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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: 111c Walen 2005 - Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama (Chapter 2)

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 2: Playfully Emergent Lesbian Erotics

One of the things I did this weekend was have dinner and a work session with my website designers (who also happen to be local friends) and we've gotten a lot closer to having my New! Improved! website drafted up. How is this relevant to the LHMP? One exciting part of moving my website into a Drupal framework is that it will make it much easier to present the existing LHMP content in a variety of more useful ways. Currently the LHMP archives exist on LiveJournal as regular posts and are linked individually from a strictly bibliographic index on the Alpennia website. In addition to porting the content over, the bibliography format will enable readers to view a publication (or collection of articles) as a single entity rather than having to click through to individual posts. And (eventually) there will be a systematic set of searchable tags to make it easier to find publications that cover specific themes or topics.

The New! Improved! website will also have an upgrade of all my fiction-related content, which I've been sadly neglecting because…well, the website was being redesigned, right?

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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.

Time period: 

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