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LHMP #401 Orvis 2014 Cross-Dressing, Queerness, and the Early Modern Stage

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Orvis, David L. 2014. “Cross-Dressing, Queerness, and the Early Modern Stage” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Chapter 11 - Cross-Dressing, Queerness, and the Early Modern Stage

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From the topic, one might think this chapter would focus primarily on the male homoerotic potential of boy actors dressing as female roles on the early modern stage, but the choice of plays that Orvis chooses to examine clearly bring in female themes as well. Specifically: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Lyly’s Galatea, and Middleton and Decker’s The Roaring Girl—three plays involve cross-dressing, not simply in the staging of the play, but also within the performances themselves, with characters appearing in disguise as a different gender, creating comedic romantic interactions.

The male homoerotic potential of boy actors playing female rules cannot be overlooked. Orvis discusses a company of boy actors whose repertoire seems to have been deliberately designed to exploit homoerotic wordplay and the eroticizing of boy actors wearing women’s clothing. However not all transvestite theater focuses on this one dynamic. And there are plenty of examples where the playing of female roles by boy actors appears to have been entirely unmarked and without erotic implications. Theatrical cross-dressing came in for moral condemnation, but more in the context of a general anxiety around the blurring of boundaries regarding gendered clothing. The stage was not the only context in which playful cross-dressing was an accepted part of society.

The twins, Viola and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night represent an almost ungendered concept of desire, where the two are identical in every characteristic that matters, except for presumed physiological sex. They become interchangeable objects of desire within the play. Viola, disguised as the page Cesario, desires the duke Orsino. This is simultaneously a female character desiring a man, character disguised as a boy desiring a man, and underneath it all a boy actor, desiring a male role played by a male actor.

Olivia’s desire for the disguised Cesario can be read as a woman desiring a young man (the disguise), or as a woman desiring the female character underneath the disguise. The ease with which Olivia transfers her affection from Viola to Sebastian suggests that the distinction is relatively unimportant.

The play simultaneously resolves all these attractions into heterosexual marriages within the script, while underneath the surface, all relationships within the play are interacted between male bodies. What if one focuses, not on the ultimate resolution of the play, but on the interactions throughout? The reality of homoerotic desire is thus made legible. And one might point out that the play ends before any of the weddings, with the characters from one viewpoint in their original state: Orsino with the page Cesario (who is really Viola), and Olivia believing she is marrying Cesario (who is really Viola), but actually accepting Sebastian.

These dynamics are further complicated—or perhaps further simplified—in Lyly’s play Galatea, for which one of the inspirations is Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe. In Ovid’s original, the cross-dressing and cross-gendered Iphis is transformed into a boy in order to marry Ianthe. However in Galatea, we have not simply one cross-dressed girl, but two—each believing the other to be a boy, and therefore a lawful object of female desire. But their desire persists, even as each begins to realize that the other person is the same as she is, a cross-dressed girl. The two women are attracted to each other specifically because of their likeness, and male-female relations are not depicted favorably within the play.

The “structural problem” that remains at the end of the play, i.e., that the loving couple are both female, is hand-waved away by the promise of a gender transition that is postponed until after the play closes. Paralleling the desire of the two main characters is Cupid’s meddling with Diana’s nymphs, shooting them with his arrows causing them to fall in love with each other, thus strengthening the theme of female homoeroticism within the play, while still marking it as a non-natural state.

The play The Roaring Girl features a character based on real-life gender transgressor Moll Cutpurse, who figures in the plot as the mechanism by which the frustrated lovers reverse parental opposition. The male suitor seeks to change his father’s mind about the girl he genuinely wants to marry by faking an interest in Moll in order to convince his father that his true beloved isn’t so bad after all. The dramatic character of Moll Cutpurse cross-dresses and indicates a certain disdain for male suitors, and at least the possibility that she has sex with women.

Moll is not the only character in the play to cross-dress. The female romantic lead does as well, though to avoid detection by her suitor’s father, thus setting up the context for the appearance of a homoerotic kiss between the two romantic leads. Moll represents a different type of transvestite character on the stage. She does not try to pass as a man, nor is she in disguise in order to spend time with the man she desires. Rather her cross-dressing is part of her rejection of standard roles, both those of gender, and in the context of marriage.

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