"Man Delights Not Me; No, Nor Woman Neither": Asexuality in Early-modern Literature

Date of Award

Summer 8-27-2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Callaghan, Dympna


asexuality, early modern, queer, renaissance, Shakespeare, theatre

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | History | History of Religion


This dissertation argues that, by purposefully occupying a social state that early-modern English society rejected as inherently perverse, those who practiced or narrated lives of celibacy disrupted the coherence of Protestant marriage culture. Dissent against the hegemonic position of marriage and marital sexuality in English society adopted the language of Catholic celibacy in an effort to recreate some of the pre-Reformation conditions that validated abstinent lives, and sympathetic representations of celibacy suggest resistance to heteronormativity. While celibacy and asexuality are distinct categories, my research on early-modern English celibacy is informed by asexuality studies and its understanding of how compulsory sexuality organizes society, naturalizing performances of sexual attraction and denigrating or exoticizing sexual indifference or repulsion. At the same time that celibacy was figured as a threat to the integrity and sustainability of the English Protestant state, celibacy emerged as a powerful tactic for resisting the dominant Protestant discourse. After surveying the history of celibacy and asexuality in the introduction, each chapter offers a reading of one or more early modern texts demonstrating how recovering the discourses and cultural performances of celibacy can help us better understand not only queer asexuality but also sexuality as a category more broadly today. In turn, the recuperation of asexual history can lead us to more historically accurate readings of the texts and discourses of early-modern period as well as literature as a whole.

In the first chapter, I argue that Hamlet upends the hypersexual stereotypes attached to celibacy since the start of the English Reformation by urging universal celibacy as the solution to the moral corruption of the state. The second chapter argues that Shakespeare's "Phoenix and the Turtle" treats seriously the claims of celibacy to be a state of spiritual devotion and sexual continence, while reconfiguring spiritual love to bridge the transcendent divine and the material body in a bid for asexual liberation. The third chapter suggests that, through the figure of the converted Mary Magdalene, early-modern poets were able to explore forms of passion that were definitionally spiritual and celibate while engaging in the affects and aesthetics of a kinky asexual erotics. The final chapter considers Shakespeare's Richard III as a neuroqueer asexual character who opportunistically occupies erotonormative positions as a means by which to access political power. The concluding coda sketches possibilities for the study of early modern asexualities to read the past, understand the present, and achieve a liberated future.


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