The Eidolic Lesbian in Early Modern England

  • Denise A. Walen
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


Female homoerotic desire and same-sex sexual activity may have existed on the margins of the dominant culture, but they were recognizable in late-sixteenth-century England. The woman-loving woman was an eidolon, a phantom, and an ideal with an imaginary, illusory presence. She was a figure rarely defined but many writers described her desire and behaviors or used those desires and behaviors to complicate their plots. Various types of documents—literary, religious, and legal—provided both subtle and explicit references to women who actively engaged in erotic and sexual encounters with other women. These documents, which support a cognizance of female homoeroticism in early modern England, carry various responses to the desire between and within each account of erotic activity. Bruce Smith, in Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England, distinguishes male homoerotic desire readily represented in poetic discourse from male homosexual acts legislated against by moral, medical, and legal discourse. A similar distinction can be detected in portrayals of female homoerotic desire and sexual acts.1 This chapter explores nondramatic textual evidence of female homoeroticism in circulation during the sixteenth century and available to both English playwrights and spectators. The chapter also investigates representations of female cross-dressing and argues that scenarios of homoeroticism were not an inherent outcome of female-to-male disguise narratives. Rather, chapter 2 argues, playwrights consciously constructed homoerotic scenarios using the convention of the disguised heroine.


Female Character Gender Behavior Fictional Literature Female Homoeroticism Homosexual Practice 
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© Denise A. Walen 2005

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