Cross-dressing in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice

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Cross-dressing in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice Any theatrical performance requires a two-fold exchange. The performers must act in such a way as to engage the audience and draw them into the story of the stage. However, the audience itself must yield to the imagination, allowing at times the irrational to take precedent over rational expectations. This exchange between performers and audience creates the dramatic experience; one cannot exist without the other. In the context of Shakespeare's works this relationship becomes exceedingly important. Not only was scenery minimal on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, thus forcing audience members to imagine great battles, enchanted forests, and…show more content…
More accurately, what should be considered is the cross-dressing of the female characters as young boys or men. Such disguises donned by these women carry the potential for commentary on the patriarchal society that governed the Elizabethan and Jacobean age, “for the theater provided an arena where changing gender definitions could be displayed, deplored, or enforced” (Rackin 29). Commentary channeled by the imaginative device of theater impacts the reality of everyday life, thus carrying great weight and responsibility. Particularly, the comedies Twelfth Night , As You Like It , and The Merchant of Venice , though performed within a short time span, provide varied examples of a woman's use of cross-dressing in response to society's patriarchal constraints. All effectively comment on the weaknesses and even the frivolity of such a patriarchy while illuminating the necessity of homosocial relationships within the structure in order to keep it cohesive and exclusive. Jessica and Viola demonstrate minimal impact, Rosalind demonstrates a more challenging performance though does little to change society's patriarchal conceptions, and Portia ultimately challenges and destroys the homosocial bonds amongst which she is situated. The nature of disguise, in this case cross-dressing, allows for dynamic possibility. Not all of the women who dress as men have comparable motivations. In The Merchant of Venice , Jessica disguises to escape

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