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March 14, 2002 Gender-bending in 16th-century theatre holds lessons: Eve Sanders



Eve Sanders

Eve Sanders, assistant professor

by James Martin

Boys will be boys — except in the English Renaissance theatre, where boys would be girls. Italian boys of the time, however, were pretty much always boys. Confused? Perhaps Dr. Eve Sanders can shed some light on the matter.

Sanders is a recent addition to Concordia’s English Department, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on Shakespeare. Her current area of research is the theatre of mid-16th- to early 17th-century England and Italy, specifically focused on the tradition of casting young boys to play the roles of women.

The practice was commonplace in England until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. (The exiled monarch spent the English Civil War watching women actors on French stages, and later imported his newfangled Continental tastes to his homeland.)

Sanders, who explored related terrain in her 1998 award-winning book Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England, is intrigued by these differing practices.

“In comparing England and Italy,” she said in an interview, “what strikes me is that the theatre of Shakespeare’s day, with its cross-dressed boys performing the roles of women, in some ways challenged ideas about gender in a more sustained way than did theatre on the Continent.”

Sanders cites envelope-pushing texts such as John Lyly’s Gallathea (in which two girls, played by boys, fall in love and are allowed to marry — after Venus offers one a heaven-sent sex change) and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (in which the Queen of the Nile exhibits intellect, resourcefulness and courage, “qualities more conventionally linked with men”).

“Yet at the same time,” she countered, “English transvestite theatre presented a lesser challenge when it came to actual prerogatives of men and women in the institution of the theatre.”

Sanders explained that, even though English audiences were “mixed” (that is, men and women sitting together — a practice that often scandalized European tourists), the use of boy actors “meant that in the English theatre women were effectively excluded from institutional structures in which, in Italy, they had a comparatively more significant role: the market economy, civic structures, court-centered patronage networks.

“In Italy, women not only performed on stage. Often, they were the most sought-after members of theatre companies — at times, even directors of companies.”

Dusty Italian archives

Sanders said her project allows her “to be a detective of sorts,” both in terms of traditional literary criticism and excursions into dusty Italian archives. Much of her research legwork concerns Isabella Andreini, a young actress who gained massive fame when she assumed the role of innamorata (the female lead) in the premier Italian company, the Gelosi.

Andreini is notable not only for her own importance in Italian society (her death in 1604 merited the issue of gold, silver, and bronze medallions bearing the slogan “Eternal Fame”), but because her son later wrote a rather telling play about a travelling theatre company “forced to add an actress to their cast when the town they are visiting complains that there are no women among the cast.”

Sanders suspects that a comparative study of English and Italian theatre will not only “give us a more nuanced understanding of theatrical practices of Shakespeare’s stage,” but the hotbed of gender issues therein offers insight into a world beyond that of the footlights.

“It’s said of Coriolanus that as a 16-year-old he might have played the part of a woman on stage,” she said, referring to the description in Shakespeare’s tragedy about the Roman military hero: “When he might act the woman in the scene, / He prov’d best man i’ th’ field.”

“Later, as a man, when asked to display his battle wounds to the populace, Coriolanus refuses to do so in terms that recall the earlier description of him as a boy suited to play a woman’s part.

“Though exiled for his refusal, he declines to perform gestures and behaviour connoted as womanly or boy-like for fear of losing his identity as a man. Clearly, the categories of man, woman, and boy were then interconnected in ways that the theatre not only shaped, but was also shaped by.”