Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Privy Chamber

A review of Sex in Elizabethan England by Alan Haynes (Sutton, 1999)

The title of this book promises more than it delivers – perhaps like sex itself. Alan Haynes’s real subject is sex in élite Elizabethan England. The first chapters cover secret marriages and elopements among the courtiers of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, who expected her Privy Chamber to be chaste, and briefly imprisoned or exiled those who pursued a mate for reasons of desire rather than politics.

The naughty bits crop up in a chapter on the Bankside whores and the livelier spots of the Elizabethan underworld. The London prostitutes were professionals proud of their skills. They were not “fallen women”, nor were they dominated by a violent male criminal class: many worked alone, enjoying sex as well as money. Many also dressed as boys, and one wonders what their customers expected.

Young male prostitutes, called “ingles”, are mentioned in Elizabethan drama and satire, though only two documents refer to male “stews” or brothels. Gentlemen were readily serviced by their hordes of retainers; the Earl of Oxford was caught playing at the “back-door” with his kitchen-boy. The lesbian record remains disappointingly blank, but Haynes devotes some pages to women who dressed as men and pursued lusty careers, sometimes heterosexual like Moll Cutpurse, sometimes ambiguous. The lower classes get barely a look-in, before we’re off again to the literary world of the privileged class.

Homosexual desire is prominent in Elizabethan literature: boys play girls’ parts in the theatre; beautiful boys are central to mythological narratives such as Marlowe’s Hero and Leander; and pastoral poetry is a gay genre (with sheep as subterfuge). Haynes offers an intriguing biographical reading of Richard Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepherd, linking him to the gay Spanish Ambassador Antonio Perez, Sir Francis Bacon and his brother Anthony (both gay), the 3rd Earl of Essex (who could only “get it up” in male company), and Lady Penelope Rich (Haynes’s paradigm for female cleverness).

In marked contrast, Haynes insists that Shakespeare’s Sonnets are not autobiographical, but pure art. This belongs in the long tradition of critical daftness when dealing with Shakespeare’s sexuality.

Chapters on syphilis and impotence round off the merry tale.


(This review was originally published in London's Gay Times in August 1999. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

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