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Looking (too hard) for Lesbians in Shakespeare

Sunday, June 16, 2024 - 16:38

Another article I read for my stage/drama/actresses trope topic. In an odd way, although the author's imaginative extrapolations align well with the purposes of the Project, they don't align well with my ideas about "doing history."

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Jankowski, Theodora A. 2000. “...in the Lesbian Void: Woman-Woman Eroticism in Shakespeare’s Plays” in A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Dympna Callaghan. Oxford: Blackwell, 299-319. ISBN 0-631-20806-2

Jankowski examines Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale—and particularly the question of just where Hermione might have been hidden by Paulina during the period when she is presumed dead, and what they were doing there—to challenge traditional assumptions about the presence and extent of f/f eroticism in his plays, following themes of invisibility and hidden spaces. She takes as a premise that there “must have been women who desired other women and had erotic and/or sexual relations with them” in the early modern period and therefore looks among Shakespeare’s characters to find them. Another premise of the article is the “virtual invisibility of woman-woman eroticism” in early modern drama. [Note: in defense of the author, this article was written several years before Denise Walen’s detailed study on the topic was published.]

To develop this idea, Jankowski considers two types of conceptual “spaces” that functioned as women’s space with erotic potential: the development of the idea of “private space” within the household, and the “space” of the mistress-servant relationship.

The physical space includes two newly developed architectural developments. The first is the “closet” – not a small space for clothes storage, as we now use the term, but a “closed” space, an inner private space opening off the bedroom (which was more of a public space at the time). The closet combined functions of private leisure, dining, and entertaining those closest to the inhabitant, but also might be where personal servants slept on temporary pallets. The closet was an informal space where the inhabitants were not “on display” as well as offering privacy for reading and writing. This was aided by two functions: it could be locked by its owner, and it had only the one entrance, rather than being part of the more “flow-through” design of public rooms. (Corridors and hallways were a slightly later invention, and the normal pattern was for people to pass through even bedrooms to access other rooms beyond. This is one of the spaces that Jankowski identifies as having erotic potential due to these features: privacy, security, and intimacy.

As personal servants moved in and out of this room unremarked, and typically slept within easy access—either in the closet, or in her mistress’s bed—the space creates the potential for erotics within the employment relationship.

Another potentially private space within early modern domestic architecture was the “banquet” which, again, had a different meaning at the time than we understand today. The main meal of a feast would be held in the “hall,” a large public multi-purpose room. This would also be the location of dancing and other entertainments after the feast, which required the hall to be “voided” or “deserted” so that the meal could be cleared and the furniture rearranged. During this interlude, the more important guests would move to a smaller space called the “banquet” where they would enjoy wine and sweetmeats (the “desert” course).

In the early modern period, the creation of dedicated “banquet” spaces became popular, not simply a private chamber opening off the hall, but often a separate, dedicated building or structure separate from the dwelling entirely, or perhaps situated on the roof. Except for their occasional use for entertaining, banquets might be lonely, secluded places where someone (like Hermione) might hide out undisturbed.

Jankowski now digresses into an examination of the word “service” (as in, the service that Paulina does for Hermione) that emphasizes sexual meanings. [Note: Honestly, I feel like there’s quite a stretch happening here.] She points out that all of Paulina’s actions in the play are in service to Hermione in some fashion, and that she rejects the conventional role of obedient wife to maintain this dedication, even proclaiming that if she could she would defend Hermione’s honor by combat. Within the “removed house” that Paulina regularly visits during Hermione’s absence from the living world, Jankowski projects the “empty space” of lesbian possibility, though the resolution of the play reverses that possibility.

Several other mistress-servant relationships in Shakespeare that have erotic implications are offered up. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania’s late votress (mother of the child who generates the quarrel with Oberon) is clearly a close, beloved, and intimate servant. And Titania’s devotion to the child on her behalf suggests a closer bond than simple employment, even if only the equivalent of being a godparent.

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia and Nerissa again have a much closer relationship than simple employment, and there is more evidence for an emotional bond between them than either has with her eventual spouse. Marriage is not expected to interfere with the women’s continued physical and emotional closeness. As a servant, Nerissa is able to remain in Portia’s household after marriage in a way that a friend of equal social standing could not.

A similar analysis is applied to Cleopatra and her maid servants, with an in-depth consideration of the line in which we learn that Iras and Charmian are “bedfellows.” Although Jankowski acknowledges that bed-sharing and the use of the term bedfellow reflects normal, unremarked sleeping practices in the early modern world, the reference is given a salacious interpretation, both in this play and in several other cited contexts.

Overall, while this article does some useful work (and work similar to the purpose of this blog) in identifying spaces and contexts in which f/f eroticism was not simply possible, but could be engaged in without comment, I feel that Jankowski goes beyond her evidence in suggesting that these hypothetical possibilities are somehow present in Shakespeare’s works themselves, rather than being projected onto them by an audience more attuned to those possibilities.

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