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.
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.
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.
This chapter focuses on the creation of homoerotic tension in a more asymmetric aggressive context, especially those involving a older experienced woman seducing a younger innocent, including those where the seduction (or assault) is triangulated around a male character that one or both women have a connection to. This motif stands in contrast to more idealized, egalitarian relationships such as those in Shakespeare’s As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Lyly’s Gallathea.
There are as many as 80 early modern dramatic works that feature cross-dressed heroines, with overt motivations ranging from following a (male) lover, avoiding rape, scandal, or death, traveling freely, or as a deliberate expression of gender non-conformity. In roughly 30 of these plays (written between 1580 and 1660), the cross-dressing also precipitates female homoerotic desire in some fashion. This raises the question of how and why this motif was employed.
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.
This chapter appeared as a paper in Beynon & Gonda 2010 and has already been covered there.