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Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization, 1579-1642.

Laura Levine has expanded into a stimulating monograph the main arguments of her influential essay "Men in Women's Clothing" (first published in Criticism in 1986), which is now her opening chapter. Levine accounts for the fear of effeminization that crops up so often in anti-theatrical tracts (especially around the subject of boy actors) by arguing that "the idea of the effeminized man was a way of managing contradictory attitudes about the self - the idea that the self was inherently monstrous and the idea that the self was inherently nothing at all. By projecting conflicts about monstrosity and indeterminacy onto boys on stage, anti-theatrical pamphleteers made the contradictions in themselves more manageable, and in this way the fear of effeminization which came to dominate anti-theatrical tracts disguised a profound conflict about the nature of the self" (24). She thus sheds light on the oft-discussed issues of gender instability and discontinuous subjectivity by patiently scrutinizing the old anti-theatrical texts through a magnifying lens that reveals panic behind them: the fear that masculinity is only a form of acting, the fear that sexuality will turn a warrior into a woman, the fear that there is no essential masculine self. Such potent magnification lays naked the polemicists' near-hysterical fear of men turning into women - the hysteria itself undermining their essentialist insistence on God-given constants in gender behavior.

Levine's original essay noted the magical components of these anxieties: the magical belief that "watching leads inevitably to doing - to compulsive imitation . . . [and] that watching leads to taking on the identity of the person watched" (13). Her interest in such magic leads her to incorporate two final chapters on witchcraft in the monograph, on James's Daemonologie and the pamphlet Newes from Scotland. Agnes Sampson's attempt to kill King James by poisoning his shirt Levine compares with the fear that enacting a woman's role can turn a boy actor into a woman: this is "the fear of sympathetic magic, that the shirt that is only supposed to stand for the king can actually kill the king, the fear that representations can actually alter the things they are merely supposed to represent" (5). I wish that Levine had been a little more precise about her magical terms; for example, is a shin a representation? Does the shirt stand for King James the way a boy actor stands for a female character? Not quite, I think: the shirt had to have been worn by James, and this son of magic works through the strange assimilation of clothing to the body that has worn it - the shirt does not "represent" James by, say, being the same shape as his torso, as any shirt might do, whether he had worn it or not. This is more a magic of contiguity than of representation. A better example of a representation affecting the thing it represents would be the wax doll representing a witch's victim. Again, what specific magical practices of the day can be likened to the idea that "watching leads to taking on the identity of the person watched"? It isn't that Levine is wrong to say that some beliefs about the stage are informed by magic; it's just that her ideas need to be more precisely rooted in specific evidence from magical practices of the time.

At times, Levine pushes her thesis too hard. Her question of whether the "dissolution of [Antony's] masculinity" doesn't "imply an endorsement of anti-theatricality" suffers from the logical error of undistributed middle term - the fact that all anti-theatrical polemicists complained of effeminacy in plays does not mean that every instance of effeminacy in a play refers in some way to anti-theatricalism. Others besides opponents of the stage were worried about male effeminacy in this period, and Levine's relentless linking of the two concerns occasionally leads her to overly-comprehensive claims.

Nevertheless, the book is full of subtle insights. The new chapters on Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Epicoene, Bartholomew Fair, and the witchcraft pieces extend and consolidate Levine's original thesis. And I find persuasive her lucidly-argued claim that playwrights counter-attacked anti-theatricalists by demonstrating that "performative notions are built into anti-theatricality itself" (56), that "no one stands outside the theatre" (66), that theatricality is "the constitutive condition of existence itself" (71). This short, suggestive book is packed with thought-provoking matter.

LINDA WOODBRIDGE Pennsylvania State University, University Park
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Author:Woodbridge, Linda
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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