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A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
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Chapter One All Is True (Henry VIII)
The Unbearable Sex of Henry VIII
If I see a man that is Hot, Hairy, high-coloured, with a black thick curled head of haire, great veines, & a big voice, I dare be bold to say, that that man hath a hot and dry Liver, and his Generative parts are also of the same Temper; & that consequently he is inclined to lustfull desires. —James Ferrand, Erotomania, 170
Hot, hairy, and big. Were it not for the archaic language and suspicion of "lustfull desires," this passage from James Ferrand's treatise Erotomania (1645) could come from hairyboyz.com or any website devoted to "bears"—those chubby, bearded, and hirsute gay men who constitute a significant modern subculture. Nor was Ferrand the only premodern writer to figure an erotic—or is it a pornographic?—of pogonotrophy. Clement of Alexandria had argued that God adorned man "with a beard like a lion, making him tough, with a hairy chest, for such is the emblem of strength and empire." Marcus Ulmus contended in 1603 that "Nature gave to mankind a Beard, that it might remaine as an Index in the Face, of the Masculine generative faculty." In a similar vein, John Bulwer argued in Anthropometamorphosis (1654) that "shaving the chin is justly to be accounted a note of Effeminacy." Indeed, according to Will Fisher, the clean-shaven man in early modern England "quite literally becomes 'lesse man' or even a 'woman,'" a prejudice Fisher finds in Phillip Massinger's play The Guardian (1658). Massinger suggests that a husband without a beard is worse than an adulterer because the former risks being considered sodomitical; lacking facial hair, he was supposed incapable of sexual regeneration. And in the opinion of Johan Valerian (1533), the shaven face ranks its holder among "chyldren" and "gelded men"?—that is, the smooth, shaved, barely adolescent twink that is the current front-runner of gay desire.
For the contemporary bear lover, though, the happy hunting grounds that extend to the Lone Star Bar find a particularly rich den in early modernism. After a centuries-long chaetophobia inspired by the early Christian conviction that body hair was the mark of the Beast on fallen man, the fur flew back onto the faces of the sixteenth-century man. In English culture, the papa of these bears is Henry VIII, as shown most readily in Hans Holbein's famous portrait of him of 1540 (figure 1). Here Henry's face offers immediate satisfaction to the beard lover, both for what is there and for what is to come. Thanks to Henry's introduction of the beard to the English court, English Renaissance portraiture from Holbein on would be dominated by bearded figures. Bearded and bearish: The corpulent body in Holbein's canvas at least whets the appetite for the hairy chest that is metonymically suggested by the ermine draping over the king's shoulders and down across his nipples. The sashes under the belly, the sweep of the costume toward the remarkably genital knot of the belt, the right arm directing our gaze down across the stomach to the left hand placed tantalizingly on the hilt of a dagger—all of this leads viewers so inclined to fantasize about how long that dagger really is and what it might prick. With a remarkable and pointed clarity, the filigree of Henry's costume images his actual bodily flesh, a Henry stripped bare to become Henry the bear (figure 2).
Such a perverse reading of His Majesty's magisterial body is not beside the point in early modern figurations of Henry. Shakespeare opens Henry VIII with the spectacle of not one but two big, burly, kingly bodies on display. Moreover, Shakespeare gives them an erotic dynamism that the Holbein portrait can only hint at. The Duke of Norfolk begins the play by describing to Buckingham the famous summit at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in which Henry meets the equally large (and equally hirsute) King Francis I:
I was then present, saw them salute on horseback,
Beheld them when they lighted, how they clung
In their embracement as they grew together,
Which had they, what four throned ones could have weighed
Such a compounded one?
... Men might say
Till this time pomp was single, but now married
To one above itself.
This is the play's first spectacle of huge bodies growing together, melding or "marrying" into an undifferentiated one—the first, but certainly not the only. During Anne Boleyn's coronation in Act 4, we read that
That had not half a week to go, like rams
In the old time of war, would shake the press,
And make 'em reel before 'em. No man living
Could say "This is my wife" there, all were woven
So strangely in one piece. (4.1.78–83)
And at the baptism of the baby Elizabeth, we have the crowds turning the court into a version of Paris Garden ("a park for bear- and bull-baiting") to catch sight of the child, as if "some strange Indian with a great tool [has] come to court" (5.3.32–33). "Bless me," cries the Porter, "what a fry of fornication is at the door! On my Christian conscience, this one christening will beget a thousand. Here will be father, godfather, and all together" (5.3.33–36). If the great bellies of Act 4 vie for space with the great tool of Act 5, the effect is merely to embroider on the play's indulgence in swollen bodies entering strangely into one piece—women like phallic rams, great tools and great bellies producing many papas. Papas, and Papa Bears, for while the marriage of pomp and circumference at the Valley of the Cloth of Gold does not mention hair, we know it is covered in the stuff: Francis was one of the first European heads of state to sport a beard (figure 3), in defiance of medieval Christian practice, and Henry, in imitation (in identification? in desire?) of Francis, quickly followed suit, bringing the hirsute home to England. In this sense Shakespeare's play opens with something of a girth-and-mirth orgy, where "two kings" become "but one" (1.1.28–32) to beget a thousand beards across the English landscape.
If the invocation of two beefy, hairy men embracing each other into oneness makes my bear-loving imagination run wild, it also brings it up short. I remember, of course, that Henry VIII is the story of a man who marries six different women to produce a kingly heir, and that two of these women end up on the chopping block. When Henry VIII wants someone to give head, he does not have my sort in mind. Moreover, I remember that the gropefest at the Valley of the Cloth of Gold failed to produce any stable and meaningful allegiance between its two monarchs; this particular love story was doomed to failure. But it is precisely these two "failures" to produce a future that cement for me the necessity of reading Henry within the discourses of queer temporality and corporality. Henry's large, fecund body, his beard figuring the seminal overflow of his generative parts, his lustful desires, the sexual and political prowess that adheres to his regal body all figure impotence and castration, an inability to live up to the normative promises that Henry's body makes. How then might Henry VIII bear up under a sustained queer reading of its bearishness? How might those simultaneous signifiers of phallic excess and phallic failure help us to read an unregenerate queerness in Shakespeare's play? Let us begin again, with another bearish characteristic: fatness.
In an essay on fat children, ghosts, and animals, Kathryn Bond Stockton teaches us how to read for "sideways growth"—that is, how queer bodily contours and queer bodily acts often register a refusal to grow "up" (into normalcy, singularity, legibility) while nevertheless insisting on growing "out," "around," or "across" sites of meaning. Contemporary society, she contends, does not yet know what to do with the fat body other than to incorporate it into a pathologizing discourse of unsuccessful human development. Queers would do well, she suggests, to consider how sideways growth can figure a refusal of the strictures of normative development. Cast in other terms (those of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari), sideways growth may signal the significatory excesses of the rhizomic body, one that does not or will not align itself with the dictates of Oedipal health—that is, the imperative to grow up, straight and tall, with all the rights and normalcy pertaining thereto. While Stockton's preferred site for analysis of this anti-Oedipal, sideways growth is the fat child and the dog-loving lesbian, I suggest we consider the ursine as well. Given that the first English law prohibiting sodomy took effect under the reign of Henry VIII, and that it named as a crime the "abhomynable vice of buggery commyttid with mankynde or beaste," let us consider how mankind as beast—as bear—refuses to keep Henry VIII straight.
The list of male bodies that grow sideways in Henry VIII is as imposing as the bodies themselves. There is Henry of course, and his symbiotic Francis; but there is also Cardinal Wolsey, that "keech" (suet, "hunk of fat"; 1.1.55) with "unbounded stomach" (4.2.34) who "can, with his very bulk, / Take up the rays o' th' beneficial sun, / And keep it from the earth" (1.1.55–57); and from whose "ambitious finger" "No man's pie is freed" (1.1.52–53). Sexually speaking, the pie that receives Wolsey's ambitious finger is doubtless female, but his clean-shaven face, in obedience to a century of papal dictates, telegraphs a celibacy bordering on the catamitic or the gelded. And if a fat hairless body is not condemning enough, let us fantasize hair onto it, as Buckingham and Norfolk do, to complete his moral degradation. Wolsey is a "fox, / Or wolf, or both," says Buckingham (1.1.158–59), animal hair acting as metaphor for bestial, degraded behavior. What is most interesting for my purposes, though, is how Wolsey's courtly ambitions also get figured in terms of sideways growth: not just a horizontal bear body for our Wolsey, but also a sideways political growth that bespeaks lack of proper allegiance to the Oedipal, filial, class-based inheritance that constituted Tudor aristocratic propriety. Norfolk's chief complaint about Wolsey is that his power, in addition to being pernicious, is undeserved by someone of his class. This "keech" is, after all, the son of a butcher, and
There's in him stuff that puts him to these ends [political ambitions].
For being not propped by ancestry, whose grace
Chalks successors their way ...
[he] gives us note
The force of his own merit makes his way—
A gift that heaven gives for him which buys
A place next to the King. (1.1.58–66)
Not a proper Oedipal lineage propped by ancestry, then, but a sideways acquisition. The gifts of his own merit place Wolsey next to (not beneath) the king. Little wonder, then, that Wolsey should figure his undoing in terms of physical shrinkage and deflation. He has "ventured, / Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, / ... far beyond my depth" (3.2.359–62) and just as his "greatness is a-ripening, [Fortune] nips his root, / And then he falls" (3.2.358–59). But it is not Fortune that nips this boy's root, it is Papa Bear. Henry breaks the wanton Wolsey's bladder, removing a "load," a "burden / Too heavy" from the cardinal's shoulders (3.2.384-86). A grandeur gained sideways has been too much for Wolsey's king to bear.
This anti-Oedipal charge bears weight elsewhere in Henry VIII. As Wolsey levels against his successor, Thomas Cranmer, the accusation that Cranmer has not risen to his position of power so much as he "hath crawled into the favor of the King" (3.2.104), we get a sense of the potbelly calling the kettle black. And according to the (possibly fallacious) testimony brought against the Duke of Buckingham, such sideways acquisition may also characterize Buckingham's pretensions to the throne should Henry "without issue die" (1.2.135). But perhaps the most notable sideways growth, the most anti-Oedipal position in the play, belongs to Henry himself. In a passage that would make psychoanalytic readers of Hamlet green with envy, Henry decries his almost-but-not-quite Oedipal union with Katherine, the princess "dowager, / Sometimes our brother's wife" (2.4.177–78). "My conscience first received a tenderness, / Scruple, and prick," the king tells Wolsey, when the Bishop of Bayonne wonders whether Henry's daughter, Mary, is the legitimate offspring of a man married to his brother's wife (2.4.167–68). Is Henry properly a father (and Mary his direct, vertical descendent), or is he more like an uncle, constituted by a sideways relationship to his own brother's wife?
This respite shook
The bosom of my conscience, entered me,
Yea, with a spitting power, and made to tremble
The region of my breast. (2.4.178–81)
Let us leave aside the entering, pricking, and spitting, the shaking bosoms and trembling breasts, to focus instead on what gets accomplished by this entrance into Henry's already capacious and sensitive body (at least according to the logics of Shakespeare's history play). From this anti-Oedipal union comes not only a crisis of sexual subjectivity but also a new marriage, the birth of Elizabeth I, the reformation of Catholicism's hold over the English monarchy, and the eventual establishment of the Church of England. That is quite a growth to come from the failure of reproduction—or, rather, from a reproduction that fails to authorize itself as legitimate.
Excerpted from Shakesqueer Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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