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three pairs of lovers with space


An unpublished M.A. thesis by Michael Teare-Williams, The University of Western Australia, 2000.  Presented on this website with the author’s kind permission.





A note on the text.                                                                                                   



Chapter 1: Some representations in history.                                                                                                 

Chapter 2: The metaphysics and politics of androgyny in Shakespeare’s age.      


Chapter 3: As You Like It.                                                                                   

Chapter 4: Twelfth Night or What You Will.  

Chapter 5: A Midsummer Night's Dream.




My tutor and supervisor for his generosity and patience, his deep knowledge and his untiring guidance.

Beloved Mary, Tristan and Huw, for their unstinting support and their amazing tolerance in the best and in the worst of times.

To all, my gratitude for helping me and supporting me in this great adventure.



At this outset I must state that I am very keen to be seen as a fugitive from the pigeon-holes which seem always to appear in the study of Renaissance drama.

I have noted the tendency of academic readers to demand a work, in Graham Bradshaw’s words, to “situate” itself in some critical discipline: to hold fast to some “ism”, or some “ology”.[1]

If I am to make this thesis truly my own, at least some of the dearly and long-held beliefs of internationally-established scholars must be attacked with vigour.  In some aspects, new theories about the representation of the female character in Shakespeare’s comedies must be put in place.  Following Bradshaw, and in all fairness and balance, I shall require my ideas “to test”, not merely to “instantiate the theory”.  Whatever that theory might be.

A note on the text.

Except where otherwise clearly stated, The New Cambridge Shakespeare editions of the plays studied in this thesis are the sources of all of the line-references.

Modernized spelling is therefore standard for the quotations that have been used in this work.  That is to say, those quotations that have been taken from Shakespeare’s plays, at least.  Having said that, there are quotations from other Renaissance and Medieval authors and sources which have not been modernized in spelling, and for which scant positional information is available in any case.

On occasion, the original spelling in these latter pieces has been maintained for no other reason than the visual delight that such renderings bring to the particular artefact that so clearly speaks to us from another age.  At other times yet, the archaic typography is reproduced in order to demonstrate textual, and therefore contextual meaning where this is demonstrated as being of great importance to my work.

Lastly, it has become the modern practice to use the word “bawdy” as both a noun and an adjective.  The thing itself and its use?

On the other hand, I cleave to the original meaning of the word in The Oxford English Dictionary of “bawdy” as an adjective only and “bawdry” as the noun.

In advance of dissenting voices, I therefore apologize to Eric Partridge[2] in his usage and in the title of his study of bawdry — that is to say —  his wonderful study, Shakespeare’s Bawdy!


The history of the word, “represent”, is long and complex.  Appearing in English in the fourteenth century, the meaning stemmed from “present”, a verb that created the sense and the process, “to make present”.  It soon took on a second meaning as “standing for something that is not present”.  Its accepted meaning became particularly apt for the stage between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries as “standing for others”, in the sense of both people and things.  The modern meaning, “to bring clearly and distinctly before the mind ... by description or by an act of imagination” is a good starting-point for this thesis, especially where the element of imagination is brought into the mix of the meanings that are inferred.[3]   Relatively recent literary theory demands that representation also be seen as process and as product.  These principles carefully will be analysed as largely social phenomena which involve making concrete that which may have started as an abstract idea, or, that which was notionally real to start with.  In this thesis, it will be proposed as axiomatic of both the process and the product that individual interpretation is always involved as the end-product in any representation—standing equally with the act of representation being an intrinsic interpretation to start with—and that the phenomenon of representation and the resultant aesthetics-of-reception enters every moment of our lives.  This effectively defines the terms of reference for a great deal of the analytical thrust that follows.

Stagings of metaphorical realities represented moral lessons for the populace, forming strong links between Greek performances and the medieval mysteries, the morality-plays and the early interludes of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance in England.  In very broad terms, a loose amalgam created by the Greek and the European medieval religion-based drama was later modified by the emergence of humanistic thought.  Individual will and conscience began to have a significant effect upon the thoughts of the authors, the actors and the audiences who went to see their performances.

The "Cobbe" portrait, thought to be one of only two paintings of Shakespeare in his lifetime

Ultimately, the tales that Shakespeare told, though they were often also event and calendar-based, were mostly secular in nature.  They also required more complex and much more subtle representations than those earlier plays.  Characterizations moved from two dimensions to three.  Yet in Shakespeare’s time there is still a definite sense of life being a common sphere with enacted drama.  For the Athenians, life was  “a continuum of performance” rather than the other way around, but throughout all of the above there is this persistent thread — that of the perception that art is seen to imitate life — or, in some moments, life may imitate art.[4]  A person coming away from a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, therefore, may very well be delighted by the fusion between the two.  Most significantly, William Shakespeare’s stories present strongly moral themes — despite the behaviour of individual characters and moments in the action being anything but moral — the endings always corrected these essays into wickedness.  This latter fact will be seen to colour all of the conclusions that this thesis makes on the subject of female representation in the comedies that will in detail be discussed.

It is, in any case, the element of imagination in the overall view of representation which will be seen as ascendant in the creation of a starting point for this work.  It is also taken as central to any logical argument about representation that though, say, a semiotician sees representation as the creation of signs that have meaning, that same analyst will be first also to claim that such things are deeply social, are essentially discursive, extend into institutional categories, are bounded by publicly accepted “norms” and yet are also splintered by a myriad subjective feelings that may be entirely private to a large number of individuals as they sit together in a theatre.  Very much to the point in this respect: Tracey Sedinger cautions against the commonly-found conclusions about “culture as a whole ‘as well as the homogenization of audience reaction’ which create a discourse of generalization in criticism and analysis”.[5]

Unique in nature and reaction: we are not blank keys and no individual goes into a theatre as a new-born.  David Bordwell is speaking of film when he tells of the baggage that we take with us into the half-light, essentially, we respond to individual:

schemata derived in part from experience with extrinsic norms.  The viewer applies these schemata to the film, matching the expectations appropriate to the norms with their fulfilment within the film.[6]

Within a structural notion of reception, this idea applies to all drama.  Simply, we do not sit in any kind of theatre and see and hear only what is happening upon the stage, or upon the screen.  Even so, where representation is concerned, the above merely scratches the surface of what this work will reveal.  As to the method of making dramatic or poetic representations, an enormous amount of comment has been made upon diegesis and mimesis as features of narration.  To simplify what has sometimes been made into an extremely complex discourse, David Bordwell argues:

If Aristotle may be credited with founding the mimetic tradition of narrative representation, Plato is the principal ancient spokesman for the concept that narration is fundamentally a linguistic activity.  In Book 3 of The Republic, Plato distinguishes two principal sorts of storytelling.  There is simple or pure narrative (haple diegesis), in which “the poet himself is the speaker and does not even attempt to suggest to us that anyone but himself is speaking”. A lyric poem would be an example.  In contrast stands imitative narrative (mimesis), of which drama is the chief instance.  Here the poet speaks through his characters, “as if he were someone else”.[7]

Again, it must pointed out that Bordwell’s subject is film, but it is here maintained that these principles may be applied to any sphere in the arts where written texts exist before a spoken performance.  What matters, is finding a way of defining the difference between mediated and unmediated narration as essential elements to the overall theme of representation in this work.  Where it addresses representation specifically, it may easily be seen to form a unifying stream of instances that are strongly associated with poetic metaphor and linguistic metonymy — with high-flown allegory or simple simile.  It will later be pointed out where, specifically, the theatre-poet speaks unmediated, in what has become known as metatheatrical comment.[8]

A great deal has already been written on the discourse of representation and its logical corollary, reception.  The latter, particularly, exists in a highly valid investigation of the process of how we receive the representations of others and in what forms they appear.  A group of modern scholars has worked towards defining an aesthetics-of-reception.  Briefly, the following is a mere glimpse into a very complex discourse that has fascinated the analytical thinker of all the ages since the Greek.  These many-sided concepts may arguably be seen to exist as a thumb-nail sketch in:

The “Spatio-temporal ‘events’ with blanks between” of Wolfgang Iser,[9] introduce Hans Robert Jauss’s arguments ªof Heidegger, of Nietzsche, of Plato!,[10] in his development of the notion of eidos to perceptio through Plato’s simile of the reader’s horizon as “... the orbit of the sun, the light of which reveals the suprasensual to be the world of true being”.  This extends even further the characteristics of humankind’s outer and inner sight, as mundus sensibilis and mundus intelligibilis, and also proposes “man” as therefore “a citizen of two worlds, standing ‘on the horizon’, the frontier between temporal and eternal things”.  I believe that this is a thoroughly practical—though rather dense—distillation of what happens when a person sits down with a book, becomes absorbed — hears the roaring seas of the wreck-scene of The Tempestsees Caliban’s face at the casement — imagines the music at the Masque.[11]

The central question which results from this complexity is whether this process would have been essentially different for an Elizabethan.  It is here concluded that the mechanism is much the same now, as it was, then.  Only the reference-points varied.  What Jauss and Iser defined as principles in their pursuit of a rezeptionästhetik will go a long way towards explaining the mechanism of representation and its entirely involuntary corollary, that is to say, reception.[12]

Arriving at their conclusions individually, both Iser and Jauss claim that there are gaps, or spaces in texts into which the viewer’s, or hearer’s imagination expands.  These may be momentary, or they may last minutes.  They appear to be quite involuntary, yet what the dramatist may have intended to be understood in these spaces is still entirely negotiable in the viewer’s reception.  This principle is true, whether we read poetry, listen to music, watch television, or go to a theatre.  Our minds appear to work in tandem with the text, expanding into fissures that may be lulls in the rhythm, or deliberate pauses, or moments in parts of the action which we seem to dream through.  We appear to create pictures of our own; these, as idiosyncratic visualizations of what is going on.  We may see what is merely implied, or miss whole sections of the text because of our sheer incomprehension?  Much more important in this discourse is the fact that what we see, may, for the person sitting next to us, not be there at all.  What is therefore implied to be there as a notional intention of the writer, never prevents the viewer-hearer from seeing-hearing an entirely personal meaning.  This is especially so where the text touches upon erotic things.

Jonathan Culler’s quotation of Roland Barthes’s extremely apt expression about such negotiable, yet highly subjective spaces seems very appropriate at this point.  “Is not the body’s most erotic zone where the garment leaves a gap?”.[13]  This gap in the beloved’s clothing is at the very least the poetic caesura’s step-sister in power and status.  It is an open invitation to the aesthete’s inner-imagery to fill the space with light, texture and colour.  The stimuli are physical, as in the reception of sight and sound.  Scent would be a blessed bonus; like sound, it operates in total darkness.  In the liminal space of the stage, though, sights and sounds are the stimuli that generate reaction.[14]  Yet, finally, no two people see, hear, or feel the same things from receiving the same text.  Yet everything that we do see, or hear, is mediated by our own ideologies — by our own “extrinsic and intrinsic norms” — our memories, and, unfortunately, our prejudices.[15]

In the absence of direct, primary reference, it cannot be established that there was any awareness of the above complexities in the conscious thoughts of Shakespeare.[16]   Even so I believe that it may be claimed that he would have begun to explore the mechanisms of thought and perhaps he would at least have arrived at a theory of the discrete and the concrete as elements in its mechanism.[17]  It follows as highly likely that Shakespeare had formed a theory of the process of taking disparate elements and coalescing them into blocks of information for the viewer-reader to manage.  Expressed in another way, this would most likely have been to him the making of concrete expressions from abstract things.  The playwright, above all, is aware of his work as a product and in this study, the elemental part of that representation will always be seen as an act of offering that product in concrete form for people to pay to see.  It may also, in a rudimentary way, have been seen as essentially rhetorical statement, therefore subjective in both the offering and in the reception, so that it is also discrete in the individual’s reception.  The concepts contained in these ideas are highly complex, yet here, an idea of the discrete becoming concrete is a useful tool in classifying and quantifying the products which Shakespeare sold to his public, and which we may now study as artefacts.

After all, William Shakespeare alive, must stay alive.  To do this he must offer, and must go on offering, what his audiences will most like to see, and will return again to see.  His audiences may take his efforts, or leave them, and this thesis will maintain that the need to write for a sometimes fickle public will have coloured almost everything that he wrote.  In this respect, many scholars have argued that Shakespeare had no pretensions about his plays being anything other than popular entertainment.  They have said, and this thesis agrees, that he would have wanted to be remembered for his poetry.

As Marion Wynne-Davies observes, in Shakespeare’s time the world was changing rapidly from the relatively “linear and hierarchical” existence of the Middle Ages, in which everything and everyone was “arranged neatly along the ascending rungs of a ladder” from birth to death.[18]  Though this may be seen as an oversimplification by medieval scholars, it is here maintained that this general comparison between the perceptions of two ages is permissible simply because there is insufficient space available to do otherwise.  A justification for this elision may be seen in recounting the unassailable facts of Shakespeare’s era.  In the poet’s own, immediate awareness, the world was being explored, travel was becoming easier between nations as political entities, and across borders of a physical nature.  Books were becoming more easily available and the number of people who could read was rising constantly.  The inner-lives of people absorbed elements of a new humanism that could now allow individuals to see themselves as capable of thought that was not only original, but valid.  In medieval drama the figures of Vice and Virtue were, on the other hand, conveyed with relative simplicity, aptronymically depicted.  Often, their names indicating their nature and their entire function within the drama.[19]  It is true that in the mystery plays characters such as Cain and Abel represented Vice and Virtue, but in their own names.  Even so, the enactment was plain to everyone in the audience and there was little scope for ideational subtlety.

Though it is acknowledged that there may have been much colour and movement, perhaps even laughter in those older plays, their purpose and function was as a method teaching right versus wrong; good versus evil to relatively uneducated people.  This in no way precludes the possibility for enjoyment in those plays for the educated person, but it is possible also to say that it was not until the humanist Renaissance and the flux that this engendered, that a far greater subtlety in characterization was not only possible, but, as we shall see, absolutely necessary.  In illustration of this idea, Wynne-Davies chooses the final stanza of Ben Jonson’s Volpone as a signal example of a closure that amusingly justifies the rampant skulduggery in the plot, in which “the cunning fox’s greed and megalomania ultimately lead to his downfall”.  At the end of the play, Volpone begs for our approval in both explanation and expiation of his sins:

                        Now, though the Fox be punished by the laws,
                        He yet doth hope there is no suff’ring due
                        For any fact that he hath done ‘gainst you,
                        If there be, censure him — here he doubtful stands.
                        If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.

As a piece of Jonsonian metatheatre, and as a plea for the idea that there is such a thing as a victimless crime, this fragment stands as one among many that will bear examination as an occasion in which a Renaissance poet spoke in an unmediated manner directly to the audience, as the playwrights of his times often did.  It is, in fact, the equivocation in Volpone’s gentle wheedling, that he “doubtful stands”, that would most charm Jonson’s audience, who were thereby invited to laugh and shout opinions.  They then and we now are left to decide the right and the wrong of Volpone’s actions for ourselves, rather than relying on some grim other judge.  Also, what appears to be mimesis in the above—referring back to the earlier instances of this principle—is actually diegesis, but this occurs in an almost subliminal process that might go unnoticed at the moment of its exposition.  In this, it is surely true that Volpone “doubtful stands” because he is representing a person who cannot be certain how his audience wishes him now to be treated.  Yet the doubt is a vital part of the play to which Jonson already knew the outcome, and after which he knew the audience would laughingly applaud.

The Martyrdom of St. Apollonia by Jean Fouquet

In an earlier age, though, there would have been no doubt as to the miscreant’s fate.  In the main system of representation that preceded the Elizabethan, there often existed a great gaping structure complete with sharp teeth that was called Hell Mouth.  Placed on the “sinister”, left-hand side of the stage—left-hand from the viewpoint of the actors—it received all sinners in the end.[20]  In describing the myriad detail in Jean Fouquet’s 1460 picture: The Martyrdom of St Appolonia, John Wesley Harris reveals that: “to the right [from the audience’s viewpoint], or ‘sinister’, side, at ground level opposite Heaven, stands Hell Mouth”.  The positioning of this absolutely clear, iconic destination at “stage left”, the sinister side, was perfectly deliberate.  Heaven must therefore always occupy “stage right”, the dexter side.  These positional and ideational distinctions mirrored the viewed-right and viewed-left of the stages from the audience’s point-of-view, whether the drama were to be enacted in the round, earth-work  theatres of that era, or the inn-yards, or upon the trestle-stages of the travelling players.  Quite simply, the people understood that the play was constructed around a contest between Good and Evil.  Further to remove any doubt about these notional polar-opposites, these entities had to have their special places upon the stage.

This fundamental iconography also existed in the heraldry of that period, as well as the pictorial art.  The latter is crystal-clear in the Fouquet painting and this obeys the convention that, most importantly, was taught to the children of the largely illiterate viewers of those earlier plays.[21]  By the same token, the socially “least” of a lordling’s servants could interpret a coat-of-arms and nod with a knowing smirk because the fact of the lord’s bastardy was betrayed by the bend-sinister there displayed, or the heraldic beasts themselves facing to the sinister side of a coat-of-arms to herald a past disgrace.[22]   He or she also knew, therefore, that stage-right was where good things happened and where good people belonged, while stage-left was the location of evil things, people and events.[23]

Though not a sudden event, an overall principle emerged in the English Renaissance theatre:

The public theatre with its fee-paying audience enabled the dramatists to evade the necessity of pleasing a single patron, whether noble or clerical.  Instead, they foregrounded the concerns of other classes, challenged the validity of the law, questioned the absolutes of established religion and subverted conventional gender roles.[24]

A middle class of literate people is here emerging and the last sentence, particularly, jumps ahead to the subsequent parts of this thesis, but it remains perfectly clear that, by Shakespeare’s time, the enactment of his plays presented a picture that was much more complex than the overall dramatic representation of the medieval era.  Individual responsibility now resided in the author.  Yes, and in the players and to a lesser extent, and in the viewers, too.  The author, particularly, will be called to account for the result.  Where it could be said that the earlier plays stood in the centre of publicly-accepted discourse, the later plays ran out towards the margins of what was thought moral, or legal, or even wise.  These later plays sometimes got their authors into serious trouble.  As Ian Donaldson records, Ben Jonson was imprisoned for his share in the lost play, The Isle of Dogs.[25]

After Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, the writer takes some kind of personal stance.  Roland Barthes pondered deeply upon a notional separation between the concepts of “author” and “writer” in universal systems of communication.  He decided that the “author performs a function, the writer an activity” but, before politics came strongly into the cultural production of written texts, only authors existed.  Authors are always rhetorical, but even before writers were discovered—in the Barthian world-view—“the social function of literary language (that of the author) is precisely to transform thought (or consciousness, or protest) into merchandise”.[26]  Rhetoric, “that ancient avatar”, as Lacan described it, continually returns to earth, but the idea of “merchandise” returns the discourse to the reality that the theatre-poet must make enough money to live.  Quite simply, he could not do that if he were simply to offer moralistic and starkly iconic plays to people who were far more sophisticated by the end of the sixteenth century than they had been in existence merely forty years before.

Much of what has gone before lies on the wavy borderlines between structuralism and its later expansion and complementation in both method and concept, that is to say,  poststructuralism.  These systems of ideas focus on the extremely interesting tensions between the naturally rhetorical drive of humankind and the practical need for an Elizabethan author to make a living and to give the people what they will pay to see.  They also touch on the reality that the author must now be provocative and amusing, yet stay out of political trouble by not offending the sovereign or the clerics.  Even in its simplest construction, what emerges from this is, that a passage of text enacted upon a stage which might appear to one viewer as the simplest and most congenial fun, may deeply offend the next person.  Another given is that, in all societies there will be individuals who will be so inspired by their own, highly personal system of moral-beliefs that they will seek to impose, or seek a post that empowers them to impose those beliefs upon others.  Philostrate in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Busy in Bartholomew Fair are glimpses into the worlds of such people by Shakespeare and Jonson respectively. 

Lest there should be a suspicion that a kind of homogenization is beginning to emerge in what goes ahead, despite my protestations, Stephen Greenblatt’s warning that it is a mistake to “assume the literary as a stable ground in the Renaissance”, is highly apposite at this point.  Greenblatt does not imply that the notion of “literature” did not exist in this period.  Rather he says that:

there is a highly sophisticated understanding of the place of poetry, drama, and fiction in the larger spectrum of discourses ... its boundaries are contested, endlessly renegotiated, permeable ... they do not occur in a private chamber of the artist’s imagination, for that imagination, in its materials and resources and aspirations, is already a social construct[27]

Which seems aptly to demonstrate a theory as to how thought and literature had evolved into a highly varied array of enacted drama in which new thought and, particularly, a variety of methods was welcomed as never before.  It also strongly echoes the views of David Bordwell, that people in an auditorium always measure and compare their feelings about what is happening on the screen or stage with the social “norms” of their own experience.  More particularly, though, it should be seen that the actual mechanism of thought itself must enter into the study.  The process of discrete-to-concrete that has been described, above, justifies the returning suspicion that an intellect like Shakespeare’s would have begun to define these mysterious spaces for himself.

In the tenor of the above and in a complementation of its stances, Louis Adrian Montrose cites Duke Theseus’s “self-assured and benignly condescending” manner in judging “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet” as being “of imagination all compact” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.7-8).  According to Theseus, “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend, More than cool reason comprehends…” (5.1.4-6).[28]   Here, the wildly discrete becomes the notionally concrete in “cool reason”, for Theseus, at least.  As Montrose argues, in such a world:

The ruler’s task is to comprehend—to understand and encompass—the energies and motives, the diverse, unstable, and potentially subversive apprehensions of the ruled[29]

If Theseus understands this, as Montrose also asserts, it is because Shakespeare gave him the words to speak, and drew the pictures that hinted elements of potential subversiveness in “lovers and madmen”.  These latter people are most often marginalized by their behaviour and stand in a clearly contrasting relationship to the order and discipline that is seen as embodied in the sovereign—he, or she—who is the very centre of Renaissance society.

In this vein, the fact that William Shakespeare may often be seen as that very subversive agent himself, is not lost on us.  The spectre of censorship and official opprobrium was never far from the writing and the presentation of plays, then, as now.  Shakespeare was a creature of his times and was also a humanistic genius who brimmed with ideas.  Whether consciously he thought of these things, or not, the elements of logical exposition unmistakably appear in his works.  The play begins by telling a brief story to set the tone and form a background for what will follow.  Conflict and misunderstanding always follow that.  Character-type is pitted against character-type, then resolution is achieved.  Finally, the guilty are punished and the virtuous are rewarded.  Despite being able, confidently, to assume deep intelligence in some of his viewers, he must make his character-types obvious to the rest.  This is often achieved in the stance that Shakespeare gives them to establish who they are and also signal their function within the play.  Often these characters will kick against the strictures of a society that he creates for his stage and this process reverberates into that society beyond the proscenium arch itself.

This aptly brings to the fore the notion of cultural production as it concerns this work, and the thoughts of many established scholars on this issue.  It is not simply a question of who writes, or who views.  It is also a question of who permits the production, and why.  Does the play break icons, or does it shore up the politically, morally, or philosophically approved principles that may publicly be spoken of?  Montrose makes clear that his own:

intertextual study of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and symbolic forms shaped by other Elizabethan lunatics, lovers, and poets constructs the play as calling attention to itself, not only as an end but as a source of cultural production.[30]

This acts as a self-perpetuation of the cultural “norms”, mentioned above, those that exist within the political and social institutions of then, and still, now.  Inescapably, this must be brought to bear on one of the main foci of this thesis: the imbalance of views created by patriarchal attitudes that have tended to obscure and mystify the place of women in Renaissance society.[31]  These considerations, inevitably, strongly influenced the representation of women in Renaissance drama and poetry, marginalizing them because of the perception of their inferior nature compared with men.  It is not as simple as that, but all of these factors in the argument define the centre and the margins of a society in which culture perpetuates itself until this day.  The centre forever strives to react against the subversive — the commercially viable will sometimes smother the brilliantly original — the power of men will influence every word, or act, of women, represented by themselves, or by the men who did that for them.  Men then wrote the plays, produced them, exclusively acted in them.[32]  It may be seen to follow from this that true subversiveness lay in any representation of women if it did not shore up the power of men.  Even so, this will be seen as being radically opposed by the principle that Shakespeare as an individual created substantial parts for his female characters.  As Irene Dash so well expresses the principle: “…strong, attractive, intelligent, and humane women come to life in Shakespeare’s plays”.  They also “…challenge accepted patterns for women’s behaviour” in their representations.[33]  Though this is clearly so, may we yet hope that some modern theatre-company may find a way of being seen to free the female character from all of these patriarchal overburdens?  Penny Gay’s As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women is clear in claiming that this should be possible, but only if everyone in the troupe—from the director down—were to be utterly committed to that specific task.  Professor Gay is also certain that if that future director were to create a space that “…acknowledges and taps into the potential of women that Shakespeare’s comedies body bring forth”, the text may yet be made almost to vanish.  Until this happens, says Gay, a great move forward will remain “history yet to be enacted”.[34]



I have been moving towards the definition of the background principles of drama-theory in its historical context and in its modern evolution.  Much more of the latter is needed, and this will emerge in what follows, but it will appear more particularly in connection with the play-texts themselves.  What follows also involves the laying-out of yet more terms of reference, yet this will lead more and more to the central work of the thesis itself.

A central principle that has already emerged is that the analysis of four-hundred-year-old plays, in which both the male and female parts are played by males, is that the undertaking will be difficult yet deeply fascinating.  Firstly, how does one speak of this, and for whom?  What follows that thorny question is a valiant attempt to throw light upon the representation and the concomitant misrepresentation of women on the early-modern stage, with comparisons between the all-male custom of Shakespeare’s time, and the modern practice in which women perform all of the women’s parts.  One of the major principles that must be established, here, is that it is not the purpose of this thesis to present value-judgements between the two customs, but carefully to report upon them using, mainly, both the textual and contextual evidence at hand.

In this sphere, the last thirty years has seen much research seeking to redefine the role of women in a world that was, until recently, solidly androcentric.  Radical dichotomies between the concepts of sexuality and gender, aspiration and actuality, have been defined.  Some of this work has sought, particularly, to clarify the place of women in literature, verse and dramatic performance.  A significant proportion of this endeavour has been directed at Renaissance drama from various feminist points-of-view.  A similarly significant amount of research has striven to concentrate on variant sexualities in, particularly, plays by William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.  A close study of these endeavours reveals a unifying chord that pervades, particularly, feminist thought, that of a perceived problem in representing women with young male actors in the original custom.  This flows over, particularly in research by such scholars as Lorraine Helms, Phyllis Rackin, Kathleen McLuskie and Dympna Callaghan, into a significant colouring of our view of the same plays in modern productions where women are forced to perform within the ideational and representational parameters that were originally penned for boys in representing females.  For Helms and for Callaghan in their individual ways, this creates the strong notion that this, in sometimes subtle and sometimes crude ways, limits the adult woman to the role of a female impersonator in much the same way that the original boy was a female impersonator.  As Callaghan pungently states, the modern female actor is, following this principle, reduced to the status of a “sexual ventriloquist” because of immutable elements in the texts themselves.[35]  If this view is accepted, no female actor will ever be seen to be free of the limitations of the texts and this simply must therefore emerge as a vital idea in this study.  Yet before that—and for the moment—Helms notes Jan Kott’s remarks:

In acting ... we are many, in simulation we are divided.  In acting one body has many souls, in simulation, the soul has various bodies[36]

Particularly, “Theatre bestows multiplicity”, as Helms argues and I introduce this here to remind the reader of this thesis that the extremely important stance by Callaghan, above, must be qualified by an insistence that there is no such thing as a standard, or uniform performance.[37]  Again, we are drawn back to the relationship between life and drama, but in her own view of the fragmentation and multiplicity of selves-in-one self, Helms goes on to propose, in agreement with Kathleen McLuskie and others, that “Shakespearian textual cues, like cinematic cues, construct the female as the object of the male spectator’s gaze”, yet still within the multiplicity of self.[38]  Women, then, were excluded from both the ownership and the operation of the dramatic process, so, had no authorial or directorial influence upon it.  This extends into the even more interesting view in which McLuskie asserts, in close agreement with Callaghan, that, as above:

textual traces of women’s original exclusion from the Shakespearian stage, implicitly demands that the actress confront continuity between apparently antithetical theatrical practices.  Since women now, as boys then, must play their parts in societies where women share children’s disenfranchisement, physical difference continues to reflect the hierarchy of male and non-male in Shakespearian roles.  Techniques originally designed to feminize the boy actor may infantilize or eroticize those who now play his roles.  They may turn women, like boys, into female impersonators.[39]

The last sentence of the above, reverberates as one of the essential principles that inspired Dympna Callaghan and—as we have seen—others, and though Lorraine Helms was comparing film and stage techniques in their execution and in their effects upon the representation of women, the complexity of one main aspect unites with the whole idea of female representation, across a broad spectrum of feminist concerns, is here displayed.

The Renaissance notion that women, like boys, were incomplete and immature and therefore it was perfectly acceptable to represent the one with the other, is extremely important at this point.  And so, the forbidden quality of this discourse begins to emerge.

In fact, I have suggested that this cultural-view was one of the major building-blocks in the authorial construction of plays in the Elizabethan period, and had its origin in much more ancient philosophy.  In strong continuation of these ideas and in a discussion on cross-dressing in modern theatre, Lesley Ferris accesses a similarly ancient sphere of thought that included the idea of “…the male as universal”.  Ferris cites Thomas Laqueur’s work on revealing the archaic notion “that women had the same genitalia as men only theirs was inside out”.  This dominated “biological thinking” Ferris avers “for over two millennia”.[40]  The latter thought might seem to offer at least a notion of physical equality between the sexes — the one sex being morphologically, at least, the mirror-image of the other.  In fact, the cultural imperatives about male domination had always been too powerful to allow that hint of equality, therefore it was the male who was considered universally dominant.  In the same vein, though with subtle differences, Dympna Callaghan proposes that “…femininity was defined in and as a relation to masculinity” and that femininity in Shakespeare’s time “comprised a sub-species of masculinity”.[41]  Consequently, both the physical morphology and the perceived state of being feminine was subordinate to male morphology and masculinity, and in this focus, the reality of total female exclusion from the stage, therefore, was clearly not a problem for the men involved.

Overlying all of the above, there is the historical fact that the insular tradition prohibited women from public performances until 1662.[42]  Michael Shapiro’s research reveals that this prohibition was not absolute.  In Coryate’s Crudities of 1611, Thomas Coryate describes a play that he saw in Venice in 1608.  He:

sawe women acte, a thing I never saw before, though I have heard that it hathe beene sometimes used in London (italics Shapiro’s).[43]

It is very interesting to note, at this point, that the very part of the above that Shapiro italicizes was left entirely out of Michael Jamieson’s quotation from the same passage in the latter’s “Shakespeare’s Celibate Stage”.[44]  From this we may observe the effects of selective vision in the work of some scholars.  That selectivity, whether by omission or commission, may be seen to influence the accuracy of their conclusions and betray their subjectivity and willingness to slant the discourse.  A timely warning!

Shapiro theorizes that several foreign troupes might have visited London in the period, well before Sir William d’Avenant’s patent and quite apart from: “…a French troupe ... at Blackfriars in 1629”.[45]  On that occasion “the female performers provoked a strong negative reaction”.  We may conclude from these contextual, historical sources that the female stage presence was a very rare thing before 1662.

It is almost incidental that Lady Mary Wroth and her friends in the court-circle—which included Queen Elizabeth herself as an occasional actor—enthusiastically took parts in many court masques and privately performed plays that were completely closed to the public, having only invited audiences.  Many such performances of works by authors such as Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones occurred between 1604 and 1608.  Wroth’s and the other women’s participation as actors was protected from any hint of scandal by their social positions, and by, particularly, the patronage and participation of their regal friend, Elizabeth.  This was most certainly not an iron-clad protection in Wroth’s case, but the general idea of the difference between public and private drama, male and female participation and authorship, holds firm.[46]

What remains of signal interest in Coryate’s impressions of the female stage presence in Venice is that he saw: “…as good a grace, action, gesture, and whatsoever convenient for a Player, as ever I saw [in] any masculine actor”.[47]  This contemporary source raises the extremely important idea that many of the other playgoers who followed Coryate and who also saw women rise to their notionally rightful places upon the stage, found it no shocking or unpleasant thing.  Their observations are, for the most part, fair, objective and appreciative; yet for many it may have seemed odd at first.  This sense of oddness takes on sexual overtones in the historical fact that Valerie Traub records: “…when, in 1599, women were banned from the Spanish stage”,[48] having been permitted to perform until then, this then caused even more problems than their own original representation of the female form and person.  Traub accesses Stephen Orgel’s scholarship in establishing the almost bizarre consequence that:

the spectacle of transvestite boys was found to be even more disturbing than that of theatrical women, and the edict was rescinded four years later.[49]

Within this particular discourse, a momentary diversion must now be made into the extremely important question as the age of the individual contained within the category, boy.  A great deal of careful reading reveals that the Shakespearian use of this elastic classification, boy, encompassed every male between the pre-pubescent state and that of young manhood, with the proviso that in Shakespeare’s usage, a mature man could be addressed as boy if he were a servant of almost any age.[50]  The usage remains remarkably similar in the modern era, and as it will later be shown, many of the women’s parts in Shakespeare’s plays were actually performed by men in their twenties.[51]

In this same sense, though, close attention will also later be paid to the compelling evidence that in Twelfth Night there are repeated textual references by Sir Toby to the very small stature of Maria.  Similarly, significant statements in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream refer to the relative heights and colourations of two of Shakespeare’s apprentice-actors, still remnant in the actual words that each speaks to the other.  In both of these cases, other characters in those particular plays confirm the smallness and youthfulness of such participants as Rosalind and Celia, Hermia and Helena.  These unavoidable and otherwise inexplicable textual references strongly imply that boys of varying ages and seniorities existed within the apprentice-hierarchies of the public-troupes.  Additionally, there is overwhelming evidence that Shakespeare wrote his plays with both the acting skill and the physical characteristics of the young players that he had to hand at any particular time.

It remains, though, the rarity of the exceptions about the female actor’s presence in the insular custom that creates the contention that the almost total absence of women in performances on Shakespeare’s stage coloured the entire discourse of the drama of those days.  In modern performances women take all the women’s parts and men take the men’s parts.  In Elizabethan performances, the audience effectively saw only boys, youths and men upon the stage.  This stage-convention led to a great deal of the humour being based upon the fact that everyone in the audience knew that the “women” were boys.  Deliberately-created double-meanings, achieved in both speech and gesture, resulted in many examples of specifically bawdy humour.  It remains, therefore, a commentary upon present public perceptions alone that the above female exclusion would be very difficult to return to, or to reproduce, now.  In Elizabethan times there was an open acknowledgment of double-androgyny in the double-reversal of gender-roles in such plays as, particularly, Twelfth Night and As You Like It.  It is here contended that if we, now, were to think of changing back to the exclusion of women and representing of them by boys, there would be strong objections and these objections would mostly be based on the perceived immorality of the display, if the cast were to include people whom we perceive as being still too young to deal with the bawdry without the very young players being harmed by their participation in it.  Paradoxically, this consideration would be ascendant over the inherent injustice in a return to a modern exclusion of women. 

In recent years there have been several productions containing adult male actors only, or adult female actors only.[52]  In other productions, women have taken adult male roles and males the obvious reverse of that.  These adventurous and experimental productions challenge everything that has happened before, and they also interrogate what may happen in the future.  Even so, a cast that contained boy actors in the roles of Rosalind and Viola would be seriously confronting to a modern audience—if that modern audience fully understood the bawdry.  Specifically if, in this present age, a twelve, thirteen or fourteen year old boy were to enact the comedic female parts in any of the comedies of Shakespeare, the producer would be arrested for endangering the boy’s morals.  Yet the most ironical thing of all is that this would only occur if the audience were to understand the finer points of the double-meaning bawdry!  This would be highly unlikely in the more obscure passages, but more obvious in others.  Fully understanding the lexis, and seeing the possible gestures and prurient smiles that went with the words, though, there would be a furious outcry.

It is not merely the comedies which would have this problem were they to be performed in Shakespeare’s original tradition.  Such plays as Hamlet have extremely bawdy passages within them.

Even so, a recent performance of Henry V in the newly re-created Globe Theatre in Southwark did have boy players in the female parts.  It was reported that the boys’ performances were well-received, yet it must also be pointed out this “historically correct” representation was of relatively minor characters in that play, and that—essentially—these parts contain a minimal level of sexual equivocation in any case.  That is to say, bawdry based upon androgyny.

In this vein, though modern productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream often include children to perform the parts of Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed, this is possible simply because the children involved are not proposed as the changeling, sexually-indeterminate creations that Rosalind, in As You Like It, or Viola in Twelfth Night, so clearly propose.  It is here firmly maintained that the parts of Rosalind and Viola, among many others, could not now be performed if the boy actor were to be as young as his Elizabethan progenitor so clearly was, in the original performances.

Proposing a lesser case: children are now allowed to take part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because there is no perceived indeterminate sexuality in their parts and because modern audiences have, at best, only the vaguest understanding of the lexicon of bawdry that was so obvious to the Elizabethan crowd.  They are permitted to take part in a play in which examples of sexual innuendo exist, but only because these textual realities are now so obscure as to fly right over the heads of most of the individuals in the modern audience.  As well, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is relatively little of the double-meaning bawdry that so openly exists in As You Like It, or Twelfth Night

It remains as a fundamental fact that in the original tradition and in such plays As You Like It and Twelfth Night, a young male actor came out onto the stage in the guise of a young woman, then disguised himself as a young man, then later changed into female guise again.  After he had left the stage, he became the original boy or the beardless youth.  Everyone involved accepted this textual and super-textual reality.  Some scholars now argue that, because of the absence of the original changeling boy, one entire level of dramatic performance in these two plays is now missing.  Particularly, Lesley Anne Soule proposes that:

for the full meaning of the As You Like It text to be acted out, the role of Rosalind must be played by an adolescent male actor, and that with a female in the role the central action and the meaning are perverted.

Though this view may very well offend some scholars as a sweeping statement, Soule quite properly adds that:

It may be said by some that this argument is merely academic, that our theatre and culture have changed beyond the point where the casting I propose would be feasible.  Kathleen McLuskie has thus argued that a modern audience would not be able to accept boys playing Elizabethan female characters.[53]

This argument confirms the above conclusions of mine about the impossibility of the boy actor’s return, and in the specifics of the greater case, above.   Grotesque though it may seem to report: it is certainly an historical fact that both voluntary and forced castration had existed as a practice in the Roman Catholic church in the same period for the parallel purpose of creating voices capable of performing the soprano and alto parts in the musical liturgy, though this does not appear to have occurred in conjunction with the English stage.[54]

Despite the sheer range of the radically different views, stated above, it is still possible to suggest that some of the feminist studies miss, or at least, slide past, the possibility that some of the authors of the time had not really set out to represent real women in the first place.[55]  At least, not all of the time.  Rather, in the comedies, it was upon the deliberately created uncertainties of this changeling person, the very young male actor, that much of the humour relied.

It is beyond contention that the entire nature of drama changed after d’Avenant’s patent.  After the Interregnum, when the Stuarts returned from exile in France, the prohibition against women ceased.[56]  Very much to point in this discourse, William Robertson Davies sees the odd, ironical dilemma that then faced even the most balanced viewer of Restoration drama.  The objections on grounds of morality that had prevented women from taking part in stage-plays—the very custom that had caused the polemical protestants so strongly to object to the young male dressed up as female—now still appeared as a stumbling block.  For the polemical critics, particularly, the male and the female were still binary opposites and utterly without ambiguity.  Deuteronomy, Chapter 22, verse 5, told them that:

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.[57]

In the Elizabethan and the Jacobean custom, the ambiguity caused by the androgyne presence and appearance of young males in women’s guise was anathema to them and this itself ushered in a paradox in the second Caroline era.  When women finally appeared as women upon the stage, those whose strongest tendency was to obey Holy Writ without the ambiguity that might be caused by critical thought, needed only to refer to Deuteronomy 22:5 again to see that the use of women on stages was equally as wicked as that of the use of boys had been if cross-dressed parts existed.  There was not only the sheer public display that was entailed in the drama itself to anger them, but the new female actors, when they took part in such plays as As You Like It and Twelfth Night, must still disguise themselves as young men for a part of the action.  If a hint of ambiguous sexuality were to have been visible in these performances—and, textually, this was almost certain to happen—this could only have enraged those who hated displays of sexual ambiguity more than anything else, no matter whether it was now a single, rather than a double reversal of actual gender, or of apparent sexuality.  The fact that this would have been just as true in the original custom must also be established as constituting a slap-in-the-face for the deeply moralistic observers of Shakespeare’s age, and the entire argument establishes that the end of the all-male tradition did not end the problems of perceived immorality attached to theatrical performances that required cross-dressed actors, whether male, or female.[58]

Lastly, a principle that will appear in a great deal of what follows in this thesis.  Early Modern English contained “thee”, “thou” and “thine” as the familiar pronouns of address and possession.  These were distinct from “ye”, “you” and “yours” as the formal, polite equivalents.[59]  The selective usage of formal and familiar modes of address was, then, clearly indicative of social or familial status.  Modern English has lost these distinct usages, except in some small pockets of dialect in, mainly, the northern and western areas of the United Kingdom.  An enormous amount of meaning is lost, therefore, in our modern understanding of many of the major elements of Elizabethan texts; not in mere nuance, but in the absolute essentials of Elizabethan understanding.  Often, the variance in pronoun-usage literally shouted about a modal-switch, or power-indicator between two characters.  These pronoun usages are very rarely acknowledged in modern times, but will be foregrounded as being of essential importance in the representation of both the female character and the changeling boy, as well as between characters of notionally equal social-status and outward-gender.  Ultimately, it will be seen that the formal and familiar usages themselves constitute great subtleties in allocations of status and in indications of mood in the characters. This is so in interchanges where expressions of respect and emotional solidarity — or conversely, scorn, anger, or open dislike — as it exists in the text. It will be established as a fact that the actor’s apparent status in the subsequent action radically changes, or subtly varies, sometimes in the blink of an eye.[60]

The first chapter will now go far more deeply into female-representation from the historical point-of-view.  It will contain a specific slant towards those representations of women which involved cross-dressing, and the essentially physical aspect of excluding the female who was then represented.

Procession of Characters from Shakespeares Plays 19th
                                                                  A procession of Shakespearian characters

Continue to Chapter 1


[1]Graham Bradshaw, Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 1.

[2] Eric Partridge, Shakespeare’s Bawdy: A Literary and Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968 [1947])

[3]OED.  From “late Middle English ... Old and Modern French, repre;sentation or L. repraesentatio ... a stem of repraesentare”.

[4]Rehm, p. 3.

[5]Tracey Sedinger, in a book-review in Shakespeare Quarterly 49, 1998, pp. 95-97.  Sedinger reviewed Michael Shapiro’s Gender in Play on the Shakespearian Stage: Boy Heroines & Female Pages (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994).

[6]David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (London: Routledge, 1988 [Methuen, 1985]), p. 153.

[7]Bordwell, p. 16, cites Plato, The Republic in Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds. (New York: Pantheon, 1963), p. 638.

[8]The term “metatheatre” is here used not in the sense of Lionel Abel’s 1963 term-of-classification for a group of modern plays.  Please see J.A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory 3rd edn. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 545.  In this work, “metatheatre” may be seen as being interchangeable with “metadrama” in indicating that which lies notionally above or beyond the discourse of the action itself.  It is most commonly manifested as what some scholars class as direct authorial-comment: a level of the discourse where an author may be seen to speak directly to the audience, rather than though the voices of the actors themselves.

[9]Wolfgang Iser, “The reading process: a phenomenological approach” in David Lodge, ed., Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (London: Longman, 1989), pp. 212-228; Wolfgang Iser, “Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response in Prose Fiction” in J. Hillis Miller, ed., Aspects of Narrative (New York, 1971), pp. 1-45; Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1978), pp. 195-203.

[10]Hans Robert Jauss, “Understanding and interpreting acts of mediation between horizons” in Michael Hays, ed. & trans., Question and Answer: Forms of Dialogic Understanding (Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1989), pp. 199-200.

[11]M J Teare-Williams, A Paper on Reception Theory (Murdoch University, 1992), p. 6.

[12]Modern German equivalent: “aesthetics-of-reception”.

[13]Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature (London: Routledge, 1989a [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975]), p. 255.  This, quoting Roland Barthes’ “L’endroit le plus érotique d’un corps n’est-il pas la' ou' le vêtement bâille?”

[14]The word “liminal” stands here as a description of the tenuous nature of both the light and the boundaries of such a space.  The OED defines its usage as pertaining to, or of “transitional”, “marginal”, “incidental” things and processes, to which we must add, people.  The sense of “half-seen”, or “half-heard” emerges in, certainly, the Renaissance situation, where the light from the “wooden O”, or candle-light and fire-light alone powered both the “mirror” and the “lamp” in those past representations.

[15]Bordwell, pp. 150-153.  See also David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction 3rd edn. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990 [1979]).

[16]Though John Locke (1632-1704) grew up in the period of Shakespeare’s immediate legacy in thought, it would be good to think that the poet influenced the philosopher.  Locke’s central idea of the tabula rasa is contained in his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, iv, 10.  This proposal is actually a re-expression of the Aristotelian idea that sensations preceded ideas into the essentially empty mind.  For Locke, though, “Ideas in the Understanding are coeval with Sensation”.  John Locke was a man who knew Newton, Boyle and Harvey at a time when the established idea of “art” was changing into a new thing called “science”.  He did a great deal of the earliest work in the philosophy of perception in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690.   This fact creates a useful span between now and the seventeenth century, when Locke’s empirical observations sought to define as fact that the mind, so metaphysical in nature, and the brain, so inescapably physical in nature, as separate entities.  He also attempted to define the essential nature and the mechanism of thoughts, responses and ideas.  Locke attempted to introduce time into the equation which contains his variance from the continental philosophers’ ideas that ideas themselves are inborn.  He taught that the mind is essentially blank and needs experiences to be imprinted upon it.  See Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, 2nd edn. (London: Routledge, 1961), pp. 584-595 for a much fuller explanation.

[17](a) Discrete, OED, “separate”, “detached”.  This is particularly applicable in the late 16th century sense: “of a conjunction: adversative”.  Overall, these terms define disparate things in linguistic and ideational form.  They have lived on in the language of modern psychology.  Thought itself certainly existed in the poet’s mind as a space in which things happened that referred to every imaginable emotion and process.  Sonnet 30 produces a highly developed sense of thought as that vehicle:

                              When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
                              I summon up remembrance of things past,
                              I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
                              And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
                              Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)
                              For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.

As always, subtle allusions lie in Shakespeare’s use of such words as “summon” and “sessions” to produce the image of trial and guilt.  Likewise, the counting-house exists in “waste”, “cancelled” and “expense” to form the ideational balance-sheet in thought-transactions with the thinker and the greater world beyond the mind.

   (b) Concrete, OED, “growing together”, becoming a “composite”.  Developing from late ME, “embodied in material form”, to the late 16th century sense of “to give concrete expression to an abstract thing”.  Both words lived on in the language of modern psychology.  It has many times been said that Shakespeare was the first psychologist. 

[18]Marion Wynne-Davies, “The Renaissance Subject: Symbolism to Individualism” in Marion Wynne-Davies, ed., The Renaissance: A Guide to English Renaissance Literature, 1500-1660 (London: Bloomsbury, 1994), p. 6.  James Saslow, “Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behaviour, Identity, and Artistic Expression” in Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus and George Chauncey eds., Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991 [New American Library, 1989]), p. 90, provides a succinct overview of the period in much the same vein.  He argues that “the era between the late fourteenth and late seventeenth centuries only gradually altered the organization of the Middle Ages”.  Other scholars agree that this change was no sudden, clear-cut break in cultural outlook.

[19]The custom for this use of aptronyms continued well into recent times with characters like Squire Allworthy and Mr Square in Fielding’s Tom Jones, of 1749; Mr Wackford Squeers in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, 1839.

[20]OED gives the obvious derivation and lexical succession of the concept, “sinister”, in our modern thinking and writing: that which derives directly from this left-side placing for evil things, people and events.  Now, we do not need to think of its association with “left”.  Simply, the word, “sinister” has evil connotations.

[21]See John Wesley Harris, Medieval Theatre in Context (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 112-117.  In pictorial art the convention for dexter (good) and sinister (bad) elements is demonstrated as a European standard.  In Southern Europe, Verrocchio’s sculpture Boy with a Dolphin is one among a myriad of representations which obey the dexter/sinister rule.  See George Bull, ed. and trans. Giorgio Vasari; Lives of the Artists (London: The Folio Society, 1993), facing p. 15.  In Northern Europe, an outstanding example from the late Elizabethan period exists in the Methuen Collection.  It shows a lined and care-worn Elizabeth with a divine figure in the dexter field and a death’s head in the sinister field.  In a much earlier portrait in the Woburn Abbey Collection, the triumphal Elizabeth is flanked by the dexter English fleet and the sinister wrecked Spaniards. The right/left, good/bad tradition extended for a long period beyond its redundancy from this study’s point-of-view.  See Jan Baptist Bedaux, “A bridle for lust: representations of sexual morality in Dutch children’s portraits of the seventeenth century” in Jan Bremmer, ed., From Sappho to de Sade (London and New York, Routledge, 1991), pp. 64-65, plates 5, 8, 9, 10 and 13, particularly.  Such artists as Ludolph de Jong, Jacob Cats and J.G. Cuyp are exemplars in this strongest kind metaphor.   

[22]OED: “bend sinister ... drawn from sinister chief to dexter base” was read as the sign of bastardy.

[23]For a much fuller discussion of this, see John Wesley Harris, Medieval Theatre in Context (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 112-116< 165.

[24]Wynne-Davies, pp. 7-8.

[25]Ian Donaldson, Ben Jonson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. ixx.

[26]Roland Barthes, “Authors and Writers” [1960] in Susan Sontag, ed., A Barthes Reader (London: Vintage, 1993 [Essais Critique, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1964}), pp. 186, 189 ß 191.  No theory of transforming thought into merchandise could be complete in the post-modern sphere without studying Jacques Derrida’s idea of différence in its double meaning of “differentiate” and “defer”: this being applied to the meanings of signs that signified, which, in Derrida’s teachings, were entirely negotiable, having no common interpretation as it was generally, earlier thought.  See Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference. Alan Bass, ed. and trans. (London: Routledge, 1990 [From L’écriture et la différence, 1967, first published in English by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978]).

[27]Stephen Greenblatt, ed., “Introduction” in Representing the English Renaissance (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1988), p. vii.

[28]Louis Adrian Montrose, “ ‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture” in Stephen Greenblatt, ed., Representing the English Renaissance (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1988), p. 31.  Montrose uses the line-references found in the Cambridge Edition of this play.  Please note that parts of his paper exist in an earlier version: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Shaping fantasies of Elizabethan Culture: Gender, Power, Form” in Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy Vickers, eds. Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

[29]Montrose, p. 31.

[30]Montrose, p. 31 and n. 2, p. 57, after Frederic Jameson’s idea that: “The character of cultural practice is at once constituted and constituting, structured and structuring”.  This from Jamieson’s The Political Unconscious (Ithaca, 1981), pp. 81-82.

[31]The troublesome term, “patriarchy”, exists in two parts.  Firstly, it as a pejorative that relates to much that originates in the “white, male, European” of the perceived “canon” of literature that tends towards “racism, patriarchy, and imperialism”.  This, as M.H. Abrams expresses it in his A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th edn. (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1993 [1941]), p. 21.  Secondly, in the sphere of feminist criticism, the term exists as a pejorative that is central to much that has been written since the early 1960s.  Abrams, p. 234, expresses this as “the cultural, economic, and educational disabilities within ... ‘patriarchal’ society that have hindered or prevented women from realizing their creative possibilities”.  Abrams also cites a long progression of the emergence of feminist thought, beginning with Mary Wollstoncraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, of 1792, and progresses through Virginia Woolf’s 1929 A Room of One’s Own to the present day. 

[32]Lady Mary Wroth is a signal exception.

[33]Irene Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakepeare’s Plays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), p. 1.

[34]Penny Gay, As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women (London and New York> Routledge, 1994), pp. 4, 179 and 181, n. 5.

[35]Dympna Callaghan, “ ‘And all is semblative a woman’s part’: body politics and Twelfth Night” in R.S. White, ed. Twelfth Night (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996a [Textual Practice 7, 1993: 428-452]), p. 148.  See also Lorraine Helms, below.

[36]Lorraine Helms, “Acts of Resistance” in Dympna Callaghan, Lorraine Helms and Jyotsna Singh, The Weyward Sister: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), p. 107, quoting Jan Kott, The Memory of the Body: Essays on Theatre and Death (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992), p. 14.

[37]Helms, p. 107.

[38]Helms, p. 108, after Kathleen McLuskie, “The patriarchal bard: feminist consciousness and Shakespeare—King Lear and Measure for Measure” in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds., Political Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 88-108.

[39]Helms, p. 108.

[40]Lesley Ferris, “Introduction” in Lesley Ferris ed., Crossing the Stage: Controversies on cross-dressing (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 6 to19, n. 2, after Thomas Laqueur, “Orgasm, generation, and the politics of reproductive biology” in Representations 14: 1-41.

[41]Dympna Callaghan, “The Castrator&s Song” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 26, 1996b, p. 323.

[42]The first written formalization of the newly-permitted custom was the result of a clause in a patent granted to William D’Avenant in January 1662 which provided that: “…whereas the women’s parts in plays have hitherto been acted by men in the habits of women, at which some have taken offence, we permit and give leave for the time to come, that all women’s parts be acted by women.” However, D’Avenant tells of giving the part of Ianthe in his own play, The Siege of Rhodes, to a Mrs Coleman in 1656.  See William D’Avenant, Works, 1872, I.lxiv, lxvii; and M.R. Ridley, ed., The Arden Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra (London and New York: Methuen, 1982 [1965]), p. 210, foot-note to lines 218-219, “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/ I’ the posture of a whore.”

[43]Michael Shapiro, “Lady Mary Wroth Describes a ‘Boy Actress’ ” in Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England 4, 1989, p. 193, n. 6.

[44]Michael Jamieson, “Shakespeare’s Celibate Stage” in Gerald Eades Bentley, ed., The Seventeenth Century Stage (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 76.

[45]The spelling of Sir William’s family-name appears in several forms.  Variously: d’Avenant; D’avenant; Davenant.

[46]See Chapter Five for an exception to this protection.  Lord Denny’s spiteful attack upon Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania was the reaction of a patriarch threatened by a highly articulate female.

[47]Thomas Coryate, Coryate’s Crudities (London, 1611), p. 247.

[48]Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety> Circulations of sexuality in Shakespearian drama (London and New York> Routledge, 1992), p. 117.

[49]Stephen Orgel, “Nobody’s Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?” in South Atlantic Quarterly 88, 1989: 7-8.

[50]This custom’s vestigial remnant existing, perhaps in the French usage of garçon when referring to a waiter, until recent times.  For a brief but highly-focused study of this chronologically-elastic envelope, see J.B. Street, “The Durability of Boy Actors” in Notes and Queries 20, 1973.  Streett refers to Richard David’s Annual Shakespeare Lecture before the British Academy: “Shakespeare and the Players” in Proceedings of the British Academy, xlvii, 1961: 150; and Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearian Stage 1574-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p.69.  Streett, particularly, treats of the immense difficulties which literary-historians meet in establishing clearly acceptable “fact” about this question from records in which baptismal notation had no common spelling for names and in which actors sometimes used aliases.

[51]Callaghan, 1996b, is chief among scholars reporting this phenomenon, but many other references exist to support her.

[52]In complete reversal of the original custom, a Peking Opera-style Twelfth Night with an all-female cast was presented at the 1986 Shakespeare Festival.  See Murray Levith, “The Bard and the Dragon: Shakespeare in China” in R.S. White, Charles Edelman and Christopher Wortham, eds., Shakespeare: Readers, Audiences, Players (Nedlands, Western Australia: The University of Western Australia Press, 1998), p. 71.

[53]Lesley Anne Soule, “Subverting Rosalind: Cocky Ros in the Forest of Arden” in New Theatre Quarterly, 1991, pp. 126-128.  Soule cites Kathleen McLuskie’s arguments on this vital question in “The Act, the Role, and the Actor: Boy Actresses on the Elizabethan Stage” in New Theatre Quarterly 3, 1987, p. 130.  Soule also cites elements of Catherine Belsey’s, “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies” in J. Drakakis, ed., Alternative Shakespeares (London, 1985), pp. 166-190.

[54]Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, 1525?-1595.  The music of his time, and also largely of his authorship, had become so complex that the drive to be able to sustain the soprano and alto voice-parts into manhood created a market for castrati, or evirati, as they are elsewhere called.  Some individuals became famous and very wealthy.  Commentators on the sounds that these emasculated singers—who performed in the registers that, normally, only women and prepubescent boys could reach—combined with the strength and control of a man’s body—after years of training to perfect the technique—was deemed to be, simply, unearthly. It is reported that crowds would cry “Viva il scalpello!” when such people as Farinelli sang.  A 1902 recording of the castrato Marewski scotches any idea that this radical mutilation was inflicted on boys only in the distant past.

[55]Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (London: Routledge, 1989b), p. 46.  Culler looks at Shakespeare in the context of feminist readings and quotes extensively from Carolyn Lenz, and others: The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 3-4.  This, in full support of Lenz’s academic rigour, but without making mention of the androgyne element—as does not Lenz—while thoroughly exploring the characteristics of the feminist readings themselves and the theory surrounding them.  After Lenz, Culler praises the studies of “images of women” in Shakespeare and “the conclusions derived” which were then “tested rigorously against the text, its myriad contexts, and the explorations of other critics” (italics mine), but only as a view of real women, represented by real women.

[56]William Robertson Davies, Shakespeare’s Boy Actors (London: J.M. Dent & Son, 1939), p. 18.

[57]The King James Bible, Deuteronomy, 22: 5.  Additionally, the Oxford English Dictionary proposes that this word, “abomination”, might not simply have arrived in Elizabethan English with the accepted modern meaning of “ill omen”.  This, as derived from Latin, abominatio—leading to “disgust and hatred”.  In Antony and Cleopatra, 3.6.94, Shakespeare writes: “Antony, most large in his abhominations”.  In Measure for Measure, 3.225 the inclusion of the “h” also appears as “Abhominable and beastly touches”.  This version seems to be derived, therefore, from mediaeval Latin, then Old French, as “ab ± homin”, meaning “inhuman”, or, in the above contexts, perhaps, “against man”.  Certainly, the King James Bible usage, quoted from Deuteronomy 22: 5, would seem, clearly to impart the meaning, “against man”—rather than “of ill omen”.

[58]A fuller explanation of the agony that the Puritans thus created for themselves in their growing power throughout the Elizabethan and then the Jacobean period, is included in Chapter One.  This, with reference to a wide range of anti-theatrical works, such as Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse of 1579, and Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses of 1583.  Full reference to the best of the most recent gender-theory studies, such as Laura Levine’s 1994 book, Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-Theatricality and Effeminization, 1579-1642, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)  Levine achieves a fine focus on this polemic in the period of vital influences that are central to my arguments.

[59]Though “ye” was by Shakespeare’s time largely an archaic usage.  See Charles Barber, “The Later History of English” in W.F. Bolton and David Crystal, eds., The English Language (Harmondsworth> Penguin Books, 1993 [Sphere, 1975]), pp. 264-265.

[60]Please see Roger Brown and Albert Gillman, “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity” in T.A. Seboek, ed., Style in Language (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1960);  M.J. Teare-Williams, A survey of the non-reciprocal power-semantic in the use of the pronouns of address in Hamlet (Murdoch University, 1991), pp. 5-6; Ronald Carter, ed., Language and Literature (London> Unwin Hyman, 1988), p. 40;  H.G. Widdowson, “Othello in Person” in Ronald Carter, ed., Language and Literature (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), pp. 41-52; Andrew McIntosh and M.A.K. Halliday, Patterns of Language: Papers in General, Descriptive and Applied Linguistics (London> Longman, 1966);  Gillian Alexander, “Politics of the Pronoun in the Literature of the English Revolution” in Ronald Carter, ed., Language and Literature (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), pp. 218-235; Roger Fowler, Linguistic Criticism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 96-101.  See also Richard Barber, footnote above, pp. 264-265.  Barber’s work is particularly interesting as a concise survey of the singular/plural, nominative/accusative pronoun usages that existed in Middle English: those that were modified in Early Modern English as the formal and familiar that is so vital in this thesis.  It is utterly clear that the use of “you”, or “thou” acted as an open, conscious, modal-switch for Renaissance people.  It is equally clear that, at other times, these switches were effected without conscious thought.  Shakespeare’s people spoke and heard the indications of power and solidarity, the process of both courteous deference and the sarcastic reversal of the normal usage that added so much colour to their language and so much subtlety to their representations.


Continue to Chapter One.




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