Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare's Time
by Jeffrey Masten

Reviewed by Raphael Magarik


Published by University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016   |   368 pages

Most generally, “philology” denotes the study of old languages through difficult texts. But to the practicing philologist, or those acquainted with the trade, the word connotes another meaning, similar to that which “clerking” evokes for lawyers, or “staging” for chefs: a painstaking apprenticeship (philology cannot be taught by lecture, any more than can the making of a béchamel), usually with a crotchety old teacher (until recently, almost always a man), that focuses obsessively on fine detail, rigor, and caution. Philology, in other words, signifies not just a field of interest or a method, but also a set of cultural habits: crusty, stiff, and conservative.

In part, philology seems conservative because it is an anachronism. Today, the natural sciences and mathematics have pride of place in academia, and humanistic disciplines increasingly struggle to incorporate their methods and sources of data. But for a long time, history was primary, and particularly the history of canonical texts; philology was thus the gatekeeper to a rigorous and accurate view of the human past. As James Turner shows in his magisterial history Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities philology provided, for nearly five hundred years between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century, an over-arching method for humanists investigating the past. Scholars of literature, history, linguistics, philosophy, and more assumed the importance of old texts, but were challenged by various alternative, and conflicting, versions. Attempting to deduce from these texts an ideal original, philology provided scholars with the methodology to compare assiduously versions of those texts and think rigorously about their smallest details.

And yet, in practice, a funny thing came out of this strict, methodological search for ideal texts. To ensure the objectivity of their practice, philologists train their students by repeatedly denying them the intellectual pleasures of resolution. A textual emendation is exposed as merely conjectural, a supposed allusion is shown to ignore a dozen other possible source-texts, and so on, until students internalize the sense that a chasm separates them from what they are reading. Philological caution often expresses itself in skeptical maxims about interpretation. “Etymology does not fix meaning,” for instance – meaning that where a word comes from does not necessarily tell you anything about its present meaning – as a teacher of mine liked to insist. His favored example: “hussy,” familiar to modern English speakers in the Oxford English Dictionary’s third sense as “a disreputable woman of improper behavior,” which dates from the mid-seventeenth century. The word once meant merely “mistress of a household; a thrifty woman” or “a strong country woman; a woman of low social status” and originates, the OED explains, as a “phonetic reduction of HOUSEWIFE.” The etymology of “hussy” as outlined above, for example, can tell us nothing about what “hussy” means today; it reveals only the discontinuities of historical change.

Philologists sometimes oppose their discipline to hermeneutics – the field of study devoted to the interpretation of texts. Philology is supposed to be hermeneutics’ more responsible elder sibling, a necessary prerequisite to the accurate unpacking of profound meanings: “first establish the text,” is the philological slogan, “and only then you can read it.” But, in practice philology often does not so much prepare as block the way for interpretation. For as the discipline developed, philologists increasingly learned that while they could confidently establish the evolution of a text’s different versions, and the shifting meanings of its words, very often those conclusions did not contribute to, but instead directly contradicted, the search for meaning within larger texts. Philologists can debunk the stories pop-linguists tell about how etymologies fix meanings (e.g. “the Chinese symbol for crisis is made up of two other symbols, danger and opportunity”), often, debunking is about all they can do.

But is that crusty skepticism about the impossibility of getting to a text’s meanings correct? Perhaps not. Consider that the etymology of “hussy,” for example, reveals an unsuspected relation between rural origins and promiscuity in early modern English culture. The young country ingénue seduced by the city rogue is a stock figure of Elizabethan city comedy; the loose woman very often is a country woman. Indeed, “promiscuity” is often just sex-work translated into moralized, mystifying terms: the hussy is very often selling her sexuality. For that reason, both senses of “hussy” convey a lower-class industriousness. Thus, we might conjecture, the word’s semantic fall from thrifty housekeeping into disrepute may track not an inexplicable linguistic break, but a historical narrative: the collapse of a yeoman family (all those country women were migrating to London for a reason), say, and the pressures of urbanization. In other words, a deeper point about the connections between social class and sexual regulation, a micro-history of early modern English sexuality, can be discerned beneath the apparent semantic discontinuity of hussy’s modern and original meanings. Thinking this way does not mean bypassing philological difficulty to get to interpretation, but we also cannot be waylaid by pedantry. Rather, we have to find paths that lead through linguistic difficulty and historical difference towards meaning.


Jeffrey Masten’s new book, Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare’s Time, offers a broad methodological vision of how philology and cultural history, particularly inflected by queer theory, might fit together. In particular, Masten argues that both reading and writing practices, as well as notions of physical intimacy and social hierarchies of gender, were very different in the early modern period than they are today. Second, and crucially, Masten also argues that these two forms of difference—sexual and literary—are deeply related. Ultimately, Masten argues for a radically new conception of philology, a perspective informed by the lens of queer theory.

Masten’s argument focuses on future avenues for interpretation that discern from the small particulars of early modern books – like spelling, printing, editing, and vocabulary – insights into the period’s schema for understanding the human body and sexuality. Both close, “philological” reading and queer history, he argues, use early modern texts (Masten works primarily with drama) to reveal a social, sexual, and literary world profoundly different from our own: one lacking our most basic categories for understanding both sexuality and literary creativity.

Masten is working within a Foucauldian tradition, which emphasizes the powerfully determining influence different historical and social paradigms (Foucault called them “epistemes”) have on the differing ways people conceive of the world. In Foucault’s analysis, “sexuality,” and subordinate concepts like “homosexuality,” are modern ideas with limited usefulness for understanding the past. For Foucault, the modern episteme – essentially the psychic gestalt, comprised of the age’s language and framing its  consciousness, values and behavior – analyzes sex through the lens of “sexualities,” which are individual, psychological, and relatively stable personality traits, where earlier periods thought more in terms of shifting nexuses of social forces, norms, and behaviors. Crucially, Foucault’s argument about the modernity of sexuality also provides a genealogy in which the very notion of the modern “subject” is seen as arising only recently. We know that men have had sex with men, for instance, for as long as we have written evidence. But the clearly delineated category of “homosexuality,” which locates same-sex desires and acts in a specific psychological type and posits that the typology exists independent of social formations—that is a modern invention. Christopher Marlowe, for instance, (whether or not he said, as is reported, that “all those who loved not tobacco and boys were fools”) was no more “gay” than he was “straight”; he did not have a sexuality, because there were none to be had.

Masten combines Foucault’s argument about sexuality with a related historicization of basic literary terms and concepts, which he believes to be distinctively modern. Masten problematizes many basic textual concepts—like “word,” “text,” “author,” and the like—which were not used when the texts were produced. In the philologist’s work of analysis, Masten argues, such concepts mischaracterize and distort works and people living under a different episteme than our own. Distinct, separate words, Masten argues, emerge from the disciplining, straightening work of dictionaries. Shakespeare scholars love to note that the supposedly “weird sisters” in Macbeth may in fact be the “wayward sisters,” since English often discards medial w’s; Masten’s point is that there is in fact no matter of fact about whether “weird” and “wayward” are two words or one. In his first book, Textual Intercourse, Masten similarly argued that the concept of “author” anachronistically collapses the complexities of early modern dramatic collaborators into distinct, properly generative (that is, straight) individuals. He ths urged us to abandon the search for plays’ definitive authors and focus instead on the social webs that produced them.

The key, difficult insight of Queer Philology is that these two forms of historical difference (sexual and literary) are in fact one. Since both notions of sexuality and authorship derive from the modern concept of “subjectivity,” Masten views their application to early modern texts as different instances of the same misprision. Anachronistic histories of sexuality and anachronistic histories of literature both take social worlds comprised of messily entangled social and physical relationships and impose upon them the hard and fixed categories of pseudo-scientific discipline, misleadingly suggesting clear, sharp distinctions between individual elements and categories into which they fit—individuals and categories that do not exist in the source material.

Thus, while philology’s rigor has been often used to recover lost features of texts, Masten uses it to uncover as well the strangeness and difference of early modern approaches to sex, gender, and the body. Uncovering different forms of textuality and writing (that do not presume authorial subjects) regularly correlates with discovering new forms of erotic and physical relationship. “There can be no nuanced cultural history of early modern sex and gender,” Masten argues, “without spelling out its terms,” which include initially unlikely keywords like “sweet” and “boy.” That is, when we argue about whether pre-modern epistemes took hierarchy to be essential to homosexuality (as David Halperin claimed about ancient Athens), we need to be attentive to exactly who the “boys” were to whom, say, Elizabethan men were so frequently attracted. By arguing that “boy” sometimes stretched to include adult men, Masten suggests that “man-boy” love in Elizabethan England might have occasionally been more egalitarian than scholars have often assumed. Because philology insists on the specifics of the old text, it usefully refuses to paraphrase early modern texts into our categories and thus helps us see the discontinuities Foucault postulated—as well as to see past them. 

Masten argues that contemporary philology is premised upon distinctively modern ideas. Except briefly in his introduction, Masten does not explain clearly how and why modern philology differs from the ancient tradition of textual editing, close reading, and textual work. But other Foucauldian philologists have traced the disciplining of the textual arts. They argue that modern philology departs from its predecessors in being uniquely systematic, rule-based, and divorced from interpretation, which it imagines as its subjective, unruly Other. This approach, Masten argues, is crucially flawed, because many of modern philology’s supposedly objective categories are both anachronistic and interpretively laden. Just as we over-attribute stable, individual sexualities, so too we mistakenly imagine the producers of early modern English texts as having characteristic, individual styles. Investigations of who wrote a particular Elizabethan play depend on the claim that each author has a specific, individual lexicon; attempts to untangle a text’s printing have similarly posited that compositor spells in an individual way, or is prone to idiosyncratic errors. But just as we can mistakenly try to write the “history of homosexuality” and miss how the concept itself has shifted fundamentally, so too do philologists – in understanding their pursuit of an “authorial text” or their reconstruction of stemmatic genealogies of manuscripts as objective, uncontroversial pursuits – premise their programs on anachronistic assumptions about how early modern texts were produced. So while Masten promises that philological caution will support a Foucauldian analysis of the history of sexuality, he also uses Foucault to critique traditional philology itself.

As an example of how queer theory and history complicate philological work, take compositor identification. In this twentieth-century research program, scholars attempt to identify which compositor set the type for specific editions or parts thereof. Assuming that individual type-setters had consistent patterns of errors, they can then make better inferences about the supposedly authorial text which, to varying extents, the compositors had preserved or mangled. But bibliographic work like D. F. McKenzie’s cast doubt on compositor identification, in particular the idea that compositors had any such recognizably individual style or habits. Building on such work, Masten provocatively traces compositor identification back to other, more sinister techniques for the detection of individuals through their patterns of deviance, in particular the homophobic security protocols of the early Cold War state during the Lavender Scare. Tracing how compositor analysis emerged materially from scholars’ wartime work deciphering enemy codes, Masten shows how concerns with “the security of the Shakespearian text and national security” merged together in the compositor analysis’s “precise individuation of agents” through their characteristic forms of deviance. Compositor identification, like stemmatics, turns out to be problematically imbricated in very particular discourses about sexuality and perversion.


The chapters of Queer Philologies do not form a single historical or argumentative sequence but instead present a series of exemplary case studies. The introduction, for instance, weaves together Masten’s theoretical program with a meditation on the letter Q. Masten traces the history of Samuel Johnson’s mistaken belief that the letter’s name derived from the French “queue” (tail), reflecting its visual form. Masten recuperates Johnson, whose view is rejected by modern philologists (the name “Q” actually comes from the Greek “koppa”), by arguing that Q’s “tail” disrupted the neat boxes that standardizing humanists wanted to draw around letters, as they introduced systematic, philological rigor into the study of texts. Intriguingly, in treatises like humanist printer Geofroy Tory’s Champ Fleury, the majuscules (capital versions of each letter) were each drawn correlated with a specific position of the male body: literal men of letters. In this sense too, Q’s orthographic deviance symbolized another disruption, here a violation of male physical discipline. As Tory complains, the Q is always invading other letters’ spaces, especially his “ordinary companion and faithful friend” V (our U), whom he “seeks out and embraces… upward.” Masten then turns to Hornbyes Hornbook, a 1622 English poem about teaching boys to read. The poem conjoins questions about the positioning of letters and the bodily positioning of the boys themselves, frequently correlating “discourses of alphabetic backwardness… with sodomitical scenes.” Masten argues that “Q’s tail did make sense in early modern culture” which recognized Q as queerly deviant and thus in need of discipline. While Johnson’s etymology is thus wrong, it nonetheless encodes real cultural history of how Renaissance humanists sexualized and physicalized their letters. Furthermore, Masten thus suggests that philological rigor itself has roots in particular, Tory-like attempts to discipline and regularize the body: to tame Q’s tail. When the queer philologist hears “error” and “deviance,” they must register those terms’ erotic and social valences.


Masten’s redirection of philological rigor into queer, historicist estrangement occasionally comes at the expense of an older fashioned skepticism. Take that vexed question of etymology: Masten’s close readings often treat word histories as if they straightforwardly suggested something about meaning. But suppose the history of “hussy” tells us something about the history of sexuality. Still, Masten reasons from etymologies in ways that sometimes seem careless or too-quick.

Sure, as Masten writes “seduction and an introduction into philology are etymologically related.” But from that fact, it is not clear that one can conclude anything about the relation between pedagogy and erotics. Similarly, in a chapter on the positive valences of the early modern word “fundament” (roughly speaking, the anus), the fact that “prove and probe are etymologically related” is adduced as evidence for the epistemological significance of the fundament. Similarly, much is made of the etymological relation of “sweet” and “persuade.” Masten’s etymologies frequently turn on component parts of the word (in the first case above, the Latin “ducere,” to lead), and he problematically infers semantic similarity from etymological relation—instead of positing a specific story of how meanings and words changed. But languages are both too economical and too contingent in their developments for the etymologies of individual words to reveal much about their meaning—particularly when they are deployed in ahistorical terms: “are etymologically related” is simply not a very significant predicate.

In fact, there is a queer philological critique of the familial metaphors implicit in the idea that a common linguistic origin determines similarity of “offspring.” To be sure, Masten denies, in the discussion of “sweet,” that “we need to occupy ourselves with the pursuit of ‘word origins’” and suggests instead that “etymologies… persist in a word and its surrounding discourse, as a diachronic record of practice in the midst of language as a synchronic system.” The trouble is that they need not: the connections between words are far too numerous and polyvalent to make a system. Traditionally, the philologist would have recourse to the particular intentions and style of authorial agents to determine whether a particular echo, allusion, or etymology was live: did Marlowe or Shakespeare intend a particular pun, echo, or wordplay? Masten has, quite powerfully I think, undermined the confidence we can have in the disciplinary channels through which scholars sort out which linguistic resonances signify and which do not. But even as he disillusions us of our belief in authors, his dubious invocation of etymology is a symptom of a compensatory re-enchantment of abstract schemas, like language, culture, or the “sexual system.” Having wrested agency from authors, editors, compositors, and other individuals, Masten assigns it to these abstract schemas of linguistic connections. (To be sure, this redirection is a common move in post-structuralist, as well as New Historicist, cultural analysis of literary texts.)

Nonetheless, Masten’s Queer Philology is exciting, brilliant history and theory, in large part because he convincingly links literary and philological categories (“word,” “authors,” “compositor”) and cultural histories of sexuality. Further, his Foucauldian attentions to how categories like “discipline” and “individual” apply both to texts and sexuality provide exciting links between philology and queer theory. This important, timely book breaks new ground along multiple fronts: it provides a clear, convincing case for why scholars ought to be interested in textuality and language, rather than just using texts as historical windows through which to peer, it provides a new methodology for studying sex and gender in Shakespeare’s time and our own; and, perhaps most vitally, it recovers the irreverent, iconoclastic force the textual sciences used to have. Before philology came – gradually, over the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries – to signify a dry, mostly male discipline, it challenged authority and its inherited social structures (think of Lorenzo de Valla unmasking the fakery of the Donation of Constantine and Erasmus retranslating the Gospels). Just as the artists and scholars of the Renaissance at once paid homage to and transformed the Greco-Roman classics, so too Masten at once imitates and  subverts the tradition of philology.

Raphael Magarik is a PhD Candidate in English, Jewish studies, and Renaissance and early modern studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written for The Daily Beast, The Atlantic online, and NewRepublic.com. More of his writing can be found on his blog.

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