What a Drag! Shakespeare’s Cross-Dressers

Imagine the packed house at the Old Globe in 1601, the place and time of William Shakespeare. As the light from the oil lamps dim and the clatter of the crowd dies, the act begins and our valiant hero enters the stage. He is followed closely behind by his one true love, the eloquent and beautiful damsel played by…a man in a dress?

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Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance in Broadway’s Twelfth Night.

Don’t be surprised. The crowd certainly isn’t. In fact, this is commonplace for the time period and even before Shakespeare’s birth, all the way back to Ancient Greece. Female characters were portrayed by men throughout all of Shakespeare’s time. More specifically, the female roles were played by the young men of the acting company, those between the ages 14 to 21 with more feminine qualities. As soon as puberty hit and their voice cracked, the men would start training for male roles. This was the style all the way until 1660, almost 50 years after the death of Shakespeare.

How did they do it? Corsets, dresses, wigs, and a lot of powder makeup. The audience knew of course, it wasn’t about the illusion of looking like a woman, but acting, speaking, and emoting like a true Shakespearian heroine. In some of Shakespeare’s plays, such as Twelfth Night and As You Like It, where female characters disguised themselves as men, the audience would see a man, dressed like a woman, dressing like a man, and pretending they are a man and not a woman. Confusing, isn’t it?

This spectacle isn’t just in the past. There was a recent production of Twelfth Night on Broadway starring an all-male cast portraying both male and female characters. What was necessity in the 17th century has now opened the doors to modern Shakespeare performances being done by both all-male and all-female casts.

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An all-female cast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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