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As She Likes It: Shakespeare's Unruly Women.

Recent gay and feminist scholarship has devoted considerable attention to the use of male actors to play women's roles in Shakespeare's theater. Both Michael Shapiro's Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage and Penny Gay's As She Likes It: Shakespeare's Unruly Women dispute one of the central premises of that work - the assumption that cross-gender disguise is a privileged site of subversion; but they do so in radically different ways. For Gay, the feminist project is better served by actresses, who can use the transgressive energy of theatrical presence to empower female characters and challenge the patriarchal structures that attempt to contain them. Because "we are no longer obliged by theatrical convention to watch adolescent boys playing Shakespeare's female roles," she argues, we can now "contemplate a changing image of 'woman,' for whom a refusal of the codes of femininity offers exciting possibilities for the liberation of physical, psychic and erotic energy" (16). Shapiro prefers what he calls the "impression of depth" or "theatrical vibrancy" created by the audience's "dual awareness of boy actor and female character," but he believes the plays "need more detailed study as works of theatrical art before they can be made to yield insights into attitudes towards sexuality and gender in early modern England" (61).

Even if we do not agree with either of these arguments, feminist-historicist scholars will find much of value in both books. Shapiro brings together in one convenient place many useful resources for the study of Shakespeare's heroines in male disguise. He provides summaries of the transvestite plots in numerous plays written by Shakespeare's contemporaries, and his book includes three useful appendices. The first summarizes a sampling of "Sources, Analogues, and Models" for the heroine in male disguise. The second amalgamates the work of earlier scholars to provide a more comprehensive chronological list of plays with heroines in male disguise, together with the companies that performed them in early modern England. And the third prints for the first time R. Mark Benbow and Alasdair D.K. Hawkyard's useful transcriptions of legal records of cross-dressing during the period. Gay describes productions of five Shakespearean comedies - Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, and Much Ado About Nothing - during the years since the Second World War. She provides a wealth of information about the productions themselves and their reception by contemporary reviewers, along with incisive analysis of their political implications.

Consciously resisting what she calls "essentialist and immutable" conceptions of comedy and of human nature, Gay traces what she calls "a continuing dialectic between theatre practice and English social and political history" (x-xi). Thus, in the 1950s lavish productions projected "a world in which there is no poverty or distress, and very little social or erotic unease" (20), and they "worked hard to convince us that their heroines were 'feminine', 'ladies' at heart." The strong heroines of the 1960s and '70s were empowered by the contemporary feminist movement. Thatcherism, in turn, "tended to produce an image of woman as either aggressive bitch or vulnerable outsider" (178-79). Ideally, however, Gay sees the plays as agents for social change as well as reflections of it. Keenly aware of the constraints imposed by directors and designers as well as by the playscripts themselves, she is nonetheless convinced that "Shakespeare's comedies, more than any other group of his plays, offer the actress the potential to. . . assume power, whatever the ultimate containing power of the play might be" (15).

Shapiro's is by far the more ambitious of the two projects, but his analysis of the plays is often pedestrian, and his information is not always reliable. For instance, although his chronological list of plays with heroines in male disguise includes The Witch of Edmonton (where the disguised woman is pregnant), he states (8, 53, 55) that Aurelia in Middleton's More Dissemblers Besides Women "is the only female page in all of English Renaissance drama to be with child.' He cites Thomas Laqueur's argument that Galenic theory produced a "one-sex model," but he says that Laqueur characterizes it as "a 'one-sex model' of embryology" based on a belief that "all human fetuses were at first undifferentiated and went through a female stage" before some "went on to achieve 'perfect' male form." Laqueur's actual descriptions of the one-sex model, however, are based not on embryology but on homologies between fully developed male and female sexual organs, and Laqueur's descriptions of early theories of sex and gender hardly support Shapiro's contention that Shakespeare lived in a culture which held "essentialized notions of maleness." One of Laqueur's chapters is entitled "Destiny is Anatomy." Shapiro, by contrast, declares that Shakespeare lived in "a culture convinced that anatomy was destiny" because only a culture so convinced "would have dressed boys as women throughout their early childhood years" (39-40).

The logic of Shapiro's argument here might seem strange to readers of recent studies of stage cross-dressing and theories of sex and gender in Shakespeare's time, a number of which cite the same evidence about children's clothing in support of exactly the opposite conclusions. Shapiro acknowledges that he is "working in the opposite direction" from scholars who see cross-dressing as disrupting or destabilizing gender roles (61). In direct contrast to most of his recent predecessors, in fact, Shapiro seems motivated by a desire to stabilize sexual difference and defend current gender ideology against the corrosive effects of historical demystification. He postulates that "spectators of the Shakespearean stage were like most other theater audiences we know" (2), and he uses the term "homosexual" without any apparent sense of the ways it has been problematized in recent historical scholarship. In short, although Shapiro's book includes important historical material, his interests and organization constitute a massive refusal of historical analysis: He explains in the Introduction that he has made "no attempt to map the overall chronological development" of the convention of the cross-dressed heroine (9); and despite his own important earlier work on the children's companies, he declares that the comparison of "the treatment of cross-dressed heroines in different repertories" is "beyond the scope of this study." His organization is dictated by the dates of composition of Shakespeare's plays where women are disguised as men: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Cymbeline. In each case, he compares the Shakespearean play to others that contain what he considers similar "motifs" in order to demonstrate Shakespeare's originality, superior artistry, and influence. Thus, for instance, Lyly's Gallathea (written in the 1580s) and Fletcher's Love's Pilgrimage (1615-16) both come up in the chapter on Merchant of Venice, because both include more than one character in cross-gender disguise; and As You Like It is surrounded by descriptions of plays that range in date from the early 1590s to 1629.

Despite these problems, Shapiro has given us a useful reference work, which contains important resources for the study of cross-dressing on the English Renaissance stage. Gay tells a provocative story, and she tells it in a clear, lively prose that makes her book a pleasure to read. She also provides an admirably accessible model of the kind of incisive historical analysis that feminist readers will probably want to bring to bear on Shapiro's material.

PHYLLIS RACKIN University of Pennsylvania
COPYRIGHT 1996 Renaissance Society of America
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Rackin, Phyllis
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Words:1211
Previous Article:Shakespeare Survey 46: Shakespeare and Sexuality.
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