Comparing Shakespeare’s Women in Disguise

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Throughout the period of the Shakespearean stage, there were many plays that led viewers and critics to question sexual identity and gender roles in not just his plays, but many other plays as well. For early modern England at this time, cross-dressing was looked at as a dramaturgical motif, a theatrical practice, and a social phenomenon. “In Shakespeare’s day, a cross-dressed heroine, like any female character also involved a gender switch in the world of the playhouse, for women’s roles were normally assigned to young male apprentices called play-boys” (Shapiro, 1). In each of Shakespeare’s five plays involving a cross-dressing heroine, he tried something different. He cleverly varied each motif in which each play turned out to have different reactions as well as outcomes. All of the heroines, Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and Viola in Twelfth Night, all come from aristocratic and wealthy families, were well-educated and courageous enough to disguise themselves in order to enter the masculine world. “Adoption of disguise also implied the inevitability of undisguising, and with it the assurance that even the most assertive heroine, if she were to survive, would eventually resume her female identity and her place within a patriarchal society.” (Shapiro, 65) These cross-dressing heroines are alike through a number of aspects, their voice and costumes being most important. But they are all active and determined rather than passive and submissive, they show their intelligence and capabilities, and although they show their masculinity they still hold their female characteristics and qualities.

The history of female cross-dressing goes back before the 1611 story of Arabella Stuart, who was rela...

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... Companion to Shakespearean Comedy. 179-197. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2002. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

Howard, Jean E. "Crossdressing, The Theatre, And Gender Struggle In Early Modern England." Shakespeare Quarterly 39.4 (1988): 418-440. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

Myers, Jeffrey Rayner. "'In Nothing Am I Chang'd But In My Garments': Shakespearean Cross-Dressing And The Politics Of Sexual Frustration." Annals Of Scholarship: An International Quarterly In The Humanities And Social Sciences 11.3 (1997): 217-238. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

Shakespeare, William, and Keir Elam. Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2008. Print.

Shapiro, Michael. Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1994. Print.
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