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In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, feminine homoeroticism emerges as an interplay of passive and aggressive opposition. Women take the sphere of romantic love — one sphere to which they have access in the midst of an oppressive patriarchal order and reformulate it to exclude men. Ironically, in the midst of playing out their same-sex relationships, females assume particular roles that create a pseudo-patriarchy not unlike the order they sought out to escape. Rather than divorcing themselves from the patriarchal order, the women tend to seek the security of a familiar power structure, which they find as they create it for themselves.
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In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia particularly opposes the patriarchal order in which her father and other figures of male authority dictate the terms of her marriage. She protests before the Duke, Theseus, saying,
I know not by what power I am made bold,
Nor how it may concern my modesty
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In such a presence here to plead my thoughts,
But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case
If I refuse to wed Demetrius. (MND , 1.1.59-64)
By arguing for her right to “plead [her] thoughts” before an assembly of men, imposes upon a male-dominated sphere with her rhetorical argument; she transgresses the boundaries that society imposes on her as a woman. As she compromises her modesty and her femininity, stands in the presence of the Duke and negotiates her own marriage before patriarchal authorities, she reflects the very rebellious nature that would allow her to subvert the heterosexual order through the enactment of feminine homoeroticism.
Erotic images of Hermia and Helena’s relationship occur in Helena’s recollections of their past interactions. She addresses Hermia, saying,
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key
As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds
Had been incorporate. So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry: seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem. (MND, 3.2.204-212)
The references to the flower and berries introduce the ideas of life and regeneration emerging from their close interaction. Everything from their physical bodies, to their voices and minds fuse together, as if to make up for the one sexual fusion that cannot occur between two females. Since same sex intercourse will never yield the reproductive power of the intercourse between a man and woman, the prolific imagery compensates for the barrenness resulting from homoerotic intercourse. The “double cherry: seeming parted, But yet an union in partition” and the “two berries moulded on one stem” create several erotic possibilities. The split yet united nature of the fruits, as well as the color, could refer to their lips or, more erotically, to their genitalia, reinforcing the sexually charged nature of Hermia and Helena’s relationship. Jessica Tvordi cites this passage to acknowledge the homoerotic innuendos at work, saying that their relations “are described with language that is emotionally and erotically charged.” Tvordi also refers to the use of the words “head” and “nest” as slang for female genitalia. Given this knowledge, the association of Hermia and Helena to birds (“warbling of one song”) sexualizes their interactions by centering them around the female genitalia.
The eroticized descriptions of Hermia and Helena’s relationship refer to the past, before the women entered the forest. Upon entering the forest, though, the absence of patriarchal authority drives their homoerotic relationship to develop into a pseudo-patriarchy. The same-sex relationship which depended upon the mutual oppression by men collapses in the absence of the social order. The equality between Hermia and Helena shifts into a hierarchy in which Hermia assumes the role of the pseudo-male and Helena that of the wronged female.
Hermia’s attempted subversion results in a new structure of relationships resembling the heterosexual order. Her boldness that empowered her rebellion translates into her assumption of the masculine role in the pseudo-patriarchy that she and Helena form.
As Demetrius’ and Lysander’s affections turn suspiciously toward Helena, she accuses Hermia of conspiring with the two men. She says,
And will you rend our ancient love asunder,
To join with men in scorning your poor friend?
It is not friendly, ’tis not maidenly.
Our sex as well as I may chide you for it,
Though I alone do feel the injury. (MND, 3.2.116-220)
Helena’s accusations substantiate the role that Hermia plays in their relationship; in Helena’s eyes (and thus in their pseudo-patriarchy), Hermia joins with a “confederacy” of men out to objectify and degrade females. She alienates Hermia from the entire female race, saying that their “sex … may chide [her]” for her union with men. Along with her statement that Hermia’s scorn of Helena is “not maidenly,” she also asks, “Have you no modesty, no maiden shame … ?” (MND, 3.2.286). These questions appeal to the trait that Hermia willingly gave up in order to negotiate her marriage in the presence of the Duke, implying that Hermia ultimately stripped herself of her femininity. Hermia cannot claim to have “modesty” or “bashfulness” because she admitted to her boldness in the first act (1.1.59) and stated that she would resist and argue against her marriage to Demetrius no matter “how it may concern [her] modesty” (1.1.60).
With the patriarchal tendencies laden in Hermia and Helena’s supposed homoerotic relations, the women have nowhere to turn but back to the patriarchal order and their respective heterosexual couplings. The text of the play secures the restoration with an almost disturbing finality and a silencing of the women. Hermia’s last words in the entire play are in response to Demetrius’ question of whether the Duke had just bid them to follow him. Hermia responds saying, “Yea, and my father” (4.1.192). In this one line, she gives a respectful, affirmative answer to a man, she re-establishes herself as her father’s daughter, and she submits to the authority of the Duke and her father, the same two men whose authority she challenged in the opening scene of the play. Her silencing must come more extreme that Helena’s because she posed a greater threat to the patriarchal order.
The homoeroticism depicted between Titania and her votress exhibits similar movement toward pseudo-patriarchy, with Titania as the dominant male and her votress as the female. The portrayal of their relationship does not involve masculine degradation and oppression, as with Hermia and Helena, but rather patriarchal issues of progeny. To launch into the discussion of progeny in relation to feminine homoeroticism, we must look back to Theseus’ threats to Hermia at the beginning of the play. When Hermia oppose the command to marry Demetrius, Theseus warns her of the prospects of life as a nun, painting a picture of women in tight quarters, sexually frustrated and bored of their religious duties. He depicts her living “in shady cloister mewed … a barren sister all [her] life” (1.1.71-2). His portrayal of a sterile, chaste convent ironically invites questions regarding what sorts of homoerotic activities could take place in an early modern English nunnery. (Hardly an implausible notion, the subject of lesbianism among nuns actually warrants an entire book, written by Judith C. Brown, entitled Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (Erickson).)
Theseus’ threat of “withering on a virgin thorn” loses its basis if homoerotic activity were to occur within the confines of a nunnery. Hermia could technically remain a virgin while engaging in creative erotic activities with other women; she could live “a barren sister” and still have her sexual appetite fully satisfied. In fact, the notion of homoeroticism among nuns renders Theseus’ mention of barrenness irrelevant, since it displaces sexual activity outside the realm of human reproduction. Women who have chosen to consummate exclusively with those of the same sex have already accepted the reality of barrenness. This choice exercised by women challenges what Valerie Traub proposes as the issue at hand in feminine homoeroticism: that of the “upholding of marital alliance, with social and biological reproduction at its core.” (Traub, Ren, 258)
Returning to Titania, examining her and Oberon’s conflict regarding the changeling boy exemplifies a tension rooted in the instability of normative “social and biological reproduction.” Titania’s claim to the child, along with her sexually-laden description of her relationship with the votress, throws men into a precarious position. She describes their time spent together saying,
And in the spiced Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by night
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking th’embarked traders on the flood
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind
Which she with pretty and with swimming gait
Following, her womb then rich with my young squire,
Would imitate … (2.1.124-132)
The image of their sitting together gossiping resonates with the description Hermia gives of her time with Helena, when they “Upon faint primrose beds were wont to life / Emptying [their] bosoms of their counsel sweet” (1.1.215-16). Immediately following the description of their time spent together with the picture of her votress’ swelled womb implies (although quite fantastic) that her relations with Titania somehow impregnated the votress. Particularly since Titania makes no mention of the votress’ sexual relations with men yet extensively describes their relations, one cannot help but to identify Titania as the other parent of the boy.
The idea of two females sharing the parentage of a child threatens the social institution of the family, which in turn tosses the concepts of heredity and lineage out the window. Titania obliterates the biological basis for men’s role in reproduction by describing her votress’ womb as “rich with [her] young squire” (2.1.131). When she calls the child in the votress’ womb “my young squire,” she leaves no room for a male’s biological contribution to the creation of the child. Her claim to the child “render[s] [Oberon] temporarily superfluous” (Traub, Lesbian Desire, 159). Oberon must challenge Titania’s maneuver, which displaces the male from the sight of social and biological reproduction, by gaining access to the boy, assuming a paternal role for himself and engrafting the boy to the patriarchal social order. Through his “adoption” of the changeling boy, Oberon would restore the patriarchal familial structure that Titania disrupted through her homoerotic relations with her votress and her attempt to single-handedly parent the boy.
Oberon asserts his restored control over reproduction, not only in his marriage, but in the marriages of all the couples in the play, in his concluding lines. He says,
Now until the break of day
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride bed will we,
Which by us shall blessd be,
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate. (5.2.31-36)
His use of “we” confirms that he and Titania together will bless the beds of the couples, suggesting that they have plans to bless themselves as well, free of votresses, free of Titania’s diverted, homoerotic desires.
Celia similarly assumes the masculine role in the pseudo-patriarchy that she and Rosalind create; even when Rosalind takes on the male persona of Ganymede in public, Celia obviously dominates their private interactions. Celia demonstrates just as much authority over Rosalind socially, as her father, Duke Frederick, exercised in the beginning of the play. She tells Rosalind, “And truly, when [Duke Frederick] dies thou shalt be his heir, I will render thee again in affection. By mine honour I will” (AYLI, 1.2.15-17). The fact that Rosalind can only become Duke Frederick’s heir through Celia’s mediation and honor, places her under Celia’s command. Tvordi writes that Celia “impersonates her father’s authority in order to control Rosalind.” In doing so, Celia assumes a masculine air about her personality.
Celia also defies the conscripted role of women before a court of men by verbally challenging male authority. In her case, she objects to her father’s command to banish Rosalind from his kingdom. As with Hermia, this boldness within the patriarchal system translates into her claiming the authoritative role in their pseudo-patriarchy. The fact that Rosalind assumes the male role (Ganymede) and Celia that of Aliena does not displace Celia’s authority; their private interactions affirm her authority over their relationship.
In Orlando and Rosalind’s (as Ganymede) pretend marriage ceremony, Celia quiets her voice and complies to “Ganymede”‘s demand to “marry” them. While Celia expresses slight impatience in her words, “Go to,” (AYLI, 4.1.111), he does not assume her dominant role until Orlando leaves, upon which she immediately rebukes Rosalind for having “misused [their] sex in [her] love prate” (AYLI, 4.1.172). Celia’s accusation of Rosalind’s ease of affection runs consistent with her defied femininity. Rosalind’s doting offends Celia’s attempts to emerge among men as unconquered, unaffected by them. Her assumed masculinity as Ganymede also does not threaten Celia’s pseudo-patriarchal authority because Ganymede’s bold words obviously contradict Rosalind’s actions.
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