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Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare)

16th century English play. One of Shakespeare’s several works that feature women falling in love with cross-dressed women.

LHMP entry

Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences.

There are as many as 80 early modern dramatic works that feature cross-dressed heroines, with overt motivations ranging from following a (male) lover, avoiding rape, scandal, or death, traveling freely, or as a deliberate expression of gender non-conformity. In roughly 30 of these plays (written between 1580 and 1660), the cross-dressing also precipitates female homoerotic desire in some fashion. This raises the question of how and why this motif was employed.

Renaissance drama provides a case study in how lesbian themes and female homoerotic potential can be hidden in plain sight simply by the denial of their possibility. Traub notes that even today one can find vehement denials of homoerotic content in such overtly suggestive works as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And less overt content may only emerge into view through an awareness of the era’s understanding and encoding of female desire and forms of female intimacy.

This article looks at the Middleton and Dekker play (1608) The Roaring Girl based on the life of Moll Frith. One of Frith's several claims to fame was her habit of going about London openly wearing male clothing. That is, she made no effort to pass as a man or to use the clothing as disguise, but rather adopted it as a form of personal expression. The theatrical depiction of her similarly challenges gender expectations and anxieties, but obviously in a more self-conscious way.

The chapter begins with a survey of the types of published materials that led Lanser to identify the late 16th century as a shifting point in the discourse around sapphic topics. In 1566 a Swiss writer provides an account of a French woman who disguised herself as a man, worked as a stable groom and then a wine grower, married another woman, was eventually unmasked, and was executed. He notes “how our century can boast that beyond all the evils of the preceding ones” and explicitly disclaims any connection between events such as this and the “tribades in ancient times”.

“Travesty” comes literally from “cross-dress” with the theatrical term later picking up its sense of general transgression. Anyone familiar with theater and opera from Shakespeare onward is aware how popular it was to include gender disguise in its many forms and consequences. The two most common expressions both revolve around anxiety about female-female desire: a woman disguised as a man who attracts female romantic attention, or a man disguised as a woman to gain intimate access to a woman who then worries about the ensuing “wrong” erotic attraction.

Cressy looks at the social context of both “acceptable” and unacceptable forms of cross-dressing by both men and women in his study period. While the contexts for the two groups were very different, both raised similar concerns about the violation of appropriate gender roles and the use of cross-dressing as an excuse (or context) for other social transgressions.

Like many articles of this era, Bruster begins by explaining that (and why) there is a dearth of academic investigation into the topic of female homoeroticism in [insert topic here]. He asserts that prior work has focused on affirmative and subversive portrayals of female homoeroticism, resulting in an incomplete and idealized picture. So he’s going to be iconoclastic and look at less positive portrayals of female-female eroticism on the stage.

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