The Theatricality of Transformation: cross-dressing, sexual misdemeanour and gender/sexuality spectra on the Elizabethan stage, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, and the Repertories of the Court of the Aldermen, 1574-1607

Sara Gorman
Magdalen College, Oxford

Sara Gorman. "The Theatricality of Transformation: cross-dressing, sexual misdemeanour and gender/sexuality spectra on the Elizabethan stage, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, and the Repertories of the Court of the Aldermen, 1574-1607". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 3.1-37<URL:>.

  1. It has long been the fashion in feminist criticism on Shakespeare and contemporaries to assign staged cross-dressing a visible place within the known patriarchal world. As a result, critics have re-imagined cross-dressing on the Elizabethan stage as a phenomenon always within patriarchal structures; whether specific instances of cross-dressing are interpreted as transgressive or as reaffirming patriarchal power, they nonetheless become inevitably defined only in relation to “the patriarchy.” In many critical assessments, staged cross-dressing is assumed either to have reasserted the patriarchal construction of gender or to have created an arena for anxious questioning of real gender boundaries.[1] This critical framework suggests that to discuss staged cross-dressing is primarily to discuss patriarchal notions of gender. While some critics, such as Stephen Orgel and Lisa Jardine, have suggested that cross-dressing on the Elizabethan stage may truly be about male desire and transgression,[2] there remains an implicit assumption within the scholarship on this topic that cross-dressing on the Elizabethan stage was, and is, fundamentally about women.

  2. In the process of re-imagining gender in Elizabethan theatre, many critics have re-constructed it in a fashion inescapably influenced by the discourse of modern gender and sexuality. Words such as “confusion” and “anxiety” abound in the literature on this topic, suggesting that cross-dressing necessarily represents a form of transgression so intrinsically uncomfortable that it must be resolved. One critic argues that Viola remains “trapped” in her “male garb” at the end of Twelfth Night as part of the play’s anxiety-inducing refusal to restore heterosexual norms.[3] Juliet Dusinberre has claimed that Viola must “return to a world where she must be Orsino’s lady after the momentary freedom of a Twelfth Night masculinity.”[4] Yet the expectation that the drama dissolve into heterosexual certainty in order to dispel the tensions of ill-defined gender categories might be a modern imposition. While Elizabethan staged cross-dressing does of course interact with patriarchal society in complex and often transgressive ways, cross-dressing may evade gender categorizations in a way that makes it difficult to associate it entirely with patriarchy.

  3. Several critics have offered intriguing alternatives to the assumption that staged cross-dressing always interacts transgressively or obediently with patriarchal structures. In her book The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England, Jean Howard questions the relationship of every cross-dressing plot to patriarchal concerns. By suggesting that these theatrical cross-dressing plots resist an absolute drive to “heterosexual closure,”[5] Howard poses a challenge to much of the criticism on this topic. Peter Stallybrass and Ann Rosalind Jones have suggested in their recent book Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory that Renaissance concerns with cross-dressing reveal a preoccupation specifically with clothing that has as much to do with class distinction as with gender identity. Valerie Traub has astutely insisted on the inadequacy of a view that “conflate[s]…gender and eroticism.”[6] Traub in particular points out and challenges another prevalent binary in scholarship on this topic of “desire/attraction” on one side versus “anxiety/phobia” on the other. None of these claims is mutually exclusive, and none of them purports to exclude the obvious gender identity concerns intrinsic to every staged instance of cross-dressing. Yet the fact that critics have become unsatisfied with much of the existing analysis of this topic indicates that much of the literature that already exists on the topic is strongly influenced by contemporary sex/gender concerns and may benefit from some re-evaluation.

  4. Critical efforts by Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin have challenged the certitude with which early feminist criticism on cross-dressing classified the binaries of an early modern sex/gender system. In her 1987 article “Androgyny, Mimesis and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” Rackin complicates the picture by proposing that sexual ambiguity is not an anxiety to be dispelled in Shakespearean comedies but an agent that in fact not only “complicate[s] the plot” but also “resolve[s] them.”[7] Howard has employed historical facts about the presence of women in early modern playhouses to suggest that we “read the situation less within the horizons of masculinist ideology and ask whether women might have been empowered, and not simply victimized, by their novel position within the theater.”[8] This bold contention has paved the way for critics such as Valerie Traub to construct a female economy of gazing and to theorize about the “circulation” of specifically feminine desire in Renaissance theatrical venues. Despite the significant advances in thought on this topic due to the relatively recent consideration of female subjectivity and desire, an alternative criticism that focuses on female empowerment in place of patriarchal oppression still speaks to a fundamental concern with female power struggles, inevitably working within the discourse of two dichotomous and battling sexes. In contemplating the meaning of transvestism in Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl, Stephen Orgel has brought to light the fact that gender may not always be the “central element” in cases of cross-dressing.[9] As counter-intuitive as this contention may seem, it nonetheless seems to be entirely true of Elizabethan cross-dressing. In fact, one does not find the kind of absolute male/female distinctions one might expect to find in a society so dominated by patriarchy. Instead, within certain social groups, such as cross-dressers and other sexual transgressors, the discourses surrounding male and female identities are surprisingly conflated.

  5. If cross-dressing is not primarily about gender designation and placing women in a particular space in relation to patriarchal figures, what else might it be about? An analysis of the language surrounding cross-dressing and sexual misdemeanour in late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century legal records from Bridewell Hospital and the Repertories of the Court of the Aldermen is an often overlooked but tremendously useful tool in examining the staged spectacle of cross-dressing. The reasons for using these particular legal records are several. To begin with, they are some of the only known surviving London legal archives that mention cross-dressing; to date, the Essex records remain the only other legal records mentioning real instances of cross-dressing in the context of ecclesiastical courts, which will not be treated here.[10] Moreover, Bridewell Hospital records are a particularly rich source, as Bridewell became a prison largely inhabited by sexually incontinent females and males. While a seminal study on Dutch legal records by Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol has revealed an entire legal discourse surrounding condemnation of cross-dressers in the courtroom, no work of similar extent has been done on English legal records.[11] Michael Shapiro argues that work on the London legal records is well overdue and notes in passing that significant differences exist between the condemnation of cross-dressers in Dutch legal records and in English legal records. According to Shapiro, London legal records reveal that cross-dressing was automatically assumed evidence of sexual misdemeanour, while Dutch legal records allow for other motivations for cross-dressing.[12] Furthermore, the space of the courtroom became rather theatrical, especially as cross-dressers in particular were made to stand as a spectacle on the pillory, and thus the translation to London public theatre is appropriate.

  6. R. Mark Benbow and Alasdair D.K. Hawkyard collected thirteen cases of cross-dressing recorded at Bridewell Hospital and the Repertories of the Court of the Aldermen 1554-1604, subsequently published for the first time by Michael Shapiro in 1994. Shapiro has used these cases of cross-dressing to make clear that female cross-dressing was not itself a punishable crime but assumed evidence of sexual misdemeanour. This claim is amply well supported by the cases of cross-dressing Shapiro transcribes in the appendix to his book. For example, an additional accusation of sexual incontinence is added in the trial of Mawdlin Gawen, accused of wearing male apparel: “Also she saithe that the saide Thomas Ashewell...had the use of her bodie carnallie divers and sondrie tymes.”[13] The case of Oratio Plafaryne shows how cross-dressing could be closely accompanied by bawdy behaviour: “Afterwardes his M[aster] wrytte lettres for Jane to come and lye with him at his house...She came in a manes gowne and a hatt and laye one night with him.”[14] Similarly, we can locate the automatic connection of cross-dressing with sexual misbehaviour in the examination of Hellen Balsen, alias Hudson: “being apprehended by him in manes apparel...and beinge demaunded whether the sayde Taylors sonne have not th’use of her body denyeth the same and for that she is knowne to be a notorious whore.”[15]

  7. It appears difficult and perhaps somewhat artificial to separate the legal discourse of cross-dressing from that of sexual misdemeanour more generally. Therefore, this paper will strive to put legal condemnation of cross-dressers in a wider context of legal condemnation of sexual transgressors, both male and female. Because cross-dressing as a legal phenomenon represents part of a legal discourse on sexual misdemeanour, it is necessary to consider the legal procedures surrounding other kinds of sexual misdemeanour. A comparison of records of condemnation of male and female sexual transgressors reveals a surprisingly non-gender-specific discourse, opening up the possibility that so-called gender-bending on the early modern stage might not necessarily be only about gender. The examples of legal condemnation of cross-dressing presented in this paper are culled mainly from Benbow and Hawkyard’s findings as reproduced in Shapiro’s book.  The examples of legal condemnation of non-cross-dressing male and female sexual transgressors are my previously unpublished findings in the archives.[16]  These original archival findings are the result of examination of the Minute Books of Bridewell Hospital and the Repertories of the Court of the Aldermen between the years of 1574 and 1607, roughly contemporary with the years sampled by Benbow and Hawkyard in their search for evidence of cross-dressing and with the plays by Shakespeare and contemporaries considered in this paper.[17] Bridewell’s legal records detailing the trials of the sexually incontinent drop steeply after about 1605 and are almost non-existent by the middle of the century: hence the present decision to examine the Bridewell records and the Repertories only through the very early years of the seventeenth century.[18]

  8. I will consider late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century legal records mentioning cross-dressing and sexual misdemeanour from Bridewell Hospital and the Repertories of the Court of the Aldermen in conjunction with theatrical representations of cross-dressing in the plays of Shakespeare and several contemporaries, theorizing that the cross-dressed figure was an object of visual fascination for Elizabethan audiences in precisely the way youthful and virginal figures were. A figure inevitably caught in between two categories, the cross-dresser is in a state of constant transformation. This transformative nature lent itself easily (and delightfully) to performance. The cross-dresser on stage becomes a spectacle due to the open possibility of transformation in either direction by maintaining an in-between doubleness, a state of being that could potentially (but not yet) resolve into masculine or feminine. This state of being is not uniquely about gender but finds its parallel in other theatrical fascinations of transformative performability, including the virgin who exists as a being in transition, and the boy who is potentially to become a man. In all of these cases, the audience is meant to speculate on these transformative identities, such that they become not transitional states to be passed over and resolved but the centrally spectacular aspects of the plays themselves as the actor is arrested in a state of potentiality, always on the verge of transformation. The primary purpose of this study is to argue for a new framework for thinking about gender transformation on the early modern stage that forms not only part of a non-gendered discourse on sexual misdemeanour in the legal world but also, and more significantly, part of a series of other explicitly theatrical transformations that do not have primarily to do with gender issues or male-female power structures, a proposition very much supported by close readings of instances of cross-dressing in the plays. Subsequently, I will use instances in the legal records to provide more evidence for a fascination with transformative performance in a different context than the stage.

  9. The Bridewell records and Repertories show condemnation of both male and female cross-dressers, and the rhetoric surrounding the accusations as well as the punishments for both sexes vary surprisingly little. If we return to cross-dressing comedies with this knowledge, the possibility begins to emerge that gender dichotomies challenged or reinforced by staged cross-dressing might not be as absolute as has previously been conjectured. A court record from Bridewell Hospital from 20 December 1576 indicates the accusation and condemnation of a man, Richard Watwood, for “bawdeye” behaviour and “whoredome.”[19] The grounds for his examination, the language surrounding his accusation and his punishment differ in no significant way from the corresponding elements in concurrent cases of female sexual misdemeanour. Another example from the Repertories reveals the same discourse applied to male offenders: “Item: it is ordered this daye that one Bolston whoe by the wardmote inquest of Creplegate witheout is founde to be a common harlot with his wyves daughter that for that offence their punishment shalbe at Bridewell there to be whipped very sharply because their offence is very odious and that the Deputye of Creplegat ward & thre or foure of the saide wardmote inquest of the substanciallest shalbe present at the said punishment.”[20]

  10. It seems that men and women were equally likely to behave in a visibly “lewd” manner: “Richard Briggs…lewd fellow vehementlie suspected to live an adulterous life.”[21] This condemnation sounds similar to the condemnations of both Joane Reynolds and Katherine Jacob on 15 September 1602, at least in pointing to the fact that both men and women could be arrested and tried for behaving “lewdly”: “Joane Reynolds called up and examined about diuers misdemeanors charged upon her by diuers articles geven in Court vehemently suspected to be a bad and lewd woman: ordered that she shalbe kept till she put in good sureties for her good behavior and appearance” and, similarly: “Katherine Jacob also Barston a dutch harlot brought into this house by the watch in Fleate Streete vehementlie suspected of incontency kept till further order.”[22] Men, like women, were also likely to be taken in by the watch and examined nearly identically on similar charges of sexually inappropriate behaviour. In some cases in these legal records, one even finds the names of men and women bracketed together accompanied by the documentation of identical condemnations. For example, the wife of one John Hall, taken to Bridewell for being a “notorious and shameful bawde,” was condemned along with her husband who “hathe confessed the same Bawdry and hathe bene openly ponysshed for the same.”[23] Similarly, Richard Maye and Anne Olyver were apprehended together for roguery and a suggestion of sexually illicit behaviour: “Both rogues and taken rogueying in the privies at Quene hythe and brought in by Andrewes constable. She is a cosyn and a harlot, also they have bothe correccion and are ill.”[24] Dorathie Cleton and John Hirke were similarly apprehended together for being found “last nighte…kissing together lewdly.”[25]

  11. This “bracketing together” of female and male sexual transgressors poses a definitive challenge to the argument that female sexual transgressors were marginalized according to their specific feminine status. In fact, of the thirteen cases of cross-dressing they collected, Benbow and Hawkyard’s indicate at least one instance of male cross-dressing, which mentions the imprisonment of two men, Robert Chewtyn and Richard Myles, for “goynge abrode” in “womans apparell.” In his book on transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England, David Cressy cites a handful of cases of men cross-dressed as women, mostly tried in ecclesiastical courts, including the case of John Wilkins of Kent who went “about the street in woman’s apparel” in 1598; Matthew Lancaster, husbandman, who wore “woman’s apparel like a spinster” during Maytide festivities in Somerset in 1607; John Taylor of Chester who was cited “for wearing women’s apparel” in 1608; Christopher Willan of Burton who was cited “for bearing rushes to the church or chapel disguised in women’s apparel” in 1633; and the intriguing 1633 case of Thomas Salmon who dressed in the clothing of a midwife’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Fletcher, in order to be privy to the birthing-room, an exclusively female space.[26] Cressy is careful to point out that the recent scholarly emphasis on gender trouble in studies of cross-dressing may be misleading and that cross-dressing may not always be concerned with clothing or even with gender. He urges us to engage other possibilities, for example, to consider the crime in Thomas Salmon’s case one of “genre rather than gender,” a crime more of encroaching on forbidden territory than of gender-bending per se.[27]

  12. To be sure, the number of female cross-dressers still outweighs the number of male cross-dressers in this sample, but it is essential to recognise that the discourse of cross-dressing as sexual misbehaviour and the condemnation resulting do not differ in any identifiable manner in these legal records, suggesting that the apprehension of a male cross-dresser functions similarly to the apprehension of a female in male garb. Again, the language describing the offenses and the specific punishments for the offenses (usually the pillory) for cross-dressed men is largely identical to the language used to condemn women who donned man’s apparel. The cross-dressing men in Benbow and Hawkyard’s sample are “comytted to warde for goynge abrode in the Cytye yesterdaye in womans apparell.”[28] In a similar fashion, Johan Godman was condemned because she “so went abroade and shewed herself in divers parts of this City as lackey”[29]; Magdalyn Gawyn because she “apparelyd herselfe in manes clothinge and wente abroade the streates of this Cytie dysguised in [that] sorte”[30]; Margaret Bolton because she “went a broade in mans apparell”[31]; and Dorothy Clayton because she “hath used commonly to goe aboute this Cytie and the libertyes of the same apparyled in mans attyre and also hathe abbusyd her bodye with sundry persons.”[32] These cross-dressed offenders, like their male counterparts, are imprisoned for their going “abroad” in such apparel. 

  13. The fact that the Bridewell records and the Repertories reveal conflated discourses for male and female sexual offenders poses a challenge to the way literary critics have read the legal implications of staged female cross-dressing. In an article on The Roaring Girl, Stephen Orgel examines the legal records of the real Moll Cutpurse’s misdemeanours and concludes that: “Her masculine attire and comportment are, moreover, assumed to constitute licentious behaviour that is specifically female, implying that she is a whore and a bawd.”[33] Yet a careful examination of other legal records indicates that the assumed link between cross-dressed attire and licentious behaviour, and further the specific designation of transgressors as “whores” and “bawds,” was in no way limited to females. Recognition of the existence of similar cultural discourses to deal with the misdemeanour of both sexes demands a critical re-reading of many of the cross-dressing plays, the scholarship on which has been dominated by an assumption that “whoredom” and cross-dressing were gendered female issues in Elizabethan England. But this assumption is not supported by the Bridewell legal records and the Repertories, neither of which reveals significant differences between condemnation of men and women for these offenses.

  14. Shakespeare’s late romance Cymbeline demonstrates this principle rather well. Imogen’s cross-dressing is a rather unimportant aspect of the play, at least in comparison with the kind of extended joking and quibble that surrounds the cross-dressing in As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Further, the audience is made very much to speculate on male bodies, arguably even more than on female bodies. Although much of the plot revolves around the assessment of Imogen’s chastity—and indeed Iachimo’s condemnation of her revolves around a piece of information he garners specifically about her body in the voyeuristic bedroom scene—more of the play is devoted to male disguise. Although the male disguise in this play is not cross-gender, we are meant to ponder the male body, specifically when Cloten contemplates his own body in comparison to Posthumus’: “I mean, the lines of my body are as well drawn as his”[34] or when Imogen herself takes inventory of the dead body: “I know the shape of ‘s leg. This is his hand,/His foot Mercurial, his Martial thigh,/The brawns of Hercules” (IV.ii.381). In fact, this speculation on the male body is not surprising given the fact, as Rackin has argued, that much of Shakespearean cross-dressing seems explicitly “designed” to call attention to the male body.[35] Indeed, the male disguises in this play are more transgressive than the female cross-dressing. Imogen’s cross-dressing is a process of dressing down as she becomes more weak-willed and roguish as a boy, yet her mission is to prove her chastity rather than to engage in some kind of sexually inappropriate behaviour which would constitute the usual assumed purpose of female cross-dressing. Instead, it is the men who engage in disguises for ill-found purposes. These reversals are not anomalous in Elizabethan drama but reflect the fact, all too often neglected by modern critics, that men are just as implicated in sexual misdemeanour and the immorality of disguise as women are. This similarity across sexes can also be seen in the Bridewell records and the Repertories where the discourses surrounding male and female sexual misdemeanour are surprisingly similar.

  15. On the stage, satirical reversals of gender anxieties could be particularly humorous; further, such reversals sometimes revealed certain ways in which many anxieties normally gendered female could also have applied to men. In Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, Morose’s nearly pathological desire for a “silent woman” has everywhere been interpreted as evidence of a prevalent patriarchal anxiety about what Gail Kern Paster calls “leaky vessels.”[36] That is, Morose’s insistence on policing the orifices of his prospective wife resonates with a prominent masculinist fear of women who somehow seeped out of their domesticities. Erotic and sexually deviant symbols included women leaning out of windows or standing in the doorways of their homes. In his essay “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed” Peter Stallybrass proposes that these anxiety-inducing images are evidence of a potent patriarchal need to “enclose” female bodies and to block their orifices, including their mouths.[37] Women’s “use of language” was restricted to “verbal interchanges within their own homes,”[38] again enclosing their orifices.  The policing of feminine orifices was inextricably linked to sexual behaviour: those women who were “loose of tongue” were assumed to exercise a kind of sexual freedom that would have been fervently condemned.[39] Borrowing the language of Bakhtin’s notion of the classical versus the grotesque body, scholars such as Stallybrass have theorized about the Renaissance view of the female body, something that, like Bakhtin’s description of the “carnivalesque,” exists in excess of its boundaries, “an image of impure corporeal bulk with its orifices (mouth, flared nostrils, anus) yawning wide.”[40] And yet, at least in the case of Epicoene, there appears a counter discourse of the “leaky” male. It is Morose, and not Epicoene or any other women in this play, whose speech is abundantly out of control. While Jonson’s reversal of gendered anxieties is satirical, it does suggest a current in early modern culture of concern over policing male orifices. As Gail Kern Paster has aptly noted, the image of the body in excess applied in many ways to the male body as much as to the female. Although Paster emphasises the notion of the “leaky” or “incontinent” female, she draws attention to a class-based reading of the uncontrollable body that implicates men and women alike. In discussing several scenes depicting incontinent women in Elizabethan drama, Paster makes reference to Erasmus’ De civilitate morum puerilium in which Erasmus specifies that men who “relieve themselves in front of ladies” are unrefined “rustics.”[41] And although Paster ultimately argues that a dominant discourse identifies women as “leaky vessels,” with bodies whose “material expressiveness” is “excessive,”[42] the inclusion of a discussion of men’s “leakiness” even within this predominantly female discourse demonstrates that the association of overflowing orifices with excessive verbal expressiveness and grotesque corporeality could refer to men as well as to women. Jonson indicates the extension of this discourse to men in writing a male character whose verbosity can certainly be characterized as overflowing its proper boundaries.

  16. Additionally, Jonson’s employment of a “leaky” male points to the unusual gender dynamics in this play. The play is one of the rarer types that involve male rather than female cross-dressing. The ultimate revelation that Epicoene is in fact a boy does little to resolve any of the confused notions of gender in the play. Instead, the revelation of Epicoene’s masculine identity does more to further confound the relationship between “actual” and “played” gender identities than to unify various levels of cross-gender disguise. As Laura Levine notes, Epicoene’s “undressing” in the final act and the indication that “she” is “really” a boy raises a number of questions about the gender identities of the Collegiates who are also on stage.[43] Does the removal of Epicoene’s disguise implicitly undress the Collegiates and reveal masculine identities beneath their costumes? The impossibility of restoring Epicoene’s “male” identity without raising questions about the genders of virtually every other character on stage indicates that male-to-female cross-dressing is just as problematic and elusive as female-to-male cross-dressing. In Epicoene, the notion that cross-dressing and sexual misdemeanour refer primarily to female transgression and employ a different discourse in regards to men seems just as unfounded on the stage as it is in the Bridewell records and the Repertories.

  17. There is yet another factor that inevitably poses a challenge to primarily gender-focused criticism of staged cross-dressing. While modern discomfort with transvestism might lead critics to focus solely on cross-dressed disguises, it seems that, when viewed in the context of entire dramatic works, these disguises recur as instances among many other disguises. We should therefore not view moments of cross-gender disguise only as a disclosure of sexual anxiety around which the entire play revolves (although their recourse to questions of gender and sexuality is clearly undeniable). Rather, the cross-gender disguises sometimes appear in the context of many other non cross-gender disguises so as to suggest that cross-gender disguise might be comparable to or work within some wider scheme of disguise that does not have only to do with gender and sexuality. Twelfth Night is a perfect example of this principle. While Cesario’s hermaphroditism and the abundance of homoerotic desire (Olivia for “Cesario” and “Cesario” for Orsino) deserves much attention, the curious side plot of Malvolio’s misdirected courtship and the disguise he undertakes must be examined in conjunction with the confused genders and sexualities that result from the central cross-dressed disguise. Malvolio’s “courtship” of Olivia seems a comic parallel to the confused love triangles that arise due to Viola’s cross-gender disguise. Malvolio’s specific contemplation of the donning and doffing of particular articles of clothing resonates with Viola’s primary disguise scene. Indeed, “Olivia’s” letter insists to quite an extent on Malvolio’s dressing in “yellow stockings.”[44] In Malvolio’s case, as is mentioned in “Olivia’s” letter, the disguise is related to class and status rather than gender, but the parallels allow us to equate this hierarchically transgressive disguise with Viola’s cross-gender disguise in a way that makes any declaration about the exclusively gender-focused notion of disguise in this play tenuous.

  18. These instances of non-gender transformative disguises functioning similarly to cross-dressed disguises render a re-evaluation of the precise significance of cross-dressing on the stage necessary – and this is where the notion of the theatrics of transformation becomes an increasingly likely possible explanation for these plays’ fascination with cross-dressing. Jones and Stallybrass propose that the Renaissance spectator’s attention was directed specifically towards “speculat[ing] upon a boy actor who undresses” with a “fetishistic attention to particular items of clothing.”[45] This speculation is readily available in the legal records, as authorities harped on the specific items of clothing the offender wore: one woman is described as having worn “cape and cloke” and “hose and dublett”[46] while a male cross-dresser is condemned for donning “a scarf on his necke.”[47] Similarly, Jones and Stallybrass’ proposition rings true when we consider the sheer number of “preparation” scenes, or scenes in which the audience is privy to the description of the act of donning and doffing disguise, that appear in cross-dressing plots. As You Like It is an apt case for contemplating the specific attention to the process of changing clothes. Celia fabricates the primary escape plot, which recalls escape plot scenes between lovers such as Hermia and Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Jessica and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice. Only after Celia has formulated an elaborate plan does Rosalind add cross-dressing to the list of transgressions these two disobedient women are about to commit. The cross-dressing in this play, while at first a measure Rosalind proposes to protect herself and her cousin, is prolonged past the point of necessity, becoming solely a titillating performative gesture. Rosalind further highlights the fundamental theatricality of her cross-dressed disguise through mention of the “curtal-ax” and “boar spear.”[48] Her particular attention to the details of her disguise catches her in a moment of imaginative transformation that becomes playful and therefore precisely suited to the theatrical medium. The attention to the act of changing clothes discloses a certain fascination with the cross-dresser’s particularly performative transformation. The moment of Rosalind’s decision to cross-dress and her verbal enactment of undressing and dressing forces the audience to pause over, and revel in, the precise instant of undressing and to speculate the specifically theatrical capacities of the transformative.

  19. We find a similarly titillating “preparation” scene in The Merchant of Venice. Much has justifiably been made of Nerissa’s question “What, shall we turn to men?”[49] Indeed, this question indicates the inherently intertwined discourses of female sexual transgression and cross-gender disguise in Elizabethan culture. Nerissa’s suggestively bawdy question resonates strongly with the prevalent anxieties of female sexual freedom that accompany cross-dressing. Still, there is another way of reading this scene that suggests alternatives to Nerissa’s seemingly definitive threat to the patriarchy. Portia carries the word “turn” to its comic heights: “Fie, what a question’s that,/If thou wert near a lewd interpreter!” While the bawdy implications of the word “turn” would have evoked or reflected a certain amount of anxiety, it is equally the case that the very word “turn” signifies an entire discourse of pleasurable spectacle of which the cross-dresser constitutes only one example. Nerissa and Portia’s pausing over this question of “turning” arrests them in a state of great transformative and performative power. By simultaneously speculating turning into men and drawing attention to their necessarily female sexual behaviour with men, the two women look forward to transformation while maintaining specifically feminine identities. That is, at this very moment, they are the “undressed” boy actor, in between doffing women’s clothing and donning men’s. This “in between” is not primarily a moment of anxiety; rather it is the central theatrical principle in many of these plays.

  20. The performativity of in-betweenness is in no way limited to the cross-dresser. A figure one comes across repeatedly in early modern performance is the female virgin. Virginity was a thoroughly transitional state in early modern England. As Marie Loughlin notes, the virginal body was “culturally valued” for its “transitionality,”[50] a body ultimately “naturally and physiologically intended for marriage.”[51] Yet Loughlin locates the centrally paradoxical essence of the virginal body in the early modern period: while the liminal virginal body was culturally valued, the hymen’s “unquantifiability” created a discourse of virginity predicated upon its very absence.[52] The elusiveness of the virginal state is precisely what made virginity perfectly suited to theatrical performance. Speculation upon this transitional, indefinable state of the body is similar to speculation upon the transformative potentiality of the cross-dressed body and is particularly suited to what may be pleasurable play on the invisibility of certain kinds of identity.

  21. It seems that virginity opens up space in the discourse of sexuality for female-female interaction in a way that might be condemned among married women. In other words, virginity is often tied with female-female relationships (whether suggestively erotic or not) and is frequently manifested in the visibility of groups of women. Shakespearean comedy will attest to the fact that pre-marital female friendship was more tolerated than post-marital female relationships.[53] In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Hermia tells Helena of her elopement plot, she linguistically signifies the necessary replacement of their youthful intimacy with marriage and, ultimately, the loss of virginity:
    And in the wood where often you and I
    Upon faint primrose beds were wont to lie,
    Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet,
    There my Lysander and myself shall meet.[54]
    Once she and Lysander “meet,” Hermia’s virginal intimacy with Helena “upon primrose beds” will be irretrievable. Her post-marital state quite literally writes over her pre-marital virginal one.

  22. Virginity was something of a magical, and as some argue powerful, state of being that is invisible to legal sanctions except when its absence is suspected. Theodora Jankowski argues that virginity can even be a “means by which women refuse to be part of the sexual economy, refuse to be defined exclusively in terms of their reproductive capabilities” and that virginity allows a woman to “define herself in terms of herself and other women, not in terms of men, or the patriarchal sexual economy.” Marie Loughlin has suggested that the very “unquantifiability” of the hymen lends the state of virginity a particular power.[55] Theatrical renderings of virginity seek to prolong the invisibility of this transformative stage. It is no coincidence that a good number of early modern plays operate in a time period that arrests the female between marriage and consummation. Married virgins such as Portia and Bess Bridges are of particular interest because they seem to defy the absolute dissolution of the virginal state into marital consummation. In fact, they operate much like Portia and Nerissa in the moment of their contemplation of “turning” simultaneously both to and into men. Already transcribed into the social space of marriage, these women nonetheless maintain their pre-marital virginity, simultaneously re-enacting a pre-transformation state from what should be the other side of the transformation. These women can then simultaneously contemplate virginity and non-virginity in the same way that Portia and Nerissa simultaneously assert their femininity while also contemplating transforming themselves into men. The theatre thus capitalised on its imaginative capacities by refusing to identify characters as pre or post certain transformations in favour of prolonging indefinitely the experience of transformation itself.

  23. Jankowski has argued that Olivia in Twelfth Night maintains a form of virginal “power” by marrying Sebastian, a poor man without means, rather than the patriarch Orsino.[56] While it does not seem entirely accurate to designate the lovelorn Orsino the icon of patriarchy, the claim that Olivia calculates a marriage bond that retains some element of her virginity is an intriguing one because it renders virginity independent of the sexual act itself. The common collapsing of post-marital chastity and pre-marital virginity further illustrates that virginity was not strictly associated with the sexual act. This raises the question: what, then, is virginity if not merely the condition of the body before sex? It is precisely the inability to detect virginity, at least in most cases, that lends it a strange kind of magical force. Although matrons examined women under trial for lewd behaviour for the purpose of detecting whether or not they were virgins (as is recounted, for example, in the trials of Frances Howard), virginity could still be conceived of as something invisible.[57] In reference to Olivia, Jankowski seems to propose that virginity is not a biological condition but a state of being or pre-marital aura—in other words, a stage of development. Jankowski further argues that the virgin was never a formed persona; rather, female virginity was merely a means to an end. The virgin is of central interest to many of the comedies, and her virginal state is prolonged as something that enables performance.

  24. The Merchant of Venice presents an interesting obstacle to the normative trajectory of comedy that opens space for the kind of speculations on “invisible” identity embodied in the virgin. Portia and Bassanio marry towards the middle of the play, resolving the comic tension that remains to the last moments of most Shakespearean comedies. The question inevitably arises as to what can possibly occur in the remainder of the play if the end of the comedic trajectory has already been achieved by the end of act three. As in the case of Bess Bridges, the consummation in this case is separated from the actual marriage. Many critics have argued that the delay of the sexual act results from the homoerotic bond between Antonio and Bassanio in which Portia must intervene and re-establish heterosexual dominance. This restoration of “normative” heterosexuality, the argument goes, constitutes the logic behind Portia’s cross-dressed disguise as Balthazar and the ring exchange. This withholding of sex is representative of the comic trajectory, but it is emphasized in this play as Portia wields an unusual amount of power, even as an authoritative law-enforcing individual, and as she undertakes a concerted effort to ensure her place in the sexual economy of marriage. Portia and Nerissa re-dress in female attire and return to the “fairytale” land of Belmont to reclaim their heterosexual bonds with their husbands. Yet the end of the play does not secure a satisfyingly complacent consummation for the future. Instead, it continues to play with homoerotic possibilities by extending the image of the cross-dressed Portia past its material reality on stage. As Bassanio suggestively quibbles: “Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow./When I am absent, then lie with my wife” (V.i.300). Homoerotic possibilities and the opportunity for illicit heterosexual behaviour are conflated and in no way foreclosed at the end of the play, as Portia proclaims that should the “doctor” come to her house, she will deny him neither “my body” nor “my husband’s bed” (V.i.241). The suggestion and extensive play on the division versus the unity of Portia and the doctor Balthazar renders the play unwilling to settle on a definitive end of the male-female spectrum. The sense that Portia’s virgin power or cross-dressed state could leak over from Venice to Belmont suggests a fascination with representing the ambiguities of the transformative virgin state.

  25. The most obvious source to look at in contemplating interactions between the transformative states of virginity and cross-dressing is John Lyly’s play Gallathea. Lyly, not unusually, uses cross-dressing as a disguise; but what is telling in this play is the fact that it is never clear what exactly the cross-dressed disguise disguises. Do Tityrus and Melibeus guard their daughters’ femininity? Or can it equally be argued that it is their virginity, or “maidenhood” to use Lyly’s term, that must somehow be shrouded by the donning of male garb? Phillida introduces the possibility that her male garb disguises her virginity: “Suppose I were a virgin (I blush in supposing myself one), and that under the habit of a boy were the person of a maid.”[58] While there is plenty of quibble on the male/female confusions engendered by the girls’ disguises (which is subsequently heightened by their falling in love with one another), many of the jokes in this play suggest a different kind of cross-dressed disguise than we find in the Shakespearean canon. While Rosalind may joke about her existent or non-existent beard, the humour and mystification in Phillida and Gallathea’s disguises seems to rest on an attempt to shroud their maidenhood. Later, Phillida comments on her mistake: “I had thought that in the attire of a boy there could not have lodged the body of a virgin, and so was inflamed with a sweet desire which now I find a sour deceit” (V.iii.129). At this point, it seems that Lyly equates “virgin” with “girl.” Even so, by suggesting that cross-dressing might be conceived of as a disguise of virginity, Lyly not only writes within a discourse that equates cross-dressing and virginity but raises the question of the extent to which these transformative states evade the spectator’s gaze.[59] At the conclusion of the play, we are left with an ending that does not quite resolve due to a theatrical prolongation of what should be a pre-marital virginal fellowship between Phillida and Gallathea. Venus proclaims that she will “turn one of them to be a man” (V.iii.151), but it is never clear which of the two girls will be transformed. When Gallathea reappears to deliver the epilogue, it is unspecified what garb she wears and what gender “she” should display. The transformation never materializes on stage, and the girls do not seem to care whether they are both girls, both boys, girl and boy, or any other combination. Just as The Merchant of Venice plays with the idea of preserving Portia as a powerful virginal figure and maintains its homoerotic playfulness past the point of supposed resolution, Gallathea plays with the possibility of a female-female relationship that symbolically transgresses the developmental window for virginity. This play purports to resolve with a marked transformation that should end both the theatrically “in-between” state the girls occupy and their same-sex pre-marital relationship. Yet the supposed transformation is just as ambiguous and magical as the ambiguously gendered (and ambiguously virginal) relationship between the two “girls.”

  26. Virginal fellowships like the ones we find in The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Gallathea, Epicoene and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to name only a few, seem to last only until marriage. The interpretation of a lack of post-marital female-female friendship in early modern literature has been unified in modern scholarship around the contention that married women were anxiously guarded within their households. However, Phyllis Rackin, among others, has lately complicated these arguments. Noting how often “feminist scholarship” situates itself within a “patriarchal master narrative,”[60] Rackin reminds us that the expectation that women be “chaste, silent, and obedient” may be more prevalent in recent scholarship than in the literature of Shakespeare and contemporaries. Rackin goes on to challenge the public-private gendered space dichotomy by referencing women’s “prominence in the marketplace” and by astutely noting that the household was “the site where much of the economic production of the nation was conducted.”[61] Thus, Rackin argues, even if women were kept inside the household, this space designation did not necessarily marginalise them because “the household had not yet been limited and specialized to its modern status as a residential unit.”[62] It has often been argued that early modern anxieties about female travel (“going abroad”) bespoke a patriarchal concern with keeping women away from the “promiscuous male gaze” that threatens their sexual purity and enables whorish behaviour. Linda Woodbridge, for example, has argued that women who gazed out of windows “may glimpse men” and were therefore “presumed whore[s].”[63] While evidence for this is well-documented, there also existed considerable fear of females’ visibility to each other. This female-female visibility relates to “transformative” states because it engenders a female community reminiscent of pre-marital virginity – that is, the kind of friendship that exists between Hermia and Helena before they are married and cannot exist once they are no longer virgins. It therefore plays with the “correct” trajectory of the virgin’s assumed transformation.

  27. The Bridewell records and the Repertories seem to corroborate this notion of a concern about female friendships, not because they might induce homosexual behaviour but because they seemed to engender sexual misdemeanour specifically with men. Post-marital female-female friendships were often assumed evidence of adultery and sexual incontinence in the Bridewell records and the Repertories. Yet it should again be noted that even in these cases of groups of females engaging and enticing each other into sexual misdeed, men are frequently just as implicated in the accusations as are the women on trial, and the discourse to describe the misdemeanour of the women and that of the men is largely indistinguishable. One witness, Margarett Underwood, claimed to have seen through her “key hole” one Jeremy “laye his hand about her [Elizabeth’s] necke and with his other hand under her clothes kissing of her and…did caste her uppon the bedd and shortly after he strucke out the candell with his hatt and then went to their unlawfull wickedness.”[64] The “Jeremy” of Margarett Underwood’s testimony is accused of behaving just as lewdly as his sexual partner, “Elizabeth.”  The trial of “Margery Mameringe” in June 1574 reveals yet again the frequency of female witnesses and testimony for these cases of sexual misdemeanour:
    …the wife of John Himworthe saythe that she thorowe hir wall saw the saide Morgan haue the use of the bodie of the same Margery and thereupon sente for Jane Kellet the wife of Christopher Kellet who also saythe that she sawethe same acte doinge & they sente for the constable.[65]
    Once again, it is essential to recognise the language of the accusation: “Morgan” is accused of behaving lewdly for having had “the use of the bodie” of Margery, and in turn, Margery is accused of bawdry for her indiscreet sexual behaviour. Yet another, although slightly varying, example of a similar phenomenon occurs in the testimony of Margaret Eaton, who “saieth that George Marshall tolde hir that Richard Ellinthorppe saide he had the use of Davies wiffes Bodie three tymes in one daie.”[66] Another example from Bridewell, the testimony of Agnes Cawnford, reveals a similar phenomenon of indistinguishable condemnation of men and women for sexual misdeed:
    This day Agnes Cawnford sent in person…examined saith that she is with child and that one John Richardson is the father of yt and that yt was gotten in one goodwife Buddes house…and that the said Goodwife Buddes daughter and the said John Richardson together with the examined did lye all together in one bedd in the said house the same night that her child was gotten and that the said Goodwife Budde laye in the same chamber the same night. Ordered to be kept.[67]
    There is little suggestion of condemnation for sexual misdemeanour between two women, but the claims of sexual misdemeanour with John Richardson and the subsequent pregnancy with a bastard child seem the more striking concerns here. The three sexual deviants, lying “all together in one bedd,” are all equally implicated in the crime.

  28. Still, certain cases in the Bridewell records sometimes reveal a specific category of concern about friendships between married women, a concern that finds a striking parallel on the stage. In 1604, a certain “Ann Bowell” was taken into Bridewell and examined quite simply for “keeping company with another mans wife.”[68] The name of the other woman does not seem to be as important as the fact that she is “another mans wife.”  This record indicates a concern particularly about post-marital female relationships, the kind of relationship not permitted after marriage for Shakespeare’s virginal companions Hermia and Helena. Another legal examination reads: “Agnes Robson wyfe of John Robson of Clarkewell here in corte confesseth that she hath offended in whoredome with her owne body and also that she hath entysed one Jane Fackett to playe the harlot before she was warned of late and is sorrye for yt.”[69] This post-marital female relationship again engenders some suspicion of collusion in sexual misdeeds with men. Linda Woodbridge’s claim therefore needs some qualification – the concern is not only about women engaging in illicit sex with men but it is about fellowships of women who entice each other into sexual misdeed. But we should not simply take this to mean that female fellowships are homoerotic. These kinds of female fellowships, or a concern about them, find their counterpart in the theatre and become playfully transgressive as married non-virgins replay their pre-marriage, virginal identities by keeping company together. This issue of female fellowships is once again implicated in the theatrics of transformation, just as virginity and cross-dressing are.

  29. Translated onto the stage, the sexually transgressive female to female gaze was exploited as something with great theatrical potential. The epilogue to As You Like It in which Rosalind appeals directly to the tastes of female audience members demonstrates the theatrical revelling in what may have been a societal anxiety about women’s visibility to other women. The epilogue has understandably been the object of much critical attention. Yet it is not in fact as unique as it may at first seem. While it may play more explicitly and transgressively with gender ambiguity, it constitutes yet another example of the continuation of transformative identity past the supposed resolution of the play. Although, unlike Viola, Rosalind literally “escapes” her cross-dressed garb at the end of the play, her indecipherable gender identity in the epilogue suggests an ability to return to a pre-marital transformative state, simultaneously virginal and youthful. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia’s travel is enabled by her quest for the consummation of her marriage, but it is only possible on the grounds that she is still a virgin and that she is cross-dressed. These two are inseparable from each other and from her ability to be mobile. In addition, she necessarily travels with a virginal cross-dressed companion, and even though they are married, they simulate a pre-marital state of transformative capacity by virtue of their fellowship and travel.

  30. Jonson capitalises on the notion of female fellowships in Epicoene, in which a group of seemingly hermaphroditic “Collegiates” figure significantly. Their “authority” arises by virtue of their travelling and appearing on stage always as a fellowship of female companions. Truewit calls them: “an order between courtiers and country madams, that live from their husbands and give entertainment to all the Wits and Braveries o’ the time, as they call ‘em, cry down or up what they like or dislike in a brain or a fashion with most masculine or rather hermaphroditical authority…”[70] These women travel from their husbands and maintain friendships with each other, transgressively simulating a pre-marital state of sexuality that causes Truewit to be perplexed about their gender identities. Indeed, he identifies them as “in between” genders. Appropriately, these women have a performative function—they “entertain.” The link between “in between-ness” and theatricality is particularly well expressed in this case. By virtue of their post-marital behaviour as pre-marital virgins, these women become “hermaphroditical,” assigned the theatrical title of “in-between” that also characterizes the staged cross-dresser.

  31. Aside from virginity, there is yet another transitional aspect that often accompanies cross-dressing. Staged cross-dressing is frequently accompanied by a fascination with the youthfulness of the boy. Stephen Orgel and Michael Shapiro have both commented that boys, and particularly young male performers, prove difficult to categorise on a spectrum of male to female. Orgel has specifically posed the question: “What do boys and women have in common that distinguishes both from men, and renders both objects of desire for men?”[71] While it is familiar for us to “view boys as versions of men,” this assumption may be misguided when imposed on Elizabethan notions of sex and gender. Orgel prefers to align boys with women, pointing out that the Elizabethan ideal of womanhood was particularly “boyish,” favouring “slim-hipped and flat-chested” women.[72] However, rather than placing boys on either of the extremes of the gender spectrum, they, like virgins and cross-dressers, present another case of transformative fascination, again well suited for theatrical spectacle. If boys in the Elizabethan sex/gender system were not simply “little men,” then a woman who dresses specifically as a boy is not aligning herself with the “masculine.” A woman who disguises herself as a boy rather than as a man enters into a state of even more heightened ambiguity because boys are likewise caught in a transformative state of existence.

  32. Almost all of the Shakespeare plays with female-to-male cross-dressing make mention of the youthful beauty of the cross-dressed female as “boy.” Even in The Merchant of Venice, which contains decidedly few joking references to the woman under the male disguise in the court scene, the Jew comments on the judge’s youthfulness: “How much more elder art thou than thy looks!” (IV.i.257) and Shylock repeatedly calls her “young judge” (IV.i.228). We find similar comments in both As You Like It and even more so in Twelfth Night. Phoebe in As You Like It becomes bewitched by the “pretty youth” and the “pretty redness in his lip” (III.v.128). But it is Twelfth Night that provides a particularly intriguing example of this phenomenon. It is worth noting that Viola has no female companion, no Celia or Nerissa in whom to confide. The result is that all of the recognition of her feminine identity beneath the disguise occurs in asides or in suggestive language within her dialogue with others who do not know she is disguised. It might be argued that Viola’s transformative nature is even more potent as compared to the cross-dressed Rosalind and Portia because she never fully steps out of her disguise within the world of the play, as Rosalind does the moment she addresses “Celia” and not “Aliena.” Any time “Cesario” calls attention to Viola, it is part of a gesture that removes her from the play and communicates instead with the audience. In fact, “Viola” is only present on stage for one very short scene, and this scene is already caught within the discourse of cross-gender disguise as Viola prepares to undress and re-dress as Cesario.

  33. Viola disguises herself as a “eunuch,” asking to be “concealed” (I.ii.56). This is quite different from Rosalind’s “gallant” disguise (I.iii.124), and while Rosalind dresses up, Viola covers up, remaining undressed or castrated rather than adding layers of identity as Rosalind does. Viola, timid and powerless, needing a man to prepare her disguise, becomes a “eunuch,” endlessly caught between masculinity and femininity and indeed endlessly undressed. The speculation on the undressed boy actor that Stallybrass and Jones have aptly noted is present in both plays, but more attention is drawn to the physical body in Twelfth Night than in As You Like It. Viola’s inherent “transformability” as an uncertainly gendered figure opens up space for play on the nature of her disguised boyhood. The co-occurrence of cross-dressing and a fascination with boyhood in all of these plays indicates a strong sense of their relatedness, and this relatedness lies in their similar recourse to the performance of transformation. Olivia’s love for Viola seems neither anxiously homosexual nor heterosexual. Rather, Olivia becomes enchanted with Viola’s boyishness. Similarly, Orsino’s love (or lust) for the youthful Cesario is also predicated on his pretty boyishness and not on the particular love for a man, a woman, or a woman dressed as a man. When Orsino praises Cesario’s “smooth and rubious” lip and his “small pipe,” he does gesture towards the “woman’s part,” but at the same time, he notes the “shrill and sound” (I.v.35) timbre of Cesario’s voice, gesturing towards the youthful high-pitched sound of “his” voice and drawing attention to his situation within the transformative stages of puberty. While this comment is of course humorous and suggestive due to the double cross-gender disguise at play here, it also illuminates the real and fascinating beauty of the boy, even sans disguise.

  34. Michael Shapiro rightly argues against the general notion that the “complex figure of male actor/female character/female character/male disguise” dissolves into “a single androgynous entity.”[73] It is more accurately the case that these mazes of male/female disguises more readily embody the “young male performer” who is not “genderless” but the “young man, not yet but potentially [the] adult male.”[74] Shapiro’s language “not yet but potentially” suggestively points to the centrality of the transitional in the identity of the young male. The young male cannot be equated with a lack of clear gender designation, nor is he merely a less mature man. He is this “not yet but potentially” adult male whose identity depends precisely upon his transformative nature. The security of his identity is paradoxically predicated upon his existence as an unsecured transformative being. The theatre provided audiences a space for prolonged speculation on these transitional states of being, whether they were embodied in the boy, the virgin, the transvestite or the actor himself, whose volatility was particularly theatrical and spectacular.

  35. Another fascination specifically with the boy and the doubled nature of the cross-dresser may be found in The Roaring Girl. In the case of this play, closure is made tenuous by the failure to dissolve the doubled nature of the two Marys, Mary Frith and Mary Fitzallard. Quibbles on the shared name of this character abound in the play in a way that does not allow us to pass the double naming off as coincidence. In the very first scene, Sebastian calls Mary Fitzallard “Moll” in moments of greatest intimacy, and yet, in very close proximity to this affectionate name-calling, he refers to the other “Moll,” Mary Frith.[75] Later, Mary Frith very directly jokes about the shared name: “I pitied her for name’s sake, that a Moll/ Should be so crossed in love...” (IV.i.66). The appearance of Mary Fitzallard on stage dressed as a page would have been extremely striking to the audience, as it further solidifies the “doubled” nature of the two Marys. She even wears clothes fitted by Moll Frith’s tailor (IV.i.69). There has been much debate over the extent to which the purportedly deviant Moll is excluded from the supposed reconstruction of normative sexuality embodied in the closing marriage between Mary Fitzallard and Sebastian. Marjorie Garber has argued against the critical consensus that Moll Frith is decidedly “cast out” of the society forged at the end of the play: “Moll is not so much a role model as a recognition and a phantom, not a sign of the road not taken or a metaphor for the aspirations of early modern feminists but a sign of the double division of the concept of the ‘roaring girl’... Not either/or but both/and.”[76] Read alongside Orgel’s contention that much of the erotic excitement that surrounds Moll Frith is predicated upon her nearly constantly visible “double” nature as simultaneously male and female,[77] Garber’s argument seems to suggest that Mary Frith and Fitzallard never “divide,” and that, in some sense, Mary Fitzallard never sheds the masculine attire she dons to attain her marriage. Instead, Moll Frith and Mary Fitzallard remain doubled in a way that refuses to complete Mary Fitzallard’s transformative trajectory towards marriage, the end of which should also constitute the culmination of the play. Further, her transformative capacity is what renders Moll Frith arousing for characters within the play and spectators alike. Laxton’s sexual fantasies about Moll are consistently predicated on her precise placement in between masculinity and femininity: “That were excellent: she might first cuckold the husband and then make him do as much for the wife!” (II.i.210). As Orgel notes, it is the “polymorphous quality” of Moll Frith that so attracts and intrigues Laxton, among others in the play.[78] This means that it is not the female’s dressing as a boy that excites male sexuality but the “dressing up” as something mutable and becoming someone whose identity depends on changeability. Perhaps Sebastian’s seemingly homoerotic comment about kissing the cross-dressed Mary Fitzallard—“Methinks a woman’s lip tastes well in a doublet” (IV.i.47)—is not an expression of desire for a boy, or even a woman dressed as a boy, but for the simultaneous presence of both “woman” and “boy,” a doubled presence which actively keeps open the possibility of transformation in either direction. This simultaneity, this possibility for transformations along the spectra from male to female, virgin to non-virgin, boy to man, homosexual to heterosexual, is precisely what made these “transformative” states so fascinating and exciting for audiences.

  36. The inextricable link between gender and notions of transformation may initially seem to have much recourse to the Galenic concept of human sexual anatomy that critics have argued dominated scientific discourse on sexuality in the Renaissance. Galen theorized that the female body is an imperfect formation of the male’s, that she is a version of masculinity not quite achieved, purportedly due to a lack of heat at the time of conception. In consequence, the female’s genitalia were like a man’s, just not pushed outside of the body. As Janet Adelman points out, recent criticism has found this theory “particularly sexy” because it insinuates that a woman could turn into a man “merely by raising her temperature.”[79] Indeed, Galen’s anatomical theory creates a notion of the inherent transitivity of the female: she is always an in-between that has been imperfectly prolonged. This sense of a continuum of gender can also be extended to sexuality. As Jean Howard notes, Renaissance sexuality was not a matter of distinct identities. Paraphrasing Alan Bray, Howard points out that homosexuality “constituted a potential within everyone, a point on a continuum of possible sexual practices.”[80] This “continuum” is an intriguing observation: might it be, with recourse to the anatomical theories of Galen, that gender identity from male to female is also a spectrum? It was believed that a man “passes through” the state of a female on the way to becoming a male. Perhaps, in a less teleological manner, the lived experiences of gender and sexuality also existed on a spectrum in which any degree of masculinity/femininity and homosexuality/heterosexuality could exist in any variety of combinations at any time. At the same time, it is important to note that Galen’s one-sex model was not necessarily the prevailing anatomical theory of the period, as Adelman has convincingly noted. The problem that the Galenic model poses to feminist criticism is that it comes dangerously close to suggesting that an identity “female” as distinct from male does not in fact exist.[81] At the same time that the one-sex model gives way to a gender spectrum, notions of male and female as “distinct species” also appeared in anatomical theories of John Banister and Thomas Raynold, often overlooked by many scholars.[82] While complete recourse to Galen’s theory is tempting in theorising about a male-female continuum, it seems simultaneously to be the case that for gender transformative gestures to be theatrical, and hence titillating in part due to their invocation of imagination, there must have existed a sense of the two sexes as in some ways very much distinct.

  37. If gender and sexuality both constituted spectra of possibilities in which transformation was always possible, the theatre was a space in which to speculate on these transformations, often in a transgressive manner, but more importantly in a manner that drew on their spectacular and theatrical potential. This potential was recognised by authoritative structures such as the legal system which fostered a simultaneous condemnation of and fascination with cross-dressing. Perhaps the threat of cross-dressing was not so much about gender per se or about the relationship between femininity and the patriarchy but about the inability to pinpoint sexual identity; and perhaps theatre, most notably in the form of cross-dressed comedy, transgressively capitalised on this principle of the sexual spectrum for its suitability to theatrical performance. Perhaps, then, cross-dressing on the Elizabethan stage was in large part about theatricality. And perhaps the fascination with cross-dressing in the theatre rested, at least in part, not on the cross-gender garb but on the space it provided for imagining a proliferation of other equally plausible disguises, as the spectator speculates on the undressed boy actor, capable of any series of transformations.



[1] See, for example, Jean Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 1994), 105: “Did the theater, with its many fables of cross-dressing, form part of the cultural apparatus for policing gender boundaries or did it serve as a site for further disturbance?”

[2] See, for example, Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), in which he argues that love of boys is as important to consider as love of women and that both must be distinguished from love of men.  

[3] Carol Thomas Neely, “Lovesickness, Gender, and Subjectivity: Twelfth Night and As You Like It,” in Dympna Callaghan, ed., A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 286.

[4] Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, 2nd ed. (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996), 267.

[5] Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England, 17.

[6] Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (New York: Routledge, 1992), 94.

[7] Phyllis Rackin, “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” in Stephen Orgel and Sean Keilen, eds, Shakespeare and Gender (New York: Garland Publishers, 1999), 55.

[8] Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle, 78.

[9] Stephen Orgel, “The Subtexts of The Roaring Girl,” in Susan Zimmerman, ed., Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage (New York: Routledge, 1992), 14.

[10] See F.G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Morals and Church Courts (Chelmsford: Essex City Council, 1973), 8.

[11] Rudolf M. Dekker and Lotte C. Van de Pol, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1989).

[12] Michael Shapiro, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 18-19.

[13] Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 20 April 1575, quoted in Shapiro, 227.

[14] Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 16 March 1579, quoted in Shapiro, 231.

[15] Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 24 September 1601, quoted in Shapiro, 233.

[16] There has been considerable work on Bethlem Hospital in this period (see, for example, Ken Jackson, “Bethlem and Bridewell in The Honest Whore Plays,SEL 43 (2003): 395-413; Duncan Salkeld, “Literary Traces in Bridewell and Bethlem, 1602-1624,” The Review of English Studies 56 (2005): 379-85; Carol Thomas Neely, “‘Documents in Madness’: Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Early Modern Culture,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 315-338) but comparatively less on Bridewell (but see Paul Griffiths, “Contesting London Bridewell, 1576-1580,” Journal of British Studies 42 (2003): 283-315). On the issue of cross-dressing and sexual misdemeanour in these legal records, there has been surprisingly little work since Shapiro, as Susan Vincent notes in her recent book, Dressing the Elite: Clothes in Early Modern England (Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2003), 176.

[17] The Bridewell Hospital court minute books are available on microfilm at the Guildhall Library (GL Ms 33011); the Repertories of the Court of the Aldermen are available on microfilm at the London Metropolitan Archives’ temporary collection of materials from the Corporation of London Record Office (CLRO, COL/CA/01), and the relevant years are contained in Repertories 18-28. 

[18] Griffiths, “Contesting London Bridewell, 1576-1580,” 313:  “In three sample years studied by Ian Archer (1559-60, 1576-77, and 1600-01), no less than 45.68 percent of the total caseload were sex crimes (the high point was 60.25 percent in 1576-77). This figure plunged to just 4.80 percent of the 29, 740 crimes that were brought to Bridewell between 1618 and 1657 and were jotted down in the courtbooks (the low point was 3.34 percent between 1648 and 1652)”; Ian Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 239.

[19] GL MS 33011, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 20 December 1576.

[20] CLRO, COL/CA/01, Repertories of the Court of the Aldermen, Rep 18, 21 July 1573.

[21] CLRO, COL/CA/01, Repertories of the Court of the Aldermen, Rep 26 (ii), 30 April 1603.

[22] GL MS 33011, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 15 September 1602.

[23] GL MS 33011, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 13 July 1559.

[24] GL MS 33011, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 30 January 1576.

[25] GL MS 33011, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 6 December 1576.

[26] David Cressy, Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: Tales of Discord and Dissension (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 92, 110-111.

[27] Ibid., 112.

[28] Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 23 July 1556, quoted in Shapiro, 226.

[29] Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 15 December 1569, quoted in Shapiro, 226.

[30] Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 19 April 1575, quoted in Shapiro, 227.

[31] Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 15 October 1575, quoted in Shapiro, 230.

[32] Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 3 July 1576, quoted in Shapiro, 230.

[33] Orgel, “The Subtexts of The Roaring Girl,” 13.

[34] William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (Washington, DC: Washington Square Press New Folger Edition, 2003), IV.i.9.

[35] Phyllis Rackin, Shakespeare and Women (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 74.

[36] Gail Kern Paster, “Leaky Vessels: The Incontinent Women of City Comedy” Renaissance Drama 18 (1987): 43-65.

[37] Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers, eds, Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 123-42.

[38] S.P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davis, Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents (New York: Routledge, 1996), 3. 

[39] Ibid.

[40] Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1986), 8-9.

[41] Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 26.

[42] Ibid., 25.

[43] Laura L. Levine, Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization, 1579-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 88. 

[44] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (Washington, DC: Washington Square Press New Folger Edition, 1993), II.v.157.

[45] Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 207.

[46] Repertories, 27 July 1554, quoted in Shapiro, 226.

[47] Repertories, 23 July 1556, quoted in Shapiro, 226.

[48] William Shakespeare, As You Like It, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (Washington, DC: Washington Square Press New Folger Edition, 1997), I.iii.124.

[49] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. Leah S. Marcus (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), III.iv.80.

[50] Marie H. Loughlin, Hymeneutics: Interpreting Virginity on the Early Modern Stage (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1997), 30.

[51] Ibid., 28.

[52] Ibid., 30.

[53] The notable exception to this is of course The Merry Wives of Windsor.

[54] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), I.ii.214.

[55] Theodora A. Jankowski, Pure Resistance: Queer Virginity in Early Modern English Drama (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 26. Loughlin, 29-30: “As Vesalius’s two accounts of dissecting virginal women make clear, the goal of the discourses of virginal anatomy comes into serious and irresolvable conflict with this body’s culturally valued transitionality, because the hymen’s unquantifiability in anatomical dissection leads this anatomist to assert that this membrane’s material certainty is paradoxically testified to by the signs of its absence.”

[56] Jankowski, Pure Resistance, 155.

[57] See David Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard: Fact and Fiction at the Court of King James (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 66. Howard was accused of having an affair with Prince Henry. At her annulment trial, the midwives supposedly reported after examining her that she was an “intacta virgo.”

[58] John Lyly, Galatea, ed. George K. Hunter (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), III.ii.20.

[59] See Mark Dooley, “The Healthy Body: Desire and Sustenance in John Lyly’s Love’s MetamorphosisEarly Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September 2000): 3.1-19, 1, for an argument about the significance of virginity and chastity in a slightly different context and the similar notion of virginity as “pleasurable” play.

[60] Rackin, Shakespeare and Women, 10.

[61] Ibid., 35.

[62] Ibid., 34.

[63] Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: The Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 172.

[64] Ibid.

[65] GL MS 33011, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 16 June 1574.

[66] GL MS 33011, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 16 May 1575.

[67] GL MS 33011, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 7 November 1599.

[68] GL MS 33011, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 1604.

[69] GL MS 33011, Bridewell Hospital Court Records, 17 January 1576.

[70]  Ben Jonson, Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, ed. R.V. Holdsworth (London and New York: Ernest Benn Limited, 1979), I.i.70.

[71] Orgel, Impersonations, 52. 

[72] Ibid., 70.

[73] Shapiro, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage, 144.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood, The Roaring Girl, ed. Paul A. Mulholland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), I.i.70.

[76] Marjorie Garber, “The Logic of the Transvestite: The Roaring Girl,” in David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass, eds, Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (New York: Routledge, 1991), 229.

[77] Orgel, “The Subtexts of The Roaring Girl,” 23.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Janet Adelman, “Making Defect Perfection: Shakespeare and the One-Sex Model” in Viviana Comensoli and Anne Russell, eds, Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 26.

[80] Jean Howard, “Sex and Social Conflict: The Roaring Girl,” in Susan Zimmerman, ed., Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, 171.

[81] Adelman, “Making Defect Perfection,” 40.

[82] Ibid., 28.


Works Cited

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