chapter  5
17 Pages

Eunuchs, Mutes, and the Performance of Anxiety in Orientalist Plays

WithBeth Cortese

The eunuch, popularized through England’s introduction to the Italian castrati in opera, became a figure of fascination onto which sexual and political anxieties were projected in late seventeenth-century tragedy. This chapter argues that the verbally castrated mute and the sexually castrated eunuch in tragedies with Eastern characters and settings are portrayed as unsettling in Western drama because they symbolize a threat to the Symbolic Order of masculine control. This chapter will explore the representation of eunuchs and mutes as monstrous images of emasculation, which threaten patriarchal power structures in William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride (1697) and as an alternative feminized community in Mary Pix’s Ibrahim (1695). The sign language used by mutes in the Ottoman court is depicted as a confusion of sign and signifier within Congreve’s tragedy The Mourning Bride (1697), which threatens patriarchal order. Through analysis of the dialogue song between a virgin and eunuch in Ibrahim, I argue that Pix’s preoccupation with castration through spectacle is part of a wider anxiety about the visual and musical language of European opera. The chapter broadens the interpretation of castration to consider how scenes depicting bodily gestures employed by mutes, eunuchs, and female characters generate a sense of powerlessness within masculine subjects onstage, performing a kind of castration.