Beowulf: A Cautionary Love Story

At an initial glance, Beowulf may strike a reader as entirely devoid of romance and sensuality. The heterosexual conventions seen in other ancient epics: marriage, heterosexual sex, and pregnancy are largely invisible, though we know that they exist; the marginal presence of wives and the survival of the warrior tribe’s lineage provide evidence of heterosexual relationships. These relationships are largely understated and marginal. (Lees, 140) At a second glance, it becomes clear that Beowulf is not devoid of sensuousness at all; the most sensuous sections of Beowulf are simply not classic scenes of heterosexual romance, but scenes of violence and power dynamics. The homoerotic undertones of Beowulf can be read as evidence of the epic’s warrior culture’s valuation of men, particularly of physicality of the male body. The most emotive and sexual scenes are depiction of battles and the scenes between king and warrior. The language in these scenes reveal what is most valued in the warrior culture of Beowulf. While the epic celebrates male-male relationships, warrior culture, valorous deeds, and masculine power, the ending of the epic raises questions about those very same cultural practices. Beowulf’s failure to produce a biological heir, and his misguided determination to do battle even after he has aged results in the destruction of his kingdom. (Lees, 141) His adherence to the value system of his culture lead to the demise of his people. The narrative of Beowulf reads as both a celebration and criticism of a patriarchal warrior culture.

The most overtly sexualized scenes occur when Beowulf is engaging in battle. While these scenes are particularly action packed, these scenes are also narrated with sensuous language that is largely absent in the rest of the narrative. In his fight with Grendel, Beowulf is unable to penetrate him with his sword, “[The] best iron in the world, the sharpest blade, /could not harm him, the evil demon, /not touch him at all.” (Beowulf, 95) While the sword acts as a surrogate for the penis, penetration would signal conquest. Because Beowulf’s proxy phallus is unable to pierce Grendel, Beowulf fights Grendel with his bare hands. “That Hygelac’s kinsman, the bold-hearted man, / had him in hand. It was hateful to each/ that the other lived. / The terrible creature took a body wound there; a gaping tear/ opened in his shoulder; tendons popped, / muscle slipped the bone. Glory in battle / was given to Beowulf.” (Beowulf, 95) This “gaping tear” seems to represent the forceful creation of a vagina. Because Beowulf could not penetrate Grendel with his phallic sword, he entirely feminizes Grendel. This battle reads much like a rape scene. The same is true of the following battle scene with Grendel’s mother.

This scene is particularly striking because it is the most intense female-male interaction in which Beowulf participates. Initially Grendel’s mother is portrayed as a lesser opponent to her son, yet her battle with Beowulf is much more drawn out and dramatic. (Puhvel, 81) This fight also has distinctly sexual undertones. (Acker, 708) The importance and value of the scene is highlighted with incredibly sensual and active language: “Now that he was battle-furious, / [he] threw up his opponent so she fell to the ground. / Up again quickly, she gave him hand-payment / with a terrible crush, again grabbed him tight.” (Beowulf, 139) This blow-by blow fighting is incredibly different from the fight scene with Grendel. The Grendel-Beowulf scene only lasts a few lines before he is defeated. (Puhvel, 82) In that scene Beowulf is very much the aggressor and conqueror, while Grendel seems to be a more passive party. In contrast, Grendel’s mother tries several times to penetrate Beowulf. “She sat on her hall-guest and drew her broad knife /a sharp weapon, to buy back her son, / her only kinsman. Across his chest / lay the iron net; it saved his life / as she hacked and stabbed, would give her no entry.” (Beowulf, 139) In this case, Beowulf proves impenetrable and thus maintains his masculinity and power. His opponent does not prove as lucky,

“Then he saw among the armor a victory bright blade / made by the giants, an uncracking edge, /…longer and heavier than any other man / could ever have carried in the play of war-strokes, /…The bold Scylding drew it from its magic scabbard, /savage in battle-lust, despairing of life, / angrily raised the shearer of life-threads, / swung hard on her throat, broke through he spine, / halved the doomed body.” (Beowulf, 139)

Beowulf succeeds in entirely penetrating her body, to the point that he exposes her womb. In order to do so he uses a sword of giant proportions. While Grendel’s mother is supposedly a woman, her monster status brings into question the physicality of her sex. She is described as “in the likeness of a woman,” (Beowulf, 127) which suggests that her sex is not definite. Thus, this cannot be read as a firmly heterosexual encounter.
It is clear by the sensual nature of both scenes that success in physical battle was valued and celebrated in this warrior culture. Deeds won a warrior respect and power. (Drout, 202) In both of these battles, the warrior body is treated as conqueror or conquered, penetrator or penetrated. Valor and strength, both traditionally masculine traits, are the characteristics valued by this warrior society. While men are more highly valued in this culture, their lives are constantly at risk, their strength and valor constantly tested. These men have to continently reaffirm their value to society or die. Beowulf earns his position and right to rule through these deeds. (Drout, 202)

Arguably, the most important male-male bond in Beowulf is between Beowulf and Hrothgar. (Fox, 205) This relationship highlights the two most highly valued men in a warrior society: the king and his champion. The scenes depicting Hrothgar and Beowulf are emotionally rich in comparison with the majority of the narrative. When Hrothgar bids farewell to Beowulf, we observe a man acting without emotional reserve.
“Then that good king, of a noble race, / great Scylding prince, held that best thane / round the neck and kissed him; his tears ran down, / streaked his gray beard. Wise in his age, / he expected two things, but one more strongly / that never again would they look on each other / as in this brave meeting. That man was so dear / that he could not withhold those deep tears; / fixed in his heart by the bonds of thought. / a deep felt longing for the beloved man / burned in his blood.” (Beowulf 157-159)

There are certainly homoerotic undertones in this passage. It seems that Hrothgar desires the body of Beowulf. However this may not be a sexual desire, rather a desire for him to have that body as his own. The warrior cultures values of strength and fierceness cannot be maintained in Hrothgar’s old age. Indeed, he is said to be a good king, until he fails to physically protect his people from Grendel’s attacks. (Drout, 201) “He was one king / blameless in everything, till age took from him / the joy of strength—a thing that harms many.” (Beowulf, 159) If Hrothgar had Beowulf’s strength in addition to his continued line through his sons, he would be considered the perfect king. Once Hrothgar’s physical strength has drained, he is no longer seen as a “blameless” king. This perception can help explain Beowulf’s own continuation of battle after he becomes king.
While Beowulf is a king, he fails to produce his own heir. While he may have married, there is no mention of a wife. It is possibly that Beowulf only nurtured homosocial relationships with men. Robin Fox explains the valuation of male-male bonds over male-female bonds in his chapter “In the Company of Men: Tribal Bonds in Warrior Epics”: “Males hunting or fighting together had to develop a special kind of trust that wend beyond simple friendship…the heterosexual bond was ritually downgraded…and exclusive male groups were formed…” (197) Certainly in Beowulf the constant threat of trespassing enemies required men to create strong bonds of trust and loyalty.

We can also see that the marriage bond is downgraded in favor for the king-warrior relationship. This is visible in Hrothgar’s “adoption” of Beowulf to which his wife, Wealtheow nervously objects. (Drout, 201) “Now, my Beowulf, / best of men, I will love you like a son, / cherish you for life. Keep this new kinship / deep in your heart. Nothing I own, / of my worldly goods, would I keep from you.” (Beowulf, 103) Hrothgar’s adoption gives Beowulf a chance of inheriting Hrothgar’s throne even though he is not of the bloodline. The fact that this is a possibly is made clear when Wealtheow protests, reminding Hrothgar he has blood relatives who are strong enough to rule. (Drout, 201) “Full well I know / of my gracious Hrothulf that he would rule / the young men in honor, would keep all well, / if you should give up this world before him. / I expect he will want to repay our sons / only with good once he recalls / all we have done.” (Beowulf, 117) Hrothgar fails to consult his wife and consider the implications this adoption could have on their sons. Hrothgar clearly values his alliance with a warrior more than his own marriage with his wife, or even his blood bond with his own biological sons. Their youth makes them deemed temporarily useless in a warrior culture, thus his relationship with Beowulf is more highly valued.

This tension between husband and wife reflects Fox’s views of the opposing desires of men and women in warrior culture: “The heterosexual bond was necessary for reproduction but…also as inimical to the male bond… There was…a constant tension between the demands of the reproductive bond and those of the male bond. Men would be ambivalent about the heterosexual bond insofar as it threatened the male association.” (197) While reproduction is necessary in this society to create a male heir, it also seems to weaken the male himself. Hrothgar must consider the affects his actions have on his family as well as attempt to do what is best for his kingdom. Beowulf avoids this tension by not having children, however this leads to the uncertain future of his own kingdom.

As Beowulf dies after his defeat of the dragon, he mourns the fact that he does not have a male heir: “Now I would want to give to my son / these war-garments, had it been granted / that I have a guardian born from my body / for this inheritance.” (Beowulf, 213) Because Beowulf only engaged, as far as we know, with the male warrior world, he had no means of producing an heir. He was by the standards of his warrior culture, a good king: “I ruled this people / for fifty winters, and there was no ruler / of surrounding nations, not any, who dared / meet me with armies, see out a battle, / make any onslaught, terror, oppression, / upon Geatish men.” (Beowulf, 213) While Hrothgar failed in his age, Beowulf, in the eyes of this culture, has succeeded by continuing to physically protect his people until death. Hrothgar has left sons and nephews who can take his place, while Beowulf must ask his fellow warrior, Wiglaf to succeed him. Whether Wiglaf will be acknowledged remains to be seen. All the treasure he earns in his defeat of the dragon that causes his death is burned with his body, further emphasizing the pointlessness and fruitlessness of Beowulf’s death. The treasure that could give life to his people is destroyed with the leader who failed to give life to a successor.

While this warrior culture encourages the marginalization of all things female, and the celebration of warriors, the two sides need each other in order to survive. Hrothgar seems to acknowledge and accept this. He has both a champion to protect his people and a wife to ensure the future of his kingdom. Beowulf does not seek a champion or a wife but continues to fight until he is at least in his sixties. He plays both the role of warrior and king without foresight. In Beowulf’s strict adherence to the highest values of his culture, he actually endangers the people whom he rules. The narrative of Beowulf reveals its two most important players, warrior and king through either sensual or emotive language. These two most valued roles are complicated by the values of warrior culture. Men must be able to protect their people physically and provide a lineage for in the future. Beowulf and Hrothgar provide us with two opposing examples of kingship, a wise yet weak king with sons, and a warrior king without foresight or heirs. Both kings, in an attempt to achieve value within the warrior culture, are unable to entirely succeed. Beowulf, who is celebrated in his own epic poem for his his valor and strength, leaves his people in a worse state that Hrothgar does, even though Hrothgar is viewed as a deficient aged king. Beowulf, in its celebration of a great warrior, illustrates the paradoxical and problematic value system within patriarchal warrior culture.

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Henry James and the Kiss of White Lightning

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Henry James’ The Portrait of A Lady is not a sensuous novel. James records the trials and tribulations of courtly love while rarely delving into the realm of the erotic. The reader enjoys 487 pages of Jamesian realism until the kiss between Caspar Goodwood and Isabel Archer arrests the reader like its own bolt of white lightning. Not only is this the first erotic moment in the novel, the rendering of the scene differs vastly from the description-rich, wordy James readers have come to expect. This scene is faltering and desperate, in both language and pacing, full of melodrama and ecstasy. James’ style is not longer ground in the firm reality of the rest of the novel, but has departed into the realm of the surreal. James’ sexuality has long aroused speculation. His perpetual bachelorhood has generated theories of homosexuality, celibacy, and asexuality.[1] While there is no definitive evidence to support either claim, the kiss at the end of The Portrait of a Lady can be read alongside both theories. While the language of revulsion and terror could be echoes of James’ own “preoccupation with homosexual secrets,”[2] the departure from reality in this scene could be evidence for James’ own lack of sexual experience.

The tension in The Portrait of a Lady stems from the protagonist, Isabel Archer’s incompatible desires for both goodness and freedom, as Tessa Hadley observes in her introduction to Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure: “She needs to be good, she needs to be free, and she can’t be both.”[3] The kiss at the end of the novel shows these two motives most clearly at odds. While she certainly desires Caspar, as he represents freedom and escape from her unhappy marriage, she cannot leave her marriage and remain a ‘good’ woman. The staccato nature of this scene shows Isabel’s internal battle with these struggles. While she desires to accept his help and promised freedom, “She had wanted help, and here was help; it had come in a rushing torrent. I know not whether she believed everything he said; but she believed just then that to let him take her in his arms would be the next best thing to her dying,”[4] she also is terrified of losing her goodness, begging him to leave her alone, “‘Do me the greatest kindness of all,’ she panted. ‘I beseech you to go away!’…‘As you love me, as you pity me, leave me alone!’”[5] Interestingly, James chooses this moment to insert himself. His assertion, “I know not whether she believed everything she said,” could be evidence that he relates to the plight of Isabel Archer.  It’s possible that Isabel’s struggle between goodness and freedom could represent his own suppression of homosexuality. Hadley argues, “James’s own ambiguously gendered position places him in distinction from but attraction to both differentiated genders in their heterosexual circlings and strugglings and play.”[6] While James is physically male, he may identify with this specific plight of this female character. James cannot be free to express himself sexually and still remain a respectable man, just as Isabel cannot free herself from a loveless marriage and still remain a lady.

James and Isabel are further connected by their complex relationship with father figures. While Mr. Archer is dead before the novel begins, his presence still remains, both in Isabel’s continued adoration of him, and in her search for a father in Gilbert Osmond. Alfred Habegger in his chapter, “The Fatherless Heroine and the Filial Son: Deep Background for The Portrait of a Lady” notes that Isabel is still wearing black at Gardencourt “more than a year after Mr. Archer’s death.” This period can be compared with that after the death of her child;:“she discards her mourning within six months.”[7] Habegger suggests that Isabel’s freedom began be a burden, making her wish for a domineering master or father. “[James] let her sense of freedom weigh on her so heavily that she [began] to dream of confinement, of daughterly surrender.”[8] Perhaps Isabel’s paternal attraction to Osmond is not actually at odds with her love of freedom, but an escape from that burden. James and his siblings were raised by a “narcissistic and domineering father who…used empathy to defend his interpretations of their experience and to justify his advice.”[9] This behavior led to the James children feeling alienated and misunderstood, and also to struggle with intimate relationships. Perhaps it is this emotional abandonment and James’ perverted idea of fatherhood that explains his choice for Isabel to return to Rome, to a domineering father figure. “She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.”[10] This straight path is explained the next morning when Henrietta reveals Isabel has returned to Rome. While Isabel is struggling with her simultaneous desire and repulsion for Goodwood, she feels a desire to be caught and protected, “This belief, for a moment, was a kind of rapture, in which she felt herself sink and sink. In the movement she seemed to beat with her feet, in order to catch herself, to feel something to rest on.”[11] It is this moment, when she looks for something solid that her attitude toward Caspar shifts. While she a moment ago had seen him as a savior, this line that signals a shift where Isabel wishes him to leave her alone. Perhaps this “something to rest on” is Osmond, a father who will strip her of freedom. Possibly it is James’ experience with paternal love that drives him to cause Isabel to make her ultimate choice.

James’ brother, William similarly struggled with intimacy, advocating the mental-hygiene ethos of celibacy to conserve nervous sexual energy and to channel it into art. Henry James was certainly aware of it, though there is not tangible evidence to suggest that he was certainly using it.[12] This would, however, account for his permanent bachelorhood. If that is the case, the creation of the kiss in The Portrait of a Lady could be akin to a physical sexual act for James. The kiss has overt allusions to intercourse, suggesting this passage perhaps has more sexual connotations for James himself:

His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinary as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made on with this act of possession.[13]

The spreading “white lightning” alludes to orgasm, while Goodwood’s “hard manhood” is the phallus. The use of the verb “took” referring to Isabel’s reception of the kiss has sexual undertones as well. Some have argued that James was celibate because he is “prudishly repressed, [fleeing] in horror from the open expression of sexual desire.”[14] The overt sexuality of this passage seems to squash that particular theory. If James was indeed celibate, it is more likely he reserved his sexual energy for his art.

One of the most notable things about this passage is its sudden departure from the realism for which Henry James is known. James suddenly enters a realm of sensation and sound. “‘Ah, be mine as I’m yours!’ she heard her companion cry. He had suddenly given up argument, and his voice seemed to come, harsh and terrible through a confusion of vaguer sounds.”[15] Isabel oddly remains the agent, “she heard her companion cry,” Goodwood didn’t cry himself. This has an odd effect on the passage, making it seem as though Caspar may not actually be there. There is also no explanation for these “vaguer sounds” which add a further surreal effect. The kiss itself, in addition to its overt sexuality, is so unrealistic compared with other interactions between characters in the novel. James usually stresses the subtle and the delicate while this scene is a crescendo of the melodramatic. The scene ends abruptly without page break or warning. “Two days afterwards Caspar Goodwood knocked at the door of the house in Wimpole Street in which Henrietta Stackpole occupied furnished lodgings.”[16] Not only does this paragraph open formally by referring to a character mentioned on the previous page by his first and last name, the house is given the sterile description of “furnished lodgings” causing the reader to turn back a page and ask, “Did I just read that?” The extreme sensuousness of the kiss combined with the stark realism of the next page further emphasizes the uniqueness of the kiss scene. It is possible James adopted a surreal tone because he had no sexual experience of his own, thus he feared he will be unable to portray the scene accurately. Most of James’ renderings of humanity are so realistic; they are true renderings of life. This kiss is certainly not that.

While Henry James’ sexuality remains enigmatic, the kiss in The Portrait of a Lady provides support for several theories on the subject. Echoes of James’ potential struggle with homosexuality can be seen in Isabel Archer’s contradictory desires between freedom and respectability, and her desire for a father figure. If James was celibate, the overt sexuality suggests that the passage itself may serve as a sex act for the author. The uncommon surrealism could be accounted for by James’ own lack of sexual experience. The Portrait of a Lady, while it largely remains a novel concerned with propriety and social custom, ends on a note of overt eroticism that leads the reader dazed. The reader’s bewilderment likely echoes that of Isabel Archer herself in the midst of the overpowering kiss “like white lightning.” Just as the reader returns to reality, so does our tragic, noble heroine.


[1] Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1.

[2] ibid

[3] ibid, 2.

[4] Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995) , 489

[5] ibid

[6] Hadley, 13.

[7] Alfred Habegger, Henry James and the “Woman Business” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989),150.

[8] Ibid, 156.

[9] Linda Simon, “Art and the Risks of Intimacy,” The New England Quarterly, Volume 72. Number 4. (1999): 618.

[10] James, 490.

[11] James, 489.

[12] Dana Luciano, “Henry James’ Thwarted Love (review)” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 47.

Number 2. (2001): 482.

[13] James, 489.

[14] Luciano, 482.

[15] James, 489.

[16] James, 490.

Epicoene, or The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson

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Epicoene
is an absolute goldmine when it comes to gender studies.  Not only does it study gender stereotypes, it also defines homosexual encounters that do not interfere with the order of society. The play depicts a single older man, Morose, who is attempting to trick his nephew, Dauphine out of his inheritance by getting married. Morose cannot abide noise, so he seeks a woman who cannot or will not speak. Dauphine out-maneuvers Morose, planting a boy player to play the part of a woman, to marry Morose, and then prove to be utterly chatty. The boy plays his part well, driving Morose into near insanity until the marriage is proved invalid and Dauphine is granted his inheritance.

Although Dauphine is a homosexual, keeping the boy player as for sexual purposes, Morose is seen as a much more disruptive force in the play. Though he presumably is not gay, (I’d even hazard a guess at asexual) his loss of control when “married” causes him to make a fool of himself, and seem sexually disordered. Dauphine’s relationship is accepted in society because he doesn’t talk of it. It is known about certainly, yet his silence allows him to maintain a masculine dignity that a woman in this play certainly would not have.

The women in the play, specifically the collegiates are seen as sexually disordered as well. They live away from their husbands and are sexually promiscuous and are constantly chattering about their desires. In some ways, these women have begun to usurp the male role, living independently, courting men, and having a voice in academia. These women are seen as threats to society because of their masculine behavior. Epicoene reveals much about sexuality in society in renaissance England. 

Gallathea by John Lyly

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Gallathea is one of the first Renaissance plays to explore lesbianism. The play is set in a town that depends sacrificing the most beautiful virgin in order to escape retribution from Neptune. This acts as a metaphor for renaissance’s dependence on the sacrifice of virginity in marriage. Without this sacrifice, life would literally cease to exist. The protagonists Gallathea and Phyllida are two of the most beautiful virgins in this village, thus are in danger of being chosen as a sacrifice. Interestingly both girls are willing to sacrifice themselves for their well being of the citizens, but their fathers insist upon disguising them as boys. 

Gallathea and Phyllida spot one another wandering in the woods and decide to try to learn masculinity from the other.  They both begin to fall in love, though the girls both remain unsure whether the other is really a girl.  Phyllida says to herself, “I fear me he is as I am, a maiden.”  Interestingly, this lesbian relationship has neither woman usurping the masculine role.  In works such as Sidney’s The Old Arcadia there is one character that clearly takes on the male role.  In the case of Gallathea and Phyllida, the characters are literally indistinguishable.  Their lines mirror one another as much as their situations.

It is eventually revealed that both of the boys are in fact girls, yet their love for one another has not shifted in the slightest. The goddess Venus says she will transform one of the girls into a man so that there can be a marriage, yet the girls are so similar it seems a choice would be impossible. The play ends without either of the girls changing, with Venus saying she will make their marriage possible in the near future.

It is speculated that Lyly wrote the play as homage to Queen Elizabeth, who was supposedly the virgin queen because she did not marry. Yet the ending seems very complex. It is possible Lyly walked the line between praising marriage and virginity simultaneously.  As a result, he created a play that makes lesbian love seem autoerotic.