Valerie Traub claims that ‘the meanings of homoerotic desire during the early modern period seem to have been remarkably unfixed, with contradictory meanings existing across a complex and fractured field of signification’ (‘Desire and the Differences it Makes’ in The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare). Choose ONE play on the module and discuss the ‘meanings’ of homoerotic desire.
“Not only did legal, moral, religious and literary discourses understand and evaluate homoeroticism differently, but within each discourse there existed contradictory positions.” Here, in her essay Desire and the Difference it Makes, Valerie Traub observes that homoerotic desire had a variety of “meanings” in the Early Modern Period. She, however, refers to the “act” of sexual intercourse between two men as being the form of homoerotic desire categorised as ‘sodomy’. By focusing on playwrights such as William Shakespeare, who recognised this ambiguity and chose to explore it in particular works such as his Othello, we can see how the idea was represented at the time. However, it appears that not only the ‘meanings’ of ‘homoeroticism’ were unfixed, but that the words ‘love’ and ‘friendship’ were also ambiguous and period-bound. The word ‘love’, for instance, had four distinct meanings in classical Greek and so it is not surprising that we have difficulty in engaging with the past.
By examining the context of these terms, what can be seen is that homoerotic activity has been visible throughout literature and the visual arts since antiquity. However, from our perspective we need to be cautious in making assumptions about what the ‘meanings’ were actually inferring at the time. For example, an understanding of the word ‘sodomy’ implicated a variety of acts and behaviour. Critic, Mario DiGangi points out that this word did not correspond to our understanding of the term ‘homosexual’ and that “the label [of ‘sodomy’] also meant that this particular man was treasonous, monstrous [and] heretical.” What is known of ‘homosexuality’ is related to the legal understanding of the term at the time. In the Early Modern Period, the view on ‘homosexuality’ was that it could have either romantic or physical manifestations. The distinction was of importance since the latter was condemned both legally and by the Church, with its biblical undertones of sinfulness. Whilst from our own standpoint this condemnation seems somewhat extreme, it is important to remember that, despite our seeming accommodation of such behaviour legally in today’s society, there are many ways in which we show our aversion to it too. Nevertheless, Alan Bray affirms that the distinctions were still incongruous as “one was universally admired, the other execrated and feared: and yet in their uncompromising symmetry they paralleled each other in an uncanny way” . This is now explored through the context of Othello.
It is fitting that Othello is set in Venice, as it was known...