Theses Doctoral

The Shapes of Fancy: Queer Circulations of Desire in Early Modern Literature

Varnado, Christine Marie

This dissertation rethinks the category of queer desire in early modern drama and early colonial travel narratives. Moving beyond previous scholarship which has conceived of early modern sexuality chiefly in terms of same-sex erotic acts, proto-homosexual identities, or homosocial relations, this dissertation describes new forms of heightened erotic feeling which are qualitatively queer in how they depart from conventional or expected trajectories, and not because of the genders of lover and love object. Each chapter considers an iconic scene in early modern literature, and draws out a specific, recurring affective mode - paranoid suspicion, willing instrumentality, inexhaustible fancy, and colonial melancholia -- which I argue constitutes a queer form of desiring.

Chapter 1 argues that both a witch trial pamphlet, Newes from Scotland (1591), and a witch trial play, The Witch of Edmonton (1621) exemplify the violent, projective cycle of paranoid suspicion by which the witch trial defines a witch according to his or her secret, deviant desires. Chapter 2 focuses on cross-dressed figures who are willingly instrumentalized as erotic facilitators in two comedies, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher's Philaster (1609) and Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker's The Roaring Girl (1611), arguing that "being used" makes the go-between an integral part of an ostensibly heterosexual relationship, transforming it into a queer triad. Chapter 3 takes up the promiscuous desire for too many objects in William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1602) and Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614). I read these very different comedies as both propelled by impossible-to-satisfy hunger, and trace the etymology of the concept of "fancy" to show how desire for pleasurable and beautiful things became characterized as a queer desire for improper and unproductive commodities. Chapter 4 moves into the New World, analyzing two accounts of failed colonialism: Thomas Harriot and John White's reports from the English expeditions on Roanoke Island (1590); and Jean de Léry’s memoir of the short-lived French colony in Brazil (1578). In these texts I uncover a distinctly melancholic and queer mode of colonial desire: one predicated on impossible longing, renunciation, and haunting, thwarted identification with lost native American "others."


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Howard, Jean E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 12, 2017