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Thoughts on Erotic Subjects
by Paul J. Hecht

Sanchez, Melissa. Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature.  Oxford UP, 2013. 298 pp. 978-0199354368. $30.00 paper.

The fact of Oxford’s paperback reprinting of this book is a sure sign that, more than most academic books, it has found an audience, found appreciative readers, and is finding its way in the world. I have already contributed to the group of enthusiastic reviews that greeted the first edition; a review is therefore not what I am doing here, but rather a brief reflection on the claims I made at the time, as well as my latest thoughts on how from my very limited point of view the work the book began seems to be progressing.[1] What most excited me about the book in 2011 was the way it crossed category borders that I didn’t think could be crossed. It was for me literally path-breaking, because it seemed fearlessly to move between the realms of gender and sexuality studies (and realms within that realm), political history and theory, and the interpretive micro-verses of early modern literary works and cultures. What I didn’t say in my review (though it was perhaps implied) was that I found this personally exciting because it encouraged me in some of my own scholarly pursuits. I was just finishing an article on Mary Wroth’s sonnets at the time, and I found Sanchez’s approach to Wroth (Erotic Subjects focuses on the Urania in chapter 5) congenial. My follow-up to that article was more explicit in its efforts to use, especially, her writing on sexual domination, to illuminate affinities between Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Wroth’s sonnet voice, and to tie these as well to concepts of political tyranny.[2] The book project that I am completing on the Rosalinds of Spenser, Lodge, and Shakespeare continues that work. So for me Sanchez’s book was affirming and inspiring.

The publication of Erotic Subjects was clearly a watershed moment for Sanchez; afterwards she became and has remained a fixture in panel discussions and roundtables on, especially, feminism and queer theory, not limited to early modern topics. And a new wave of her work will likely be arriving shortly. There is a volume of Spenser Studies on Spenser and the Human, co-edited with Ayesha Ramachandran due out early next year. There is a collection entitled Rethinking Feminism: Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Early Modern Studies, co-edited with Ania Loomba, forthcoming from Ashgate, and there is a new monograph in progress, the working title of which is “Unreformed Desires: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Early Modern Sexualities.” All of which promises, happily, a great deal more Sanchez to read in the coming years. 

Erotic Subjects stands up for its sure-handed eloquence and brilliant traversal of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary works. Almost as noteworthy, however, was the article that appeared in PMLA shortly after the publication of the book.[3] For me, this sharpens some of the theoretical positioning that is more implicit than explicit in Erotic Subjects (but which may well be much further developed in the book that is underway, given the shared subtitle). This article gained so much attention that it was cited, at length, in a book on how to write academic articles, so there is no need for me to rehearse its argument: just go and read it.[4] But it is this Sanchez that I have focused on in an essay forthcoming in the collection of Spenser essays I have just edited with J. B. Lethbridge (for Fairleigh Dickinson University Press). Sanchez’s PMLA essay is absorbed with navigating the tensions between feminism and queer theory, and suggesting promising ways forward. The stakes in this context are very high, and connect to ongoing and pressing social issues, and that connection infuses the work with urgency and value. But at the same time, there seems extraordinary value in the way Sanchez demonstrates that one may address oneself to a suite of issues usually gathered under the heading “gender and sexuality” but without the set of commitments or limitations this usually entails. To put it simply, I was a scholar obsessed with things like alliteration and syllable quantity, who wanted to write about the erotic dimension of these subjects, and who was looking for a way out of a sort of de-politicized, sterile formalist ghetto. Staring at erotic subjects from the other side of the window, you might say, a window Sanchez made me feel might be shattered. My new essay, bringing together Jeff Dolven’s “ordinary” with Sanchez’s “queer” is a first effort to connect these realms explicitly. That’s where I want to take Erotic Subjects. And Sanchez’s willingness to take seriously the erotic language of early modern politics is the template for my effort to take seriously the erotic language of poetic form. Who knows how it will turn out? But I owe to Sanchez’s writing the courage to give it a try.

Paul J. Hecht 
Purdue University—North Central 



[1] Paul J. Hecht, “Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern Literature,” Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 41.2 (2012): 263–66.

[2] Paul J. Hecht, “Distortion, Aggression, and Sex in Mary Wroth’s Sonnets,” SEL 53.1 (2013): 91–115, and Paul J. Hecht, “Rosalind and Wroth: Tyranny and Domination,” in Mary Wroth and Shakespeare, ed. Marion Wynne-Davies and Paul Salzman (New York: Routledge, 2014), 115–24.

[3] Melissa E. Sanchez, “‘Use Me But as Your Spaniel’: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Early Modern Sexualities,” PMLA 127.3 (May 2012): 493–511.

[4] Eric Hayot, The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities (New York: Columbia UP, 2014), 93–95.

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45.1.4

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Paul J. Hecht, "Thoughts on Erotic Subjects," Spenser Review 45.1.4 (Spring-Summer 2015). Accessed October 17th, 2017.
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