Penn English Professor Studies Sexuality by Looking at Renaissance Love Lyrics

Expressions of unrequited desire quoted in romantic comedies and in poems of everlasting devotion read at weddings have their roots in centuries-old texts.

Melissa E. Sanchez says a careful look at the language and history of 16th- and 17th-century poetry provides insights on issues of gender, sexuality and romance both past and modern-day.

Sanchez, associate professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences and core faculty of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, says that reading Renaissance texts enriches understanding of both the historical insights about the period when the literature was written and about current cultural conditions.

Typically, Sanchez says, this poetry is read with the assumption that the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century gave rise to normative thinking in the Western world that sex in marriage is healthy and good and sex outside marriage damnable and dangerous. But, looking at poetry from the period, Sanchez says, marriage was not idealized as it is today. Rather, poets such as Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare and Katherine Phillips considered the consequences of the early Protestant conviction that, even within marriage, sexual desire is dangerous because it represents the irrational and uncontrollable human will more generally.

“One of the poets I work with, John Donne, who was married and by all accounts very much in love with his wife wrote in a poem,” Sanchez says,"...that it’s good that she’s with God now, but also that her death is good for Donne because now his love for her — itself a part of the world, flesh and devil — is not tempting him to forget his relationship with God.”

Sanchez conducts research on 16th- and 17th-century literature and focuses on gender, sexuality and politics in early modern England.  

“I try not to come to texts with preconceived notions of what someone writing in the 16th or 17th centuries would have meant. I linger over the points where I’m surprised or stumped: that’s strange, it doesn’t fit into the narratives we have, what do I make of it? One poet appears to be endorsing promiscuity, another is saying that he’s glad that his wife is dead, still another is writing love poems to both men and women.”

The humanities scholar had been at Penn for five years, when her first book was published in 2011. Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature examined the works of politically active 16th- and 17th-century writers from Philip Sidney to John Milton, looking at their use of erotic violence and cross-gender identification.

Renaissance poetry, says Sanchez, has been too easily shoehorned into a simplified narrative about the rise of marriage. By widening the context to understand what marriage meant to the culture as well as thinking about what the poems actually say about desire that don’t fit a married or monogamous model, readers can rethink some of their assumptions of what is normal and good when it comes to desire and gender roles.

Sanchez has presented her research on non-normative constructions of womanhood, sexuality and identity at numerous conferences and symposia nationally and internationally.

She says that the state of the field of Renaissance literature is at an interesting place with much debate about historicist methods, how much scholars should contextualize literary work within its historical moment and what can be learned about a moment in history based on non-literary writing, political pamphlets, laws or medical books, as well as how early literature can help theorize issues of gender and desire more generally.

Her latest publications include a forthcoming collection of essays, Rethinking Feminism in Early Modern Studies: Gender, Race and Sexuality, which she co-edited with Ania Loomba, Catherine Bryson Professor of English at Penn. Two other edited volumes are also in print or will be soon.

A special issue of the journal Spenser Studies entitled “Spenser and the Human,’” co-edited with Ayesha Ramachandran was published at the end of 2015. The volume includes an essay by Sanchez entitled "Posthumanist Spenser?" which discusses the implications of post humanist theory for early modern literary study. A special issue of The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies entitled “Desiring History and Historicizing Desire,” co-edited with Ari Friedlander and Will Stockton, will appear in print in April.

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