Cross-dressing in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice

Cross-dressing in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice

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Cross-dressing in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice

Any theatrical performance requires a two-fold exchange. The performers must act in such a way as to engage the audience and draw them into the story of the stage. However, the audience itself must yield to the imagination, allowing at times the irrational to take precedent over rational expectations. This exchange between performers and audience creates the dramatic experience; one cannot exist without the other.

In the context of Shakespeare's works this relationship becomes exceedingly important. Not only was scenery minimal on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, thus forcing audience members to imagine great battles, enchanted forests, and ornate palace courts, but the absence of actresses put an increased burden on the audience's imagination and actors' performance because young, cross-dressed boys performed all female roles. Though the rational logic of the audience recognized the performer as male, the imaginative mind had to assume a feminine gender. Robert Kimbrough has noted: “people going to the theatre check their literal-mindedness at the door and willingly believe anything they are asked to believe; the theatre is where illusion becomes reality” (17). This reality demonstrated on the stage flourishes in the mind of the audience member where both rational comprehension and imagination coexist.

Thus, though it has been argued that the boy actors' cross-dressing allows for a potential “sodomitical” pleasure to the male audience member (Sedinger 69), such a relationship seems highly unlikely given the nature of theater and the imaginative/rational relationship. It is necessary to understand Shakespeare's female cha...

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Howard, Jean E. “Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39.4 (1988): 418-40.

Newman, Karen. “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structure of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38.1 (1987): 19-33.

Orgel, Stephen, and A. R. Braunmiller, eds. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare . New York: Penguin, 2002.

Rackin, Phyllis. “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage.” PMLA 102.1 (1987): 29-41.

Sedinger, Tracey. “‘If sight and shape be true': The Epistemology of Crossdressing on the London Stage.” Shakespeare Quarterly 48.1 (1997): 63-79.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It . Orgel and Braunmiller 407-37.

---. The Merchant of Venice . Orgel and Braunmiller 293–323.

---. Twelfth Night . Orgel and Braunmiller 446-73.

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