Tag Archives: historical romance

Being gay in Elizabethan times

This post and some links in it contain advertisements for my books.

In sixteenth century England, sodomy was a capital offence, but maybe not for the reasons we think. It wasn’t just about homosexual behaviour, but about sexual debauchery in general. It had nothing to do with who you were (there was no such thing as “a homosexual” then), it was just something you did. Anal intercourse was a sin partly because it avoided conception and was only done for fun, no matter who you did it with.

For this reason, you could be hanged if you practised it, at least in theory. There aren’t many records of such executions, but this can have other reasons: records can burn or otherwise disappear. From what we can surmise, though, it seems the authorities mostly chose to look the other way. Maybe that’s understandable. I mean, if they had to hang every Tom, Dick and Francis who did something sexually questionable, they wouldn’t have the time to focus on the really important stuff like wars, would they?

Curiously though, they looked more sternly on the offence if you combined it with coining and atheism. To a 21st century person, this is completely baffling. What do sodomy, coining and atheism have to do with each other, after all?

Well, as this article and this book put forward, sodomy, like atheism, could be used as a symbol for antisocial behaviour in general. Also, funnily enough, coining and sodomy were viewed as two sides of, forgive the pun, the same coin. Lots of fascinating reasons are laid out in this article, but one aspect touches on the current view (of some!) that gay people somehow have an agenda to spread homosexuality to straight people. The Elizabethans believed that you could be “contaminated” by it, and that by practising sodomy, instead of creating children, you created new sodomites. If you also created fake money through coining, that was taken as further proof, because look, you’re making more of something bad, and it’s the same thing, right?

Right. In hindsight, many beliefs can look downright silly, but just try to view our own times with a future person’s eyes. Won’t they find a lot to laugh about?

Anyway, back to the sixteenth century. Poet Kit Marlowe was accused of sodomy, atheism and coining, and some believe that these are the things that led to his death. I won’t comment on that in this post, since it would completely ruin Rival Poet for you, should you ever wish to read it. I will say, however, that the accusations smack of truth. His poem Hero and Leander is nothing short of a gushy Leander fan letter, and Hero is described mostly through her clothes.

Exhibit A, Leander:

His body was as straight as Circe’s wand;

Jove might have sipt out nectar from his hand.

Even as delicious meat is to the taste,

So was his neck in touching, and surpast

The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,

How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;

And whose immortal fingers did imprint

That heavenly path with many a curious dint

That runs along his back…

Okay, we get it. He was delicious enough to eat.

On to exhibit B, Hero:

The outside of her garments were of lawn,

The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn;

Her wide sleeves green, and border’d with a grove,

Where Venus in her naked glory strove

To please the careless and disdainful eyes

Of proud Adonis, that before her lies;

Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain,

Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain.

No need to go on, we get the picture: Marlowe liked a bit of flair on a gal, but the gal herself? Barely there.

Another prominent person to be accused was Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. This guy, held by some to be the true author of Shakespeare’s works, was charged for raping his boy servants. Not just sodomy, then, but pederasty. Insert horrified gasp here. Our revered perhaps-Shakespeare, a child molester?

But wait a minute. The men who accused him may have had a bone to pick with the earl. It’s the old Michael Jackson conundrum: how can we ever guess the truth about an alleged crime committed by a rich and famous person when 1) the law tends to be lenient towards them just because they are rich and famous, and 2) people tend to accuse them of crimes in order to bring them down and/or get at their riches? Add to this that the crime in question happened more than four hundred years ago, and all we can do is speculate. In the end, Oxford was acquitted, but we can’t know why.

For my part, I chose to exploit this little historical nugget in Rival Poet. I’m not saying Oxford really did it, but I used it to add some tension to my plot and to strengthen one of my themes.

Also, as a devout Stratfordian, I guess I’m not above a little bitching…

Shakespeare’s arch enemy?

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While I was researching for Rival Poet, I ran across a really interesting article by David Kathman about Shakespeare’s Stratford acquaintance Richard Field. The article makes a compelling case for Shakespeare getting some help as a green playwright just arrived in London.

Field was the son of a Stratford tanner, and he was three years older than Will. They probably went to school together for a while, and then in 1579, Field went to London to be a printer’s apprentice. When his master died, he took over the business together with the widow. Among the books he printed, there are several that may have been used as sources by Shakespeare. He also printed Shakespeare’s first poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Therefore it’s not a big leap to assume that they knew each other.

However, many who acknowledge this connection routinely paint printer Field as a friend, and I wanted to do something different. After all, there are thousands of books about Shakespeare, so if you do embark on yet another story, you need your own twist. Add to this that every story needs a villain.

Therefore I decided that Dick Field wasn’t really a friend, but a childhood enemy, a bully who almost stopped Will from writing at all. While staying true to the known facts, I made Dick a different kind of catalyst for the budding poet, hopefully resulting in a more interesting plot.

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The rope cut into his throat. Not tightly enough to choke him, but not loosely either. Dick took a step back and surveyed his work. “So, Willie… you going to tell Master Jenkins about this, then?”

Will tried to shake his head, but stopped when the rope chafed at his neck.

“That’s right, because I know for a fact that our teacher hasn’t been to church for… what is it, six Sundays in a row? Naughty, naughty…” Dick laughed. His minions joined in. “If you think that godless man will help you, you’re in for a disappointment.”

Will’s mind was racing too fast. He was tied to a tree and couldn’t move, so his only way out of this was through words. But what words? What could he say that would melt the stony heart of the tanner’s son?

Blurting the first thing he could think of, he said, “I’m not like Master Jenkins.” The words hurt his throat. “I’m not a recusant.”

At once, Dick’s eyes narrowed. With a sickening twist of the stomach, Will knew that he had made a mistake, but it was too late to take it back.

“You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you? Re-cu-sant. Wow. Good boy, to know such fancy words. Just like Master Jenkins. You’d make a lovely couple, you would.”

Dick’s fist landed in Will’s belly. Completely unprepared for the blow, Will’s bound body tried to double over, and his spine slammed into the tree trunk.

“Well, we can’t have men marrying boys in a proper God-fearing town like Stratford,” Dick sighed, feigning remorse. “Sodomy is a capital offence, you know. We’ll just have to hang, draw and quarter you. So tell me, Willie, before you die…” Dick took his deformed hand and caressed it almost lovingly. “Do you think Master Jenkins will cry when his star pupil is gone?” He lowered his voice to a raucous whisper. “Or do you think he’ll be relieved?”

Rival Poet ARe

Rival Poet on Amazon

Shakespeare and Marlowe, star-crossed lovers?

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DSC_0108_02Well, what do you know? When I fed the birth data of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe into the online astrology service Astrodienst, this was the result (taken from the free sample):

“A relationship with composite Sun in the tenth house is likely to be a significant one. First of all, this position indicates that the two of you have an identity of purpose in your lives together, or at least that you are able to help each other attain the goals you have set for yourselves. If this relationship goes anywhere at all, it will have a strong effect on your life purpose. The composite Moon in the tenth house indicates that you will share a concern for getting ahead in life. You both want to get somewhere, and you feel that together you can do it better than you could separately.

The conjunction of composite Jupiter and Ascendant is a very good aspect for any kind of relationship. Jupiter here helps to ensure a positive relationship. In a business or professional association, this aspect indicates financial success. In a personal relationship, it allows the two of you to feel good about each other and about yourselves as a couple. You will find that being together broadens your range of experience, and together you will discover new aspects of the world that will help you grow as human beings.”

Wow… this mirrors my take on these two playwrights exactly! They are more than lovers, more than colleagues. They become more together than they could be on their own. It’s hardly possible to separate their love-making from their work, because it’s all bound up and wound up in each other. Theirs really is a “marriage of true minds”. It’s the perfect union, both on a personal and a career level.

Further:

“The conjunction of composite Moon and composite Venus is a most positive aspect for any personal relationship. It indicates a strong feeling of love between you that you will express openly. The relationship may even have something of a dreamy quality, as if it were too beautiful to be true. The basic inner strength of this relationship should be great enough to overcome all but the worst problems. In general, this is one of the most positive and useful aspects that a composite chart can have for a successful personal relationship.

The conjunction of composite Saturn and Ascendant can have several very different effects, depending on other factors in the relationship. On the positive level, it can signify a relationship that is bound together so strongly that almost nothing can break it up. This is not so much because there is a positive attraction between you as because you are intensely involved with each other in a way that seems strongly predestined.”

Yep. 🙂 These two are nothing if not soul mates. In a world where sodomy is a capital offence and where everything that’s written and performed on the stage must be run by the Queen’s censor, Will and Kit can only find true understanding in a fellow poet. They are mirror images of each other, one born to a cobbler, and the other one to a glover, both in the same year (1564), and, possibly, the same date in different months*.

Finally:

“Your experience of love within this relationship will very strongly affect the lives of both of you. On the psychological level, this relationship will aid both of you in discovering what you want to do with your lives. Loving each other should reinforce you and give you greater confidence in yourselves. At the same time, this relationship will teach you about the nature of love and how you relate to others on an intimate personal level. The only way you can learn what living with another person means is by doing so.”

Well, this is where it gets difficult, because in Elizabethan times, you couldn’t just go ahead and marry the person you loved. On the other hand, men often housed together, even slept in the same bed, to save money. It was a fine line to tread, and while Kit may have been devil-may-care, Will was more careful. In Rival Poet, he’s the one who insists on absolute secrecy. He does it to protect the two of them, but instead it contributes to the largest challenge in their life together-apart.

But in the end, as you can see from their chart, nothing can keep them apart. These two face some of the biggest hurdles of all my characters, but the reward at the end is worth it.

* There are no records of their exact birth dates, but judging from the dates of their baptism, they could be born on February and April 23.