Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature

By Melissa E. Sanchez | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Erotic Subjects in English History

The analogy between conjugal and political bonds is at least as ancient as Aristotle’s Politics, and in England it had long been used to describe the balance of royal authority, common law, and parliamentary counsel.1 In the sixteenth century, political obligation was increasingly understood not only in the contractual terms of marriage but also in the affective terms of love. It is therefore unsurprising that early modern literary works that appear to be primarily concerned with courtship and seduction are in fact fraught with reflections on political obligation and loyalty. This attention to the sexual dimension of politics both connects early modern England to a venerable tradition of medieval political thought and signifies a shift in conceptions of obedience and resistance. In the pages below, I trace some of the significant developments and influences in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English thought. I then discuss the historiographic and theoretical frameworks that shape my analysis of the period’s literary representations of power, gender, and sexual desire.

Medieval ancient constitutionalism saw the relation between ruler and ruled in terms of a marriage contract. This union was most potently symbolized in the coronation ceremony at the moment that the king put St. Edward’s ring on his “marrying finger,” or the fourth finger of his right hand. When he accepted this token of marriage to the realm, the king vowed to uphold the laws, customs, and religion of England in exchange for his subject’s service and obedience.2 Authority and submission were mutually sustaining, so the ruler who abused his power risked

1. Aristotle describes marriage as the original political association (Politics, 1.2).

2. Greenberg Radical Face, 1–35, 45–53. For further discussion of ancient constitutionalism in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, see Pocock, Ancient Constitution; and Burgess, Politics.

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