Men Playing (at) Women: Categorical Consequences of Cross-Dressing on the Early Modern English Stage
Type of Degreedissertation
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Early modern English stage customs normalized the practice of cross-dressing boy actors to play female characters; the boys who portrayed female characters demonstrated the performativity of gender as an act that can be embodied by anyone, regardless of “true” gender identity. These performances were further fractured when the boy actors portrayed cross-dressing female characters, reflecting back to the early modern hegemony its own gender ideologies, categories, assumptions, and prescriptions. The boy actors were expected to portray both the female characters as well as the hegemonic presumption of the female perception of masculinity when those female characters crossed gender boundary lines. These performances indicated the categories within which all early modern individuals were expected to identify their own genders and sexes. The categories were not limited to the stage, however; in fact, those individuals whose genders or sexes were not easily categorized (as either masculine or feminine, or as male or female) because of physical appearance (in the case of hermaphrodites) or preference in expression (in the case of cross-dressers) were relegated to exist on the fringe of social acceptance as individuals with a gender or sex identity. In some cases, these outcasts faced cruel forms of domination by hegemonic rule, either through imprisonment or even execution, should they reject the identity and expression assigned to them. While these categories strengthened and solidified under socioreligious hegemonic heteronormativity, individual identities struggled against categorical impositions and prescribed gender performances. Cross-dressing characters in plays by Shakespeare (As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and The Merchant of Venice), Dekker and Middleton (The Roaring Girl), and Beaumont and Fletcher (Love’s Cure) indicate moments when gender and sex identities become crisis points for characters, particularly in times of sexual attraction and desire. Rigid categories continue to exist in spite of this struggle, revealing a constant crisis of comparison between one’s quest for an “authentic” identity and the socially-prescribed identity that relies upon masculine-feminine dichotomy.