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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.

Contents summary: 

I. Dramatic Constructions of Female Homoeroticism

The book opens with what has become a familiar lament that the scholarly consensus spent entirely too long proclaiming that female homoeroticism was not attested in early modern literature (largely because no one was actually looking for it, or considering it of importance when they found it), but that the last decade or so has been beginning to remedy that misapprehension.

In fact, the author has found that late 16th and early 17th century English drama is rather rich in depictions of female homoerotic desire. This isn’t to say that the plays had homoerotic resolutions, but that--rather than seeing the heteronormativity of the stories as erasure or contradiction--the existence of the homoerotic motifs is noteworthy in and of itself, regardless of the larger framing that may undermine it. The encounters may be minor or may constitute a significant complication of the plot.

As with other studies of literary homoeroticism, the author has chosen to organize the material thematically, according to how the relationship is portrayed in context, whether as playful mistaken identity, in contexts of anxious intrigue, in predatory relationships, or as utopian representations of romantic love. Within these thematic categories, the relationship of the two women can vary significantly in terms of the nature of the partnership, the relative age and class of the participants, and the social context or purpose of the encounter. Gender disguise may play a part (including both women disguised as men and men disguised as women). And while a heteronormative resolution is common, it is not the only possible outcome from these encounters.

In some ways, the volume of literature using these motifs makes analysis more difficult. Desire between women is seen here, not as an isolated, uniform motif, but as a pervasive and varied option. The representations both reflect and promulgate a knowledge of the erotic possibilities between women. A more uniform motif might be ascribed to literary tradition, but the diversity argues for a representation of the playwrights’ own knowledge (and perhaps experiences). And we should remember that, unlike poetry and written literature, which may have had limited and rarified circulation, drama was popular entertainment, viewed and appreciated by those of all classes.

The question always remains to what extent these fictional representations reflect the lives of contemporary women, but this isn’t a question that can be answered easily from the texts. What can be answered, to some extent, is how the contextualization of these erotic encounters speaks to what the reception of desire between women may have been. In general, it was presented as suspect and threatening, but simultaneously as tolerable and pleasurable, particularly if viewed through the lens of friendship and homosociality rather than strictly of sexual activity. In general, expressions of explicit sexual desire are presented negatively while depictions of romantic love are most accepted.

Scenarios of homoeroticism may be used as social criticism, but often tangentially, to address entirely different areas of social, religious, or political concern. Yet an overarching theme is that homoerotic desire must be punished within the story, with the degree of punishment indexed to the degree of transgression. Utopian, romantic, non-sexual attachment may be presented as exemplary, but anxious, predatory, sexual scenarios tend to end in tragedy. Direct transgression (and the need for its punishment) is often avoided by misdirection (cross-dressing confusion) or by relegating the desire to a deniable subtext via innuendo or allusion. The homoerotic presence may be created by its denial or may exist only by the way in which its possibility disrupts a more central heterosexual plot.

The introduction rehearses the usual suspects in modern sexuality theory and explores the essentialist/constructionist debates. The author chooses to focus on “homoeroticism” and a differentiation between “desire” and sexual activity, thereby side-stepping questions of orientation or sexual identity as they might apply to the characters of the plays (or their audience). There is also a review of the (delightfully extensive) modern literature on early modern female homoeroticism, particularly by Jankowski, Schwarz, Andreadis, and Traub, as well as earlier work by Vicinus, Faderman, Farwell, and Castle. She also notes commentary by early modern authors on female homoerotic possibilities from authors such as Brantôme and Firenzuola.

II. Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London

As an illustrative example of the relationships of texts and the themes represented within them, one particular work is examined. Wilson’s play appeared in 1584, the same year as the publication of Pietro Aretino’s lurid erotic “dialogs” (Ragionamenti), which includes a great deal of female homoeroticism within a depiction of generally pansexual and orgiastic activity. The women satisfy each other and themselves with dildoes and manual stimulation. Aretino, then, represents explicitly the knowledge of what women might do together that may have formed the audience’s context for a work such as Wilson’s Three Ladies.

This “comic morality play” (which includes anti-Semitic themes) depicts the allegorical characters of Love, Conscience and Lucar (lucre, i.e., money), whereby Conscience, in a constant rivalry with Lucar, is eventually seduced from the company of Love by financial need to accept the erotic advances of Lucar. These advances are restricted textually to a kiss, but occur in the midst of more erotically charged language that presumes the potential for further activity, such as that laid out in Aretino.

III. Representations of Female Homoeroticism in Dramatic Literature

Although Wilson’s depiction may be the earliest (known, surviving) representation of female homoeroticism in English drama it is not necessarily typical. Other plays such as Henry Glapthorne’s The Hollander and John Fletcher & Philip Massinger’s The Sea Voyage, while depicting physical love between women, portrays it as an “indifferent heate” or a “cold and chast embrace” rather than the enthusiastic sexuality the characters later find with men.

When not chaste, there is an air of condemnation, as in Massinger’s The Picture when the jealous Honoria, Queen of Hungary, imposes an aggressive desire (though still represented only by kisses) on the unenthusiastic Sophia.
Male characters are often employed to devalue love between women, as in George Chapman’s Monsieur D’Olive when a man scolds a woman for vowing to remain a virgin in mourning for her female friend, asserting the impossibility of such passionate love between women. Or in Jasper Mayne’s The Amorous Warre and Henry Burnell’s Landgartha where male characters taunt women (whom they desire) for sharing their beds with other women, simultaneously invoking the specter of sexual activity between the women and denying its value.

But conversely, men’s anxiety over women’s sexual possibilities with each other--or, indeed, any sort of active sexuality--comes in for satire in John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize or, the Tamer Tamed and Margaret Cavendish’s The Comical Hash. And there is an acknowledgment that women might satisfy each other if men are not available (or willing) for the task, in Massinger’s The Bondman and Richard Brome’s The Antipodes. Far more outspoken is Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s semi-biographical play The Roaring Girl which centers the cross-dressing, gender-transgressive, and bisexual Moll Cutpurse.

IV Organization

In this final section of the introduction, the plan for the organization of the book is laid out. Chapter 1 looks at representations of love, sex, and desire between women in non-dramatic sources of a similar period. Chapter 2 looks primarily at comedies where the erotic potential derives from a cross-dressing heroine who becomes the object of desire for another woman. Chapter 3 focuses more on tragedy, also centering on cross-dressing plots but where the resulting desire creates unease and anxiety. Chapter 4 examines more predatory characters, generally involving the seduction (attempted or successful) of a naive, unsophisticated woman by one with more experience and power. Chapter 5 concerns more utopian scenarios, generally focusing on romantic attachments that may or may not have an erotic component.

Contents summary: 

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. One major motif--that of gender disguise and its consequences--is of particular interest, and the chapter will explore they ways in which gender disguise and gender transgression intersected, but did not in any way require or imply, homoeroticism. Rather it was a motif commonly available in the culture that could be used to create the opportunity for homoerotic implications.

I. Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern England

One strong tendency is for fictional treatments of female homoeroticism to focus on desire and to treat it neutrally or sympathetically, while non-fictional evidence focuses on sexual activity and is consistently disapproving.

This historic review begins with the usual non-fictional sources: penitentials, legal codes, and court cases. Religious penitential literature condemned any sort of sexual activity between women, although there is scholarly disagreement over how this disapproval corresponded to popular opinion. There were legal prohibitions against sexual activity between women in France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, and the Holy Roman Empire, although not in England itself. In contrast to the legal record of trials and sentences for sexual activity between men, recorded trials of women were infrequent and focused strongly on the transgressive elements of cross-dressing and the use of dildos. This emphasis on gender transgression is further highlighted in that a non-crossdressing member of a female couple was not pursued or punished to the same degree. The text reviews some of the more detailed legal cases recorded by writers such as Henri Estienne and Michel de Montaige. Also noted is travel literature by authors such as Nicolas de Nicolay’s account of Turkish women, which he explicitly connects to a trans-cultural homoerotic tradition via reference to Sappho.

One peculiarly English spin on disapproval of sex between women was to associate it with Catholicism, depicting lesbian activity as rife within putatively chaste single-sex religious institutions.

There was an established and familiar vocabulary for women involved in homosexual activity, including “tribade” and “fricatrice”. These terms were sometimes lumped together for the purposes of insult with other sexually-based allegations, such as whore, harlot, bitch, and bawd. This use doesn’t undermine the specific denotation of tribade and fricatrice but rather indicates that the concept was common enough that it might be included in a string of generic misogynistic insults.

English drama rarely represents sex acts directly, but rather follows the literary convention of portraying desire without a clear and definitive vocabulary that can indicate what the characters are feeling. This emphasis on desire and de-emphasis on sex acts correlates with a low degree of moral censure by the playwrights for their characters. When a negative attitude is evoked, it tends to be pity rather than disapproval. Even the use of cross-dressing as a context for desire is not condemned in the absence of sexual activity. However erotic activity is sometimes explicitly indicated in the scripts, typically kissing and hugging, but including fondling of the breasts.

A deep tradition of female homoerotic encounters was available to English playwrights. The renewed interest in Sappho accepted her as an icon of female homoeroticism, even in the face of an emphasis on the heteronormative Phaon story. Another well-known (and frequently re-used) classical source was Ovid’s “Iphis and Ianthe”, standing as a model of the pitiable futility of desire between women where it is assumed that sexual consummation is impossible. Not all re-uses of these classical motifs undermined their homoerotic potential. John Donne’s “Sappho to Philaenis” is unusual in combined a startlingly explicit eroticism with a positive framing of the women’s romantic and sexual desires for each other.

More commonly, classical settings and motifs were used to allow for transient same-sex erotics, often via mistaken identity or disguise, that eventually resolve into heterosexuality. Both female-to-male and male-to-female disguise could be used to create homoerotic potential. Male-to-female disguise plots assume the normalcy of erotic attraction and activity between women. The non-disguised character either desires or accepts the desire of the disguised character precisely because attraction between women is framed as acceptable or even as preferable to heterosexual attraction.

Versions of the Callisto myth emphasize this, titillating the audience with Callisto’s willing participation in sexual play with someone she believes to be another of Diana’s nymphs (or in some cases, Diana herself), only to reject her partner when revealed to be Jupiter in disguise. A similar scenario obtains in Sidney’s Arcadia where Philoclea falls in love with the Amazon Zelmane (unaware that Zelmane is her suitor Pyrocles in disguise). A more tongue-in-cheek example is The Troublesome and Hard Adventures in Love in which two heterosexual lovers escape captivity both disguised as country maids, causing other characters to comment on what “strange sisters” they are, when evidence of their desire for each other slips out. Here the homoerotic potential is in the minds of those observers who find it plausible, if shocking, to contemplate an incestuous homosexual couple.

There are similarly deep roots for the motif of a female-to-male disguise that results in the disguised woman being the object of another woman’s desire, and often finding herself returning it. In addition to Iphis and Ianthe, we see this in the French romance of Ide and Olive, where the disguised Ide becomes a famous knight and wins both the love and the hand of the emperor’s daughter. Not only does this set up a scene where the two are kissing and embracing in their marriage bed, but allows a temporary acceptance of their love even after Ide’s sex is revealed. The cross-dressed knight winning a woman’s desire that outlasts revelation of the truth is a motif in the stories of the amazon Bradamant (Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso) and Britomart (Spencer’s The Faerie Queen).

Gender disguise plays a key role in the grouping of plots of which Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is the most familiar example. Although in Shakespeare’s version, homoerotic desire is limited to what Olivia feels for the disguised Viola, other versions go farther.

There are two homoerotic scenarios in Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana. In one, the disguised Filesmena encourages the desire of Celia, the woman to whom Filesmena’s beloved Don Felix has sent her as messenger. Filesmena initially encourages Celia, in order to distract Celia's affection from Don Felix, but when Celia is dying of a broken heart because of this unrequited love, Filesmena attempts vainly to save her, “requesting her with amorous and sweete words to open me the fore, and to take such satisfaction on me, as it pleased her.” [It isn’t clear to me from this excerpt whether Celia is aware of Filesmena’s sex at this point, but Filesmena is clearly knowingly offering herself for a homoerotic encounter.]

In the second episode, two women meet during an all-female ritual in the temple of Minerva. Their eyes meet, and Selvagia falls deeply in love with Ismenia, who takes her by the hand, embraces her, and appears to return the sentiment. Ismenia, however, plays a joke on Selvagia by claiming to be a man in disguise (framed as a prank to infiltrate the female ceremony). The plot is then complicated by the appearance of not one but two male suitors, both Ismenia’s identical cousins. Hijinks ensue. What is notable here is that the two women engage in a courtship (however insincere on Ismenia’s part) as women before the fiction of gender disguise is raised. (And, unlike the Callisto plot, both are, in fact, women.)

II. Female Cross-Dressing and the Disguised Heroine

As seen previously, cross-dressing can create a context for homoerotic encounters in fiction, but there is a much wider body of cross-dressing motifs in both fiction and non-fiction within which this combination exists. And although the popularity of dramatic gender disguise has been connected by some researchers with the use of boy-actors on the early modern English stage, cross-dressed female characters were an existing tradition entirely apart from the dynamics of acting companies.

The early modern period represented something of a turning point in concepts of gender. As an oversimplification, the previous image of woman as an “imperfect, incomplete man” was being increasingly challenged. The “imperfect man” concept essentially created a “single gender” philosophy, where all humans were men, some were just better at it than others. In this system, women’s attempts to appropriate male characteristics (e.g., cross-dressing, performing masculine-coded behaviors, taking an active role in sexual encounters) could simultaneously be seen as admirable (trying to perfect themselves) and as dangerously transgressive (trying to rise above their natural state). The “imperfect man” theory also considered the possibility of sex-change from woman to man to be plausible and even perhaps natural.

The shift from this single-gender view to a two-gender framing encompassed several very different positions. One the one hand, writers such as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim argued that the social subjugation of women was imposed by society rather than arising from nature and that women, though different from men, could be their equals while retaining their female gender. But at the same time, anxiety over sexual distinctions focused simultaneously on biology as the arbiter of category membership and on the importance of social encoding (through dress and behavior) to signal and enforce that distinction. The popular erosion of these social encodings prompted vigorous debate from both sides, as exemplified by the Haec-Vir pamphlet and responses to it.

Dress was a significant component of ordinary people’s participation in this debate, as male-coded garments became popular among women, and fashions for male clothing incorporated elements considered to be “womanish”. The driving force might be fashion (and the general acceptance of the fashions indicated a lack of popular condemnation), but their normalization was interpreted by moralizers as an assault on the social order. Clothing was such a strong signifier of gender that critics, such as Stubbes, interpreted fashionable cross-dressing as a desire to change sex. In general, we’re talking about the adoption of individual garments, such as masculine-style doublets and beaver hats. But some commentary indicates that women sometimes dressed in entirely masculine styles, “in our hose and our cloaks”, which went beyond mere fashion. It was common to charge women wearing masculine styles as being prostitutes, not as a profession, but as a general slur against sexual transgressions of all types. (That is, any woman whose gender or sexual behavior was outside of bounds might be labeled a prostitute regardless of whether she was thought to exchange sex for money.)

In contrast to the debate on the streets over cross-dressing women, the use of cross-dressing motifs in drama tends to evoke idealized themes of female devotion and loyalty, and treats the subject sympathetically. The strong association in moral polemics of cross-dressing with excess sexual appetite is essentially absent in drama. (And it must be noted that the valorization of female cross-dressing in fictional contexts may have contributed to the popular acceptance of certain forms of fashionable cross-dressing.)

Cross-dressed heroines are by no means correlated regularly with homoerotic contexts. One of the prominent themes is the use by women of cross-dressing in order to create “male solidarity” with a husband or lover, and to be able to accompany him in homo-social contexts such as the military. The “saucy sailor boy” ballads fall in this general category. Cross-dressing may also allow or signal a woman’s performance of male-coded heroism, as in the ballad of Mary Ambree and similar popular works. The in-story context for dramatic cross-dressing typically includes none of the repulsion and disapproval seen in moral literature, and the motif may be considered entirely unremarkable by the other characters. This landscape of cross-dressed women, whether comic, valorous, or tragic, gave playwrights the ability to find a balance between social transgression and literary tradition and to create contexts in which homoerotic motifs could emerge.

Contents summary: 

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.

Not all homoerotic encounters in drama involved cross-dressing, but it was a convenient framework that lent a plausible deniability to the emotions that were evoked. This allowed the motif to be enjoyed by audiences without necessarily provoking the negative attitudes seen in non-fictional cross-dressing contexts. The existence of the desire could be excused by the superficially heterosexual context of the roles. And particularly in the case of romantic comedies, desire for a cross-dressed woman can be treated humorously rather than creating anxiety. These comedic contexts are the focus of the present chapter.

I. Foundation and Characteristics of Playfully Emergent Constructions

The use of the cross-dressed romantic heroine was brought into English drama from Italian sources. Entry points include Labyrinthus adapted by Walter Hawkesworth from Giambattita della Porta’s La Cintia, and the anonymous Laelia (one possible source for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) ultimately taken from Gl’ Ingannati (1531, Siena). Both are plot-focused stories of mistaken identity and love-polygons. The relationships in Labyrinthus go something like this:

  • Lucretia (a woman disguised as the male Lucretius) loves her (male) friend >
  • Horatius, who loves (the apparant woman) >
  • Lepida (who is actually the man Lepidus in disguise) who loves >
  • Lydia (Horatius’s sister), who loves >
  • Lucretius (the disguised Lucretia)

Thus we have two types of homoerotic scenarios for both sexes: one pair where the underlying sex is the same (Horatius' desire for Lepida, Lydia for Lucretius), and one pair where the superficial sex is the same (Lucretius' desire for Horatius, Lepida for Lydia) but the underlying bodies are not. This teases the audience alternately with the illusion and the reality of same-sex desire. The plausible deniability enters in that, for the most part, none of the characters knowingly desires someone they believe to be of their same sex, though this possibility is raised in a scene where Lepida (the disguised Lepidus) kisses and fondles Lydia and declares that no man in the world could take Lydia away if Lepida/us were a man, and Lydia objects only that the action is taken in public and finds herself wishing that Lepida were a man so that the flirtation could be completed. That is, Lydia is acknowledging the possibility of desire for, and accepting the attentions of, someone she believes to be female.

The title character of the play Laelia, in contrast, knowingly enters into a homoerotic flirtation, though in pursuit of a heterosexual goal. Laelia and Flaminius have had an affair, but when Laelia enters a monastery for safety, the fickle Flaminius falls for Isabella. Desperate to interfere with this relationship, but cautious for her reputation, Laelia disguises herself as a boy and becomes Flaminius’s servant (unknown to him), gaining access to Isabella as a messenger and winning a transfer of Isabella's affections from Flaminius. Laelia enjoys and pretends to return Isabella’s love but the goal is always to come between her and Flaminius and regain the latter’s affection.

The following works employ variations on this motif in its simplest form to comic effect:

The Spanish Gipsie (1623, William Rowley & Thomas Middleton) - The princess Constanza, believed dead and on the run as a gypsy with her aunt and uncle, is cautioned that her innate nobility is such that people will think she must be a boy in disguise [because nobility is inherently masculine!] to which she responds that she’ll gladly “draw even Ladies eyes to follow mine,” though it isn’t indicated in Walen's summary that this hypothetical desire actually occurs within the play.

Ram-Alley (1607-8, Lording Barry) - Constantia disguises herself as a serving boy to be near her (male) beloved and, in pursuit of her role, flirts with a serving maid to the point of making a sexual assignation.

In the following plays, part of the humor comes from an older woman desiring the disguised woman who is perceived as being a beardless youth: Love’s Pilgrimage (1616, John Fletcher), The Rivall Friends (1632, Peter Hausted), The Antiquary (1634-6, Shackerly Marmion).

Both class and gender transgressions are at play in Margaret Cavendish’s Love’s Adventures (1658). Lady Orphant, jilted by Lord Singularity, disguises herself as a beggar boy to join Singularity’s military camp. In male disguise, Orphant is desired not only by Lord Singularity (who has sworn not to care for women) but by Lady Wagtail and Lady Amorous. Wagtail eventually rejects Orphant for reasons of class, while Amorous only transfers her affections away from Orphant when Orphant’s sex is revealed.

In many of these works, the characteristics of the cross-dressed woman that provoke desire are traditionally feminine ones, such as beauty, courtesy, and kindness. Thus, although the desire that the women feel for her is within a superficial framework of heterosexuality, their motivation support the validity of female-female desire, even though those characteristics would not provoke female desire if displayed by one known to be a woman. That is, that women desire female-coded personal traits, but only experience this desire in romantic/sexual form when the traits are overlaid on an apparently male body.

II. Female Homoeroticism in Sixteenth-Century Comedies

This section looks at some earlier works that employ cross-dressing to create sexually ambiguous scenarios. In some of these, the homoerotic potential is only acknowledged in passing, as when the princess-in-hiding heroine of Clyomon and Clamydes (1599), acknowledges in her male disguise that she would welcome the flirtation of the townswomen.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Viola (in disguise) takes a more active role in provoking Olivia’s desire, largely in her role as spokesperson for Duke Orsino, but also in the playful bantering between them, though Viola herself is unshakable in directing her own desire toward Orsino. Indeed, one could view Olivia’s desire for Viola as carrying through to the conclusion of the play, for her entire relationship to Viola’s brother Sebastian is as a socially-acceptable stand-in for, and a means to create kinship with, Viola.

Shakespeare’s other cross-dressing comedy, As You Like It, follows the simple form of the motif, with the shepherdess Phebe being attracted to feminine-coded attributes of the male-disguised Rosalind.

The female protagonist of Robert Greene’s James IV (early 1590s) is wounded in her male disguise and attracts the (potentially adulterous) affections of her nurse, Lady Anderson, which she--perhaps unintentionally--encourages with loving attention during her convalescence.

Love’s Riddle (1638, Abraham Cowley) - Callidora escapes an unwanted suitor by disguising herself as a man and hiding among shepherds. During this interlude, she enjoys tha amorous attentions of shepherdesses, who describe “Callidorus’s” charms in feminine terms. And when two of the shepherdesses stand ready to fight over “Callidorus”, the latter notes, “Truly I would faine satisfie them both” but falters only due to considering that satisfaction “impossible.” And although the play concludes with assorted heterosexual pairings, both of the shepherdesses continue in their love for Callidora even after her true sex is revealed.

One continuing theme in these plays is that of a heroine who takes on male disguise to escape peril and then enters a liminal “natural” space (either a forest or pastoral life) in which the homoerotic interlude occurs. The resolution that restores heterosexuality is accompanied by a return to urban or court culture. The cross-dressing heroines of these romantic comedies may participate willingly in same-sex flirtation, but their inherent virtue is never in doubt. Unlike non-fictional portrayals, they are never identified as prostitutes or tribades and they are often depicted as--at least initially--being uncomfortable with their masculine garments and habits.

III. Female Homoeroticism in Seventeenth-Century Comedies

This section of the chapter details plots from later in the 17th century, which I will simply summarize here. (The book, of course, discusses themes and larger patterns. In my summary I’m simply interested in noting the basic scope and concepts that might be of further interest to readers.)

Anything for a Quiet Life (1620-1, Thomas Middleton) - An impoverished man has his wife disguise herself as a page in a nobleman’s service for safety while he tries to set his affairs in order. The “safety” is relative as she becomes a pawn in the sexual politics of the household. This backstory, however, is not revealed until the end of Act 5 when she and the woman who was believed to have seduced her (as a boy) taunt the men of the household saying, “We lay together in bed, it is confest” while appearing before them both as women.

The Widdow (1615--17, Thomas Middleton, cowritten with Jonson and Fletcher) - Martia escapes an enforced marriage in disguise as (male) Ansaldo but is attacked by bandits. Rescued by Philippa and her servant Violetta, who are waiting in vain for Philippa’s lover Francisco to appear, Philippa turns her affections instead to “Ansaldo”. The busy Philippa, however, also has a husband and later “Ansaldo” is hidden from his jealousy by being “diguised” as a woman. In this double-disguise, the tardily-arriving Francisco falls in love with Martia/Ansaldo and is mocked by Philippa and Violetta who believe he has fallen for a man. Meanwhile, Philippa’s husband, Brandino, makes salacious comments on imagining his wife in bed with Martia, believing her (correctly) to be a woman. (There is also a male homoerotic scene in which Francisco and his friend Ricardo are playacting how to court a woman, taking alternate turns at the female role.)

No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s (1613-27, Thomas Middleton) - The motivation for cross-dressing in this play is economic revenge. Kate wants justice from Lady Goldenfleece for cheating Kate's family out of their inheritance, so she disguises herself as a man and presents herself to Goldenfleece as a suitor. In this disguise, Kate’s attractions cross gender lines and both women and men desire her (as a man). Kate is successful in wooing Lady Goldenfleece (much to Kate’s husband’s consternation) and various convenient hijinks delay the wedding night until Kate finally takes her revenge by rejecting the besotted Goldenfleece to her face. If the potential for same-sex erotics were not obvious enough in Kate’s wooing, one of her defeated rivals derides the apparent youth of Goldenfleece’s choice as, “Boys, smooth-fac’d catamites, to fulfill their bed, as if a woman should a woman wed.”

The Sisters (1640s, James Shirley) - In this recycled version of Twelfth Night, Angellina is romantically pursued by both Lord Contarini and the Prince of Parma, but finds herself drawn instead to Contarini’s page, Vergerio who is--of course--a woman in disguise: Contarini’s discarded lover Pulcheria. Pulcheria/Vergerio’s gallantry toward Angellina encourages the latter's affection, but Pulcheria’s entire aim is to keep Angellina and Contarini apart and there is little of any novelty in the plot in this regard.

A Madd Couple Well Matcht (1639, Richard Brome) - Amie disguises herself as a man and becomes the steward of Lord Lovely (to whom she is attracted and hopes to reform from his womanizing). Although the script doesn’t reveal Amie’s true sex until the final scene, much of the comedy would have relied on the audience’s awareness of her underlying sex. Like several of her dramatic sisters, Amie is sent by her beloved as a romantic go-between to other women, whom she courts in order to divert their interest from him. In this case, three other women are involved: the eagerly adulterous Alicia, Lady Thrivewell (who mistakes Amie for Amie’s brother, with whom she’d previously had an affair), and Widow Crostill who tries to use Amie as a rival to make Lord Lovely jealous.

There are three layers of deniability in play: Amie’s wooing of the three women is in service to her own desire for Lord Lovely, the three respond to Amie believing her to be a man, and in all three cases the women have ulterior motives in accepting Amie’s attentions, rather than desiring the disguised Amie in her own person. The various stratagems, however, allow for a great deal of innuendo and suggestion, particularly when Amie is (falsely?) boasting to Alicia about having bedded Lady Thrivewell.

In contrast to the usual outcome of this type of plot, Amie ends up rejecting marriage entirely (or perhaps simply rejecting marriage to Lord Lovely). Although Amie claims a preference for chastity, it is possible to read a subtext where her erotic encounters with women have turned her head. This resolution (as well as the pervasive cynicism of the text) also stands in contrast to the more romantic approach taken in other plays.

Despite the formula of diverting homoerotic encounters into heterosexual resolutions, this group of plays consistently offers a range of alternative female-female relationships that survive the resolution: friends, allies, and sisters.

Contents summary: 

Some writers object to examining cross-dressing dramas from a homoerotic viewpoint, noting that the act of changing clothes does not change orientation. But Walen emphasizes that the female homoeroticism in cross-dressing plays is situated, not necessarily within the sexual orientation of the characters, but in the dramatic tropes enabled by the cross-dressing motif. It is the audience, more than the characters, who experience the female-female desire.

In comedies, the transgressive aspect of this desire could be deflected by laughter. Tragedies, however, take the motif in different directions and tend to explore it more deeply. The overall tragic structure of the plays does not require (and, indeed, may forbid) a “happy ending” which, traditionally, involves the formation of heterosexual romantic pairings. Instead, the same-sex desire seen in these works may be allowed to continue unresolved, though not in a neutral or positive way. The desiring character may be humiliated for it, or the desire (rather than being due to transient error) may be presented as a characteristic signaling moral failure. But in any event, as the desire isn’t limited to mistaken identity, there is more scope to present self-aware same-sex desire.

Walen argues against Traub’s conclusion of a “conceptual shift” in the mid 17th century from acceptance of “impossible desire” to the suspicion of immorality. Instead, Walen posits that desire between women was always suspect, but in the earlier comic works the motif was obscured via the use of a cross-dressed heroine in order to be more palatable. That is, that the emergence of tragic female homoerotics in later 17th century works did not represent a shift in attitude, but rather an expansion of the contexts in which same-sex attraction was depicted to include works where the comic veil was removed. New comic representations continue to appear well into the mid 17th century, undermining the idea that a clear philosophical shift was in progress.

This chapter examines 7 plays in 3 thematic groupings. They include both tragedies and “tragicomedies”, the latter often focusing on sexual themes and anxieties, where homosexuality is conflated with adultery, incest, rape, and sexual jealousy as plot drivers.

I. Philaster and Samuel Daniel’s Hymen’s Triumph

In contrast to the bold, active, cross-dressed heroines such as Shakespeare’s Viola and Rosalind, the character of Euphrasia in Philaster represents a different type: a “frail waif” who is passive within the story. Although she cross-dresses (or is required to cross-dress) for protection, she experiences women’s desire for her as an uncomfortable imposition and rejects homoerotic passion. Euphrasia (disguised as Bellario) is caught in a romantic triangle between Philaster and Princess Arathusa. Euphrasia and Arathusa are primarily presented as bound by affection, but the erotic tension is created by an accuastion by Philaster that they are lovers. And at one point Arathusa betrays a more-than-affectionate passion for Euphrasia, but Euphrasia remains steadfastly innocent in both thought and deed.

Most commonly, in the plays in this chapter, the greatest anxiety is displayed not by the disguised heroine, but by the woman who desires her. In Hymen’s Triumph we have a classic love-quadrangle:


  • loves Thyrsis
  • allows herself to be thought dead to escape an unwanted marriage
  • disguises herself as the male Clarindo


  • loves Thyrsis
  • sends the disgusied Clarindo (Silvia) to woo Thyrsis

Phillis (a nymph)

  • spurns the jealous Montanus
  • falls in love with the disguised Clarindo (Silvia)

In a traditional romantic comedy, this would resolve by pairing off Silvia and Thyrsis, Phillis and Montanus, and Cloris with some player yet to be determined. But in this story, when Silvia and Thyrsis are reunited, the other characters are not allowed to laugh off the intervening events. Phillis is mortified at having loved a woman (though, given her previously expressed disdain for men, there’s a suggestion that this is inclination), and Cloris is mortified at having sent her rival as messenger to her beloved. The play ends, not with the happy nuptials, but focusing on the uncomfortable position of these two disenfranchised characters.

II. The Lover’s Melancholy, The Doubtful Heir, Brennoralt

In this section we have tragicomedies that combine the “frail waif” cross-dressed character with a female character who experiences regret for desiring her. This, rather than creating a comic scenario, creates an intensely anxious one. The Lover’s Melancholy may be inspired in part by Robert Burton’s reference work The Anatomy of Melancholy which catalogs a number of “sexual dysfunctions” including homoerotic desire and sexual activity between women. The work includes a case study of a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to marry another woman.

In The Lover’s Melancholy (John Ford), Palador the ruler of Cyprus is melancholic over losing his lover Eroclea, the “frail waif” character. Eroclea fled Cyprus in male disguise to escape Palador’s father, but returns in her male character Parthenophill. Parthenophill is the erotic object of two women, one the servant of the other. Both react negatively to being rejected. The maid Kala reacts with taunts and coarse humor. The lady Thamasta woos more intensely and at greater length, while Eroclea (as Parthenophill) comes up with increasingly desperate measures to divert her attention, until at last she resorts to revealing her true sex. Thamasta then laments the impossibility of love between women, but doesn’t cease desiring her, though she fears her “error” becoming public.

A decade later in 1638 we have The Doubtful Heir by James Shirley, who wrote a number of plays with homoerotic elements.


  • rules over Murcia in place of >
  • Ferdinand, the rightful king, who loves >
  • Rosania, the “frail waif”, who accompanies Ferdinand disguised as a male page when he marries Olivia to escape execution, and is wooed by >
  • Olivia, when Ferdinand refuses to consummate his union with Olivia, in a ploy to make him jealous

Olivia has another suitor, Leonario, prince of Aragon, who doesn’t enter into the homoerotic plot, but is part of a shifting balance from an initial male-female-male triangle (centered on Olivia) to a female-male-female triangle. But the desire dynamics are different from the previous play, in that Olivia is not specifically attracted to Rosania but only intends to use her as leverage in her play for Ferdinand's attention. Although Olivia’s pursuit of Rosania is more intense than is typical for cross-dressed heroines, it does not involve personal desire for Rosania, either as man or woman. Instead, the tension is heightened by Ferdinand’s instructions (knowing of Olivia’s ploy) to Rosania to pretend to return Olivia’s interest and go along with the seduction.

In their encounter, Olivia plays off the apparent reversal of gender roles with a more assertive woman pursuing a bashful man (as she believes Rosania to be), by imagining their genders to be reversed and verbally wooing a feminized object. This creates the linguistic illusion of a woman (Olivia) making love to a woman (the feminized Rosania-in-disguise). As with the more straightforward gender disguise plots, this allows for the illusion of an erotic enounter between women while allowing for plausible deniability because Olivia doesn’t truly believe Rosania to be female (even though she actually is).

As the seduction continues, Olivia demands that they exchange clothing to realize the gendered roles of agressor and passive object, but this is disrupted by others entering the scene. Olivia is accused of adultery, Rosania reveals her true identity, and Olivia claims to have known it all along and to have been wooing her only to expose her secret.

The last work in this group is Brennoralt (John Suckling, ca. 1641) and does not follow the “frail waif + embarassment” theme of the others. Here the sexual anxiety comes from the appropriation of male privilege. Iphigene, who (like Ovid’s Iphis) has been in male disguise since birth, loves her childhood friend Almerin (a man), who in turn loves Francelia. On this romantic cascade is overlaid political complications. Francelia’s father is in rebellion against the king of Poland and Almerin, having joined the rebels out of love for Francelia has been taken prisoner by the Polish king. Iphigene seeks to save Almerin by allowing herself to be captured by the rebels and then taking part in a prisoner exchange. However Almerin escapes on his own and all three end up in the same rebel camp, where Francelia falls in love with the disguised Iphigene.

So we have two homoerotic scenarios: the superficially masculine Iphigene pursuing a man (Almerin), and a woman (Francelia) pursuing a woman (Iphigene) believing her a man. Iphigene, when she realizes Francelia is attracted to her, decides to seduce Francelia, not from desire for a woman, but in order to separate Francelia from Almerin (her true object of desire). This framework, however, allows for a scene where two women both voluntarily engage in erotic activity (unlike the two previous works, where one is shown to be reluctant).

The tragic nature of the work allows this forbidden activity because it can then be condemned and punished. The final scene begins with Iphigene and Francelia together in Francelia’s bed, having spent the night together, but concludes with tragedy when Almerin discovers them and stabs both in jealous rage. Dying, Iphigene reveals her true sex and as Almeric runs off to find a doctor, the two women reaffirm their love for each other (or at least, Francelia reaffirms her love for Iphigene, even knowing she is a woman). This forbidden desire, of course, requires that both women die of their wounds.

As in the cross-dressing romantic comedies, the cross-dressed heroine creates the conceptual space in which a woman can desire another woman. But unlike the comedies which resolve the forbidden desire by deflecting it onto a heteronormative resolution, the tragedies instead neutralize it with death or disgrace. A transgressive woman must be neutralized in one way or the other: hetersexuality is comedy, homosexuality is tragedy. But in their tragic deaths, characters such as Iphigene and Francelia may safely become objects of sympathy and pity.

Note that of the three plays, only Brennoralt involves women knowingly expressing desire for another woman: Iphigene as a strategy, but Francelia reaffirming her love after the reveal. In the other works, the pursuing woman believes she is pusuing a man, while the hapless cross-dressed waif remains true to her heterosexual object of desire, shrinking from her female pusuer. And of the three plays, only Brennoralt concludes with the women’s death. This is unlikely to be coincidence.

III. A Christian Turn’d Turke and Orgula

The final grouping in this chapter involve plays where a woman’s desire for another (cross-dressed) woman is presented as a character flaw, part of the overall characterization of villainy in a violent and predatory figure.

In A Christian Turn’d Turke (Robert Daborne, ca. 1609), not only the distinction between genders but that between religions comes into play. Ward and Dansiker are pirates and the story focuses on Ward’s conversion to Islam and consequent ruin. Alizia, a Christian woman about to be married, is on a ship that Ward and Dansiker attack and disguises herself as a boy (Fidelio) for safety. Ward takes Fidelio as his servant, in which context a Turkish woman (Voada) falls in love with Fidelio/Alizia. To complete the triangle, Ward is in love with Voada.

Taking advantage of orientalist tropes, Voada represents the cultural “other” and the hypersexual temptress. In her desire for Fidelio/Alizia, her moral failing is not desire for an apparently lovely and innocent young man, but the intensity and aggressiveness with which she expresses that desire. Ward marries Voada but she uses this increased proximity to Fidelio/Alizia to pursue a course of sexual harassment. To put her off, Fidelio/Alizia agrees to sleep with Voada, planning to escape with her fiance before the night comes, but everything falls to pieces. Alizia and her fiance are murdered, and shortly thereafter Voada and Ward kill each other as well out of spite.

The title character of Orgula (Leonard Willan, 1658) is morally doomed for the indiscriminate as well as misdirected nature of her desire. Fidelia has assumed the identity of her dead brother Fidelius in order to gain proximity to Ludaster, the object of her desire. Orgula is just about to marry the wealthy but aging Sinevero when she encounters and desires Fideli[a/us]. Fideli[a/us] doesn’t quite fall in the “frail waif” trope, as she takes action for her own ends, but she decidedly shrinks from and avoids Orgula’s advances.

With the help of her servant Mundolo, Orgula devises a scheme to drug Sinevero on their wedding night in order to spend the night with Fideli[a/us]. Mundolo fails to deliver Fideli[a/us] to Orgula’s bed and surreptitiously takes the role himself, violating class rather than gender boundaries. Orgula encounters Fideli[a/us] immediately after and wants to take up where they left off. She exposes her breasts to Fideli[a/us] as a seductive ploy, at which Fideli[a/us] counters by revealing her true sex by placing Orgula’s hand on her own breast. Orgula then murders Sinevero, mistaking him for Mundolo, and subsequently goes insane. Also: Mundolo kills Fidelia. (The plot summary fails to mention what part the alleged hero Ludaster plays in all this.)

These two plays form a natural grouping in several ways. The desiring woman explicitly dismisses observations that the cross-dressing object of her affection is rather androgynous. Unlike the standards of beauty prevalent in earlier cross-dressing motifs, where androgyny was a general ideal, here it is considered an abnormal preference and suspect (though not specifically from the suspicion of gender disguise). In both plays, the desiring woman is sexually voracious and indiscriminate. And in both, the nominally “innocent” cross-dressed heroine dies, though her pursuer is also punished, either by death or insanity. (Both works have a rather high body count, but then, this is tragedy.)

Contents summary: 

This chapter focuses on the creation of homoerotic tension in a more asymmetric aggressive context, especially those involving a older experienced woman seducing a younger innocent, including those where the seduction (or assault) is triangulated around a male character that one or both women have a connection to. This motif stands in contrast to more idealized, egalitarian relationships such as those in Shakespeare’s As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Lyly’s Gallathea. The implication is that the audience is expected to find these predatory scenarios arousing, not by identifying with the coded homoerotic context, but vicariously via the power relationships it enables.

This type of scenario shades over into plots where a malignant female figure supports or enables sexual violence against another woman, even when no direct homoerotic activity is implied, as in Tamora’s support of Lavinia’s rape in Titus Andronicus. In a more typical version of this scenario, the experienced woman may be a bawd, preparing a young woman for her entrance into prostitution, or a woman who is helping enable a seduction by sexually “awakening” the younger woman.

In addition to the plays discussed in detail below, these motifs can be seen in The Revenger’s TragedyWomen Beware Women (1620-27), A Game at Chess (1624), The Changeling (1622), and possibly inherent in the character of the bawd in Pericles (1606-8).

This chapter also examines works where homoerotic sexual aggression is presented outside these “triangulated” relationships. The first section will look at general coercion and manipulation. The second will review the prostitution motif. The third section will examine rape scenarios and other sexual violence between women. And the fourth considers two works where aggressive relationships are paired with positive relations between women. In each of these, the motif of homoeroticism adds an implication of criminality and depravity to the underlying character and story, and the overt motivation may be presented as jealousy and revenge directed toward the “innocent”.

I. Constructions of Coercion and Manipulation

The most typical version of this motif-group is the use of affection or sexual interest to coerce the behavior of the target. An early example is Dymock’s translation of Gaurini’s Il Pastor Fido (1601) in which two women vie for the same man’s interest. The disprefered female suitor feigns erotic interest in the “innocent” in order to betray her to her death, leaving the field clear. In the end, true (heterosexual) love wins out and the female aggressor is forgiven.

In Margaret Cavendish’s The Matrimonial Trouble (1662) there is a rare intersection of cross-dressing and predatory behavior when the jilted Mistress Forsaken passes as a man to try to seduce her female rival (at her wedding banquet, no less) and persuades her to try to kill her husband in order to be available for her (disguised female) love. Mistress Forsaken has no true sexual interest in her victim. In the end, all die. This is a much darker version of the cross-dressed seduction of a rival that was seen in various comedies in Chapter 3, though similar to those in the last section of that chapter.

II. Prostitution and Same-Sex Eroticism

The female-centered world of brothels provides another context for coercive same-sex erotics, safely disguised by the overtly male-oriented context of the institution. Given the social animus toward prostitution, this also means that erotic scenarios can be offered to the audience with a safe air of condemnation. Somewhat confusing the issue is the tendency for misogynistic insult to conflate a wide array of sexual epithets without regard for literal meaning. Thus a woman might be insulted by being called both a whore and a tribade without a context that suggests either activity being practiced.

When actual prostitution is involved, the bawd may be depicted as employing homoerotics either for the purpose of initiating a new recruit by serving as a substitute (male) client, or for the purpose of moral corruption, leaving her target vulnerable to being recruited due to a lack of respectable alternatives. The latter is implied in Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London. Similarly in The Spanish Bawd (1631, James Mabbe trans. of Fernando de Rojas), an experienced woman courts a reluctant whore with sexualized praise and stimulation, bringing her to a state of arousal in which she is more receptive to a client. Here we have moved from emotional manipulation to physical manipulation.

III. Constructions of Sexual Violence

In the previous works, at least the illusion of erotic intent is present in the various seduction or coercion scenarios. But coerced sexual activity shades easily into violence and rape, especially when patriarchal framings of women’s roles are assumed within the structure of the story. In Rickets’s Byrsa Basilica (1633) a spurned woman threatens to rape her (virginal) rival, not so much as revenge against the woman in question, but to destroy her value to the man who is the true target of her revenge. (How the rape would be carried out is not indicated, only the effect, that she would be “deflowered”.)

The implication of (intended) rape is clear in a scene in Shirley’s The Bird in a Cage (1633) in which the lascivious Donella feels aroused by the sleeping Eugenia such that she imagines the two as Jupiter and Danaë, fondling and kissing the sleeping woman, and prevented from having “played Jupiter indeed” by the intrusion of another character which causes Eugenia to wake. The use of the mythological framing makes it clear that consent didn’t enter into the matter.

More violent, but less clearly homoerotic, is the retelling of Jupiter’s rape of Calisto in Heywood’s The Golden Age (1609-11) in which Jupiter’s superficial disguise as a nymph allows for the portrayal of apparent same-sex sexual activity without ever concealing Jupiter’s actual masculinity.

These three plays, despite all involving the potential or realization of rape between apparently female characters, in fact use sexual violence in entirely different ways: as a means of revenge on a third party, as an act of self-centered gratification, and as misdirection for a heterosexual rape.

IV. Aggression versus Female Amity

The contrast between condemned and praiseworthy versions of female homoeroticism is made particularly clear when both a negatively portrayed sexual desire and a praiseworthy romantic friendship are contrasted within the same play. One example of this is The Female Rebellion (1657-59) which uses a mythological Amazonian setting to examine various relationships between women. The Amazon Queen Orithya is being plotted against by her generals, but supported by the loyal Nicostrate who infiltrates the rebels. The rebels believe (and are allowed to believe) that the bond between Nicostrate and Orithya is sexual, requiring Nicostrate to create a plausible reason for Orithya to have discarded her (and so turned Nicostrate against the queen), but in the end it is made clear that their love is pure, noble, and non-sexual. The villainous Amazon generals, however, are portrayed as openly erotic with each other. The spectator is left to draw the expected relationship between homoerotic desire and villainy, and the two chaste and noble Amazons are redeemed with marriages to Scythian men.

The juxtaposition of chaste and erotic female friendship is displayed within the same relationship in Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes (1656-59). The chaste, submissive, and Christian Ianthe takes up her husband’s cause at the titular siege of Rhodes with the attacking Turkish sultan Solyman, winning his admiration. But this also wins her the jealousy of Solyman’s wife Roxolana, who is stayed from murdering Ianthe only by being swayed by desire for her. Roxolana represents the trope of the hyper-sexual, aggressive, exotic Other. The story runs through a number of sexualized “tests” of Ianthe’s virtue and submissiveness, demanded by Roxolana. The two eventually converge into friendship, but still a friendship signified by eroticized kisses “as a pledge of friendship”. As before, the contrasting judgment on erotic and non-erotic friendship is inherent in the association with positively and negatively framed character types.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

This study covers almost 100 years of plays, from 1570 to 1662, spanning the Elizabethan period through the Restoration of Charles II. Within that scope, there is no clearly identifiable progression from one attitude toward female homoeroticism to another. While some scholars have suggested increasing constraints on the presentation of female homoeroticism toward the end of the 17th century, what this study has found is a wide variety of depictions throughout that period. This variety consistently exhibits condemnation of lust, but the valorization of selfless, romantic love. This love-lust dichotomy is found both for heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

In plays depicting erotic relations between women, this contrast may appear as a choice between one approach or the other, or as a comparison between relationships characrerized by love and lust within the wame work. Platonic love between women may even be contrasted positively with erotic heterosexual relations.

While same-sex attraction may be directed into a heteronormative resolution (especially in comedies) or may be overtly punished (especially in tragi-comedies), there are a few individuals or couples who are allowed a more positive fate, or at least are not required to renounce their desire.

This contrast between lust and love, while not unproblematic, continued in the 18-19th centuries to drive a split between concepts of (unacceptable) sexual relations between women and idealized (but theoretically sexless) romantic friendships between them. [My note: the problematic aspect derives, in part, from a social acceptance that heterosexual love will inevitably include sexual elements, while same-sex relationships were expected to fall in one category or the other.]

The Plays

Walen lists the plays according to the chapter in which they appear, but I’m taking a simple alphabetic-by-author approach. Keep in mind that the amount and importance of the female homoerotic content is extremely variable. When I am able to find a copy of the script on-line, I have linked to it. It is quite possible that in some cases I have identified a different play by the same title (mostly a concern for anonymous works) as I haven’t had time to do a complete review. Two sites ( and are immensely valuable for this sort of material, in addition to which I'd like to provide a shout-out to Chris Cleary's collection of information and texts related to the plays of Thomas Middleton.