Book Review

Orgel, Stephen. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Reviewed by Tassie Gniady | January 8, 2002

Orgel’s treatment of gender and sexuality focuses not only upon the English stage, but upon women who chose to cross traditional gender boundaries and thereby destabilize the power structure that an all-male theater sought to reinforce. Orgel notes that “until the 1530s, at least, women seem to have performed umproblematically in guild and civic theatrical productions” (5) and “Elizabeth’s England, then, did in fact from time to time see women on the professional stage. What they apparently did not see was English women on the professional stage: the distinction they maintained was not between women and men but between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (11). What comes out of the attempt to construct an all-male stage is a dislocated desire. Women who played women were Continental, often Roman Catholic, and deserving of the derogatory names applied to them. Boys who played women offered an alternative to lecherous women, but not an entirely safe one. Prynne and others believed, “The growth of desire through the experience of theater is a sinister progression: the play excites the spectator, and sends him home to ‘perform’ himself; the result is sexual abandon with one’s wife, or more often with any available woman (all women at the playhouse being considered available), or worst of all, the spectator begins by lusting after a female character, but ends by having sex with the man she ‘really’ is” (29). However dangerous this last option is, Orgel ends up arguing that transvestite theater is actually a safer option than theater which includes women: “English Renaissance culture, to judge from the surviving evidence, did not display a morbid fear of homoeroticism as such…. Anxiety about the fidelity of women, on the other hand, does seem to have been strikingly prevalent” (35-6). This anxiety is class-related. Thus, middle class women were allowed to attend the theater (where they become available as alternative to the boys onstage). Orgel goes on to draw an analogy to the guild system, specifically its membership in Southampton “at the beginning of the seventeenth century [when] 48 percent – almost half – the apprentices were women.” Just as their presence in the guild system declined as the century progress, the fact that women’s presence on the stage diminishes was “a social convention, not a statute” (73); as women become competition for men, their public roles are diverted and reconfigured in to more seemly preoccupations. Women’s disappearance from the stage simply prefigures their disappearance from public working life. In addition to removing women from the public eye professionally, James led an attack on what he considered to be “the insolencey of our women, and their wearing of broad-brimmed hats, pointed doublets, their hair cut short or shorn, and some of them stilettos or poniards” (83). Yet this attack was class-based as well. While middle class women were being pressured into “needle trades” – “sumptuary legislation said nothing about the wearing of sexually inappropriate garments. It was concerned with violations of the sartorial badges of class, not those of gender” (73, 98). Thus Queen Anne is portrayed in hunting costume in 1617 wearing “a broad-brimmed hat, short hair, and a pointed dublet” (84). The upshot of this is that Orgel recognizes that anxiety about boys and women leads not to the conclusion “that boys are substitutes for women; it implies just the opposite: both are treated as a medium of exchange within the patriarchal structure, and both are (perhaps in consequence) constructed objects of erotic attraction for adult men” (103). Costume is what allows boys to pass for women in the theater, costume is what asserts women on the social stage and threatens the patriarchy.

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