While the Ovidian erotic narrative tradition is the hotbed of lovely lad androgyny, the pastoral prose romance tradition is the hotbed of sexual ambiguity arising from literal transvestism. In the most influential prose romance, Sir Philip Sidney's intermittent historiology The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (1590), the two faithful friends Musidorus and Pyrocles encounter numerous Marlovian "maids in men's attire" in their search for one another.
Musidorus finally comes upon a young Amazon named Zelmane, only to discover that "she" is really Pyrocles in disguise. Pyrocles-alias-Zelmane wears a jewelled adornment depicting Hercules as a maid working Omphale's distaff. Musidorus's amazement is compared to Apollo's wonder at seeing Daphne metamorphosed into a laurel tree. According to Musidorus, man is equivalent to reason and woman is equivalent to the bodily senses, and therefore to love a woman is to become sensual and "womanish"; to love a man is manly and virtuous, and to love an idea is philosophic. He accordingly calls Pyrocles "the Ill-Apparraled Knight," and accuses him of being womanish and childish:
the effeminate love of a woman doth so womanish a man, that (if he yeeld to it) it will not onely make him an Amazon; but a launder, a distaff-spinner.The Renaissance conception of the cause of "effeminacy" was in some respects the opposite of our own. But Pyrocles stubbornly defends women and his love of them, and asserts that his counterfeiting an Amazon fulfills his honourable service in the religion of love. He argues so vehemently that he faints.
Musidorus repents his harsh words, and kisses away the tears of his weeping friend. Pyrocles revives and agrees to love only virtue henceforth, and they renew their pledge of friendship. All of this comes to naught when later, according to the formula of the conventional pastoral romance, Musidorus himself falls in love with a woman.
Sidney is fond of sexually ambiguous disguises, and they occur frequently in his romance. The real Amazon Zelmane herself dresses as "a yong Gentleman," and is accompanied by her maidservant Adromanas, who is "apparrelled . . . like a Page." To confuse matters still further, Zelmane adopts the name "Daiphantus," the same alias used by Pyrocles. Whenever "Daiphantus" appears in the narrative, the less-than-vigilant reader cannot remember if (s)he is a male or a female, and all the actions in which (s)he participates become sexually ambiguous.
There are also several characters of the beautiful boy variety, such as Lalus:
there comes into the place where they ranne, a shepheard stripling . . . very lovely withall . . . perfectly proportioned . . . doing all things with so pretie graceor Agenor, "whose face as yet did not bewray his sex, with so much as shew of haire." In spite of all this ambiguity, there is only one homosexual allusion in all of the Arcadia. Basilus,
fearing his wife were not fully asleepe, . . . came lifting up the cloathes, as gently as (I thinke) poore Pan did, when, instead of Ioles bedde, he came into the rough imbracings of Hercules: and laying himself downe, as tenderly as a new Bride, rested a while with a very open eare, to marke each breath of his supposed wife.This allusion to Hercules' homoerotic tastes is made more explicit in "The Lady of May" lyric which was appended to the 1598 edition of the Arcadia:
Sidney's transvestites are modeled upon numerous sources, some of them classical, but most of them contemporary. The three best- known classical legends concerned three of the most virile men, Hercules, Theseus, and Achilles. According to the ancient tale, Hermes once sold Hercules to Omphale for her slave. She lavished him with diamond necklaces, golden bracelets, a silver girdle, a purple shawl, a yellow petticoat, and a green turban from which peeped forth his curly perfumed locks. She in turn wore his armour and his lion's pelt. Whenever he missed a stitch in sewing, she slapped him with a golden slipper. One night Pan the satyr sneaked into their tent, having in mind a pleasant tryst with Omphale. But in the darkness he could not distinguish between the figures on the two beds, until his fumbling fingers came upon the sleeper clad in silk. Trembling in anticipation, he crept in beside Hercules, and began unlacing his girdle. He reached down to the hairy loins and discovered his mistake, whereupon Hercules awoke and kicked him across the room, while Omphale, now also awakened, laughed uproariously. Pan, mortified as well as bruised, departed ruefully and began spreading the rumour that Hercules' exchange of garments with Omphale was more habitual than whimsical, and no doubt perverted. The story is told by numerous authors, the most readily available being Ovid.
The anonymous poet of the Cyprian Lays, Bion in his Epithalamium of Achilles and Deidemia, and Statius in his Achilleid tell of a transvestite episode in Achilles' adolescence that was omitted by Homer, but known to all the Renaissance poets. Achilles apparently disguised himself as a woman in order to enter a type of convent at Scyros, and there win the love of Deidemia. With his "hands as white as any maiden's," "white and red blook upon the cheeks," "mincing gait," and "maiden tresses filleted," he was "a tender maiden fair to see."
The transvestite appealed to the Renaissance imagination as much as the beautiful boy. In Sidney's immediate model, Montemayor's Diana Enamorada (1542-1559), the shepherdess Felismena follows her lover Don Felix disguised as his page, a motif that abounds in medieval French literature, as in the Tres chevalleureux Comte d'Artois. In another model, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516), Rogero in his pursuit of Alcyna becomes "effeminate":
About his necke a carknet rich he ware,The allusion is probably to the Jesuit school of Valence, believed to be a hotbed of sodomy.
In the 1584 edition of the popular song-book A Handefull of Pleasant delites we find the story of Narcissus reinterpreted as a tale of a transvestite. Both the author and title of the poem are unknown, for the title page is missing from the unique copy. He is a bit of a country bumpkin:
I read of manie a woman faire,Thomas Lodge in Rosalynde (1590) brought transvestite shape-shifting to new heights. Alinda and Rosalynd, whose parents thwart her love of men of low estate, decide to leave home:
Cheerelie woman, as we have been bedfellowes in royaltie, we will be fellowe mates in povertie: I will ever bee thy ALINDA, and thou shalt ever rest to me ROSALYND: so shall the world canonize our friendship, and speake of ROSALYND and ALINDA, as they did of PILADES and ORESTES.They decide that it would be unseemly (and dangerous) for two maidens to wander without the company of a man, so Rosalynd offers a suggestion:
I (thou seest) am of a tall stature, and would very well become the person and aparell of a page, thou shalt bee my Mistris, and I will play the man so properly, that (trust me) in what company so ever I come I will not bee discovered; I will buy me a suite, and have my rapier very handsomely at my side, and if any knave offer wrong, your page wil shew him the point of his weapon.Rosalynd accordingly adopts the appropriate name of "Ganymede." After exhausting the ironic possibilities of their being disguised as mistress and page, the two girls set out to exhaust the possibilities of sexual innuendo by disguising themselves as shepherd and shepherd's swain. They meet Rosader, lover of Rosalynd, who sings a song in honour of her beauty. Rosalynd-alias-Ganymede protests that men can be beautiful also:
if boyes might put on their garments, perhaps they would proove as comely; if not as comely, it may be more curteous.Then Rosalynd, still disguised as Ganymede, takes the part of Rosalynd in a singing match with Rosader:
How now Forrester, have I not filled your turn? have I not plaide the woman handsomely, and showed myselfe as coy in graunts, as courteous in desires, and been as full of suspition, as men of flatterie.Rosader agrees, and suggests a transvestite mock marriage ceremony:
And thereupon (quoth ALIENA) Ile play the priest, from this day forth GANIMEDE shall call thee husband, and thou shalt call GANIMEDE wife, and so weele have a marriage. Content (quote ROSADER) and laught. Content (quote GANIMEDE) and changed as redde as a rose: and so with a smile and a blush, they made up this jesting match, that after proved to be a marriage in earnest.Rosalynd as Ganimede is the formosus puer beloved by Phoebe:
PHOEBE all this while gazed on the perfection of GANIMEDE, as deeplie enamoured on his perfection, as MONTANUS inveigled with hers: for her eye made survey of his excellent feature, which she found so rare, that she thought the ghost of ADONIS had been leapt from ELIZIUM in the shame of a Swaine.Ganimede is described as "the amorous Girle-boye", and Phoebe dreams of him:
As she lay in her bed, she called to minde the severall beauties of yong GANIMED, first his locks, which being amber hued, passeth the wreathe that PHOEBUS puts on to make his front [forehead] glorious; his browe of yvorie, . . . his eyes as bright as the burnishing of the heaven . . . in his cheekes the vermilion teinture of the Rose flourished upon naturall Alabaser, the blush of the Morne and LUNAES silver showe were solively portrayed, that the TROJAN that fills out wine to JUPITER was not halfe so beautiful.One indeed suspects that Phoebe is really Phoebus in woman's guise. Rosalind's final transformation, when she reappears as a woman, is as "DIANA triumphing in the Forrest," whereupon all couples are heterosexually married. But the homoerotic ambiance is undeniable.
In spite of Spenser's criticism of "that lothly uncouth sight, /Of men disguiz'd in womanishe attire" (Faerie Queene, 5.7.37); or Barnaby Rich's reference to the Bible:
The woman shall not weare that which apperteineth to the man, neither shall a man put on womans rayment: for all that doeso, are abomination to the Lord thy God. (My Ladies Looking Glasse, 1616; the reference is to Deuteronomy, 22.5)or the Puritan's attack on the vicious habits resulting from boys playing the roles of women on the Elizabethan stage - in spite of all this, Renaissance poets delighted in portraying the transvestite in almost every imaginative literary genre.
Robert Greene's rather innocent and playful introduction of a woman disguised as a page in his play Friar Bacon & Friar Bungay (1589) would go through various stages of development until we come upon Margery disguised as a boy loved by the libertine Jack Horner in Wycherley's Country Wife (1675), but the overt homosexual implcations of the latter merely point up the latent homoeroticism of its precendents.
Shakespeare in As You Like It (1590) directly imitated Lodge's Rosalynde, expanded all of its homosexual implications, and added the significant dimension that the woman disguised as a boy was in fact a boy playing the part of a woman. The Elizabethan audience, in spite of the modern view that they complacently accepted this stage convention without a chuckle or a raise of the eyebrows, would be fully aware that the boy upon the stage was in this instance playing his real self as a boyfriend of another actor. In the Epilogue, when Rosalynd makes his/her curtain call, Shakespeare plays upon the awareness of this fact by the male members of the audience:
If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not. And I am sure as many as have good beards or good faces or sweet breaths will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy bid me farewell.In As You Like It, Lodge's Rosalynd remains Rosalind, Alinda becomes Celio, Rosader becomes Orlando, Phoebe becomes Phebe, and Montanus becomes Sylvius. The implied lesbian relationship between Rosalynd and Alinda is expanded. Lodge pictures Rosalynd and Alinda as two faithful friends, similar to Pylades and Orestes, and "bedfellowes in royalty"; Shakespeare shows Rosalind and Celia as one soul in bodies twain, with "the love / Which teacheth thee that thou and I am one." But their love surpasses even Renaissance friendship, and Celia addresses Rosalind as an infatuated lover: "I pray thee, Rosalind, sweet my coz, be merry"; "Herein I see thou lovest me not with the full weight that I love thee"; "Therefore, my sweet Rose, my dear Rose, be merry"; "Shall we part, sweet girl?"; "Why, how now, Ganymede! Sweet Ganymede!" Celia says of herself and Rosalind, "We still have slept together, / Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together, / And whereso'er we went, like Juno's swans, / Still we went coupled and inseparable." And the courtier Le Beau observes that their "loves / Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters."
Rosalind in her disguise - which would really be the boy-actor without a disguise - is a "pretty youth", a "Fair youth", a "Sweet youth", "effeminate." (S)he chooses to be called "young Master Ganymede" specifically because of its mythical connotations: "I'll have no worse a name than Jove's own page." The name of Jove is ever upon his/her lips: "Jove, Jove! This shepherd's passion / Is much upon my fashion." (S)he even alludes to the erotic metaphor of the acorn as the glans penis, when Celia says she found Orlando "under a tree, like a dropped acorn," and Rosalind replies "It may well be called Jove's tree when it drops forth such fruit."
When Orlando meets Rosalind disguised as Ganymede and tells him/her of his incurable love for Rosalind, (s)he offers to cure it, and tells a tale according to which the boy Ganymede was once loved by a man who treated him as his mistress:
He was to imagine me his love, his mistress, and I set him every day to woo me. At which time would I, being but a moonish youth, grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles, for every passion something and for no passion truly anything, as boys and women are for the most part cattle ofhis color. Would now like him, now loathe him; then entertain him, then forswear him; now weep for him, then spit at him; that I drave my suitor from his mad humor of love to a living humor of madness, which was to foswear the full stream of the world and to live in a nook merely monastic.This boy-actor, playing the part of a girl disguised as a boy, telling of his past homosexual adventures, blatantly solicits the favours of Orlando: "I would cure you if you would but call me Rosalind and come every day to my cote and woo me." Orlando, to the amazement of a modern audience and the chuckle of an Elizabethan audience, agrees, and follows him/her into the forest to play their sport.
Within the area of apparent androgyny, rather than literal transvestism, perhaps the finest example is the addressee of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1609), Master W.H., the Muse in boy's attire.
Copyright 1974, 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights
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