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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: January ::
Re: Cross-Dressing
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0081.  Tuesday, 30 January 1996.

(1)     From:   Rinda Frye <
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        Date:   Monday, 29 Jan 96  12:52:00 EST
        Subj:   SHK 7.0078  Re: Cross-Dressing

(2)     From:   Mary Jane Miller <
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        Date:   Monday, 29 Jan 1996 13:29:03 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0078  Re: Cross-Dressing

(3)     From:   Gabriel Egan <
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        Date:   Monday, 29 Jan 1996 20:33:37 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0078  Re: Cross-Dressing

(4)     From:   Bob Leslie <
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        Date:   Monday, 29 Jan 1996 21:30:29 +0000
        Subj:   Re: Crossdressing

(5)     From:   Harry Hill <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 30 Jan 1996 07:09:24 +0000 (HELP)
        Subj:   The normality of cross dressing

(6)     From:   Jan Stirm <
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        Date:   Monday, 29 Jan 1996 14:51:53 PST
        Subj:   Cross-dressing


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Rinda Frye <
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Date:           Monday, 29 Jan 96  12:52:00 EST
Subject: Re: Cross-Dressing
Comment:        SHK 7.0078  Re: Cross-Dressing

To reply to Stephanie Hughes' query about England banning women from the stage
when actresses appeared in Spain, Italy, and France, perhaps the difference
stems from the appearance of touring commedia players on the continent but not
in England.  Commedia companies included women; whereas the older medieval
religious plays utilized males, as would Renaissance productions in the
schools.

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mary Jane Miller <
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Date:           Monday, 29 Jan 1996 13:29:03 -0500
Subject: 7.0078  Re: Cross-Dressing
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0078  Re: Cross-Dressing

Students thinking about cross-dressing might profit from looking at a video of
the Olivier HV.  First we watch the boys shave and stick oranges into their
costumes. Then  in the opening tavern scenes, that boy actor playing Mistress
Quickly has some very funny byplay with the Pit before s/he ever begins her
lines. The 1940's spectator is both drawn into that convention and made fairly
compfortable with it as the is the very different 90's viewer today.

Mary Jane Miller,
Brock University,

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gabriel Egan <
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Date:           Monday, 29 Jan 1996 20:33:37 +0000
Subject: 7.0078  Re: Cross-Dressing
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0078  Re: Cross-Dressing

David Aaron Carlson writes

> Certainly it [cross-dressing] was an
> easy opportunity to evoke some cheap laughter (particularly from those in the
> pit of the theater--perhaps such physical comedy was considered low-comedy as
> physical comedy is considered today).

The term 'pit' is only valid for the indoor playhouses, and there is no reason
to suppose that those who paid for these expensive seats would more readily
appreciate 'low-comedy' (if we accept the validity of that term) than anyone
else. At the outdoor playhouse the 'yard' is the equivalent location, but again
it's quite a leap to suppose that those who stood there had a particular kind
of taste.

Stephanie Hughes writes,

> Transvestism, if present, was a subtle sub-text, probably for the
> entertainment of the gay community.

I hardly know where to begin with this comment. Is the cross-dressing of Viola,
Jessica, Rosalind, Celia, Innogen, etc. really just 'subtle sub-text'? To bring
the modern term 'gay community' back to the sixteenth century is just silly. A
good starting point would be the work of Alan Bray and Paul Hammond who argue
that modern catagories just don't apply because our notion that a person
possesses an innate 'sexuality', as distinct from the particular acts (moral or
immoral) than s/he engages in, would be meaningless to a sixteenth-century
person.

> The general audience was asked to suspend disbelief to the extent
> that male actors were accepted, not as transvestites, but as
> women.

Haven't you noticed the intense preoccupation with the 'true' maleness
underlying the representation of female characters in the drama of the period?
What else is Cleopatra referring to when she says: "I shall see / Some
squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' th' posture of a whore"? There are
countless examples of characters referring to the maleness (or, indeed, in the
case of Othello, the underlying whiteness) of the player who takes the part.
Suspension of disbelief is another wholly inappropriate idea to bring to the
plays of the period.

Gabriel Egan

(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bob Leslie <
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Date:           Monday, 29 Jan 1996 21:30:29 +0000
Subject:        Re: Crossdressing

It has been convincingly argued (in Ferdinando Taviani and Mirella Schino, *Il
segreto della Commedia dell'Arte* [Florence: La Casa Usher, 1982] pp.334-9)
that one reason for the emergence of women as actors in the commedia dell'arte
companies may have been that a combination of economic decline and the
censorious atmosphere of the Counter-Reformation forced many courtesans,
cultured, intelligent and well-read, to look for alternative employment. A
corroborating factor may be found in the similar esteem and social position of
prominent  courtesans, e.g. Imperia, and the top-ranking actresses of the
post-tridentine period, e.g. Isabella Andreini, as well as the disdain and
prejudice accorded lower-ranking members of both professions.

Economic necessity meant that the troupes could carry no passengers and
therefore the heroine became much more central to the drama than neo-classical
orthodoxy would prescribe. The popularity of the Italian heroine and the
greater verisimilitude and colour which she lent to the stage inevitably led
authors of the more respectable *commedia grave* (Sforza Oddi, Della Porta
etc.) to recast her as a powerful, witty but virtuously self-sacrificing
character whose enduring fidelity earns her a providential reward. This,
essentially, is the model of heroine  adopted in much of Shakespearean comedy
and the Fletcherian school of tragicomedy both in terms of characterisation and
plot centrality.

Italian renaissance drama frequently exploited the idea of cross-dressing (e.g.
Secchi's *Inganni* - widely accepted as a source for *Twelfth Night*) but,
given the circumstances, any sexual *frisson* would be generated,in the latter
part of the 16th century at any rate, by the sight of a real woman strutting in
male costume rather than as the male homoerotic response which some
SHAKSPERIANS have indicated as an implied feature of the Elizabethan use of boy
actors. While not denying that such a response was possible, indeed likely, it
does not seem to be an implicit aspect of theatrical composition but rather
forced on playwrights by two external factors: the lack of a courtesan
tradition in England which deprived the stage of a cultured female demi-monde
from which accomplished actresses could be drawn; and the adoption of late
Cinquecento Italian models by playwrights who were thereby constrained by the
conventions of the genre to give female characters an unprecedented degree of
centrality. Thus the boy players came into their own and Silvia, Viola, and
Juliet  claimed their share of centre stage. The fact that the same female
centrality (played by women) was simultaneously manifest on the French, Spanish
and Italian stages surely negates any suggestion that the inclusion of such
roles in English drama of the period had anything to do with a particular
anglo-saxon attitude to sex. The use, on moral grounds, of boys to play these
parts however may well have resulted in a sexually ambiguous audience response
which says more  about English sexual hypocrisy than about the intentions of
Elizabethan playwrights.

                      Bob Leslie

(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Harry Hill <
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Date:           Tuesday, 30 Jan 1996 07:09:24 +0000 (HELP)
Subject:        The normality of cross dressing

It strikes me that males playing women were accepted quite naturally in that
theatre, sometimes of course comically and often as exaggeration, but
*accepted* as a convention. Is Dame Edna any less `true', for instance, than
the actresses of "Absolutely Fabulous"? It has a lot to do with the admiration
of skill, and very little with photographic respresentation ot mirror image of
"life as it is lived", surely. To bend Hopkins' definition of the poetic art,
is it not merely "current behaviour hightened"?

Whatever private pleasures the practice may have peripherally afforded, it was
woman-ness that was being acted out as being-ness was being presented by all
the roles anyway. The imperfections were fleshed out by the minds of the
assemblage, who apparently always came back for more.

        Harry Hill

[Looking forward to playing Lady Bracknell in "Lady Bracknell's Confinement"
next season here.]

(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jan Stirm <
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Date:           Monday, 29 Jan 1996 14:51:53 PST
Subject:        Cross-dressing

Dear Fellow Shaksperians,

David Kastan has an interesting argument in the 1993 Renaissance Drama ("Is
there a class in this [Shakespearean] Text?")  which looks at cross-dressing in
terms of class (yes, of course he complicated the term) and gender
representation.  He traces anxieties regarding clothing and class
identifications and parallels them with those regarding gender.  It's an
interesting argument, and one that got students talking in my class when I
brought it in!

Best, Jan Stirm

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