Sunday, February 07, 2010

Lisa Jardine, Twins and travesties; Gender, dependency and sexual availability in Twelfth Night

Lisa Jardine, Twins and travesties; Gender, dependency and sexual availability in Twelfth Night, in Erotic Politics, Desire on the Renaissance stage, ed. Susan Zimmerman, Routledge, New York, 1992

This paper tries to accommodate some of the apparently contradictory currents stirred by these two cross-dressing passages, to provide a single, coherent version of the erotic possibilities contained under a kind of rubric of transvestism in the early modern period. For, in the current text-critical literature, we seem to be being told both that there are texts of sexual fantasy, disturbing and transgressive, and that these texts record some ‘actual’ possibility for individualized, subversive affirmation of sexuality. I do not myself believe we shall ever know how many cross-dressed youths and young women were to be found on the streets of London around 1600, but I do believe that it is possible to show that the distinctive ways in which the textual imputation of their existence function in the various narratives which have come down to us can be resolved into a consistent positioning of dominant to dependent member of the early modern community. (28)

…in the early modern period, erotic attention—attention bound up with sexual availability and historically specific forms of economic dependency—is focused upon boys and upon women in the same way. So that, crucially, sexuality signifies as absence of difference as it is inscribed upon the bodies of those equivalently ‘mastered’ within the early modern household…in the space outside the household—in the newer market economy whose values govern the street and the public place—the tropes which produce structural dependency as vulnerability and availability are readily mobilized to police the circulation of young people. (28)

Outside the household, the freely circulating woman is ‘loose’ (uncontained)… unprotectedness (no male kin with her) signifies as availability… And outside the household the dependent boy… ‘at risk’—more legitimately in transit on ‘business’, but also, in his transactional availability, sexually vulnerable. (28)

…male and female prostitution is represented textually (and probably fantasized communally) as transvestism. The boy discovered as a girl reveals her availability for public intercourse; the girl dis-covered as a boy reveals that intention to sodomy for financial gain. The boy who walks the street cross-dressed as that comely girl (whether I reality or in fantasy/grotesque fiction) does not, therefore, misrepresent himself—he conceals (and then reveals) the range of sexual possibility available. The girl who enters the male preserve (ordinary, tavern or gaming-house) cross-dressed does not misrepresent herself, either. She is, in any case, ‘loose’, and eases the process of crossing the threshold into the male domain—controls the manner of presenting herself in a suitable location for paid sex. (29)

In the period with which we are concerned, ‘family’ and ‘house-hold’, as descriptions of the ordered unit for communal living, designate groupings which include both close and distant kin, and a range of non-kin. There is a constant ‘drift of young persons’ (as David Herlihy calls it), a flow of young adolescents into and out of the wealthier households… That patriarchal household exercised its considerable authority and wielded its extensive economic power predominantly over young men and women between the ages of 14 to 24. (29)

[The catecism] asserted that the family was the fundamental social institution, and that order in families was both necessary for and parallel t, order in the state. In the catechism, this idea is developed in the discussion of the Fifth Commandment, to ‘honour thy father and mother’. (30)

In the middle to upper ranks of society, deference and submissiveness were internalized in the form of ‘good manners’: / In a society in which service was the most important avenue to advancement at all levels, one of the most essential skills was the ability to make oneself acceptable to superiors… Marks of respect to be shown in conversation with superiors included baring the head, dropping the right knee, keeping silence till spoken to, listening carefully and answering sensibly and shortly. Compliance with commands was to be immediate, response to praise heartily grateful. (Houlebrook 1984: 147) (30)

In 1630, Meredith Davy of Minehead, was prosecuted for sodemy at the Somerset Court of Quarter Sessions. / According to the evidence of his master’s apprentice, a boy ‘aged twelve years or thereabouts’ called John Vicary, with whom he shared a bed… once the alleged social transgressive had taken place, the outcome of the discovery and prosecution seems to support the view that such activity was regarded as only slightly beyond the boundaries set on allowable demands for ‘submission’ from one considerably lower in the social hierarchy of the household. / ‘Richard Bryant, the servant who slept in the room with Davy and the boy…eventually took the matter to the mistress of the household, but it is striking as one reads his evidence how long it took him to realize what was going on and how reluctant he is likely to appear to us now to have been to draw the obvious conclusions.’ Bray 1982: 77 [Bray, A. Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 2nd ed. 1988, London: Gay Men’s Press]/ Finally, at the end of the boy, John Vinlay’s, evidence, he notes: ‘since which time [Davy] hath layn quietly with him’. In other words, household life continued unchanged—the boy continued to share a bed with (hence, to be in a position of submission to) the alleged assaulter.

The eroticization of Viola/Cesario and of Sebastian is dramatically constructed in terms of their relationship to the domestic economy, and the place they occupy in relation to the heads of their adopted households. (32)

Of course, the erotic twist in Twelfth Night is achieved by the irony that it is Olivia—the lady of significant independent means and a disinclination to submit herself and her lands to any ‘master’—whose eroticized relationship of ‘service’ with Cesario is most socially and sexually transgressive. I think critics are right in seeing this as Olivia’s ‘come-uppance’—patriarchy’s retribution for mis-taking the conventions both of service and of marriage as a female head of household in an order explicitly designated male in its defining relationships. (33)

…this is romance—a fictional resolution in which insuperable problems are superable, convenient twinning can iron out the crumpled social fabric of early modern life. (34)

As twentieth-century readers we recognize the eroticism of gender confusion, and reintroduce that confusion as a feature of the dramatic narrative. Whereas, for the Elizabethan theatre audience, it may be the very clarity of the mistakenness—the very indifference to gendering—which is designed to elicit the pleasurable response from the audience. (35)


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