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Posted on June 15th, 2012, by

Cross-dressing in the theater has a very long history, and its roots going back at least to the ancient Greeks.  There were many reasons why the role of a man playing a woman or vice versa. Among these reasons were: religion, belief that women were subordinates and therefore lower than men and it was believed that acting would cause women to be corrupt. Laurence Senelick, the author of The Changing Room: Sex, Drag, and Theatre, wrote: From the dawn of time, women’s presence in the theater has been the exception rather than the rule. The theater is grounded in religion, and having women on stage was not considered decorous. Their realm is the home. Even the term actress appeared not so long ago, in 17th century, before this was only actor. So, until the 17th century all women roles were played by men or boys. In early modern theatre was the same situation, in plays all of the women’s parts were played by young boys that had to dress up in women’s clothing and have high voices to be a convincing female.

It is very important that young boys dressed up like a women caused many problems.  The greatest problem was the love scenes that usually were present in performance of that time.  It was also feared that by dressing like a woman, desires to be female would be awakened in these boys.

This cross dressing had also social value. The fact that a man put on women’s clothing and took on their gestures could be scene as making the man and woman equals in social class. And it is also very important to remember that many of the female characters portrayed in Renaissance plays were of upper-class and when common actors were put in aristocratic clothing, it made lower class audience felt more close to upper class.

       In William Shakespeare's time, women's roles were played by men or boys, though there is some evidence to suggest that women as men also took part in performances illegally, of course. In fact there were several very popular boys' companies who played all the roles, men's and women's, and in the adult companies boys were apprenticed to the men of the company and trained to play women until they reached puberty.

Some early modern writers (especially Puritans) complained extremely about boys who played girls. The Gull’s Hornbook warns us about plays like As You Like It, where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such kissing and bussing … such winking and glancing of wanton eyes and the like is used …

Then, these goodly pageants being done, every mate sorts to his mate, every one brings another homeward of their way very friends, and in their secret conclaves (covertly), they play the Sodomites, or worse.

If to talk about William Shakespeare’s As You Like It more concrete, we can find many interesting facts about cross dressing.  Rosalind character is among the best-known and most-frequently reclaimed’ of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing women. For example, when Rosalind dresses as a boy, we can say that she even overplays her role. A gallant curter-axe upon my thigh, a boar-spear in my hand. Rosalind plans to carry both an axe and a spear, much more weaponry than anyone else in the play does. Rosalind’s hyperbolic weaponry makes her look silly, and the joke is heightened because a early modern audience was aware of both the character’s and the actor’s sex. As we know in Shakespeare’s original playhouse, a boy actor played Rosalind. He pretended to be a girl (Rosalind) who pretends to be a boy (Ganymede). And to add even another layer, Ganymede instructs Orlando to pretend he is a girl (Rosalind). Every reference to gender in Rosalind’s scenes is intended to recall these levels of identity and make the Renaissance audience laugh. So, we see that sometimes, and I can assume that even often, such cross dressing transforms play into comedy.

It is difficult to imagine, but in early modern theatre play Romeo and Juliet was plaid without women participation. Even Juliet’s role was plaid by boy. And there we again met the situation when two men should play love scenes and show warm fillings to each other. Maybe this fact attracted on performances many people with sexual disorders. Or maybe people just laugh on such performances. I can even assume that some people felt discomfort and dismay on such performances and somebody may find such cross dressing scandalous.

   In reality it is very hard now to judge was cross dressing good or bad idea. For example G. E. Bentley who wrote the book The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time said: The convention of the Shakespearean theater most difficult for moderns to accept is that of the boy players...Since comparatively few moderns have ever seen professionally trained' juvenile actors performing any roles except those corresponding to their own age and sex, many are baffled by the imaginative feat of an adolescent boy enthralling a sophisticated audience with his performance of Rosalind, Lady Macbeth, Webster's Duchess, or Ford's Annabella.
Yet those subjects of early Stuart kings who had opportunities to see both boys and women in female roles were not impressed by the superiority of the actresses...
       In our days we also have a lot of examples of cross dressing and not only men play women roles, but also women play men and boys. It is also sometimes happens that such cross dressing brings a fame to actor or actress. Sometimes we can call this fact funny, but sometimes it is a real form of transvestism. And also it is not our business to judge them, in contrast to early modern theatre audience we have an opportunity to chose to visit such cross dressed plays or not. Therefore every person chose what he/she wants on his taste, and it is a very good fact.








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