Monday, August 31, 2009

A Man, and Not a Maiden

Although cross-dressing isn't as prevalent in this play as it is in many others, it does come up in the Induction, as I pointed out earlier, and it's alluded to in Act 4, when Petruccio demands that Kate address the elderly Vincentio as a "gentlewoman." This whole business of gender misrecognition and cross-dressing in Will's plays has, as you might imagine, been discussed to death by academic "queer theorists"--scholars who study the homoerotics (explicit, implicit or merely imagined) of literary texts. I'm sympathetic to that perspective, but I think that focusing too much on any one aspect of the plays can be tedious for all involved. (Of course, focusing too much on one aspect of a literary text is what academics are paid to do, so I can't really blame them). That said, I thought I ought to write a little about the understanding of gender in the Elizabethan theater, since it was so radically different from our own.

It's a well-known fact that Elizabethan drama was performed exclusively by men, or rather men and boys. Women were forbidden to act in the theater--females were thought to be theatrical and deceptive by nature, so I guess letting them earn a living that way wasn't fair to men, who have to try harder to be something they're not. Okay, I'm being a little facetious. Actresses were thought to be on a par with prostitutes--perhaps because successful prostitutes had to be such good actresses--so no respectable theater would think of employing them. While there may have been female actors in "private performances," there were absolutely none in the public theater. It just wasn't considered proper, and the subject never seems to have come up for (public) discussion at all. As a result, all the women's parts were played by pre-pubescent boys, whose voices were sufficiently high-pitched to sound believably feminine. So let's think about this: we're talking ten-to-twelve-year-olds playing Juliet, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra. They weren't just pretending to be young women--they also played middle-aged widows, angry queens, witches, world-class seductresses--characters with difficult lines, who were onstage for hours, running through a gamut of emotions few of us could muster in real life. It's astonishing to even contemplate. The twelve-year-olds I know can't even stay focused long enough to do their homework in one sitting.

Of course, childhood as we know it didn't exist back then. People lived nastier, more brutish, and shorter lives. No time to spoil and coddle them for twenty (or thirty?) years, the way we do now. They learned their trades early, if they were lucky enough to find an apprenticeship, and they worked like pack animals from dawn till dusk, when the lights went out. "Boy players" were no exception; they spent their days rehearsing for multiple parts, memorizing thousands of lines. They acted in adult companies, like Will's, and sometimes they belonged to children's companies, which competed with adult troupes. Often they traveled from town to town, enduring hardships and, if they were lucky, collecting some well-heeled, generous fans. The best adult actors enjoyed a modicum of financial security, so it was a good profession to apprentice in. Yes, there was probably some pedophilia going on. Sadly, it wasn't as scandalous then as it is now, but then children weren't thought to be "innocent" the way they are now--many girls married at twelve, after all. I suppose that's how mere boys were able to play these complex adult roles; they lived like adults from the moment they were old enough to work--which would have been at about age five or six. All in all, it's far more amazing to me that these multi-faceted female roles were played by children than that those children happened to be male.

There are a few all-male theater groups these days, which purport to bring audiences closer to the "original" Shakespeare. But of course they can't. First off, they have men playing women's roles, not boys. Men with deep voices, broad chests, and hairy arms. It has to be men, because it would be impossible to find boys who could do what the boy players could do. And even if one could find kids with sufficient focus, talent, and reading ability to do it, it would still be impossible, because audiences wouldn't stand for it. People may be titillated by watching two men kiss, but watching a grown man kiss a boy could get everyone involved arrested. Our attitude toward pedophilia on the stage is not unlike the Elizabethan attitude toward women on the stage. In their respective historical contexts, both are shocking, and intolerable.

But it's interesting to think about how Will's audiences would have seen it. Did they cry when the boy Juliet stabbed him/herself for love? Did they believe Antony's world-rending passion for a twelve-year old male Cleopatra? Because today, a man in drag is funny, not tragic (except in those kinds of films, of course). A boy in drag is a bit less funny--maybe more disturbing, at least to a mainstream audience. Did the people watching these plays sense the homoeroticism some modern critics and readers insist was there? Did it bother them that Desdemona's voice cracked a little, or that when Lady Macbeth talked about her breasts, there weren't any?

I doubt it. In fact, I think the whole cross-dressing thing seemed totally unremarkable to most of them, except when it was emphasized for comic reasons, by having men play women, as in the Induction, or having boys play women who then play boys, as in Twelfth Night and several other plays. But even these moments seem more directed to the issue of theatricality than the issue of gender per se. So when Petruccio forces Kate to address an old man as a young maiden, he's only reminding the audience of the way the theater alters their reality. If I say this young boy is Lady Macbeth, he is. If I say the moon is the sun, it is. Because this is theater, and not real life, and when you come here, things are the way we say they are. If you don't believe that, then don't come.

Well, the Puritans didn't believe it, and they didn't come. In fact, in 1642, they closed the theaters altogether. Puritans distrusted fiction in general, and the theater in particular, because it wasn't true. Poetry, plays, stories all told lies, and thus were morally dangerous. One of their chief complaints, interestingly, was that the use of boy players excited homosexual lust in audience members. People who saw these young boys kissing men would inevitably turn to their neighbor and drag him home to "play the sodomite" with him. One assumes, naturally, that the Puritans themselves were the ones being thus excited, and that "the putting of women's attire on men...kindled unclean affections" in those who protested most vociferously. The people who are most fanatical about other people's sexual "deviance" are inevitably the ones most desirous to practice it themselves. Unable to clean up their own thoughts and urges, they decide to work on everyone else's.

So, getting back to our original question, I suppose one could argue that the Puritans were simply saying what everyone else in the audience was thinking. But historically, Puritans (and I'm including far-right politicians in this group) haven't reflected mainstream views about much of anything. Just as most people don't think Bert and Ernie are lovers, or Peppermint Patty is a lesbian, or Yogi Bear and Boo Boo had something going on in that cave, I don't think Will's audiences were fantasizing about sodomy when they watched Romeo and Juliet. I'm going to assume they suspended their disbelief at the theater, and for a few hours, were complicit in the fiction that twelve-year old boys were really women with adult passions, capable of adult evils and adult sacrifices. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Next time, we finish the play.


  1. This is a subject, I've thought about some. I follow and have from the the outset the blog diary of Samuel Pepys 1660-1669 see, .

    Pepys writing at the time of the Restoration notes the royal enactment enabling female actors. As an aside, Pepys hated Romeo and Juliet.

    Having seen many of the Shakespeare plays in performance I ask myself how much the Bard played with the conceit of male actors in female roles for the frisson--the intentional erotic charge. That this was unconscious on Will's part seems unlikely to me as you illustrate, here. It's mind boggling when you look at the role playing with the plays themselves, and the word play uttered by men playing women playing men and so forth.

    But, Peppermint Patty was definitely a lesbian.

  2. Poor Charlie Brown. The one girl who has a crush on him really likes girls...I guess it fits the pattern.