In the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century, new ideas and motives in arts, inspired by the past but concerned with new concepts, appeared. Building on a courtly love, some writers and poets attempted to discuss the nature of love by commenting on gender issues and sexuality (MacArthur, 1989). Thus, love conventions, based on a passion or an unrequited love, would change, challenging social norms and discussing male and female sexualities. On the one hand, the authors explore male sexualities and a desire for a woman. Phillip Sidney's narrator is a lustful, musing about his chosen woman, her body and a sexual intercourse. Milton's character Comus resembles a similar character when attempting to seduce the Lady, and failing to do so because of her reason and virtue. On the other hand, the two works introduce new and progressive views on women, and their new role in the society. Both Sidney's and Milton's heroines are no longer passive feminine receivers of affections. They determine what happens to them by using reason rather than emotions. Hence, Sidney and Milton exemplify progressive views of their periods, attempting to see gender and sexuality in a new light.
Sexuality and desire
Philip Sidney: Astrophil and Stella (c. 1591)
Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, a compilation of 108 sonnets and 11 songs, describes a desire of a poet for his muse, inspired by Petrarch. It is a variation of his rhyme, and a motive Petrarch exploited: the poet's love and want for a woman. In these sonnets, Astrophil, the star lover, presents new attitudes on an idea of a sexual desire, and its ambiguity. His relationship to Stella, his star, is lustful, and the poet, the speaker, is physically rather than emotionally aroused when musing on his love. He is willing to engage physically in sex, and thus consummate his platonic love. Consequently, he projects on Stella sexual fantasies, imagining his 'most princely power
When I (he) blessed shall devour
With my (his) greedy licorous senses
Beauty, music, sweetness, love' (AS, sonnet 10.31-34), anticipating to 'invade the fort' (AS, sonnet 2.15). This male desire is given devious and egotistic connotations, because it overcomes reason, and becomes preoccupied with Stella's body. Stella, on the other hand, is personified Love and 'Virtue but that body grant to us' (AS, sonnet 52.14). However, Astrophil remains lustful, and when he is denied her body, he views her as 'too too cruel' (AS, sonnet 2.3-4), and becomes resentful.
John Milton: Comus, A Mask presented at Ludlow Castle (1634)
Milton's mask, presenting notions of chastity and a rampant sexuality, uses Comus, a devious character, to address the issue of physical desire. Comus, a passionate and sexual necromancer, captures the Lady, brings her to his pleasure palace, and attempts to seduce her through magic and a persuasion to 'be not coy' (C, p.44). Similarly to Sidney's poet, Comus experiences a narcissistic temptation of a bodily pleasure,...