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Roughly two decades ago, critics reoriented the central position of Christopher Marlowe's Edward the Second in discussions of sixteenth-century eroticism by clarifying important differences between sexuality and gender, dismissing transvestism as a sincere marker of homoerotic desire in the period's drama. Critics have continued to rehearse this dismissal under the curious assumption that if cross-dressing does not necessarily signify homoeroticism, then it simply does not signify it at all. This article returns to the anchor text for this thesis, asking whether certain cases of early modern theatrical playing show gender and sexuality consubstantiating in more complicated ways than previously thought.

At the opening of Christopher Marlowe's Edward the Second (ca. 1592), Gaveston, the king's favorite minion, imagines extravagant, erotic entertainments designed to please and "draw the pliant King which way" he desires:

And in the day when he shall walk abroad,Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad,My men like satyrs grazing on the lawnsShall with their goat-feet dance an antic hay;Sometime a lovely boy in Dian's shape,With hair that gilds the water as it glides,Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,And in his sportful hands an olive treeTo hide those parts which men delight to see,Shall bathe him in a spring.1

This is how Gaveston introduces audiences to his relationship with Edward, envisioning pageboy attendants cross-dressed as female wood spirits and a beautiful bathing boy in the tantalizing "shape" of the goddess Diana. This final boy's "shape," whether hypothetically achieved through costuming or simply by the boy's inhabiting the context of the Ovidian tale of Actaeon, calls attention to the uncertain gender status and sexual availability [End Page 285] of young boys in the period, particularly when contrasted with Gaveston's vision of satyr-like men.

If Marlowe's opening encourages audiences to interpret his play's homoerotic representations in terms of Elizabethan conventions of cross-dressing (and its attendant gender instability), then it has nevertheless become something of a critical commonplace to note that the audience never sees these fantasies staged and that transvestism does not explicitly appear again in the text. Jonathan Goldberg has influentially argued that Marlowe's provocative opening, rather than suggesting homoerotic desire, responds to a precedent established in part by early modern antitheatricalist critics who worried that the effeminate clothing and gestures of boys playing women would incite the spectators' sinful desires.2 Marlowe may indeed engage such anxieties in these lines, but is this the only way we might read them? Could Marlowe, never naive to semantic ambiguity and conceptual ambivalence, really conflate transvestism, the ambiguous gender of boys, and male-male sexual fantasies merely to mock moralizing antitheatricalists such as Philip Stubbes and Stephen Gosson?

Part of Goldberg's important remit in Sodometries, and in his turn to Edward the Second specifically, is to challenge reductive arguments about the relationship between transvestism and sexuality. Marlowe's play holds a privileged place in earlier discussions that do not distinguish between gender and sexuality, sometimes leading to the assumption that cross-dressing boys obviously referenced male-male desire. Building on foundational work in what was then the emerging field of sexuality studies by critics such as Gayle S. Rubin, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Alan Bray, Goldberg instead argues that transvestism neither necessarily signifies male-male desire nor even features in how Marlowe represents sexuality in his play.3 Showing how Marlowe might represent Edward and Gaveston's erotic relationship more directly, he also argues that they are sodomites not simply because of their sexuality, but also because the king's promotion of his lowborn favorite to high political offices disrupts England's normative hierarchy.4 Transvestism, it seems, is not part of Marlowe's representations of sodomitical behaviors or activities that transgressed the social order.5

Goldberg's intervention into how critics think about Edward and Gaveston's relationship, along with its diminishment of transvestism's significance to the larger arc of the play, helped establish the critical terrain for discussions of homoerotic desires and behaviors in early modern drama. As an indication of the [End Page 286] enduring influence of Goldberg's thesis, some critics dismiss the erotic valences of Edward and Gaveston's relationship altogether on the grounds that sodomy's political role in the play has been overemphasized.6 Meanwhile, those who do read the relationship as erotic rehearse Goldberg's assumption that the play draws no further links between transvestism and homoerotic desire. Focusing on gender and the convention of boy actors, even Stephen Orgel underreports transvestism in his account of Edward the Second.7 The impact of Goldberg's work can also be found in Judith Butler's oft-quoted formulation, "no correlation can be drawn … between drag or transgender and sexual practice."8 The lasting reach of Goldberg's argument would be difficult to overstate. In what follows, however, I would like to return to the anchor text for this thesis, Marlowe's Edward the Second, in order to ask whether certain cases of theatrical playing in early modern drama show gender and sexuality overlapping and consubstantiating in more complicated ways than we might have thought.

Clarifying differences between sexuality and gender has been important and direly needful work, but more recent models for studying sexual behaviors and desires allow us to return to historical relationships between gender and sexuality without assuming implication in a heterosexist or homophobic logic. In this respect, Edward the Second represents a strange institutional pause. Other fields have since engaged in more nuanced discussions of transvestism's place in the history of sexuality. Studies of homo-eroticism in eighteenth-century Europe, for example, have charted how notions of effeminacy relate to the emergence of sexual minority groups after 1700, particularly those at Molly houses.9 That such overlaps between gender constructs and erotic desires may have antecedents in the late sixteenth century has tended to make critics of the period's dramatic literature uncomfortable. The fact that boys performed women's roles on the stage has often resulted in critical debates about which body sixteenth-century theatrical audiences would have perceived: a boy performer's or a female character's. This assumption that passing was a ubiquitous concern in the period's drama is difficult to accept, particularly when we consider the historical presumption that adult males could desire both women and boys. Recent work in performance studies has shown how theatrical production resists such tidy conclusions, in part by challenging the emphasis on textuality in the study of theater history.10

In performance, Gaveston's speech establishes important conceptual terrain: a tantalizing emphasis on bodily desires, [End Page 287] "parts," clothing, and gendered "shape" that does, in fact, manifest not only in Edward the Second, but also, as I hope to show, in other early modern plays, such as Shakespeare's As You Like It and Marlowe's collaboration with Thomas Nashe, Dido, Queen of Carthage. When we consider the conditions of Elizabethan theatrical performance, so far as we can, there is another discussion of eroticism in Edward the Second that draws additional attention to homoerotic desire and cross-dressing. Like the meta-theatrical gestures that critics often observe in boy plays, Queen Isabella questions her own "shape" in her first soliloquy, echoing Gaveston's earlier speech as she comments on both her husband's sexuality and the transvestism at play in how she is produced on the stage (iv.172). Reading this speech's allusions to Juno, Jove, and Ganymede alongside Marlowe and Nashe's depictions of them in Dido allows us to consider how Marlowe's interactions with antitheatricalist anxieties extended to address the potential desires that boy performers could arouse. Boy actors, as Mary Bly and Richmond Barbour have argued, could incite the desires of theatergoers by their very presence on both adult and boy company stages, where they elicited the audience's interest in the young bodies beneath their costumes.11 It is, for example, difficult to distinguish firmly between "theatrical 'playing'" and "real gender transgression" in Shakespeare's Cymbeline when Iachomo erotically teases the audience by revealing the "mole cinque-spotted" on sleeping Imogen's and, simultaneously, her boy actor's "left chest."12 What is Iachomo revealing to the audience here, a girl's or a boy's body? Might this ambiguity be part of the moment's appeal? Cross-dressing manifests again and again in sexually charged scenarios in early modern drama, suggesting that we do not know the precise differences between the theatrical tactics used inside and outside of conventional performance settings.

Returning to the moments of gender disruption in Edward the Second also affirms the important function that erotic desire serves in the play's political structure. It remains significant that Isabella, the play's only primary female character, not only highlights the shape of her body, but also alludes to Ganymede's mythical function as a symbol for male-male eroticism. That is to say, cross-dressing is of course not always a vehicle for discussing male-male or male-boy desire in sixteenth-century drama, but it does seem to hold this meaning in Edward the Second.13 In this regard, it is also important to revisit the potential gender disruption and complex (albeit partially irrecoverable) relationship between "boy-actresses" and the female characters they play.14 [End Page 288] Readings that do address sexuality in the play tend to propose extratextual referents in order to uncover peoples' historically real thoughts about sodomy, transvestism, and homoerotic desire. This is an important line of inquiry, but I would like to redirect our attention from historical projections to Marlowe's own project: his strategic dramaturgical use of contemporary clichés about transvestism and sexuality in order to clarify the actions and desires of his characters. With no discrete identity category for people who engage in homoerotic behaviors in sixteenth-century England, Marlowe's use of these clichés serves to connect erotic desire with more legible, if reductive, character traits such as class and social hierarchy. To read Marlowe's references to transvestism in this way is to reopen discussions about the potential overlaps between gender ambiguity and sexuality not just in the play, but also in Marlowe's larger oeuvre. It is to argue that some sixteenth-century theatrical practices may anticipate eighteenth-century connections between homoerotic communities and conventions of effeminacy. Finally, it is to allow for a multiplicity of audience responses, from homophobic to potentially progressive, as Marlowe's activation of these clichés amplifies slippages in the very traits they ostensibly clarify.


Debates as to whether or not we can read the king's relationship with his minion as sexual have continued in no small part because of uncertainty about what constitutes a marker of male-male desire, not only in Edward the Second but also in Elizabethan literature writ large. The courtly love tradition in particular makes it difficult to distinguish between the conventions of masculine bonding and homoerotic desire between men; at times, they even appear deliberately intertwined. However stable the extratheatrical connection between transvestism and male-male or male-boy eroticism in the period may have been, Marlowe takes a cue from theatrical and antitheatrical writers alike, signaling Edward's thematically important sexual desires by referencing a well-known stereotype about homoerotic desire. On the one hand, acknowledging Marlowe's connection between travesty and sexual desire modifies and even potentially bolsters a now-common reading of how he represents sexuality in the play: once Marlowe establishes the erotic aspects of Edward and Gaveston's relationship through visions of cross-dressed boys, the slipperiness of his chosen trope affords the playwright a disruptive [End Page 289] opportunity to represent more directly his characters' feelings and desires for each other as the play continues. On the other hand, Marlowe's use of the transvestism trope also prepares audiences for ongoing connections that manifest later in the play between homoerotic desire and a network of stereotypical associations that includes cross-dressing, charges of effeminacy, and pederasty.

To be clear, these associations can be implicated in what we would now call homophobia. But dismissing this network of conventional stereotypes because of their pernicious implications can lead to misrepresentations of the thematic importance of eroticism in the play's own politics. It is by trading in contemporary stereotypes that Marlowe first introduces and later sustains the central importance of Edward's erotic desires. Gender ambiguity and male-male desire couple again in the play by way of a commonly used reference a few scenes later when Queen Isabella considers her fraught position vis-à-vis the relationship between her husband and his favorite:

Would when I left sweet France and was embarked,That charming Circe, walking on the waves,Had changed my shape, or at the marriage-dayThe cup of Hymen had been full of poison,Or with those arms that twined about my neckI had been stifled, and not lived to seeThe King my lord thus to abandon me.Like frantic Juno will I fill the earthWith ghastly murmur of my sighs and cries,For never doted Jove on GanymedeSo much as he on cursèd Gaveston.


Having been scorned by the king, Marlowe's queen likens herself to Juno, paralleling her husband's neglect with Jove's when he takes the Trojan boy Ganymede as his new cupbearer. Both patriarchs desire what their wives cannot be: a male minion. While Circe traditionally transformed people into animals, Isabella's use of the word "shape" in her discussion of her husband's distant desires draws attention to her physical form as a female character.

Positioning herself within the play's larger dramatic narrative, Isabella reinforces the idea that she does not have the required "shape" to fit her husband's desires. But in practice, pageboy performances of women are unavoidably unstable. Working in tandem with her cross-dressed pageboy's presence, Isabella's use [End Page 290] of the word "shape" recalls Gaveston's fantasies in the first scene, particularly when his dialogue references matters of gender play and erotic desire. According to the OED, a now obsolete definition for the word "shape" also refers to the "cut of a garment," adding a potential pun that further stresses these issues.15 For Isabella to receive affection from her neglectful husband, whom she "love[s] … more / Than he can Gaveston," she would need to have the "shape" of a boy—a shape that the boy beneath her clothing already has (iv.303–4). The ambiguous presence of two transformations, Isabella's wish for a different physical body and the boy actor's transvestite performance, works against simple interpretive resolutions.16 As with Gaveston's earlier speech, critical attempts to delimit the transient semantics of Isabella's soliloquy, whether on the grounds of gender or sexuality or of the relationship of theatrical artifice to actual people's social behavior, seem at odds with the ambiguities that Marlowe releases into the play.

When considering what we do know about Elizabethan performance practices, the idea that Isabella's speech stabilizes her representation as a female character, as some have argued, is difficult to accept, for theatrical illusion can never entirely erase the boy actor's presence. In fact, failures of theatrical practices in social performance are of larger concern in Edward the Second, which links shape-shifting and costuming even outside of the context of gender transgression. When Mortimer Junior contends that he is not particularly troubled by Edward's "wanton humor," he attacks "basely born" Gaveston's feigned nobility through a description of his "proud fantastic liveries," which "make such show / As if that Proteus, god of shapes, appeared" (iv.403–4 and 411–2). Playing off the conventions of Elizabethan sumptuary laws, Marlowe connects dissimulating outward shapes to the clothing of an eroticized figure, thematically linking Gaveston's own protean mutability to his opening fantasies. Travesty is, once again, transgressive. Earlier in the same scene, when Isabella highlights her own "shape" and, by extension, that of the pageboy speaking her lines, she participates in an ongoing thematic connection among disruptive acts, erotic desires, and outward appearances. On a metatheatrical level, Isabella's speech playfully highlights the presence of the transvestite boy actor playing a woman who wishes that s/he were a boy love-object. Marlowe thus conflates gender disruption, boys' bodies, and homoerotic desire as Isabella contemplates her husband's neglect by drawing upon universally understood (and categorically confusing) markers of gender and sexuality. [End Page 291]


A number of critics have argued that it is less Edward's sexual relationship with Gaveston that angers his barons than the promotion of his lowborn favorite to offices generally reserved for the nobility.17 Within a single speech in the first scene, Edward makes Gaveston his "Lord High Chamberlain," "Chief secretary," "Earl of Cornwall [and] King and Lord of Man" (i.153–5). Even Gaveston cannot help but express his astonishment at the sheer number of offices bestowed: "My Lord, these titles far exceed my worth" (i.156). Kent immediately reinforces Gaveston's arguably feigned demurring by reminding his brother Edward that "the least of these may well suffice / For one of greater birth than Gaveston" (i.157–8). In granting Gaveston this array of offices, Edward deliberately risks the stability and loyalty of his Court, investing his lowborn minion with the authority to command others in the king's name according to whatever his "mind affects or fancy likes" (i.169). While this disruption of social hierarchy both irritates the nobles and feeds into Gaveston's plan to "draw the pliant king which way" he pleases, it is important to remember that in championing his favorite's desires, Edward effectively fulfills his own (i.52).

As the alarmed barons begin plotting, it is Edward's desires for the base "villain" that help them justify their treasonous intent (ii.11). From their point of view, the king and his "minion" walk "arm in arm" upon the ground now "corrupted with their steps" (ii.67, 20, and 5). Any noblemen who approve of their friendship, whether by verbal expression or silent toleration, are similarly corrupted, as those who "stomach him, but dare not speak a word" expose their own "baseness" (ii.26–7). If approval of Gaveston's position lowers one's place in the social hierarchy, then Mortimer Junior places himself and those who will join him at the top, declaring that anyone of his "mind" will halt "the ruin of the realm" (and of themselves) by drawing Gaveston's "venom" from Edward's "bosom" and "at the court gate hang the peasant up" (ii.28–32). If Edward has promoted Gaveston above the nobility, then the nobles respond by placing themselves above the king, flipping the hierarchy to return the nobility to its rightful place above the venomous creature of baser birth. Isabella later summarizes the complexities of this baronial misrule: "Unnatural wars, where subjects brave their King" (xi.86). Social disruption has become the political norm. In this context, Gaveston and Edward's friendship arouses a useful resentment among the nobility; homoeroticism [End Page 292] becomes a necessary rhetorical mechanism when weighing the king's disruptive behavior against the barons'.

Forestalling the nobles' insurrection, Queen Isabella exposes the important implications of her husband's homoerotic relationship when she attempts to maintain order. Persuading the barons to let Gaveston remain in spite of their nobler judgments and her own happiness, she argues that the realm will be more secure if they let Edward "frolic with his minion," lest the king "be oppressed by civil mutinies" (ii.67 and 65). Placing the ills of one form of social disruption (Gaveston's promotions) against another (the nobles' revolt against the king), Isabella proffers the sacrifice of her own emotional, marital, and erotic happiness for the sake of the realm. But neither the barons' nor her proposed options actually present any viable return to social norms, since they each involve some form of disruptive act. Isabella's choice of the word "minion" here becomes all the more significant, provocatively marking Gaveston both as Edward's favorite and as his sexual partner.18 Of equal importance is the sexual innuendo contained in the word "frolic," especially because Gaveston's opening soliloquy has already shown precisely how his daytime walks with Edward "corrupt[]" the ground when they make merry. Isabella's discussions of her husband remain marked by such depreciatory hints even after her decision to ally with the barons, wherein she blames "Misgoverned kings" for the destruction of the state, Edward "one among them all, / Whose looseness hath betrayed thy land" (xvii.9–11). In their willingness to counter Gaveston's hierarchical disruption with their own, the nobles authorize their own misconduct through their anxiety over the king and his minion's erotic relationship.

If Isabella and the barons initially seem willing to tolerate their frolicking, the play later offers audiences a shocking representation of how the nobles feel about Edward and Gaveston's relationship through Edward's gruesome execution. This brutal punishment finds its well-known source in Raphael Holinshed's account of the king's death in his Chronicles (1586–87), wherein Edward's assassins keep "him down and withall put into his fundament an horne, and through the same they thrust up into his bodie an hot spit."19 In Marlowe's adaptation, Edward's assassins pin him under a table within the castle's figurative fundament, the sewer dungeon "Wherein the filth of all the castle falls" (xxiv.56). This moment has prompted intense debate in recent years, most recently by Christopher Shirley, who attempts to sideline eroticism in Edward and Gaveston's relationship by noting how stage directions [End Page 293] in early printed versions fail to indicate anal rape.20 There is no clear way to resolve the arguments that this moment has prompted, for we have no records of how early performers staged Edward's execution. Whatever the original staging, Lightborne's direct verbal reference to Holinshed's spit ("get me a spit, and let it be red hot") is enough thematically to tie eroticism to Edward's end (xxiv.30). Further, there is literary precedent for using heated iron rods as a punishment for sexual activity, as when Absolon punishes Nicholas with a "hoote kultour" in Chaucer's "Miller's Tale."21 As Jonathan Crewe argues, Edward's death disrupts any suppositions that the play offers an unquestioningly tolerant approach to male-male sexuality. If the barons appear slightly alarmed by Edward's sexual proclivities earlier, then their later actions solidify for audiences their deep anxiety over his erotic relationship with Gaveston. Edward's execution, punitively replaying his transgressions like a Dantean contrapasso, more than suggests the possibility of homophobia, unsettling the play's earlier apparent approval for his relationship with Gaveston.22 Sexuality and politics cannot be separated in this play.

Even if critics have overemphasized the problematic notion of sodomy, historically stereotypical responses to erotic desire remain thematically central. Edward's execution is one of many suggestions that he and Gaveston incite the barons' ire not only because of their disruption of social hierarchy, but also because of their sexual relationship. Like cross-dressing, anal penetration remains resiliently associated with stereotypes about homosexual desire, and Marlowe once again references a common bodily stereotype to conclude his representation of a homoerotic friendship. It is difficult to dismiss the early connection Gaveston draws between cross-dressing and male-male sexuality on the grounds that the link between the two is homophobic when Marlowe bookends his representation of a male-male relationship with such problematic cultural associations.

The king and his favorite are not the only characters in the play to engage in sexually disruptive acts. Isabella commits adultery in her relationship with Mortimer Junior, with whom she also orchestrates her husband's death. Her conspiracy with Mortimer Junior to usurp her husband's power is every bit as socially disruptive as Edward's gift of noble titles to Gaveston, and, as with Edward's transgressions, Marlowe associates her political activities with erotic desires and acts. As David Stymeist has shown, the play's other characters often describe Isabella's disruptive actions in overtly sexualized terms, linking her threatening [End Page 294] behavior to her adulterous activities.23 She and Mortimer "do kiss while they conspire," as Kent later warns Edward (xviii.22). Gaveston, Edward, Isabella, and Mortimer Junior constitute the four erotic and political transgressors in the play, all of whom are punished for their activities. Marlowe's sexualized representation of Isabella by no means overshadows the import of Edward and Gaveston's relationship, but it does directly position her within the play's thorough enmeshing of sex and politics.

Isabella's own erotic desire acts as a touchstone for her husband's sexual proclivities. From her first entrance, her frustrated desire places her centrally in a nexus of ideas and behaviors that clarify her husband's: "I love him more / Than he can Gaveston. Would he loved me / But half so much, then were I treble blessed" (iv.303–5). Edward himself correlates (and repeatedly frustrates) the fulfillment of his wife's erotic longing with his love for Gaveston. When Isabella assures her husband that "it lies not in [her] power" to exile Gaveston despite his claim to the contrary, he dismisses her by way of frustrating her desire for physical contact: "Away then, touch me not; come Gaveston" (iv.158–9). Even when she works to arrange Gaveston's return, Edward equates her satisfaction to his minion's, offering her a necklace instead of erotic fulfillment: "For thee, fair Queen, if thou lov'st Gaveston; / I'll hang a golden tongue about thy neck" (iv.328–9). Only when she dismisses any "other jewels about [her] neck" than her husband's arms, mentioning, too, how "a kiss revives poor Isabel," does he offer her his "hand" in "A second marriage" between them (iv.331 and 334–5).24 Her persistent desire for physical satisfaction is deeply troubling for Edward, who suspects her adulterous desires for Mortimer Junior even before the play provides evidence for audiences and despite her reassurance that he suspects her "without cause"—a point that prompts Gaveston's aside to the king that he "dissemble with her, speak her fair" (vi.224 and 226). The queen's frustrated sexual desires work to justify her own adulterous choice to ally with Mortimer Junior, as she stands to gain the least from her husband's overthrow. Even when she first hints that she could "live with [Mortimer] forever," she is quick to justify her inclinations: "In vain I look for love at Edward's hand, / Whose eyes are fixed on none but Gaveston" (viii.61–3). Isabella's bodily presence and physical longings act as foils to Edward's desires, making possible moments of sexual metacommentary that put her theatrically produced body into play before the audience. [End Page 295]


In her early appeal to Circe, Isabella further stresses the import of erotics by activating popular conceptions about Ovidian mythology. In wishing that Circe had "changed [her] shape" (iv.173), she compares herself to Juno:

Like frantic Juno will I fill the earthWith ghastly murmur of my sighs and cries,For never doted Jove on GanymedeSo much as he on cursèd Gaveston.

Like the Roman tutelary goddess of marriage, Isabella has her own Ganymede to contend with. Isabella's allusion to the boy Jupiter loved and took to heaven also recalls an entire erotic theatrical context from Marlowe's own handling of Juno's "hate of Trojan Ganymede" in his collaboration with Nashe, Dido, Queen of Carthage, further establishing Isabella's place in the play's erotic and political network.25 Juno, in seeking revenge on "lustful Jove" for his marital neglect in Dido, later regrets having "mustered all the winds unto his wrack" in Troy and now wishes that she "had never wronged him so" (III.ii.18, 45, and 48). Similarly, Isabella recognizes that despite her desire not to have "lived to see / The King [her] lord thus to abandon" her for his minion, she must no "more exasperate his wrath" and "call home Gaveston" (iv.176–7, 182, and 184). She must forgive the king's lasciviousness for the sake of maintaining peace, though she will be "forever miserable" in ending Gaveston's exile while knowing Edward prefers his male paramour to her (iv.186). For the sake of the kingdom, Isabella imitates Juno, who sacrifices her own happiness by letting Jupiter remain with Ganymede.

In their erotically charged representation of the Ganymede myth, Marlowe and Nashe convey the sexual implications of Jupiter and his minion's relationship by depicting it in playful terms that resemble the nobles' description of Edward and Gaveston's frolicking. Jupiter's command to the boy marks the play's beginning: "Come, gentle Ganymede, and play with me: / I love thee well, say Juno what she will" (I.i.1–2). Their "play" is hardly innocent, as the opening direction preceding his line suggests that audiences first discover the god "dandling," or fondling, the Trojan boy on his knee (I.i.[0].s.d.). As Jupiter fondles Ganymede on his lap and calls him "the darling of [his] thoughts," the youth reciprocates, wishing he could "hug with" the god "an hundred times" [End Page 296] (I.i.9 and 48). Venus soon enters and chastises, "Ay, this is it! You can sit toying there / And playing with that female wanton boy!" (I.i.50–1). Fed up with Jupiter's idleness while Aeneas is in danger at sea, Venus associates Jupiter's lascivious desire with Ganymede's unruly performance of gender. Male-male desire once again appears in tandem with the physicality of a "wanton," or undisciplined and potentially lascivious, boy, here presented through a common early modern use of the Ganymede myth.26

This myth was one of Marlowe's favorites. It appears with similar erotic import yet again in his poem Hero and Leander (1598), wherein he speaks of "Jove, slylie stealing from his sisters bed, / To dallie with Idalian Ganimed."27 In other words, the mythical, disruptive, and erotic potential of boys' bodies is a topic of larger concern in Marlowe's surviving works. Much like Gaveston's description of the boy who inhabits Diana's role in the first scene of Edward the Second, the implicit gender play in Venus's slight against Ganymede at the beginning of Dido is not necessarily achieved by cross-dressing. Yet his sexualized status as a "female wanton boy" marks his performance of gender as an important aspect of his availability as an object of desire (I.i.51). In reading the relays between Ganymede in Dido and Isabella's reference to the myth in Edward the Second, Goldberg assumes that Venus's attack responds to the Trojan boy's cross-dressing, though the play itself does not seem to support this idea. This assumption makes possible his argument that issues of gender in the scene are less about eroticism and more about substitutions of heteronormative roles. Interestingly, as Goldberg's argument plays out, repeated quotations of Venus's attack become an elliptical phrase: "female … boy," removing the third term that opens up this either/or comparison's disruptive, erotic potentials.28 Goldberg also overlooks Marlowe's habit, established across multiple texts, of relating the gendered performances of boys in the period, both with and without travesty, to their attraction as sexual objects.

If the Ganymede myth sometimes did signify same-sex desires, it was also open to other interpretations. In England and on the Continent, Ganymede commonly appears associated with Neo-Platonic ideas as well as themes of spirituality, immortality, intellect, outer beauty as a symbol of inner virtue, and even chaste love.29 Even so, Marlowe was hardly alone in associating Ganymede with wanton playing, dandling, dallying, and gender disruption, as the Trojan boy's use as a vehicle for male-male and male-boy desire in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England was relatively common. In Glossographia (1656), for instance, [End Page 297] Thomas Blount defines the name "Ganymede" as "any boy that is loved for carnal abuse, or is hired to be used contrary to Nature, to commit the detestable sin of Sodomy."30 Despite other potential Ovidian figures for homoerotic desire, such as Cyparissus or Hyacinthus in Orpheus's repertoire of songs, Ganymede emerges as the most commonly used by writers in the period. In fact, the name Ganymede enters the English lexicon twice, once deriving from mythology, and again from its corrupted Latin form, catamitus, which became "catamite." Both words were used to describe a boy's role in power dynamics of male-male sexual activities, including cases of prostitution, and both appeared as common terms in discussions of transvestite pageboys.31 Marlowe's conception of Ganymede as a "female wanton boy," along with Isabella's use of the myth to describe her husband's erotic desires, make the sexual implications of the boy's appearance in his plays quite apparent. Gender play is unavoidably part of how Marlowe represents homoeroticism in Edward the Second and elsewhere.


The specific complex of male-male desire, transvestism, and references to Ganymede extends well beyond Marlowe's work. Shakespeare's As You Like It, for example, is a veritable factory for questions about the relationship between cross-dressing and desire. When does Orlando recognize Rosalind beneath her male attire when she feigns to be Ganymede? Does he do so prior to their de praesenti marriage? Does gender ambiguity factor into his attraction to her? How do we read Phoebe's desire for Ganymede/Rosalind? These difficult queries are made no easier by Rosalind's epilogue, which she famously opens with a formal note, "It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue," and closes with a disruptive tease: "If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me."32 Occupying a historical parenthesis in English theater spanning less than a century, boy actresses were hardly a convention that audiences simply accepted unquestioningly. During this period, both paid and unpaid women performers appeared in public entertainments in London and around the country in the continuing traditions of cycle and festival dramas. While the archival records of these cases in London's urban setting might marginalize them as exceptional, their historical presence, as well as an awareness that women did, in fact, appear on Continental and rural stages, complicates [End Page 298] assumptions about English spectators' unquestioning acceptance of transvestite stage conventions.33 As Dympna Callaghan has shown, these exceptional cases hardly elide the complexities of representing absent female bodies in London's theatrical venues. The "fantasy" that female bodies are present in a stable sense within all-male productions "serves more to uncover the limits of representation" and challenges the expectations that audiences place on them.34 Performances, though drawing upon, shaping, and even creating acceptable conventions and cultural assumptions, have complicated relationships with what they represent.

Audiences also have an important participatory role in the efficacy of performances, and there is no guarantee that dramatic spectators will work to maintain, or even play along with, the illusions and conventions of a theatrical event. With the exception of Lady Margaret de Clare's two brief appearances, Isabella is the only primary female character in a play predominantly populated by males and exclusively populated by male and boy performers. The moment she laments that Circe did not change her shape is, in this sense, metatheatrical, as her utterance calls attention to the presence of the mechanism behind her production: the boy actor garbed in female attire. She wants to be the boy who she already is on the stage but cannot be within the play's narrative.

By drawing attention to the wantonness of boy actresses, Isabella also makes visible the potential presence of homoerotic and pederastic desires among her audience. In this regard, it is worth considering a clause on the title page of the 1594 edition of Dido. The title, The Tragedie of Dido Queene of Carthage: Played by the Children of Her Maisties Chappell, informs readers of the significant location and company of the play's performance, the Chapel Children's company, suggesting another possible reading of Dido's opening scene.35 Jupiter, Ganymede, and Venus were all originally played by boys. The play opens with a boy "dandling" another boy on his knee, only to be chastised as a "female wanton boy" by yet another boy dressed as a goddess. As in the opening of Edward the Second, Marlowe and Nashe begin Dido by emphasizing boys' bodies and erotic desire. The wanton transvestism of pageboys merges with Ganymede's erotic significations in Marlovian theatrical performances.

Jean E. Howard once argued that the boy actor's ability to impersonate a woman within the context of Elizabethan theatrical convention called into question the historical stability of gender and sexual categories.36 In rightly critiquing Howard's subsequent, less-persuasive suggestion that cross-dressing [End Page 299] was primarily about women, Goldberg attempts to stabilize the wanton gender play in Marlowe's writing, initiating a critical tendency to dismiss the blurry boundaries that historical cases of transvestism can put into play.37 In this way, I have in this article returned to some of the now-dismissed ideas in earlier feminist critiques of transvestism, yet in doing so I do not wish to suggest that the conclusions should remain the same. The function of cross-dressing in early professional productions was not always a matter of passing. For playwrights such as Marlowe, the idea that transvestite pageboys could be perceived as multiple genders was precisely the point. We need to reexamine the overlaps between gender and sexuality highlighted by some acts of early modern theatrical transvestism. To what extent was cross-dressing more than a patriarchal exercise? In what senses and contexts might it have been what we would call queer? What was the role of gender constructs in homoerotic desire prior to the eighteenth century? Reopening investigations into the complex historical overlap between gender and sexuality, however difficult and problematic, is vital work that need not rehearse the problematic assumptions of a prequeer critical era.

If queer theory today has moved on to other concerns, such as temporality, antisociality, and futurity, then it is worth pausing to consider what has been lost in the years since: a more subtle and nuanced investigation of the early modern relation between gender and sexuality. Given the humanist tradition of pederasty in education, as well as contemporary laws that made pederasty a punishable offense, the potential sexual relationships between men and/or boys need to be better accounted for in analyses of boy actors as objects of desire.38 Whether the eroticization of boys' bodies on the stage (in male or female garb) was cause for alarm or joy, boy companies in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries frequently capitalized upon erotic and homoerotic material.39 It is important to make room for the possibility that some Renaissance spectators heard in moments such as Gaveston's and Isabella's soliloquies playful resonances with their own erotic desires.

Our critical tendency to diminish how Marlowe associates Ganymede with wanton disruptions of gender and sexuality only re-performs the dramatic loss of control found in Isabella's early soliloquy, suggesting our inability to limit the unstable categories and meanings that her utterance invokes. Emerging as an interdisciplinary field around the same time as sexuality and queer studies, performance studies has only recently garnered [End Page 300] major attention in early modern literary criticism. Studies by a broad range of scholars participating in this field have led to new models for discussing performances and theatricality, social tactics that serve functions outside of formal theatrical settings.40 Discussions of cross-dressing's and drag's many valences in performance have been particularly productive, noting an intriguing and ongoing queer connection between Orphic myths and nonprocreative sex.41 We might also ask what relationship Marlowe's and Nashe's dramatic references to these ideas have with attacks against their own public characters. In a woodcut included within Richard Lichfield's The Trimming of Thomas Nashe (1597), Nashe appears beardless with his doublet undone, suggesting, among other things, his effeminacy.42 The so-called "Baines note" accuses Marlowe of claiming that "all they that loue not Tobacco & Boies were fooles."43 Such records hardly offer information about what Nashe and Marlowe really thought or did, but they do position the two as targets of the very stereotypes they use to suggest erotic desire. While these stereotypes may indeed be foundational to our modern heterosexist culture, their relationship to the emergence of homoerotic social groups in the form of Molly houses roughly a century later forces us to question whether their functions in social performances really were limited to homophobic logics prior to 1700.

Transvestism has many potential connotations, all of which depend on historical and literary context. If the dominance of adversarial readings of Edward and Gaveston's erotic relationship, Edward's anal execution, and the role of sodomy in the play has affirmed anything, then it is that Edward the Second continues to hold a privileged place in debates about the ambiguities of sexuality in the period. Not the least of the puzzling conclusions that have emerged from these debates is the critical consensus over transvestism's role in the play: the assumption being that if transvestism does not necessarily signify homoerotic desire, then it simply does not signify it at all. But transvestism does not necessarily end the pageboy's ability to be seen as an object of desire either; rather, it can call attention to his body's historically wanton potentials. While cross-dressing may not be Marlowe's only tactic in examining male-male sexual relationships, at the beginning of his play he nevertheless references common moralizing tactics in order to establish his characters' erotic desires. These connections between gender ambiguity, homoerotic desire, and the myth of Ganymede also appear in erotically charged Marlovian scenarios outside of Edward the Second. If "sodomy is not homosexuality [End Page 301] tout court, nor are male/female relations of alliance the same as heterosexuality," why should we be surprised to find the perplexities of these unstable identity categories metatheatrically conflated and disrupted within characters such as Isabella and concepts such as transvestism?44 After all, as Marlowe himself suggests, it can be "wanton" to be a "female … boy."

Matthew D. Lillo

Matthew D. Lillo is a Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University and member of the Actors' Equity Association. His dissertation examines the relationship between English ballads and plays from 1500 to 1649.


I am indebted to Corey McEleney for his generous interlocutions and responses to several drafts, both early and late in the writing process. This article has also benefited from the considered comments of Mark Caldwell, Stuart Sherman, and John Bugg. In addition, thanks are due to Heather Dubrow, Lars Engle, and Kirk Quinsland for conversations that steered me in useful directions.

1. Christopher Marlowe, Edward the Second, ed. Martin Wiggins and Robert Lindsey, 2d edn., New Mermaids (London: A and C Black, 1997), i.52 and 56–65. Subsequent references to Edward the Second will appear parenthetically in the text by scene and line number.

2. See Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 105–6.

3. See Gayle S. Rubin, "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality," in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance (Boston: Routledge, 1984), esp. pp. 267–319; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985); and Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men's Press, 1982).

4. See Goldberg, pp. 115–29. Goldberg was not the first to argue that Marlowe's use of transvestism in Edward the Second did not represent malemale desires. See, for instance, Simon Shepherd, Marlowe and the Politics of Elizabethan Theatre (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), pp. 105–43. See also Mario DiGangi's argument that Edward may be less of a "sodomite" than the characters who assault him throughout the play ("Marlowe, Queer Studies, and Renaissance Homoeroticism," in Marlowe, History, and Sexuality: New Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe, ed. Paul Whitfield White [New York: AMS Press, 1998], pp. 198–9, 203–9).

5. See Goldberg, pp. 116–9.

6. For a recent example, see Christopher Shirley, "Sodomy and Stage Directions in Christopher Marlowe's Edward(s) II," SEL 54, 2 (Spring 2014): 279–96.

7. See Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 43–8.

8. Judith Butler, "Preface (1999)," in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge Classics, 2006), pp. vii–xxviii, xiv–xv.

9. See Randolph Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution: Volume One, Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London, Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998); Thomas Alan King, The English Phallus and Queer Articulations, vols. 1–2 [End Page 302] of The Gendering of Men, 1600–1750, 2 vols. (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2004–08); and Peter Hennen, Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering the Masculine (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008).

10. See especially Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 1–52.

11. Mary Bly, "The Boy Companies, 1599–1613," in The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre, ed. Richard Dutton (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), pp. 143–4; and Richmond Barbour, "'When I Acted Young Antinous': Boy Actors and the Erotics of Jonsonian Theater," PMLA 110, 5 (October 1995): 1006–22.

12. David Stymeist, "Status, Sodomy, and the Theater in Marlowe's Edward II," SEL 44, 2 (Spring 2004): 233–53, 242; and Shakespeare, Cymbeline, in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 7th edn. (New York: Pearson, 2014), II.ii.37–8. Thanks to Mary Bly for pointing me toward this erotic moment in Cymbeline.

13. Michael John Lee has argued that the repeated masculine pronouns in Gaveston's transgendered fantasies ("boy," "his," "him") may suggest an early emergence of a homosexual identity category ("Classifying Early Modern Sexuality: Christopher Marlowe, Edward II, and the Politics of Sexuality," JRMMRA 34 [2013]: 111–24).

14. On the critical history of transvestism and "boy-actresses," see Roberta Barker, "'Not One Thing Exactly': Gender, Performance, and Critical Debates over Early Modern Boy-Actresses," LiteratureC 6, 2 (March 2009): 460–81.

15. OED, 2d edn., s.v. "shape, n.," I.2a.

16. Addressing an earlier opposing claim by Lisa Jardine, Goldberg argues that antitheatricalists would have responded to Isabella's desire for "Circean transformation" by noting the pageboy's own "bestial metamorphosis" into a woman, her "wish that she were a boy [meaning] that she is not to be taken as one" (p. 125). For Jardine's argument, see Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 22–4.

17. This argument is made most clearly by DiGangi in The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997), p. 108.

18. See OED, 3d edn., s.v. "minion, n. and adj.," A.I.1a and 1b.

19. Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles (London, 1586–87), p. 341; EEBO STC (2d edn.) 13569, reel 272:1–273:01.

20. Shirley, pp. 279–96. Similar arguments have been made by Andrew Hadfield, "Marlowe's Representation of the Death of Edward the Second," N&Q 56, 1 (March 2009): 40–1; and Orgel, pp. 46–8.

21. Chaucer, "The Miller's Tale," in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3d edn. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), pp. 68–77, 76, line 3776. I am indebted to Alexis Butzner for this point.

22. See Jonathan Crewe, "Disorderly Love: Sodomy Revisited in Marlowe's Edward II," Criticism 51, 3 (Summer 2009): 385–99, 393–5. It is worth noting Crewe's observation that Dante does not include any examples of this specific contrapasso for sodomites, further suggesting the homophobia at play in Edward the Second.

23. See Stymeist, pp. 246–7. [End Page 303]

24. In the New Mermaids edition, Wiggins and Lindsey insert a stage direction ("[He embraces her]") after Edward offers to give her jewelry (iv.331.s.d.). This direction appears in neither the 1594 nor the 1598 edition of the play. It is unclear whether she delivers her subsequent lines as a response to his embrace or as a corrective plea for the same.

25. See Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage, in Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays, ed. Frank Romany and Lindsey (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), III.ii.42. Subsequent references to Dido are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text by act, scene, and line number.

26. See OED, 3d edn., s.v. "wanton, adj. and n.," A.1a, A.1d, and A.3a–3c.

27. Marlowe, Hero and Leander, in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Fredson Bowers, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), 2:423–515, sestiad 1, lines 147–8.

28. Goldberg, p. 130.

29. See Sarah Carter, Ovidian Myth and Sexual Deviance in Early Modern English Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 81–114; and James M. Saslow, Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986). Carter also references Goldberg's reading of Edward the Second, claiming that Marlowe "does not directly use the myth of Ganymede as a model for same sex desire" (p. 94). On interpreting Ganymede as a sexual symbol within this semantic network, see DiGangi, Homoerotics, pp. 29–63.

30. Thomas Blount, Glossographia (London, 1656), [R8]v; EEBO Wing (2d edn.) B3334.

31. See OED, 2d edn., s.v. "Ganymede, n.," 2; and OED, 2d edn., s.v. "catamite, n." The connection between sexual activities related to or based on power structures of hierarchy and Ganymedes, or catamites, is made clearly in Carter, pp. 88–9. On early modern sexual practices and power dynamics, see DiGangi, Homoerotics; David M. Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002); and Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991). On Ganymede's name in discussions of boy actors, see Nora Johnson, "Ganymedes and Kings: Staging Male Homosexual Desire in The Winter's Tale," ShakS 26 (1998): 187–217.

32. Shakespeare, As You Like It, in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, epilogue, lines 1 and 16–8.

33. See Orgel, pp. 1–9.

34. Dympna Callaghan, Shakespeare without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 18.

35. Marlowe, The Tragedie of Dido Queene of Carthage (London, 1654), [A1]r; EEBO STC (2d edn.) 17441. Editors Romany and Lindsey point to Dido's title page as a reminder of the significant tensions between boy actors and the play's mythological source material (see introduction to Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays, pp. xi–xxxiii, xiv).

36. See Jean E. Howard, "Cross-dressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England," SQ 39, 4 (Winter 1988): 418–40, 435.

37. See Goldberg, pp. 107–8.

38. I am here drawing upon Crewe's similar suggestion, pp. 386–7.

39. See Bly, pp. 141–4. [End Page 304]

40. On how theatricality exceeds its formerly assumed margins, see Samuel Weber, Theatricality as Medium (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 2004). For a discussion of theatricality as a concept in early modern literary criticism, see Henry S. Turner, "Generalization," in Early Modern Theatricality, ed. Turner (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013), pp. 1–23.

41. For example, see Esther Newton, Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972); and José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2009). On Orphic myths and nonprocreative sex, see Muñoz, pp. 131–46.

42. [Richard Lichfield], The Trimming of Thomas Nashe Gentleman (London, 1597), E2r; EEBO STC (2d edn.) 12906.

43. Richard Baines, "Richard Baines to the Privy Council," in In Search of Christopher Marlowe: A Pictorial Biography, ed. A. D. Wraight (London: Macdonald, 1965), pp. 308–9.

44. Goldberg, p. 129. [End Page 305]

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