Theatricality and sodomy in Christopher Marlowe’s "Edward II"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

23 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Homosexuality and Male Friendships in Elizabethan England
2.1. “Homosociety” and the One-Sex Model
2.2. Friendships and Love

3. The Status of Sodomy
3.1. In Terms of Law
3.2. The Libel against Edward II
3.3. The Baines Libel

4. The Theatre as Sodomite
4.1. Mistaken Identity
4.2. The Pleasure and Peril of Dramatic Art

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book.

Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”[1]

This is probably the most famous quote by Oscar Wilde, taken from the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which first appeared in 1890. In 1895, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour following a trial for homosexual offences. The trial was ensued by Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. On his release in 1897, Oscar Wilde went to exile in France and died there bankrupt and broken in 1900.[2]

On his death, Christopher Marlowe was under warrant to appear before the Privy Council on unknown charges. We can only suspect that if he hadn’t been killed under dubious circumstances on 30th May, 1593, he would most certainly have faced the death penalty soon after. Until this day, though, the mystery of his death remains unsolved. All we know is that he spent his last day in the presence of three male companions in the house of Eleanor Bull in Deptford. It is uncertain whether this establishment was simply a house or a tavern. We are aware, though, of the identity of the three men. They were Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and head of the secret service, Sir Thomas Walsingham, a relative of the latter, and Ingram Friser. It was from Ingram Friser that Christopher Marlowe received the lethal wound in the eye. It is said that a quarrel arose between the men over who was to pay the bill. Friser was released after only one month’s imprisonment. If Marlowe’s connections with the secret service are of importance concerning his murder remains debatable as well.[3]

Christopher Marlowe’s existence, very much like Oscar Wilde’s, was an existence crushed or destroyed by his society.[4] This is what Sara Munson Deats and Lisa S. Starks refer to as “the peril and pleasure of dramatic art”.[5] Literature and art are not mere representations of history, but they definitely have the power to influence the way human beings perceive the world. Therefore, the job of playwright always involves a certain risk. The above mentioned quote by Oscar Wilde proves to be the best possible defence for a writer. It remains to be seen how powerful Christopher Marlowe’s dramas really were and in how far theatricality may have played a part in the allegations put forward against him in the Baines Libel.

Now let me introduce the structure outline of my paper. In a first step, I’m going to have a close look at the nature of homosexuality and male friendships in Elizabethan England. In this part, I will mainly refer to theories put forward by Paul Hammond in his essay “The Renaissance“ as well as in Mario DiGangi’s essay “Marlowe, Queer Studies, and Renaissance Homoeroticism“.

The Elizabethan “concept” of homosexuality actually differs greatly from what we might expect and may even seem bewildering at first. However, to create in our minds a picture of the Elizabethan culture, we will have to make an effort to let go of the clichés that are anchored in our own. In doing so, we can only rely on the few historical sources we have about Elizabethan culture. Therefore, we have to remember that we can never truly recreate the big picture. Here, Thomas Laqueur’s milestone book Making Sex as well as Ina Schabert’s chapter about the one-sex model from Englische Literaturgeschichte. Eine neue Darstellung aus der Sicht der Geschlechterforschung will come in support of my theories.

The following chapter will be devoted to the status of sodomy in Renaissance England. It is vitally important to understand its political dimension, as suggested by both Alan Bray and Mario DiGangi, and the threat it was said to have exercised on the Elizabethan order of the universe.

In a final step, I’m hoping to offer a new explanation for the allegation of sodomy against Christopher Marlowe as expressed in the Baines Libel. I will try to further the debate about this doubtful document by establishing a connection with Sara Munson Deats and Lisa S. Starks’s article “’So neatly plotted, and so well performed’: Villain as Playwright in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta”. The notion of the theatre will thus come to play an important part in my interpretation of the Baines Libel.

Each part of my work will also include a substantial amount of text analysis in support of the interpretations offered.

2. Homosexuality and Male Friendships in Elizabethan England

2.1. “Homosociety” and the One-Sex Model

In Elizabethan England, homosexuality as we know it and the clichés that we assign to it today did not exist. There was no awareness of homosexuality as such because a man’s position was rather defined by his religion and his social status than by his sexuality[6]:

MORTIMER SENIOR “[...] The mightiest kings have had their minions:

[...]Then let his grace [...]

Freely enjoy that vain, light-headed earl,

For riper years will wean him from such toys.” (Scene IV, ll. 390-400)

In scene IV of Edward II, Mortimer Senior also cites a number of classical examples of homoerotic love, reaching from Alexander The Great to Socrates. We understand that he is not at all worried about Edward’s homosexual tendencies and his sexual relationship with Gaveston. However, his nephew, Mortimer Junior, also sees the other side of the coin. He is angered by the fact that “[...] one so basely born should grow so pert and riot it with the treasure of the realm.” (Scene IV, ll. 402-404) This dialogue underlines the fact that homosexuality as such was not a topic only as long as it wasn’t paired with other subversive or disruptive behaviour. Therefore Gaveston’s role will have to be looked into more closely later on.

In our world today, we are almost obsessed with the thought that identity and sexuality are the same thing, or at least, that identity is largely founded on our sexual preferences. While sex is biological, gender is cultural, social. Gender is therefore often seen as equal to identity. I would argue that our culture has gradually become more sexually aware over the past two or three decades, especially since 1974, the year when the Gay Rights Movement was under way in the US. I dare say that homosexuality has become very much en vogue these days. Still, it is somehow human nature to disapprove of ambiguity. This is understandable in some ways because when society still expects us to pair off in the traditional way, get married and have children, it is important to figure out whether someone is straight, gay, or possibly bisexual. Judging from the concept of identity that is evident in Elizabethan literature, however, we have made a big step backwards. Androgyny, or ambiguity, is maybe the most appealing feature. It is sexy because it is open to a number of interpretations and fantasies. As Paul Hammond writes in his essay “The Renaissance”:

“[…] in Renaissance literature, [where] there is often a variety of viewpoints and desires. Indeed, many works are open texts which invite the reader to engage in a range of imaginative erotic pleasures.”[7]

To arrive at an understanding of why there was no awareness of homosexuality in Renaissance England, it is essential to know that the society of the time was a homosocial one; homosocial meaning a society in which men were regarded as superior to women, not only in intelligence, and in which men therefore occupied the most important positions. Relations with other men were often the most relevant and the most rewarding ones in their lives because they were far better educated and thus had much more to offer. Among friends, Elizabethan men used to hug and kiss, they were loyal towards each other, sometimes even passionate.[8] Nonetheless, no-one was worried about the fine line between homosocial and homosexual. We have to look more closely at the underlying concept of gender to understand the Elizabethan “homosociety”.

The dominating concept of gender at the time was that of the teleological one-sex model. In this model, all human beings are measured against male standards and characteristics. Women are described as naturally subordinated to man and as lacking in masculinity. Therefore supporters of the one-sex model claimed that there were no exclusively female biological, physiological or psychological attributes. The female body was merely a less perfect version of the male. Furthermore, a human being was believed to go through different developmental stages from child to adolescent, to woman and, in the best case, to fully developed man. Only in a man, all human abilities had reached the highest developmental stage.[9] The boundaries between the genders were fleeting. In order to support the claims of the one-sex model, various attempts were made to prove that female genitalia were but a copy of the male. The uterus was thus compared to the penis and the ovaries were said to correspond to the testicles as can be seen in the drawings underneath.

Figure 1. Vagina as penis from Vesalius, Fabrica.

Figure 2. The vagina and uterus from Vidus Vidius, De anatome corporis humani.

Figure 1 Figure 2

illustration not visible in this excerpt

However, bodily features do not “determine sexual difference or sameness”[10], as Thomas Laqueur so rightly points out in his book Making Sex. In fact, a person’s upbringing and cultural rearing decide to a great extent about whether he or she identifies as male or female. Let me cite a famous example in this context: Calliope Stephanides, the protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides’s bestseller Middlesex, was born a hermaphrodite with XY chromosomal status, suffering from 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. Since the parents didn’t know about the special physical condition of their child and since it appeared to be female, they raised their child as a girl and Callie had always felt as one. Until in puberty, breasts failed to show and she didn’t get her period. Only then her parents and Callie herself started to notice that there was something not quite “normal” about her. (Though what is normal, can be discussed as well.) In secret, Callie also started feeling sexually attracted to girls. In the end, the only logical decision for her to make was to live as a man. Callie was reborn as Cal.

We should not forget the fact that, in the early developmental stages in the womb, all babies’ genitalia look the same. Only under the influence of hormones, they are transformed into female or male genitalia. To quote from Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex once again, “The thing to keep in mind is that everybody starts out like this. We’re all born with potential boy parts and girl parts.”[11] An argument that goes in line is that, in times of lack of food, men can begin to lactate, an ability which at first sight may seem exclusive to women. After all, we should not forget that every human being has nipples, a relic from those early developmental stages in the womb. As we can see from just these few examples, gender cannot be determined merely by biological features. In fact, as Thomas Laqueur states, there are many genders and “the body is like an actor on stage, ready to take on the roles assigned it by the culture”.[12] In other words, the sexes come in all sorts of different genders.


[1] Wilde, Oscar, 1994, p. 2.

[2] <>

[3] Goldberg, Jonathan, 1999, pp. 55-56.

[4] Goldberg, Jonathan, 1999, p. 61.

[5] Deats / Starks, 2003, p. 128.

[6] Hammond, Paul, 1996, p. 25.

[7] Hammond, Paul, 1996, p. 25.

[8] Hammond, Paul, 1996, p. 27.

[9] Schabert, Ina, 1997, p. 24.

[10] Laqueur, Thomas, 1990, p. 19.

[11] Eugenides, Jeffrey, 2003, p. 427.

[12] Laqueur, Thomas, 1990, p. 61.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Theatricality and sodomy in Christopher Marlowe’s "Edward II"
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
Christopher Marlowe – Performing Power
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ISBN (eBook)
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Kommentar des Dozenten: Engagierte Textarbeit an relevanten Stellen. Einige Kapitel bleiben jedoch zu oberflächlich und auch die Relevanz angeführter Beispiele ist nicht immer einleuchtend.
Theatricality, Christopher, Marlowe’s, Edward, Christopher, Marlowe, Performing, Power
Quote paper
Vanessa Schnitzler (Author), 2005, Theatricality and sodomy in Christopher Marlowe’s "Edward II", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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