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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: 111d Walen 2005 - Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama (Chapter 3)

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 3: Anxiously Emergent Lesbian Erotics

Ordinarily, I might break up chapters of this length into more segments. (This has the twin advantages of making them more readable and spreading out the work over more weeks.) But the subtle thematic unity within each chapter would be harder to capture if they were broken up. And besides which, I'm so excited about this material, I want to share it with my readers sooner!

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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.)

Time period: 

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