Current Issue Article Abstracts
Fall 2019, Vol. 19.4
Introduction: Early Modern Trans Studies
Simone Chess, Colby Gordon, Will Fisher
When it comes to trans politics, one pervasive assumption can be found broadly diffused through such disparate media as pop culture and evangelical sermonizing. This assumption is present in reactionary conservatism as much as left-wing scholarship: that trans people are a recent phenomenon, the product of cutting-edge medical technology and manifesting a psychological complexity that would have been inconceivable before the advent of modernity. The essays collected here take aim at the misguided supposition that transition was unthinkable until the development of hormone therapies and surgical interventions that, in some quarters, define trans experience.
Toward a Trans Philology
This essay charts the circuitous trajectory of the words "transfeminate" and "transexion" as they travel from their textual origin, Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), through various lexicons, both early modern and modern. Thomas Blount's Glossographia (1656) defines "transfeminate" as "to turn from woman to man, or from one sex to another," a definition that subsequent lexicographers repeat until 1883, when Charles Annandale's revision of John Ogilvie's The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language inverts Blount's definition and defines the word as "to change from a male to a female." The essay argues that the inversion of the definition of "transfeminate" is symptomatic of an epistemological shift in the sex/gender system in the late nineteenth century, one that rendered the notion of trans-femininity possible. Juxtaposing this lexical shift with the contemporaneous sexological work of Havelock Ellis, the general editor of the original Mermaid Series of non-Shakespearean early modern English drama, the essay argues that recent "new" and "queer" philologies are key tools for understanding the history of transgender. The essay thus offers some conceptual and methodological propositions for a movement toward a specifically trans philological practice—one that can, in particular, confront the intertwining of the philological history of "trans" with both early modern and modern genres of racism.
Transgender Capacity in Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton's The Roaring Girl (1611)
The essay proposes nine philologically driven strategies for enlivening the transgender capacities circulating in The Roaring Girl. It proposes a trans-hermeneutic for reading the soma-semantics of gender and for seeing the ways in which, at the semantic level, the play refuses to produce classificatory clarifications regarding gender. Methodologically, the essay practices critically kaleidoscopic engagements with the play's gender-expansive figurations, directing attention to the processual and temporally on-going nature of gender non-conformity. Animating the transgender capacities of The Roaring Girl entails both thinking with the period's own logics of gender non-conformity and reexamining the utility and limitations of past scholarly evocations of hermaphroditism as an epistemological framework for characterizing the titular character. The article concludes with a re-reading of the triangulated kissing scene, arguing that it directs attention to as-yet open questions regarding trans-erotics on the early modern stage, and that silent editorial interventions have risked blunting transgender capacity on the printed page.
This article argues that Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) and Lucy Hutchinson's Order and Disorder (1660–4, publ. 1679) share an interest in the "common ground" out of which human beings are made, an indifference to any ontologically meaningful status for human sexual difference, and creative investments in the transubstantial, rather than fixed or bounded, capacities of human bodies. While critics have addressed the relationship between the mobile and intra-active materialism of Milton's created universe and his radical sense of angelic and human gender and sexuality ("for among unequals what society/Can sort"), comparatively little attention has been paid to Hutchinson's similarly vitalist and anti-dualist vision of creation, let alone her equal indifference, if not outright resistance, to any claim for the primacy or relevance of sexual difference as a defining or ontologically meaningful aspect of the human story. Yet Order and Disorder continually draws attention to the ways in which human bodies are part of a transubstantial and transhistorical materiality, and to the ways in which sexual difference is written as a form of tyrannical control. A trans* reading of these two poems invites us to consider them not as his and hers versions of the creation story, nor as etiological stories of sexual difference and hierarchy, but rather as similar projects of Christian materialist philosophy, each of which envisions the softened boundaries of embodied selves.
Transdevotion: Race, Gender, and Christian Universalism
Melissa E. Sanchez
This essay examines biblical and early modern discourses of Christian universalism promising the incorporation of racialized and gender-nonconforming believers. One such figure is the eunuch. In biblical and premodern thought, eunuchs would have brought together gender nonconformity and racialized difference as figures in Western Christian writing for the miraculous potential of divine grace. The article emphatically takes the eunuch not as an ancestor of the modern nonbinary or transgender person, but rather as a historically and geographically specific instance of the violent erasure that occurs when racialized and gender-nonconforming persons are treated as figures of the particularity that Christian universalism (or neoliberal inclusivity) transcends. The valorization of the fair male body is especially pronounced in early modern devotional lyrics, which draw upon biblical depictions of transdevotion—the ecstatic transcendence of the black and gender-nonconforming body to achieve a white and masculine soul—to conceptualize the experiences of faith, penitence, and salvation. This kind of poetry reveals the imbrications of racial and gender nonconformity that provide the parameters of universalist discourses past and present.
Early Modern Eunuchs and the Transing of Gender and Race
This article explores various early modern figurations of the eunuch as a part of trans history as they featured prominently in the Ottoman court and on the English stage. It specifically focuses on the figure of the black eunuch within the gender and racial economy of the Mediterranean world in which not all eunuchs were marked as the same. The Ottomans maintained and promoted the visibility of eunuchs, and contributed to the proliferation of the eunuch imagery in early modern Europe. The Ottomans also separated eunuchs racially as black and white. In parallel to this separation emerged an essentializing anti-black racism in the Ottoman elite's writing that relegated black Africans to the bottom of an established racial hierarchy while marking whiteness as the ideal. These figures further circulated within a racialized hierarchy throughout Europe via chronicles, travelogues, and stories, and eventually appeared on the English stage as well-known oriental theatrical figures. This essay shows that eunuchs of the past not only denaturalize dichotomous gender models and upset phallocentric gender signification, they also illustrate how gender and race are mutually constitutive in the making of normative bodies on a global scale.
The pervasive figure of the Amazon cannibal woman in early modern travel writing is depicted as animalistic, hyper-sexualized, and predominately a racialized "other." Using early modern travel literature like Sir Walter Raleigh's The Discoverie of Guiana and the illustrations of Theodor De Bry, this essay argues that the Amazonian cannibal woman is a transmasculine figure, serving as a platform for white European thinkers to reshape their ideologies around race and gender. Through trans and critical race theory, this essay reimagines early modern representations of indigenous women as part of the work of recovering transhistoricity. By taking up intersectional feminist calls to attend to gender as an inherently racialized project, this essay considers travel writings and visual materials as a space in which white European ideals of gender and sexuality can be constructed through the vilification of (and desire for) people of color's bodies and behaviors.
This essay places into conversation early modern trans studies and critical plant studies. It theorizes a transplant poetics that accompanies and expands upon the tranimal in trans studies. It identifies as vegetable blazons early modern poems that employ plant figures to depict the human form. It further explores those traditions in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and in the portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Both examples of transplant poetics cross human flesh with vegetable figure; they unsettle typical coordinates of gender presentation; and they put a halt to the cyclicality of the seasons by arranging the produce of all four seasons simultaneously. Transplant poetics thus expresses these faces of trans embodiment as still life.
Early Modern Tranimals: 57312*
This essay analyzes 57312*, a seventeenth-century manuscript that is part of the British Library's additional manuscript collection, as evidence of trans experience in the past. Its design includes a series of images of humans and animals that change and transform through manipulation of the flaps of its parchment. In this way, 57312* is part of what Jacqueline Reid-Walsh identifies as the history of playable media; its content, however, deviates from these traditions in unique and surprising ways. Combining Protestant ephemera with images drawn from bestiaries, 57312* does not reflect the norms and traditions invoked in these source materials. Its movable images provide evidence of what Eva Hawyard and Jami Weinstein identify as tranimality. Tranimality signals postmodern and posthuman states of being that resist historically defined categories of difference; tranimals are posthuman, but because their affective work, their representational significance, and their social agency stem from the very frameworks of harm that they resist, they are often intertwined and attached with trans experience. The pliability and design of 57312* operates in this way and thus participates in an expansive history of gender.
This article offers a new interpretation of John Webster's tragedy The Duchess of Malfi (ca. 1613). It treats The Duchess of Malfi's stable of creatures, which includes grave-robbing werewolves, hermaphroditic hyenas, and vermiculated corpses, as an early experiment in trans-animality that emerges in the text's fixation on prodigies. According to religio-medical tracts of the Renaissance, prodigies were portentous signs of divine anger that included sweating statues, speaking animals, human-animal hybrids, and monstrous births, particularly hermaphrodites. As rigid distinctions between gender roles become unmoored, the category of the human also frays, a process culminating in Ferdinand's descent into hysterical lycanthropy. With an eye to the creaturely transformations threaded through the text, this article considers how the play's hermaphroditic imagination erodes the boundaries between human and nonhuman forms of life to explore what Mel Chen calls "the transness of animals."
This article argues that Helkiah Crooke's 1615 Mikrokosmographia provides early modern trans theory, and trans theory more broadly, with a unique way of understanding the sexed nature of material bodies. While much of trans theory has returned to the material body in order to interrogate its relationship to a constructed or felt sense of self, these theories tend to see the material as subordinate to more malleable immaterial forces. They view the materials of the body as containing possibilities for a new politics, but only possibilities that emerge when bare material is used in relation to gender expression or self-conception.
Crooke, on the other hand, takes bodily materiality as his primary focus and, by not centering agency, provides a more radical theorization of bodily materiality for trans studies. Ultimately, this article sees Crooke's discussions of sexual distinction, which look to the unruliness of materiality itself, as allowing trans studies to move into a place where "trans" itself becomes indistinguishable from "cis," where male and female are revealed not to be performed identities buttressed by embodiment but instead positions untethered from any distinct political or embodied position.
Queerness, especially in performance, can be covert, unwritten, ephemeral. And yet it is legible to certain audiences and readers, some of the time. Drawing on the concepts of the ephemera and residue of queer and camp performance articulated by Jos. Mu.oz, this essay argues that certain boy actors who performed important female roles on the early modern stage later carried a "queer residue" with them into their adult careers, often performing trans feminine, androgynous, or otherwise queer "men's" roles that carried their gendered performance history into new plays. Young boy actors have long been at the center of discussions about male-male attraction and androgyny, but evidence from adult casting shows that some boy actors in early modern England were especially nonbinary, and that they did not always grow out of these trans genders. Using the careers of Richard Sharpe, Richard Robinson, and Edward Kynaston as case studies, this essay finds evidence that their on-and off-stage personas informed the queer performances they staged throughout their careers. More than just claiming any particular individuals as trans ancestors, these case studies offer a method for reading theater history with a deeper recognition of the lingering ephemeral residue of queer personas, performances, and pleasures that inform that history.
Shakespeare's plays have long been viewed as a space where the boundaries of binary gendered sex, sexuality, and desire become murky. However, the contemporary social justice call for trans/gender-inclusivity has been ambivalently integrated into standing conventions of the Shakespeare theater. This essay close reads reviews and advertising materials to argue that contemporary Shakespeare performance is space in which a public makes meaning of gender nonconformism; as such, it is vital for performance institutions to become self-aware of their role in potential education or misrecognition. Recent productions at the African-American Shakespeare Company, the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and the California Shakespeare Theater offer examples of complex and holistic strategies for engaging transgender themes through staging, casting, and outreach programming.
"Perhaps John Lyly was a trans woman?": An Interview about performing Galatea's Queer, Transgender Stories
Emma Frankland, Andy Kesson
This is a discussion between the UK theater maker Emma Frankland and early modern scholar Andy Kesson of their upcoming production of John Lyly's Galatea, which they have been exploring with a cast of queer, transgender, Deaf, and racially diverse performers from a range of performance backgrounds often excluded from classical theater. This dialogue takes the form of a reflective two-way interview as they move toward a full production of the play, and encompasses their focus on inclusivity, the play's queer potential, and the importance of getting practitioners and scholars into creative dialogue in which both sides are equal parts of the conversation. As such, this feature in the special issue is not a traditional scholarly article, but an attempt to represent in print a live conversation about a work-in-progress production.
Passing to América: Antonio (Née María) Yta's Transgressive, Transatlantic Life in the Twilight of the Spanish Empire by Thomas A. Abercrombie (review)