Oh my god, she used me. I was used . . . I was used! Cool!
—American Pie (1999)
In two very different cross-dressing comedies from the first decade of the seventeenth century—Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s rollicking city comedy The Roaring Girl (1611), and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s wrenching, hilarious tragicomedy Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding (c. 1610), the couple at the center of the romance plot cannot do it alone. Two lovers need, commission, and use an ambiguously gendered third party to negotiate the social, affective, and sexual demands of their prohibited love match. In both plays, the messenger who serves as a conduit for their love is an androgynous figure whose gender presentation is at odds in some way with their bodily sex. In The Roaring Girl, a young aristocrat, whose love match with a girl of modest means is forbidden by his father, brings in his friend, the notorious real-life cross-dresser and cutpurse Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse, or the Roaring Girl, as a sham fiancée to show his father how much worse it could be. In Philaster, Princess Arethusa and the beloved Prince Philaster love each other, but Arethusa’s tyrannical father has usurped Philaster’s throne and promised her in marriage to a boorish foreign prince, forcing the lovers to conduct their secret love under the watchful eyes of the court. The messenger who serves as a conduit for their love is an ambiguously gendered, beautiful servant boy who is secretly a girl, Bellario (belatedly renamed Euphrasia). Both of these queerly gendered characters are positioned, with their enthusiastic consent, as go-betweens. They act as instruments to facilitate the couple’s sexual union while also becoming an integral part of it, transforming the ostensibly heterosexual marriages (the supposed ends of comedy) in both plays into three-way intimate relationships routed through a queer third party. This chapter elucidates the particular pleasures of getting used in this way, and liking it. By analyzing how the cross-dressed go-between transmits and generates affect, knowledge, and desire—and how it definitively alters the erotic configurations in which it participates—I demonstrate that being made instrumental can be regarded as a queer mode of relation, one that can expand our thinking about early modern sexuality and its representations in literature.1
My call to attend to the affective nuances of relational dynamics in drama is particularly important at the current moment in sexual politics, when same-sex desires are becoming increasingly normativized even as gender identity is becoming widely understood in more of its complexity. What, exactly, does it mean to say that a bond between a man, a woman, and a boy—or between a man, a woman, and a roaring girl—is queer? Is queerness strictly a matter of the genders—or number—of the partners involved, or can it inhere in more stylistic or structural features? Both Bellario in Philaster and Moll in The Roaring Girl confound the polar, gendered power dynamics that are usually assumed to structure both same- and opposite-sex encounters in the period: user/used, subject/object, agent/recipient, active/passive, master/servant, giver/taker, and dominant/submissive. Both figures’ queer appeal inheres in their androgyny—Bellario’s eerie beauty, Moll’s prodigious gender hybridity—and in their virtuosic linguistic performance. Their eloquent affective output extends their respective plays’ erotic economies—and offers readers and audiences a way to apprehend them—beyond the logics of anatomical sex and gender identity by which homo- and heteroerotic bonds alike have usually been categorized.
By articulating how instrumentality works as a mode of erotic relation in these two plays, which are not usually compared, I advance a set of techniques for recognizing it when it appears elsewhere, across other texts and genres. Reading these two characters through an erotics of getting used makes visible the dramatic moments in these plays and others, such as John Lyly’s Gallathea (1592), Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1602), and Richard Brome’s The Antipodes (1638, discussed in the introduction), where erotic dynamics pull away from social categories; where heteroerotic and queer desires come into unexpected contact; and where desire operates athwart of gender in ways that disturb previous critical assumptions about what sex and love look like, and what constitutes queerness in early modern literature. Whereas Philaster turns out to be a play about innocence misread, The Roaring Girl is a play about the uses of sexual dissidence when it is hyperbolically legible and public. But both hinge, as Troilus and Cressida and Gallathea also hinge, and as The Antipodes playfully problematizes, on fathers’ attempts to dictate children’s sexual interactions, and on the erotic possibilities circulating around and outside of social norms. These disparate instantiations of the instrumental relational mode demonstrate its variety and flexibility; the central role of patriarchal prohibition in creating the conditions that bring it about; and the varying kinds of risk, violence, and paranoid suspicion that can attend it.
“A Pretty, Sad-Talking Boy”
Beaumont and Fletcher make the erotics of being instrumentalized the hinge of the play’s dilated love triangle plot. The collaborating authors’ own storied, queer friendship serves as an interesting comparison to these dynamics in the play. The two men famously “lived together on the Banke side, not far from the Play-house, both batchelors,” and “lay together,” in a relation of social and romantic intimacy described as “a wonderfull consimility of phansey . . . which caused the dearnesse of friendship between them.”2 Their domestic and affective bond (as described thirdhand, by outside onlookers—a perspective that will also prove salient to Philaster’s plot) is not only dyadic; their intimacy also appears to be furthered and facilitated by a third (they “had one wench in the house between them, which they did so admire”) and by clothing (“the same cloathes and cloake, &c., betweene them”).3
My reading of Philaster starts from the contention that the queerness of such relations can exceed the binary gender designations of the participants—that Beaumont and Fletcher’s arrangement is queer for additional reasons besides that both are men, and that Philaster and Arethusa’s bond, triangulated through Bellario, is queer in some of the same ways. Relatively little scholarship exists on Philaster, especially compared to the wealth of criticism on more widely read cross-dressing comedies such as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1602) or, for that matter, The Roaring Girl; but the work that does exist focuses mostly on political and ideological questions of transgression rather than on desire.4 I read Philaster here as a play about the transmission and legibility of eros and affect—about the pleasures and difficulties of communicating one’s true heart to another, and the dangers of being misread by others, both inside and outside the relationship.
Early on in the play, Arethusa asks her exiled lover how they will communicate, how they can “devise/To hold intelligence” between them.5 Philaster suggests, as a solution, the use of his secret servant boy as a message bearer:
I have a boy,
Sent by the gods, I hope, to this intent,
Not yet seen in the court. (1.2.111–13)
Thus the inaugural conditions of the plot dictate that the two lovers’ exchange of “intelligence” cannot occur directly or naturally. They must “devise” to use Bellario as a mediating technology for “holding” and conducting affection between them. But unbeknownst to Philaster, or to any of the other characters in the play, and presumably to the audience as well, Philaster’s boy was originally a girl named Euphrasia, who earlier disguised herself as a boy in hopes of being taken up as Philaster’s servant. In being so used, this secretly cross-dressed servant boy, Bellario, becomes erotically instrumental, the play’s central object and carrier of desire.
This boy, whom Philaster has kept hidden from the court, seems not quite natural or human, unmarked by any social context except for his unabashed devotion to Philaster and desire to be used to his ends. Philaster explains that while out hunting, he found this “pretty, sad-talking boy” (2.3.7) weeping by a fountain. He is accessorized with an elaborately braided flower garland, which he gazes at, weeps over, and fondles in a semiprivate ritual as he tells his story to Philaster (who reminisces about this meeting to the princess):
A garland lay him by, made by himself,
Of many several flowers bred in the vale,
Stuck in that mystic order that the rareness
Delighted me. But ever when he turned
His tender eyes upon ’em, he would weep
As if he meant to make ’em grow again. (1.2.117–22)
Bellario’s garland is more than a piece of handiwork. It has a “mystic order”; its “rare” form represents specific content. The garland materializes affect by encoding it in an abstract symbolic language, which the boy interprets to Philaster and Philaster interprets in turn to Arethusa:
Then took he up his garland, and did show
What every flower, as country people hold,
Did signify, and how all, ordered thus,
Expressed his grief, and to my thoughts did read
The prettiest lecture of his country art
That could be wished, so that, methought, I could
Have studied it. (1.2.130–36)
The boy’s signal feature, besides his beauty and his blankness, is his “art”: his uncanny ability to translate affective states like grief and love into systems of signification, to create and interpret meaning through aesthetic form. The flower garland’s intricate design, or “order,” which implicates it in a folk tradition of artistic and social symbols, makes it an index through which the boy can “read” his interior grief, love, and pleasure—through which he can, vitally, bring feelings into speech. The garland and the speech together constitute an act of aesthetic production, which adheres to a set of formal conventions in order to communicate interior content.
From Philaster’s secondhand recounting, Bellario’s speech echoes Ophelia’s famous flower speech in Hamlet, in which Ophelia articulates specific affects to specific flowers (“There’s rosemary: that’s for remembrance. Pray,/love, remember. And there is pansies: that’s for thoughts,” etc.).6 Bellario’s speech, however, is far from mad; it is the epitome of premeditated “order,” its signifiers scintillatingly effectual in bringing about its speaker’s desired affective ends. In fact, Bellario’s garland is a key to reading this play as a meditation on being made instrumental. The garland enacts the function that the boy will fulfill for Philaster and Arethusa. Bellario takes it up as he himself will be “taken up,” a moment that will be remembered again at the end of the play when he, now transformed into she, reminisces about her desire to become an instrument and her use of artifice to actualize it. Like the character called Bellario, the garland is a purpose-made invention that materializes desire in highly stylized form, making it legible—and generating mutual, complementary emotions and desires in others. The boy’s performance here, a seductive act of art and criticism (“the prettiest lecture . . . that could be wished”), incites intense pleasure in Philaster, engendering a dynamic of shared, mirror-image affects in master and boy:
I gladly entertained him,
Who was glad to follow, and have got
The trustiest, lovingest, and the gentlest boy
That ever master kept. Him will I send
To wait on you, and bear our hidden love. (1.2.136–40)
The complementary pleasures of their respective roles—the distinct senses in which they are glad to “entertain” and to be entertained; the bond that makes this “gentlest boy” the logical vessel to “bear” Philaster’s “hidden love”—seem to grow out of mutual pleasure and curiosity, with Philaster as audience/pupil and Bellario as artist/teacher of the feelings written in the flower garland. This affective exchange is generated in and mediated through both the garland and the boy’s acts of creation, interpretation, and expression with it, metonymically illustrating how the boy will be used by the couple. He is not merely a messenger bearing erotic content; he is also a generator of that content, desired as the messenger and the message in one. His function will be to “bear” their love, which carries a triple meaning: to carry, as a messenger bears a message; to gestate and give birth, as a mother bears a child; and to accommodate receptively, as a passive sexual partner—or any recipient of an action—bears being acted upon. The overlapping processes of transmitting, making, and receiving desire are folded here into a single instrument: the body of the boy.
In an important sense, the boy becomes, like his flower garland, a thing used in the service of Philaster’s pleasure. Being made instrumental in this way does not, however, suggest a lack of investment in how he gets used. It is significant to Bellario’s role as the erotic catalyst of the play that before we see him onstage, we hear his desire, ventriloquized by his closest intimate: his disquisition on his feelings, and his gladness “to follow.”7 Thanks to the boy’s virtuosic talents of signification, Philaster’s reading of him is perfect; in being taken up into Philaster’s service the boy is attaining what makes him “glad”: “to follow” and to “bear” a “hidden love.” This is far from an inert or subordinated position. The word “instrumental” describes a thing used to effect a desired end,8 a thing fashioned or made to fit a specific purpose (a meaning it shares with “performance”),9 and a necessary, integral component without which the whole desired end could not come about.10 Bellario’s instrumentality weaves together all three of these coexisting definitions.
The instrumentalized go-between is marked by an ambiguous or undecided sex. Bellario functions onstage as a boy right up until the moment at the end of the play when he dramatically regenders himself and becomes Euphrasia, a transformation that furnishes the play’s last-minute swerve from incipient tragedy to comedy. He is instead she, and therefore cannot have committed the crime of which she stands accused with Arethusa, since penetration (the only act the play’s disciplinary apparatus can imagine as sexual) is taken to require the presence of an anatomical male. The girl Euphrasia’s cross-dressing—in fact, his passing and functioning as a boy—becomes the crucial fact that, in hindsight, alters the sexual economy of the play. Yet I want to insist on the productivity of reading Bellario/Euphrasia’s gender and erotic functioning as the play presents him/her—as a boy, but as a boy whose gender will be, or has retroactively been, supercharged by the revelation of cross-dressing that will come at the end. In fact, as Jeffrey Masten has pointed out, the text’s construction of Bellario is gender ambiguous at the outset, in that various printed editions of the play present the character in a variety of “hybrid” or “dissonant” ways via character listings and speech prefixes.11 Thus the possible knowledge of Bellario’s female sex may exist, for audiences (and, as Masten describes, in even more detailed ambiguity for readers), in constant tension with his dramatic presentation as a boy. Once the play had begun its life in performance (1610) and then in print (1620), the audience’s knowingness or unknowingness of the character’s so-called “true” sex would have become an unknown dimension of its reception. As a titillating secret about the play, the gender twist might have circulated in the form of hints or spoilers, or it might even be insinuated in tacit associations with Ophelia in the flower speech. In light of the way gender is made and unmade at the center of the plot, reading Bellario’s regendering back through the play gives every scene in which he appears the potential for a skewed, doubled libidinal significance: the one the play stages, with Bellario as a servant boy, and the one that an audience or reader may or may not know in advance, with Bellario as a cross-dressed girl. This retrospective reading practice serves to highlight the doubled quality of gender itself, by pointing up the extreme deferral and curious inconsequence of the gender reveal, and the lingering queerness of the resolution.
More permanently gender ambiguous than the girls who temporarily disguise themselves as boys in comedies where cross-dressing is a plot device, most famously William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1599) and Twelfth Night (1602), Bellario—and in a different respect, as I will argue, Moll Frith in The Roaring Girl—is a character whose masculine yet androgynous gender performance does not line up exactly with his ostensibly female bodily sex. Unlike heroines such as Rosalind or Viola, who don men’s clothing onstage as a disguise that is part of the dramatic action, Bellario/Euphrasia is dressed as a boy for the entire play, including the final scene (where the play ends minutes after the gender revelation). More than merely cross-dressed, he is a passing masculine androgyne with an affective orientation toward both the man and the woman in the couple. Bellario confesses to being a woman not even to save his own life, but only when continuing to pass as male is about to cost Philaster’s and Arethusa’s lives—when, under suspicion of having had sex with the princess, Bellario is sentenced to be tortured by Philaster, who must repeatedly be restrained from stabbing himself rather than carry out the sentence. Bellario only outs himself to prevent his master’s suicide and his mistress’s condemnation—and then only in a secret revelation to his amazed father, Dion. When Dion brings Bellario back to the group and reveals “it is a woman,” the character who is now Euphrasia explains that her transformation into Bellario was undertaken for the furtherance of her own ends, to effect maximum intimacy with Philaster given the handicap of her low birth. The character voices a passion so immanently overcoming that it led her to shed one identity and take on a new one:
My blood flew out and back again as fast
As I had puffed it forth and sucked it in
Like breath. (5.5.158–60)
Yet the ends of this desire are neither consummation—“You left a kiss/Upon these lips then which I mean to keep/From you forever” (5.5.163–65)—nor marriage—“Never, sir, will I/Marry. It is a thing within my vow” (5.5.186–87). The play makes a curious distinction between love and lust here, naming this passion “love,/Yet far from lust,” because its aims are decidedly outside of the heterosexual dyad. Even at the end of the play, Bellario still does not desire marriage. His aim is not sexual union but proximity and service: “For could I but have lived/In presence of you I had had my end” (5.5.168–70).
“This Boy . . . Would Outdo Story”
The mutuality of pleasure, generated over a three-way connection, differentiates the erotics of being used from other instances of erotic triangulation in early modern drama. For instance, in the case of Twelfth Night, perhaps the iconic example of a cross-dressed boy deputized as a go-between in a heterosexual courtship, the desires circulating among Orsino, Viola, and Olivia are not the queer triadic instrumentality I describe here. In Twelfth Night’s go-between scenes, the parties’ desires are in conflict, at odds, concealed from each other, and obstructed by each other’s utterances. Viola’s cross-dressed flirtations with her master and his unwilling target, Olivia, are not structured by a three-way passion. Viola declares that her singular object choice is Orsino in an aside to the audience even as she agrees to serve as his romantic go-between: “Yet a barful strife!/Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (1.4.41–42). This aside foretells the resolution of the plot even as it anticipates the roundabout “strife” of its comic dilation. The various longings of all three are decidedly not being mutually gratified by and through Viola’s instrumentalization as Orsino’s surrogate suitor. Unlike Arethusa, Olivia does not love the prince who sends her this boy. Instead, she is intent on prying the boy apart from his master, recasting Cesario not as a messenger but as a sexual subject in his own right, and reorienting his desire toward her. Twelfth Night’s group erotic dynamic is structured instead by the mechanism of perpetually unsatisfied, polymorphously confused desire, exemplified in Orsino’s renunciation of women and marriage, which will be the focus of the next chapter.
What sets Philaster’s erotic configuration apart from disguise and triangulation plots like Twelfth Night, then, is the complete convergence between the desires of the instrumentalized boy and the desires he is being used to facilitate. Philaster fashions Bellario as the link that can “hold intelligence” (1.2.109) between himself and Arethusa. But as a self-fashioned, embodied communication technology, the desires Bellario so volubly transmits are also immanently his own. Being used is Bellario’s decidedly not secret inward desire, his queer relational mode, which, as the action of the play unfolds, is all too easily interpreted as something far less queer, and far more dangerous.
Bellario’s doubled capacity to be at once a desiring subject and a cipher for others’ desires makes him the perfect erotic instrument, central to both the couple’s “hidden love” and the play’s erotic economy. In his transactions with the prince and princess, he is thoroughly acted upon and used. In his words, he is “nothing,” a surrendered subject whose entire substance and meaning derives from Philaster: “Sir, you did take me up/When I was nothing, and only yet am something/By being yours” (2.1.5–7). Yet to say that he is given over to Philaster’s desires is not—and this is the crux of instrumentality—to evacuate the character of erotic activity or agency. Bellario’s service role is a creation of his desire. The scene in which Philaster sets up the go-between relationship tells the story of how the character’s first object choice toward Philaster is transmuted into a three-way relation of being used. At first Bellario is inconsolable at being sent away to conduct Philaster’s “hidden love.” He pleads to be used more strictly in order to stay:
What master holds so strict a hand
Over his boy that he will part with him
Without one warning? Let me be corrected
To break my stubbornness—if it be so—
Rather than turn me off, and I shall mend. (2.1.35–39)
Philaster’s commissioning of Bellario as his and Arethusa’s instrument complicates what had looked like a homosocial/homoerotic master/servant bond between a prince and his boy, extending the queer investment flowing both ways between them into a new and triadic shape:
Thy love doth plead so prettily to stay
That, trust me, I could weep to part with thee.
Alas, I do not turn thee off. Thou knowest
It is my business that doth call thee hence,
And when thou art with her thou dwellest with me. (2.1.40–44)
Philaster answers Bellario’s plea with his own admission of desire for the boy; moreover, he appeals to Bellario’s desire for him, articulating the mutual payoff of Bellario’s instrumentality—and the mutual pain of extending their intimacy. Philaster reassures him that this does not diminish their bond: “I do not turn thee off” implies that Bellario remains activated for Philaster as well. Note that Philaster says “when thou art with her thou dwellest with me,” and not “when thou art with her I am with her.” That is, he does not make his boy his agent or surrogate, emptying out Bellario’s subjectivity in order to act by proxy upon Arethusa. Rather, Philaster posits his instrument, Bellario, as being in the same intersubjective relation to both Arethusa and himself. Their love seems to have a transitive property, according to which Arethusa will love Bellario in Philaster’s place.
Deputized to communicate two parties’ love to one another, the instrumental third instead communicates and receives his own love with both of them. He becomes the medium, the vital substance in which the couple’s romantic connection lives, through his ability to engage in relations across gender difference and outside of social convention. Philaster’s exquisitely overwrought commissioning of Bellario to serve as his erotic instrument is pointedly not a bond of homosocial “service,” a relation predicated on power play with the differentiated roles of master and boy.12 Instead, Bellario’s paradoxically active, doubled function demonstrates that instrumentality is structurally queer, beyond the polar positions of dominance and submission. More than a mere intermediary, Bellario becomes the affective stylist of the relationship between Philaster and Arethusa, the generator of its tenor and its content. When Arethusa asks him if his master loves her, he responds with an elaborate recital of love’s affects:
If it be love
To forget all respect to his own friends
With thinking of your face; if it be love
To sit cross-armed and think away the day,
Mingled with starts, crying your name as loud
As loud as men i’ the streets do “Fire!”;
If it be love to weep himself away
When he but hears of any lady dead
Or killed, because it might have been your chance;
[. . .]
Then, madam, I dare swear he loves you. (2.3.48–60)
This picture of Philaster’s supposed distraction, obsession, and compulsion appears, like the flower garland, to be Bellario’s invention. The play represents Philaster’s lovelorn affect only through Bellario’s speech, which is structured like a flower garland in its iterated, ornamented series of conditionals. The speech is purpose-made to please Arethusa. She in turn enjoys its “cunning” for its own sake without worrying about its truth value: “Thou knowest a lie/That bears this sound is welcomer to me/Than any truth that says he loves me not” (2.3.61–64). But at the same time it is also saturated with the truth of Bellario’s identification with, and lovesickness for, Philaster.
This speech traces a fine line between a dead serious rehearsal of the conventional affects of Petrarchan love and a subtle send-up of the extremity of those affects, combining earnestness and exaggeration in a highly aestheticized, melodramatic register. In other words, its style of wooing displays many of the hallmarks of what will come to be called camp style, a queer aesthetic that theatrically fuses elements of “the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”13 Bellario’s hyperbolic Petrarchan images casting romantic love as self-annihilating pain and/or sympathy (“to weep himself away/When he but hears of any lady dead/Or killed, because it might have been your chance”) hearken back to the death-bound language in which Arethusa and Philaster first declare their love, and to the recent Elizabethan past, exemplifying “the passionate, often hilarious antiquarianism” of camp.14 Bellario’s tone here corresponds to what Susan Sontag calls the “epicene style”—that is, high artifice. In Sontag’s words, from her canonical 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” it is a style that shows, and effects, “the convertibility of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ ‘person’ and ‘thing.’”15 There is substantial overlap here between the overwrought emotional rhetoric that is a generic feature of tragicomedy and Bellario’s camp style. In fact, the way in which Beaumont and Fletcher’s trademark excessive, self-referential tragicomic language functions in this play, as the signature affective dynamic of the three-way relationship at its center, opens up a new potential line of argument for the queerness of tragicomedy as a genre. Several of the hallmarks of tragicomedy described by Eugene M. Waith—not only the “distillation of emotion” and “sensationalism” that I note here, but also the centrality of “artifice” and the history of the genre’s degradation as “decadent,” “trivial,” and reactionary “debauchery”—are immediately recognizable and resonant through queer history.16
Camp, according to Sontag, is also inherently citational: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks.”17 We see this citationality in Bellario’s recital of a string of affects conventionally said to indicate love, each set apart by the distancing “if it be love.” Camp citation, however, exceeds quotation to add its own gloss of extravagance. Philaster remarks that Bellario’s peculiar affective intensity reads as even stranger than the familiar discourse, of which Philaster has read, of boys’ homoerotic devotion to their masters:
The love of boys unto their lords is strange.
I have read wonders of it, yet this boy
For my sake—if a man may judge by looks
And speech—would outdo story. (2.1.57–60)
Bellario’s performances (and fabrications) of affection linguistically “outdo” and overreach the preexisting conventional discourses of love that they cite. But it is also the animated, instrumental way in which Bellario effects connection between Arethusa, Philaster, and himself that exceeds “story.” He communicates a passion for being instrumentalized that exceeds even the normal “strange” love of other boys’ submission to their masters. In its distinctiveness from more storied contemporary forms of same-sex eros like service, Bellario’s instrumentality is nonnormative in how it departs from affective and relational norms. The supererogative excess of affect with which Bellario outdoes story is a queer quality: not structured by a received sexual role, it inheres instead in the fluid, multidirectional currents of affective energy that structure this three-way relation.
“Hew Me Asunder”
This queer utopian triad goes all wrong when its embodied system of affective communication breaks down. Bellario’s preternatural beauty is the object of court gossip, his “angel-like” looks compared to Hylas and Adonis and his extravagant clothing speculated upon: “’Tis a sweet boy; how brave she keeps him!” (2.4.18–26).18 To women and men alike, his submissive and demure affect, and his intimate presence in the bedchamber where Arethusa clothes him in finery, are legible as an erotic bond. Rumors are spread, and given credence, that Arethusa is a “lascivious lady/That lives in lust with a smooth boy” (3.1.10–11), a “whore” (3.1.63). The implication of this libel is that Arethusa’s indecent doings are clearly knowable and readable as a result of the unmistakable, universally irresistible significance of a handsome, “smooth” young boy. The question at issue is Arethusa’s virginity and thus her value: under suspicion of having been deflowered, she is ordered to banish Bellario. This touches off a chain of misapprehensions. Philaster confronts Bellario in an interrogation laden with double meanings because the audience knows, while Bellario does not, that Philaster believes he has been betrayed: “O, Bellario,/Now I perceive she loves me. She does show it/In loving thee, my boy. She has made thee brave!” (3.1.156–58). The problem here, which Beaumont and Fletcher gleefully exploit for tragicomic pathos, is that the relationship between Bellario and Arethusa can be read in two ways: that they are sleeping together and thus betraying Philaster; or that he is serving as a romantic instrument, a go-between, and thus remaining faithful to them both. But those two possibilities look very much alike because both depend on the existence of an erotic charge between the princess and the “brave” young boy. The second, queer possibility slips too easily underneath the dominant, suspicious interpretation, the only one legible to the conventional and lasciviously minded courtiers.
Philaster attempts to prize knowledge of erotic acts from Bellario to guess at the nature of their bond: “Tell me, my boy, how doth the princess use thee?/For I shall guess her love to me by that” (3.1.168–69). He asks about each of her endearing touches: “What kind of language does she feed thee with?” (3.1.177); “And she strokes thy head?” (3.1.190); “And she does clap thy cheeks?” (3.1.191). But then he asks, “And she does kiss thee, boy? Ha?” with kissing marked as a border between acceptable and unacceptable contact for the go-between (3.1.192). When Bellario denies that Arethusa kisses him, Philaster, in a haze, appeals to a logic of surrogacy to trick a disclosure out of him, saying that he ordered Arethusa, if she loved him, to give herself to Bellario:
Why, then she does not love me. Come, she does;
I bade her do it; I charged her by all charms
Of love between us, by the hope of peace
We should enjoy, to yield to thee all delights
Naked, as to her lord; I took her oath
Thou shouldst enjoy her. Tell me, gentle boy,
Is she not parallelless? (3.1.195–201)
If these were the terms of the arrangement—which they are not—it would be the kind of triangulation described by Sedgwick, where a central homosocial and homoerotic bond is enacted through affective exchange with (and of) a woman.19 Anxiety about this competing, rivalrous relational mode comes through in Philaster’s question, “Is she not parallelless?” “Parallelless” is a word that boasts three pairs of parallel letters, two phallic and one curlicue. It means without an equal or counterpart, and it describes the precarious state in which all three lovers find themselves. The three-way bond is allergic to pairs and parallels; they threaten to throw it off balance, though it is paradoxically made up of three of them. If Arethusa is “not parallelless”—if she has had a “parallel” partner in bed—then she and Bellario are parallel traitors, Bellario and Philaster are parallel traffickers in women, and Arethusa is parallel to every common whore. The line between what Philaster wants and what he fears (or perhaps fantasizes) is razor thin; the dynamic of erotic instrumentality is too indeterminate, too subtle, too queer to be stable in its signifiers.20 Indeed, the play’s crisis of communication dramatizes just how tenuous the boundary is between queer instrumentality and many far less delicate forms of heterosexual (and homosocial) tragedy predicated on triangulation.
Arethusa and Bellario struggle, over the next three acts, to communicate some truth that Philaster will believe, flooding him with fabulously gruesome, hyperbolic fantasies of piercing, rending, opening, and sectioning their bodies, as though to reveal their desire there. “Hew me asunder, and whilst I can think/I’ll love those pieces you have cut away/Better than those that grow, and kiss those limbs/Because you made ’em so” (3.1.245–48), cries Bellario when Philaster draws his sword (but cannot kill him). Arethusa wishes she could “Make my breast/Transparent as pure crystal, that the world,/Jealous of me, may see the foulest thought/My heart holds” (3.2.130–33).21 The play’s obsession with the illegibility of interior feelings builds to a crisis around the opacity of both bodies and language, and their insufficiency to signify intimate bonds of love, loyalty, and desire.22 The queer pathos of this miscommunication is that in a sense, Philaster is reading Bellario and Arethusa correctly: they do love each other. But not even a barrage of tour de force Beaumont and Fletcher tragicomic affect aimed at Philaster can get through to him that their intimacy centrally includes him. In the harsh collision of their alternative sign system with the codes of normative masculinity and patriarchy, he has forgotten how to read them, forgotten the beautiful, queer sign system into which he was initiated when he first saw Bellario weaving feelings into flowers (or flowers into feelings) by the fountain.
With the network of intimacy routed through Bellario broken, the three are powerless to transmit their love and pain to one another. When they all encounter one another wandering in the woods, each of them begs to be stabbed by the others in a desperate attempt to signify something of their old intimacy with one another, even if through annihilation. Philaster asks them both to stab him; Bellario refuses—the first time he seriously resists obedience. Philaster then stabs Arethusa, at her request; but before she can reciprocate, he is attacked by an intruding avatar of heteronormative masculinity, a “Cuntrie Gentellman” (who stabs Philaster, then tries to kiss the bleeding Arethusa). The wounded Philaster comes across Bellario asleep in the woods, and stabs him. Waking, ecstatic, to being stabbed—“Oh, death I hope is come! Blessed be that hand;/It meant me well. Again, for pity’s sake!” (4.6.26–27)—Bellario takes the blame for stabbing Arethusa, offering his life in place of Philaster’s. Finally convinced of Bellario’s purely instrumental love, Philaster creeps out from under the bush where he’s hiding and embraces him, forming the homoerotic “love lies a-bleeding” tableau of the play’s subtitle.
After they survive their wounds, imprisonment, being sentenced to death (twice), an abortive wedding masque, and a political coup, the three lovers are nearly undone again at the end of the play by the persistent rumor of heterosexual sex between Arethusa and Bellario. Bellario is condemned to be tortured—and Philaster is condemned to do the torturing—to clear Arethusa’s name; it is only Philaster’s effort to stab himself instead that finally induces Bellario to confess to being Euphrasia. Bellario’s sudden regendering puts the sexual accusations to rest, preventing tragedy; however, it also casts the protracted cycle of doubts, rejections, and stabbings in a new (exasperating, ridiculous) light. Philaster condemns it as “a fault” that Bellario declined to “discover” “what we now know” (5.5.146–50) when they were first accused. But it is more interesting to think of the play’s entire overwrought tragicomic dilation as predicated on (indeed only possible because of) the fiction of Bellario’s gender—and to think that from the perspective of the integral, instrumental third, it is a fiction worth maintaining almost to the death.
The only other example in early modern drama of such complete gender surprise, in which the audience is shocked by the gender unmasking of a character not previously suggested to be cross-dressed, is Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, or The Silent Woman (1609). In that play, the genders of the ruse are reversed. The silent woman of the title, who has been married to the old man Morose, is revealed in the last scene to be a beardless boy, and an instrumentalized boy at that—although not in the same willing, participatory sense in which Bellario is instrumentalized. The boy, a gentleman’s son, has been wholly owned and co-opted, groomed from childhood by a city wit to masquerade as a woman and marry a miser, as a plot to thwart the miser’s plan to disinherit his nephew. The character of Epicoene has none of the beautiful Bellario’s allure: she masks as a performatively stupid, shrewish, antierotic figure. Epicoene’s gender reveal also has the opposite effect to Bellario’s on the plot’s resolution: instead of resolving sexual anxiety, her unveiling as a boy plunges several men who claim to have slept with her into sodomitical suspicion, and mocks the gender performances of every caricatured social type satirized in the play’s sweaty, annoying city milieu. In both plays, the last-minute surprise gender change invites a doubled reading practice, where the audience’s memory of the play they have just seen is rewritten at the climactic instant. But the resignification performed by Bellario’s gender unmasking in Philaster is not about derision or gender satire, as in Epicoene. Rather, it is about desire, and the audience is implicated in the queer frisson that retrospectively makes visible moments of sexual ambiguity and multivalent, contradictory pleasure.23 Putatively opposite-sex pairs are revealed to have been secretly same-sex pairs and vice versa, raising the titillating questions of what the characters sexually implicated with the cross-dressed figure knew, and when and how they knew it.24 The two versions of the plot, one featuring Bellario as a boy and the other featuring Bellario as a girl in disguise, are brought into being and coexist in a dialectical relation, with neither eclipsing the other and with the constant oscillation between them generating a particularly queer comedic energy.
Even after the gender reveal—in which, it is important to keep noting, nothing is revealed to the audience except a name and a backstory—Bellario as a boy remains operative in the text. Bellario (revealed as Euphrasia) explains that his male persona was assumed with the transformative seriousness and permanency of a religious vocation:
. . . understanding well
That when I made discovery of my sex
I could not stay with you, I made a vow,
By all the most religious things a maid
Could call together, never to be known
Whilst there was hope to hide me from men’s eyes
For other than I seemed, that I might ever
Abide with you. Then I sat by the fount
Where first you took me up. (5.5.175–83)
The garments that made it possible for Bellario “never to be known . . . For other than I seemed” are the sole means of access to the instrumental role he craves. Bellario is not, in the end “really a woman” but rather a purpose-built, artificial creation, fashioned to facilitate the fulfillment of a nascent desire: to be near Philaster, and to serve him. Then, when the boy is commissioned as the instrumental bearer of Philaster’s love to Arethusa, that persona becomes a vehicle to effect the transmission of others’ desire. Yet at the same time it is important not to overenunciate the difference the revelation of gender disguise makes: in his ardent functioning as an instrumental erotic technology, Bellario is Euphrasia and Euphrasia is Bellario. Bellario is a body, a mask, a shell, an exoskeleton, a persona; but Bellario is not a ruse. It is Euphrasia’s desire that drives him, and it is Bellario’s masculine-appearing body through which that desire is enacted. Understanding erotic instrumentality as the structuring dynamic for this character makes visible a Bellario whose dramatic functioning is not most saliently conditioned by a provisional, sartorial gender performance (in contrast to the canonical criticism’s emphasis on boy actors playing women), but by a mode of relation conjured holistically by and with his functional, artificial, instrumental body.
“In Counterfeit Passion”
I want to set Bellario’s submissive erotic instrumentality against the swashbuckling, agentive instrumentality of Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse, in The Roaring Girl, a play with which Philaster might seem to have little in common. Moll, the Roaring Girl of the title, is, to a much more flamboyant degree than Bellario, a genderqueer character. If Philaster dramatizes a queer instrumentality founded in malleability, pathos, and surrender, then The Roaring Girl depicts a powerful go-between who actively shapes and dominates the relationships she facilitates. The premise of Middleton and Dekker’s madly successful city comedy features a gentleman’s son, Sebastian, in a dilemma more typically associated with early modern daughters: his father, Sir Alex, has forbidden him from marrying his chosen love, Mary Fitz-Allard, deeming her dowry insufficient and promising disinheritance if he weds her. Sebastian proposes, as a solution, a performance of gender and sexual monstrosity so scandalous that it will change his father’s mind: he will to pretend to marry Moll Cutpurse, his friend and compatriot in debauched London city life, as a grotesque and unacceptable decoy fiancée. From Sebastian’s first use of her name, Moll functions as an instrumental third whose sexual meanings can shift as needed according to context.
While the intermediary in Philaster fulfills his function through his innocent appearance, his class status (and his cross-dressing) submerged until the end, the plot of The Roaring Girl explicitly traffics in the violation of taboo. Whereas Bellario’s performances of affect are the private currency of Philaster and Arethusa’s “hidden love,” the instrumentality plot of The Roaring Girl depends on the public quality of Moll’s queerness. Sebastian’s ruse leverages her strangeness and notoriety:
There’s a wench
Called Moll, mad Moll, or merry Moll, a creature
So strange in quality, a whole city takes
Note of her name and person.25
Moll is to function instrumentally to the couple by means of the deviant sexual associations attached to her. As Sebastian explains to his disallowed fiancée:
All that affection
I owe to thee, on her in counterfeit passion
I spend to mad my father: he believes
I doat upon this roaring girl, and grieves
As it becomes a father for a son
That could be so bewitched. (1.1.100–105)
Sebastian counts on the assumption that Moll embodies a sexual transgression so enormous that Sebastian’s class transgression in marrying Mary will look mild by comparison, and his father will consent to the original match.
Moll’s masculine attire is the material substance of her monstrosity, and a central object, in its own right, of her own and others’ investment and fixation. Though she appears mostly in men’s clothing, in some scenes she wears women’s garments on one part of her body and men’s clothes on the rest—for example “a frieze jerkin” (a man’s short coat) “and a black saveguard” (a woman’s riding skirt) (2.1.161). As with Bellario/Euphrasia, Moll’s menswear is not a temporary device. Instead, it is the clothing of the character, a structuring precondition to her functioning as a sexual go-between who facilitates—and queers—the heterosexual pairing at the center of the play. Our understanding of both these comedies’ gender dynamics has been shaped by the enduring tradition of materialist and feminist dramatic criticism focused on boy actors in women’s parts, and on the self-referential theatricality with which that practice infuses the comic resolution of cross-dressing plays—especially in the critically mystified moment of revelation, where the boy actor playing the heroine removes her masculine disguise to reveal his imaginary female identity.26 But the queer go-betweens I am pondering here—a boy who is not known to be female until the very end of the play, and who never appears in women’s clothing; and a cutpurse whose permanent masculine dress is in no sense a disguise—require a different kind of attention to the imaginary efficacies of the boy actor’s body, and to the prosthetic gendered garments and accessories that surround it.
Both characters’ staged embodiments attest to how men’s garments, like the women’s clothing worn by boy actors, can constitute an artificial sex. But then, as Will Fisher has taught us to see in his study of accessories and body parts, all gender—especially, though not exclusively, in early modern England—can be seen as prosthetically “materialized,” assembled from both corporeal and man-made elements into hybrid forms that communicate a complex range of social meanings.27 With their full inhabitation of masculine garments and accessories, Bellario and Moll both call into question the constitution of gender to an even further degree than other cross-dressed characters of early modern literature, casting doubt on the ontology of sex itself. I strongly agree with Simone Chess that it would be inaccurate to say that Moll Cutpurse—or, I would add, Bellario/Euphrasia—is a woman in the same sense as Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Viola may be.28 In fact, in both cases, Moll’s and Bellario’s genital anatomies are unknown, or at least open to debate, from both the text’s and audience’s perspectives.29 The phraseology of “cross-dressing,” then, is not right here. As Sawyer K. Kemp argues in a groundbreaking retheorization of the relation between embodiment and sartorial performance in Shakespeare, gender is much more than clothing; it is affective and material, a social experience.30 Thus, for both Bellario and Moll, their constitutive, full-time practice of masculine presentation installs them, in different ways, as a different order of body, one that confounds binary sex or gender: a body of trans experience. In this respect, they resonate more productively across time with a spectrum of queer masculinities—with genderqueer butches, transgender men and others on the transmasculine continuum, queer “bois,” and full-time drag kings—than with the feminine heroines who have been the focus of so much early modern cross-dressing criticism. Bellario in particular is an ambiguous fit with respect to the butch/femme dynamic that Valerie Traub traces in The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. It is the femme, she argues, “defined primarily as lack, the blank space made intelligible only by the implied presence of the tribade or the butch,” who “has operated, both historically and in contemporary culture, as an erotic cipher.”31 Yet Bellario serves as an erotic cipher by means of a sartorially masculine presentation, which Traub observes “has more in common with current discourses of transgender and intersexuality than with butch affect and style.”32 Nor do I see Bellario as fitting into the mold of the chaste femme, whose historically silenced desire Traub seeks to uncover. I want instead to make legible Bellario’s strange potency as a staged cipher that splits and exceeds these historical categories altogether.
The erotic configurations I point out in The Roaring Girl and Philaster are instances of queer relationality that are not accounted for by either heteronormative or homoerotic models of the dyad. What is queer about them is not (just) the genders or the presumptive genital combinations of the participants, but rather the specific kinds of eros at play: the mediated, surrogated, even performative, stylized, and artificed pleasures generated by the instrumentalized third. Making such affective resonances visible across time, and mining their significance, requires what Jack Halberstam calls a “perverse presentism”: a methodology that acknowledges the relevance of “what we do not know in the present to what we cannot know about the past.”33 This means that I am not searching texts from the past for examples of sexual categories that exist today, as if accounts of past sexualities could confirm either the arbitrariness or the inevitability of current sexual regimes (what Sedgwick calls the fallacy of a coherent “sexuality as we conceive of it today”).34 Along with Sedgwick, I do not want to pretend that the definition of queerness is stable from my own critical perspective in the present. My interest is in elucidating what new literary reading practices, drawing on a thick history of all that has transpired between then and now, can add to texts from the past—not in defining all that eroticism means, or doesn’t mean, in an early modern text at the moment of its production. My approach, informed by Traub’s call “to keep open the question of the relationship of present identities to past cultural formations,” requires embracing, rather than shrinking from, the resonances between the forms of queerness at issue in early modern plays and other moments of erotic polysemy, crisis, artifice, and undecidability, both from that time and from others.35
With that said, one of the singular features that sets The Roaring Girl apart from other early modern plays is that it has at its center an actual person who was unapologetically queer and absolutely, historically real. Of all the queer feelings and affective modes this book explores, those on display in The Roaring Girl are most manifestly connected to nonnormative genders and sexual subcultures to come. Its protagonist, an openly masculine woman who wears mostly men’s clothes, has recently attracted renewed critical attention in the burgeoning field of early modern trans studies, as a figure who demands and incites an expanded historical theorization of gendered embodiment and transformation.36 A notorious thief, entertainer, and scandalous City character, Moll Frith was at the peak of her celebrity when this play was produced, a living person who moved in the familiar spheres of the Bankside theater industry and the City underworld. In fact, as the epilogue of the play advertises, “The Roaring Girl herself” is at times physically present in the Fortune theater during the play’s run there. On at least one occasion she appeared on the stage (in men’s apparel, of course) and sang a song, accompanying herself on a viol; she may have made other cameo appearances or ad-libbed comic turns as herself in this play.37 Thus Moll is recognizable outside of the world of the play as a queer subject—though her very real, historical nonnormativity is only one of the ways in which she resonates through queer history. In the spirit of Carolyn Dinshaw’s contention that “queer histories are made of affective relations,” and that the work of premodern sexuality studies is “to make such histories manifest by juxtaposition, by making entities past and present touch,” I suggest looking forward from the figures of Moll Cutpurse and Bellario to future reverberations of erotic instrumentality that might be brought to bear to analyze them both.38 A differently historicized reading of these plays can then reveal a new, nondyadic deep structure of desire and power centered on the agentive instrumentality of the genderqueer third.
As a supposedly female-bodied person who wears men’s clothing in daily life, Moll Frith exemplifies the contemporary London type called the “man–woman” or “masculine–feminine,” a target of widely circulated polemic, including the 1620 pamphlet, Hic Mulier. Or, The Man-Woman, which offers “a Medicine to cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine–Feminines of our Times.”39 A wealth of canonical scholarship has used Moll and her celebrity turn onstage to examine the political, social, and sexual meanings of the early modern cross-dressing hysteria/vogue.40 Thus before Moll appears onstage her contours are already drawn by an existing paranoid discourse; her deferred entrance and the extensively dilated buildup of dialogue anticipating her appearance mirrors the rapidly proliferating body of anti-cross-dressing discourse. In one of Moll’s first appearances in the play, she moves through the shops, outfitting herself with masculine accessories and flirting with the shop wives, with a swaggering bravado that defies description as “the Coltish Disease of the Staggers” lamented in the pamphlet. London city shops are a central site for the construction of gender and social meaning; James Bromley reads the shops as the locus of a specifically queer materiality, where gallants fashion a sartorial masculinity based in surface and style—a rebuke and an alternative to the patriarchal obsession with false seeming.41 Even within this extravagant space, the shopgoers speculate on Moll’s physical and social excess:
GOSHAWK: ’Tis the maddest fantasticall’st girl:—I never knew so much flesh and so much nimbleness put together.
LAXTON: She slips from one company to another, like a fat eel between a Dutchman’s fingers.—[Aside] I’ll watch my time for her. (2.1.189–92)
Moll’s unusual bodily sex and sexual role are openly debated, even among citizens who know her on a familiar basis. In fact, the play repeatedly raises, without resolving, the question of Moll’s genital anatomy. Moll Frith is a signal example of the intervention Colby Gordon makes into theorizing early modern embodiment: that the genital configurations of particular bodies, fictional figures and historical people alike, are fundamentally unknowable. Offering a needed corrective to the normative critical bias that assumes all bodies to “really” possess a “natural” underlying fleshly materiality (always assumed to be a typical genital anatomy of one or the other binary sex), Gordon historicizes the ideologies of technology and artifice that constitute the morphology of all created bodies. If not only all gender, but all bodies are prosthetic, then there is no natural, unadulterated “body beneath” to be counterposed against gender “performance.”42
Moll’s body and bearing make her vulnerable to sexual speculation about just this matter, instigated by the lecherous gallant Laxton:
MISTRESS GALLIPOT: Some will not stick to say she’s a man
And some both man and woman.
LAXTON: That were excellent, she might first cuckold the husband and then make him do as much for the wife. (2.1.194–97)
The question of public interest, it seems, is what Moll’s ambiguous sex or sexuality might allow her to do in carnal contact. Though he gravely mistakes her for a sexually receptive woman and a prostitute, Laxton does hit upon a truth: at the root of Moll’s prodigious potency and inexhaustible desirability is her bisexual potential as a facilitator of sex with both male and female bodies. When Laxton propositions her, Moll wounds him in a sword fight and takes his purse. It’s a moment of triumph in the play, but the violence is real (and threatens in Philaster too). The openly artificial and erotically efficacious queer bodily styles of “Masculine–Feminines” like Moll—and many other subcultures of female masculinity that have existed in other times—exert a deranging force on patriarchal sexism, even as they are persecuted within it.43 One truth that a lens of erotic instrumentality makes visible is that objectification and agency, vulnerability and power can coexist; they are not mutually exclusive binaries. In light of this, I want to shift from seeing the masculine–feminine as strictly an object—of gazes, of polemic, of conflicting desires in the period, and of critics’ objectifying interests and analyses—to ask instead what the masculine–feminine body does, how it acts on and within erotic economies.44 Seeing Moll’s transgressive sex and gender as erotically instrumental allows us to reframe so-called cross-dressing in terms of the dresser’s effects on dramatic dynamics and affective exchanges. What connections does the masculine–feminine “third” produce, onstage and off? How does she alter the structure of a play?
The triad formed by Moll, Sebastian, and Mary is the obvious erotic center of the play: Moll is enlisted to legitimate Sebastian’s marriage to Mary. But Moll does not appear onstage in her instrumental capacity with Sebastian and Mary until well into the second half of the play, in act 4. Far more stage time is devoted to another triad in which Moll alters and queers the affective investments at stake between two other characters: Sebastian and his father, Sir Alex Wengrave. In many ways the father/son pairing is the dominant relationship of the plot (it is, for one thing, the bond on whose restoration the comic resolution depends); moreover, the affects incited in the father—merely through the discourse of notoriety that surrounds her, before she appears onstage—reveal the constellation of queer investments that Moll brings about and makes visible.
Sebastian’s plot works spectacularly; his performance of “counterfeit passion” sparks a frenzy of not at all counterfeit passion from Sir Alex. So intense is his incoherent derangement that it must be displaced onto a fictional stranger, a “passionate old man” tormented by his son’s desire for a monstrous creature, “woman more than man,/Man more than woman”:
The sun gives her two shadows to one shape:
Nay more, let this strange thing walk, stand or sit,
No blazing star draws more eyes after it.
SIR DAVY: A monster, ’tis some monster.
SIR ALEX: She’s a varlet. (1.2.130–35)
Like the queer charade to which he proves so susceptible, Sir Alex uses substitution to stoke his aristocratic friends’ revulsion at a double-sexed yet supposedly female body. This monologue uses stock tropes of gender aberration (“a thing/One knows not how to name: her birth began/Ere she was all made,” 1.2.128–30), with an emphasis on the “creature’s” qualities of attraction and celebrity (“no blazing star draws more eyes after it”). What I find interesting, however, is the elaborate displaced affliction: the son’s object choice exerts a self-alienating, self-annihilating, “fantastical” effect on the father’s body and mind, which he displaces onto a fictive “aged man” he meets (1.2.64). His prodigal son’s waywardness, Sir Alex says, sends the old man into “fits”: “you might see his gall/Flow even in’s eyes: then grew he fantastical [. . .] and talked oddly” (1.2.88–93). The old man laments his son’s rebellion as direct violence to the core of a father’s being, a wedge that “doth cleave/My very heart-root” (1.2.104–5), and “a whirlwind/Shaking the firm foundation” of his existence (1.2.115–16).
This self-martyring paternal reaction indexes the dangers and consequences for the parent/child bond in the aftermath of a coming-out moment: a revelation of a sexually deviant object choice. Read as the crazed lamentations of a homophobic parent, this language resonates within the context outlined by Sedgwick for the dramatic effects of sexual disclosures on the patriarchal figures who receive them. Sedgwick describes how the eruption of queerness within the bonds of the family threatens the recipient as well as the subject of the news: “In fantasy, though not in fantasy only, against the fear of being killed or wished dead by (say) one’s parents in such a revelation there is apt to recoil the often more intensely imagined possibility of its killing them.”45 Sir Alex voices a performatively literal fantasy of himself in the grave much like the one Sedgwick describes:
Oh thou cruel boy,
Thou wouldst with lust an old man’s life destroy;
Because thou see’st I’m half-way in my grave,
Thou shovel’st dust upon me: would thou might’st have
Thy wish, most wicked, most unnaturall! (1.2.157–61)
This is the weaponization of nonnormative sexual desire as retaliation against the patriarchal social structure, by a son who has already been threatened with an extreme form of harm—disinheritance—as a consequence of his actual choice of a mate. Moll’s instrumental function here catapults a parent/child conflict from the social and economic realm (well trodden in early modern drama) into what, even in a 1611 city comedy, can be called the realm of sexuality, where children’s rebellious erotic choices have affective and social consequences that cut both ways, against the parent as well as against the child. Though Sebastian’s object choice is not exactly same sex, he occupies an analogous position to Sedgwick’s “gay subject”: one who has lost authority over his own social definition through his problematic choice of partner.46
Outing Sebastian to his appalled friends, Sir Alex appeals to the “questions of authority and evidence,” which Sedgwick notes are often first to arise when queerness appears (“How do you know you’re really gay? [. . .] Hadn’t you better talk to a therapist and find out?”).47 He calls Sebastian ill and delusional—“Th’art sick at heart, yet feel’st it not” (1.2.149)—for persisting in a desire figured as a disease no one should want to have. He asks, “What gentleman but thou, knowing his disease/Mortal, would shun the cure?” (1.2.149–51). Sir Alex objects that it’s illegal: “What, sayst thou marriage? In what place, the sessions house? And who shall give the bride, prithee? An indictment?” (2.2.131–33). He asks Sebastian, “Why, wouldst thou fain marry to be pointed at?” (2.2.135). These mocking threats, like the father’s self-murdering histrionics, read as eerily modern. Sir Alex keeps appealing to questions of evidence to assuage his hysteria: he is assured that “it was never known/Two men were married and conjoined in one” (5.2.104–5). Any alleged marriage to Moll must be the same curious mix of null and abomination as a marriage between two men, of “no such matter” and “never known.”
After sending an angry mob after Sebastian, Sir Alex reveals in an unheard aside his resolve to murder the object of his son’s affection: “[Aside] Her blood shall quench it then” (1.2.177). The potential for violence occasioned by a deviant object choice—to the child, to the parent, back to the child, and (as can also happen in cases of gay coming out) to the child’s love object—arises, according to Sedgwick, “partly from the fact that the erotic identity of the person who receives the disclosure [Sir Alex] is apt also to be implicated in, hence perturbed by, it,” with the ultimate disturbance being the unspoken, ghosting suggestion that something like the son’s queer predilection might be present in the father.48 In fact, if Sebastian’s performative faux engagement to a notorious “masculine–feminine” cutpurse functions dramatically, in its scandal and enormity, like a gay engagement, it does precisely what Sedgwick says a child’s coming out does, and implicates the father in a homophobic/homoerotic dynamic. Sir Alex lies to the assembled gentlemen that he has “upon my knees wooed this fond boy/To take that virtuous maiden [Mary Fitz-Allard]” (1.2.164–65). Sir Alex places himself in the posture of a romantic supplicant when in fact he has forcibly insinuated himself into his son’s sexual trajectory, and the reproductive continuation of their patrilineal bond through Mary Fitz-Allard is the very route he has foreclosed. Alone onstage, Sir Alex vows revenge on his son in a chilling incestuous, homoerotic twist on the Petrarchan figure of love as an amorous hunt:
I’ll be most near thee when I’m least in sight.
Wild buck, I’ll hunt thee breathless, thou shalt run on,
But I will turn thee when I’m not thought upon. (1.2.183–85)
By occasioning violent, even eroticized displays of identification and domination between father and son, Moll makes visible the energy of the Oedipal plot, which links the unruly appetites of sons for the wrong conjugal objects with the deaths of fathers and the problem of succession, and highlights a father’s life-or-death interest, under patrilineage, in the appropriateness of his son’s sexual desire.
This is the first and perhaps most crucial relationship that Moll queers in the play, on which her subsequent participation in Sebastian and Mary’s coupling depends. Like Bellario, she functions as a cipher for mediating affective content between father and son—content that would not exist without her. She is the object, agent, and occasion—the instrument—of those affects, through the dialogue’s figuration of her queer body and sexual notoriety. Queerness’s tendency to alter other relations in an orbit of proximity to itself derives, as Sedgwick observes, from how it makes visible the contingent, relational condition of all desire, “because erotic identity, of all things, is never to be circumscribed simply as itself, can never not be relational, is never to be perceived or known by anyone outside of a structure of transference and countertransference.”49 This idea—that the erotic is not a hermetically contained, organic, interior truth bearing only on conjugal relations between individuals, but rather a magnetic force that exists in and through all relationalities—is particularly visible in early modern drama, where discourses of love, identification, and affiliation often spread out to implicate the whole set of staged relations in the play. This is one of the ways early modern texts can rebut a narrow, modern definition of eroticism as strictly associated with individuals or with genitality (“modern” in the delusional, myopic sense that Latour says “we have never been,” as this is not at all the model of eros advanced in the thought of Freud). The kind of queerness Moll generates is relational in Sedgwick’s sense: it is visible in the “counterfeit passions” she attracts and the nonsexual bonds of kinship and service she alters, showing them to be equal in weight—and even dramatically prior—to the ostensibly central marriage plot. One of the things the instrumentalized go-between vividly shows is that eroticism itself is a collective phenomenon, a force that connects people and things in interimplicated webs of power, desire, and violence.
“Both with Standing Collars”
Like Bellario, Moll’s erotic charge inheres in the clothing and objects that construct her remarkable body. When she finally enters the stage (“Enter Moll, in a frieze jerkin and a black safeguard,” 2.1.161) in a soldier’s short coat and a woman’s riding petticoat, Moll appears as a man from the waist up and a woman from the waist down—the “half man/half woman” Sir Alex deplores and the Hic Mulier pamphlet condemns. Her (men’s) tailor chases her down in the street to discuss the measurements for her new breeches:
TAILOR: It shall stand round and full, I warrant you.
MOLL: Pray make ’em easy enough.
TAILOR: I know my fault now: t’other was somewhat stiff between the legs, I’ll make these open enough, I warrant you. (2.2.86–89)
This performative back-and-forth about the breeches’ style and fit (“And make sure you leave enough room in the crotch!” “Oh yes, I didn’t leave nearly enough room in the crotch last time! I’ll leave more!”) makes the tailor legible as a prurient City type with a long accumulated tradition of sexual suspicion—notably bisexual suspicion, of both lechery with women and effeminacy and homosexual contact with men—as a result of the physical intimacy, undress, and small, sharp phallic instruments involved in their trade.50 Here he is established as a co-constructor of Moll’s prosthetic phallic body. As James Bromley argues, the play posits a queer, nondualist ontology of the relationship between material things and human bodies, in which “the construction and aestheticization of ostentatious selfhood” takes place through accessorizing and ornamentation, portending Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy of surface in early modern material culture.51 Moll’s transactions with her tailor are literally dramatically instrumental: this street scene brings Sir Alex in sight, for the first time, of the object of his obsession. Lurking onstage to spy on Moll’s swaggering exchanges, he well understands the parts being gestured at in the tailor’s dialogue: “Hoyda, breeches? What will he marry a monster with two trinkets? What age is this? If the wife go in breeches, the man must wear long coats like a fool!” (2.2.76–78). Now the “monster” of Sir Alex’s phobic ideation has “two trinkets,” a reference to the legs or points of her breeches, which is immediately readable as a fantasy of two testicles. His lament, “I have brought my son up to marry a Dutch slop and a French doublet, a codpiece-daughter!” (2.2.90–91), repeats this doubling of foreign men’s phallic garments, and adds atop it Moll’s male-and-female status as a “codpiece-daughter.”
Acting the part—to gall his father—of an infatuated apologist for the freedom to love whom he will, Sebastian proposes to Moll in the middle of the street. Moll picks up on the language of excessive, repeated doubling, turning it into a queer refusal of marriage and a statement of sexual ambidexterity:
I have no humor to marry, I love to lie o’both sides o’th’bed myself, and again o’th’other side; a wife you know ought to be obedient, but I fear me I am too headstrong to obey, therefore I’ll ne’er go about it. I love you so well, sir, for your good will I’d be loath you should repent your bargain after, and therefore we’ll ne’er come together at first. I have the head now of myself, and am man enough for a woman; marriage is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden loses one head and has a worse i’th’place. (2.2.36–45)
Like Moll’s overlapping, layered-on assemblage of garments, this is not a straightforward image of bisexuality or hermaphroditism. “I love to lie o’both sides o’th’bed myself; and again o’th’other side” asserts a third position, in excess of the usual two. Not only, Moll brags, can she move between the man’s and the woman’s part in bed, but she can also perform something more: an encore entailing some novel third sexual role. She can be “more than one, and more than two, but less than infinity.”52
Laying “o’both sides o’th’bed” is an additive, sex-positive corollary to Philaster’s paranoid, negative interrogation of Bellario’s sexual implication with Arethusa: “Is she not parallelless?” Both turns of phrase seem to describe a sexual reality outside the mathematical constraints of the dyad. Using at least a triple negative, Philaster sets up an impossible bind in which Arethusa cannot be verified “parallelless” without having been “paralleled” (in bed) by Bellario or himself. No one can be redeemed unless all three are simultaneously together, making each “parallelless.” Moll’s third side of the bed literally, grammatically posits an outside to the sexual binary (hetero or otherwise)—what is the “other side” to “both sides”? She constructs herself as both sexually self-sufficient and versatile: man enough for herself; man enough to satisfy and master women sexually; and man enough that any man she would take as a partner would become the woman and she the man—all three.
As is true of the body brought into being as Bellario in Philaster, Moll augments and adds to heterosexual pairings. She takes and transmits, amplifies, and obtains gratification from erotic positions squeezed in between, added on beside, and slipped underneath heteronormative structures. “’Twixt lovers’ hearts, she’s a fit instrument,” Sebastian exults, “And has the art to help them to their own” (2.2.197–98). Moll is a “fit instrument” in the precise way Sebastian asserts because of her supererogatory erotic versatility—her prowess at lying three different ways on a two-sided bed. Like Bellario’s “country art” of encoding and expressing feelings, Moll’s art is the art of relationality, deployed to her own and others’ erotic ends. Sir Alex’s evil henchman, Trapdoor, inflames his homophobic/homoerotic passions with graphic representations of what Moll’s cross-gendered dress can do in sexual encounters:
TRAPDOOR: She comes in a shirt of male.
SIR ALEX: How, shirt of mail?
TRAPDOOR: Yes sir, or a male shirt, that’s to say in man’s apparel.
SIR ALEX: To my son?
TRAPDOOR: Close to your son: your son and her moon will be in conjunction, if all almanacs lie not: her black saveguard is turned into a deep slop, the holes of her upper body to button-holes, her waistcoat to a doublet, her placket to the ancient seat of a codpiece, and you shall take ’em both with standing collars. (3.3.19–28)
Trapdoor paints a body not merely disguised but deformed by men’s clothing. Her “black saveguard” will turn into an exposed “deep slop” (a grotesque allusion to exposed female genitals as well as to Moll’s extravagant Dutch breeches). Her bodice will be full of “button-holes,” and the placket on her skirt (a slang term for the vagina)53 will conversely transform into “the ancient seat of a codpiece.” Not only will this body be sexually conjoined with Sebastian’s, but it will also morph from a female body into something else: a monstrous, hermaphroditic body. The disorienting slippage between anatomical and artificial objects in Trapdoor’s rant blurs which pieces are body parts and which are garments, evoking a body whose substance exceeds natural or human materiality.
The unanswerable question raised by the entire play—the question of what Moll’s codpiece covers up—cannot be unasked; Trapdoor’s rant conjuring the “ancient seat of a codpiece” over the thing itself makes us think it. The pair of “standing collars” Trapdoor evokes, the coup de grâce in his nightmare portrait to Sir Alex of Moll having sex with his son, fetishistically evokes the absent presence of Moll’s penis. The fantasy that so maddens Sir Alex is of a double penetration, a double penis, or two penises in homosexual contact. Sebastian’s and Moll’s matching ruffs of starched cloth—“standing” because they are held erect from the inside by wire frames—are twin erect phalli. Trapdoor suggests that Moll’s and Sebastian’s bodies will take the same phallic shape, and that the sexual contact between them will be anal (“your son and her moon will be in conjunction”). This confluence of sexual similarity and sodomitical intercourse derives from the coexistence, in Moll, of a sexually functional prosthetic masculinity—her “standing collar”—with a carnal body that is even more suspect for being sexually unspecified—her “moon,” the “ancient seat of a codpiece.” Moll’s sartorial body may be doubly gendered or undecidable, but it is decidedly phallic. In the homophobic/homoerotic fantasy/nightmare conjured to torment Sir Alex, their sexual congress will render Sebastian’s body like Moll’s: two bodies of the same polluted yet sexually potent, abject yet masculine substance—in other words, two gay bodies.
In the secret assignation where Moll brings Sebastian and Mary together, she performs what Sebastian calls the “kind office” of facilitating—and participating—in their erotic congress:
Enter Sebastian, with Mary Fitz-Allard like a page, and Moll [in man’s clothes].
SEBASTIAN: Thou hast done me a kind office, without touch
Either of sin or shame; our loves are honest.
MOLL: I’d scorn to make such shift to bring you together else. (4.1.39–41)
Presenting cross-dressed Mary to Sebastian, Moll asks, “My tailor fitted her, how like you his work?” (4.1.69). It is apparent that, in the sartorial and sexual senses, Moll has “turned” or “pimped” Mary out.54 “Turned out” means both “stylishly dressed” and “sexually initiated,” especially where a loss of innocence is involved; the idea of Moll as a bawd or pander ghosts this scene. But Mary’s page outfit, like Moll’s masculine dress, changes the balance of power. It is not just a disguise; it is the structuring condition of Mary’s participation in the erotic encounter. It is produced out of—and in turn productive of—a tridirectional, queer circuit of libidinal energy linking Mary, Sebastian, and Moll. Like “pretty” Bellario’s “glad to follow” enthusiasm for being used, Mary’s masculine clothing confounds any zero-sum opposition between objectification and erotic agency; it highlights the complicated relations of mutual pleasure involved. This is the climactic moment of Moll’s mediating function where, I have argued elsewhere, it is possible to imagine, without any great strain to dramatic convention, that there is cross-dressed, genderqueer, three-way sex.55 Here, however, I want to draw attention to the queer relational mode being staged. Moll continues to effect Sebastian and Mary’s contact, commenting on the homoerotics of their onstage kiss:
MOLL: How strange this shows, one man to kiss another.
SEBASTIAN: I’d kiss such men to choose, Moll,
Methinks a woman’s lip tastes well in a doublet. (4.1.45–47)
Moll effects a three-way circuit in which she is an instrumental component, not only facilitating the scene but shaping it into a queer—as well as a fully sexual—union.
The stage has been set for understanding this triadic encounter as a moment of queer relationality by my reading, in the introduction, of Richard Brome’s The Antipodes. Like both Philaster and The Roaring Girl, The Antipodes confutes the assumption that sex is a dyadic phenomenon, conjuring offstage scenes of explicit erotic instrumentality. Peregrine’s wife, Martha, deranged with sexual frustration resulting from his mania for reading travel narratives, implores the herald-painter’s wife, Barbara, one of the co-orchestrators of the fantasy travel cure for Peregrine’s wanderlust, for hands-on instruction:
. . . he does not
Lie with me and use me as he should, I fear;
Nor do I know how to teach him. Will you tell me?
I’ll lie with you and practise, if you please.
Pray take me for a night or two, or take
My husband and instruct him—but one night. (1.1.261–66)
The instruction Martha asks for—and receives—is transitive, even fungible, equally applicable to women and to men. Barbara’s sexual facilitation is more direct and literal than either Bellario’s or Moll’s. The experienced married woman takes on the absurdly virginal married woman as a sexual protégée: “Come, I’ll take charge and care of you—[. . .] And wage my skill against my doctor’s art/Sooner to ease you of these dangerous fits/Than he will rectify your husband’s wits” (1.1.274–77). Barbara’s queer erotic “skill” is used here in one or more lesbian encounters, in the service of effecting activity and desire where there was none before. In The Antipodes, heterosexual marriage suffers a blockage that only queer instrumentality can remedy. Barbara reports at the end, perhaps from firsthand experience, that the couple are heartily cured: “Up? Up and ready to lie down again;/There is no ho with them!” (5.2.261–62). Like Moll, Barbara disavows any identity as a bawd or procurer, insisting on the social normativity of her erotic service: “I trust she is no bawd that sees and helps,/If need require, an ignorant lawful pair/To do their best” (5.1.44–46). This is ironic because although Barbara is neither androgynous nor outside of the social gender binary, she is an uneasy fit with any notion of so-called normative sexuality. The play gradually reveals a sexual backstory for the character that puts the lie to dyadic, married monogamy: the Doctor who concocts Peregrine’s fantasy cure also cures husbands of their jealousy by surfeit, accomplished by (at least feigning) sex with their wives. Barbara hints that the Doctor may have fathered her children and that they remain lovers. They may both be present, and even participate, at the consummation of Peregrine and Martha’s marriage. She tells her blithely unjealous husband that “nor the doctor/Nor I came in a bed tonight. I mean/Within a bed” (5.1.98–100). These hints of deviance condition Barbara’s queer instrumental function; her participation reshapes marital sex into something less dyadic, and less, not more, heteronormative than it was before.
The grouping of Mary, Sebastian, and Moll—three costumed bodies kissing in the chamber, with the father fuming in hiding behind them—is a particularly literal staging of Sedgwick’s notion of a “never not relational” erotics, a tableau that makes the ineffable phenomenon of relationality visible onstage.56 The erotics of instrumentality work every which way in the father’s chamber scene; every link in the triad is fully queered through the dynamics of being used. Mary is simultaneously, enthusiastically regendered, objectified, and instrumentalized; she takes on some of the qualities of a queer instrument in being “turned out” by Moll. The pleasurable traffic in Mary connects Moll and Sebastian in quasi-homosocial masculine friendship. Moll is the occasion of Sebastian’s Oedipal glee at engaging in queer erotic acts in his father’s chamber. Sebastian, in turn, is the mediating term for a female homosocial bond between the pair of cross-dressed Marys. Everyone in turn gets used, and likes it. But even this three-part network is not a closed system; it is inescapably linked to the patriarchal bonds that press upon it. The lovers are not unseen in the chamber. Sir Alex is lying in wait for them, becoming progressively more agitated as the erotic energy mounts. One of the payoffs of attending so closely to the homophobic contours of Sir Alex’s obsession with Moll in earlier scenes is that it allows us to notice how eroticized the father’s frenzy is here, at the scene of queer three-way consummation. Moll borrows his viol—takes it off the wall at Sebastian’s invitation—to play and sing a song that functions as a dramatic substitution for a barely invisible three-person sex act. In Moll’s practice of borrowing men’s instruments at their behest, it is not only she who performs as a willing instrument, on command. The men are also willingly instrumentalized, used for their viols, out of their queer cravings for Moll to temporarily appropriate and wield their instruments.
As with Bellario’s flower garland, Moll’s borrowed viol makes her body into an instrument, a partially artificial technology of intimacy—technically, a cyborg—that exceeds the human subject, problematizing taxonomies of natural order.57 The technology that is Moll engenders an erotic network with multiple nodes: the three participants; the material things they use; and the others (onstage and in the audience) who interpret the triad through their own anxieties and lusts. Moll’s instrumental efficacy here is akin to that of a sex toy or dildo. She transmits sexual pleasure between Sebastian and Mary (and also generates it with each of them separately), but remains detached. As Traub observes, the dildo “pries female erotic pleasure apart” from the penis, from the “apparatus of reproduction (and the body of man) that confers upon women’s desire its social legitimacy.”58 Moll disconnects erotic pleasure not only from the male penis but also from the sexual dyad. Like a dildo, Moll also disconnects erotic pleasure and performance from the so-called natural human body, full stop. Her multiple, phallic garments and accessories (rendered in detail in the play’s title page illustration)—her sword, her pipe, her hat, her ruff, the viol she wields—add up to a prodigious, prosthetic body of sex and style that defies categorization. Like Bellario, Moll’s body is a thing used within the play—by herself, Sebastian, Sir Alex, Trapdoor, and Mary—toward their differing ends. It is also a thing used by the play, as its locus of aesthetic and dramatic energy.
“I’d a Forefinger In’t”
In both Philaster and The Roaring Girl, the erotic instrument has moments of functioning as a perfect generator and communicator of pleasure and desire. Embodying this role permanently, however, is impossible. Both Moll and Bellario/Euphrasia slip in and out of their mediating positions. Though Philaster is the tragicomedy, The Roaring Girl swerves in the direction of tragedy as well. Sir Alex commissions Trapdoor to “ensnare her very life,” plotting with him to rape and/or murder Moll (or, failing that, to frame her in a crime and “find law to hang her up”) (1.2.232–34). As he lays out luxury goods in his chamber in hopes that she will steal them, Sir Alex’s triple fixation on his family jewels, Moll’s fantasy phallus, and Moll’s death reinforces how much like a crush homophobic hate can look.
The play’s strange resolution averts the tragedy through a performance—almost a dumbshow or masque—that puts a stylized twist on the stock comic gender-reveal moment. Moll is presented, “masked, in Sebastian’s hand” (5.2.129), almost as a puppet in a show, playing not herself but a nameless “fair bride,” whom Sir Alex instantly accepts because she appears properly gendered. Her costume must be assumed to consist of a mask or heavy veil and women’s clothes. In other words, she appears in drag (for her). Much of the criticism on The Roaring Girl tends to glance off the resolution or to read it as depressing evidence of the play’s “rehabilitation” of proper patriarchal gender roles; it can feel like a compulsory normalization even though it is a ruse.59 In this mute moment, Moll would seem to be what I am adamant that the instrumental go-between is not—an invisible, inconsequential prop for patriarchal marriage and inheritance. However, remembering Moll’s function as something like a dildo—a purpose-made, artificial object—reveals a more interesting underlying dynamic, in which Moll’s queerness is sustained in the resolution. As the masked bride, she (it?) functions as something closer to a fetish (or puppet) of patriarchal marriage, an artificial materialization that stands in for an unreal fantasy. It is not really even a rehabilitation of compulsory gender performance so much as the most cursory pantomime of femininity (faceless, motionless, silent). The joke inheres in how readily the decoy bride is—again—believed to be the real thing. Like a prosthetic phallus, the figure fulfills its purpose solely through where it is located and what it appears to be doing. The prodigal son makes certain that his father pardons him before his consort is unmasked to reveal—Moll, the Roaring Girl. When, just in time, Mary is escorted in, this time in women’s clothing and surrounded by the trappings of patriarchal community (two lords, citizens, and their wives), Moll tells Sir Alex, “I’d a forefinger in’t” (5.2.170). Taking credit for both the prank and the happy ending, Moll archly reminds Sir Alex of her sexual stake in both his son and in Mary.
Even with Moll in drag in a dress, the play’s comic resolution directly contravenes the conventional ending of the cross-dressing play, where the heroine’s “real” femininity is climactically revealed. If anyone is revealed as a “real” woman, it is the boy actor playing Mary Fitz-Allard, who emerges out of her class and gender cross-dressing into her status as a gentlewoman. There is no such insistence on femininity, or marriage, or heterosexuality for Moll, just a reassertion of her instrumental centrality. By removing her transgressive body from the bride position and substituting Mary’s, she effects both Sebastian’s union with Mary and his reconciliation with his father. Sir Alex announces that his land will be merged—in another three-way bond—with Sir Guy Fitz-Allard’s title and Mary’s virtue. Rather than rings, keys are exchanged, in a climactic reinheritance ceremony that brings into speech some of the incestuous father/son erotic language that had been ghosting Sir Alex’s disgust: Sebastian gets the keys to his father’s “best joys,” “fertile lands and a fair fruitful bride” (5.2.202–4). As in many comedies, there is no heterosexual marriage onstage in the resolution; this pseudowedding between father and son is the stand-in.
Yet it is significant that at the close of the play, Moll remains defiantly alone. She ridicules Sir Alex for his assumption that she would ever marry a man: “He was in fear his son would marry me,/But never dreamt that I would ne’er agree” (5.2.213–14). She says she will marry when she sees “honesty and truth unslandered,/Woman manned but never pandered”—in effect, at doomsday (5.2.219–220). I would venture that Moll comes closer than any other figure in early modern drama to being a queer character. Her uses of masculine tools and accessories as instruments of butch self-styling and erotic prowess with women, combined with her self-aware rejection of patriarchal marriage, render her sexually marked for her refusal of a heteronormative fate. Moreover, she is a subject who is recognized as queer for these reasons, as part of a regime of recognition that extends into the present. I place the character of Moll Cutpurse near the nebulous beginnings of a multinodal genealogy of sexually dissident ways of being that stretches from the histories of style, seduction, and survival lived by working-class butch women and other participants in female masculinity; through the aesthetically and culturally generative street-based queer urban subcultures on both sides of the Atlantic—from early modern London’s shops and promenades, to the Harlem Renaissance, to the drag ball scene—with their signature mix of aristocracy and demimonde, celebrity and criminality, high and low style; to late twentieth and early twenty-first century scenes of patriarchs reacting to declarations of gay identity and same-sex marriage, some of which echo with painful precision those staged in 1611. Like an historical instrument of some eerily durable, magnetized substance, Moll alters erotic networks both within and outside of the play, drawing other subjects into her queer orbit while she herself remains uncaptured by heteronormativity.
“Come, Live with Me”
A contrasting story of gender transformation and queer marriage, recorded in Montaigne’s travel journal (1581), serves as a tragic mirror to the tragicomic plots of Philaster and The Roaring Girl. Montaigne’s tale from Vitry-le-François of a girl, originally called Mary, who, like Bellario/Euphrasia, put on men’s clothes and left her village to live as a man, is, as Philaster threatens to become, a tragedy of interpretation. Due in part to its prominent role in historicist scholarship on the period, this story is not only instructive about the life-and-death stakes of Bellario’s erotic instrumentality in Philaster, or the social meanings of Sebastian and Moll’s queer sham marriage. It also offers a site for examining the readings and misreadings (both in the period and subsequently) of female-bodied figures in masculine clothing: their bodies, their erotic capabilities, and the circuits of pleasure and relation they effect. Montaigne writes that passing through the town, he heard the story of a weaver, “a well-favoured young man, and on friendly terms with everyone,”60 who married a woman (after a brief engagement to another woman), and lived with her for four or five months, “to her contentment, as they say.”61 But when this young man was recognized by someone from his old village, his bodily sex was brought before the court and he was condemned to hang—not for falsifying identity or for committing same-sex marriage, but for “illicit inventions to supplement the defect of her sex.”62 The young man is said to protest that he prefers to be hanged rather than “to be returned to a girl’s estate.”63 But in his trial and death—as in Montaigne’s narrative, which regenders him as female—he is forcibly returned to a girl’s estate, his gender realigned with her sex in an act of state violence.
This anecdote has generated widespread critical discussion attempting to parse its significance for early modern ideas of bodily sex and social gender. Stephen Greenblatt famously uses it, in his reading of Twelfth Night, as evidence for the persistence of the Galenic or “one-sex” model of sexual difference, where the vagina is homologous to the penis, only turned in on itself, in the period’s sexual imaginary.64 As Thomas Laqueur has influentially put it, before the Enlightenment, “sex, or the body, must be understood as the epiphenomenon, while gender, what we would take to be a cultural category, was primary or ‘real,’” and “it was precisely when talk seemed to be most directly about the biology of two sexes that it was most embedded in the politics of gender, in culture.”65 This is the established historicist use of Montaigne, in which this story reveals an ideology that is illuminating in the difference of its codes from those operating today. In this reading, made canonical in arguments by Greenblatt and Traub, because the sodomy laws of Renaissance France defined sodomy for women as using an artificial instrument to penetrate another woman, and because the sentence handed down in this case was death, we can thus understand the protagonist as a person executed for using a dildo on a woman while being female bodied.66 This version of the story, in which the crime is counterfeiting the physical apparatus of manhood in sexual relations with a woman, is certainly available behind Montaigne’s stylish storytelling, but this influential interpretation does not follow necessarily or transparently from Montaigne’s text. Instead, I submit that reading a death sentence for penetrative sodomy into this anecdote is a motivated act of reading like any other (and, as Traub points out, the same reading committed by the court who condemns him).67
Looking at this story in light of Philaster’s erotically instrumental go-between and The Roaring Girl’s simultaneously historical and invented masculine heroine raises other possibilities—possibilities that have been foreclosed by a too-faithful adherence to a New Historicist paradigm where contextual discoveries are regarded as solving for the contemporary meanings of a text. Reading pendue des inventions illicites à suppléer au defaut de son sexe (“hanged for illicit inventions to supply the defect of her sex”) as exclusively about sodomy laws governing the illegal use of penetrative “devices” (Greenblatt’s word, which does not appear in Montaigne) narrows down the proliferation of “illicit inventions”—sartorial, material, rhetorical, aesthetic, and erotic—at play in this story to a single, presumed invention, Greenblatt’s imagined phallic “device.”68 But the young weaver is himself, like Bellario and Moll Cutpurse, an “invention”; his clothing, his weaver’s trade and the textiles he creates, his new name, his citizenship, his friendships, his courtships, his marriage, and the sex he has with his wife are all “illicit” —and virtuosic—inventions. What he has attempted to supply for himself with these inventions (a sense of suppléer that Greenblatt passes over in favor of “supplement”) is not only the strictly anatomical defaut (translated by Greenblatt as “defect”) of his ostensible genital lack, but the flawed, faulty, default conditions of the world into which he was born as a girl—conditions that required him, like Euphrasia and like Mary Frith, to invent a new self and use it in new ways in order to function as he desired.
Thinking about all of the other kinds of “illicit inventions” that can supplement the often insufficient, default conditions of bodily sex also opens up the usefulness of this anecdote for reading Philaster, a play in which the passing, female-bodied boy and his pleasing rhetorical inventions generate affective and erotic frictions that exceed the problem of sex. The two stories share the same premise: a passing young masculine-presenting subject who began life as a girl now lives in intimate relation to another woman. Yet in Beaumont and Fletcher’s plot, Bellario’s voluntary revelation that he is female-bodied is the fortunate stroke that narrowly averts his torture and execution, whereas in Vitry-le-François it seals the young weaver’s fate. The tragic end of the Montaigne story ghosts Philaster’s last-minute happy ending, signaling the problems and risks of interpretation that attend the genderqueer erotic instrument. In The Roaring Girl, the social threat posed by Moll’s masculinity is homoerotic/homosocial. She is the target of violence for suspected sexual relations with Sebastian, never with Mary (despite her quite open boasts regarding women’s sexuality). In Philaster, however, despite all the mutual erotic energy that animates Bellario’s relations with Philaster and with Arethusa alike, the social threat posed by Bellario falls entirely on Arethusa. In contrast to the story of the young weaver, Philaster does not end in tragedy because Bellario’s “inventions” for and within the erotic triad are harder to pin down. Bellario’s erotic “invention”—including his invention of himself, and the sartorial and rhetorical artifice involved in his performance—takes place in the service of being made instrumental, in three-way relation rather than a dyadic marriage bond, and thus exceeds legal categories of sex crime and marital status. His instrumentality is a form of affective and relational “invention” that troubles the category of what counts as sexual activity—or a sexual relationship, full stop. Both Philaster’s and The Roaring Girl’s flirtations with tragedy and scandal, then, are problems with the signification and interpretation of erotic desire, of lovers whose intimacy is both all too visible and totally misunderstood.
In one sense, the revelation of Bellario/Euphrasia’s female sex is a reinscription of a natural sex and gender binary that arguably contains some of the erotic transgression of the instrumentality plot. In a literal dramatic sense, looming tragedy is turned into comedy by removing an imaginary, illicit penis from the sexual equation. But that reading does not adequately express the lingering queerness of Philaster’s ending. Despite its recuperation of the supposed truth of bodily sex, the comic resolution preserves the queer intimacy of the three-person relationship, which, crucially, does not depend on binary sex in any way. Bellario/Euphrasia refuses to be safely slotted into a socially acceptable marriage, emphasizing that his desired outcome was precisely “never to be known” as female bodied (5.5.179). “Never, sir, will I/Marry,” he says. “It is a thing within my vow” (5.5.186–87). He also abjures any preference between the members of the couple; being revealed as a girl does not render his desire heterosexual or dyadic. He asks only to be permitted to be with, and to serve, Philaster and Arethusa equally:
But if I may have leave to serve the princess,
To see the virtues of her lord and her,
I shall have hope to live. (5.5.188–90)
The hope of the character who remains dressed as Bellario is to continue to please, to continue to “see the virtues” and engender the pleasures of both partners.
The inclusive domesticity of this resolution is a stark contrast from the putatively heterosexual pairing off at the ends of other cross-dressing comedies such as Twelfth Night. It is also markedly different from Moll’s defiant, unincorporated queer solitude at the end of The Roaring Girl. With the substitution of a woman rather than a man as a third party in Philaster and Arethusa’s household, all anxieties about sexual impurity ironically evaporate. Other critics’ readings of Philaster have pointed out how this resolution shuts down the subversive possibility, flirted with throughout the play, of sex between man and boy, which it does.69 However, though certain suspicions of dyadic contact are put to rest, these are only the limited sexual possibilities envisioned by the patriarchal gaze of the court onlookers, to whose satisfaction the social order is restored. All other, stranger erotic shadings and insinuations are sustained. In fact, the resolution’s wry turn away from the misogynistic suspicion of the plot’s crisis leaves space for the rehabilitation of some of those lost, misdirected, and bleeding signifiers through which the three parties tried to communicate their love when Bellario was a boy.
The erotic instrumentality that Bellario embodies is, in the end, expansively social and communal. Just as Bellario/Euphrasia refuses to choose between her lord and her lady, Arethusa also abjures all jealousy and suspicion of Bellario/Euphrasia, in a speech addressed triangularly to both man and boy:
Cannot be jealous, though you had a lady
Dressed like a page to serve you, nor will I
Suspect her living here.—Come live with me,
Live free as I do. She that loves my lord,
Cursed be the wife that hates her. (5.5.193–95)
Bellario/Euphrasia remains with Philaster and Arethusa in their home; the change in her supposed, or surface, sex hardly seems to matter to Arethusa or to Philaster, who declares that he “must call thee still” Bellario (5.5.145). While other early modern comedies efface the possibility of female-female carnal contact outside of the carnivalesque time of cross-dressing (as in Twelfth Night and As You Like It), here, in a play where the cross-dressing isn’t exactly cross, and never ends, the potential for (in some sense) female/female eroticism is less than half effaced.70 Arethusa alludes to Bellario/Euphrasia’s love for Philaster (and also blurs the boundaries of identification and desire for him with her initial “I, Philaster”), but then extends a passionate invitation to Bellario to “Come live with me,” the two of them living “free” in communion with the same lord. Their bonds of love are inextricable from one another. Arethusa’s love for Bellario depends on Bellario’s love for Philaster to enable it, and Arethusa’s love for Philaster depends on Bellario’s love and service to Philaster to deliver and effectuate it. What is not salient to the triad here is the fact that Bellario has been revealed as a woman. The person known as Bellario will continue to function in his instrumental role of mutual service and affection.
What is even queerer about Philaster’s resolution is how thoroughly the third is integrated into a permanent three-partner relationship, at least in the second quarto (in the first quarto, Bellario/Euphrasia is married off to a nobleman at the last moment).71 Far from being a device that fulfills its function while remaining detached and unaltered, Bellario/Euphrasia is so thoroughly instrumental that he becomes a vital part of the erotic configuration; like a metamorphic Galathea of dildoes, he is an artificial invention, which, transformed by queer polyamorous love, miraculously becomes the very flesh of the relationship. The boy’s whole body is an instrument, being used as a surrogated sexual organ to the pleasure of all parties. Echoing both a common Shakespearean trope and a classical encomium in praise of generation, Philaster alludes to the poignancy of the beautiful, androgynous young man’s failure to sexually reproduce: “I grieve such virtue should be laid in earth/Without an heir” (5.5.196–97). But in the version of the final scene where Bellario never marries, his uncannily efficacious “virtue” and allure is folded into Philaster and Arethusa’s bond instead, where it enjoys a queer form of ethical and relational generativity. The triad’s affective plenitude allows them to be generous in pardoning the court gossip who attempted to undo them with sexual slanders. In the king’s final speech, it may well be all three of their hands that are joined in one, in hopes of a world where multiple “plenteous branches spring/Wherever there is sun” (5.5.214–15).
Instrumentality is not a coherent social phenomenon, but an affective mode that appears largely to have flown under the discursive radar in the period. As a mode of group intimacy, its form exceeds the very idea of individual subjectivity, resonating more with artificial and technological forms of being. Erotic instruments function in their intimate networks as tools; they multiply and transmit desire, and in being used, they also generate desire themselves. They relay erotic energy, convert it into new forms, and send it in different directions, among subjects of various genders, along trajectories of feeling that exceed gender transgression or gender discipline. The resulting triads and other networks highlight the insufficiency of a subject-based model of sexuality to describe all the dimensions intimacy can take. Crucially, the notion of erotic instrumentality that I have developed here can itself be used; like Bellario, being used to others’ ends is its aim. It invites readers to pursue it in other texts, to spawn new metaphors for how desire works in multinodal networks, and to ask new questions about what those configurations can do, dramatically and socially. Following it through these two comedies yields some cumulative effects: a logic of instrumentality draws attention to groupings and collectivities that include some heteronormative social positions (like betrothal or marriage), acknowledging that these do not preclude participation in queerness. This insight allows us to reverse the usual framework for sexuality studies, which usually asks how nonnormative queer bonds fit within heteropatriarchal systems, and ask instead how heteroerotic bonds, like the one between Sebastian and Mary in The Roaring Girl, function as part of larger queer affective structures. Reading for an erotics of instrumentality also allows us to notice qualitatively queer valences of desire between characters who are in some sense of different sexes—as between Arethusa and Bellario, or Moll Frith and Sebastian. It also allows the female/female desires in these plays—a full-time transvestite turning out her protégée at her men’s tailor, and a passing servant boy’s performative declarations of love for his mistress—to be considered as part of the same affective systems as the masculine homoerotic and homosocial desires, like the love at first sight between a weeping shepherd boy and a handsome prince. In other words, by deemphasizing sexual difference, a notion of being used puts female, male, trans, and genderqueer desires on the same map. And it contests female queer invisibility by naming queer impulses that escape censure—like the resolution of Philaster—as both erotic and queer, keeping them from being sanitized, erased, compartmentalized, or folded into something else, like friendship.
Erotic instrumentality is an insistently material relational mode, but not one predicated on the natural body as the ultimate determinant of affiliations or roles. Objects like Bellario’s garland and Moll’s viol carry queer desire through these plays, among heterosexual pairings and gay pairings and queer triads. Attending to the erotic activities of these things problematizes the location of sexuality within the boundaries of the natural body: erotic energy lodges in prostheses and mediating technologies, figuring them, rather than human genitalia, as the salient organs of sexuality, and calling into question whether relationality and desire are necessarily moored to the human organism at all. Thus the instrumental body is qualitatively different from the social body implicated in most studies of past sexual acts and identities, and it offers a different way to think the relation between early modern embodied subjects and material objects. The body being used is neither. It becomes a differently organized, mechanical body that makes use of prosthetic objects, and becomes prosthetic in itself. We see this in the metonymic resonance between Bellario and his communications device: the newly fashioned, newly deracinated, newly male Bellario, sitting by the fountain and crying with his flower garland, an artfully made object that upon interpretation encodes a story of inordinate feeling—but not one so fixed that those who see the beautiful cipher won’t read their own feelings into it. In being used and liking it, the go-between materializes queer feelings that extend the notion of sexuality itself. In its ability to decouple intimacy from a prescribed sex, gender role, or number of partners, it bears, like “hidden love,” the potential to redefine where—and what—we do and don’t perceive desire to be.