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Gallathea (John Lyly)

16th century English play in which two women disguised as men fall in love with each other, believing the other to be an actual man. Their desire for each other outlasts the revelation and the play concludes with a plan to marry if Venus will randomly transform one or the other into a man.

LHMP entry

Preface

Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.

Unsurprisingly, the material here is (with one possible exception?) filtered through male authors. We have literary tales of same-sex desire under the cover of gender disguise. There are medicalized case studies that--to a modern reader--sound more like intersex and transgender individuals, but those concepts were inextricably tangled with understandings of lesbianism at that time. And we have two poems, placed in the voice of a female narrator who is trying to come to terms with desiring another woman (though one is known to have been written by a man).

In this synthesizing chapter, Traub reviews the ways in which theatrical representations of female-female desire dwell on the mirror-like similarity between the pair, whether in Lyly’s directly parallel speechifying in Gallathea, or Sandys’s 1626 translation of Iphis and Ianthe which lists their physical and behavioral likenesses, or Shakespeare’s Helena describing her and Hermia as “Like to a double cherry, seeming parted, but yet an union in partition.” This contrasts with the homoerotic figures and practices that emphasize difference and distinction between an active “mascu

Female same-sex desire is generally presented in early modern drama in fictitious constructions: the desire is either mistaken or misdirected. Only in this last chapter do we see examples where knowing desire from one woman to another is presented positively, and may even be celebrated as an ideal over heterosexual desire. Things aren’t always straightforward, even so. Although the desiring woman may believe the object of her desire is a woman, not uncommonly the scenario is defused by involving a gender-disguised man.

This chapter focuses on the creation of homoerotic tension in a more asymmetric aggressive context, especially those involving a older experienced woman seducing a younger innocent, including those where the seduction (or assault) is triangulated around a male character that one or both women have a connection to. This motif stands in contrast to more idealized, egalitarian relationships such as those in Shakespeare’s As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Lyly’s Gallathea.

The chapter begins with a survey of the types of published materials that led Lanser to identify the late 16th century as a shifting point in the discourse around sapphic topics. In 1566 a Swiss writer provides an account of a French woman who disguised herself as a man, worked as a stable groom and then a wine grower, married another woman, was eventually unmasked, and was executed. He notes “how our century can boast that beyond all the evils of the preceding ones” and explicitly disclaims any connection between events such as this and the “tribades in ancient times”.

“Travesty” comes literally from “cross-dress” with the theatrical term later picking up its sense of general transgression. Anyone familiar with theater and opera from Shakespeare onward is aware how popular it was to include gender disguise in its many forms and consequences. The two most common expressions both revolve around anxiety about female-female desire: a woman disguised as a man who attracts female romantic attention, or a man disguised as a woman to gain intimate access to a woman who then worries about the ensuing “wrong” erotic attraction.

Like many articles of this era, Bruster begins by explaining that (and why) there is a dearth of academic investigation into the topic of female homoeroticism in [insert topic here]. He asserts that prior work has focused on affirmative and subversive portrayals of female homoeroticism, resulting in an incomplete and idealized picture. So he’s going to be iconoclastic and look at less positive portrayals of female-female eroticism on the stage.

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