Ask people what they know about the theatre in Shakespeare’s day, and one of the first comments you are likely to get is that all the female roles were played by boys. This may be accompanied by a certain amount of sniggering at the thought that, for Shakespeare’s audiences, the beautiful Juliet or Cleopatra was actually “a boy in a dress.” This, however, would be to impose modern ideas of cross-dressing onto an early modern audience. Equally, the words “homosexual” and “transgender” were not known in Shakespeare’s day. Obviously people still had same-sex relationships at the time, and people still cross-dressed for a variety of reasons. But to understand what Shakespeare’s audiences made of all this gender play, we first must think about what gender meant at the time.
The first thing to note is that the country had been through a period of increasing prosperity and international influence, under the steady rule of a much-beloved Queen. This is something that would have been unthinkable mere generations before, and it must have had some effect on the collective self-confidence of English manhood.
In addition, fashions were changing. When we think of powerful Tudor men, we think of Henry VIII in Holbein’s portrait, his legs wide apart and showing off a fine codpiece. Or the raffish piratical looks of Drake and his colleagues. When we think of 17th-century fashions our thoughts are more likely to turn to Charles II or Louis XIV with their splendid wigs, fountains of lace, and even high-heeled shoes. Even at the start of the century, male power dressing was starting to look ornate. Something was going on.
Women’s fashions were also changing. In 1620 James I ordered preachers in London to speak forth upon the abominable practice of women dressing mannishly in the streets. This was still a period when sumptuary laws, at least in theory, regulated not only what clothes men and women were allowed to wear, but what fabrics they could be made from.
Gender, then, was a matter of deep social concern, which writers could hardly ignore. Literature had been under attack for some time. Moralising writers such as Stephen Gosson and Philip Stubbes complained about the effeminizing effect of boys playing women on stage. The Calvinist preacher, John King, whom James I later made Bishop of London, complained, “…instead of the writings of Moses and the prophets… now we have Arcadia and The Faëry Queene”.
King is referring to two of the foremost literary works of Elizabeth I’s reign: The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, and The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. Like much of the theatre of the day, they feature cross-dressing plots.
A major character in The Faerie Queene is a female knight called Britomart. She falls in love with a knight called Artegal, but he vanishes and she spends much time searching for him. Artegal has been captured by the Amazon Queen, Radigund. He and several other knights have been imprisoned, forced to dress as women, and put to work weaving. Britomart rescues them, and in rather unsisterly fashion chastises the Amazons, telling them to go back to more womanly pursuits.
Arcadia features an unlikely love quadrangle. Our hero, Pyrocles, falls in love with the beautiful Philoclea. To get close to her, he disguises himself as an Amazon. Philoclea’s father, Basilius, is smitten by the courageous warrior woman and desperately wants her. His wife, Gynecia, is convinced that the Amazon is a man in disguise and is also overcome with lust. Meanwhile Philoclea cannot decide which of her parents is correct, but she finds the gender ambiguity of her new friend exceedingly sexy. So here we have a cross-dressed character who is the object of three people’s desire, one of whom sees a woman, one of whom sees a man, and one of whom sees a genderqueer person.
The Faerie Queene and Arcadia are both epic poetry where suspension of disbelief relies solely on the words and the mind of the reader. Theatre, on the other hand, requires a performance. The actor, and a very young actor at that, must convince the audience of his femininity. Young boys were used for their physical advantages. Compared to adults they would have higher voices, less facial hair, and probably less of a beer gut. But did the audience buy into the performance, accepting the unreality of it as convention, or did they demand to be convinced?
There are some roles where comedy is clearly the order of the day. When Falstaff dresses as a woman in The Merry Wives of Windsor we immediately recognise the man-in-a-dress character that is still a staple of modern comedy. Other characters perhaps make use of the gender ambiguity of the young actors, in particular the fairies. Ariel in The Tempest is often compared by others to female characters (a harpy, a nymph, the goddess Ceres), but at one point also self-genders thus: “To thy strong bidding task Ariel and all his quality” (my emphasis). Is Ariel identifying as male? Is Shakespeare using a male pronoun because he’s not familiar with the concept of non-binary? We don’t know. But fairies are definitely a bit queer.
Where things get really confusing is where we have plays that dive deeply into gender and sexual politics. We have plays in which boys disguise themselves as girls in order to marry rich old men. We have a play in which boys play girls who disguise themselves as boys and fall in love with each other, each thinking the other is really a boy. What did the audience make of this? And what about the players?
Shakespeare’s own sexual interests are now fairly well studied and are seemingly not purely heterosexual. Other theatre men of the time were doubtless similar. And what of the boys? Were they desperate to graduate to male roles, or did they perhaps carry over some of their stage femininity into their private lives? We know who many of these players were, and academics are starting to research their lives.
Cheryl will discuss more about gender play on the Shakespearean stage in her presentation for OUTing the Past Festival, on 17th February. For information on this talk and how to book your tickets, click here.
Cheryl Morgan (she/her) studies the lives of trans people in history. She has written for venues such as Notches, History Matters, and the CUCD Bulletin. Her work has also appeared in Introduction to Transgender Studies (Ardel Haefele-Thomas) and the SAGE Encyclopedia of Trans Studies (Abbie E Goldberg & Genny Beemyn). She is a regular speaker on the LGBT+ History Month circuit.