Thursday, April 21, 2016

HFVBT Author Guest Post: Mary Sharratt

I am so pleased to have Mary Sharratt here to A Bookish Affair today!

Adventures in Historical Crossdressing

When I go on book tour, I don period costume to get into the spirit of my historical heroines.

But this time around, when I take my new book, The Dark Lady’s Mask, on the road, I’m ditching the corset and skirts for breeches and a doublet. Like Shakespeare’s heroine Rosalind in As You Like It, I, too, have discovered the joys of Elizabethan crossdressing.  

Women in breeches are a hallmark of Shakespeare’s comedies. Viola in Twelfth Night gets herself in a conundrum of sexual confusion when she masquerades as a man. She’s secretly smitten with Orsino, who sends her to court his beloved Olivia for him. But Olivia becomes hopelessly infatuated with Viola. Meanwhile in The Merchant of Venice, clever Portia impersonates a male lawyer and so saves Antonio’s life. But no other character in any of Shakespeare’s plays has as much fun as Rosalind as she romps through the Forest of Arden in male guise, helpfully instructing her beloved Orlando on how he should best woo the fair Rosalind.

Shakespeare’s first cross-dressing heroine was Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Desperate to follow her lover Proteus to Milan, Julia elects to go after him, but dressed as a page boy to prevent any “loose encounters with lascivious men.” In conversation with her maid, Lucetta, Julia confesses that she feels somewhat squeamish about wearing a codpiece, that most essential masculine fashion accessory.    

LUCETTA: What fashion, madam shall I make your breeches?

JULIA: That fits as well as 'Tell me, good my lord,
What compass will you wear your farthingale?'
Why even what fashion thou best likest, Lucetta.

LUCETTA: You must needs have them with a codpiece, madam.

JULIA: Out, out, Lucetta! that would be ill-favour'd.

But given the choice between wearing the codpiece or staying home, Julia embraces her male disguise.

Shakespeare’s crossdressing heroines can feel so refreshingly modern to us today, so spirited and free in their quest for independence and true love rather than social convention and arranged marriage. Never mind that the plays inevitably end with these young women returning to their sanctioned feminine roles.

In Early Modern Europe, with its rigidly delineated gendered spheres, female crossdressing opened the door to all manner of comic and dramatic possibility, such as Rosalind’s merry lampooning of stereotypical feminine and masculine mannerisms. As Rosalind struggles to mask her own love for Orlando while fighting off the advances of an amorous shepherdess, we are plunged into a comedy of errors that blurs and subverts the notion of gender itself, even as it entertains us. Warm, witty, wise, and yet vulnerable, Rosalind is the perfect rom com heroine.

Crossdressing women were a comedy staple across Europe. In his 1615 comedy Don Gil of the Green Breeches, Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina takes his crossdressing heroine, Donna Juana, even further than Shakespeare did with RosalindDonna Juana constantly switches gender identities while chasing her absconding lover across Spain. Ole!

In Spain and Italy, women would have played the part of Donna Juana on stage. But in England, by rule of law, all female roles were performed by men and boys. Male actors impersonating women impersonating men took this crossdressing role reversal to a whole new level. The theater itself was a magical place of suspended reality where all social codes could be rewritten—at least for the duration of the play.

Offstage crossdressing was a serious crime. Any real life women emulating Rosalind or Viola faced draconian punishments. In 1575 the London Aldermen’s Court found one Dorothy Clayton, spinster, guilty of going about the city “apparelled in man’s attire” and sentenced her to stand two hours at the pillory in her men’s clothing before locking her up in Bridewell Prison until further order. In 1569 Johanna Goodman was whipped and imprisoned for the crime of disguising herself as a man in order to accompany her soldier-husband to war.   

Perhaps the most extraordinary of all the crossdressing heroines in Early Modern English drama was Moll Cutpurse in Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s comedy, The Roaring Girl. This play is so remarkable because it’s based on the life of a real woman, Mary Frith, who merrily crossdressed her entire life, no matter how many times she was whipped and locked up for it.  

A shoemaker’s daughter born in 1584, Moll bobbed her hair, sported baggy trousers and a doublet, and smoked tobacco in a long clay pipe. She swore whenever she felt like it. When her paternal uncle, a minister, attempted to reform her by packing her off to New England, our incorrigible hoyden jumped ship and swam to shore. She got by on thieving—hence her “Cutpurse” moniker—earning enough to keep three maidservants, as well as parrots and mastiffs. She hung mirrors in every room of her home to admire herself in her masculine finery. Once, to win a £20 bet, she galloped on horseback all the way from Charing Cross to Shoreditch while flying a banner and blowing a trumpet. She even appeared on stage at the Fortune Theater in 1611, in complete defiance to the law. Moll was the ultimate transgressive woman of her age and a fixture in the criminal underworld.

Yet amazingly, The Roaring Girl portrays her in a very positive light as a sort of female Robin Hood who steals to redress social injustice. Unlike Shakespeare’s heroines, she isn’t married off in the end either. When asked when she will marry, Moll replies:

. . . I’ll tell you when i’faith:
When you shall hear
Gallants void from sergeants’ fear,
Honesty and truth unslandered,
Woman manned but never pandered,
Cheators booted but not coached,
Vessels older ere they’re broached.
If my mind be then not varied,
Next day following I’ll be married.

Moll is saying that she will only marry in a future utopia where all social wrongs have been righted and where women have achieved true equality with men. As Jean E. Howard writes in “Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” The Roaring Girl uses the figure of Moll “to defy expectations about women’s nature and to protest the injustice caused by the sex-gender system.”

Moll Cutpurse, in other words, is the mother of all Riot Grrrls.

Although the historical Moll Frith, as opposed to the character in the play, did eventually marry, it seemed to have been an arrangement of convenience and didn’t cramp her ebullient lifestyle in the least. Her entire life she insisted on proudly calling herself a spinster.

Desdemona, move over. Moll Cutpurse is swaggering center stage.

Mary Sharratt’s new novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 19. Visit her blog:

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