Ganymedes and Kings: Staging Male Homosexual Desire in the Winter's Tale

By Johnson, Nora | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Ganymedes and Kings: Staging Male Homosexual Desire in the Winter's Tale


Johnson, Nora, Shakespeare Studies


When historians discuss the relation between homosexual practice and homosexual identity in England before the eighteenth century, they often note that male same-sex behaviors coincided with neither a set of psychosocial characteristics nor a clear sexual preference. Alan Bray, for instance, describes satirical portrayals of the courtier who engaged in sodomy, arguing that these portrayals were striking from a twentieth-century perspective because of their failure to represent a specifically homosexual identity: "on this point [the satirists] are remarkably consistent: the sodomite is a young man-about-town, with his mistress on one arm and his `catamite' on the other."(1) Following, as he says, "broadly" in the traditions of Mary McIntosh, Jeffrey Weeks, and Michel Foucault, Bray argues that representations of sodomy before the late-seventeenth century reveal the historical contingency of the modern homosexual. He cites Donne's first Satire, for example, which accuses one man-about-town of enjoying the "nakedness and bareness" of a "plump muddy whore or prostitute boy," and he notes that Jonson's Sir Voluptuous Beast makes his wife listen to tales about his sexual exploits, recounting to her "the motions of each petticoat / And how his Ganymede moved and how his goat."(2)

The evidence that Bray culls from sources other than satire is equally telling and equally resistant to identifying an exclusively homosexual "type." He describes the reputation of Sir Anthony Ashley, one of James I's courtiers known for his love of boys, who was also known to be a married man and the father of a daughter. He similarly reports Lucy Hutchinson's description of court life under James:

The face of the Court was much changed in the change of the king, for

King Charles was temperate, chaste, and serious; so that the fools and

bawds, mimics and catamites of the former court grew out of fashion

and the nobility and courtiers, who did not quite abandon their

debaucheries, yet so reverenced the king as to retire into corners to

practice them.(3)

What emerges from Bray's study is more than simply the absence of what twentieth-century historians would call "homosexuality." These accounts suggest that homosexual practice was part of an aristocratic sexual esthetic, a "fashion," in which the courtier sampled at will from an array of erotic practices, none of which could impose itself upon him as a rigid identity. Even Ashley's apparent preference for boys seems to have been compatible with his role as a husband and father. To reiterate the point that has become associated especially with the work of Foucault, sodomy in early modern England is an act, not an identity.

Certainly homosexual desire as imagined by James himself seems to have involved no sense of sexual nature. On the contrary, his letters to his favorite George Villiers enact almost an escape from identity, a sense that one of the pleasures of illicit sexuality was its license to undo the categories of self-definition. James addresses one such letter to "My only sweet and dear child," for instance, and he prays

That we may make at this Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept

hereafter; for, God so love me, as I desire only to live in this world

for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the

earth with you than live a sorrowful widow's life without you. And so god

bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a

comfort to your dear dad and husband.(4)

James thinks of this relationship as if it were a marriage in which both partners are wives at the same time that James is father and husband and Villiers is child and wife. Far from being identified by his desire for another man, James imagines homoeroticism as an undoing of identity itself. In fact, James's words to Villiers resonate strongly with Bray's contention, developed further by Jonathan Goldberg, that sodomy in this period belongs not so much to a system of sexual taxonomy as to a system of unintelligibility, a social order in which sexual contact between men signifies only when it can be associated with chaos, anarchy, heresy, or sorcery. …

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