Gender Performance on the Elizabethan Stage and Beyond: Radicality or Run-of-the-mill?

deadline for submissions: 
October 15, 2022
full name / name of organization: 
Université de Poitiers

Gender Performance on the Elizabethan Stage and Beyond: Radicality or Run-of-the-mill?


Université de Poitiers
U.F.R Sciences Humaines et Arts

U.F.R Lettres et Langues


Co-organisers: Oliver NORMAN & Louis ANDRE

“Viola. I am all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers too”
(Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, II.4.120–21)


In the Shakespearean comedy Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, first performed in 1602, Viola presents herself to the Illyrian court, disguised as Cesario. Hired as a page by Duke Orsino (with whom she is secretly in love), Viola must help him seduce Duchess Olivia, who is in love with the young Cesario. "Cesario" is a character that Viola plays: her masculinity is a theatrical performance, a social construction through which she interacts with the other characters. This façade put on by Viola transforms the play into a mise en abyme, where the actor who played her had to, while being a man, take on the role of a woman who, in turn, takes on the role of a man (the first actress allowed on stage being Margaret Hughes, in 1660).


Shakespeare goes beyond a mere depiction of gender fluidity (as Viola alternates between feminine and masculine traits), he also puts forward the social stakes related to gender: Viola is forced to play the part of a man, because of the limited authority and autonomy allotted to the women of her time. In questioning these gender norms, Shakespeare intertwines gender and power: above all things, Viola's transformation allows her to transgress patriarchal domination. This instance of cross-dressing is far from being the only one in the Bard's literary work: we could mention, for example, Portia and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Rosalind in As You Like It, Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Imogen in Cymbeline, all these women characters disguise themselves as men; as for the men, Bartholomew poses as Christopher Sly's wife in The Taming of the Shrew.


While this performance can be seen as a criticism of Elizabethan gender codes, can we justify this reading of Shakespeare’s work even though boy actors (and cross-dressing, by extension) are commonplace in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama? Can we still see a form of subversion in it, despite boy actors being an everyday occurrence on stage, up until 1660? Should we not consider, as Judith Butler would, much later, that:


Just as metaphors lose their metaphoricity as they congeal through time into concepts, so subversive performances always

run the risk of becoming deadening clichés through their repetition and, most importantly, through their repetition within commodity culture where “subversion” carries market value.     
(Butler, 2002, p. xxi)


If radicality is lost through repetition, does it not vanish even more when this repetition is not only that of an individual act but of an entire aesthetic, or even social, structure that imposes roles on individuals: is the boy actor not then a cliché specific to the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, or is there subversion to be found in it, beyond iterability? Were Shakespeare and his contemporaries innovators, revolutionaries, rejecting the gendered categories that their society offered them, or were they simply following the customs of their time?


While this question of the radical and subversive quality of gender performance can be applied to Renaissance drama, we could also hold a similar discussion on contemporary gender performance practices. Therefore, we have decided to study the relationship between theatre and gender in today's world too, by looking at two particular figures: drag performers and pantomime dames. These two instances of gender performance diverge: the pantomime dame appeared during the Victorian era and represents a camp character taken from rewritten popular tales (Aladdin, Dick Whittington, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk). The performance is held in front of an audience composed of children, for the most part. Rather than a challenge to gender norms, is the dame a simple character in a play, who has become the symbol of a theatrical event linked to a specifically British childhood? Is this subversion, or, in this case, must we separate acting from any political commentary on gender?


Drag performers, on the other hand, cater to a predominantly adult audience, performing mostly in bars and nightclubs. RuPaul, the most recognized drag queen of the twenty-first century, constantly links drag to Shakespeare. He even dedicates an episode of his TV reality show RuPaul's Drag Race to Shakespeare, producing parodies of the Bard’s plays under the titles Romy and Juliet and MacBitch. Furthermore, he establishes a folk etymology for drag as an acronym standing for 'dressed resembling a girl'.


At the time of Gender Trouble’s first publication, Butler stated that drag performers always seemed to question gendered norms, highlighting their artificial (i.e., socially constructed) nature. However, in Bodies That Matter, she tackles the subject once again to add nuance to her former statement: drag may well show the artificiality of gender norms, but it can also serve to reinforce them, to amplify them. There is a subversive drag, rooted in the LGBTQ+ community, to be separated from drag as a form of entertainment, shown in films, on television, ‘that heterosexual culture produces for itself’ (Butler, 1993, p. 126): Butler then lists Julie Andrews in Victor, Victoria, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie or Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot - we could surely add Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo in Extravagances.


Is the ambiguity of such performances due to the very nature of dramatic performances, the artifice inherent to drama rendering them unable to produce an illusion of reality? Is this ambiguity not the source of misunderstandings regarding these practices themselves: the detractors of drag condemning it for its underlying misogyny (both from political figures such as Mary Cheney, and from feminist theorists such as bell hooks, Janice Raymond or Marylin Frye)?


This seminar will focus on radicality in theatre performance and the world of gender performance in the broadest sense. We will thus examine both Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical practices and the revival of these performances in our time. Is the theatre still a place of political radicalism (if it ever was), of advocacy, or even (to use the words of its detractors) of perversion? Is it not rather, like any other mass artistic media, the place of a smoothing out, of a generalisation, of an entertainment that takes over any attempt of political revendications?




Proposed topics

Talks could address the following themes, without ever losing sight of the objective: to study Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, their heritage, and reprisals.


Theme 1: Boy actors, pantomime dames, drag perfomers: radicality or banality?


  • Does the status of boy actors bear significant political meaning when it is the norm in theatre? Can we talk of subversion or is it the everyday reality of 17th century plays?
  • Cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s and his contemporaries’ plays: what is the status of cross-dressing? Is it a mere dramatic device used to advance the plot or is there a deeper message? In this regard must we distinguish between the role cross-dressing has in comedy and in tragedy?
  • Drag seems to take root in a form of political contestation, in the world of the marginalised, in this much has it seen an opposite evolution to that of cross-dressing on stage insomuch as it started in marginalised communities and has slowly fought its way to mass media (with shows on MTV, BBC Three, or France 2): what becomes of the political aspect of drag once the medium through which it is represented renders it an object of mass consumption?
  • What of the particular status of gender performance in the United Kingdom? Are pantomime dames and the young protagonists (sometimes played by women) a British exception? Do these types of performance lead to acceptance, or even dilution of the political nature of gender performance?


Theme 2: Puritanical criticism of Elizabethan theatre and contemporary criticism of drag


  • Attacks against art, and against gender performance in particular, seem to stand the test of time. Whether in the Elizabethan period or nowadays, both have been considered to generate “confusion”. Could we see in contemporary criticisms of drag, “gender ideology”, and “drag queen storytimes” a retelling of the thesis found in Puritan pamphlets according to which theatre feminizes?
  • Television and cinema have long espoused gender performance through performers such as the Two Ronnies, Benny Hill, Lily Savage, Dame Edna Everage, but also through the Carry On films (one need only think about Carry On Matron). Are all these performances similar or does their status depend on the identity of the performers? Are they mere entertainment or something more? Given the resurgence of anti-LGBTQ+ messages in the US and the geographic provenance of our examples is there a cultural exception for such performances in British television and cinema?



Please send your paper proposal (paper title, keywords and a 300-word abstract) by 15 October 2022, together with a short bio-bibliographical note, to the following address:  


Proposals will be accepted in both English and French. Following the seminar, some proposals will be selected by the scientific committee to be published in the online journal Shakespeare en Devenir (ISSN: 1958-9476). Shakespeare en Devenir aims to publish original research, therefore if a proposal is submitted for a paper that has already been published in English, the author should research whether a translated version of the paper can be published before submitting it.



Renaissance drama, gender, drag, William Shakespeare, radicality



  • October 15th, 2022: Deadline for submissions
  • October 31st, 2022: Notification of acceptance or refusal – The programme will be sent in the following days
  • Feburary 2nd 2023: Seminar on site in Poitiers
  • February 5th, 2023: Articles selected to be published in Shakespeare en devenir 
  • May 31st, 2023: Submission of finalized articles (to be sent to reviewers)
  • December 2023: Publication of the special issue of Shakespeare en Devenir



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