Mary Bly. Queer Virgins and Virgin Queans on the Early Modern Stage. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. viii+213pp. Cloth. ISBN 0 19 818699 1.
Jim Daems
Simon Fraser University

Daems, Jim. "Review of Mary Bly, Queer Virgins and Virgin Queans on the Early Modern Stage." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 15.1-5 <URL:

  1. Mary Bly's book focuses on the First Whitefriars, or King's Revels, that was in operation from 1607-8. In particular, she examines its repertory through its puns, arguing throughout that the seven comedies and one tragedy that she discusses are, essentially, variations on a regendered, or queer, bawdy theme. Without attempting to impose a norm on an audience's response to puns, her focus on "'queer' puns that carry homoerotic resonances and speak to homoerotic desires" (2) enters into the debate on early modern sexual identity. The subversive delight of puns does not, in Bly's opinion, "produce a seventeenth-century 'homosexual,'" but does create a "self-aware homoerotic community" (5-6). The shared laughter in response to queer puns creates a sense of community in its audience, even though this fellowship is seen as lasting no longer than a matter of hours centred around the theatrical performance. While this claim adds to our understanding of early modern sexual identity, her assertion that this self-awareness also produced "a space for identification as a sodomite" (20) may well be pushing the argument a bit too far in regards to earlier work by critics such as Alan Bray and Jonathan Goldberg. However, the question she asks early in her book - "Can highlighting puns disrupt our dependence on legal, structured English as the most suitable documentation of erotic choice?" (21) - is, in large part, convincingly answered in the affirmative.

  2. Bly argues that the investors and playwrights involved with the First Whitefriars set out to capture a particular market. While she sees the plays of the repertory as having little literary merit, the similarities they share suggest syndicate control to capitalise on a successful model: "this particular enterprise needs to be viewed as a gathering of theatre entrepreneurs who, having little money or experience, deemed it possible to judge the market and produce plays to suit" (36). That audience delighted in punning transgressions which frequently regendered bawdy puns in order to highlight characters' cross-dressed status. Bly rightly recognises that her long second chapter, which sets out to demonstrate the transgressive gendering encoded in puns, moves along in a rather "unwieldy, pedantic fashion" by "measuring speeches against entries in dictionaries of early modern sexual language and imagery" (38). Many of the puns she discusses in this chapter are actually quite familiar, but Bly manages to reveal their very similar recurrence throughout the repertory of the company. Her analysis of these puns does seem to suggest an economically viable target audience for a theatre specialising in plays that consistently transgressed the gender binary and had a "concrete emphasis on homoerotic carnality" (85).

  3. In chapter four, Bly explores the Whitefriars' plays in the wider contexts of a homoerotic literary community. Revisiting familiar examples, such as Christopher Marlowe and Michael Drayton, she argues that the "persistence of certain homoerotic images in early modern literature implies that they took on the status of a cultural formation, a core image" (112). These are seen as "homoerotic icons." Bly sets about tracing the intertextuality of these icons amongst a group of writers as well as their migration onto the Whitefriars' stage: "By delineating the movement of homoerotic icons, and their leap onto the early modern stage, we glimpse the Whitefriars syndicate attempting to engage a group of readers, transforming them into a theatrical audience" (87).

  4. Finally, she brings together the focus of the previous chapters on the nature of the theatrical company, queer puns, and authorial collaboration in order to attempt to reconstruct the Whitefriars' audience. Within these cultural and erotic contexts, Bly attempts to clinch her argument that an audience for queer puns was a viable economic target for the Whitefriars' syndicate. This may well have been, and, throughout her book, Bly emphasises the fact that the company collapsed financially in a matter of months because of an inability to repay loans during a period of theatre closures due to the plague, rather than the lack of an audience for its productions. Yet, one is left wondering why, if a target audience that delighted in queer puns existed in numbers sufficient to support such a specialised repertory, no other theatre company emerged to specifically take advantage of that audience.

  5. In this light, what is only briefly discussed as one of the corollaries of Bly's argument remains problematic: "Whitefriars' material, in the repertory of a different theatre, necessarily undergoes a significant reformation. When queer puns are not a logical selling-point, they are ruthlessly effaced" (131). The plays, then, must have had other marketable aspects that existed alongside, and possibly even enhanced, the queer milieu of the Whitefriars. This may at first suggest an anxiety in regards to queer puns in the early modern period. But we are close here to imposing contemporary debates on sexual identity onto the past. Two large questions remain: why were these queer puns effaced - indeed, effaced "as a silent reproach to the Whitefriars repertory" (132) - when we can find similar puns in the work of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson? And, what happened to the Whitefriars' audience that had, for a period of several months, found a "space of identification as...sodomite[s]" and shared "knowledge and desire, theatrical and erotic" (142)?

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).