This essay explores master-servant homoeroticism in three seventeenth-century satiric comedies: Ben Jonson's Epicoene and Volpone and George Chapman's The Gentleman Usher. Whereas "sodomy" always signifies social disorder, "homoerotic" useful for describing same-sex relations that are socially normative or orderly. Thus homoerotic master-servant relations become "sodomitical" only when they are perceived to threaten social order. In Epicoene, the character associated with the disorder of "sodomy" is neither Dauphine or Epicoene, but the "unnatural" Morose, even though he has not literally had sex with the boy he marries. The erotic master-servant relationship in Volpone is sodomitical because it transgresses against marriage, inheritance, and (once Mosca publicly cross dresses above his station) hierarchical authority. In Chapman's The Gentleman Usher, Prince Vincentio achieves his goals by establishing a homoerotic friendship with a foolish gentleman; like Volpone, however, he is finally unable to control the ambitious servant he has "sodomitically" empowered. As the ambiguous figure of the gentleman usher suggests, the social and economic transformations destabilizing personal service during this period inform the anxious recognition that homoerotic power structures could be profitably manipulated by servants as well as masters.
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This article was originally published in English Literary Renaissance, available at https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6757.1995.tb01093.x
This work is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 4.0).