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Gender Trouble and Cross-Dressing in Early Modern England

  • David Cressy


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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1 Howard, Jean E., “Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 418–40, quotes on 418, 419 and n. 3. Howard's article has been reprinted in Ferris, Lesley, ed., Crossing the Stage: Controversies on Cross-Dressing (London and New York, 1993), pp. 2046. A modified and evolved discussion, reiterating the original question, appears in Howard, Jean, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (London, 1994), esp. pp. 94104.

2 Howard, , “Crossdressing,” pp. 419, 436, quote on p. 436.

3 Woodbridge, Linda, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540–1620 (Urbana, Ill., and Chicago, 1984), pp. 139–58; Levine, Laura, Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization, 1579–1642 (Cambridge and New York, 1994), pp. 125; Jardine, Lisa, “Boy Actors, Female Roles, and Elizabethan Eroticism,” in Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, ed. Kastan, David Scott and Stallybrass, Peter (New York and London, 1991), pp. 5767, and Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Totawa, N.J., 1983), pp. 936; Rackin, Phyllis, “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” PMLA 102 (1987): 2941; Greenblatt, Stephen, Shakespearian Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley, 1988); Rose, Mary Beth, The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (Ithaca, N.Y., 1988); Orgel, Stephen, “Nobody's Perfect: or, Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 729; Kelly, Katherine E., “The Queen's Two Bodies: Shakespeare's Boy Actress in Breeches,” Theatre Journal 42 (1990): 8193; Brown, Steve, “The Boyhood of Shakespeare's Heroines: Notes on Gender Ambiguity in the Sixteenth Century,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, 30 (1990): 243–63; Heise, Ursula K., “Transvestism and the Stage Controversy in Spain and England, 1580–1680,” Theatre Journal 44 (1992): 357–74; Zimmerman, Susan, ed., Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage (New York and London, 1992). For a somewhat more cautious account, see Shapiro, Michael, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1994). Among the few historical engagements with this topic, see Fletcher, Athony, “Men's Dilemma: The Future of Patriarchy in England, 1560–1660,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser., 4 (1994): 6181, and Gender, Sex and Subordination in England, 1500–1800 (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1995).

4 Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London, 1990); Garber, Marjorie, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York and London, 1992); Pagliassotti, Druann, “On the Discursive Construction of Sex and Gender,” Communication Research 20 (1993); 472–93; Kuchta, David, “The Semiotics of Masculinity in Renaissance England,” in Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe, ed. Turner, James Grantham (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 233–45; Breitenberg, Mark, “Anxious Masculinity: Sexual Jealousy in Early Modern England,” Feminist Studies 19 (1993): 377–98.

5 Woodbridge, pp. 141, 224. Rose (p. 69n.) points out that Woodbridge finds “more coherence and range” in this alleged “transvestite movement” than the pamphlet literature can document.

6 Woodbridge, pp. 150, 153, 156. Woodbridge, cites The Mous Trap (1606), The Cuckow (1607), The Fair Maid of Bristow (ca. 1604), The Fleire (ca. 1608), and The Roaring Girl (ca. 1608) among plays in which women adopt masculine attire. See also Garber, Marjorie, “The Logic of the Transvestite: The Roaring Girl (1608),” in Kastan, and Stallybrass, , eds., pp. 221–34; Orgel, Stephen, “The Subtexts of The Roaring Girl,” pp. 1226, and Howard, Jean E., “Sex and Social Conflict: The Erotics of The Roaring Girl,” pp. 170–90, both in Zimmerman, , ed.

7 Kelly, p. 92; Brown, p. 249; Zimmerman, Susan, “Disruptive Desire: Artifice and Indeterminacy in Jacobean Comedy,” in Zimmerman, , ed., p. 42.

8 Schleiner, Winfried, “Male Cross-Dressing and Transvestism in Renaissance Romances,” Sixteenth Century Journal 19 (1988): 605–19; Levine, Laura, “Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization from 1579 to 1642,” Criticism 28 (1986): 136, 130; Dollimore, Jonathan, “Shakespeare, Cultural Materialism, Feminism and Marxist Humanism,” New Literary History 21 (1990): 483; Zimmerman, p. 43. Note, however, the more circumspect remarks by Stephen Orgel, “The Subtexts of The Roaring Girl,” on “the eye of the beholder” and Lisa Jardine on “textual imputation” in Zimmerman, ed., pp. 14, 28.

9 Levine, , Men in Women's Clothing (n. 3 above), pp. 125, quotes on pp. 5, 8, 9.

10 Hooper, Wilfrid, “The Tudor Sumptuary Laws,” English Historical Review 30 (1915): 433–49; Baldwin, Frances Elizabeth, Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England (Baltimore, 1926). We need a modern historical analysis of the social semiotics of costume.

11 Deut. 22:5: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.”

12 Gascoigne, George, The Steel Glas: A Satyre (1576), quoted in Rose, , p. 68.

13 Gosson, Stephen, Playes Confuted in Fiue Actions (1582), in Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson, ed. Kinney, Arthur (Salzburg, 1974), p. 175.

14 Harrison, William, The Description of England (1577), ed. Edelen, Georges (Ithaca, N.Y., 1968), p. 147.

15 Beard, Thomas, The Theatre of Gods Ivdgements, Short-Title Catalogue (STC) 1661 (London, 1631), pp. 419–20. Earlier editions appeared in 1597 and 1612.

16 Rainolds, John, The Overthrow of Stage-Playes, STC 20616 (Middleburgh, 1599), p. 97.

17 Hill, Adam, The Crie of England, STC 13465 (London, 1595), p. 17.

18 Stubbes, Phillip, The Anatomie of Abuses, STC 23376 (London, 1583), sigs. E7v–F5v. For more in this vein, see Barish, Jonas, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley and Los Angles, 1981), pp. 8092.

19 McClure, N. E., ed., The Letters of John Chamberlain (Philadelphia, 1939), 2:286–87, 289. This includes the King James quote.

20 HicMulier: or, The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminines of our Times, STC 13378 (London, 1620); Haec-Vir: Or, The Womanish-Man, STC 12599 (London, 1620); Muld Sacke: Or The Apologie of Hie Mulier, STC 21538 (London, 1620). The three are reproduced in Baines, Barbara J., ed., Three Pamphlets on the Jacobean Antifeminist Controversy (New York, 1978).

21 Hic Mulier: or, The Man-Woman, sigs A3, A4, Bv–B2, C, B2v–B3. See also John Taylor's attack on “shameless double-sexed hermaphrodites, Virago roaring-girls, that to their middle, to know what sex they were was half a riddle,” quoted in Capp, Bernard, The World of John Taylor the Water Poet, 1578–1653 (Oxford, 1994), 115.

22 Prynne, William, Histrio-Mastix: The Players Scovrge, or Actors Tragædie (London, 1633), pp. 171–72, 179–80, 182–83, 206–9.

23 Rogers, Daniel, Matrimoniall Honour: Or, the Mutual Crowne and Comfort of Godly, Loyal, and Chaste Marriage (London, 1642), p. 174.

24 Davis, Natalie Zemon, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in 16th Century France (Stanford, Calif., 1987); Cressy, David, “De la fiction dans les archives? Ou le monstre de 1569,” Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations 48 (1993): 1309–29.

25 For the “Great Tew Circle” see Trevor-Roper, Hugh, Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans: Seventeenth Century Essays (Chicago, 1988), pp. 166230, quote on p. 166.

26 Oxfordshire Archives, Oxford, Oxford Archdeaconry Office Acts, c. 12, fol. 75. Subsequent citations of this case are on fols. 75v, 81, 151.

27 Wilson, Adrian, “The Ceremony of Childbirth and its Interpretation,” in Women as Mothers in Pre-industrial England, ed. Fildes, Valerie (London, 1990), pp. 68107; Eccles, Audrey, Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Tudor and Stuart England (Kent, Ohio, 1982). Robert Herrick refers to “the child-bed mysteries” in his poem, Julia's Churching, or Purification,” in Hesperides (London, 1648).

28 Evenden, Doreen, “Mothers and Their Midwives in Seventeenth-Century London,” in The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives in Europe, ed. Marland, Hilary (London and New York, 1993), pp. 926. For the midwife's oath, see The Book of Oaths (1649; reprint, London, 1689). Ben Jonson plays on women's secrets and mysteries in Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, STC 14763 (London, 1620), 4:2, 5:3.

29 Dekker, Rudolf M. and van de Pol, Lotte C., The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (New York, 1989), p. 2.

30 Woodbridge (n. 3 above), p. 139.

31 Robert Herrick (1591–1674) was a Devonshire minister in the 1630s. “Delight in Disorder” (“A sweet disorder in the dress … ”) and “Upon Julia's Clothes” (“When as in silks my Julia goes …”) come from Hesperides, as does “Julia's Petticoat.”

32 Laslett, Peter, “The Wrong Way through the Telescope: A Note on Literary Evidence in Sociology and Historical Sociology,” British Journal of Sociology 27 (1976): 319–42.

33 See works by Levine (nn. 3, 8 above); and Woodbridge. Compare the treatment of men in women's clothing in Shakespeare, William, The Merry Wives of Windsor (performed 1597); and Heywood, Thomas, The Brazen Age, STC 13310 (London, 1613).

34 Schleiner, Louise, “Ladies and Gentlemen in Two Genres of Elizabethan Fiction,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, 29 (1989): 120; Winfried Schleiner (n. 8 above), pp. 605–19; Jordan, Constance, Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models (Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1990), pp. 223–28. Pyrocles in James Shirley's stage version of The Arcadia (1640) “played the man indeed,” though dressed in “feminine shape”; see Gifford, William and Dyce, Alexander, eds., The Dramatic Works and Poems of James Shirley (London, 1833; reprint, New York, 1966), 4:175218.

35 Fletcher, John, Monsieur Thomas, STC 11071 (London, 1639), performed ca. 1610–13; Beaumont, Francis and Fletcher, John, The Scornful Ladie, STC 1686 (London, 1616; reprint, 1625, 1630, 1633, 1639); Dekker, Thomas and Webster, John, West-ward Hoe, STC 6540 (London, 1607); A Pleasant Conceyted History of George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield, STC 12212 (London, 1599); Haughton, William, English-men for my Money; or … a Woman Will Have her Will, STC 12931 (London, 1616; reprint, 1626, 1631); Field, Nathan, Amends for Ladies, STC 10851 (1618; reprint, London, 1639); Middleton, Thomas, A Mad World, My Masters, STC 17888 (London, 1608); Jonson, Ben, Epicoene (first performed by the Revels children in 1609). Among these, only Epicoene has featured extensively in recent critical scholarship. See, e.g., Rose (n. 3 above), pp. 50–64; and sources cited in n. 6 above. See also Freeburg, Victor Oscar, Disguise Plots in Elizabethan Drama (New York, 1915), pp. 102–8, 117–19, 190–91.

36 Crewe, Jonathan, “In the Field of Dreams: Transvestism in Twelfth Night and The Crying GameRepresentations 50 (1995): 101–21.

37 Stallybrass, Peter, “Transvestism and the ‘body beneath’: Speculating on the Boy Actor,” in Zimmerman, , ed. (n. 3 above), p. 76.

38 Hope, Robert Charles, ed., The Popish Kingdom or Reigne of Antichrist written in Latin Verse by Thomas Naogeorgus and Englyshed by Barnabe Googe (London, 1880), p. 48.

39 Fetherstone, Christopher, A Dialogue Agaynst Light, Lewde, and Lacivious Dauncing, STC 10835 (London, 1582), sig. D7.

40 Sharp, Buchanan, In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England, 1586–1660 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1980), p. 104. See also Ingram, Martin, “Ridings, Rough Music and Mocking Rhymes in Early Modern England,” in Popular Culture in Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Reay, Barry (London, 1985), pp. 166–97.

41 Davis, Natalie Zemon, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, Calif., 1975), pp. 147–49, cites English examples.

42 Stephano Janiculo, an associate of Arabella Stuart, escaped a Turkish prison disguised as a woman. Prince James, later James II, is said to have disguised himself as a woman while fleeing after the battle of Worcester. Female costume was almost de rigueur for escaping from the Tower of London.

43 Dekker and van de Pol (n. 29 above), pp. 1–14; Raymond, Joad, ed., Making the News: An Anthology of the Newsbooks of Revolutionary England, 1641–1660 (New York, 1993), pp. 148, 167. The diarist Walter Younge reported ca. 1627, “there was a woman apprehended at Plymouth in the attire or habit of a man by the mayor, at the time the Earl of Denbigh and Sir Henry Martyn were to go to sea. It is said that she is one Smith's wife of London, kept by Sir Henry Martyn”; see British Library, Additional Ms 35,331, fol. 16. See also the case of Joanna Goodman in 1569, cited in text below, and references to Mary Ambree, ca. 1584, cited in text above.

44 Howard, “Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle” (n. 1 above), pp. 420–21; Benbow, R. Mark and Hawkyard, Alasdair D. K., “Legal Records of Cross-Dressing,” in Shapiro, , ed. (n. 3 above), pp. 225–34.

45 Emmison, F. G., Elizabethan Life: Morals and the Church Courts (Chelmsford, 1973), p. 18; Hale, William H., A Series of Precedents and Proceedings in Criminal Causes (London, 1847), p. 212.

46 Hale, p. 212.

47 Mulholland, P. A., “The Date of The Roaring Girl,” Review of English Studies, n.s., 28 (1977): 1731; Mulholland, Paul A., ed., The Roaring Girl (Manchester, 1987), pp. 262–63. The case can be found in Greater London Record Office, DLC/310, fols. 19–20.

48 Borthwick Institute, York, Court of High Commission, Cause Papers, HCCP 1596, no. 7.

49 H.M.C., Calendar of Cecil MSS. at Hatfield House (1899), 8:201.

50 Husey, Arthur, ed., “Visitations of the Archdeacon of Canterbury,” Archaeologia Cantiana 27 (1904); 226.

51 Borthwick Institute, York, Metropolitical Visitation of the Diocese of Chester, V. 1633, Court Papers, fol. 113v.

52 Lake, Peter, “The Laudian Style: Order, Uniformity and the Pursuit of the Beauty of Holiness in the 1630s,” in The Early Stuart Church, 1603–1642, ed. Fincham, Kenneth (London, 1993), pp. 161–85, draws attention to the Laudian view of the church as the “house of God.”

53 Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger (London, 1969), esp. pp. 4, 113.

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Gender Trouble and Cross-Dressing in Early Modern England

  • David Cressy


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