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Galatea is a play by the Elizabethan playwright John Lyly which is thought to have been very influential on the era, sparking the popularity of the cross-dressing/gender reversal themes adopted by other writers, including Shakespeare. In the play, two girls live disguised as boys in order to escape from the risk of being sacrificed to Neptune. They meet and fall in love.

At the end of the play, the goddess Venus says that she is pleased by their love for each other and will turn one of them into a boy so that they can continue to love one another in a traditional heterosexual manner. However, the girl to be thus transformed is not named and the act of transformation is never shown. The play ends instead with an epilogue to the audience.

Modern interpretations of the play have focussed on the idea that this refusal to show the conclusion is a purposeful decision not to fit into the heteronormative lifestyle that was still a legal requirement in Elizabethan England. Wikipedia has it as "a deliberate refusal of the heteronormative ending". The leader of a recent revival performance of the play described it as "explicitly queer and trans".

As much as I would like this to be true, it feels like a stretch to me. It seems just as likely that having Venus turn one of the lovers into a boy is quite the opposite: a decision to end the cross-dressing shenanigans with a reinforcement of the idea that heterosexuality is the norm. There are many reasons why the playwright might not have shown the final transformation, such as wanting to leave the perception of which character is more masculine up to the audience, for example.

So: what evidence do we have that Galatea is a deliberate attempt on the part of Lyly to challenge the sexual norms of his era? And did any audiences at the time take it that way and, if so, how did they react to this provocation?

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  • This question makes the assumption that all spectators reacted to Lyly's play the same way. It seems very likely to me that straight spectators viewed the play one way and LGBTQ spectators another way, and that furthermore, Lyly may have intended this. (And since we probably aren't going to find any evidence for how LGBTQ spectators perceived it, any answers are gong to be incomplete.)
    – Peter Shor
    Apr 17, 2023 at 12:03

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