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17th c

LHMP entry

Female same-sex desire is generally presented in early modern drama in fictitious constructions: the desire is either mistaken or misdirected. Only in this last chapter do we see examples where knowing desire from one woman to another is presented positively, and may even be celebrated as an ideal over heterosexual desire. Things aren’t always straightforward, even so. Although the desiring woman may believe the object of her desire is a woman, not uncommonly the scenario is defused by involving a gender-disguised man.

This study covers almost 100 years of plays, from 1570 to 1662, spanning the Elizabethan period through the Restoration of Charles II. Within that scope, there is no clearly identifiable progression from one attitude toward female homoeroticism to another. While some scholars have suggested increasing constraints on the presentation of female homoeroticism toward the end of the 17th century, what this study has found is a wide variety of depictions throughout that period. This variety consistently exhibits condemnation of lust, but the valorization of selfless, romantic love.

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.

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