, and sedition, Jonathan Goldberg convincingly argues that "sodomy named sexual acts only in particularly stigmatizing contexts." (11) Castlehaven's trial seems to bear this out, for the main impetus behind the trial was his son's complaint to the king; James Touchet had just reached his majority and desired to take over his father's estate before its financial ruin and before his father convinced James's wife to bear children fathered by household servants. As Cynthia B. Herrup has noted, it was not solely sexual crimes that mobilized official forces against the earl, but the perception that he was publicly defiling his stewardship of a noble household, especially in his invitation of "the disparagement of his blood in the next generation." (12) Castlehaven also threatened the English caste system with his excessive monetary generosity toward his male lovers, who were of inferior social standing.

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