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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: 111a Walen 2005 - Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama (Introduction)

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.


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I. Dramatic Constructions of Female Homoeroticism

The book opens with what has become a familiar lament that the scholarly consensus spent entirely too long proclaiming that female homoeroticism was not attested in early modern literature (largely because no one was actually looking for it, or considering it of importance when they found it), but that the last decade or so has been beginning to remedy that misapprehension.

In fact, the author has found that late 16th and early 17th century English drama is rather rich in depictions of female homoerotic desire. This isn’t to say that the plays had homoerotic resolutions, but that--rather than seeing the heteronormativity of the stories as erasure or contradiction--the existence of the homoerotic motifs is noteworthy in and of itself, regardless of the larger framing that may undermine it. The encounters may be minor or may constitute a significant complication of the plot.

As with other studies of literary homoeroticism, the author has chosen to organize the material thematically, according to how the relationship is portrayed in context, whether as playful mistaken identity, in contexts of anxious intrigue, in predatory relationships, or as utopian representations of romantic love. Within these thematic categories, the relationship of the two women can vary significantly in terms of the nature of the partnership, the relative age and class of the participants, and the social context or purpose of the encounter. Gender disguise may play a part (including both women disguised as men and men disguised as women). And while a heteronormative resolution is common, it is not the only possible outcome from these encounters.

In some ways, the volume of literature using these motifs makes analysis more difficult. Desire between women is seen here, not as an isolated, uniform motif, but as a pervasive and varied option. The representations both reflect and promulgate a knowledge of the erotic possibilities between women. A more uniform motif might be ascribed to literary tradition, but the diversity argues for a representation of the playwrights’ own knowledge (and perhaps experiences). And we should remember that, unlike poetry and written literature, which may have had limited and rarified circulation, drama was popular entertainment, viewed and appreciated by those of all classes.

The question always remains to what extent these fictional representations reflect the lives of contemporary women, but this isn’t a question that can be answered easily from the texts. What can be answered, to some extent, is how the contextualization of these erotic encounters speaks to what the reception of desire between women may have been. In general, it was presented as suspect and threatening, but simultaneously as tolerable and pleasurable, particularly if viewed through the lens of friendship and homosociality rather than strictly of sexual activity. In general, expressions of explicit sexual desire are presented negatively while depictions of romantic love are most accepted.

Scenarios of homoeroticism may be used as social criticism, but often tangentially, to address entirely different areas of social, religious, or political concern. Yet an overarching theme is that homoerotic desire must be punished within the story, with the degree of punishment indexed to the degree of transgression. Utopian, romantic, non-sexual attachment may be presented as exemplary, but anxious, predatory, sexual scenarios tend to end in tragedy. Direct transgression (and the need for its punishment) is often avoided by misdirection (cross-dressing confusion) or by relegating the desire to a deniable subtext via innuendo or allusion. The homoerotic presence may be created by its denial or may exist only by the way in which its possibility disrupts a more central heterosexual plot.

The introduction rehearses the usual suspects in modern sexuality theory and explores the essentialist/constructionist debates. The author chooses to focus on “homoeroticism” and a differentiation between “desire” and sexual activity, thereby side-stepping questions of orientation or sexual identity as they might apply to the characters of the plays (or their audience). There is also a review of the (delightfully extensive) modern literature on early modern female homoeroticism, particularly by Jankowski, Schwarz, Andreadis, and Traub, as well as earlier work by Vicinus, Faderman, Farwell, and Castle. She also notes commentary by early modern authors on female homoerotic possibilities from authors such as Brantôme and Firenzuola.

II. Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London

As an illustrative example of the relationships of texts and the themes represented within them, one particular work is examined. Wilson’s play appeared in 1584, the same year as the publication of Pietro Aretino’s lurid erotic “dialogs” (Ragionamenti), which includes a great deal of female homoeroticism within a depiction of generally pansexual and orgiastic activity. The women satisfy each other and themselves with dildoes and manual stimulation. Aretino, then, represents explicitly the knowledge of what women might do together that may have formed the audience’s context for a work such as Wilson’s Three Ladies.

This “comic morality play” (which includes anti-Semitic themes) depicts the allegorical characters of Love, Conscience and Lucar (lucre, i.e., money), whereby Conscience, in a constant rivalry with Lucar, is eventually seduced from the company of Love by financial need to accept the erotic advances of Lucar. These advances are restricted textually to a kiss, but occur in the midst of more erotically charged language that presumes the potential for further activity, such as that laid out in Aretino.

III. Representations of Female Homoeroticism in Dramatic Literature

Although Wilson’s depiction may be the earliest (known, surviving) representation of female homoeroticism in English drama it is not necessarily typical. Other plays such as Henry Glapthorne’s The Hollander and John Fletcher & Philip Massinger’s The Sea Voyage, while depicting physical love between women, portrays it as an “indifferent heate” or a “cold and chast embrace” rather than the enthusiastic sexuality the characters later find with men.

When not chaste, there is an air of condemnation, as in Massinger’s The Picture when the jealous Honoria, Queen of Hungary, imposes an aggressive desire (though still represented only by kisses) on the unenthusiastic Sophia.
Male characters are often employed to devalue love between women, as in George Chapman’s Monsieur D’Olive when a man scolds a woman for vowing to remain a virgin in mourning for her female friend, asserting the impossibility of such passionate love between women. Or in Jasper Mayne’s The Amorous Warre and Henry Burnell’s Landgartha where male characters taunt women (whom they desire) for sharing their beds with other women, simultaneously invoking the specter of sexual activity between the women and denying its value.

But conversely, men’s anxiety over women’s sexual possibilities with each other--or, indeed, any sort of active sexuality--comes in for satire in John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize or, the Tamer Tamed and Margaret Cavendish’s The Comical Hash. And there is an acknowledgment that women might satisfy each other if men are not available (or willing) for the task, in Massinger’s The Bondman and Richard Brome’s The Antipodes. Far more outspoken is Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s semi-biographical play The Roaring Girl which centers the cross-dressing, gender-transgressive, and bisexual Moll Cutpurse.

IV Organization

In this final section of the introduction, the plan for the organization of the book is laid out. Chapter 1 looks at representations of love, sex, and desire between women in non-dramatic sources of a similar period. Chapter 2 looks primarily at comedies where the erotic potential derives from a cross-dressing heroine who becomes the object of desire for another woman. Chapter 3 focuses more on tragedy, also centering on cross-dressing plots but where the resulting desire creates unease and anxiety. Chapter 4 examines more predatory characters, generally involving the seduction (attempted or successful) of a naive, unsophisticated woman by one with more experience and power. Chapter 5 concerns more utopian scenarios, generally focusing on romantic attachments that may or may not have an erotic component.

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