Anxious Audiences and the Early Modern English Transvestite Theatre
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Anxious Audiences and the Early Modern English Transvestite Theatre

Intersecting the interests of theatre historians, New Historicists, and feminist scholars, the early modern English convention of having boys play the women's roles has proven a compelling subject of analysis, drawing considerable attention over the last thirty years. Despite the broad range of methodologies employed to address the issue, one aspect of cross-gender casting has not been fully considered: the importance of audiences. This is significant because our understanding of the convention during the early modern period is tightly connected to the practice of spectatorship. To begin with, extant historical responses by those who attended the theatre inform our notion of how cross-gender casting was understood at the time. Additionally, along more theoretical lines, audiences, in the act of engaging the convention, helped to construct its meaning. Within theatre studies, we needn't invoke Barthes's notion of the "death of the author" to acknowledge the importance of audiences to the making of meaning in a performance.1 I plan briefly to survey the responses to cross-gender casting that came out of the period. Then, I wish to reflect upon the nature of the available evidence to consider the range of arguments it supports. Finally, I hope to consider how audience responses shaped the experience of cross-gender casting when it was employed in performances of early modern English drama.

Despite the extraordinary amount of recent scholarship devoted to the topic, the practice of having boys play the women's roles actually elicited very little commentary at the time. In his book Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, Andrew Gurr attempts to record all of the significant comments on the theatre that survive from the period. Among the wide variety of references to playgoing Gurr has unearthed, discussion (or even mention) [End Page 66] of the ubiquitous practice of having boys play the women's parts is almost conspicuously absent.2 That stated, the convention did elicit responses, rather strong ones, from a particular demographic: individuals who found the practice opprobrious. Antitheatrical writers published a number of tracts during the early modern period that attacked the institution of theatre, and some of them specifically mention the iniquity of transvestite drama in the theatrical enterprise. The primary members of this group are Stephen Gosson, John Rainoldes, and William Prynne.3

The commentaries these writers offer on the theatrical practice of cross-gender casting are not identical, but share the general opinion that the convention breaks with religious orthodoxy and inappropriately inspires lust in the observer. Gosson, for instance, in Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582), first invokes the argument from Deuteronomy (22:5), which states that men who put on the apparel of women are an abomination to the Lord. He takes this further by arguing that, if merely wearing a woman's apparel is damnable, how much worse is the actor who puts on "not the apparrell onely, but the gate, the gestures, the voyce, the passions of a woman?"4 In Th' Overthrow of Stage-Playes (1599), Dr. John Rainoldes, a leading Oxford divine, argues that having boys play the part of women inspires sexual desire in the audience. "The appareil of wemen is a great provocation of men to lust and leacherie . . . A womans garment beeing put on a man doeth vehemently touch and moue him with the rememberance and imagination of a woman; and the imagination of a thing desirable doth stirr up the desire."5 Dressed as a woman, a male actor stirs up lust by provoking the audience's imagination and memory of a woman. Rainoldes further asserts that the spectator experiences homoerotic lust for the boy beneath the apparel: "an effeminate stage-player, while he faineth love, imprinteth wounds of love."6 William Prynne, in Histriomastix (1633), expands upon the fear that cross-dressed boys would elicit homoerotic desire: "players and play-haunters in their secret conclaves play the sodomites; together with some modern examples of such, who have been desperately enamored with players' boys thus clad in woman's apparel, so far as to solicit them by words, by letters, even actually to abuse them."7 Taken...