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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: 111e Walen 2005 - Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama (Chapter 4)

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 4: Predatory Lesbian Erotics

I was lulled into a false sense of being ahead of the game by having written up several chapters of Walen back before I entered into my intensive holiday writing session. So yesterday, when it was too late to begin on anything, I realized that I had run through all the existing write-ups. Hence the delay in posting this until just before bed. I promise to do better in the future!

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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.

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