Eunuchs in London Theatre


Anne Greenfield


As this article shows, in the decades surrounding the turn of the eighteenth century, there emerged a corpus of at least twenty-four productions featuring eunuchs, most of which were set in Turkish, Persian, or Indian royal courts. While the sheer frequency of these Orientalist eunuch depictions is notable, even more striking is the versatility and complexity with which dramatists constructed these characters. Unlike some of the other “stock” characters found in these Orientalist productions—like mutes or janissaries who come on stage as icons of execution and war (respectively)—eunuchs were represented quite variously. These plays feature eunuchs who were powerful military generals, spiteful schemers, loyal confidants, pitiful sex objects, and more. Not only were eunuchoid characters represented in strikingly diverse ways in scripts, but these roles were also played by a heterogeneous group of actors and even actresses. And even though responses to these characters sometimes overlapped with and echoed responses to other castrated men in art (most commonly, Italian castrati), these characters were also powerfully shaped and understood in light of their Orientalist settings and contexts. This analysis of eunuchs on the London stage not only underscores how better to interpret this substantial body of plays, but more importantly it calls attention to the unique ways the English public delighted in, understood, and responded to these sexual and geographical Others—when onstage.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.