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Elizabethan Translation: the Art of the Hermaphrodite

Jonathan Bate
Affiliation:
University of Liverpool
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Summary

Hermaphrodite: a human being or animal combining characteristics of both sexes; figuratively, a person or thing combining two opposite qualities or functions (usage dating from late Middle English); also, a homosexual, an effeminate man (late sixteenth-century usage, now rare).

The Elizabethans seem to have had a peculiar interest in hybrids, in the crossing of boundaries and the mixture of opposites. Shakespearean comedy celebrates the quasi-hermaphroditic boy actor playing the part of a girl who then dresses as a boy (Rosalind, Viola). The first published version of The Faerie Queene ends with the coupling of Amoret and her beloved Sir Scudamour: fused together in ‘long embracement’, they are ‘growne together quite’, so that

Had ye them seene, ye would have surely thought,

That they had beene that faire Hermaphrodite,

Which that rich Romane of white marble wrought,

And in his costly Bath causd to bee site.

Two beings becoming one in the act of lovemaking is nature's supreme transformation. One and one makes one, and, out of that one, another, a third, is created—or, in the special case which is Shakespeare's speciality, two others, a pair of twins, are created. Spenser's choice of image, though, is from art, not nature: the fused Amoret and Scudamour are compared to a beautifully wrought statue of a hermaphrodite, not an actual hermaphrodite. Nature's transformation is imaged by means of the artist's work of transformation. A statue is both nature (a chunk of marble) and art (a form realized by the work of the artist). It is itself a kind of hermaphrodite.

The Elizabethans were as attentive to any work of art's intensity of artfulness—its energia, as Sir Philip Sidney had it—as they were to its truth to nature (its mimesis). We might even say that they celebrated an aesthetics of hermaphroditism. After all, what is the key to Shakespeare's endurance if not his extraordinary capacity to appeal to so many different dispositions that he seems to answer perfectly to the definition of the hermaphrodite: ‘a person or thing combining two opposite qualities or functions’? The combination of opposites is the Shakespearean hallmark which has variously been called his ‘negative capability’, his ‘seventh-type ambiguity’, his ‘principle of indetermination’.

Type
Chapter
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Translating Life
Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics
, pp. 33 - 52
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2000

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