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Gallathea and Phillida: Deviant Virgins

Tuesday, June 18, 2024 - 17:57

No point in spacing these out when I'm on a roll. I've had half a dozen articles sitting on my iPad all read-and-highlighted waiting for me to write them up. I have one more of those to post, then 4 articles on theater to read and post. I'm about a third of the way through making notes from one of the two(?) books on women in theater that I have scheduled. Then I think I'll be ready to tackle the "women on stage" tropes podcast. I think it'll be a lot of fun. Who knows why I'm feeling energized to work on these blogs. I'll just enjoy it while it lasts.

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Jankowski, Theodora A. 1996. “’Where there can be no cause of affection’: Redefining Virgins, Their Desires, and Their Pleasures in John Lyly’s Gallathea” in Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects, edited by Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-55249-4 pp.253-74.

This article looks at the treatment of virginity and desire in John Lyly’s late 16th century play Gallathea, a mythological story in which two young women both cross-dress as boys to escape being a virginal sacrifice, and thus fall in love with each other. In this play, Venus (as the proponent of erotic desire) more specifically through the agency of Cupid urges all characters, including Diana’s nymphs, toward romantic love, while Diana (in theory supporting the position of virtue) valorizes virginity and chastity. Diana’s nymphs are somewhat caught in the middle, having been forced into desire by Cupid who specifically tricks them into falling in love with other women, while the protagonists, Gallathea and Phillida, not under the influence of Cupid’s darts, each initially falls in love with the boy she believes the other to be, while rapidly suspecting and accepting that she is actually in love with a woman.

Jankowski’s article looks specifically at the role of virginity in this plot, especially in the context of Queen Elizabeth I being among the audience, where one might expect valorization of virginity to be used to flatter her. But the situation is not quite so simple, as the play pits the maintenance of virginity in opposition to self-sacrifice for the good of society—whether that sacrifice is to the monster in the play or to the sexual economy of marriage.

Virginity, in Protestant England, is of social value until—and only until—a marriage is contracted (it no longer having a religious significance in the form of nuns). This creates a tension between the fetishistic emphasis on pre-marital virginity (which creates value in a young woman) and the expectation that virginity must be lost to become a fully-integrated female member of society (as a married woman). The “virginity narrative” assumes a progression from virgin to wife, potentially to widow. But there are two ways to stand outside this narrative: by non-marital sex (placing the woman in the category of whore), and by refusal to move from virgin to wife, either as a general principle, or by refusing a marriage arranged by one’s father. A variety of dramatic roles from early modern plays are adduced to illustrate these various alternatives. Thus we have several ways in which a woman may have deviant sexuality, one of which (lifelong virginity) is overlaid by the example of Queen Elizabeth.

This problematizes fictional depictions of non-marrying virgins, especially with respect to the question of desire and pleasure. A “good” virgin remains so because her bodily integrity matches her spiritual integrity: she does not desire and is not desired. In the default model, she moves first to being desired (by a potential husband) and only after marriage is contracted may she, herself, desire.

In Gallathea, an entirely different social space is opened in which virgins may create a separate society apart from patriarchal expectations in which women may construct desire and pleasure in ways that did not exist within everyday society. This is the fate of Gallathea and Phillida: the control their fathers exert over their fates (to remove them from the potential pool of sacrifices) places them in this woman-centered separate space where they are free to explore these other options.

Jankowski positions the virgin sacrifice of the play as equivalent to marriage: the virginal state is of value to society as a token in an economy of exchange (to the gods, rather than to a husband). This gives the virgin an exalted position that is of worth only in its destruction. The “trick” used by Gallathea and Phillida’s fathers preserves their lives (and their virginity) at the expense of their honor. Their state is contrasted oddly with the character Haebe, who is offered up as sacrifice instead but is rejected as she is not the “most beautiful” virgin. If virginity alone determined social value, she should have been accepted and fulfilled her social purpose. And here Jankowski returns to the specific context of historic performance. As a play intended to flatter Queen Elizabeth, there would be problems raised both by the message that the destiny of a virgin is death, and that the virtue lent by virginity is generic and interchangeable. Only one woman was special enough to be the Virgin Queen. Accept no substitutes. Only Elizabeth is honored for sacrificing the default life path of a woman for the sake of the nation. And in the play, the final outcome of the avoided and failed sacrifices is for the gods to abolish the practice entirely, in the face of the love between Gallathea and Phillida. (Which, in point of fact, woudn’t have happened if Haebe’s substitution as the sacrifice had been accepted.)

This leaves another inherent contradiction in the play: the patriarchal control exerted by Gallathea and Phillida’s fathers, while placing them under an obligation of obedience (whereas they were willing to be sacrificed), removes them entirely from that patriarchal control into the pastoral utopia of Diana’s band of nymphs. Here there is no marriage economy—indeed no relations with men at all. Lyly’s version of Diana’s world does not include overt same-sex eroticism—rather a non-sexual companionship and mutual loyalty. The two women hold an ambiguous position in that world: their male disguise would seem to exclude them from it, while their embodied femaleness, their virginity, and their avoidance of marriage/sacrifice gains them entrance.

Cupid’s meddling with the nymphs creates another ambiguity. He specifically intends to revenge himself on the nymphs, not only by forcing them to experience desire, but by forcing them to what he considers “vain” desire for other women. This transgressive desire is camouflaged by the gender disguise: the nymphs desire the male-disguised Gallathea and Phillida, and Gallathea and Phillida desire each other with the veneer of apparently desiring the male disguise of the other rather than the underlying woman. Thus, in contradiction of the usual rules, virgins both desire and are desired outside of the marriage economy.

Diana’s position (as presented in her speeches) is that love and desire are incompatible with chastity. But the nymphs are not your usual virgins as they were never part of the marriage economy in the first place. What does “virginity” even mean in that context?

As the disguise is revealed and the same-sex love between Gallathea and Phillida is proclaimed, we see a confusing resolution to the question of whether Venus or Diana has prevailed. There is a speech about how some love-knots are easily untied when driven by money, coercion or men’s lies, while others “made by a woman’s heart” remain fast, such as that between Gallathea and Phillida. But the platonic love between the nymphs also prevails—Cupid’s trick never sets them at odds with each other, even when they are coerced into loving the same “boy” (Gallathea).

Also, Gallathea and Phillida’s love is not a triumph of the heterosexual desire that Venus represents. Although removed from the structure of sacrifice/marriage to save their lives, they do not fit easily into the role of archetypal “virgin” as they are desiring and desired. They have entered a space where female same-sex desire can be imagined and even claimed. The two superficially accept the male disguise of the other, but they continue to recognize and acknowledge the love they feel even as they (internally) voice their suspicions that the beloved is not “other” but “same.” This is not the usual mistaken same-sex desire (as in Twelfth Night) where a woman desires another woman only for as long as she believes in the male disguise, but rather a desire that persists in the face of the revealed truth. Their love is not a concomitant of patriarchal contract negotiations, but stands in opposition to social pressures to conform to their assigned female roles. They are no longer “virgin” but neither are they wives or whores (no male intrusion into their sex lives). This despite a hint that they’ve engaged in some degree of physical expression (“transgresse[d] in love a little of [her] modesty” and “[go] into the grove and make much of one another”) that still leaves them in doubt of the other’s sex. They create a context for sexual pleasure that does not require genital knowledge, much less penetration, though we must always remember that the limits and nature of this encounter are created by the male author for a public audience. (To say nothing of acknowledging that the two characters are played by male actors both when disguised as boys and in the few scenes when dressed as women.) The article now digresses into similar dynamics in other of Shakespeare’s gender-disguise plots, as well as some of the social dynamics of this practice for the audience.

In sum, Gallathea allows f/f desire and love within a context that completely destabilizes ideas of both sex and gender. At the conclusion, the various divinities pass their several judgments on Gallathea and Phillida’s relationship. Diana is against desire in general. Neptune finds f/f love implausible—unable to imagine a “cause of affection” between them (where “cause” strongly suggests the necessity for a penis). Venus, triumphantly, says she’ll sort it all out. Here is where imagination fails, because her solution involves transforming one or the other of the women into a man. But this isn’t about internal gender identity, only about a forced conformity to the forms of heteronormative society.

But overall, the play embraces a new definition and image of virginity that revolves around bonds of affection and friendship between women that stand apart from any relationships to men and the marriage economy. This leaves an ambiguous opening when the play concludes by exhorting women to “yield to love” as it appear to include love between women.

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historical