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Female-Female Eroticism and the Early Modern Stage

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

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Female Body Female Character Sexual Pleasure Sexual Aggression Absolute Identity 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    See Gordon Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, 3 vols. (London: Athlone Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See James Holstun, “‘Will you rent our ancient love asunder?’: Lesbian Elegy in Donne, Marvell, and Milton,” ELH 54 (1987): 835–67;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Janel Mueller, “Troping Utopia: Donne’s Brief for Lesbianism,” in Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe: Institutions, Texts, Images, ed. James Grantham Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 182–207;Google Scholar
  4. Paula Blank, “Comparing Sappho to Philaenis: John Donne’s ‘Homopoetics,’” PMLA 110.3 (1995): 358–68;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Elizabeth D. Harvey, Ventriloquized Voices: Feminist Theory and English Renaissance Texts (New York: Routledge, 1992), 116–39;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Nadia Rigaud, “L’homosexualité féminine dans A Mad Couple Well Match’d (1639) de Richard Brome,” Bulletin de la société d’études anglo-américaines des XVII e et XVIII e siècles 20 (1985): 23–36;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. and Harriette Andreadis, “The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips, 1632–1664,” Signs 15 (1989): 34–60, and Sappho in Early Modem England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics 1550–1714 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). For further bibliography on female-female eroticism in the literature and culture of the early modern era,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. see Valerie Traub, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). I am extremely grateful to Traub for sharing a copy of this work with me prior to its publication; I regret not being able to acknowledge its argument more fully in the following pages.Google Scholar
  9. 3.
    Laurie Shannon, Sovereign Amity: Figures of Friendship in Shakespearean Contexts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  10. 4.
    The phrase “anxieties of anachronism” is that of Claude J. Summers. For this reference I am indebted to Winfried Schleiner, “That Matter Which Ought Not to Be Heard of: Homophobic Slurs in Renaissance Cultural Politics,” Journal of Homosexuality 26A (1994): 41–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 5.
    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
  12. and Rudolph M. Bell and Judith C. Brown. “Renaissance Sexuality and the Florentine Archives: An Exchange,” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (1987): 485–511. It should be noted as well that a common motif in pornography of the Italian Renaissance involved the sexual license of convents and other religious houses—a recurrent theme in Western pornography at least through Diderot’s La religieuse. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. See David O. Frantz, Festum Voluptatis: A Study of Renaissance Erotica (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989), 63–67. In one instance Aretino has a nun penetrate another nun with a glass dildo (71). Brown’s exciting historical narrative depends on alternately exaggerating and downplaying the evidence at hand. But it also depends on refashioning historical awareness of female homosexuality to create ignorant authority figures who, as the straight men of this scenario, are stunned by it. As Bell’s review suggests, overemphasizing the affirmative aspects of the erotic can produce an incomplete picture of the past.Google Scholar
  14. 8.
    See B. Ruby Rich’s still-relevant review essay on these debates: “Feminism and Sexuality in the 1980s,” Feminist Studies 12 (1986): 525–61. Likewise Cherríe Moraga inveighs against a “transcendent” definition of sexuality that underwrote a “‘perfect’ vision of egalitarian sexuality, where we could magically leap over our heterosexist conditioning into mutually orgasmic, struggle-free, trouble-free sex… . Who can really live up to such an ideal?”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Amber Hollibaugh and Cherríe Moraga, “‘What We’re Rollin Around in Bed With’: Sexual Silences in Feminism: A Conversation toward Ending Them,” Heresies 12 (1981): 58–62; at 58.Google Scholar
  16. 9.
    Compare the “for-others” eroticism of sex among women in much modern pornography, where, as Linda Williams points out, such sex “is not presented as lesbian.” Williams , Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 256. In an early modern context, we could bring to bear Barbara Hodgdon’s remark on a particular moment in The Taming of the Shrew. Hodgdon suggests that at one point Shrew “evokes the classic pornographic repertoire”: “The image of Bianca tied and bound, at the mercy of Kate the torturer (2.1), hints at a mild ‘sadie-max’ lesbian fantasy.”Google Scholar
  17. Hodgdon , “Katherina Bound; or, Play(K)ating the Strictures of Everyday Life,” PMLA 107 (1992): 538–53, at 539. Is there, as Hodgdon holds, an erotic charge to the spectacle of a female character with another female character she has bound? If so, was this charge there for Shakespeare’s audiences? Certainly when Kate enters with Bianca and the Widow “As prisoners to her womanly persuasion” at this farce’s end (5.2.120), we are asked to think about the drama’s economy of pleasure and how it comes to depend on these scenes of female-female bondage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 11.
    Erica Rand, “Diderot and Girl-Group Erotics,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 25 (1992): 495–516, at 496. See also Lisa L. Moore, Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  19. 14.
    Arthur F. Marotti, John Donne, Coterie Poet (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), xi.Google Scholar
  20. 15.
    For the history of the Sappho tradition in the English Renaissance, see Mueller, “Troping Utopia,” 184–91; and Andreadis, Sappho in Early Modern England. Joan E. De Jean’s study confines mention of Donne’s poem to a footnote. However, she says that the French “obsession with Sappho” might never “have been initiated if the Hero-ides had not suddenly succeeded in capturing the collective literary imagination of the age that prepared the way for French neoclassi-cism.” DeJean , Fictions of Sappho, 1546–1937 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 42.Google Scholar
  21. 16.
    For the attribution of this otherwise anonymous masque to Thomas Pestell, see Philip Finkelpearl, “The Authorship of the Anonymous ‘Coleorton Masque’ of 1618,” Notes and Queries 238 (1993): 224–26. Among the evidence that Finkelpearl advances in his persuasive case is the fact that Pestell’s poetry is characterized by feminist themes and positions like that of the Coleorton masque and that Pestell was closely involved in the Beaumont circle.Google Scholar
  22. 17.
    David Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (London: Routledge, 1984), 250.Google Scholar
  23. 18.
    Rudolf Brotanek, Die Englischen Maskenspiele (Wien: Braumüller, 1902), 333.Google Scholar
  24. 21.
    See Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950), B166;Google Scholar
  25. and R. W. Dent, Proverbial Language in English Drama Exclusive of Shakespeare, 1495–1616 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), B177.Google Scholar
  26. 22.
    George Sandys, trans., Ovid’s Metamorphosis: Englished, Mythologized, and Represented in Figures, ed. Karl K. Hulley and Stanley T. Vandersall (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970).Google Scholar
  27. 23.
    Laurens J. Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Stuart Drama (Bloomington, IN: Principia Press, 1937), 239, 430 n.254.Google Scholar
  28. 24.
    See T(homas) Washington, trans., The Navigations, Peregrinations and Voyages, Made into Turkey by Nicholas Nicholay (London: 1585), 60; and [Busbequius, Augerius Gislenius], The Life and Letters of Obgier Ghiselin de Busbecq, trans. Charles Thornton Forster and F. H. Blackburne Daniell, 2 vols. (London: C. Kegan Paul, 1881), vol. 1, 231. As Winfried Schleiner points out, Robert Burton owned a copy of the Turkish letters and used material from it on same-sex relationships for the Anatomy of Melancholy. Schleiner, “Burton’s Use of praeteritio in Discussing Same-Sex Relationships,” in Renaissance Discourses of Desire, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), 159–78, at 164. I am indebted to Mario DiGangi and to Valerie Traub for bringing de Nicolay’s text to my attention.Google Scholar
  29. 25.
    Myra Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England, 1650–1760 (Boston: Houghton, 1920), 258.Google Scholar
  30. 26.
    Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual” in her Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 53–76.Google Scholar
  31. 27.
    James T. Henke, Gutter Life and Language in the Early “Street” Literature of England: A Glossary of Terms and Topics, Chiefly of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill, 1988).Google Scholar
  32. 29.
    Andrew Marvell, The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, ed. H. M. Margoliouth, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), 200.Google Scholar
  33. 30.
    On the potentially threatening eroticism of this celebrated lyric, see Bruster , Quoting Shakespeare: Form and Culture in Early Modern Drama (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 52–87.Google Scholar
  34. 31.
    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
  35. 34.
    G. E. Briscoe Eyre and Charles Robert Rivington, eds., A Transcript of the Registers of the Worshipful Company of Stationers from 1640–1708 A.D., 3 vols. (London, 1913), vol. 2: 271.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Traub , Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London: Routledge, 1992), 107.Google Scholar
  37. 39.
    Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 119.Google Scholar
  38. 40.
    The story of Callisto was not unfamiliar to writers in early modern England: Spenser and Milton, among others, mention her myth. Prince Charles was offered Titian’s Diana and Callisto as part of Philip IV’s wooing in the Spanish Match. See Arthur MacGregor, ed. The Late King’s Goods: Collections, Possessions and Patronage of Charles I in the Light of the Commonwealth Sale Inventories (London: Oxford University Press, 1989), 210. And for a list of the many representations of Callisto in Europe from the early sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries,Google Scholar
  39. see A. Pliger, Barockthemen, 3 vols. (Budapest: Kiado, 1974), vol. 2: 145–47.Google Scholar
  40. 46.
    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
  41. 47.
    See Marcus Tullius Cicero, “De Provinciis Consularibus,” in The Speeches, 2 vols., trans. R. Gardner. Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), vol. 2: 523–610, 4.9; and compare Jonson in Epicoene, where Morose laments that “She is my regent already! I have married a Penthesilea, a Semiramis, sold my liberty to a distaff.” (3.4.51–52).Google Scholar
  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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    Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1967).Google Scholar
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    For a strongly topical reading of The Changeling, see A. A. Bromham and Zara Bruzzi, The Changeling and the Tears of Crisis, 1619–1624: A Hieroglyph of Britain (London: Pinter Publishers, 1990).Google Scholar
  48. 53.
    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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    Marjorie Garber, Symptoms of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1998), 217–35.Google Scholar

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© Douglas Bruster 2003

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  • Douglas Bruster

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