- Queer Play: The Cultural Work of Crossdressing in Medieval Drama
Thanks in part to the advent of queer theory in cultural studies, 1 crossdressing has in recent years been the focus of a considerable body of critical work, especially in studies of the theater of the English Renaissance. From a variety of theoretical perspectives (post-Foucaultian analysis of the discursive construction of sexuality, the poetics and politics of representation, materialist feminism, queer theory, and so forth) contemporary scholars have sought to track the elusive figure of the crossdresser. Some of the work—that of Marjorie Garber, Stephen Greenblatt, Jonathan Goldberg, Valerie Traub—ranges widely, both chronologically and geographically, reaching forward as it often does from Renaissance theater to such contemporary manifestations of crossdressing as the films of John Waters. 2 But what is striking about all of this work is its resistance to reaching back to medieval theater, in which crossdressing was also the standard practice, with male actors almost without exception playing all roles, both male and female. In contemporary Renaissance scholarship, the theater of the Middle Ages is at best the dimly perceived, rarely articulated, but necessary ground upon which the Renaissance theater and, by extension, the criticism on it, work their brilliant refigurings. Medievalists, too, have unwittingly collaborated in this oversight, downplaying the complexity of theatrical crossdressing as a cultural practice in medieval Europe. The reasons for this critical blindness are surely many, including the disrepute into which any discourse smacking of the search for origins has fallen. But we would suggest that an even more critical factor, equally unspoken, is that the Middle Ages are usually seen as being characterized by a monolithic patriarchal regime to which modern constructions of sexuality and otherness are held not to apply. Crossdressing on the medieval stage, from this perspective, can be safely bracketed as standard and, therefore, unproblematic.
Even a casual acquaintance with the theater of the Middle Ages should reveal, however, that it was the site of intense cultural and ideological negotiations involving the testing and contesting of conventional social roles and cultural categories such as race, class, and gender. [End Page 319] To say this is to suggest that the supposed massive deployment of a stable two-gender system is something of a modern fiction and that the gendering of subjects in the Middle Ages was surely a process as complex as scholars argue it became in the early modern period. It is also to suggest that racial and class categories were less fixed and determinate in the Middle Ages than is often thought to be the case and that the status and racial positioning of subjects was also a complex cultural process. In this essay, we examine two significant instances of crossdressing in medieval theater where the figure of the crossdresser is used to explore the gender and class content of social roles: Marian miracle plays from mid fourteenth-century France and Robin Hood plays from fifteenth and sixteenth-century England. 3 In our discussion we will argue that the use of a crossdressing main character results in queer moments which cannot be entirely undone by the ultimate return of culturally sanctioned sexual and status arrangements, and further, that the queerness of those moments was certainly not lost upon the plays’ medieval audiences, even if the reading of these dramas as “queer” is, of necessity, a modern one. These transgender and transstatus representations, which transgress sexual and social taboos while also triggering complicated patterns of desire, cannot, we also argue, be reduced to one simple meaning, but rather perform a variety of kinds of cultural work.
Marjorie Garber, in her recent book Vested Interests, has argued that the problem with much of the scholarship on the many different cultural manifestations of transvestism, inside the theater and out, is that it looks through and not at the transvestite and the effects of transvestism. And yet, it is perhaps not so surprising that the transvestite should disappear in criticism when this is what inevitably happens in real as well as fictive transvestism, inseparable as it is from the facile knowledge (if only self-knowledge) that transvestism is a representation...