Comparing Shakespeare’s Women In Disguise Essay

3230 words - 13 pages

Throughout the period of the Shakespearean stage, there were many plays that led viewers and critics to question sexual identity and gender roles in not just his plays, but many other plays as well. For early modern England at this time, cross-dressing was looked at as a dramaturgical motif, a theatrical practice, and a social phenomenon. “In Shakespeare’s day, a cross-dressed heroine, like any female character also involved a gender switch in the world of the playhouse, for women’s roles were normally assigned to young male apprentices called play-boys” (Shapiro, 1). In each of Shakespeare’s five plays involving a cross-dressing heroine, he tried something different. He cleverly varied each motif in which each play turned out to have different reactions as well as outcomes. All of the heroines, Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and Viola in Twelfth Night, all come from aristocratic and wealthy families, were well-educated and courageous enough to disguise themselves in order to enter the masculine world. “Adoption of disguise also implied the inevitability of undisguising, and with it the assurance that even the most assertive heroine, if she were to survive, would eventually resume her female identity and her place within a patriarchal society.” (Shapiro, 65) These cross-dressing heroines are alike through a number of aspects, their voice and costumes being most important. But they are all active and determined rather than passive and submissive, they show their intelligence and capabilities, and although they show their masculinity they still hold their female characteristics and qualities.
The history of female cross-dressing goes back before the 1611 story of Arabella Stuart, who was relatively high on the social scale. She dressed as a male in order to be with her fiancé, but she differed from most of the other women at this time, for she had a claim to the English throne. While on the other end of the spectrum, lower-class women were constantly accused of cross-dressing in order to hide their identities while they took part in illegal sexual affairs. There was never any division between prostitution, adultery, or extramarital sex, because they considered cross-dressing itself as a sexual misdemeanor. (Shapiro, 16) The patrolling of sexual behavior in London became more intense towards the middle of the sixteenth century, but at the same time, specific clothing items and apparel were authorized for prostitutes.
Most of the plays with heroines in male disguise show a sympathetic view of cross-dressing. It is shown as a strategy used by a wife or girlfriend to follow and eventually rejoin with the men they love. It is also presented as protection from male sexual desires. These heroines are presented in the traditional dress of women and usually transform into a boy of a lower status; Rosalind, an heiress becomes an owner of a herd of sheep, heiress Portia becomes a junior, and Viola becomes a pageboy....

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