The Politics of Access and Representations of the Sodomite King in Early Modern England

By Perry, Curtis | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Politics of Access and Representations of the Sodomite King in Early Modern England


Perry, Curtis, Renaissance Quarterly


This essay treats the image of the sodomite king--in Marlowe's Edward II and in the gossip surrounding James 1 and his favorites-- as a figurative response to resentments stemming from the regulation of access to the monarch. Animosities in Marlowe's play anticipate criticism of the Jacobean Bedchamber in part because Marlowe was responding to libels provoked by innovations in the chamber politics of the French king Henri III that also anticipate Jacobean practice. The figure of the sodomite king offers a useful vehicle to explore tensions between personal and bureaucratic monarchy that are exacerbated by the regulation of access.

Recent interest in the politics of homoeroticism and the discourses of sodomy in early modern England has resulted in something like a consensus on two points: first, that the relationships that constituted the patronage system could involve homoerotic desire in a variety of ways; and second, that political disorder of various kinds within the system of patronage attracted accusations of sodomy. [1] Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II has been perhaps the key proof text for both points, offering as it does a richly ambiguous analysis of the relationship between political unrest and the erotically charged affection between the king and his favorites. [2] In many cases, however, these claims have relied on a notion of patronage that is too undifferentiated. As a result, the most influential arguments relating Marlowe's play to the homoerotics of patronage and early modern discourses of sodomy have begun with the problematic assumption that the specific relationship between sovereign and favorite stands in the play for patronage in general. [3]

The patronage of kings, however, is unique in at least two crucial ways. First, the king's bounty is enormous in scope and central to a premodern idea of the state. Linda Levy Peck has described the ideology and practice of royal bounty in detail, noting that the king is frequently imagined as a never-ending fountain, a well-spring of benefit and reward for his subjects. [4] The importance of royal bounty within the ideologies of kingship necessarily mediates the culture's perceptions of the practice of royal patronage, engendering concern about corrupt royal favoritism even among subjects at some remove from the court's inner circles. Figurations of sodomitical royal patronage -- in literary fictions and libels -- reflect this concern. Second, royal patronage in Tudor and early Stuart England is structured by specific institutions and protocols -- variable from monarch to monarch -- that regulate access to the king. Such access is clearly of central importance to the politics of royal favoritism, which mean s that the institutions governing it have a tremendous impact upon the perception of royal bounty and its corruption. This essay attempts to assess the cultural work done by figurations of sodomitical royal favoritism in light of the unique situation of the king as patron. On the one hand, this means attending to the ways in which the figure of the sodomite king is used to respond to tensions built into the ideology of royal bounty. On the other, it entails analyzing, more precisely than has hitherto been attempted, the relationship between these figurations and the institutional developments which give shape to the practice of royal patronage.

Though the figure of the sodomite king recurs frequently in the literature of the period, I will focus primarily on two of Renaissance England's most vivid and fully developed depictions of the sodomite king: Marlowe's Edward II and the sodomitical image of James I promulgated in manuscript verse libels, mean- spirited memoirs, and political pamphlets written by disgruntled contemporaries. [5] The version of James circulated in such texts became a staple of traditional historiography, which in turn described James as alternatively homosexual or bisexual, and used his sexuality as an index to his supposed weakness of character.

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