Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Touching Touchets: Perkin Warbeck and the Buggery Statute

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Touching Touchets: Perkin Warbeck and the Buggery Statute

Article excerpt

At first sight, The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck seems to be the only one of John Ford s plays that is not pointedly and openly concerned with sexual deviation. Both 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and The Broken Heart feature either actual incest or the fear of it. The Lover's Melancholy is structured around the concept of a passion that verges on the pathological, an erotomania. The Fancies Chaste and Noble has at the heart of its plot an allegedly impotent marquis who is believed to keep a harem. Love's Sacrifice probes the boundaries of platonic love. And The Lady's Trial has one wife who is thought to be adulterous, one who is actually so, and a third who has been sold by her husband to another man. Perkin Warbeck, by contrast, presents a cast of characters who seem to be models of sexual rectitude. Perkin and his wife Lady Katherine Gordon are romantically devoted to one another and virtually inseparable, while Katherine's former suitor, Dalyell, cherishes a blameless, totally platonic attachment to her. The Scottish king, James IV - historically notorious for the number of his affairs, and represented as a philanderer in Greene's play about him - is never mentioned in connection with any woman but his future wife, Margaret Tudor. A similar silence is observed on the subject of the marriage of Lady Katherine's parents, the Earl of Huntly and his royal wife Annabella Stewart, who in real life had had a messy divorce. For once, it seems, Ford's notorious attraction to the exploration of aberrant or unusual psychologies has rigorously excluded sexuality from the arena of its concerns.(1) Sometimes, however, dogs that do not bark can be as significant as ones that do, and I am going to argue that far from being devoid of sexual deviancy, Perkin Warbeck actually encodes a transgressive sexuality so subversive that its traces are hidden deep within the fabric of the play, visible only to a reading that historicizes Ford's work within very specific contexts.

It has often been suggested that a work of the same year as Perkin Warbeck, Milton's Comus,(2) can be profitably located within the context of the sexual scandal surrounding the Earl of Castlehaven, who was related to the Bridgewater family for whom Milton wrote the masque.(3) In 1631 the Earl was found guilty of sodomizing one of his servants, of physically assisting another servant to bugger the Countess, and of pandering his daughter-in-law to yet another servant.(4) It has been suggested that Comus, with its insistence on the sexual purity of its participants, was a conscious attempt to improve the reputation of the Bridgewater family, vicariously tainted by association with its notorious relative. No-one has yet suggested a similar context for Perkin Warbeck. There was, however, at least one link between the two dramatists in the shape of a shared connection with the Lawes brothers. Henry Lawes took the role of the Attendant Spirit in Comus; William seems to have composed the music for the two songs in Ford's last play, The Lady's Trial, and to have been employed by the Earl of Newcastle, to whom Ford dedicated Perkin Warbeck.(5) (Newcastle's daughter, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, was later to marry Viscount Brackley, who had played the elder brother in Comus.(6)) Another link was Castlehaven's brother-in-law Francis Bacon, author of one of Ford's principal sources for the play, and widely believed to be a sodomite himself.(7) Moreover, Castlehaven was tried by a jury of twenty-six of his peers, so that the noblemen to whom Ford dedicated his works would have had personal and detailed experience of the case - not to mention the interest that Ford himself, as a member of the Middle Temple and great-nephew of the famous lawyer Sir John Popham, is likely to have taken in the proceedings. For similar reasons, Ford could also have expected his audience to be au fait with the Castlehaven story, since members of the Inns of Court seem to have formed a very prominent part of the private playhouses' audience. …

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