“Our ancestors seem to have been wonderfully delighted with these transformations of sex.”
“The character of Bellario [in John Fletcher’s Philaster] must have been extremely popular in its day. For many years after the date of Philaster’s first exhibition on the stage, scarce a play can be found without one of these women-pages in it, following in the train of some pre-engaged lover, calling on the gods to bless her happy rival (his mistress), whom no doubt she secretly curses in her heart, giving rise to many pretty équivoques by the way on the confusion of sex, and either made happy at last by some surprising turn of fate, or dismissed with the joint pity of the lovers and the audience. Our ancestors seem to have been wonderfully delighted with these transformations of sex. Women’s parts were then acted by young men. What an odd double confusion it must have made, to see [in Philaster] a boy play a woman playing a man! One cannot disentangle the perplexity without some violence to the imagination. Donne has a copy of verses to his mistress, dissuading her from a resolution, which she seems to have taken up from some of these scenical representations, of following him abroad as a page. It is so earnest, so weighty, so rich in poetry, in sense, in wit, and pathos, that it deserves to be read as a solemn close in future to all such sickly fancies as he there deprecates. The story of his romantic and unfortunate marriage with the daughter of Sir George Moore, the lady here supposed to be addressed, may be read in Walton’s Lives.”
N.B.: In the scene Lamb has in view, Bellario, who had been masquerading as a boy page, is discovered to be a woman, and confesses the motive for her disguise to have been love for Prince Philaster. In the first comment below, you will find both the poem by John Donne here referred to, and the passage from Walton’s Lives.