Female-Female Eroticism and the Early Modern Stage

  • Douglas Bruster
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Series book series


The last two chapters have sought to demonstrate how convention and trend can shape literature, including what is often read as literature’s “cultural” content. Such cultural content, I argued earlier, is sometimes read in virtual abstraction from the important contexts of literary making. No less than the thin descriptions of chapters 3 and 4, then, the interpretations of this chapter aim to show the importance of what I have called “literary” culture—the roles that tradition, composition, materiel, and context play in giving various literary texts their themes, structures, vocabularies, and ideologies. Although it may seem innocuous, an emphasis on works’ discursive contexts—contexts that often are strongly literary in nature—can place one’s interpretations into divergence, if not debate, with readings that stress sociological links and political implications.


Female Body Female Character Sexual Pleasure Sexual Aggression Absolute Identity 
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    See Gordon Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, 3 vols. (London: Athlone Press, 1994).Google Scholar
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    We can see this most clearly, perhaps, in relationship to a work of history. Here I am referring to Rudolph Bell’s extended review of Immodest Acts—Judith Brown’s history of Benedetta Carlini, a “lesbian” nun. Bell demonstrates that an affirmative tendency in Brown’s account not only obscures Carlini’s particularities but distorts the authorities’ responses to Carlini. Brown, for instance, imagines a melodramatic scene of interrogation in which the testimony of Carlini’s lover both made the scribe’s hand shake and “must have stunned” the officials in attendance—officials who “entirely lacked either an intellectual or an imaginative schema that would incorporate the kind of behavior she described.” “To anyone’s knowledge,” Brown asserts, “there had been nothing like it in any Italian convents” (qtd. in Bell, 497). In contrast, Bell, having reviewed the archival materials that Brown consulted, is struck by “how lightly the visiting friars treated the entire matter”; he points out that Brown herself quotes, only to lose sight of, the recommendation of (Saint) Charles Borromeo that a woman fornicating with another woman should do two years’ penance (497, 499). See Judith C. Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985);Google Scholar
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  18. 11.
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    These “vices” are justified with the assumption that nothing that did not change the status of virginity would threaten their salvation. Compare Traub’s reading of Heywood’s The Golden Age, where the Nymphs’ otherwise erotic sporting among themselves seems chaste, outside the circuit of sexual reproduction that seems to demarcate the potentially sinful. Traub , “The (In)Significance of ‘Lesbian’ Desire in Early Modern England,” in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, ed. Susan Zimmerman (New York: Routledge, 1992), 150–69; 159–61.Google Scholar
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    It is this friction that the term “tribade” (ultimately from the Greek for “to rub”) seems most often meant to explain in Renaissance usage, this despite several well-known associations of “tribade” with penetration of another woman by an unnaturally enlarged clitoris or dildo. See Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 74; Traub, “(In) Significance,” 153–54.Google Scholar
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  42. Ben Jonson, Epicoene: or, The Silent Woman, ed. R. V. Holdsworth (New York: Norton, 1990). Shakespeare could have been familiar with the Semiramis legends from any of a number of sources. The fullest narrative is that of Diodorus, who chronicles her rise to power, military exploits, and architectural achievements. Her private life, however, would be remembered more than her political achievements—perhaps a way of discrediting or repressing the latter. Diodorus tells us two things that later writers would repeat. First, when called on by her husband to come to him at the site of a siege, she invented a special costume: “since she was about to set out upon a journey of many days, she devised a garb which made it impossible to distinguish whether the wearer of it was a man or a woman”; this invention, which Diodorus tells us was later taken up by the Medes and the Persians, prefigures her assumption of agency typically reserved for men. For, after becoming queen, “she passed a long time and enjoyed to the full every device that contributed to luxury; she was unwilling, however, to contract a lawful marriage, being afraid that she might be deprived of her supreme position, but choosing out the most handsome of the soldiers she consorted with them and then made away with all who had lain with her.” Diodorus, Diodorus of Sicily, Loeb Classical Library, 12 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933–67), at 2.6.6 and 2.13.4. Pliny, Valerius Maximus, and Justinus also added elements to the myth, the last contributing incest to Semiramis’s story in his His-toriae Philippice, 1. 1–2—a detail that many later accounts would emphasize. Her military, administrative, and civic achievements thus were subordinated to her image as an insatiable, sexually aggressive cross-dresser with desires that included incest and as a killer of her lovers. Semiramis was a popular figure in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, then again during the Enlightenment. Cristóbal de Virués, the sixteenth-century Spanish playwright, composed the first dramatic treatment of the Semiramis legend in La gran Semiramis, written between 1579 and 1590. (It is probably more than coincidence that Virués’s plays, all written during a time of political tensions with Elizabeth’s England, feature strong female figures like Semiramis.) Lope de Vega and Calderón also penned plays on Semiramis; Lope’s treatment is lost, but Calderon’s Hija del aire, Parte /and Parte II, survives.Google Scholar
  43. On these dramas see Cecilia Vennard Sargent, A Study of the Dramatic Works of Cristóbal de Virués (New York: Instituto de las Espanas, 1930). On the myth of Semiramis generally,Google Scholar
  44. see François Lenormant, La legende de Semiramis— mythologie comparative (Bruxelles: 1873),Google Scholar
  45. and Anna Maria G. Capomacchia, Semiramis: Una femminilita ribaltata, Storia delle Religioni 4 (Roma: Bretschneider, 1986).Google Scholar
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    See Eric Partridge, Shakespeare’s Bawdy: A Literary and Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary, rev. 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 1968),Google Scholar
  49. and James T. Henke, Courtesans and Cuckolds: A Glossary of Renaissance Dramatic Bawdy (Exclusive of Shakespeare) (New York: Garland, 1979).Google Scholar
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© Douglas Bruster 2003

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  • Douglas Bruster

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