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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 411-430

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Constructions of Female Homoerotics in Early Modern Drama

Denise A. Walen

The cross-dressed heroine was a popular convention in early modern drama. 1 In his book Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage, Michael Shapiro lists nearly eighty texts that include the character type. 2 Women dress as men in plays to help lovers or to follow them, to avoid rape, scandal or death, (although it can also be an expeditious means to pursue death, as in Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy), to freely travel the countryside, and, as is the case of Moll Cutpurse in Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl, simply by choice. Women in male disguise in early modern dramas, when encountered by other female characters, can also signify the representation of a same-sex attraction. Roughly thirty plays in 1580-1660 use cross-dressing to construct scenarios of female homoerotic desire. However, not all cross-dressed heroines evoke a female-female erotic tension, and not all female homoerotics issue from disguised female characters. Why then is the disguised heroine such a common plot element in plays that evoke female same-sex desire? What benefit does she offer, or what use is the convention to early modern playwrights? And, how do these plays signify their homoerotic constructions?

Textual representations of female-female desire and sexual behaviors existed in sixteenth-century England, which were available to playwrights and at least the educated members of their audience. Therefore, when female characters were positioned together in erotically coded situations, dramatists could be confident that a portion, if not all of their audience would discern the homoerotic references. To construct an erotic tension between two female characters, playwrights often employed the narrative convention of the cross-dressed female heroine. Since the disguised [End Page 411] heroine's sartorial codes signify her as male, she becomes a potential object of desire for another woman. The erotic energy that passes between the disguised heroine and the desiring subject resonates with the broader cultural discourse of female-female desire and sexual practices, signifying those very behaviors and longings to the audience. However, from the viewer's perspective, the disguised heroine's mistaken identity also alleviates the desiring subject's guilt over her feelings for and actions toward another woman. Cross-dressing shields the characters from the kind of hostility directed at homoerotics in non-fiction because the attraction can be excused as error rather than intent. The disguise presents ambiguous sexual tensions that allow an audience to perceive the homoerotic attractions as benign and therefore acceptable. Playwrights employed the disguised heroine as a dramaturgical device to construct pleasurable homoerotic situations between women. Relying on cultural representations of transgressive sexual expressions, playwrights were able imaginatively to present a trope of female homoerotic desire.

In this essay, I demonstrate the connection between dramatic literature and other literary material by examining Robert Wilson's play The Three Ladies of London through the lens of Pietro Aretino's Ragionamenti. Aretino's non-dramatic text provides graphic images of female homosexual activity that open Wilson's play to an analysis of its homoerotic content. I then explore some of the textual evidence that illustrates an awareness of female-female desire and sexual activity available in early modern England. The knowledge that women enjoyed one another sexually and found avenues for same-sex encounters existed in a variety of literary material. The main section of the essay investigates how the cross-dressed female character evokes homoerotic images in a number of plays, both prominent texts such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and John Lyly's Gallathea, as well as lesser-known works like Robert Greene's James IV, and Love's Riddle by the popular poet Abraham Cowley. Early modern drama abounds with erotic imagery, and homoerotic constructions add to the complex and evocative nature of these plays. This essay works to reveal how compositional structures are developed that might otherwise be dismissed, ignored, or misinterpreted in these works.

Expanding on Douglas Bruster's concept of the...


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