Homoerotic Pleasure and Violence in the Drama of Thomas Middleton

Adrian Blamires
Reading University

Blamires, Adrian. "Homoerotic Pleasure and Violence in the Drama of Thomas Middleton". EMLS 16.2 (2012): 3. URL: http://purl.org/emls/16-2/blammidd.htm


  1. In Satire 5 of Thomas Middleton's Micro-cynicon: Six Snarling Satyres (1599), the poet-persona describes being cozened by a cross-dressing prostitute, 'Ingling Pyander'. The religious morality, warning others away from sin, is conventional enough, but in a striking passage the speaker, confessing 'time was I loved Pyander well', shows significant reluctance in exposing the transvestite: 'So loathes my soul to see Pyander's shame' (42, 44). Only the 'worm of conscience' (45) and fear of hell spurs him on. Bruce Smith detects in the poem a 'spiral of power and pleasure that locks the satirist and the satirized in a furious embrace' (1994: 181). Middleton's homoerotic focus here initiates a career-long exploration of the theme, much of which has gone unseen or unacknowledged, judging by most editions of his work. Whilst the playwright's 'relentless sexual jests' (Woodbridge 2007: 907) present a challenge to editors, most identify the puns in a helpful way when it comes to heterosexual desire. This is rarely the case, however, with innuendo that suggests homosexual bonds, even in editions of Michaelmas Term, Middleton's most overtly homoerotic play. Some studies have highlighted a sodomitical discourse in particular texts (see Heller 2000: 106) and Gary Taylor notes, in his introduction to The Collected Works, the frequency with which Middleton 'invoked “back door” sex, male and female' (2007: 25). I hope to show, however, that the subject is far more central to his corpus than has been recognised hitherto, and that it accounts for a significant proportion of his sexual wordplay. My particular concern is Middleton's representation of homoerotic pleasure and violence, apparent contraries that are often indivisible in his work. I begin by addressing the treatment of this theme in the early city comedies, before considering its importance to later works, such as The Changeling. My reading of the latter offers a significant reappraisal of its satiric and thematic purposes, with homoeroticism emerging as a crucial component in the tragedy's social and sexual powerplay.

  2. A breakthrough analysis of Middleton's homoerotic punning and plotting is found in Theodore Leinwand's 1994 essay 'Redeeming Beggary/Buggery in Michaelmas Term'. He suggests the play 'indicates that in some instances, homosocial relations in Jacobean London may have been founded upon, at the very least may not have been antipathetic to, homoeroticism' (1994: 54). This stands as a tentative rebuttal of certain claims, made in the 1980s, about homosexuality in the early modern period. Alan Bray argues that it was 'not a sexuality in its own right', and went 'largely unrecognised and unformed' (1982: 25, 79-80).  Intimate male friendships, however, particularly amongst the elite, were highly valued. Gentlemen might embrace and kiss, or spend the night as bedfellows. Noting the 'potential ambiguity about intimacy between men', Bray suggests that a sodomitical 'shadow was never far from the flower-strewn world of Elizabethan friendship'. But where sodomy did occur, he argues, it would be 'ruinously misleading' to view those involved as 'homosexuals' in the modern sense. The era 'lacked the idea of a distinct homosexual minority' – this was not to emerge, he contends, until the early eighteenth century (Bray 1982: 16, 80; 1994: 40, 56). Stephen Orgel, noting that charges of sodomy were invariably linked to other forms of subversion (such as atheism or sedition), states that sodomy had 'no independent existence in the Renaissance mind' (1989: 20-21). And Jonathan Goldberg proposes that, given the risks involved,[1] it is 'virtually impossible to believe that anyone might self-identify as a sodomite', and that such a person might call his sexual acts 'something else, or nothing at all' (1992: 3, 19).

  3. Such claims have been disputed. Gregory Bredbeck acknowledges the powerful stigma attached to sodomy, but questions the monolithic nature of it; analysing early modern lexicons, he suggests that the 'nomenclature of homoeroticism…proliferated during the period', particularly in the vernacular, in ways that point to varied 'modes of homoerotic interaction' (1991: 3-5, 17-18). Joseph Cady believes a 'definite awareness and language for a distinct homosexuality existed' in the era (1992: 12).  Aligning himself cautiously with such views, Leinwand argues that the pervasive double entendres of Michaelmas Term depend on the 'audience's acknowledgement of sodomitical behavior'. The wordplay requires a 'sodomitical ecology' in which to thrive (1994: 54). In other words, Middleton's city comedy implies a form of homosexual subculture in the city: 'the city precedes and then engenders comedy' (2007: 336). For the satire to succeed, the audience needs to follow, and perhaps be implicated within, the play's homoerotic discourse. Leinwand pays particular attention to the ways in which 'sexual and monetary relations… interanimate one another' (1994: 59) in Middleton's playworld. The young gallant, Richard Easy, gulled into parting with his lands by the draper, Quomodo, is simultaneously beggared and buggered.[2] Middleton makes the homoerotic dimension of the gulling clear, with Quomodo tasking his servant, Shortyard, to 'creep into bed to him; kiss him and undo him, my sweet spirit'. The draper takes a vicarious pleasure in the seduction.[3] He wilfully neglects his wife's sexual needs, saying of gallants 'They're busy 'bout our wives, we 'bout their lands' (1.2.112). Here and elsewhere, 'lands' bears anal connotations, with the beggar/bugger pun appearing in phrases such as 'Master Beggarland' and 'the lands lie fair:/ 'No sin to beggar…' (2.3.401, 4.3.22-3). Easy soon becomes 'a very inward' friend to Shortyard, his 'sweet bedfellow'; they lie together like 'man and wife… As near as can be' (2.3.113, 151, 173-5). Middleton exploits the language of idealised male friendship ('Take him up roundly') to full suggestive effect (2.3.285-6).

  4. Given the level of predation and exploitation on view – between master and servant, citizen and gallant, husband and wife – Michaelmas Term could be seen as a signally dark comedy. Leinwand acknowledges a menacing potential but favours a more benign reading, comparing the play's 'genial stigmatization' of homosexual activity to that found in Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The latter's citizen-army weapon drill, an orgy of sodomitical puns ('beat the rear up', 'stand', 'touch-holes' etc 5.89-160), could certainly be viewed as 'non-corrosive satire' (1994: 63). Leinwand sees Middleton as similarly tolerant: he 'does not seem to be particularly exercised about Easy's desire' (61). The young country gentleman is described as 'somewhat too open' (1.2.57) on arrival in London, but otherwise faces no disapprobation from his fellow gallants. His exit, unmarried but with lands restored, might return him to the 'gentle homoerotic circuit' (62). In the Induction, a personified Michaelmas Term, whose 'wealth would redeem beggary', offers to 'dispatch' the audience within two hours: 'But, gentlemen, to spread myself open unto you' (1.1.20, 63-5). The sexual toying with playgoers, many of them young law students, is overt.[4] Perhaps Leinwand is right to suggest that the play 'stages a historical conjuncture at which no necessary, or wholly naturalized, relation between sodomy and stigma prevails' (54), that within the playhouse circle at least 'beggary/ buggery' is indeed redeemed.

  5. I concur with Leinwand on much of this – these are buoyant city comedies – but would highlight the underlying anxieties. Beaumont's play is metaphorically riddled with syphilis, hence the 'burning pestle' (pizzle) and the scouring of weapons; the disease was endemic in Jacobean London. Michaelmas Term contains similar allusions to the 'city powd'ring' and 'commodities in hawks' hoods and brown paper… O, horrible!' (1.2.60; 2.3.219-21). Middleton also establishes a metaphorical link between sodomy and violence that becomes a characteristic feature of his work. The main gulling scene (2.3), justifiably praised for its Jonsonian brilliance (Levin 1996: xiv), is a tour de force of suspense and innuendo. Common puns of the era (undo, will, thing, stand) mix with legal-sexual double entendres: 'sufficiently possessed', 'sufficiently discharged' (2.3.163-4, 255). Under the burden of homosocial obligation, Easy 'enters but for custom sake' (2.3.268) a bond at once financial and sexual. One audacious extended metaphor is augmented by another, as Quomodo's wife, Thomasine, secretly watching, compares the proceedings to a public execution (2.3.226-31, 378-80). 'Execution' carries a sexual meaning in other Middleton plays and early modern texts;[5] here, the violent phrasing ('rip up himself', 'Now is he quart'ring out') suggests almost a self-disembowelling on Easy's part, whilst 'the executioner/ Strides over him'. Middleton's momentary switch from prose to verse here accentuates the sense of cruelty behind the witty deception.

  6. There is something distinctly un-Easy in all this. The execution image reoccurs when, the plot having been exposed, Easy seeks revenge on Shortyard: 'I thirst the execution of his ears' (5.1.23). The ears of criminals were sometimes removed in punishment and Easy goes on to box Shortyard's ears on stage, but the homonym 'ears/arse' is also in play. Whilst Shortyard's response, 'You have corn enough, you need not reap my ears' (5.1.47), alludes to the return of Easy's farm lands, we might also hear another near-homonym, 'reap/rape' (a textual crux centres on the same pairing at 3.4.266). The threat contained in Shortyard's earlier pseudonym, 'Blastfield', is turned back on the trickster. Easy's desire to 'strip him bare for punishment and shame' (5.1.25) further suggests a sexual dimension to his revenge fantasy. This desire, however, is complicated. Shortyard's parting shot, depending on how we read an often emended line, might be to mock Easy with a former cry of sexual rapture: '“Sweet Master Blastfield!”' (5.1.50).[6] Given how bereft Easy was at the earlier disappearance of 'Blastfield' ('Methinks I have no being without his company', 3.2.8), it is clear that the relationship was, on his part, one of genuine pleasure and affection. When he banishes Shortyard, 'I loathe his voice. Away!' (5.1.48), the 'voice' is Shortyard's, but could also be heard as Easy's own, if he is indeed mimicked here. In condemning Shortyard, he condemns his own love; the 'bad deeds' (5.1.54) he will burn are both fraudulent bonds and homoerotic acts. Thomasine's 'What happiness was here!' (5.1.49) refers ostensibly to the arrest of criminals and the return of lands, but might also chime, unwittingly, a tragic note for a negated love. An ambiguity is felt too in Easy's 'I can no longer bear him' (5.1.125), which balances contempt with regret for a lost physical intimacy. Middleton conjures a level of interiority here perhaps not seen again until his later tragedies. There is empathy, even compassion, of a kind rare in his work. But whether the play is recuperative, whether 'buggery' is redeemed, remains unclear. Herbert Jack Heller notes Middleton's 'relatively mild treatment' of sexual relations between men but, highlighting his Calvinist faith, suggests that 'beggars and buggers may be redeemed, but not beggary/buggery' (2000: 107, 110).

  7. A sodomitical discourse is found throughout Middleton's work for the Children of Paul's. The homoerotic wordplay in his first surviving play, The Phoenix (1603), is extensive, particularly in relation to the lawyer, Tangle, and the justice, Falso, in a legal satire designed to appeal to Inns of Court students. Perhaps the play's comic highlight is their fencing bout, in which, as Patrick Cook puts it, the 'parries and thrusts visually transform Tangle's discussion of legal strategies with Justice Falso into competitive buggery' (2006:5). Middleton was not the first dramatist to work such innuendo into a swordplay scene,[7] but he takes the quipping further, in a blur of treble-meanings, of fencing terms, legalisms and ribaldry. The two men compete for sporting, professional and sexual dominance, with Falso brought to a 'narrow exigent' and suffering an onstage 'overthrow' (9.246, 257). This symbolic penetration is played for laughs, but again the farcical humour has an unnerving undercurrent. The litigiousness of the age is figured in violently sexual terms: Tangle's suits are brought for sadistic pleasure, and his triumph over Falso is a 'writ of execution… a wound mortal' that 'lays you i'th' Counter' (debtors' prison); he is the phallic 'villainous law-worm, that eats holes into poor men's causes' and has 'vexed and beggared the whole parish' (4.44-5, 138; 9.249-51; 12.114-5). Falso's response, 'I ne'er had such an overthrow in my life', implies masochistic pleasure, but the end is syphilitic pain: 'if a man have a sound fall in law, he shall feel it in his bones all his life after' (9.273-4). Falso's servants double as a gang of highwaymen, whose threat is sexual as well as pecuniary; his horse, Stand-and-Deliver, is 'the very gelding I choose for my own riding', a phrase suggestive of a catamite. Falso gloats about an early life of 'venery', the chief pleasure of which appears to have been the rape of law-officers (10.42-4; 55-71). For all the high theatrical spirits, this is a predatory and abusive playworld.

  8. The judiciary is the chief target of Middleton's satire,[8] and the play culminates in a grotesque purging of Tangle. But the main narrative arc concerns the determination of Prince Phoenix 'to look into the heart and bowels of this dukedom' (1.102-3). Needless to say, the bowels predominate. The disguised prince uncovers a range of sins, culminating in the proposed murder of the Duke, instigated by the treacherous court-favourite, Proditor. The proposal implies an act of sodomy: 'And at his rising let his fall be base,/ Beneath thy foot' (15.36-7), with 'foot' having phallic connotations.[9] Proditor's contest with Phoenix is figured as that of a 'villainous raven… Over the presence chamber in hard jostle/ With a young eaglet' (15.19-21). The prince works to deny Proditor access to the Duke's 'chamber', and the sodomite is ultimately shamed with further phallic innuendo: 'Above the foot thou hast no power o'er kings' (15.170). Some have seen in the play a sententious attempt to advise the new king, James I, in the rooting out of depravity (Williamson 1957: 183-7). The name of the eponymous prince could be seen as an attempt at flattery.[10] I agree that Middleton is thinking of James, but see the play as cautionary with regard to the king's own behaviour. Reports and rumours of James's 'familiarity' with male favourites date from his youth in Scotland (see Bergeron 1999: 32-43). These spread through London during a state visit in 1590, and were alluded to onstage by Robert Greene in James the Fourth (Sanders 1970: xxvii, xxxiv-v).[11] Middleton's choice of subject is, presumably, influenced by this legacy, as is Jonson's in Sejanus, also from 1603, in which the emperor, Tiberius, is seen as 'Bogg'd in his filthy lusts', and in thrall to 'his owne vassall, a stale catamite' (4.217, 404). Here, in tragic mode, as in the scabrous comedy of The Phoenix, power founded upon a sodomitical relation is exposed and expelled. Chapman's Bussy D'Ambois (1603-4) also implies the corrosive influence of homoerotic desire at court, where the favourite is a phallic 'proud mushrome shot up in a night' (3.1.98). It seems the dramatists were serving their new king a warning. Robert Shephard expresses surprise at the 'relative paucity of rumours and gossip' about the sexual nature of the king and, pace Bray, suggests that most contemporaries 'appear not to have recognized what we would term James's homosexuality' (1996: 111-15). There is, however, no shortage of theatrical allusion to what Julie Crawford, writing about John Fletcher's Bonduca (1613), calls 'the homosociality and homoeroticism of the court of James I' (1999: 367).

  9. Whilst a political and religious didacticism can be seen in Middleton's early representations of sodomy, his primary purpose is to entertain. Mary Bly suggests that scripts of 1607-8 written for the Whitefriars boys' company are designed for 'a self-aware homoerotic community' (2000: 7), and Middleton's work for the Children of Paul's could be viewed in a similar light. His quip about the Blackfriars in Father Hubbard's Tales (1604), with its 'nest of boys able to ravish a man' (560), further flaunts the homoerotic reputation of the boys' companies (we might note once more the suggestion of sexual violence). It appears that the provocative staging of homoeroticism was good box-office for the early years of Stuart rule, with Middleton very much in the vanguard. The laughter is often mixed with a sense of repugnance, however. In A Mad World, My Masters (1605), the comic highpoint is found in Act Two, with its satire on the sexually omnivorous country gent, Sir Bounteous Progress, abasing himself in welcome of 'Lord Owemuch', his disguised nephew, Follywit. The latter's arrival allows Middleton to run through his repertoire, sexualising the knight's dealings with both servants ('Your worship will undo me') and supposed aristocracy ('venereal dreams to your lordship'), whilst turning the house, with its phallic 'great turret o'th' top', and grounds ('your lordship shall see my cocks') into an erotomaniac playground (2.1.29, 43; 2.2.11, 17) Sir Bounteous's 'unworthy seat' is above all anally accommodating: 'I keep chambers in my house can show your lordship some pleasure' (2.1.115; 2.2.18-20). The comedy is broad, especially when the knight shows off his musical consort: 'how does your honour relish my organ?' (2.1.167). The satire seems genial in its treatment of an old man whose sexual imaginings far outstrip his capacity to perform (2.2.13-14).

  10. Middleton strikes a more sardonic note, however, with Sir Bounteous proffering Follywit to 'Lord Owemuch' (ie. himself) as a Ganymede and the tone darkens with Follywit's vengeful speech, 'Now grandsire… I'll fit you' (2.1.140-2; 2.2.36-7). Perhaps his grievance at being denied the family wealth has some legitimacy, but the cruelty of the burglary that follows, especially the treatment of household servants, shows genuine malevolence. And it is here that we see the yoking of homoeroticism to violence. Sir Bounteous proffers himself to the masked intruders in a potentially sexual manner – 'what shift shall I make for you?' and 'spur a free horse' (2.4.29, 46) – almost as if this is a rape fantasy. His concern at the apparent binding of 'Lord Owemuch' leads to a momentary self-awareness, 'I have been too liberal tonight', and a masochistic appeal to be bound himself, 'as hard as you list' (2.4.52-4). The frenetic pace and farcical action, not to mention lines like 'Pray meddle not with my organs', keep the comic spirit in place, but Follywit's acrid sexual sneers ('nothing comes stiff from an old man but money') are highly vindictive (2.4.62, 69-70). The mutual binding of his roaring-boy gang is figured in sodomitical terms, 'that we may have sport within ourselves' (2.4.96-7), and the implication is clear: sodomy as vicious bedfellow to all other vices. A lighter tone is soon restored – the gulling device that closes Act Two depends on wit not violence – but the beggaring/buggering of Sir Bounteous (he uses the term at 2.6.14) remains unnerving. We see, in the homoerotic discourse of these scenes, something of Smith's 'furious embrace', a ferocious satirical energy, less genial than snarling.

  11. Another comedy for the Children of Paul's, A Trick to Catch the Old One (1605), also links financial extortion to predatory desire: the penniless gallant, Witgood, is menaced by creditors in search of 'money or carcass', the latter linked suggestively to 'a secret delight we have amongst us' (4.3.51, 53). Witgood earlier buys time with a teasing reference to 'play[ing] the maid' as the First Creditor negotiates a sexual trade-off, looking to be 'first in your remembrance/ After the marriage rites' (3.1.40, 44-5). I believe that the threatened 'sweet fray' between the usurers, Dampit and Gulf, on the former's death-bed, is also indicative of a contest for sodomitical sway (4.5.189). Perhaps the homoerotic focus in these early works can be seen as professional opportunism, creating drama suited to a particular cast and audience. But the subject was no passing fashion for the playwright. Middleton and Dekker's The Roaring Girl (1611) contains a great deal of homoerotic innuendo. Jean Howard notes the proclivities of young men 'less interested in marriage than in various modalities of same-sex bonding' (1992: 176), and the sexual orientation of Jack Dapper is unmistakable. But Middleton's epistle, To the Comic Play-readers, Venery and Laughter, offers a hunt for 'well couched' sexual puns (14), not all of which have been marked by modern critics, particularly those concerning knights and serving-men. The name of Sir Alexander Wengrave's servant, Neatfoot, has similar phallic connotations to Smallyard in Michaelmas Term;[12] he is appreciated as a 'backfriend' to the gentlemen of the play, delivers messages into their 'ears' (arse), and provides a 'most methodical attendance' at their 'rising' (1.2, 45-8, 53; 2.50-1). Mario DiGangi discusses the homoerotics of mastery and service in some of Middleton's city comedies (1997: 82, 91-2), but the extensiveness of the theme has not been fully appreciated. The Black Book (1604) alludes to a 'nest of gallants' who keep 'an English page which fills up the place of an Ingle' (334-9). Hoard, in A Trick, fantasises about a life of ostentatious display and homosexual pleasure with five servants: 'We shall have all our sports within ourselves' (4.4.56).[13] In The Phoenix we learn that a knight needs must 'ride with a footman before [him]' (13.44), whilst Falso's servant, Furtivo, describes himself as 'A piece next to the tail, sira serving-man' (10.105). There is much play on the phallic 'tale/tail' homophone amongst the knights of The Roaring Girl: 'I'll quicken it with a pretty tale' and 'Out with your tale, Sir Davy, to Sir Adam' (2.61; 7.1). The comedy is politically barbed in lines such as 'Good tales do well/ In these bad days, where vice does so excel' (2.61-2). An ostensibly moralistic Sir Davy Dapper complains of his son's sodomitical companions: 'Roaring boys follow at's tail, fencers and ningles' (7.68). But the father's hypocrisy is, arguably, the main satirical target.

  12. This is made clearer with Sir Davy's plan to send his profligate son to the Counter, an experience that should 'break him' (7.79). It is cast in sodomitical terms: an inmate must pay to 'lie in a clean chamber', to avoid an 'itchy' (syphilitic) companion (7.94-5). Once out of money, he either grants sexual favours to remain at 'the Master's Side', or faces time 'i'th' Hole', a squalid dungeon of sexual predators (7.102-3).[14] The 'Master' here is the prison governor, but also a university tutor: in another memorable extended metaphor, the inmates are presented as scholars, learning the 'quaint sophistry' (7.97) of homoerotic arts in order to graduate – to secure a release, that is. (The satire targets homoeroticism in both educational and penal institutions.) Sir Davy's plan is to fight sodomitical fire with fire; his son is to be both beggared and buggered, to 'fall into sore labour' (7.193-4). The threat of male sexual violence is made explicit in the knight's dealings with the arresting officers, Curtalax and Hanger, men who make for 'villainous loads on gentlemen's backs' (7.140). They are, like Proditor, figured as 'ravens' who feed on sexual carrion (7.192). Their names, meaning a short broad sword and the loop from which it is hung, suggest their own homoerotic relationship: the sergeant 'know[s]' his yeoman intimately (7.161-2).[15] Sir Davy takes a perverse glee in charging them to be 'as dogged to him as your office allows'; they promise to 'charge him upo'th' back, sir' (7.157, 173). The culinary pun, 'put mace enough into his caudle' (spice to flavour a stew) is particularly vicious; officers carried a mace as a weapon, here the phallic object in a projected male rape (7.174). This 'nasty plot' (10.44), a sodomitical fantasy with incestuous overtones, has the same feverish invention of the Mad World burglary scene, and the same sour relish for sexual violence as in The Phoenix. What Middleton calls the play's 'light-colour summer stuff' (Epistle, 10), is changed here for darker apparel.

  13. The sexual sadism found in the comedies brings me to Middleton's tragic take on the homoerotic theme. In A Yorkshire Tragedy (1605) he staged a notorious contemporary murder case,[16] employing much of his familiar innuendo: 'beggary', 'bonds', 'execution', 'overthrow', 'angel'. The latter is highlighted by both Leinwand and Cook as a homonym for 'ingle' (1994: 56; 2006: 20n34). Angels were gold coins, and the play's protagonist, an unnamed Husband, having succumbed to 'Dice, and voluptuous meetings', has gambled away everything: 'Pox o'th' last throw, it made/ Five hundred angels vanish from my sight./ I'm damned, I'm damned. The angels have forsook me' (2.7, 25-7). It is a quintessential Middletonian pun. The angels are at once coins, celestial beings and catamites, a trinity that encapsulates the playwright's lasting preoccupation with sodomy, penury and redemption – or damnation. The play starts in innuendo-laden comic mode, in which an allusion to the rash of new knights created by James I – 'They call it 'knighting' in London, when they drink upon their knees' (1.76-7) – contains, I suspect, a joke about fellatio. I am uncertain as to whether this exchange sets the tone for a ghastly tragic spoof, or whether Middleton lures his audience in with genial satire, before turning to a kind of theatre-of-cruelty. However it is played – either as lurid high-camp or strident moral outrage, or a blend of the two – we see the protagonist in the grip of a compulsion affecting all those around him. His wife bewails what she considers 'beggary of the soul as of the body' (2.37). We hear that his brother at university, standing surety for him, faces arrest and violence, perhaps of a sexual nature, in prison: he is 'Bruised with an execution for my sake!' and 'in bond lies overthrown' (4.41; 8.74). The Husband, apparently possessed with diabolic force, overthrows his 'lusty servant' in what appears, symbolically, to be another vicious act of sodomy: 'He's so bruised me with his devilish weight/ And torn my flesh with his blood-hasty spur' (5.51-2).

  14. Most chillingly, the Husband is also a self-loathing father, ashamed of bringing his children to ruin: 'O beggary, beggary,/ To what base uses does thou put a man!' (2.52-3). Rather than let them suffer a life of shame, he decides to kill them, determined to 'scorn beggary' (4.112). Yet the children are 'killed… in beggary' (7.42). Does the first murder see child's-play horribly sexualised, as the father looms over his son: 'I cannot scourge my top as long as you stand so: you take up all the room with your wide legs' (4.94-6)? The staging, in which the father 'takes up the child by the skirts of his long coat in one hand and draws his dagger with th' other' (s.d. 4.97) equates the murder, perhaps, with an act of incest. It is difficult to be certain, but it seems to me that Middleton's use of 'beggary' is even more loaded and insistent here than in Michaelmas Term. The Husband, facing execution, ultimately repents and is readily (and troublingly) forgiven by his wife. The devil that possessed him 'glides' from his body (8.18). As with the purging of Tangle, and the comfort offered to the dying Dampit, we see a possible sodomite extended a measure of pity at the last, in spite of all his crimes or depravity. The guilty father condemns himself, however, on viewing his murdered children: 'But you are playing in the angels' laps/ And will not look on me/ Who, void of grace, killed you in beggary' (7.40-2). Their restoration to a state of innocence contrasts with his implied perdition. Then again, the Husband's vision of his children's salvation is complicated if we admit the angel-ingle pun. Does he retain a homoerotic vision of heaven, even as he accepts his own damnation? We need not see a sexual meaning here, of course; a straightforward (and didactic) repentance may be all that is intended. But I am inclined to see the sexual and spiritual readings as coterminous. Whilst A Yorkshire Tragedy is probably too frenetic and undeveloped to truly move an audience, the play nevertheless points to the powerful treatment of sexual compulsion in the face of damnation found in Middleton's later tragedies.[17]

  15. Women Beware Women (1614, or 1621) is not a play to which the homoerotic theme is central. Nevertheless, the tragedy prompts a good deal of troubled laughter, particularly surrounding the Ward, a rich and idiotic young heir, and Sordido, his serving-man, who maintain an often sodomitical discourse.[18] Their entrances with 'trap-stick' and 'shittlecock' (s.d. 1.2.87, 2.2.79) are suggestive, I believe, of recent homoerotic exertion, 'games' that take place just offstage.[19] The Ward boasts of his sexual prowess with women (1.2.99) but it seems his actual erotic encounters are with men. Again the metaphors suggest violent subjugation, such as the 'beating' with a phallic 'catstick' (cudgel) meted out to a fellow gent and his tailor (1.2.88-94). Amongst the concerns in the comic appraisal of Isabella, betrothed to the Ward, are whether she is syphilitic (the Ward himself has tell-tale 'foul skin') and whether she will indulge in anal sex: 'Can you play at shittlecock, forsooth?' (2.2.124; 3.3.88-9). Sordido points out the inevitability of sexual disease 'if we do nothing but beat at the bottom' (3.3.79-80). The Ward's part in the final revenge plot is to open a trap-door, dropping Hippolito to his death. Again we see homoerotic fantasy crowned with violence. The Ward wishes to play the part of Slander with 'a long contumelious tongue i'th'chaps' (cheeks) but this presents a sodomitical puzzle: 'how shall I rise up and let him down too, all at one hole?' (5.1.14-15, 19). In the end it is Guardiano, pander and performer of  'employments,/ Wanton or serious' to the Duke, who falls into a 'springe of his own setting' (2.2.230-31; 5.1.199). Guardiano's sexual proclivities are not fully explored, but his speech on 'advancement' ('I venture hard to find thee', 'I'll endure all') implies preferment based on homoerotic submission (2.2.403-8).[20] The manner of his death, impaled on a galtrop, a spiked weapon, is meant as sodomitical poetic justice. His fall, below stage, is to hell, the place from which, in a previous masque, there rose a 'devil with one eye… with a company of fireworks at's tail.' (5.1.8-9).

  16. So phallic a devil suggests that buggery here is again anything but redeemed, particularly when allied to abuses of power. Notions of sodomy and political 'advancement' tap into continued gossip surrounding James I. Memoirs, pamphlets and verse libels depicted the king's patronage of Bedchamber favourites as unnatural. This was increasingly so by the 1620s, when George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, became enormously influential. Sir Henry Yelverton compared the latter, in a scathing attack before the House of Lords in 1621, to Hugh Spencer, one of the infamous favourites of Edward II. James ordered both Yelverton's imprisonment and a clampdown on libellous publications. The king's 'genial and forgiving attitude toward the political imaginings of subjects' was, according to Curtis Perry, 'replaced by stern admonition and anger' (2000: 1074; 2002: 213). The veracity of such slanders and libels has been questioned, but they drew upon and shaped popular perception (Perry 2000: 1055-7, 1072). That this should be reflected in The Changeling (1621-2), Middleton's greatest work, written in collaboration with William Rowley, is no surprise; what is surprising, perhaps, is that the play's homoerotic implications have gone, as far as I am aware, almost entirely unremarked. Its blend of violence and sexuality has been widely discussed with much of the attention focussed, understandably, on Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores. Her death comes with what Richard Dutton calls 'one last frenzied act of adultery in the closet'; her climactic cries, 'O, O, O!' (5.3.139), have been construed as orgasm followed by the pain of stabbing (1999: xxx, 411). The killing of the maid, Diaphanta, is also figured in blackly comic erotic terms (here, just after a multiple clock-chime orgasm): De Flores fires 'a piece high-charged… to cleanse the chimney', signifying penis and vagina (5.1.45-6). But what of the play's first murder, that of Alonzo, which also concludes with another 'O, O, O!' (3.2.18)?

  17. The sexual possibilities of the killing have been touched on. Many have linked the 'secrets' of the play's castle (1.1.169) to those of Beatrice-Joanna's body; Nicholas Brooke describes the De Flores/Alonzo journey into the depths of the castle as a 'journey through the organs of a female body to an anal death, and a descent into hell' (1979: 85). This is astute, but I would add that the castle symbolises, equally, the male body. Like the excremental dungeon in Marlowe's Edward II, the bowels of Vermandero's castle are, here at least, masculine; the murder in both cases is a sodomitical enactment. Middleton and Rowley follow their source, written by John Reynolds,[21] for many details of the killing. They make, however, a minor but significant change. Reynolds shows Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores subtly spreading rumours, after the murder, that their victim 'was seen take Boat, and went (as it was thought) to take the air of the Sea' (40), a red herring to explain his disapperance. In the play, however, this detail is provided by Alonzo himself when he tells De Flores 'All your master's house/ Imagine I ha' taken a gondola' (3.2.3-4). Why should Alonzo lie? Why cover up the liaison with De Flores? The only reason I can think of is that theirs is a sexual assignation – perhaps not their first one either, given the familiarity and anticipation with which Alonzo greets 'kind De Flores' at the close of Act 2. When Tomazo later reminds De Flores 'My brother loved thee well,' the servant's response about the purity of this love is surely ironic (4.2.44). The conversation as Alonzo is shown the castle is a mélange of standard double entendres (desire, rising, thrust, things) and homoerotic innuendo, given a murderous tenor by De Flores (2.2.156-3.2.18). The 'somewhat narrow' passages (anal) make access difficult for men bearing weapons (phallic). De Flores requires a 'large key' (phallic) to fit the 'postern' (small gate, anal). The ostensible purpose is to view the 'full strength of the castle', a well-endowed vista of 'ordnance' and 'sconce' (all phallic). De Flores exhorts Alonzo to 'keep your eye straight' (phallic) upon these objects, with his back turned in anticipation. The first attack, from behind, sees the large key used as a club; penetration follows with a 'naked Rapier'. Finally, De Flores cuts off the finger (phallic) stuck fast in the ring (anal).

  18. The reasons for this final act are various, but one is, I believe, a symbolic revenge. De Flores, born a gentleman but 'thrust… out to servitude' (2.1.48), is seen by Swapan Chakravorty as an 'exiled insider' seeking 'social revenge' (1996: 151, 158). Just what his servitude might entail is suggested by Tomazo's 'the least occasion/ Would give me game upon him' (5.2.14-15). This line has puzzled some editors (see Dutton 1999: 408), but I take it to mean that Tomazo could find any excuse to create a sexual opportunity with De Flores. I will consider an important encounter between the two later, whilst noting for now that a serving-man is seen, as in the comedies, as fair game. The portrayal of Spain as a depraved society, both here and in A Game at Chess, has often been noted. Annabel Patterson suggests 'The Changeling permitted its original audience to intuit a connection between Spanish/Catholic interests, crimes of violence, and sexuality out of control.' (2007: 1635). The homosexual element has, however, gone unrecognised. The Piracquo brothers are not, I believe, alone in their homoerotic impulses. Vermandero's recollection of De Flores, 'Dog at a house of fire, I ha' seen him singed ere now,' could well be a sodomitical joke, extended by the fond 'Ha, there he goes' when the serving-man discharges his 'piece' (5.1.94-95). 'Dog' was a slang term for a sodomite or male prostitute.[22] We may also hear a sexual invitation in Vermandero's offer of a reward: 'De Flores, call upon me' (5.2.124).

  19. Some commentators see The Changeling as a satire not just on the Spanish but also on the court of James I. The virginity test and the phrase 'he discharges murderers at the gate' (1.1.219) have been linked to the Overbury scandal (O'Callaghan 2009: 155-7; Patterson 2007: 1633-35). Such echoes of recent events lead Patterson to consider Vermandero as a possible representation of the king. She rightly cautions against overly schematic views of the play as political allegory, but a homoerotic reading may tend to support this view. The secrets of Vermandero's castle, usually seen as Beatrice-Joanna's, are also, I believe, very much the governor's own. The playwrights add a significant detail, again not in their source, in the first meeting of Vermandero and Alsemero. We learn that the former knew the latter's deceased father, that they became close as youthful soldiers and remained lifelong friends. Vermandero's pleasure at this chance meeting is apparent: 'My best love bids you welcome' (1.1.174). Beatrice-Joanna, accustomed to being called his 'best love', notes the apposite irony: she does indeed welcome Alsemero. But is Vermandero's phrasing more than mere formality? Was John de Alsemero indeed his 'best love'? Might we hear sexual innuendo in Vermandero's claim that, as a soldier, he 'came behind him' (1.1.183)? Turning to the forthcoming marriage, Vermandero praises the 'fair and noble ornaments' (1.1.218) of Alonzo, an unexceptional phrase perhaps, but 'ornaments' is used with overt sexual meaning in Women Beware Women (2.2.309). Vermandero continues: 'He shall be bound to me,/ As fast as this tie can hold him; I'll want/ My will else' (1.1.222-4). This statement has been commented on for its patriarchal insistence, the peculiar urgency of which is noted by Beatrice-Joanna in her first soliloquy: 'What's Piracquo/ My father spends his breath for?… He's so forward too,/ So urgent that way' (2.1.19-25). 'Bound' we have seen used in a sodomitical sense in Middleton's early work. Christopher Ricks, in a famous essay on The Changeling, noted the sexual meaning of both 'will' and 'forward' with application to De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna (1960: 294, 298-300). I would extend this reading to include Vermandero. The suggestion that he is pushing his daughter into marriage in order to advance a sexual favourite is outlandish. But perhaps it is not so far removed – the blood relationship aside – from what James I was rumoured to have done in aiding the marriage of his favourite, Robert Carr.

  20. The sexual nature of Alsemero is also open to debate. He has shown no previous interest in women (1.1.36-9) and loves Beatrice-Joanna's 'beauties' not for their own sake but 'to the holy purpose' (procreation), as a means of restoring himself to a state of innocence (1.1.1-12). His preference has been for a life of travel and adventure. This is a familiar enough situation in early modern texts; we need see nothing homoerotic in the descriptions of manly exertion (1.1.29-33), nothing bawdy in his servant's question, 'shall we board your trunks?' (1.1.46-7). But what of his loathing of 'a cherry', that symbol of female sensuality (1.1.128)?[23] Whilst Alsemero's tone could be seen as flirtatiously ironic, the playwrights hint, perhaps, at a genuine erotic aversion. We might detect some phallic innuendo in Alsemero's reference to valour as the 'honourablest piece about man' (2.2.27), and consider the sex-violence equation when his eagerly proposed duel with Alonzo is described as 'One good service' (2.2.21) – the play's relentless sexualising of 'service' is highlighted by Ricks (1960, 296-99). And there is something naggingly familiar in Alsemero's brief exchange with Vermandero at the start of Act 3.4 (1-10). Their talk is, ostensibly, gracious and melancholy. 'The fellow of this creature were a partner/ For a king's love' ought merely to signal Alsemero's desire for Beatrice-Joanna, praising an imaginary sister cast in her mould. But if 'fellow of' is taken as 'the man attached to' the line may be heard as a homoerotic come-on, just as Vermandero's seemingly poignant response, taken by many to refer to his dead wife, 'I had her fellow once', could be read as a sodomitical boast. With the line, 'I hear the beauty of this seat largely', we are back, surely, in the world of Sir Bounteous Progress.

  21. 'Nay, the fair understanding' says an exasperated Isabella of Lollio's incessant sexual interpretations – yet her very next phrase contains a further unwitting double entendre (4.3.46). With Middleton and Rowley we can never, it seems, assume a 'fair', or innocent, reading. There is no categorical evidence to 'prove' either Alsemero or Vermandero (and perhaps, by extension, James I) as homosexual. As mentioned earlier, there were political reasons for discretion. Yet I believe the evidence points to this conclusion. The play's ending was once seen as a restitution of moral order (Patterson 2007: 1632); more recently it has been viewed as unsettling in its all-too-easy purgation of Beatrice-Joanna's blood, its cosy sinister homosociality.[24] John Stachniewski, emphasising a Calvinist mindset, talks of a 'spiritual brotherhood' (1990: 240). A 1992 RSC production highlighted Catholicism as the key repressive force (O'Callaghan 2009: 151-3). But Alsemero's early vow to 'keep the same church, same devotion' (1.1.35) is concerned with worldly masculine pleasure.[25] The dramatists depict, I believe, a sodomitical cabal, its power based on sexual preferment and exploitation. It is worth noting that Alsemero follows Vermandero in his offer to reward De Flores. In my view, the latter is co-opted into sodomy (unlike some of the perhaps more willing servants of the comedies). Beatrice-Joanna wishes creation had 'formed me a man', envying men their 'freedom' and 'power' to 'oppose…loathings' (2.2.108-113). But De Flores does not feel thus empowered until Beatrice-Joanna's request. Clearly his main motivation in performing a murderous 'service' is to enjoy her sexually, but it also offers an escape from homosexual obligation. He certainly does not wish her to be a man: 'Nay, that's not it' (2.2.110). His anticipation for the murder, a blend of desire and antipathy, sounds undeniably homoerotic: 'the thought ravishes… I thirst for him' (2.2.133-4). His social revenge is also a sexual revenge.

  22. The heart of play's erotic pathology is, of course, the Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores relationship. But the brilliance of its psychosexual insight is not limited to them. Tomazo's soliloquy of 5.2 (1-25) depicts a tortured homosexuality. With his faith in 'fellowship' shaken by the loss of his brother, Tomazo sees 'honest De Flores' in a new light, as a 'deadly venomous' temptation, one who 'walks a'purpose by, sure, to choke me up,/ To infect my blood.' He considers him syphilitic, as did Beatrice-Joanna when considering his 'dog-face': 'I thought it had been worse' (2.2.81, 148). The sex-violence motif is maintained, with the penis as favourite sword. The tainted De Flores would 'poison any weapon/ That should draw blood on him'; the sword could never be used again 'in fight,/ In way of honest manhood' but must be thrown into a river. In other words, one sexual duel with De Flores would mean a lifetime of disease and abnegation. Yet Tomazo is, nevertheless, tempted: his fear of infection sounds close to sexual anticipation: 'Dost offer to come near and breathe upon me?' (5.2.26). De Flores comments on the contrariness of a man who 'yesterday appeared/ So strangely loving to me' (5.2.38-9). The mixture of attraction and repulsion, a self-confessed 'contrariety in nature' (5.2.13), together with an instinct that correctly links De Flores to the murder, leads Tomazo to draw an actual rather than metaphorical sword. Yet his act of homoerotic renunciation doubles back on itself: when De Flores responds in kind, the two men, swords drawn, form (in terms of the metaphor just developed) a homosexual tableau. Desire and denial share the same stance. Some have seen Middleton as a puritan moralist, but, as Leinwand argues, his approach is 'less moral than analytical' (2007: 336). Whilst there is a moral anger to The Changeling, the dramatists also look to explore a range of erotic compulsions and aversions. That these include the homoerotic should be recognised as a major element in the play's tragicomic mesh of appetite and fear, dominance and subjugation.

  23. It is worth noting that De Flores is shaken by the encounter with Tomazo too: despite his earlier vengeful satisfaction, he refuses to fight out of guilt (5.2.32), a guilt made clearer still by the appearances of Alonzo's ghost. The latter, in the dumb-show that opens Act 4, 'startles him, showing him the hand whose finger he had cut off''. To conclude my analysis of The Changeling, I will return to the mutilation of Alonzo's corpse – a grotesque coup de théâtre – and consider the symbolic resonance of the ring-finger. Rings are used to suggestive effect in a number of early modern plays. Middleton makes lubricious comedy of rings and fingers in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, for example. In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the exchange of rings between Portia, Antonio and Bassanio implies not only the latter's commitment to his bride, but also the relinquishing of any bond, whether financial or sexual, between the two men. The level of complexity found in The Changeling's ring-finger motif is perhaps unprecedented, however. De Flores gives the severed finger to Beatrice-Joanna as proof of the murder, but the act also stands as a parody of betrothal. The gruesome emblem suggests penetration by death. Beatrice-Joanna will lose her virginity not on the nuptial night, but to a pre-marital rape at the hands of the man who will go on to murder her.[26] For De Flores, in the homoerotic reading I have propounded, the removal of the ring-finger is a transitional moment: the symbolic castration betokens his bid to enjoy at all costs the object of his (heterosexual) desire, whilst simultaneously rejecting a life of sodomitical servitude. But this might not be the ring's only homoerotic significance. Beatrice-Joanna says of it, ''Tis the first token my father made me send him' (3.4.33). This, to my mind, begs a question: was the original betrothal between Beatrice-Joanna and Alonzo, or, in essence, between Alonzo and Vermandero? I believe that the latter should be admitted as a strong erotic possibility in what is perhaps the early modern era's most mordant satire.

  24. A Catholic Spain whose political and religious power is inextricably bound up with sodomy is most certainly depicted in Middleton's final surviving play, A Game at Chess (1624). 'Sodomy, sixpence' is the joke, it being one of the cheaper, and hence more prevalent, sins to be absolved in the Taxa Poenitentiara, the 'book of general pardons of all prices'; as the Black Knight (Gondomar) notes, the sum should be 'Ever on the backside of your book, Bishop' (4.2.83, 107-8). The White King's Pawn is enticed to switch allegiance with the offer of a cardinalship: 'There's an infallible staff and a red hat/ Reserved for you' (2.2.211-12). The phallic innuendo here is reinforced by the Black Knight's aside: 'There's a state-fig for you now' (2.2.215), a 'fig' being an insulting hand-gesture – the thumb thrust between fingers – to indicate sodomy. Here, one 'state' is looking to shaft the other. When the 'corruption' of the White King's Pawn is exposed, he looks to 'rest upon' the Black Knight for 'advancement', and is again proffered the 'strong staff… And the red hat' (3.1.259, 306-8). It is significant that the King's pawn should be tempted to treachery through sodomitical advancement, having been 'over-ripened by the beams of favour' in the English court (3.1.273). Spain is the chief target of Middleton's patriotic satire, but James as the White King is, true to the actual game of chess, shown as a relatively weak figure, in poignant thrall to his favourites. He describes the White Duke (Buckingham) as a 'most firm assistant' (4.4.97). The latter enjoyed a measure of acclaim during the 'brief spell of national unity' (Howard-Hill 1991: 285) that followed the collapse of the Spanish Match, the highly unpopular marriage plan for Prince Charles. The play reflects this, but not without irony. The White Duke openly acknowledges his 'flesh-frailty', albeit as part of an anti-Spanish ploy (5.3.123). We also see him take his Black counterpart at the end: a 'tansy-faced beloved,/ An olive-coloured Ganymede. And that's all/ That's worth the bagging' (5.3.212-14). The joke cuts both ways. Middleton, as Dutton puts it, 'treads dangerously on the nature of Buckingham's relations with King James' (2000: 153), though the innuendo is restrained in comparison with the salacious attack on Spanish sexuality.

  25. One of the play's most extraordinary scenes, Act 3.2, 'revolves almost entirely around sodomy and homosexual subjugation' (Dutton 1999: xiii) and is perhaps Middleton's most outrageous staging of homoeroticism. There has been no mistaking the nature of the discourse here, though the fact that it crowns a career-long preoccupation with sodomitical pleasure and violence has not been fully appreciated. One early copyist removed the scene from a manuscript version, perhaps on grounds of taste with a particular reader in mind (see Dutton 1999: xli). Gary Taylor, in The Collected Works, relegates the scene to 'Additional Passages' since, in his view, it was probably omitted in performance (2007: 763-7). Yet an eye-witness account of the Globe production notes a 'Spanish eunuch' as amongst those bagged at the end.[27] It is hard to see this referring to any character other than the Black Jesting Pawn, whose only significant appearance – and only chance to make a memorable impression – is in 3.2. The brief scene, coming at the mid-point of the play, is pivotal, showing the first 'taking' of a Black piece by White, though the latter is itself immediately taken. It also suggests that the sodomitical habits and predilections of the elite permeate all levels of society, on both sides. The pawns here are not designated a master, and seem to have a kind of independent existence, at one remove from the main game. The Black Jesting Pawn fantasises about taking a White Pawn, and making him 'do all under-drudgery' – only to be overpowered by an opponent and forced to 'do all the dirty drudgery/ That slavery was e'er put to' (3.2.1-2, 15-16). The comedy is full of scatological revulsion, concerning which pawn will besmirch the other, and when a Second Black Pawn arrives, a debate ensues about who will 'firk' whom (3.2.33-7).

  26. The scene is as sordid and scurrilous as any of its era. It also happens to be one of Middleton's greatest and most audacious passages, bringing a sodomitical discourse centre-stage at the Globe. The pawns' skirmish symbolises the wider international powerplay, in what Dutton calls 'a classic instance of political and sexual metaphors overlapping' (2000: 152). The chess pieces talk in two-tone sexual metaphors: 'I'd make him my white jennet when I pranced/ After the Black Knight's litter' and 'white quickly soils… get thee gone, I shall smut thee' (3.2.5-6, 12-13). There is pure poetry to this dirty verse: 'I'm taken like a blackbird/ In the great snow, this White Pawn grinning over me' (3.2.9-10). The game is visually replicated through the domestic, political and natural worlds. A raw comic vitality, of both word and action, creates laughter out of disgust, as the three pawns bond 'like a birdspit: a white chick/ Between two russet woodcocks' (3.2.32-3). The Black Jesting Pawn at the front of this phallic daisy-chain acknowledges his role as a 'Spanish eunuch': 'I shall have/ The worst on't, for I can firk nobody' (3.2.36-7). In a spirit of delirious high-camp, he draws them offstage together 'Like three flies with one straw thorough their buttocks' (3.2.39), the bestial imagery taking us ever further down the chain of being. Their shuffling march leads, ultimately, to hell, with the Black Jesting Pawn 'squelched and squeezed' by the 'Fat Black-Bishop' at the end, 'In the bottom of the bag' (5.3.188-91). Buggery is unredeemed, in moral and religious terms. Yet depravity and damnation is not the whole story. We see homoerotic pleasure and mutuality as the pawns 'draw together' (3.2.38), even as they vie for dominance. However debased or brutal these sodomitical grotesques may be, the anarchic humour, the sheer 'firking' energy and brimming inventiveness of Middleton's physical theatre, creates a buoyancy, a gaiety. Another late-career play, The Nice Valour (1622?), displays a similar ambivalence in scenes of violent homoerotic farce, especially the 'masque of kicks',[28] a masochistic dance of Aretinesque postures. We might sense a measure of amused tolerance in the playwright, a recognition of an illicit thrill, even as his satire appears at its most rancid.

  27. The 'furious embrace' detected by Bruce Smith in the young satirist is never left behind. Middleton enters the same 'spiral of power and pleasure' each time he returns to the homoerotic theme. Whether anything in his life accounts for this can only be a matter of conjecture. Taylor notes that for about fifteen years, from the age of seven, Middleton lived largely in all-male environments (2007: 38). Did he encounter the kind of pederastic authority figures he was to depict so frequently? The student-gull, Tim, in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613) declares that 'a wise man for love/ Will seek every hole; my tutor knows it' (4.4.10-11). In The World Tossed at Tennis, when a career as a fencing-master is under discussion, we learn ''Tis a poor living that's picked out of boys' buttocks' (146). Smith suggests that, despite legal and moral condemnation, 'structures of power in early modern England fostered the homosexual potentiality in male bonding' (1994: 72-3). Middleton's comic attack on numerous institutions – political, religious, legal, penal, educational, theatrical – often shows power structured on a sodomitical basis. It has long been felt that his early experience of a bitter inheritance battle, instigated by his step-father, Thomas Harvey, must inform his satire of the legal and commercial worlds. Financial conflict or extortion, often concerning law and inheritance, is persistently linked to sexual sadism throughout the earlier work, in figures such as Tangle, Falso, Quomodo, Shortyard, Follywit, Dampit, Sir Davy Dapper and the Husband of A Yorkshire Tragedy. There need not be a biographical reason for this preoccupation with beggary/buggery, but the obsessions of any great artist lead inevitably to speculation. One thing we do know is that Middleton's early years in London were spent 'daylie accompaninge the players', a phrase that, as Mark Hutchings notes, 'suggests rather more than playgoing, rather less than playwriting' (2011:25). This locates him at the heart of the city's nascent homoerotic subculture. It was an environment that seems to have provoked in him an extreme ambivalence: the alternating current of his satire continually switches between the snarling and the genial. The moral scourge tends to prevail, from Micro-cynicon to A Game at Chess, where sodomy is perceived as predatory and exploitative, whether in the city or at court. Yet there is a strong sense of engagement with the physical drives and the language of homoeroticism, a comic exuberance that might be said to embolden and incite even as it mocks. And there is insight and empathy too. In the character of Richard Easy, say, the dramatist addresses homoerotic pleasure and even hints at the possibility of love – something that lends a poignant quality to his comic gulling. Even some of Middleton's grotesques have a complexity, gripped by an erotic compulsion that overrides the fear of disease, penury or damnation.

  28. My surmises about a sustained and conflicted sodomitical discourse depend on the identification of recurring motifs that, when sounded one against another, help to locate a distinctive Middletonian pitch.[29] The dramatist's most subtle explorations of homoeroticism, of its major personal, social and political ramifications, are found in Michaelmas Term and The Changeling. The latter is drama that, in Chakravorty's phrase, joins 'public heights to subliminal depths' (1996: 15), and perhaps it should not be a surprise that the theme has gone unregarded in this particular work. No great art ever reveals all of its secrets. Middleton and Rowley, in a play about clandestine desire, conjure the hermetic process of the 'cunning poet' who 'brings all home/ Into one mystery, into one secret/ That he proceeds in' (3.3.139-42). Paul Mulholland notes that Middleton frequently uses 'mystery' in a sexually suggestive way (1987: 69n24). Whilst much of his innuendo concerns heterosexual desire, a sodomitical discourse is never far from view. To give a final example, we might turn to The Roaring Girl epistle, in which the dramatist recognises the appeal of 'well couched' innuendo to the readers of his plays. He inveighs, however, against a rival dramatist, an 'obscene fellow, that cares not what he writes against others, yet keeps a mystical bawdy-house himself, and entertains drunkards to make use of their pockets and vent his private bottle-ale at midnight' (24-7). One editor notes 'There seems almost certainly some sexual joke here, but I cannot reconstruct it' (Gomme 1976: 4). I propose that the joke – further 'venery' for the reader's delectation – alludes, once more, to an exploitation both financial and sexual, that the 'pockets' are anal, the 'bottle' phallic. The words 'mystical' and 'private' suggest a need for discretion that recalls the 'secret delight' of the creditors in A Trick. Middleton continues his censure, distancing himself from the 'obscene' hypocrite in terms that would not be out of place in antitheatrical polemic: 'such a one would have ripped up the most nasty vice that ever hell belched forth and presented it to a modest assembly' (27-9). The vice is, I suggest, sodomy. And the irony, one presumably not lost on its author, is that no other playwright of the era did more to present this perceived vice to assemblies, modest or otherwise, than Middleton himself.

[1] Sodomy was a crime punishable by death, though the statute was rarely enacted. See Smith 41-53.

[2] The pun also appears in Sir John Harington's translation of Ariosto, Book 34, stanza 77: Lords make 'large promises' to 'Ganimeds' and 'nought but beggerie insewth.'

[3] 'Spirit' may connote 'semen' (see entries in Partridge and Williams).

[4] See Smith 81-115 on homoerotic verse shared in manuscript by Inns of Court students.

[5] See, for example, the 'executions/ In wait for his due body' faced by Witgood at the hands of his creditors in A Trick to Catch the Old One (3.1.165-6). See also Herrick's poem 'Upon Love' (H-863), Fletcher's The Tamer Tamed (5.1.45) and the entry on 'execution' in Partridge.

[6] The line reference is to Kern Paster's edition. She is persuasive on retaining a phrase emended by other editors, suggesting that Shortyard mimics Easy here, as at 3.3.15-16.

[7] See, for example, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (3.1.39-59) and Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour (1.3.171-230, 1598 version).

[8] Middleton often returns to this theme. Martino, the corrupt justice's clerk in The Widow, interprets his own dreams of buttocks as signifying an opportunity to make money; his coded 'privy mark' to constables who cannot read warrants is a 'prick i'th' bottom' (1.1.10, 112-13)

[9] See note 12 below.

[10] The title perhaps alludes to James's poem 'Ane Metaphoricall Invention of a Tragedie Called Phoenix', on the life and death of his kinsman and favourite, Esmé Stuart, Duke of Lennox.

[11] We might wonder as well at Marlowe's decision to represent two homoerotic courts on stage, in Edward II and The Massacre at Paris, in wake of this visit.

[12] See entries on 'yard' and 'foot' in Partridge and Williams; see also Leinwand 1994, 56. A number of page-boys are given suggestive names in plays of the era, such as Cinedo in Jonson's Every Man Out Of His Humour and Catzo and Dildo in John Marston's Antonio and Mellida. The latter was also performed by the Children of Paul's, and contains jests based on the phallic meaning of 'foot' (3.2.29).

[13] The servants' professions concern social prestige, but are also significant in sexual terms: much homoerotic innuendo is attached to tailors and barbers in various early modern texts, and Hoard's excitement at employing a 'jolly huntsman and… bonny falconer' suggests that, like Falso, he values more than one kind of 'venery'.

[14] Cf. A Trick 'He a hole i'th' counter!' (4.3.24) and the reference to prison-cells as 'dog holes' (3.4.25) in The Puritan Widow's arrest scene (see also note 22 below).

[15] The names of the arresting officers in Anything for a Quiet Life, Fleshhook and Counterbuff, might have similar connotations. There are numerous arrest scenes in the Middleton canon, many of which have, I believe, sodomitical implications, particularly with reference to the 'catchpole tribe' of debt collectors (A Fair Quarrel, 1.1.286).

[16] See Wells 452 for the background, and for the debate over authorship of the play. I am with those who see Middleton as the sole author.

[17] Wells makes a persuasive case for the potential dramatic power of A Yorkshire Tragedy, quoting T. S. Eliot in support, 454-5.

[18] A similar pairing, Bergetto and Poggio, is found in John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore; Bergetto's wall-taking anecdote (2.6.66-78) has been discussed for its class implications by Jephson and Boehrer 10-11, but not I think as a Middletonian 'riddle' about male rape.

[19] Jowett's Oxford edition modernises shittle- to shuttlecock 'except where the context indicates a pun on shit' (see note to in the Oxford Companion). In my view, the pun is always in play.

[20] See Leinwand 1994 60-1 on the sexual implications of 'venture'.

[21] Reynolds' work (see bibliography) was published in 1621. The section adapted by the dramatists is History IV of the First Book ('A Spanish History').

[22] See Ostovich 50 and the entry for 'dog' in Williams. Yeoman Dogson looks 'a'th' backside' in The Puritan Widow (3.4.109-10). Dampit, in A Trick, first earns money through dog-fighting, setting 'dogs together by th'ears' (arse?) (1.4.19-20); another character, the First Creditor, states with voyeuristic pleasure 'I love a' life to see dogs upon men' (4.3.14-15). Once more, we see a suggestive link between financial gain and sadistic homoeroticism.

[23] See, for example, Thomas Campion's 'There is a Garden in her face' and the cherry-eating scene of John Day's The Isle of Gulls (3.2).

[24] It is easy to see why earlier commentators should interpret the end as recuperative: the reconciliation between Tomazo and Alsemero is a major change from the source text, which sees the execution of the latter for his treacherous killing of the former in a duel.

[25] Cf: 'They belong all one church' in The Phoenix (4.41-2).

[26] Nicola Barker and David Nicol argue forcefully that the pair's first sexual union should be seen in these terms, in their valuable critique of Freudian/romantic appropriations of The Changeling. Their point about 'post-Freudian critics in search of the all-important subtext' 37 must give pause to anyone advancing a new reading of the play's erotic configurations. Whilst I have some misgivings about what could be seen as Barker and Nicol's own feminist appropriations, I strongly endorse their call for readings based on 'the early modern terms inscribed in [the] playtext' 43.

[27] Dutton, whose edition includes the account from John Holles, also argues that the eunuch is probably the Black Jesting Pawn, 315-6 and Notes 439.

[28] The phrase is DiGangi's, who writes about The Nice Valour under its previous attribution to Fletcher, 144. See also Bromley on the theme of masochism in the play.

[29] This is the best way, I hope, of avoiding such pitfalls as those identified and challenged by Barker and Nicol (see note 26).

Works Cited


Unless otherwise indicated in the text, Middleton line references are to Thomas Middleton, The Collected Works, used in conjunction with Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture: A Companion to the Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).




 Critical Works






Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editors at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).