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

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

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

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

Synopsis

"The voluminous contemporary critical work on English Renaissance androgyny and transvestism debates has not fully uncovered the ancient Greek and Roman roots of the gender controversy. Erotic Beasts and Social Monsters argues that the variant Renaissance views on the androgyne's symbolism are, in fact, best understood with reference to classical representations of the double-sexed or gender-baffled figure, and with the classical merging of that figure with images of beasts and monsters. Grace Tiffany's discussion of ancient beast-androgynes draws on satire as well as myth, citing Archilochus alongside Homer, Aristophanes with Euripides, and Juvenal next to Ovid and Apuleius. She thus illuminates a gender dispute as old as Western culture itself." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

A clarification of terms is a good starting point. The word “androgyne” has been variously manipulated in the voluminous recent work on gender distinctions in Renaissance England, and the proper use of the word itself has been a valid topic of debate. Although much has been made of the difference between the words “androgyne” and “hermaphrodite,” the fact is that Renaissance poets, playwrights, and even prose writers frequently used them interchangeably, as will I. With the exception of scientific or medical references, Renaissance literary invocations of androgyny or hermaphrodism almost always described a psychological and behavioral condition. It was the nature of that condition, and of the writer's attitude toward it, that varied according to the generic context of the reference. The larger distinction to be made, then, is between the philosophical and literary contexts that defined androgyny/hermaphrodism during the English Renaissance. The clarification of this distinction is a large part of this book's intent.

Although Renaissance attitudes toward androgyny were doubtless as varied as Renaissance notions of what an androgyne was, recent scholars are probably correct in identifying two basic kinds of literary use of the gender-transgressive symbol: the positive and the negative. Phyllis Rackin summarizes the general distinction between these two categories of literary usage:

The androgyne could be an image of transcendence—of surpassing
the bounds that limit the human condition in a fallen world, of
breaking through the constraints that material existence imposes on
spiritual aspiration or the personal restrictions that define our role
in society. But the androgyne could also be an object of ridicule or an
image of monstrous deformity, of social and physical abnormality.

By distinguishing the similar double uses of the androgyne in classical literary and dramatic texts, I hope to clarify two traditions that meaningfully contextualize these divergent Renaissance attitudes . . .

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