A celebrated article in Shakespeare Quarterly opens with the question, “how many people cross-dressed in Renaissance England?” Jean Howard, who posed this intriguing question, suggests that disruption of the semiotics of dress, gender, and identity during the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods points to “a sex-gender system under pressure” and a patriarchal culture disturbed by profound anxieties and contradictions. Even if the answer to her question turns out to be “very few,” the discourse surrounding the practice reveals an area of critical and problematic unease. Female transvestism on the streets of London, male transvestism on the stage, and vituperative attacks on cross-dressing by Protestant reformers are among the symptoms that indicate that “the subversive or transgressive potential of this practice could be and was recuperated in a number of ways.” Dressing boy actors for female roles, for example, was not simply “an unremarkable convention within Renaissance dramatic practice,” as some scholars have suggested, but rather a scandalous “source of homoerotic attraction” arousing “deep-seated fears” of an “unstable and monstrous” and feminized self. Whether in real life or in literature, by this account, cross-dressing involved struggle, resistance, and subversion, as well as modification, recuperation, and containment of the system of gendered patriarchal domination. Renaissance cross-dressing involved ideological work of a complex kind that ultimately, in Howard's materialist feminist analysis, “participated in the historical process eventuating in the English Revolution.” This is a claim that may make English historians gasp, but it is one that they cannot ignore.
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