Bestial Empowerment: Approaching Polymorphous Nature

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

In a recent PMLA article, early modern scholar Melissa E. Sanchez seeks to “make available a mode of reading that reintegrates some of the foundational work of queer theory […] into understandings of female sexuality” (493).  Examining The Faerie Queene and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sanchez reads against the grain by deemphasizing the moments of masculine power or feminine subservience so often studied within the texts. Rather, she emphasizes moments of “deviant” female sexuality as instances of female empowerment:  Guyon’s intrusion into the Naked Damsels’ sado-masochistic bath, Hellenore’s decision to perform orgiastic sex with satyrs rather than go home to her impotent husband, and Helena’s self-figuration as an animal desirous of men and women’s violent sexual advances. Such instances trouble hetero-normative gender assumptions that male-female sex always disempowers women; they further unveil and disrupt problematic gender assumptions that homoerotic female couplings are necessarily egalitarian, emotional, or companionate.  For Sanchez, these moments urge us to perform readings of early modern texts that break free from rigid modern categories to instead embrace the polymorphous nature of Renaissance sexuality.  By extension, such reading urges us to perform more truly “queer” analysis that defies binarism.

By drawing attention to bestiality as one empowering mode of deviant sexuality for female literary characters, Sanchez’s research taps into issues at the heart of “Performing Humanity.”  Questions of bestiality enter into and complicate women’s roles as social, legal, and sexual subjects during the Renaissance.  Previous posts by Brittany S.Marc K., and myself have discussed how conduct literature, art, science, law, and religion represented women as unstable hybrids.  Women were considered part human, part animal, wholly dangerous, wholly helpless, and always in need of masculine containment.  Yet when bestiality becomes a site of empowerment, it becomes what I call “disruptive compliance”–an act through which an individual’s compliance with social expectation disrupts rather than reaffirms the dominant social order.  If women were, in fact, animals as law/religion/science posited, then it would be only natural for them to couple with other beasts.  Female literary characters’ participation in bestiality, however, causes uproar and as a result draws attention to three problematic possibilities: 1) That women are human despite social traditions’ assertion, and therefore are treated unfairly under law,  2) That women are beasts and implicate human men in bestiality when marital or non-marital erotic couplings occur.  A third possibility arises in cases like Hellenore’s, when sexual activity takes place between a women and a man-beast hybrid such as a satyr or centaur.  Such instances draw attention to the fact that just as women might be animal-human hybrids, so too might men regardless of their socially vaunted physical and rational capacities.  From the perspective of “Performing Humanity,” Sanchez’s work does double duty.  Not only does it remind us that Renaissance sexuality was polymorphous, but that human status was as well.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is the editor of “Performing Humanity” and is an assistant professor of early modern and medieval literature at Ball State University in Indiana.  Her current book project, Disruptive Compliance: Silent Women in Stuart Drama, argues that through the strategic use of silence, women were able to generate space for dramatic authorship and acting in the Renaissance.


Image: Piero di Cosimo, “A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph.” (Italy, c. 1495).

Sanchez, Melissa E. “‘Use Me But as Your Spaniel’: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Early Modern Sexualities.” PMLA 127:3 (May 2012), 493-511.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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