Friday, February 05, 2010

Michael Shapiro, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage; Boy Heroines and Female Pages

Michael Shapiro, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage; Boy Heroines and Female Pages, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor

On June 3, 1611, Arabella Stuart escaped form “house arrest” to run off to the continent with William Seymour, the man she had secretly married against King James’s wishes nearly a year before… In donning male apparel to be with her fiancé, she was imitating countless heroines of the epics, romances, novelle, and plays surveyed in appendix A. Because of the romantic or literary quality of her cross-dressing, as well as her high social position, she differed from most of the women who donned male apparel in early modern England. (15)

At the other end of the social scale, lower-class women were accused of cross-dressing, rightly or not, in order to conceal their identities while they conducted illicit sexual liaisons. … Sexual behavior fell within the jurisdiction of these two courts and included cases running the gamut “from occasional fornication to the habitual fornication of professional vice,” making no distinction between prostitution, adultery, and extramarital sex. … cross-dressing as a sign of involvement in punishable sexual offenses. (16)

The policing of sexual behavior in London became more intense after about the middle of the sixteenth century. In medieval London, as elsewhere in Europe, prostitution had been a legal and hence regulated activity. … After the Reformation, and the alarming spread of venereal disease, London magistrates evidently prosecuted prostitutes with particular rigor, poor freelance streetwalkers more often than women who worked in the well-established brothels beyond municipal jurisdiction. How many of the former dressed as men or boys we cannot say, but from discussions of prostitution in early modern London, one would conclude that female cross-dressing was not a common practice. (16)

The immediate purpose of male apparel in these cases was temporary concealment of identity, that is, total disguise. Prostitutes seeking customers, maidservants slipping off to meet lovers, women delivering love letters, and others who wished to remain unrecognized for whatever purposes dressed as men in order to move about the city without being detected. (18)

Dekker and van de Pol note instances of Dutch prostitutes adopting male attire as a kind of “erotic masquerade” and record a few isolated cases of cross-dressed prostitutes, but they maintain that women who escaped poverty by cross-dressing took up male apparel as an alternative to prostitution. (19)

The London courts regarded female cross-dressing as a manifestation of women’s illicit sexual behavior, but the Dutch evidence demonstrates that women who cross-dressed were not usually prostitutes but adopted male apparel in order to go unrecognized as women for very specific purposes of their own. To curtail such independence, the London courts labeled all female cross-dressers as whores, itself a form of punishment, and sentenced them as they did those truly guilty of sexual misdemeanors. (20)

…group of women, economically more secure than those who appeared before the courts, would adopt sartorial makers of gender expressly to challenge conventional attitudes towards women. Sometime shortly after the accession of James, a number of women began wearing selected articles of male attire, such as feathered hats and doublets and real or ornamental swords. Unlike the women in Dutch of London court cases, these Jacobean women made no effort to pass as men or boys. (21)

Whereas women were earlier accused of dressing as men to conceal illicit sexual relation with men, the women castigated in Hic Mulier were accused of suing male attire to usurp male prerogatives, including but not exclusively sexual ones. If covert cross-gender disguise under-minded the moral basis of society, overt cross-dressing disrupted its stable hierarchical form. (23)

Indeed, most of the plays involving heroines in male disguise take a positively sympathetic view of cross-dressing. They usually present it as a stratagem used by wives and girlfriends to follow or rejoin the men they love. In many such plays, the link between cross-dressing and illicit sexuality is usually articulated by curmudgeonly parents and their surrogates, who fail to see the heroine’s male disguise as a sign of devotion and fidelity. In other plays illicit sexuality is ascribed to men, as when heroines put on male apparel during travel as protection against predatory male sexual desire, what Julia refers to as “the loose encounters of lascivious men.” Even the link between prostitution and female cross-dressing, assumed by the London magistrates, is suppressed on the stage: of the many plays including characters who are prostitutes, I know of only a handful in which such women wear male apparel. (24)

There is far less evidence of male cross-dressing in the early modern period than there is of women wearing male apparel, either in literature or in life. (29)

Male cross-dressing could be tolerated, permitted, or only mildly punished if licensed as festal rite, but as a habitual practice it was taboo, virtually unthinkable, even if covertly practiced. The mind-set is revealed in the comment on berdaches made by an English voyager to Africa: “They are beastly in their living for they have men in women’s apparel, whom they keep among their wives”. (30)

In these folkloric forms, more common in English villages than in cities or towns, boys or young men dressed as women on specific occasions sanctioned by local custom and often by local authorities. Their intentions were not to pass as women but to entertain both men and women, to engage in traditional rites, and to reinforce social norms, often by representing scolds, shrews, and adulteresses, the culture’s most blatant female stereotypes. Where the artificial woman was not a negative stereotype, such occasions may also have permitted the expression of otherwise impermissible homoerotic impulses. / Plays performed under academic auspices resemble such folkloric forms in that they were frequently associated with seasonal revelry or with entertainment provided for visiting dignitaries. Cross-dressing associated with such occasions was therefore limited in duration, framed by social custom, and approved by institutional authorities. The records of dramatic activity at Cambridge, for example, complete with inventories of female clothing for use as costumes, indicate a long tradition of young men temporarily dressing as women for such purposes. (30)

Lisa Jardine overstates the case, I believe, in arguing that homoerotic attraction was the primary source of the appeal of boy actresses, in or out of male disguise. [Still Harping, 9-36] (39)


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