Can the Sodomite Speak? Voicing Sodomy in Early Modern England

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Nicholas F. Radel, Professor in the English Department at Furman University. In the first of a batch of posts focused in particular on the power dynamics of voice and voicelessness, Nick examines seventeenth-century anxieties about allowing male same-sex activity a voice – and in the process picks up on the theme of Will Pooley’s post about the importance of attending to silences as much as voices when studying marginalised groups and individuals.     

Nicholas F. Radel

A few years back I published an essay on the 1631 trial of the Earl of Castlehaven whose title, like that of the present post, tropes Gayatri Spivak’s famous question about the subaltern in postcolonial society. In the essay I thought about the ways one particular servant in Castlehaven’s household, Laurence (or Florence) Fitzpatrick, was made to speak as a type of voluntary agent of sodomy when he presumably had little power to stage the monstrous inversions of social, civic, or moral order for which that particular sexual crime has been said to stand symbolically in early modern England. As the title of Cynthia Herrup’s superb work, A House in Gross Disorder, suggests, accusations of sodomy against the Earl did not arise primarily in response to his sexual habits with men but his mismanagement of house and patrimony. So what did it mean that Fitzpatrick, who had little control of either, was convicted of and executed for sodomy as well?

2ndEarlOfCastlehavenIn the proceedings of the trial Fitzpatrick was labeled a “voluntary prostitute” (Cobbett, State Trials, vol. 3, col. 420). His confession of sexual acts with the Earl were assumed to imply his agency and consent to a crime that was, so the story goes, usually identified as an offense observable in others but rarely imagined as a subjective position from which one might act or speak. As regards his sexual actions, Fitzpatrick surely was not a subject but rather a young man subjected to the Earl and the social system that privileged his betters. Fitzpatrick himself seemed to understand as much, for in his forlorn speech from the scaffold he says that “he was not only sorry for [his sins], but also resolved never to come into my lord’s house again; but it was through frailty, and because he was not furnished of another place” (State Trials, col. 422). Nevertheless, because the justices depended on Fitzpatrick’s testimony to corroborate the charges of sodomy against Castlehaven, they seemed to privilege his confession (which was probably unfairly obtained) with an agency the otherwise disenfranchised underling wouldn’t have had. Of course, this agency was imposed on Fitzpatrick, but in my reading the Castlehaven case provided evidence that sodomy, by which I mean for the purpose of this post illicit male same-sex activity, could be imagined and represented as speaking on its own behalf, in its own voice.

My thoughts didn’t run wholly counter to prevailing conceptions of sodomy in early modern England, which derived primarily from the historical researches of Alan Bray and Michel Foucault. In the seventeenth century, sodomy was not an identity or subject position, like modern homosexuality; it remained largely a charge imposed on someone externally rather than a position from which one perceived the world or identified oneself. But if Fitzpatrick was alone in confessing to buggery with his master, he was also only one of the servants in Castlehaven’s household who seemed to benefit through his proximity to the Earl. No doubt, the presiding justices’ representation of Fitzpatrick as a voluntary prostitute seemed to limit and contain the threat of such benefit. The young man was, after all, executed. Still, their attribution of voluntarism also acknowledged the possibility of embodied desire and the articulate voicing of that desire from the underside of a hierarchical system of male bonds that obtained in early modern England.

In a time and place when bonds between men were always potentially eroticized and hierarchical, the sexual availability of underlings and servants to their betters might be tacitly assumed. But what Fitzpatrick’s “voluntarism” brings into view is the possibility (and indeed the cultural fear) that a servant’s particular desire for betterment might be obtained through his so-called sexual consent. Jonathan Goldberg aptly argues that sodomy comes into view in early modern England when political and class hierarchies are threatened (“Calling Out the Law” 100). But the normative configurations of status and sex in male bonds allowed for the imagining of desire in men otherwise not authorized to pursue it, and these same structures of social power seemed to enable their capacity for shaping an independent sense of place through sexual and other means—a possibility so unacceptable it was usually rendered in the perverse terms of sodomy. Sodomy, then, was not silent; rather, it was voiced as the discredited desire of men whose sexual agency and social aspiration was to be disallowed. It is not the sodomite but the underling or servant who could not speak freely in early modern England.

Recent feminist thought has amply demonstrated complexities of power in the relations of gender and sexuality in the early modern period, and these complexities might be usefully applied to our understanding of male sodomy. Carla Freccero, for instance, suggests that when we consider gender in relation to early modern women’s sexuality, we discover some of the kinds of perversities Foucault imagines come about only in the nineteenth century (Queer/Early/Modern 36). In other words, Freccero suggests that particular forms of desire reflect articulate perversities among women that provide complex locations for power and knowledge—a point equally true about men. And although Melissa Sanchez rightly cautions that one cannot speak easily of either consent or agency in discussing women’s sexualities (for early modern women were often assumed to consent even to violent sexual acts if they were not seen to mount effective resistance), she also warns against presuming there were no active or even consensual pleasures to be located within the ambiguities of inequitable sexual hierarchies (Erotic Subjects 16ff). Clearly, the justices in the Castlehaven case agreed.

I am suggesting that these very tensions and ambiguities of hierarchy enabled perverse masculine desire, even sodomy, to become visible and articulate as a type of active pleasure and perhaps even agency (if clearly not, as yet, modern subjectivity). Why should we not imagine that, constrained as he was within a system that failed to provide him another place outside the Castlehaven household, Laurence Fitzpatrick may have acceded to the advantages and indeed pleasures of erotic alliance with the Earl? Looking at it this way, we can find evidence throughout the period of male figures from the lower orders whose exploitation of erotic alliance is represented as knowable in its gestures toward social utility, even as the sodomy evoked in that representation fosters genuine paranoia.

Consider anew the by-now seemingly stale comparison of Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard II. Numerous critics have concluded that it is not the sexual relationship between Edward and Gaveston that confounds the barons in Marlowe’s play, but the social transgressions of the king’s minion. One of the play’s clear provocations, however, is the voice it gives to explicit sexual desires (both homo- and heteroerotic) that tend toward sodomy. Rather than trade in the anachronistic (and homophobic) proposition that Shakespeare’s play is more directly concerned with politics and not all that interested in sex per se, recent criticism has wisely followed Meredith Skura in seeing that what Richard II has in common with Marlowe’s play is a focus on the power dynamics of male bonding, friendship, and intimacy (“Penetrating Language” 42). But even while acknowledging the validity of these points that tend to situate sex entirely within the social or political, we might also see that Shakespeare’s play differs from Marlowe’s precisely to the extent that it negates the voice of sodomy Marlowe clearly recognizes as capable of speech and action.

Marlowe’s play dramatizes a type of power, place, or agency in Piers Gaveston who (in a play so much focused on the king’s will) is represented as having a perverse will of his own. Marlowe gives specific voice to infractions of normative hierarchical desires among men and in so doing calls into question the very nature of authority rooted in them. He exposes the hypocrisy by which social hierarchy authorized a sexual availability privileged men didn’t usually speak about, one that depends on the silence of men otherwise assumed to be sexually available and socially obedient. If Marlowe’s provocations are not primarily sexual, neither are they simply about the transgressions of social status or class: they are also about the structuring of masculine social hierarchies around inequitable and conventional discourses of desire that were otherwise unspoken—and the always implicit threat that men not authorized to speak those desires would learn to do so and perhaps derive power from them. Indeed, Marlowe seems to delight in Gaveston’s social climbing and the not-so-subtle ways he has learned to use sex to do so.

David Tennant as Richard II

David Tennant as Richard II

But in Shakespeare we discover something for which there is no name at all: the re-valuation of a silence that seems normative in early modern constructions of desire between men. Richard II reveals the provocative possibility that Richard’s relationship with Bushy, Bagot, and Green signifies a problem in his kingship. Even so, the playwright remains intriguingly mute about the sexual nature of that problem. Richard’s retainers stand symbolically for a crime signified primarily by the author’s failure to name it. Why? Perhaps because Shakespeare knew that naming it would unleash imaginings far more threatening than Richard’s poor stewardship of the English land, imaginings that could produce power in all the wrong places–that is, in Bushy, Bagot, and Green.

Modern critics quick to dismiss the claims of homoerotic identification in Shakespeare’s play point toward the playwright’s refusal to render same-sex desire explicit as evidence of his desire to explore the political problems of the wasteful king rather than his sexual failings. But to see it as such is to deny the ways masculine desire thoroughly saturates Richard’s authority as well as the potent ways the voice of sodomy threatens the usually silenced structure of male hierarchical desire in the play. Indeed, Richard himself may have some of the marks of sodomy about him. He is, for instance, problematically prone to speechifying. Excess in language could signify a problem in men’s attainment of masculine authority and their mastery of the normatively silenced discourses of male desire that was analogous to the verbal and behavioral excess produced to signal anxiety about early modern women’s sexuality and social agency. If the play glances at Richard’s sodomitical leanings, however, it does so in part to contain them in the king, who may be held responsible for not controlling his retainers but in whom the danger is not represented explicitly as a broadening of social authority through erotic male bonding. Richard’s followers are obviously given some voice in the distribution of power in the kingdom, but Bushy, Bagot, and Green speak remarkably infrequently, compared to Gaveston. To give voice to their transgression would empower it. Shakespeare is politic, and also a bit homophobic. He seems threatened not by male sex per se but the specter of its use for the personal advancement of those destined to subservience. Therefore, although he seems to fear the possibilities of the minions’ sodomitical voice, that voice hardly speaks at all.

Or consider another character whose desire for a man is, in fact, represented in ways that seem explicitly sexualized: Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. A great deal of ink has been spilled wondering about Antonio’s melancholy, his erotic attachment to Bassanio, and the pathos of his seeing himself as a “tainted wether of the flock” (Riverside 4.1.114). Some of this ink has been used to discuss the character’s supposed homosexuality: in fact, liberal modern critics are loath to identify these sexual aspects of the play with sodomy, perhaps because Shakespeare is characteristically charitable in rendering Antonio’s humanity. Still, the signs of sodomy mark a perversity in the desire he feels for Bassanio, a young aristocrat who is Antonio’s social (if not moral) superior. The play famously stages a contest between Portia and Antonio for the heart of Bassanio, and Antonio’s lonely end may suggest precisely where Shakespeare stands in the matter. More to the point, The Merchant also stages a remarkably embodied (and therefore markedly sexualized) confrontation between Shylock and Antonio in which Antonio willingly bares his chest to the promised penetration of his great adversary as a gesture of self-sacrifice for his beloved Bassanio.

Something is very queer here, and Portia’s saving her husband’s friend does not substitute for the lack of place provided for him and his desires within the society of Belmont or Venice. Antonio remains in many ways odd man out, and as Goldberg remarked about that other Antonio in Twelfth Night, his predicament should be cause for modern anger, not sympathetic pity (Sodometries, 142). Shakespeare gives voice to sodomy in Antonio, yet despite his humane comprehension of his character, he asks little of society by way of accommodating it. The voice of sodomy remains a symbol of what Shakespeare or his culture feared and disallowed. If Shakespeare is more merciful to Antonio than the justices in the Castlehaven trial were to Fitzpatrick, his impulse to locate the voice of sodomy as desire to be contained seems nevertheless familiar.

What is clear is that sodomy in early modern England was voiced within a complex dialectic of agency and erasure, but it could be spoken. Silence, paradoxically, was one aspect of its voice, especially when it deflected available possibilities for unruly (social and sexual) desires. But even articulate variations attempted to dampen or silence the desire of some men to better themselves through the normative structures of masculine erotic bonding. Our usual attention to male eroticism in early modern England has been focused primarily on orderly social relations that were normative and whose potential eroticism went, typically, unremarked. But until we can analyze more precisely the power vectors that enabled or not different groups of men to speak of their own access within masculine relations, we will, I think, be complicit in rehearsing rather than resisting such inequitable structures of power.

4 thoughts on “Can the Sodomite Speak? Voicing Sodomy in Early Modern England

  1. [I’m posting this comment on all of this week’s posts – those by Nick, Emily, and Gajendra – as I was struck by a common theme I observed in all of them, so really it is something for each of you to think about]

    All of the posts this week seem to me to demonstrate that even in the most hierarchical of power structures, where the voices of subordinate groups are most heavily restricted, their very restriction is often born out of a recognition of their agency.

    So, in early modern England explicit articulations of same sex male desire were silenced because it was recognised that allowing them a voice could destabilise dominant ideas about order and social relations. In the context of the South Seas Mission, ‘gossip’ about the character of Revd Simpson was on the one hand dismissed as flippant, whilst at the same time the powers that be sought to hush it up, or to use gossip as a powerful tool themselves, and ultimately its spread did serve to bring Simpson down. Indian Muslim soldiers in the First World War were permitted to write letters, but their officers allowed them to do so only so that they could monitor and police the voices of the soldiers – they were fearful of the power of discontent and divided loyalties, and ultimately here too the soldiers managed to use their letters to communicate in a way that evaded the attempt at control from above.

    Building then on a comment from last week in response to Will Pooley’s post – that we need to be careful about seeing the silences of the people as imbued with agency, when many were examples of the people being actively silenced – it seems to me that even in instances when structures of power worked hardest to silence the people we can often tell a story of the agency, either inherent or realised, that marginal voices had in their own time.

  2. As an interesting comparison (and apologies to Nicholas if this is something you are already familiar with) there are a few sodomy cases relating to sailors during this period – although not as many as we might expect from the (more recent) popular stereotype of sailors. I have never studied them in detail – yet – but the main characteristic that I have noticed, and this was also mentioned by Cheryl Fury in her paper at a recent conference, is that these cases usually involve a sailor and a ship’s boy, or some other younger member of the ships’ crew – who were regularly presented, or presented themselves, as victims. How should we interpret this? If we accept the characterisation given in court, does this suggest that only abusive relationships were prosecuted; that homosexual acts between consenting adults did not end up in front of the lawcourts, unless someone actively objected? Or are the definitions offered in the court documents themselves intrinsically suspect?

    To relate to Mark’s point, how do we overcome the problems of evidence, especially legal evidence – that in many cases historians can only hear the voices of the people precisely because someone more powerful was trying to silence them?

  3. RJ (and Mark), thanks for these comments. I know of but do not really know these cases concerning sailors, but I think they are apt places for me to look more carefully. I appreciate the suggestion. I think the questions you raise are just the right ones. It may be true that “only abusive relationships” were actively prosecuted in late 16th and early 17th century England (and perhaps New England), and that acts between consenting adults did not end up in front of courts. Alan Sinfield suggests that there was virtually a traffic in boys in early modern London, and evidence in Alan Bray’s work suggests that questions of sex alone (as opposed to violence, rape, social disorder, etc.) were not definitive in constituting evidence of sodomy. In at least one case, that of Meredith Davy, the JPs sent a man and a boy home to the same bed after concerns had been raised about (and testimony corroborated) the goings-on there. As Bray suggests, there is something more than “silencing” going on here. It is something more insidious–an inability to see sex as a problem, at least until, as Bray suggests, it became a recognizable social problem–and, I would add, something open to more complex inscription.

    One would want to understand what were the other social issues surrounding the cases of these sailor boys that led them to be able to see themselves as victims and/or that led others to fashion them in that way. I think, too, the dates of the cases could also be important. It seems that by the late 17th century in England (post-dating the Castlehaven case) there was a more carefully delineated discourse of sodomy that my have put sex itself into linguistic play. What interests me especially, however, is not the situation of the “victim” and his silencing by others, but the ways in which the system of male relations allowed for an agency in people (men) of lower status that–while it was always potentially open to silencing by being made to speak as the proscribed voice of sodomy–was not always visible as such. I am interested in teasing out the ways in which silence itself enabled a kind of agency or voice and the ways clever people may have exploited for their own ends the ideological contradictions at the heart of conceptions of sodomy. So, I am thinking about the differences between a Henry Skipwith and Laurence Fitzpatrick in the Castlehaven case–and they ways in which one man becomes scapegoated for activities that may have allowed for the social advancement of another. Of course, there is so little evidence in Skipwith’s case, and the literary examples I use to make my arguments are not, in actuality, “voices of the people.” But I hope they raise some of the fears and tensions that accompanied the recognition of the possibilities such voices that otherwise would remain wholly silent in the historical record.

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #15 | Whewell's Ghost

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