Jeffrey Masten. Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 223pp + 14 illustrations. ISBN 0 521 57260 6 Cloth; 0 521 58920 7 Paper.
Mary Bly
Washington University in St. Louis

Bly, Mary. "Review of Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.1 (May, 1998): 7.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-1/rev_bly3.html>.

  1. Jeff Masten's Textual Intercourse is a lucid and engrossing contribution to the study of the collaborative writing partnerships of early modern England. Masten fashions a complicated subject: the dual rhetoric of writing and sexual partnership in the seventeenth century, on the one hand, and our ability as twentieth century scholars to grasp the intricacies of that relationship, on the other. Textual Intercourse does not simply discuss sexual intercourse and texts in one breath, it addresses our intercourse with the text, our fumbling, textual attempts to understand erotic relations in the early modern period.

  2. Masten's book crucially depends upon a premise which twentieth century scholars, altogether too swayed by Shakespeare studies, love to ignore: "collaboration was a prevalent mode of textual production in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, only eventually displaced by the mode of singular authorship with which we are more familiar" (4). Masten offers a provocative corrective in his emphasis on the polyvocal construction of texts in London playhouses. He takes seriously the process which turned a collaborative manuscript into a script revised, cut and augmented by everyone from the book-holder to a "playhouse dramatist," finally improvised and elaborated by actors in performance.

  3. Yet it's one thing to write a book which insists that collaboration was the primary mode of theatrical writing in the early modern period and, of course, quite another to bring together textual production and sexual relations. Masten asserts what he calls a "chiastic assumption:" texts are produced "within a particular sex/gender context," and gender and sexuality are at least partially produced in and by those texts (5). Textual Intercourse contends that early modern dramatic writing occurred within the context of "a collaborative homoerotics" (37). Collaborative writing was the norm and texts themselves insistently figure the act of writing as both collaboration and homoerotic exchange. Part of Masten's argument is that collaborative texts written during a period of collaborative production (i.e., before Foucault's "author" appears), are functionally different from the collaborative texts we might produce in 1998. In Masten's words, "reading the languages of collaboration and authorship attentively, we will begin to see some signal differences of our culture from that of these dead men, in both their textual relations and their sexual ones" (4). Masten does not aim to identify familiar sex roles through his examination of an unfamiliar mode of textual production. "The point," he writes, "is not to bring the Renaissance out of the closet, but to bring the closet out of the Renaissance" (7).

  4. The first play Masten discusses is The Knight of the Burning Pestle, "perhaps the most wildly collaborative play of this period" (23). The script, he argues, stages the constraints weighing on an "author," if such an entity could be identified amid the welter of voices figured as authors in the Knight (everyone from Rafe to the Citizen's Wife). To Masten, that network of voices is more relevant to interpretation of the text than is analysis of Beaumont's voice. Textual Intercourse then moves nimbly from a discussion of the Knight's multiple voices to a discussion of homosocial friendship and the complex issues at the nexus of collaboration, homoeroticism and male friendship.

  5. Masten's third and fourth chapters place writing partnerships within the hierarchical context of early modern England and within the language of patriarchal absolutism. Interestingly, Masten approaches the complexities of author/authority by analyzing plays in which an author is resurrected in order to re-present a play: Homer in The Golden Age, and Gower in Pericles. He traces an authorial presenter "splintered," tentative, un-authorized. Masten thus locates his study "at a crucial moment in the history of the subject" (143), linking the move away from collective writing towards individual authorship to a switch in modes of government in England, from a single royal voice to more collective action (151). He suggests this shift only to qualify it, labelling it a fiction, and leaving it a question: "what are the relations between modes of textual production, systems of government, and modes of subjectivity?" (151).

  6. Perhaps the only problematic area of Masten's brilliant study is a tendency to cite broad historical shifts, whether or not they are tentatively suggested (as above), or used more confidently. The final chapter of Textual Intercourse analyzes Margaret Cavendish's negotiation of her Folio volumes within "the newly emergent discourse of collaborative marriage" (158). Masten employed this particular historical paradigm earlier in the book: Richard Braithwait's The English Gentleman, with its homoerotic ideals of male friendship, is depicted as arriving "at the cusp of a companionate ideal of marriage that was radically to alter the sex/gender system" (30). Masten utilizes this "new" marital ideal in order to demonstrate a cultural reversal: what would have been radical (companionate marriage) becomes normal while male/male collaboration becomes "strange Production," according to John Berkenhead's 1647 poem (136). But the historical emergence of companionate marriage is not as tidy as it appears in Textual Intercourse. In fact, the very idea of a "new" companionate marriage has been violently attacked by historians in the years since Lawrence Stone popularized it: first by E. P. Thomas and most recently by David Cressy (1997) and Mary Prior (1997). Henry Abalone recently suggested that literary scholars have clung to the idea of companionate marriage, long after historians demanded that Stone's book be pulped, because the concept plays to a modern fantasy -- that love can produce equality.[1]

  7. I wonder whether something of the same fantasy might function in Masten's otherwise historically impeccable account of writing processes and attendant erotic relationships. When Masten argues that Cavendish's work "demonstrates the emergence of male-female collaboration out of the prior discourse of homoerotic friendship that informs the Beaumont and Fletcher volume," we need to be as careful as Masten himself was about taxonomies (158). We are no more likely to grasp what was encompassed by a "companionate" marriage in 1662 than we are to grasp exactly what happened within the bounds of a male friendship figuring two bodies made into one, as in Braithwait's definition. The emergence of companionate marriage makes a neat conclusion to Masten's study, implicitly explaining the demise of homosocial writing partnerships that clearly, on some level, avoided the rigid hierarchies that inflect many male relationships in the early modern period (as argued by Stephen Orgel in Impersonations, for example).

  8. Textual Intercourse is a book of startling originality. It sets a difficult precedent: not only is it historically demanding, in that Masten asks the reader to look beyond simple authorially-based monographs and trace the contexts and constraints of the early modern theatrical world, but it challenges the imagination as well. At its very best, queer theory links attention to historical fact with a creative energy that admits the difficulties of historical reconstruction -- whether the subject is texts or sexes. Masten's examination of cultural meaning alternates between analysis, history and manifesto. As Textual Intercourse traces the joyous and profitable partnerships between Beaumont and Fletcher, or Shakespeare and Fletcher, Masten insistently reminds us what a keen historical and imaginative scope scholars must employ when writing about the early modern period.


1. Henry Abalone, as a member of a round-table discussion on early modern sexuality, Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies, December 1997.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, RGS, 10 June 1998)