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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.2 (2001) 241-256

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Cross-Dressing and John Lyly's Gallathea

Christopher Wixson

A Broadway revival of Blake Edwards's gender-bending comedy Victor, Victoria caps off a flurry of contemporary critical and popular interest in cross-dressing, the most recent expressions of which range from the sensational thrills of The Crying Game to Marjorie Garber's popular exploration of Vested Interests. 1 Specifically within the academy, feminist and, more recently, gay and lesbian scholars since the mid-1980s have seized upon early modern dramatic texts because they seem to highlight gender impersonation and performativity with their all-male casts and frequent narrative incarnations of the "disguise" plot. These kinds of examinations are essential to understanding the concepts of gender and the dynamics of desire as (re)presented on the Renaissance stage. However, there are dangers. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub write that "the political left of critical theory could be said to be in the midst of a long love affair with the subversive potential of gender ambiguity, but this affair has not been an untroubled one." 2 They go on to say that critics who champion the lack of gendered clarity run into problems when challenged about the political efficacy of their work, about whether their valorizing of ambiguity sufficiently illuminates or further obscures complex cultural inscriptions and hinders current academic and "real world" political struggles. From a more literary perspective, does the intensive "staking out" of cross-dressing by feminist and gay/lesbian critics partially eclipse other historically contingent associations with cross-dressing that are "foreign" (or perhaps more invisible) within our own cultural anxieties and biases which inform our approaches? [End Page 241]

As Garber is careful to explain in Vested Interests, when we examine the anxious concerns about gender and sexuality within Elizabethan (high) culture that were regulated by numerous sumptuary laws about cross-dressing, scholars must keep in mind the complex set of intersecting boundaries that can be variously "crossed" (gender, class, sexuality, national). 3 First and foremost, however, sumptuary laws were enacted to "mark out as visible and above all legible distinctions of wealth and rank within a society undergoing changes that threatened to blur or even obliterate such distinctions," distinctions the increasingly public phenomenon of theater brought into ambiguity. 4 Yet, within the academy, "discussion of sumptuary laws by scholars of Renaissance literature in the 1970's and early 1980's tended to emphasize the implications of such laws for gender, especially as reflected in the debates about cross-dressing and the English stage. It is worth remembering, however, that sumptuary legislation was overwhelmingly concerned with wealth or rank, and with gender largely as it was a subset of those categories." 5 More specifically, I would further argue that the relationship of class subversions to gender subversions regarding the narrative and historical incarnations of cross-dressing in John Lyly's Gallathea (1583-85) has still not been worked out thoroughly enough, especially regarding whether or not those subversions can co-exist or how their representational ideologies can be compatible or antagonistic from the perspective of certain schools of criticism. The complexity of the task is similar to current attempts by many gay/lesbian critics to unpack the early modern polysemantics of "sodomy" as both a social and a sexual category. My point in this paper is that some feminist and gay/lesbian approaches to the theatrical and historical phenomenon of cross-dressing have focused too narrowly or too exclusively on potential gender or sexual subversions without working to unpack the larger social project of each individual play. Gallathea, while subverting gender and sexual boundaries, also possesses a number of socially conservative elements, each of which can be elided by focusing too closely on the other; the two strains should not be so isolated from each other.


When exploring notions of early modern gender and sexuality, Gallathea proves surprisingly vexing. Consistent with its deceptive and playful language, the play provides evasive and [End Page 242] inadequate, yet titillating answers for questions about...


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