Dude Looks like a Lady: Boy Actors and Gender Anxieties on the Renaissance Stage

By Allison J.

Shakespeare’s plays participate in the Renaissance convention of casting cross-dressed boys in women’s roles — yet they also depict those same female characters cross-dressing as men.  Such figures appear in works including Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It. Although the majority of cross-dressing characters in Shakespeare’s plays are women, the Bard does write examples of boy actors portraying women: Flute (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Bartholomew (The Taming of the Shrew). As critics like Juliet Dusinberre note, Shakespeare reached beyond representing merely the physical representations of cross-dressing characters; rather, he often referenced the convention of the boy actor in plays such as Antony and Cleopatra to play up complex gendered emotion as well (5.2.216-21). The considerable presence of Shakespeare’s consciousness of the theatrical convention of cross-dressing, however, reveals Renaissance anxieties about gender identity.

The practice of boys playing women on the Renaissance stage became a focus of social criticism in early modern England. In 1579, Stephen Gosson wrote The School of Abuse, a pamphlet in which he claimed that the theatre “effeminate[s] the minde,” raising questions about theatre’s effect on gender identity (9). Gosson argued that theatre emasculates men and threatens to transform them into women through “effeminate gesture, to rauish the sence; and wanton speache, to whet desire too inordinate lust” (11). Laura Levine states that foundation of Gosson’s attacks lay in “the fear that costume could actually alter the gender of the male body beneath the costume” (3). In the years following the publication of The School of Abuse, a pamphlet war developed in which authors continued to express the fear that clothing can transform an individual’s gender.

Boy actors in the Renaissance complicated the construct of gender identity. According to the King James Bible, “The woman shall not weare that which pertaineth vnto a man, neither shall a man put on a womans garment: for all that doe so, are abomination vnto the Lord thy God” (Deut. 22:5). In a society that adhered strictly to religious codes, boy actors who donned the apparel of the opposite gender posed problems, especially if the actor’s identity could be altered or shaped by his part, as Levine suggests in her book Men in Women’s Clothing (14). The Renaissance understanding of performance and acting maintains that actors may literally become the characters they play and a boy actor, therefore, may transform into a woman through wearing women’s clothing and behaving in a feminine manner (Dusinberre 11). Juliet Dusinberre argues that when boy actors dressed as women, “the sexual identity of the actor was erased in the act of performance, thus mirroring a social truth about gender itself, that it is a fiction which men and women learn and participate in, but which has no innate stability” (11). In essence, boy actors reveal the possibility that gender is not stable or fixed, but rather fluid and alterable.

Boy actors possessed properties of both genders, with their feminine voice and gestures and masculine physical structure. By inhabiting such a border-blurring space between genders, the hermaphroditic actor “becomes the embodiment of all that is frightening about the self” (Dusinberre 19). The role of boy actors in Renaissance drama suggested the instability of gender constructs and called into question the very nature of identity and, therefore, the basis of humanness itself–anxieties that deeply concerned Renaissance society.


Image: “Portrait of Edward Kynaston,” in An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber (London, 1889).

Dusinberre, Juliet. “Boys Becoming Women in Shakespeare’s Plays.” Shakespeare Studies 6 (1998).

Gosson, Stephen.  The School of Abuse (London, reprinted for the Shakespeare Society 1841).

King James Bible, 1611.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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