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First Paragraph (in Lieu of an Abstract):
Famously, in the climactic moment of the puppet play within Ben Jonson’s Bartholmew Fair, the puppet Dionysius hikes up his skirt to reveal his lack of genitalia, proving by “plain demonstration” (5. 5. 96) a verity of his fellow performing objects: “we have neither male nor female amongst us” (93-4). Thus the Puritans’ “old stale argument against the players”—that their cross-dressing makes abominations of them—is answered (92). Playing to a Puritan assumption of continuity between biological sex and gender, Dionysius appeals to his essential sexlessness to exculpate himself from the charge of gender transgression. Laura Levine argues that, in addition to casting doubt on assumptions about sex and gender, Dionysius’s anatomical incorrectness entails a foreclosure of erotic experience: “The puppet presents a world devoid not only of sexual difference but of the very possibility of erotic experience itself.”2 She makes explicit a presumed continuity between genitally determined sex and erotic acts and gestures: “The puppet cannot be implicated in the world of sexuality, not because he is superior to it but simply because he lacks the equipment. He stands outside the world of erotic desire not because he is able to resist its temptations but simply because he lacks the capacity to perform its actions” (emphases mine, 100).3 The too easy conflation of the erotic and sexual here implies that copulative consummation is the orbit of erotic experience. Far from confirming such a notion, the puppet theater opens up possibilities of erotic experience that not only do not require genital gratification, but also do not proceed from a sexed body. The puppet—or performing object (as current discourse calls it), or motion (as the Renaissance called it)—offers an alternative conception of eroticism free from anatomic and copulative sex. Lacking the equipment does not mean the puppet lacks the capacity. As one puppet performance of a Shakespearean text has demonstrated, the very lack of bodily equipment can contribute to a puppet’s performance of erotic action.