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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: 111g Walen 2005 - Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama (Chapter 5)

Full citation: 

Walen, Denise A. 2005. Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-6875-3

Publication summary: 

A comprehensive look at themes of female homoeroticism in 16-17th century English drama and its sources.

Chapter 5: Utopian Lesbian Erotics

There are some exciting times ahead for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project! Well, ok, maybe not that exciting. I'm getting close to rolling out a new more-bells-and-whistles version of the Alpennia.com website. The LHMP part will probably come in stage 2, since the internal mechanics are a little complicated. In brief, rather than the public face of the project being scattered among my Live Journal entries with a simple, static link-list on the website, the project (in fact, my entire primary blog) is going to move to the site. In addition to setting up easier ways to read through collections of related entries (or through the entire project, if one is so inclined), I'll be adding extensive keyword lists. And…well, just wait and see.

Chances are the new version won't be too different for the typical user from the current version. But if there are any "power users" out there who might want to search on whether I have any material covering 15th century Germany, or want a list of all publications discussing same-sex marriages, then you'll be in for a pleasant surprise. And when the full version of the web site is live, I'll be doing some sort of give-away to entice people to check it out. The problem is, my most ardent fans probably already have all my published fiction. If you're in that category, what sort of give-away would you find enticing?

Today's entry finishes up the main chapters of Walen's work, covering some of the most positive depictions. I confess I find myself wanting to see a staged production of John Lyly's Gallathea. The full text of the script is available online. Next week we'll finish up with the Conclusion and the list of plays. If I have the time, I'll try to add links to all of the plays that can be found online somewhere.

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Female same-sex desire is generally presented in early modern drama in fictitious constructions: the desire is either mistaken or misdirected. Only in this last chapter do we see examples where knowing desire from one woman to another is presented positively, and may even be celebrated as an ideal over heterosexual desire. Things aren’t always straightforward, even so. Although the desiring woman may believe the object of her desire is a woman, not uncommonly the scenario is defused by involving a gender-disguised man. Furthermore, the nature and context of the desire reflects a particular social context and reflects attitudes that view platonic love positively while frowning on genital sex. But the unifying theme of this group of plays is the valorization of female-female love and desire.

Walen chooses as a type-inspiration Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe, which was performed in England during the period of study in at least two versions. Henry Bellamy’s Latin version (1621-1633), as with the original, stresses similarity as the foundation of attraction and depicts Iphis’s virtues in female-coded terms. The attraction of like to like is presented as natural and praiseworthy. In contrast to this, Iphis views her love as existing in isolation--something that has never happened before—rather than being part of a tradition or fashion for female-female desire. The possibility of sexual consummation is denied and treated as impossible. This is part of a common framing where homoeroticism as an orientation of desire is praised, so long as sexual fulfillment is avoided.

Here Walen reviews recent scholarship about the theme of “femme-femme desire” in the 17th century from scholars such as Traub, Jankowski, and Andreadis. This era saw a juxtaposition of sensually-expressed affection between women with assertions of purity and innocence. Some scholars suggest that the women (and dramatic characters) of this era did not view their expressions of love as being erotic, but rather adopted the ideals of platonic love, expressed within female spaces. Where the scholars differ is whether they consider these themes to have been subordinate to patriarchal structures (with women’s relationships being acceptable so long as they didn’t interfere with marriage) or whether they were inherently transgressive and anti-patriarchal.

In Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen the usual pattern of resolving female-female bonds in favor male-female ones is broken. Rather than heterosexual marriage being presented as the desired outcome, it is equated with tyranny. The character of Emilia not only does not shift her affection to a male character, but is portrayed as having a general predisposition toward bonds with women, even though other characters criticize this. The play ends with a critique of heterosexual passion and suggests that homoerotic bonds are superior.

Two plays discussed in Chapter 4 depict not simply individual female-female bonds but networks of female affinity. Heywood’s The Golden Age and Dymock’s translation of Il Pastor Fido portray multiple female-female relationships. The Golden Age takes up the myth of Callisto, depicting Diana’s attendant nymphs paired up in monogamous same-sex couples. These bonds are strong enough to ostracize Callisto when when she joins their band as there is no single woman to partner up with her. This allows for Callisto’s betrayal by Jupiter, disguised as Diana. But even when Callisto has been expelled from Diana’s band due to her rape by Jupiter, she rejects Jupiter’s arguments for the superiority of male-female relations.

Dymock’s version of Il Pastor Fido presents a pastoral setting in which an all-female band are participating in kissing competitions, allegedly in preparation for heterosexual marriage. This casual acceptance of same-sex erotics is undermined only slightly when the competition is won by the male Mirtillo in gender-disguise.

I. Affirmative Erotic Alliances Between Women

The works in this section derive from Sidney’s Arcadia and Honoré d’Urfé’s L’Astrée. The latter was adapted by Leonard Willan as Astræa (1651). [It occurs to me to wonder about the relationship between this title and the code-name used by Aphra Behn when she worked as a spy.]

The plot of Arcadia was taken up in John Day’s The Isle of Guls (1606) and Shirley’s The Arcadia (1640), as well as an anonymous Love’s Changelinges Change (1630-40), though none of them focus on the desiring woman’s dilemma as strongly as Sidney’s original does. As a brief reiteration: Pyrocles (a man) disguises himself as the Amazon Zelmane in order to be close to Philoclea. Gradually Philoclea becomes accustomed to the idea of being in love with a woman, but in the end, Pyrocles reveals himself and the story ends in heterosexual romance. Love’s Changelinges Change comes the closest to retaining this focus, having the characters meditate on how their bond would be disrupted by marriage (to someone else), as well as contemplating sex-change as a solution to their love. In contrast to Sidney’s scene where Philoclea pledges her love to Zelmane while still believing Zelmane to be a woman, Shirley only has her claim this in retrospect after Pyrocles has revealed himself. Shirley’s work adds the additional complication that Philoclea’s parents both also desire Zelmane/Pyrocles.

Day’s adaptation of the Arcadia, titled The Isle of Guls, is a tragicomic romance. As in Shirley’s version, Philoclea’s parents complicate the issue by both desiring Zelmane/Pyrocles. Each believes themself to desire a person of the opposite sex and believes the other to be engaged in misdirected homosexual desire. Both scenarios are played to: the mother gives the appearance of being a woman courting a woman, while the father is engaged in the reality of a man courting a man. In Day’s work, Philoclea is cynical rather than conflicted and innocent.

In contrast to the Arcadia adaptations, Willan’s adaptation Astræa retains the homoerotics of his source material. In this pastoral play, Phillis and Sylvander compete for the judgement of the goddess Diana regarding which of them is the better lover. Phillis’s argument rests on the attraction of similarity and she is more assertive erotically in presenting her evidence. In the end, Diana dodges the question by declaring a tie. The other plot thread involves conventional cross-dressed confusion. Astrea has spurned her suitor Celadon who then disguises himself as the female Alexis, and in that form provokes Astrea’s desire. Somewhat unexpectedly, when Celadon reveals himself to Astrea, she is furious with him for accepting her advances while disguised and her desire doesn’t carry over after this revelation. That is, Astrea loved Alexis, specifically as a woman, and not due to “really knowing it was Celadon.” The play ends with Phillis, Diana, and Astrea as close friends, including several erotic scenes between Astrea and Diana under the cover of “just friends”, but as their relationship includes sexual jealousy, the erotic component is inescapable.

II. Fletcher’s The Loyal Subject and The Pilgrim

This section contrasts two depictions of desire between women in the works of John Fletcher: The Pilgrim (1621), a comedy, and The Loyal Subject (1618) a tragicomedy on the subject of the conflict in loyalties between love and duty. The latter is notable for including a gender-disguised male character. As with many plays, the female-female erotics exist between appearances, while the underlying bodies are male-female. Olimpia is attracted to her waiting woman Alinda (a man in disguise), but Olimpia’s brother also desires Alinda, setting up both female and male homoerotic interactions. Olimpia distances herself from her desire, saying, “Oh, if only you were a man, how I would love you!” But she feels sexual jealousy when she believes that Alinda has slept with her brother. When Alinda wants to cast aside the gender-disguise, the “convenient twin brother” motif is invoked. Olimpia transfers her affection to the former-Alinda, now-Archas.

In The Pilgrim the plot is much more convoluted (and somewhat confusingly, also involves a character named Alinda). There are multiple disguises of both genders, but the female-female erotics don’t rely only on these disguise plots. There is desire within a mistress-maid pair that is left unrequited. Alinda (remember: this Alinda actually is a woman) escapes a forced marriage with the help of her maid Juletta who shows her desire for Alinda in the ways she works to prevent Alinda from reconciling with her father or being discovered in her exile. Although Juletta pays lip service to encouraging Alida to find sexual satisfaction with men, she considers those relationships to be unimportant. Alinda declines to return Juetta’s attention in part because she’s suspicious of Juletta’s motives. However Juletta is faithful right to the end. When she is offered a marriage as part of the play’s resolution, she rejects the option, proclaiming, “My mistress is my husband, with her I’ll dwell still.”

III. John Lyly’s Gallathea

This work is the most striking example of female same-sex desire in 16th century drama (ca. 1585) and is adapted in part from Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe. In addition to the main story, there is a sub-plot involving a debate between chastity and pleasure, by means of the characters of Diana, Venus, and Cupid.

Gallathea and Phyllida are both young women who (entirely independently) have been sent to the forest for safety, cross-dressed as men. So when they encounter and are attracted to each other, each--knowing herself to be female--believes herself to desire a man. However to side-step the apparent male homoerotic attraction, they both begin hinting strongly about the truth of their sex, and very shortly both are in the position of strongly suspecting they have fallen in love with another woman. The cover typically given to the homoerotic attraction by the gender disguise motif is undermined by how rapidly they move to a true understanding of each other’s sex. The desire then remains within a true and self-aware female-female pair. The only nod to removing the transgressive aspect of their situation is in having them both express discomfort with their male disguises.

Gallathea and Phyllida are both “feminine” women (uncomfortable withe trappings of masculinity) attracted to female-coded attributes in each other. They negotiate revealing this truth by Phyllida playfully addressing Galathea as “mistress”. Phyllida’s evident distress when she confirms that the object of her desire is a woman argues the seriousness of the emotion. If their attraction were accepted as entirely innocent and chaste, there would be no reason for her anxiety. And in the conclusion of the play, the two reaffirm their love for each other as women. They are not conveniently paired off with men, and they make a vow of love to each other under the aegis of Venus. This resolution is unique in early modern drama. In response to this vow, Venus promises to change one of the two to a man so they can marry, but the play ends before this promised event takes place and the question of which is to be transformed is deliberately left unknown. The transformation will occur solely to remove the “impossibility” of two women loving and marrying, and not due to either of them identifying with a male role. It’s also worth noting that all the participants in the various love intrigues in the play are women.

IV. Lodowick Carlell’s The Deserving Favorite and The Passionate Lovers

These two plays from the 17th century also identify female homoeroticism as compatible with romantic love and equivalent to heterosexuality. They use a variety of female pairs to explore the standard tropes: cross-dressing confusion, pretended seduction to expose a cross-dressed woman, maid and mistress relations, in addition to a simple and overt confesion of love between women that is identified as analogous to heterosexuality. These relations are depicted more explicitly than in earlier plays, employing on-stage kisses to affirm the erotic nature of their desire.

Here Walen digresses into the socio-political context in which Carlell was working, and in particular the phenomenon of “préciosité” (literally: preciousness), which involved a focus on female characters in deference to a female audience, a significant emphasis on platonic love as preferable to lust and sexual passion, and included themes of devotion and especially the relationship of a group of devotees to a central female figure such as Queen Henrietta Maria. This overt de-emphasis of lust and passion and a reverence for chastity allowed for the use of erotic language and exaggerated emotional sentiment to express strong affection between women. At the same time, the exaggerated and formulaic nature of the expression has led to some historians arguing that the superficial eroticism is purely performance and not genuine emotion. As the 17th century approaches its close, expressions of female same-sex love split between this highly coded and evasive language, and an opposite swing to frankly sexual works of a prurient and transgressive nature.

Carlell worked within the platonic tradition that treated desire between women sympathetically and adopted the language of heterosexual romance for the topic. This was not a universal approach at the time. For example, William Davenant’s depiction of “platonic lovers” contrasts the hypocrisy of the license allowed to a platonic (heterosexual) couple, who are allowed sexual freedom by claiming emotional detatchment, with more traditionally “passionate” lovers who are expected to show restraint and chastity. We are shown parallels in the depiction of heterosexual platonics and female homosexual platonics in how, thouch technically chaste, they can express explicit desire.

Carlell’s women support each other, praise each other’s beauty in sensual language, and elevate friendships between women over relationships with men. The events and relationships of The Deserving Favorite are hideously complex, involving love polygons, unrecognized siblings, and both heterosexual and same-sex erotics. Here is an attempt at untangling the matter:

  • The Duke and Lysander both love Clarinda
  • (Unknown to them at the time, Lysander and Clarinda are siblings.)
  • Princess Cleonarda (who is a close relation of the Duke) also loves Lysander. Cleonarda is described in masculine-coded terms and is an assertive and independent woman.
  • Cleonarda has lived in companionable isolation and intimate affection with her waiting woman Mariana (who is also Lysander’s sibling).
  • When Lysander is found wounded, believing has had killed the Duke, Cleonarda shows her affection for Mariana by rescuing him even though he may have killed her kinsman, but then she falls in love with him. This provokes Mariana’s jealousy and Mariana starts bad-mouthing Lysander, saying he isn’t worthy of Cleonarda. There is a constant shifting back and forth between the primacy of same-sex and opposite-sex bonds and alliances.
  • Cleonarda and Clarinda meet when they both go to court to beg a pardon for Lysander, but having met, Lysander seems to be forgotten as they begin praising each others beauty. Clarinda declares to Cleonarda that if she were a man and could design the perfect mistress, it would be Cleonarda. Cleonarda, in turn, offers to kiss away Clarinda’s tears.
  • Out of love for Clarinda, Cleonarda gives up her claim on Lysander. But Lysander, believing he’s going to the gallows, addresses both women, telling Clarinda “you may live happily, you and the Princess may together make a kind of marriage, each one strongly flattering themselves the other is Lysander.” That is, they’re given permission to love each other under the fiction that each is standing in for Lysander.

In the end, there is a happy resolution (though Walen fails to specify exactly what it is in her summary).

The second part of Carlell’s play The Passoinate Lovers presents a positive argument for same-sex love. While featuring a gender-disguised heroine who is desired by a woman, the desiring subject only professes her love after her object’s true sex is revealed and persists in that devotion in the face of the persuasions of other characters. This is another convoluted plot whose basic scenario may be stripped down to the following:

  • There are two pairs of siblings
  • The brothers Agenor and Clarimant both love Clorinda.
  • Agenor marries Princess Austella instead.
  • Clorinda takes on male disguise to follow Agenor to his new home.
  • Princess Austella has a sister, Olinda, who falls in love with the disguised Clorinda.
  • Austella, aware of her sister’s desire, suspicous of Clorinda’s gender, but also jealous of her husband Agenor’s fondness for the disguised Clorinda, determines to court Clorinda herself to force her hand, pestering her with kisses.
  • Clorinda, greatly distressed by all this (including Austella’s apparent betrayal of Agenor) reveals her true sex.
  • This does not daunt Olinda who declares she finds the female Clorinda even more attractive than the gender-disguised one. She appears, in fact, relieved to discover that she’s in love with a woman rather than a man. Clorinda tries to persuade her toward a more traditional (heterosexual) romance, but Olinda is insistant that she will “profess my heart for ever only yours” and that Clorinda’s virtues are such that it is only fitting that she be loved by all. And although Olinda doesn’t manage to win Clorinda’s returned love, she remains single at the end of the play, rather than being forced into a heteronormative pairing.

This play, then, doesn’t hide in ambiguities or misdirection. And the language Olinda uses is identical to the language used between heterosexual lovers in the same context.

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