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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #69d Traub 2002 - The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Chapter 3)


Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. 2002. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-44885-9

Publication summary: 

This is a sizable work, tackling the broad topic of female homoeroticism in 16-17th century England. This work is one of a number to address (and disprove) the notion that lesbianism--by name and by definition--is a purely modern concept.

Chapter 3: The politics of pleasure: or, queering Queen Elizabeth

A great deal of valuable research is done and presented in the context of theoretical considerations. Chapter 3 of Traub's work is, so far, the one most focused on questions of interpretation and theory and least focused on objective historic data and observations. From an outside perspective, it may seem a bit odd to treat Queen Elizabeth I -- whose heterosexual desires drove a great deal of drama at her court, especially in the early years -- as relevant to a discussion of lesbian themes in 16th century England. Traub draws the themes together but at a level that is quite removed from the focus of the LHMP.

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In this chapter, Traub looks at representations of Queen Elizabeth as embodying the contradictions between a professional discourse that authorized female pleasure and mutual sexual relations, and the licensing of this only within the context of patriarchal marriage with its concurrent emphasis on female chastity outside marriage. In this context, Elizabeth stands as an icon--if not at all a typical example--of marriage resistance and the erotic possibilities for women outside marriage. While this chapter is quite interesting from a visual theory point of view, it offers relatively little of direct interest for the present project.

Elizabeth’s steadfast insistence on autonomy with regard to marriage (whether in resisting it or setting preconditions for it) provide a model, but not one that most women had access to. Conversely, there was a discourse around Elizabeth that saw her rule and her refusal to be ruled by men (or a single man) as setting the world upside down. But the majority of the chapter is more abstract, looking at various portraits of Elizabeth as symbolizing a simultaneous chastity and eroticism that may lie more in the eye of the interpreter than the historic era.

The latter part of the chapter explores the eroticization of the breast, both in portraiture and as a focus of erotic poetry, including a number of homoerotic encounters (though always presented for the male gaze). This is then contextualized in a motif of the alternate concealing and revealing of focal body parts, as in Elizabeth’s cited habit of repeatedly donning and doffing her gloves during audiences, offering her bare hand for salutation and then concealing it again. Traub offers that if Elizabeth cannot in any real way be considered to represent homosexuality, she certainly can be considered to represent un-heterosexuality. Her appropriation of male political and social roles, her refusal to submit to masculine authority in any form, and her ultimate resistance to marriage entirely certainly disrupted the heterosexual paradigm. But if the person of the monarch sets a model for society, the vastly different models set by Elizabeth’s successors show the instability of this as a driver for social change.

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