Male-to-Female Crossdressing in Early Modern Literature: Gender, Performance, and Queer Relations

By Wright, Vanessa | Early Modern Literary Studies, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Male-to-Female Crossdressing in Early Modern Literature: Gender, Performance, and Queer Relations


Wright, Vanessa, Early Modern Literary Studies


Simone Chess, Male-to-Female Crossdressing in Early Modern Literature: Gender, Performance, and Queer Relations (London: Routledge, 2016). xi + 196 pp. ISBN 978 1 1389 5121 1

There are a large number of male-to-female (MTF) crossdressers in early modern literature, such as Falstaff from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor; despite this, much of the scholarship has focussed on female-to-male (FTM) crossdressing.1 Simone Chess, in this monograph, aims to draw attention to MTF crossdressers and how these characters present queer gender and desire.

The introduction sets out the previous scholarship on crossdressing in early modern literature and explains the theoretical framework of the project. This study is informed by queer studies, trans studies, and relational gender theory. In particular, Chess seems to have found much of use in work on relational gender theory, such as that by Sarah Fenstermaker and Candace West, which proposes that we define ourselves and our genders in and through our relationships with others. Chess argues that it is fruitful to examine MTF crossdressing in this way. Another of this monograph's stated aims is to show how MTF crossdressing was depicted positively in early modern sources, rather than focus on violent responses to or repression of crossdressing. This serves not to deny the existence of such responses, but rather emphasises the diverse representations of crossdressing.

The first chapter addresses examples of doublecrossdressing in which a FTM and MTF crossdresser are found in a single text. Chess explores the encounters between crossdressers and how they present instances of (direct or indirect) gender swapping revealing gender to be relational, with most of this first chapter dedicated to the pamphlets Hic Mulier and Haec Vir. These texts show clothing and other gender signifiers to be subject to exchange and suggest that masculine or feminine identifiers can be transferred as long as balance is found. This concept of balancing masculinity and femininity is similarly discussed in the context of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and George Chapman's play May Day. The ballad 'Robin Hood & the Bishop' receives less attention but the analysis of woodcuts that illustrate the narrative reveals how doublecrossdressing can be represented visually. In the examination of each text, Chess notes that whilst the texts end with normative conclusions the crossdressers' gender often remains unstable.

The second chapter focusses on texts that show MTF crossdressers entering the marriage system as brides in Thomas Middleton's A Mad World, My Master, Ben Jonson's Epicoene, and two versions of the Phylotus and Emelia story. Chess shows how these texts explore gender and power within the marriage economy and looks specifically at the position of the trafficked woman. The texts present young men with anxieties regarding inheritance using crossdressing to ensure financial security, but they also reveal the reactions of women to the marriage system. In the examples discussed by Chess, the MTF crossdresser demonstrates that this system is vulnerable to manipulation. The crossdressers also reveal the areas of potential power that exist for women within this system, with an emphasis on using wealth and sex to gain power and status. These narratives explore the marriage economy from a range of perspectives and, through the MTF crossdresser, the social and economic concerns of contemporary society are revealed to the reader. …

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