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“When I Acted Young Antinous”: Boy Actors and the Erotics of Jonsonian Theater

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Critics of sex and gender in Tudor-Stuart theater generally subordinate the polymorphic eroticism of Jonson' plays to the rigor of his finales. But his meantimes and endings are dialectically intervolved. Delay, embodied in boy actors, is vital to his dramaturgy. For example, wooing Celia, Volpone imagines that he is playing young Antinous, retarding phallic threat with feminized display. In Volpone's deferrals and sartorial excitements, early modern spectators beheld a pattern of their own pleasures, in which sexual and social lusts commingled. Proposing that Jonson was more flexible than many have supposed, I analyze the convergence of homo- and heteroerotic desire on the figure of the pretty youth. Arguing that Epicoene's versatile appeal illuminates the charms of boy actors, I suggest that female spectators may have enjoyed boys, and the female roles the boys performed, without disturbing men's territorial enjoyments. In this way boy actors were crucial to the construction of an erotic community in the playhouse.

Research Article
PMLA , Volume 110 , Issue 5 , October 1995 , pp. 1006 - 1022
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 1995

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