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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #87 Bruster 1993 “Female-Female Eroticism and the Early Modern Stage”

Full citation: 

Bruster, Douglas. 1993. “Female-Female Eroticism and the Early Modern Stage” in Renaissance Drama 24: 1-32.

Continuing the theme of medieval and Renaissance theater, Bruster looks specifically at the depictions and purposes of female-female eroticism on the English stage in the 16-17th century.

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Like many articles of this era, Bruster begins by explaining that (and why) there is a dearth of academic investigation into the topic of female homoeroticism in [insert topic here]. He asserts that prior work has focused on affirmative and subversive portrayals of female homoeroticism, resulting in an incomplete and idealized picture. So he’s going to be iconoclastic and look at less positive portrayals of female-female eroticism on the stage. He’s using a somewhat broad view of that definition: any portrayal, real or imaginary, of female characters in a context perceived as erotic by one or more of those involved or by a third party, including by the audience as opposed to the dramatic characters themselves. Bruster notes that such examples are more common than “currently believed” [though perhaps not surprising in the context of the more extensive research now available].

The article begins by compiling a unified formula for female-female eroticism in Renaissance English theater, and then reviewing specific examples and discussing how they diverge from this composite model. Positive imaginings of female homoeroticism tended to appear in relatively private literary contexts in texts with limited circulation -- an understanding often overlooked when viewed from a modern researcher’s context. Examples would be John Donne’s “Sappho to Philaenis” or certain upper class theatrical masques including Sappho or amazons as characters. But more generally, for popular consumption, a less idealized model was involved, including the following features (quoted verbatim from the article):

  • 1. In erotic attraction, beauty is more important than biological sex.
  • 2. Likeness--of body, age, temperament, and situation--attracts.
  • 3. Sex-segregated institutions and spheres enable same-sex eroticism.
  • 4. Female-female eroticism is a phase in the past--classical, national, and personal.
  • 5. Female-female eroticism involves those who differ from each other in age, rank, power, and experience.

Items 3 & 4 worked together to distance an audience’s understanding of female-female eroticism in early modern England, which had few established gender-segregated institutions for women. Items 1 & 2 help to go toward explaining the motif of “beautiful twins” that provided a context for female-female eroticism. Item 5 would seem to be in conflict with the “likeness” feature in item 2 and often features when women appear in distorted mirrors of patriarchal relationships.

The premise that beauty is the overriding basis of erotic attraction leaves wide open the potential for women to be attracted to women. This is given as the motivation in Lyly’s Gallathea based on Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe. Beauty is also offered as the driving force for female-female attraction in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and A Mad Couple Well Match’d (though, as in Gallathea, the attraction is not always known to be same-sex by both parties).

Similarity is featured as a driving characteristic--especially the theme of friends being “one soul in two bodies”--in works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Two Noble Kinsmen. This focus especially on bodily similarity provided an opportunity to dwell on descriptions of the female body, as in “Sappho to Philaenis” where Donne catalogs the title characters’ similarity in “lips, eyes, thighs...hand to...hand, lip to lip...breast to breast, or thighs to thighs.”

As noted above, sex-segregated contexts are also featured, but typically must be displaced in time or space for early modern English audiences. This is a common theme in travel narratives, such as Washington’s translation of de Nicolay’s Navigations into Turkey or Busbeq’s writings about Turkish baths. During the period under consideration here, England no longer had gender-segregated religious institutions (gone with the Reformation) and had not yet developed a system of girls’ boarding schools (which begin appearing in the later 17th century). Very shortly after the development of those boarding schools, we begin seeing literary speculations on the erotic possibilities for that environment, as in Erotopolis: The Present State of Betty-Land (1684). Depictions of female eroticism in convents, as in Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House”, necessarily locates the activity in the past or in other lands (and conveniently allows for the expression of religious bigotry as well). But even within individual stories, the characters’ erotic connection is often framed as in the past (as girls together).

Both the context and content of female-female erotic presentations emphasize that the eroticism was rarely intended to be understood as for the benefit of the characters involved. Emilia’s speech in The Two Noble Kinsmen that constantly emphasizes the “innocence” of the physicality of her interactions with Flavina implies that any erotic interpretation is intended to be added by the audience. Similarly, Donne’s “Sappho to Philaenis” reads very much as male-gaze porn rather than a representation of sensuality between the two women. Even more so, depictions that emphasized imbalances of power, status, or age are not portraying both female participants as enjoying mutual consenting affection. Rather, a heteronormative overlay assigns the more powerful figure to be “mannish” or a “hermaphrodite”, who manipulates or coerces the more “feminine” character. One example of aggressive (apparant) female-female eroticism is depictions of the myth of Callisto and Jupiter, where Jupiter disguises himself as Diana to aggressively court the nymph Callisto. Another dramatic (and real life) aggressively sexual woman was Moll Cutpurse (appearing as a dramatic character in The Roaring Girl) who is depicted as seducing both women and men. [bruster includes a long discussion depicting the relationship of Tamora and Lavinia in Titus Andronicus as sadistically erotic, but I think this may be stretching things.] A common theme of unequal eroticism occurs between an older bawd and a young (usually innocent) woman that she is attempting to lead into prostitution. This normally involves expressions of physical admiration, but may shade over into suggestions of more explicit activity where the experienced woman’s desires are mingled with serving the desires of another (male) figure. Examples include Pericles, as well as stories such as The Revenger’s Tragedy, Women Beware Women, A Game at Chess, and The Changeling, all from the first quarter of the 17th century. (It’s interesting to note that several of these include descriptions of female-female eroticism that specifically imply oral sex performed by the more assertive woman.)

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