Gender Performativity in Early Modern English Theatre

Author: Molly Lidgerwood

Sub-editor: Charlotte Allan

Early modern England was a place charged with transformations, including experimentations with gender boundaries and relations. In this period, gender was signified through dress and cross-dressing was a way to reject social expectations of conventional masculinity and femininity. This fluidity and subversion of dress was supported by the theatre as a space for exploring the subjectivities, power, and sexuality connoted by cross-dressing. Judith Butler’s argument that gender is always performed is useful in revealing the stylised gender experiences of early modern actors and spectators. While the condemnation of cross-dressing was widely accepted, the theatre, especially Shakespearean theatres, provided entertainment for theatregoers without eliciting criticism on the subversive content. This piece will explore the experiences of gender and cross-dressing on the early modern English stage and will ultimately argue that gender was largely performed in this period in a way that subverted Butler’s “heterosexual matrix of desire.”

The enforcement of a rigid gender binary was spread across the English population through widely accessible Biblical texts, pamphlets, and instructional social conduct texts. Richard Brathwaite’s The English Gentlewoman delineated the expectations of women to perform their gender in a way that stabilised their femininity. For example, the text’s opening image foregrounds the words “gentility”, “honour”, “complement”, and “apparell” and as a result suggested that these concepts were intrinsically linked to the successful construction of an appropriately feminine woman (Figure 1). The significance of The English Gentlewoman in conveying expected attitudes towards gender performance is evident in its publication within “the Blew Bible.” Religion formed the core of early modern life and was one of the sole areas where women were permitted to read and hold an opinion. Thus, the Biblical context of Brathwaite’s text confirms the widely understood expectations of how people had ought to confine themselves to their respective genders.

Figure 1: The English Gentlewoman, Richard Brathwaite, 1631.

The controversial pamphlets Hic Mulier and Haec-Vir published anonymously in 1620 (but now assumed to be the work of John Trundle, an English publisher) epitomised the attitudes towards gender in early modern England. Hic Mulier condemned cross-dressing as the “masculine-women” were accused of making “an asse” of the nation due to the connotations of “deformity” associated with gender ambiguity. For example, its title page displayed women getting their long hair cut off, destroying a symbol of modesty and inferiority (Figure 2). Short hair denoted masculinity in early modern England and consequently a woman with short hair elicited “a sense of shame”, according to Sandra Clark, as their needles were replaced with swords. Haec-Vir similarly highlights the dangers of gender ambiguity as a couple in the opening scene meet and misidentified each other’s gender. The pamphlet ultimately argues that “shame…is a concept framed by men to subordinate women to the dictates of arbitrary custom.” Clark suggests that Trundle’s publications of these controversial pamphlets were an attempt to cause controversy by presenting a range of varying attitudes regarding gender in a way that mirrors the reality of gender performances which were fluid in the early modern period.

Figure 2: Opening Page to Hic Mulier, John Trundle, 1620.

While cross-dressing is explicitly condemned in the Old Testament of the Bible widely read in the early modern period, the theatre resisted gender binaries through their performances of ambiguous genders. English theatres employed all-male casts unlike their European counterparts. This unique casting approach ascribed significance to the masculinity of the male bodies and voices which performed a variety of genders in their plays. Playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe specifically employed young boys to perform their roles. For example, Nathan Field and Thomas Clifton were kidnapped and adopted into the theatrical world at only thirteen years of age, signifying the importance in finding young males with pre-pubescent voices in order to signify the femininity of particular characters. Marlowe and Shakespeare wrote male and female roles for his boy actors, creating “simulated performances of women” which explored gendered relationships on the stage for the audience to witness. Henry Peacham’s drawing of a performance of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus reveals the subversive gender dynamics inherent in the performance as Tamora was taller than her Roman counterparts, even as she knelt submissively before the powerful Titus. Alison Findlay’s argument that the spectators of Titus “were admitted to a hall of mirrors in which appearances, [and] gender identities…could be grotesquely distorted” reinforces that gender performances within early modern theatre were never stable and frequently subversive. Shakespeare often wrote “restricted” female roles for a small pool of his male actors. For example, Othello’s Desdemona was restricted to a limited number of male actors which ensured that the boys performing the role could master the performance of femininity in the tragedy. The example of Desdemona’s role also reveals the submissive nature of these female roles performed by male actors. For example, Henry Jackson’s recollection of an Othello performance notes how the murder of Desdemona “begged the spectators’ pity with her very facial expression,” highlighting the ability of these male actors to skilfully ingrain the patriarchal value of obedience into the memory of early modern audiences. Ultimately, these performances of femininity, led by young men, highlight the multifaceted and ambiguous representations of gender on the early modern stage.

The key signifier of fluid masculinity within early modern theatre was the voice of the actor. A squeaking voice demonstrated the boy actor’s transformation to developed man, which influenced the roles he played and the extent to which the performance of femininity was successful. In both female and male roles, the oscillating voice of the male actor was significant in igniting a sense of anxiety in an audience as the signs of masculinity became diminished, thus revealing the unstable gender boundaries in early modern England. While there have been minimal complaints recorded in this period regarding the physical appearance of male actors performing female roles, there have been recorded complaints related to these unstable voices. The voice of the male actor denoted the instability of gender and also connected their gender identities with a form of homoeroticism. Stephen Orgel’s contention that the dominant manifestation of eroticism in the early modern period was homosexuality is useful in analysing the performances of gender by male actors. For example, the boy actors often were made sexually available by the theatre through a form of prostitution. As a result of this sexual indenture, the theatrical performances of the actors become linked to their roles as passive and available sexual partners for early modern spectators. Essentially, a boy actor who dramatised his identity through a female part constructed himself as a submissive, sexual, and consumable person, signifying the fluid gender and sexual identities in early modern England.

While male crossdressing and performances of gender blurred social conventions, female cross-dressing, of both actors and characters, performed a similar function but was accused more frequently during the later years of King James’ reign in England. It is important to acknowledge the distinction between social cross-dressing and cross-dressing within the theatrical context; while the pair are connected, they are not the same. Cross-dressing within plays provided an opportunity for playwrights, actors, and audiences alike to explore the fluidity of femininity within the confines of the theatre. For example, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a play which provided female spectators the opportunity to witness layered gender disguise, as a male character would play the role of Viola who deceptively performed the role of Cesario. These complex performances of gender on the stage allowed actors to explore gender binaries but also explore the sexed female body. Viola/Cesario introduces herself to the Duke as “an eunuch,” representing the lack of genitalia on the stage. This absence of female genitals in Twelfth Night suggests that Shakespeare used the one-sex model which as a result solidifies the androcentricity of the early modern period. Twelfth Night therefore represents the early modern theatre’s preoccupation with blurred genders and associated sexed bodies. Contrastingly, The Merchant of Venice displays cross-dressing that is socially disruptive as it resists “feminine subjectivity.” While The Lawe’s Resolution of Women’s Rights reminds us that “women [had] no voice in parliament,” Portia’s manly disguise within the play’s courtroom is a powerful attempt of the character to assume control within the public and masculine sphere of the legal system. However, it would be false to argue that Viola or Portia’s cross-dressing successfully resisted patriarchal hegemony in the early modern period. This failure is because firstly, the gender of the roles were performed by men which serves as a distancing mechanism; the power of the female characters was only a masculine façade. Secondly, as Orgel argues, the consequence of these subversive roles was not the deconstruction of patriarchy but rather, the arousal of male spectators whose reasoning became blurred and they consequently lusted after the men disguised in the cross-dressing female’s costume. However, it is also important to consider that there were many female spectators in early modern theatres between 1567 and 1642. The early modern theatre provided an opportunity for women to see their flexible femininity represented on stage, while also engaging with the erotic practices of the theatre possibly even including prostitution and intercourse. Thus, representations of femininity in early modern theatre were even more deceptive and fluid than their male counterparts.

Ultimately, performances of gender in early modern England were never stable. While the expected attitudes towards gender were made clear through Biblical texts and political pamphlets, the theatre provided an opportunity to blur gender binaries as actors and spectators engaged in a way that often resisted gender and sexual conventions. For example, the unstable voice and young age of male actors signified masculinity, or lack thereof, which resulted in fluid performances of constructed femininity. The mirror of disguises in Shakespeare’s plays revealed the messy performances of layered genders which resulted in the deception of early modern spectators and subsequently their fascination and eroticism of fluid genders.

Image Credits: Peacham, Henry. Titus Andronicus illustration, 1595. In Callaghan, Dympna. Shakespeare Without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage. London and New York: Routledge, 1999, p. 3.


Primary Sources:

Brathwaite, Richard. “The English Gentlewoman,” 1631. In Aughterson, Kate. Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 1995, p. xvii.

Edgar, Thomas. “The Lawe’s Resolution of Women’s Rights.” Digital Library, 1632.

Jackson, Henry. “Excerpts from Henry Jackson’s letter recording a performance of Othello at Oxford.” Shakespeare Documented, 1610.

Peacham, Henry. Titus Andronicus illustration, 1595. In Callaghan, Dympna. Shakespeare Without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage. London and New York: Routledge, 1999, p. 3.

Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” In William Shakespeare Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, 2081-2157. London: The Royal Shakespeare Company, 2007.

Shakespeare, William. “The Merchant of Venice.” In William Shakespeare Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, 413-471. London: The Royal Shakespeare Company, 2007.

Shakespeare, William. “Twelfth Night, Or What You Will.” In William Shakespeare Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, 645-697. London: The Royal Shakespeare Company, 2007.

Trundle, John. “Hic Mulier: or the man-woman and Haec-Vir: or the womanish-man.” Internet Archive.1620.

Secondary Sources:

Bartels Emily C., and Emma Smith. Christopher Marlowe in Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Bloom, Gina. Voice in Motion: Staging Gender, Shaping Sound in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40, no. 2 (Dec 1988): 519-531.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. London: Routledge, 1990.

Callaghan, Dympna. Shakespeare Without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Clark, Sandra. “‘Hic Mulier,’ ‘Haec Vir,’ and the Controversy over Masculine Women.” Studies in Philology 82, no. 2 (Spring 1985): 157-183.

Findlay, Alison. A Feminist Perspective on Renaissance Drama. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

Gurr Andrew. Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Howard, Jean E. “Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, no. 4. (Winter, 1988): 418-440.

McMillin, Scott. “The Sharer and His Boy: Rehearsing Shakespeare’s Women.” In From Script to Stage in Early Modern England, edited by Peter Holland and Stephen Orgel, 231-245. London: Palgrave, 2004.

Orgel, Stephen. “Nobody’s Perfect, Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 7-29.

Orgel, Stephen. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Tribble, Evelyn. “Marlow’s Boy Actors.” Shakespeare Bulletin 27, no. 1 (2009): 5-17.

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