What’s past may be prologue to a present we have yet to achieve

Claes Visscher’s 1616 Panorama of London

Early 17th Century London — as depicted here by Claes Visscher — was the setting for many city comedy plays.

Contemporary culture – and the media that reflects it – have come a long way since the dust-up over Ellen DeGeneres’ character coming out as gay on Ellen in 1997. Since then, we’ve seen a host of popular television shows – both comedy and drama – featuring main characters who identify as LGBTQ+, including Will and Grace, Grey’s Anatomy, Glee, Modern Family, and Scandal.

But while homosexuality may be more visible than ever, James Bromley, an associate professor in Miami University’s Department of English, says there’s plenty today’s media portrayals keep hidden.

“Teaching young people about heterosexuality happens all the time, in almost every text you can think of, every film. When sexual education is approved in schools, it tends to have a heterosexual bent and that leaves us with the idea that gay people are kind of on their own to figure out what gay people do both sexually and culturally,” Bromley says.

Counter-intuitively, Bromley says that certain English plays from the late 16th and early 17th Century can help us see what is missing from mainstream American media’s portrayals, even though the way that people understood sexual identity was very different back then.

Plays of the early modern English subgenre known as “city comedy” satirize the perceived greed of London’s then-newly prosperous merchant class. One such play, Michaelmas Term by Thomas Middleton, tells the tale of innocent, naïve country landowner Richard Easy who, on a visit to London, is swindled by a group of co-conspirators led by streetwise, sophisticated cloth merchant Quomodo.

“The play seems really interested in thinking about initiation and learning how to become a certain kind of person,” Bromley says. “One of the aspects of the city that Easy is initiated into is intense male-male relationships that govern masculinity in the cities.”

Bromley says the male-male relationships in Michaelmas Term are eroticized, as revealed through wordplay (among the first Londoners introduced to the audience, for instance, are Cockstone and Rearage.) In effect, then, as the more experienced citizens model for Easy how to be a London man, what they are modeling is how to be part of a sexual culture. That kind of modeling is not something we see a lot of in mainstream media today when it comes to representations of gay people. Furthermore, by being explicit, the play opens up opportunities to rethink the limitations of present-day understandings of sexual identity.

“I think the play tells us something about people learning how to inhabit an identity,” Bromley says. “The way we talk about the present doesn’t fully encompass every possibility. I think texts from the past can help us articulate what isn’t being said or what assumptions we make about gender roles or sexuality.”

Bromley says in addition to doubles entendres, city comedy playwrights like Middleton used costuming to carry sub-textual messages in their plays. Dress was used to show male characters conforming to traditional expectations of masculinity or violating those expectations by straying into feminized sartorial extravagance. That particular subject is the focus of the book Bromley is currently working on.

The research for Bromley’s book, Style, Subjectivity, and Male Sexuality in Early Modern English Drama, was aided by a fellowship for scholars of pre-1700 Europe offered by the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin (UW). Bromley relied on the primary and contemporary secondary sources available at UW’s library to conduct research on the clothing described in city comedies by Middleton, Ben Jonson, and other playwrights.

“A lot of the terminology around clothing has dropped out of current usage,” he says. “So I had to figure out that language, and then connect it to literary references to those kinds of articles of clothing, as well as to visual representations in portraiture.”

The process, he says, was arduous. “There’s one book you look at for this kind of clothing, another for that kind, another for portraiture, and a different one for literary references.”

Once he finishes his book, Bromley says he may be interested in seeking funding to support the creation of a multimedia database that brings together information about late 16th and early 17th Century clothing from various sources. Such a resource would save time and effort for other scholars of the period.

It would also help students – who generally don’t have an opportunity to see these city comedy plays performed – get a sense of the role clothing plays in advancing the on-stage narrative. That’s something that, in turn, might advance Bromley’s goal of encouraging a deeper connection between reader and literary text.

“These plays offer us points of view that don’t seem as widely represented as they might be today, but are relevant to experiences people have,” he says. “The ability of people to find something that resonates with them, even across 400 years, is something I’m really interested in.”


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Miami University.

Images provided by James Bromley.

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