Déesse ex machina: Sex changes in Benserade's Iphis et Iante (1634)

Benserade’s play features both a literal god(dess), Isis, and a metaphorical monster, in the heroine Iphis’s transgressive, ‘contre-nature’ love for another woman. In my paper, I explore how forces within and outside Benserade’s work operate to neutralise the sexual transgression of the heroine. Although Iphis’s upbringing, disguised as a male, might be expected at least to have influenced her sexuality, her love for Iante is throughout the play figured as unexpected and ‘prodigious’. Indeed, it takes a second transgression of nature, in the arrival of the (supernatural) goddess Isis, to reinscribe the heroine into the ‘natural’ order; in the final scene of the play, Iphis is magically transformed into a man on stage. I situate the play briefly within a number of 17th-century discourses, including medical writings on sex change, and ‘moralised’ translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (from which Benserade’s plot is drawn). Such discourses tend to displace the taboo of homosexuality which gender subversion often infringes. Arguing that the stock marriage conclusion to comedies serves a heterosexual imperative, I argue that even Benserade’s sympathetic stance towards female homosexuality is paradoxically necessitated by theatrical convention. Iphis’s unwitting bride Iante is obliged to remain in love with her ‘husband’ - even after discovering ‘him’ to be a woman - so that their marriage can be retroactively validated in the final scene to provide closure. Finally, figuring the ‘prodigy’ as an excess that defies and disrupts both the natural and the divine orders, I explore how Benserade’s play pits different conceptions of this ‘prodigy’ against each other. The play stages a number of different responses to Iphis’s love for Iante, ranging from blindness to uncomprehending laughter, from condemnation to tolerance. The variety of stances adopted, I shall argue, demonstrates how the ‘unnatural’, whether cultural, ‘contre-nature’, or supernatural, was a fraught concept in the early modern French mind.

Joe Harris
Symposium Title: 
Gods, Men and Monsters – 2001
Author affiliation: 
Department of French, Trinity Hall, Cambridge, UK