Faerie Queen (Edmund Spenser)
Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences.
Renaissance drama provides a case study in how lesbian themes and female homoerotic potential can be hidden in plain sight simply by the denial of their possibility. Traub notes that even today one can find vehement denials of homoerotic content in such overtly suggestive works as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And less overt content may only emerge into view through an awareness of the era’s understanding and encoding of female desire and forms of female intimacy.
Rather than arising from male fantasies as some suggest, the ballads are rooted in actual working class experience. Three features are key contributors to the context in which they arose. There was a general expectation of physical strength and toughness from working-class women. There was a context of near constant warfare and the routine participation of women in military contexts, as well as a somewhat less rigid and regimented structure to the military. And there was a general preoccupation with disguise and cross-dressing.
The article begins with a survey of the discussion of, and attitudes toward distinguishing biological sex and gender behaviour in professional literature. Especially in distinguishing transvestism, transexualism, gender non-conformity, and more situational uses of cross-gender behavior. This article focuses more on those situational uses rather than cross-dressing as a feature of gender or sexual identity.