Body and Spirit, Stage and Sexuality in The Tempest
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Body and Spirit, Stage and Sexuality in The Tempest

I

Writing Plays Confuted in Five Actions in 1582, Stephen Gosson encounters a momentary setback in his condemnation of stage plays. After all, he admits, Gregory Naziancen once wrote “a Playe of Christe.” But, Gosson asks, “to what ende? To be Plaid upon Stages? neither Players nor their friendes are able to prove it.” 1 Naziancen’s play is morally acceptable because it cannot conclusively be linked to actual performances. This distinction between a written text and a fully-embodied theatrical production becomes crucial for Gosson as he details the abuses to which theater is prone in early modern England:

If it should be Plaied, one must learne to trippe it like a Lady in the finest fashion, another must have time to whet his minde unto tyranny that he may give life to the picture hee presenteth, whereby they learne to counterfeit, and so to sinne. Therefore whatsoever such Playes as conteine good matter, are set out in print, may be read with profite, but cannot be playd, without a manifest breach of Gods commaundement. . . . Action, pronuntiation, apparel, agility, musicke, severally considered are the good blessings of God, nothing hurtfull of their owne nature, yet being bound up together in a bundle, to set out the pompe, the plaies, the inventions of the divell, it is abhominable in the sight of God, and not to be suffered among Christians.

(C, 178)

Although Gosson wants to demonstrate his respect for action and pronunciation—for embodiment—it is clearly the participation of actors as they “give life” to an author’s words that makes plays intolerable. In the process of making an author’s words into a physical spectacle, players are both corrupted and corrupting.

As Gosson himself points out, embodying an author’s words is especially damaging morally when it requires that men or boys play women’s roles on stage. What Gosson here calls “tripping it like a Lady” he elsewhere condemns in more detail, famously invoking divine authority to bolster his sense that “garments are set downe for signes [End Page 683] distinctive betwene sexe and sexe”(C,175). This lack of sexual distinction troubles other writers in the period as well, so that when J. Cocke wants to characterize “A common Player,” he has easy recourse to images of sexual chaos:

[An actor] if he marries, he mistakes the Woman for the Boy in Woman’s attire, by not respecting a difference in the mischiefe. But so long as he lives unmarried, hee mistakes the Boy, or a Whore for the Woman; by courting the first on the stage, or visiting the second at her devotions. 2

Clearly gender distinctions break down in this description, but Cocke’s conflation of transvestite performance with marital sexuality leads to another more surprising claim: courting a boy on stage becomes analogous to “mistaking” a whore for a woman, a formulation which powerfully connects sexual anxieties with worries about performance and economic gain. Prostitutes and players are troubling not only because of their sexual promiscuity, but because of their very professionalism. After all, both can be counted on to produce a facsimile of marital relations for money. Moreover, as has often been remarked, both sexual display and paid impersonation have the power to break down the categories upon which identity is founded, so that apparently stable notions of masculinity, femininity and even authenticity itself are threatened by the work of the professional actor. 3

The distaste for professionalism implied by Cocke’s conflation of acting and prostitution resonates, of course, with another set of complaints about players, lodged this time by poets whose engagement with theater companies threatened to compromise their (already precarious) social status. As is well testified by the works of Robert Greene, university writers who composed stage plays had a tendency to depict players as parasitical “puppets” and “taffeta fools” who gained wealth at the expense of their social betters. Greene himself even traces the despicable character of the player to the profession’s classical origins:

Now so highly were Comedies esteemed in those daies [after Menander began to write moral Comedies], that men of great honor...