Merchant of Venice

Discuss the function of cross-dressing in Renaissance drama.

Cross-dressing on the early modern stage was a highly exploited theatrical device. It subverted the traditional conceptions of gender, evoking a recurring sense of dramatic irony. Jean E. Howard explains that “behavioural differences” and “distinctions of dress” were considered very significant in the Renaissance period because anatomical theories of the sexes held men and women to be practically identical. In England, cross-dressing, male casts of players attracted severe criticism from Puritans, who deemed their plays “public enemies to virtue and religion.” But the homoerotic effects of transvestism have overshadowed the supplementary functions it can serve in Renaissance drama, namely emitting a prevailing sense of meta-theatricality, distorting gender boundaries and empowering the heroine.

Early modern attitudes towards cross-dressing on stage were rather self-contradictory. Janette Dillon highlights why Puritans were especially repelled by transvestism. She quotes Stephen Gosson, a former playwright and poet, who fiercely remarked that to dress as the opposite sex was to “forge and adulterate, contrary to the express rule of the word of God.” So when Celia censures Rosalind in As You Like It for assuming male dress, she...

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