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Historical Difference/Sexual Difference

ENGL 735.401
R 3-6

Although the representations of cross-dressed characters in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries have attracted considerable attention in recent criticism, there is very little consensus in regard to what they tell us about early modern understandings of sex and gender. This seminar is based on the premise that many of our attempts to read those texts are distorted by anachronistic current assumptions that gender difference is grounded in a mystified body and in the embodied experience of sexual desire. Focusing on the theatrical representations and cultural implications of cross-dressing in a series of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, we will explore beliefs and practices that expressed conceptions of gender and sexual difference radically different from our own. In addition to Shakespearean plays that feature cross-dressed characters, readings will include Lyly's Gallathea, Heywood's Wise Woman of Hogsdon, Jonson's Epicoene, Dekker and Middleton's Roaring Girl, and Heywood's Fair Maid of the West. Issues to be considered include the cultural implications and theatrical consequences of the use of boys to play women's parts, the different valences assigned to masculinity and femininity in different theatrical settings and dramatic genres, the relationships (and differences) between social practice and theatrical representation, the impact of social and economic status upon conceptions of gender difference, and the connections between changing theatrical representations of cross-dressing and changing conceptions of patriarchal authority, sexual difference, and personal identity.