Are We Bestial?: The Alterity of the Renaissance:
A Response to "(Un)natural Loving: Swine, Pets, and Flowers in Venus and Adonis" by Dympna Callaghan

Rebecca Ann Bach


     1. Like all of Dympna Callaghan's work, "(Un)natural Loving: Swine, Pets, and Flowers in Venus and Adonis" is provocative and intelligent. In this response, I will take up the provocations that the essay so generously offers. In "(Un)natural Loving," Callaghan situates Venus and Adonis within Renaissance discourse on bestiality and, to a lesser extent, on incest, and on flower breeding. I will address my response to the essay's claims about the relationship between bestiality and the nature/culture, man/beast divides. Callaghan's arguments about the relationship between bestiality and incest are equally intriguing; however, they fall outside of any area in which I might claim even limited expertise. At the risk of sounding perverse, bestiality, unlike incest, is something that I have thought about.

     2. When I admit to having thought about bestiality (in a scholarly way), I fear public embarrassment--embarrassment that leads me to try immediately to qualify, paranthetically, my interest in the subject. My anxiety about claiming that I have thought about bestiality goes, I think, a little way towards supporting one of Callaghan's claims. Callaghan argues that we can see something about the "irreducible differen[ce]" between "the past and the present" in "[t]he system of distinctions around bestiality" (¶ 2). I agree, but perhaps for different reasons than Callaghan advances this argument in her essay. Callaghan argues that "[f]or the Renaissance, sexual congress with brute creation transgressed the fundamental distinction between the human and the animal even as it served to articulate the notion of an absolute and inviolable distinction between them" (¶ 1). She goes on to claim that the "related conceptual categories--humans and animals, culture and nature" in the English Renaissance "are largely the same as our own" but that those categories have "demaractions and contents" that "are irreducibly different" than our own (¶ 2). I would provisionally contend, instead, that when we look at discussions of bestiality in the English Renaissance--discussions that Callaghan so beautifully outlines for us--what we see is a culture that does not share our conceptual categories.

     3. In fact, I would argue that our distinctions between human and animal and culture and nature are distinctions founded in modernity and that, in consequence, our discourses on bestiality are fundamentally different from Renaissance discussions of bestiality. Thus, I think Callaghan is right that bestiality is a window into historical difference; but Callaghan and I see different landscapes through that window. My embarrassed response to writing about bestiality can show us a modern world that is irreducibly different from the Renaissance world. As a denizen of that modern world, I don't want to be caught thinking about bestiality publicly; such thoughts risk identifying me publicly as a pervert. Even claiming that I have only thought about bestiality as a scholar is risky business in the modern world. My claim to have thought about bestiality only in a scholarly context is immediately suspect, and the claim and its suspect status equally indicate the historical difference that Callaghan provokes us to explore. In the post-Freudian universe, any claims that one has not thought about sex in any variety are immediately suspect. (See for example my earlier claim about my lack of expertise about incest.) After all, Freud and his followers have shown us, convincingly I think, that modern people's unconscious lives are centered on desire. In addition, Freud's theory of negation implies that to say or think a negative--I don't have sexual feelings about animals--is always to bring to mind or even to bring into being the positive--the sexual feelings about animals. As Freud tells us, "There is no stronger evidence that we have been successful in our effort to uncover the unconscious than when the patient reacts to it with the words 'I didn't think that,' or 'I didn't (ever) think of that'" (669).

     4. I would contend that the evidence Callaghan assembles in favor of her arguments about bestiality points to a Renaissance world in which sex (either desire or sexual object choice) is not at the center of a person's identity. As Callaghan notes, the hetero/homosexual divide is foreign to the Renaissance (¶ 4). That divide was foreign to Renaissance people because the English Renaissance did not divide people into categories according to the type of their sexual sins. Although the modern world may not have a particular named sexual type for people who prefer sex with animals,1 admitting to a penchant for bestiality today would qualify me as a pervert in the modern lexicon of sex and even, perhaps, would provoke outrage from the guardians of animals' rights. In contrast, just as the Renaissance was without a developed discourse of animal rights,2 it also was without sexual types. Obviously the latter is a debatable point, argued at length among queer scholars in the Renaissance; but I think it is true.3 There were no homosexuals or heterosexuals in the Renaissance, and there were also no perverts.4

     5. Or, that is, everyone was a potential pervert. Bestiality in the Renaissance, as it was for Thomas Aquinas, is one among the array of sexual sins to which all people (fallen as they are) might be prone. In his consideration of "the Parts of Lust," Aquinas argues for bestiality as the most grievous of the sexual sins against nature "because use of the due species is not observed" (1820). It is worth dwelling for a bit on the difference between Aquinas's (and the Renaissance's) belief that humans all have the potential to lust in myriad ways and Freud's belief that sexual desire forms identity. For Aquinas, "sins contrary to nature" violate "the very order of nature" and therefore "an injury is done to God, the Author of nature" (1820). For Aquinas (and for the Renaissance) the central human problem is the condition of the soul in relation to God. Freud conceives the central human problem differently: the central human problem is the condition of the psyche--the relationship between the ego and the unconscious. Sexual desire for Freud is central to the foundations of the unconscious and the ego. In contrast, sexual desire for Aquinas is an assault by the devil on the soul, which, ideally, should reject sin and embrace God.5 In the modern world, people fall into different categories, categories determined by their sexual proclivities. In the Renaissance all people fell into the same category--sinners, whose sinful nature might lead them to commit sexual sins as well as an array of other sins.

     6. Related to the difference between sexual identities and sinners is the difference between the modern animal/human divide and the Renaissance's animal-human continuum. The modern animal/human divide is predicated on the developed disciplines of biology and zoology, disciplines that separate animals from humans on the grounds of physiology and reproductive capability. In the modern world, a species is "the major subdivision of a genus or subgenus, regarded as the basic category of biological classification, composed of related individuals that resemble one another, are able to breed among themselves, but are not able to breed with members of another species" (Random House Dictionary "species" 2). This, as Callaghan's essay makes clear, is not at all the distinction between humans and animals in the Renaissance. In fact, as her evidence indicates, Shakespeare's Renaissance world was in "no doubt that the generation of hybrids is possible as a result of bestiality" (¶ 17). Aquinas almost certainly would have shared this lack of doubt. His condemnation of bestiality as blurring the distinctions between "due species" rests on his belief that God created the species to be distinct from one another. Unfortunately, according to Aquinas, man (and woman especially) is always prone to transgress the moral and natural dictates of God. If Aquinas was no longer a principal theologian for Reformation thinkers, those thinkers did not discard either the centrality of God or the vision of man beset by sin. Like Aquinas, English Renaissance writers were convinced that people were sinners above all. John Donne expresses this conviction in a verse epistle to Sir Henry Wotten: "Angels sinned first, then devils, and then man. / Only perchance beasts sin not; wretched we / Are beasts in all, but white integrity" (p. 48 l. 40-43). Just as people are all potentially sexual sinners, people are also potentially bestial. In this pessimistic moment, Donne argues that the only difference between people and animals is that animals do not sin. Shakespeare's Cassio is as pessimistic as Donne about the human condition in relation to the animal. Despairing over his drunken crimes, Cassio regrets "That [men] should with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause transform ourselves into beasts!" (Othello 2.3.270-272). A drunkard, for Cassio, has a diminishing life cycle: "To be now a sensible man, by and by a fool, and presently a beast" (2.33.284-5). Callaghan's quotations from Capel and from Golding's Epistle to Ovid's Metamorphoses are more evidence that man's body was conceived as bestial in the period (¶¶ 22-23). Just as Renaissance readers could easily believe that a woman and an animal could reproduce, Renaissance writers, especially in pessimistic moments, argue that men are inherently bestial. Although Donne, Cassio (Shakespeare), Capel, and Golding speak of men and beasts, the distinction that is fundamental to their discourse is the distinction between God and the world. Thus, I am reluctant to posit a Renaissance belief that there is a "fundamental distinction between the human and the animal" or "an absolute and inviolable distinction between them" (Callaghan ¶ 1).

     7. In fact, I see Callaghan's evidence pointing in another direction. Callaghan claims that "By repeatedly transgressing the discrete taxonomies of human and animal, nature and culture, [Venus and Adonis's] images render them demonstrably artificial categories" (¶ 23). Indeed, the poem does indicate how humans and animals are alike and can have or contemplate sexual congress. However, those indications do not transgress "discrete taxonomies"; rather they indicate a world previous to the creation of those taxonomies. Perhaps it is not irrelevant to note here that the word "taxonomy" was coined in the early nineteenth century, originally to denote a "branch of botany which has for its object the combination of all our observations on plants, so as to form a system of classification" (OED "taxonomy" 1).6 Callaghan notes of Venus that "The exaggeratedly feminine, hefty, oversized goddess of love, saturated with corporeality and perspiration, figures both the fragile cultural membrane that separates the feminine from animal sexuality as well as the taxonomic confusion that ties them together" (¶ 8). In this quotation, Callaghan beautifully addresses the way Venus and Adonis depicts Venus as hyper-feminine. Shakespeare's Venus constantly threatens to dissolve into water and to drown the boy who resists her.7 As Callaghan notes, Venus's hyper-femininity connects her to animal sexuality. However, that connection is not a taxonomic confusion in the Renaissance. For there is no taxonomy that separates femininity and animal sexuality in the period. There is only the moral will on the part of some women that enables them to resist what the period sees as their natural inclination to behave sexually like beasts.

     8. Callaghan's essay might provoke us to consider, as she does, the place of gender in the animal-human continuum on display in the poem and in Renaissance commentary on sex and people's moral character. As Callaghan indicates, men and women ideally occupy different places on this animal-human continuum (as do classical goddesses).8 A Mad World My Masters confuses "a wild boar" and "a vild whore" (Callaghan ¶ 4). Countless Renaissance texts explore the places of female and male characters on the animal-human continuum. Shakespeare's plays and poems seem particularly interested in some women's moral will (see Hermione, Desdemona, Hero, Imogen) and some men's bestial sexual desire (see Touchstone, Othello, Suffolk, Romeo). Collectively, the body of work on gender in the Renaissance that was produced in the late twentieth century indicates that, unlike in the modern world, gender was less a system of absolute distinctions between categories (men and women) and more a continuum as well.9 And sexual desire also seems to indicate a character's place on the gender continuum in English Renaissance texts. Venus's outrageous desire for Adonis identifies her as both feminine and bestial (like the "lusty, young, and proud" mare who causes Adonis's horse to break his reins [260]). Mars's desire for Venus causes him to abandon his masculine accoutrements, making Venus's "arms his field, [and making] his tent Venus's bed" (108). Adonis, himself, occupies an interesting place on that gender continuum. As a boy, he could be close to women and to women's sexual nature. As Venus argues, sexual desire is born of woman. She accuses Adonis of being a "Thing like a man, but of no woman bred" (214). However, Adonis chooses another model of boyhood, one chosen by such Shakespearean boys as Talbot's son. He doesn't want to be an eroticized boy-toy. He wants to grow to be a man.10 For that desire, Shakespeare awards him a boar's tusk in the groin. Bestiality is thus the deadly prize for resisting feminized, bestial sex.

     9. In a brilliant brief essay in Textual Practice, Callaghan calls for a critically aware study of religion in relation to Shakespeare and Renaissance texts. She argues that "whatever conjunction between Shakespeare and religion [that] we might be able to conceive would be usefully enriched--and complicated--by the body of critical work on sexuality and race" (3). I could not more wholeheartedly agree. I have argued in this response that we misread references to sex in the Renaissance if we do not think about religion. Just as politics and religion were not separate realms in Renaissance England, sex and religion were also inseparable. I hope that my response to "(Un)natural Loving"'s provocations goes a little way towards answering Callaghan's call.



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1 A preliminary search of the psychoanalytic literature turned up Daniel Traub-Werner's article. That article refers to Krafft-Ebing's coinage "zoophilia," revived in the DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) (Traub-Werner 977).

2 This is not to say that animal rights was a completely foreign concept to the Renaissance, just that that discourse was nowhere near as developed as it is today. Shakespeare gives Venus a degree of sympathy for the "purblind hare" hunted relentlessly; however, she asks Adonis to hunt the hare rather than to pursue the dangerous boar (674-702). For a Renaissance text that goes further in the direction of animal rights as we might recognize them today, see Margaret Cavendish's "The Hunting of the Hare."

3 The argument is taken up in too many venues to cite here; see for example Di Gangi, Goldberg, Masten, Bredbeck.

4 Callaghan makes a similar point in a more sophisticated way in "Shakespeare and religion": "In fact, what we learned while the sexual identity debate was raging was that sexual identity does not come in neat packages in any era, and certainly does not comport with tidy definitions that are the product of historically specific conditions rather than a reflection of some pre-given biological or psychosexual orientation" (1). I would only add that just as essential twentieth-century queer theory teaches us to distrust the adequacy of modern sexual categories as descriptions of people and their practices so that same essential work speaks to the destructive power of those categories in modern life (see Sedgwick and Warner for example). A society without those sexual identity categories is fundamentally different than a society that relies upon them.

5 Arnold Davidson's discussion of the emergence of a modern "psychiatric style of reasoning" is pertinant here (18).

6 Of course classification has a hoary history; but it is in the modern world that classification becomes a scientific system, a system by which one can know the world, as opposed to a system whose sole purpose is to reveal God's design. See Keith Thomas's discussion of classification (51-69).

7 For the signal importance of leakiness to gender ideologies, see Gail Kern Paster.

8 See Keith Thomas on women's relative closeness to animal nature (43).

9 Again the literature is too extensive to summarize here. For very significant work on gender categories, see Greenblatt, Laqueur, Orgel, Paster, Rackin, Smith, Callaghan. On the gender category "boy" in the period, see Fisher, Mary Trull's forthcoming work.

10 Adonis is afraid that sex will be his "body's bane" (372). He argues that having sex too young will exhaust his body, as a colt's body is exhausted by being ridden too young: "The colt that's backed and burdened being young, / Loseth his pride, and never waxeth strong" (419-420). Adonis's fear is entirely congruent with Renaissance medical beliefs about the dangers of intercourse for young men. And those beliefs translated into practice. For example, Richard Boyle (1566-1643), an English yeoman's son who became the first Earl of Cork in 1620, had fifteen children; eleven survived into adulthood and Cork spent considerable money, time, and effort to marry them carefully so as to obtain prestigious connections for his newly ennobled family. Cork contracted early marriages for both boys and girls in his family, sometimes starting marriage negotiations before the child was five years old. In 1639, Cork married his son Francis to Elizabeth Killegrewe, one of Queen Henrietta's maids of honour; "the couple were then ritually bedded by the king and queen but, on Cork's insistence, the sixteen-year-old Francis, who was considered too young for the physical strains of marriage, was quickly separated from his wife and sent to travel in France with Robert his younger brother" (Canny 57).



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Form copyright © 2003 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2003 Rebecca Ann Bach.