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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #85 Clark & Sponsler 1997 "Queer Play: The Cultural Work of Crossdressing in Medieval Drama"


Full citation: 

Clark, Robert L. A. & Claire Sponsler. 1997. "Queer Play: The Cultural Work of Crossdressing in Medieval Drama" in New Literary History, 28:219-344.

In case anyone gets confused, the entry numbers may appear a bit out of order on occasion. Usually I post entries on a "first written, first posted" basis, but at the moment I'm working through a bunch of journal entries and having fun finding thematic groupings for each week. but the entry numbers correspond to my database index numbers, so they correspond to the order in which I compose the entries.

This week is going to be "medieval and Renaissance drama week". I've started tracking down cross-references from publications I've already posted, so a good proportion of them will be relatively early works (i.e., '80s and '90s) and may sometimes reflect the date of their composition in omissions or analytic frameworks...or simply by not being in conversation with later work.

Clark & Sponsler's article looks at various examples of "cross-category" disguise both in formal theater and the informal "street theater" of festivals. While the main focus is on gender categories, there is an interesting comparison to disguise across categories of ethnicity and social status.

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In the context of an increased interest in the cultural role of theatrical cross-dressing in the Renaissance through modern times, these authors extend the analysis backward to look at similar themes in medieval theater. Medieval theater is often wrongly believed to support dominant cultural paradigms, but in fact it "was the site of intense cultural and ideological negotiations involving the testing and contesting of conventional social roles and cultural categories such as race, class, and gender." The authors examine two particular examples of medieval theatrical cross-dressing: Marian miracle plays from the mid 14th century France, and Robin Hood plays from 15-16th c. England.

The thesis here is that these cross-dressing motifs raise questions about gender and status that are not entirely answered by the superficially heteronormative resolutions of the plays. Specifically in the context of theatrical representations, transvestism carries two essential dynamics: the expectation that there will be an unveiling, and the ability "to problematize the dynamics of desire and representation" in a safely displaced manner, as the character can be dismissed as "just a role". When desire is provoked by the cross-dressed character, is it desire for the representation or for the performer?

It is too easy to assign only one narrow "meaning" to cross-dressed characters, e.g., in the all-male troupes of Renaissance theater, to treat all dynamics as necessarily involving male homoeroticism, with an assumed male audience consuming the performances of male actors via cross-dressed female roles.

There is very little contemporary commentary on the topic of medieval theatrical cross-dressing by male actors, perhaps because it was a standard accepted practice. In contrast, the appearance of women (in any role) in theatricals was worthy of comment, as with several who performed in 1501 for Katherine of Aragon on her entry to London. A few 15th c. documents from Metz provide earlier context. A working-class girl playing the role of Saint Catherine in a play commissioned by a local noblewoman inspired a nobleman to marry her. On the other side, a beautiful male apprentice, after playing the role of Saint Barbara, was the target of multiple offers of support and protection, both from women (including a wealthy widow who wanted to make him her heir) and men (including the church canon who won out to become his benefactor).

Status (rather than gender) cross-dressing could be used by the upper classes to create a context for breaking social rules, as when Henry VIII and a group of his courtiers dressed up like Robin Hood and his outlaws to invade the Queen's chambers and perform some skits and dances before departing.

The "Miracles de Nostre Dame" is a collection of 40 plays performed in Paris by the goldsmiths' confraternity (a sort of social/trade guild). Two of the plays involve female characters who cross-dress and live as males for most of the performance.

One tells the legend of Saint Theodora, one of the genre of "transvestite saints" in which women entered an otherwise forbidden monastic life by masquerading as men. "Brother" Theodore, while on an errand for the monastery, is the unwilling target of sexual advances by an innkeeper's daughter. When the girl becomes pregnant by a more receptive partner, she accuses Theodore of being the father and Theodore is expelled from the monastery to raise the child in the wilderness. Theodore returns to the monastery to die and only then is the secret revealed.

The second play is an adaptation of the romance of Yde and Olive (appearing in somewhat different form in a 13th century epic poem). The main character (here named Ysabel) takes on male disguise to escape from her father's incestuous advances and becomes distinguished as a knight in the court of the emperor of Constantinople. The emperor requires Ysabel to accept his daughter's hand in marriage. Ysabel reveals her secret to her bride on the wedding night, who promises to keep the secret and to honor and cherish Ysabel as she would a husband. All is well until an eavesdropper betrays them to the emperor who demands that the pair take a bath before him in the garden to confirm or deny the accusation. Saint Michael saves them by appearing in the guise of a white stag just as they're about to undress, distracting the witnesses and telling Ysabel that she can go ahead and undress and everyone will see her in a male body. Having dodged that bullet, Ysabel confesses the truth to the emperor to save the live of her accuser. The play resolves with a precipitous cross-marriage between the emperor and Ysabel, and between the emperor's daughter and Ysabel's father (who shows up at the last minute). (This contrasts with the resolution in the original epic in which Ysabel/Yde is literally transformed into a man, rather than only temporarily being given the illusion of one.)

In both plays, the heroine voluntarily takes on the transgender role which then drives the action of the story. While Theodora's story involves repeated suppression of sexuality, Ysabel's repeatedly flirts with several varieties of "forbidden" sexuality including both incest and same-sex relationships. And in both plays, "gender" is clearly framed as a role that one can perform, regardless of biological sex.

With regard to audience reception of the performances, it must also be considered that the performers were most likely to have all been male, thus raising the tangle of a boy playing a woman disguised as a man.

Robin Hood plays and masquerades were popular in late medieval and early modern England, often used as a combination local festival and fundraising event for the parish. They are often described in company with the appearances of a giant, Saint George and the dragon, and morris dancers. The roles of Robin Hood, Little John, Maid Marian, and Friar Tuck were stock figures in what may have been loosely scripted improvisational performances. (Episodes from at least one medieval play, and many later ballads that almost certainly continue the tradition survive.) Stereotypical costumes were key in identifying the characters.

Two types of cross-dressing are associated with these performances. In one, Robin Hood escapes pursuit by changing clothes with an old woman and trading her spindle for his bow and arrows. This enables Robin to escape back to his Merry Men (who don't recognize him in female dress until he identifies himself), and then to return and rescue the old woman who has been arrested in his place. His actions in confronting his pursuer carry hallmarks of an "unruly woman" role which enables/allows him to engage in certain types of socially disruptive behavior.

This use of female disguise to engage in disruption continued across the centuries in riots over food and the enclosure act. [See, e.g., the "Rebecca Riots".] The disguised old woman, on the other hand, rather than acquiring male power, is put into danger by "becoming" Robin Hood. Rather than being able to establish her true identity verbally (as Robin does) she tells her pursuer to prove her gender for himself by "lift[ing] up my leg and see."

In both the French miracle plays and the Robin Hood plays, disguises across class and status lines are also a staple of the genre. The article speculates on the opportunity these roles gave the actors to explore the social roles associated with their stage roles, as well as the possible attitudes of the audience to these alternate presentations (by actors who were their everyday neighbors and friends).

This notion of cross-category playacting as subversive is supported by some legal reactions, such as a mid 16th c. Scottish degree forbidding Robin Hood impersonations or the participation in Robin Hood events. The dangers that Robin Hood dramatics presented to authority combined the temporary unification of players and audience into a unified same-status whole, with the inherent anti-authoritarian challenge that was part of the essential Robin Hood symbolism. Authorities may rightly have seen the theatricals as standing one step away at all times from a spontaneous egalitarian revolt.

One view of both gender and class cross-dressing in a theatrical context is that it reinforced norms by resolving initially transgressive situations back to the status quo. Another view is that such performances were a sort of safety valve, allowing a framework for performing transgression that could then be erased by the ending of the play. But a third function--or rather, a different understanding of the second function--is to provide an opportunity for exploring different personal options and trying on new roles. That these roles might then propel the player into a new everyday reality is demonstrated by the anecdotal examples of performances inspiring patrons to elevate an actor or actress out of their original status to one made accessible via the role. The eventual attempts to suppress the class challenges of the Robin Hood plays support a conclusion that the barrier between play and reality was seen as permeable. Does this then imply that the cross-gender theatrical roles raised the possibility in people's imaginations that the gender barrier might also be permeable?

The article ends by looking at some examples of cross-gender roles in modern theater and movies and the ways in which a particular performance may be framed as "safe" or be seen as socially dangerous.

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