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Reviewed by:
  • Masculinity, Corporeality and the English Stage 1580–1635
  • Ivan Cañadas
Billing, Christian M., Masculinity, Corporeality and the English Stage 1580–1635, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008; hardback; pp. 248; 17 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £55.00; ISBN 9780754656517.

Christian Billing’s well-researched exploration of the understanding in Tudor- Stuart professional theatre of ‘the anatomical facts of sex identity and the sociological constructs of gender’ – particularly masculinity – challenges the ‘fashionable’ position in much contemporary scholarship that the Galenic ‘one-sex anatomical model held sway as the defining mode of corporeal understanding until the Enlightenment’, and that ‘fears of corporeal instability’ attendant upon it ‘were the root cause of gender-related anxiety’ (pp. 2–3, 16; my emphasis). Critical of Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex (1990), Jean Howard’s ‘now standard teaching edition of As You Like It’ for the Norton Shakespeare (1997), and Laura Levine’s Men in Women’s Clothing (1994), as the key disseminators of the prevailing view, Billing argues ‘that medical evidence for and cultural acceptance of fluid sex and gender models … is extremely thin on the ground – especially any evidence that refers explicitly to the oft-asserted power of histrionic activity to be evidence of mutation’ (pp. 2–3, 6, 8). To support his argument, Billing musters evidence of ‘the breakdown’ of the ‘one-sex model’ in the Early Modern period, asserting that extreme examples cited by ‘anti-theatrical writers’ (who employed, for instance, the monstrous figure of the hermaphrodite) were not representative of widespread opinion (pp. 8–9).

Chapter 1 offers a compelling discussion of late Elizabethan and Stuart anatomical research, culminating in Nicholas Culpeper’s resounding rejection of the Galenic tradition in his 1651 Directory for Midwives (p. 37). This discussion provides the background for Billing’s exploration, in later chapters, of the ensuing popular fascination with the body, and specifically with the practice of anatomical dissection and its transformation into the theatrical language of violence.

Chapter 2, in turn, presents a re-evaluation of gender-instability in the Falstaff plays – ‘frequently ironic, always metaphorical’ (p. 71) – and examines homoeroticism in Lyly’s Gallathea. Billing’s discussion in Chapter 3 of cross-dressing, particularly female-to-male transvestism both in the theatrical and social worlds, relates this phenomenon to the increasingly restrictive sumptuary legislation enacted during the reign of Elizabeth I, a monarch whose own ‘role … in the emergence of the early modern virago’ was, paradoxically, ‘significant’ (p. 99). [End Page 164]

Billing also presents a convincing argument that male opposition to female-to-male transvestism was largely founded, not on the fear of ‘corporeal destabilization’, but on the challenge women’s breaching of norms involving apparel represented (pp. 114–15). The issue of transvestism and sexual misconduct is also broached in this chapter. It is explored at greater length in Chapter 4 in the examination of Mary Frith, in both her real life and her literary and theatrical personae. Billing notes that where transvestite women ‘expected’ men ‘to see the claims of autonomy, many men obtusely read sexual invitation’ (p. 120). In his discussion of Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl, Billing focuses on misogyny in Jacobean drama, to be found even in a play centred around the unconventional (female) character of Mary Frith/Moll Cutpurse. He provides a particularly revealing reading of the treatment of the three citizen wives, Mistresses Tiltyard, Gallipot and Openwork (pp. 145–46), and in addition, he highlights Moll’s patriarchal function ‘as a paradigm of assertive and aggressive masculinity’ (p. 149).

‘Misogynist Anatomy: The Visceral Imperatives of Fordian Tragedy’ – the book’s fifth and closing chapter – is arguably the most fascinating and groundbreaking. Billing examines male violence in John Ford’s tragedies of the 1620s and 1630s ‘as a function of anatomical imperatives’ (p. 182). These can be seen to manifest in the popular fascination with the practice of dissection, as well as in the pent-up ‘anti-feminist sentiment or tension’, aroused and ‘released’ by Ford through the dramatic murder of female characters who ‘are generally seen to be deviant in some way’ (pp. 182–83). Billing’s close reading of The Witch of Edmonton, Love’s Sacrifice, The Broken Heart, and...


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