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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

When men play women on stage, what are gender expectations?

Highlights from the Understanding Diversity in the 15th and 16th Century conference, Edinburgh, Scotland, April 2023

What exactly were gender expectations in the early modern period?

These are pamphlets from 1620 bemoaning the ills of cross dressing, or more strictly speaking, of not adhering to gender norms as codified by sumptuary laws that proscribed what could be worn by each person according to their station .

In the same year, John Chamberlain wrote to his friend Sir Dudley Carleton that “the world is very far out of order”. The perception of chaos caused by what was deemed as provocative dressing was such to require the direct intervention of King James I, who ordered Anglican priests to “inveigh vehemently and bitterly in their sermons against the insolence of our women”. He did not issue the same invective against men dressing as women. A revealing point for those who agree that King James was bisexual. These two pamphlets are available at the British Library.

Was behavior like this happening? Likely - as there is no point in writing a conduct manual if everyone is behaving perfectly. Miss Manners would not have a career if we all knew how and when to write thank you notes.

This was not just a fashion issue. Gender expectations were constantly challenged on the stage which calls into question - what exactly were gender expectations?

In England, an unmarried woman ruled for 45 years - this by itself was a violation of gender expectations. During this time period, specifically during what some historians, term Elizabeth’s second reign post the Armada, the theatre in England expanded exponentially. It might be difficult to puzzle out what messages were being communicated about gender expectations by the theatre. Women were not welcomed on the English public stage of the Globe, or the Rose, but were performing publicly on stages in Europe. The setup for gender expectations in England already had a degree of farce as boys and men played female roles. You have a boy, playing a girl, playing a boy. A boy plays Juliet who is in love with Romeo. That's the backstage craft.

Merchant of Venice. Portia dressed as a male lawyer. A man playing a woman dressed as a man.

The next layer is the plots that lean into gender dissembling. Gender swapping was a recognized character function and/or plot device. We see this in the plays of Shakespeare. In The Merchant of Venice, the three leading female characters all dress as men at some point. The wealthy heiress Portia, dresses as man, a lawyer, and successfully argues a case in court. Her lady-in-waiting Nerissa disguises herself as a law clerk to aid her mistress. And Shylock’s daughter Jessica disguises herself as a man, Lorenzo’s torch bearer, to escape her father’s house - with his ducats. So a boy playing a girl who is playing a boy in love with a boy - or arguing a case in court.

This is a common plot device in Shakespeare.

  • In As You Like It, Rosalind disguises herself as Ganymede and goes to live in the forest after being banished.

  • Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor disguises himself as a woman to hide from the man whose wife he is wooing.

  • In Twelfth Night a woman disguises herself as a man, her lost twin brother, to serve a Duke as his personal servant.

  • In Cymbeline, a woman disguises herself as a boy to survive a murder ordered by her lover. There are more.

You get the idea.

The theatre was popular culture. The theaters could hold up to 3,000 people for a single performance. There were approximately 200,000 people in London and just over 4 million in England in 1600. Boys playing women who then disguised themselves as boys was a recognized plot and character device.

What did this mean for women on the political stage? Did they disguise themselves as men in order to exercise political influence and agency? Was the stage a reflection of the status quo or a driver for change? Stay tuned.


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