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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: 111b Walen 2005 - Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama (Chapter 1)

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 1: The Eidolic Lesbian in Early Modern England

I don't think I can possibly emphasize enough how much fun I'm having reading this book. And that, even despite the tendency for the queer women in these plays to be played either for comedy or tragedy. (In the modern sense, not in the sense that "happy ending = comedy".) There is simply such a wealth of varied examples of how desire between women was represented that--for the purposes of this project--it blows wide open the scope of how fictional characters set in that era might reasonably be presented.

In addition to this entry, later today I'll be posting a sort of round-up of this year in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. (I'm going to be doing something similar for all of my daily themes to mark the end of the year.)

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Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences. One major motif--that of gender disguise and its consequences--is of particular interest, and the chapter will explore they ways in which gender disguise and gender transgression intersected, but did not in any way require or imply, homoeroticism. Rather it was a motif commonly available in the culture that could be used to create the opportunity for homoerotic implications.

I. Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern England

One strong tendency is for fictional treatments of female homoeroticism to focus on desire and to treat it neutrally or sympathetically, while non-fictional evidence focuses on sexual activity and is consistently disapproving.

This historic review begins with the usual non-fictional sources: penitentials, legal codes, and court cases. Religious penitential literature condemned any sort of sexual activity between women, although there is scholarly disagreement over how this disapproval corresponded to popular opinion. There were legal prohibitions against sexual activity between women in France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, and the Holy Roman Empire, although not in England itself. In contrast to the legal record of trials and sentences for sexual activity between men, recorded trials of women were infrequent and focused strongly on the transgressive elements of cross-dressing and the use of dildos. This emphasis on gender transgression is further highlighted in that a non-crossdressing member of a female couple was not pursued or punished to the same degree. The text reviews some of the more detailed legal cases recorded by writers such as Henri Estienne and Michel de Montaige. Also noted is travel literature by authors such as Nicolas de Nicolay’s account of Turkish women, which he explicitly connects to a trans-cultural homoerotic tradition via reference to Sappho.

One peculiarly English spin on disapproval of sex between women was to associate it with Catholicism, depicting lesbian activity as rife within putatively chaste single-sex religious institutions.

There was an established and familiar vocabulary for women involved in homosexual activity, including “tribade” and “fricatrice”. These terms were sometimes lumped together for the purposes of insult with other sexually-based allegations, such as whore, harlot, bitch, and bawd. This use doesn’t undermine the specific denotation of tribade and fricatrice but rather indicates that the concept was common enough that it might be included in a string of generic misogynistic insults.

English drama rarely represents sex acts directly, but rather follows the literary convention of portraying desire without a clear and definitive vocabulary that can indicate what the characters are feeling. This emphasis on desire and de-emphasis on sex acts correlates with a low degree of moral censure by the playwrights for their characters. When a negative attitude is evoked, it tends to be pity rather than disapproval. Even the use of cross-dressing as a context for desire is not condemned in the absence of sexual activity. However erotic activity is sometimes explicitly indicated in the scripts, typically kissing and hugging, but including fondling of the breasts.

A deep tradition of female homoerotic encounters was available to English playwrights. The renewed interest in Sappho accepted her as an icon of female homoeroticism, even in the face of an emphasis on the heteronormative Phaon story. Another well-known (and frequently re-used) classical source was Ovid’s “Iphis and Ianthe”, standing as a model of the pitiable futility of desire between women where it is assumed that sexual consummation is impossible. Not all re-uses of these classical motifs undermined their homoerotic potential. John Donne’s “Sappho to Philaenis” is unusual in combined a startlingly explicit eroticism with a positive framing of the women’s romantic and sexual desires for each other.

More commonly, classical settings and motifs were used to allow for transient same-sex erotics, often via mistaken identity or disguise, that eventually resolve into heterosexuality. Both female-to-male and male-to-female disguise could be used to create homoerotic potential. Male-to-female disguise plots assume the normalcy of erotic attraction and activity between women. The non-disguised character either desires or accepts the desire of the disguised character precisely because attraction between women is framed as acceptable or even as preferable to heterosexual attraction.

Versions of the Callisto myth emphasize this, titillating the audience with Callisto’s willing participation in sexual play with someone she believes to be another of Diana’s nymphs (or in some cases, Diana herself), only to reject her partner when revealed to be Jupiter in disguise. A similar scenario obtains in Sidney’s Arcadia where Philoclea falls in love with the Amazon Zelmane (unaware that Zelmane is her suitor Pyrocles in disguise). A more tongue-in-cheek example is The Troublesome and Hard Adventures in Love in which two heterosexual lovers escape captivity both disguised as country maids, causing other characters to comment on what “strange sisters” they are, when evidence of their desire for each other slips out. Here the homoerotic potential is in the minds of those observers who find it plausible, if shocking, to contemplate an incestuous homosexual couple.

There are similarly deep roots for the motif of a female-to-male disguise that results in the disguised woman being the object of another woman’s desire, and often finding herself returning it. In addition to Iphis and Ianthe, we see this in the French romance of Ide and Olive, where the disguised Ide becomes a famous knight and wins both the love and the hand of the emperor’s daughter. Not only does this set up a scene where the two are kissing and embracing in their marriage bed, but allows a temporary acceptance of their love even after Ide’s sex is revealed. The cross-dressed knight winning a woman’s desire that outlasts revelation of the truth is a motif in the stories of the amazon Bradamant (Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso) and Britomart (Spencer’s The Faerie Queen).

Gender disguise plays a key role in the grouping of plots of which Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is the most familiar example. Although in Shakespeare’s version, homoerotic desire is limited to what Olivia feels for the disguised Viola, other versions go farther.

There are two homoerotic scenarios in Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana. In one, the disguised Filesmena encourages the desire of Celia, the woman to whom Filesmena’s beloved Don Felix has sent her as messenger. Filesmena initially encourages Celia, in order to distract Celia's affection from Don Felix, but when Celia is dying of a broken heart because of this unrequited love, Filesmena attempts vainly to save her, “requesting her with amorous and sweete words to open me the fore, and to take such satisfaction on me, as it pleased her.” [It isn’t clear to me from this excerpt whether Celia is aware of Filesmena’s sex at this point, but Filesmena is clearly knowingly offering herself for a homoerotic encounter.]

In the second episode, two women meet during an all-female ritual in the temple of Minerva. Their eyes meet, and Selvagia falls deeply in love with Ismenia, who takes her by the hand, embraces her, and appears to return the sentiment. Ismenia, however, plays a joke on Selvagia by claiming to be a man in disguise (framed as a prank to infiltrate the female ceremony). The plot is then complicated by the appearance of not one but two male suitors, both Ismenia’s identical cousins. Hijinks ensue. What is notable here is that the two women engage in a courtship (however insincere on Ismenia’s part) as women before the fiction of gender disguise is raised. (And, unlike the Callisto plot, both are, in fact, women.)

II. Female Cross-Dressing and the Disguised Heroine

As seen previously, cross-dressing can create a context for homoerotic encounters in fiction, but there is a much wider body of cross-dressing motifs in both fiction and non-fiction within which this combination exists. And although the popularity of dramatic gender disguise has been connected by some researchers with the use of boy-actors on the early modern English stage, cross-dressed female characters were an existing tradition entirely apart from the dynamics of acting companies.

The early modern period represented something of a turning point in concepts of gender. As an oversimplification, the previous image of woman as an “imperfect, incomplete man” was being increasingly challenged. The “imperfect man” concept essentially created a “single gender” philosophy, where all humans were men, some were just better at it than others. In this system, women’s attempts to appropriate male characteristics (e.g., cross-dressing, performing masculine-coded behaviors, taking an active role in sexual encounters) could simultaneously be seen as admirable (trying to perfect themselves) and as dangerously transgressive (trying to rise above their natural state). The “imperfect man” theory also considered the possibility of sex-change from woman to man to be plausible and even perhaps natural.

The shift from this single-gender view to a two-gender framing encompassed several very different positions. One the one hand, writers such as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim argued that the social subjugation of women was imposed by society rather than arising from nature and that women, though different from men, could be their equals while retaining their female gender. But at the same time, anxiety over sexual distinctions focused simultaneously on biology as the arbiter of category membership and on the importance of social encoding (through dress and behavior) to signal and enforce that distinction. The popular erosion of these social encodings prompted vigorous debate from both sides, as exemplified by the Haec-Vir pamphlet and responses to it.

Dress was a significant component of ordinary people’s participation in this debate, as male-coded garments became popular among women, and fashions for male clothing incorporated elements considered to be “womanish”. The driving force might be fashion (and the general acceptance of the fashions indicated a lack of popular condemnation), but their normalization was interpreted by moralizers as an assault on the social order. Clothing was such a strong signifier of gender that critics, such as Stubbes, interpreted fashionable cross-dressing as a desire to change sex. In general, we’re talking about the adoption of individual garments, such as masculine-style doublets and beaver hats. But some commentary indicates that women sometimes dressed in entirely masculine styles, “in our hose and our cloaks”, which went beyond mere fashion. It was common to charge women wearing masculine styles as being prostitutes, not as a profession, but as a general slur against sexual transgressions of all types. (That is, any woman whose gender or sexual behavior was outside of bounds might be labeled a prostitute regardless of whether she was thought to exchange sex for money.)

In contrast to the debate on the streets over cross-dressing women, the use of cross-dressing motifs in drama tends to evoke idealized themes of female devotion and loyalty, and treats the subject sympathetically. The strong association in moral polemics of cross-dressing with excess sexual appetite is essentially absent in drama. (And it must be noted that the valorization of female cross-dressing in fictional contexts may have contributed to the popular acceptance of certain forms of fashionable cross-dressing.)

Cross-dressed heroines are by no means correlated regularly with homoerotic contexts. One of the prominent themes is the use by women of cross-dressing in order to create “male solidarity” with a husband or lover, and to be able to accompany him in homo-social contexts such as the military. The “saucy sailor boy” ballads fall in this general category. Cross-dressing may also allow or signal a woman’s performance of male-coded heroism, as in the ballad of Mary Ambree and similar popular works. The in-story context for dramatic cross-dressing typically includes none of the repulsion and disapproval seen in moral literature, and the motif may be considered entirely unremarkable by the other characters. This landscape of cross-dressed women, whether comic, valorous, or tragic, gave playwrights the ability to find a balance between social transgression and literary tradition and to create contexts in which homoerotic motifs could emerge.

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