Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

The Elizabethan Erotic Narrative: Sex(y) Reading

Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

The Elizabethan Erotic Narrative: Sex(y) Reading

Article excerpt

This examination of the late sixteenth-century vogue for erotic verse narratives draws on recent materialist and feminist criticism engaging with Early Modern texts and their conditions of production. After some theoretical observations on the mechanics of voyeurism, the article begins by exploring some of the problems created by the prefatorial material of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, and Marlowe's Hero and Leander. What follows are close readings of particularly charged moments of voyeurism from Marlowe's Hero and Leander, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece, and Henry Austin's slightly later The Scourge of Venus. These poems are read as case-studies of the genre, whereby Marlowe and Shakespeare's early masterpieces established many of the genre's notable characteristics, which were appropriated and imitated by many other authors who contributed to the vogue. Austin's Scourge of Venus is one example of a work with particularly close associations to its Shakespearean predecessor.

The objection that any attempt to reconstruct these texts within their original contexts will never extricate itself from its own preconceptions is fair but defeatist; what is important is the recognition that Early Modern readership practices were radically different from our own. It has become fashionable, as Tromly remarks, for recent criticism to use these texts as points of departure for its own concerns with Elizabethan cultural practices (Tromly 5). Such an approach runs the danger of leaving the texts themselves behind; this study does not intend to mystify the texts beyond interpretation but rather to show that an awareness of the social context in which they were produced rewards the reader with richer levels of meaning. The implication of my argument is that the reason these texts are so exciting is precisely because they were situated and produced in a specific cultural milieu: one in which the dynamics of textual transmission were fluid, straddling the shift from a coterie to a print culture, and one where notions of sexuality were markedly different from our own. These two aspects--reading and sex have a key relationship in these texts, especially in the erotic verse, where models of reading practice and sexual practice are frequently interchangeable, and the poets manipulate their readers to play with and upon their sexualities.

Critics have emphasized that our familiar and naturalized concept of authorship is anachronistic when dealing with Early Modern texts. Masten examines dramatic texts to show the extent of collaboration within literary production, arguing that Shakespeare, "like other playwrights in the period, wrote within a paradigm that insistently figured writing as mutual imitation, collaboration, and homoerotic exchange" (Masten 9). Wall draws attention to the repeatedly eroticized prefatorial frames accompanying printed texts, which were used as a marketing strategy to promote the sales of the commodity and to justify its appearance. The strategy exploited the exclusivity of coterie texts--previously available only to a select group of aristocratic readers--as an enticement for the larger literate public. Wall discusses Nashe's preface to the pirated edition of Astrophil and Stella (1591)--with its bawdy puns on bookish objects and genitalia--as a good example of the "pervasive cultural phenomenon in which writers and publishers ushered printed texts into the public eye by naming that entrance as a titillating and transgressive act." She argues that the "preliminary apparatus of engravings and prefaces--formats engendered by print technology itself--testifies that publishers and writers constructed a language of intrusion that designated reading as a prurient activity" (Imprint of Gender 172). Reading texts in public print, and not in the private medium of manuscript, was analogous to being a witness to a private sexual act (the public print of Actaeon to the private manuscript of Diana) and for this reason elicited a sexualized rhetoric that figured both publishing and reading practices in terms of sexual codes. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.