Eyes: Spectral Illusion (Male Cross-Dressing on Stage)

Let’s start this section with the theatrical cross-dressing’s biggest fan Stephen Gosson:

“…To declare ourselves by words or by gestures, to be otherwise than we are, is an act executed where it should not, therefore a lye.”  (Normington 60).

What a guy! So as you can see, the theater’s practice of male cross-dressing was not completely well received. However, the reception of its many audiences was very complex.

Women were banned from the theater stage, a very public place that would render her vulnerable. However, there was no stopping playwrights’ creative genius in the incorporation of women in their stories. But who would play such roles?

Boys and Young Men

seemed to fit the bill.


They were seen as being alike to women in that their voices were still high pitched, their faces were without facial hair and not yet rugged. In other words, they were pretty androgynous. As Jean E. Howard states, “even as late teenagers…it is possible that they displayed many prepubescent features…(Howard 21).

The boys at the time actually had simular characteristics, as Katie Normington stated, “… for he is a dependent character. Boy actors enact roles which were subordinate to masculine characters on stage, and within the acting company, they were apprentices dependent upon the favor of the actor/ manager.” (Normington 63).

This all seems pretty “logical” for the period, but remember Gosson? He was clearly distressed by the LIES this practice produced. Not just him but many other anti-theatricalists.


So what made them so mad anyway?

Well,  according to them the very fact of a person of one gender would put on the attire of the other sex is sinful. As David Cressy quotes, “It is written in the 22nd. of Deuteronomy,” [Stubbes] reminded his readers, “that what man soever weareth woman’s apparel is accursed, and what woman weareth man’s apparel is accursed also” (Cressy 443).

In case you were wondering, yes I checked and it’s true–verse 5 to be exact.

But isn’t it ironic how “the practice of cross-dressing in medieval drama was established by the male clerical performances of liturgical drama”? (Normington 63). Just saying…

Their fears didn’t end there.

The boy, impersonating a female on stage “invites playing the woman’s part in sexual congress…” (Howard 25). Males may attach certain feelings and dare I say…sensations to female clothing.

Therefore, it started to get complicated. As Tracey Sedinger states…”the spectator’s relation to the cross-dresser becomes crucial” especially “when we turn to plays in which cross-dressing is a significant plot device and in which the split between ignorant spectators (within the play) and spectators-in-the-know both forwards the narrative and produces aesthetic and erotic pleasure” (Sedinger 63). (See “Lips” section for more)


Cross-Dressing as the Main Aspect of Plays Male Cross-Dressing

It became incredibly confusing especially when the boy actors played female roles who went on to cross-dress as males. Called “…miracle plays,…For one must imagine the following situation: a male actor plays a female character who cross-dresses as a man and then is revealed to be…male” (Clark 327).

Within these plays men and women were displayed differently. Women were displayed in more of a noble light while men were placed in a more reckless and adventurous light, commonly in comedies such as “Robin Hood.” This is because women cross-dressing as men were seen to be as if aspiring to be greater, aspiring to be as great as a man…(Ugh…Can I get an eye-roll?) But this instance of using cross-dressing in comedy is very interesting and different as opposed to the typical connotations and repercussions men would receive. Specifically, as Cressy states, “Rather than being effeminized, the cross-dressed man is more often rendered as proactive, virile, and effective. His dissimulation is a means to advancement, not downfall. (Cressy 453).

The theater production in Medieval England as a whole was complex, and layered, having many meanings and uses and signifying themes. The usage of cross-dressing wasn’t anything controversial to the stage. It just added to the theatricality of the plays, complex storytelling, and hidden reveals of societal themes.


Suggested Readings:

Normington, Katie. Gender and Medieval Drama. 1. Vol. Woodbridge, Suffolk;Rochester, NY;: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Web.

Howard, Jean E. “Cross-Dressing, the Theater, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England.” , 1993. 20-46. Web.

Cressy, David. “Gender Trouble and Cross-dressing in Early Modern England”. Journal of British Studies 35.4 (1996): 438–465. Web…

Sedinger, Tracey. “”if Sight and Shape Be True”: The Epistemology of Crossdressing on the London Stage”.Shakespeare Quarterly 48.1 (1997): 63–79. Web…

Clark, Robert L. A., and Claire Sponsler. “Queer Play: The Cultural Work of Crossdressing in Medieval Drama”. New Literary History 28.2 (1997): 319–344. Web…


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