Due to the fact that women at the time were forbidden from being in public settings, which supposedly rendered her vulnerable, women were of course forbidden from the most public setting of all: the theater stage. However, that didn’t stop playwrights from making plays the included women. But who on earth could fill such a role?? The answer:
or Young Men.
According to Katie Normington, “the boy actor demonstrates femaleness as he passes through puberty in order to establish manhood. The display of such pubescence has been thought to incite a
homoerotic response in the audience…”
Yep things just got a little more interesting…
So, for people living in early modern England, the very notion of sexuality was brought to light and challenged due to cross-dressing on stage. The boy actor, since he has not reached puberty, had an androgynous look. And, when you put him in female clothing to the, as Sedinger puts,“ignorant spectator”, he would be perceived as being female (Sedinger 63). It would then be then for that boy actor to be liable to erotic interest which hovers somewhere “between the heterosexual and the homosexual around his female attire” (Normington 63).
The Undressing Boy Actor
Then there comes the interest in what lies beneath, hidden from the eye that could bring more potential arousal in the male spectators. The boy actors, while playing females, did undress in directed play. But before you get you mind in the gutter— “The boy actor doesn’t undress, or at least, doesn’t undress to the point of disturbing the illusion,” but are still asked to personify the boy as the woman he’s playing (Jones and Stallybrass). Imagining the woman’s body may be even more erotic than actually seeing it. But it still begs the question of exactly what was felt/imagined by the male spectators?
In actuality, it’s hard to pinpoint how exactly the male spectators felt (those juicy diary entries are hard to obtain) . It’s easy to know what the critics felt with anti-thetricalists saying :
“ It is through the boy’s use of women’s dress that he becomes a potential object of sodomitical enjoyment: the spectator, aroused by appearance, will transfer or translate the remembrance of a woman onto the body of the boy-actor. Sodomitical “uncleanness” is produced when an image of a woman is conjoined with the immediate perception of the male body.” (Sedinger 69)
For some reason, critics directly conjoined the possibility of homosexual desire with sodomy. Even though the very words “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” are modern labels, the possibility of the men having non-heterosexual desires arose from already present sexual fluidity. Perhaps these men were disturbed as to how a boy actor brought theses feelings out? Sedinger defines the “controversy” when she writes,
“The boy-actor, as object of desire and as object of knowledge, challenges the positivist regime of truth and appearance upon which rests the definition of the spectator’s sexuality via object choice. The spectator’s erotic relation to the cross-dresser moves beyond having and being, which presume a stable object preceding desire and identification; the cross-dresser thus ruptures an epidemiological/ libidinal nexus that defines sexuality via object choice and produces the modern dichotomy between homo- and heterosexuality.”(Sedinger 66)
The truth of the matter is, sexuality is a very complicated aspect of human beings. Although, one may believe that there are only attracted to a certain gender, others might bring a different arousal that has yet to be discovered. Sara Gorman perfectly quotes this idea by stating,
“Renaissance sexuality was not a matter of distinct identities. Paraphrasing Alan Bray, Howard points out that homosexuality “constituted a potential within everyone, a point on a continuum of possible sexual practices”(Gorman 31).
⊗Sedinger, Tracey. “”if Sight and Shape Be True”: The Epistemology of Crossdressing on the London Stage”.Shakespeare Quarterly 48.1 (1997): 63–79. Web…
⊗Normington, Katie. Gender and Medieval Drama. 1. Vol. Woodbridge, Suffolk;Rochester, NY;: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Web.
⊗Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Web.
⊗Gorman, Sara. “The Theatricality of Transformation: cross-dressing, sexual misdemeanour and gender/sexuality spectra on the Elizabethan stage, Bridewell Hospital CourtRecords, and the Repertories of the Court of the Aldermen, 1574-1607.” Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (2008). Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.