Young men in female costumes on the early modern stage

In this essay, I will be discussing props, materiality and costumes of the early modern stage. I will be more specifically tackling a question of if costumes and cosmetics of the early modern stage contributed to breaking down taboos surrounding men wearing dresses and makeup. I will be focusing on two early modern plays, one by William Shakespeare called As You Like It that was first performed in 1603, and one by John Webster called The Duchess of Malfi that was first performed in 1614.

Costumes were very important for character and sex portrayal on the early modern stage. Before the year 1578, half of the English adult plays contained no female dialogues at all. The Italy’s effect on the English plays meant the number of female roles increased significantly, however, men continued to play female roles (Brown, 2017, 182). Because all of the actors in the playhouses were male, costumes served as a way of determining the sex of the characters in the performance (Lublin, 2011, 9). The question as to why there were only male actors in early modern England was never fully answered. There are many theories, however none of them has provided a definitive answer to the question. One of the theories, that is supported by extracted documents from the period, suggests that cross-dressing on the early modern stage served primarily ‘to provide homoerotic pleasure to audiences that lusted after the boy wearing women’s apparel‘ (20).

Costumes, in order for male actors to closely resemble to female characters, had to be fitted and convincing. Because the female parts were played by boys rather than adult men, it was easier to assure the audience that the characters on the stage were women. The clothes of the early modern England would form the shape of their wearer, not only reflect it. ‘The lower part of the body would have been obscured by a farthingale or the layers of a skirt. The upper body would have been shaped by the rigid bodice that provided the impression of breasts. On his head, the actor would have worn a wig and perhaps also a coif or French hood’ (Lublin, 2011, 19). In fact, the only actor’s body part that would be exposed would be his face and because the actor was young, often prepubescent, his skin would look smooth and convincing of a woman and therefore, a young male actor in a female costume would look indistinguishable from a biological woman.

William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It contains a female character called Rosalind. She dresses up as a man in the play, which gives us at least three different definitions of the character: ‘(1) a boy as a woman; (2) a boy as a woman as a boy; and (3) a boy as a woman as a boy pretending to be a woman. In the final scene, the first of these options reappears, although in the epilogue at least (1) and (2) are presented, with a reminiscence of (3). By the final scene and the epilogue, Rosalind (1) – the ‘authentic’ female Rosalind as impersonated on stage by a boy – has been augmented by the experience of the intervening acts, in which s/he has gone through the other permutations‘ (Lennox & Mirabella, 2016, 136). This level of complexity that Shakespeare is showing us is rather interesting. It’s clear that Shakespeare liked to push the boundaries of gender and sexuality when it came to his plays. It’s worth considering if Shakespeare had in mind that his plays will be played by men when he was writing them, perhaps if he was writing the female roles specifically for men.

‘Were it not better,

Because that I am more then common tall

That I did suite me all points like a man,

A gallant curtelax vpon my thigh,

A bore-speare in my hand’

(Shakespeare, 1987, 1.3.558-561)

Unlike Celia, who chooses to dress in ‘poore and meane attire’ (1.3.554) and still remain a female, Rosalind decides to dress herself as a man. She decides to completely abandon her femininity and decides to embrace the ideal of a man that was considered the norm at the time, when she mentions the items ‘gallant curtelax’ and ‘bore-speare’. These items typically resonated with the early modern audience (Lublin, 2011, 32). Rosalind decides to dress in ‘all points like a man’ and impersonate a mighty warrior, however, we can see the femininity in her behaviour trough out the play. It is difficult to know the specifics of the costumes worn on the early modern stage, because there is not enough information, however it’s worth considering what would the male actor playing Rosalind wore. He would most likely wear a man’s attire, however, how would he portray the character of a woman that was dressed like a man? There would be the lack of woman’s costume that would possibly decrease his chances of looking like a woman.

‘Then, the whining Schoole-boy with his Satchell

And shining morning face, creeping like snaile

Vnwillingly to schoole’ (2.7.1068-1070)

‘Then, a Soldier,

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the Pard,

lelous in honor, sodaine, and quicke in quarrell,

Seeking the bubble Reputation‘


It is worth taking into consideration the ‘seven ages of man speech’ by the character Jaques. In this speech, the description of the characters is so polarising, that Will Fisher (2006) argues that a school-boy and a soldier are described as two different genders. The school-boy is described as having a ‘shining morning face’ and ‘creeping like snaile’, which is the complete opposite of the soldier who is ‘bearded like the Pard’ and ‘quick in quarrell’ (88). The way young man were portrayed and sexualised on stage would make them much closer to women than adult, bearded men. Fisher (2006) argues that in early modern England ‘sexual differences between men and women were often conceptualized in terms of degree. Consequently, the distinction between men and boys would have been much more similar to that between men and women’ (87).

John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi contains a female character that shows us the beautification of women in the early modern England. John Webster focuses on the criticism and the opposing approach towards cosmetics that was typical at the time. Although this play is not as complex as As You Like It when it comes to cross-dressing, we can argue that she is using makeup to put on a facade of her higher status in society. The male actor is not only wearing a woman’s dress, but is even more feminized with the use of makeup.

‘She wanes i’ the cheek, and waxes fat i’ the flank,

And, contrary to our Italian fashion,

Wears a loose-bodied gown’

(Webster, 2009, 2.1.69-71)

It is very probable that male actors that were pretending to be women wore costumes that were insinuating lasciviousness. It is because ‘English audiences believed Italian women to be driven by lust and desire, striving to keep up a façade of virtue’ (Lublin, 2011, 101). In this part of the play, it is also insinuated that it was common for male actors, who performed Italian women, to wear provocative clothes while they were on the stage. When the Duchess becomes pregnant, she begins to wear looser clothing that is less exposing so she can hide her condition from other people. And yet, it also suggests that the use of provocative clothing might not have been completely understood by the English people as being appropriate, because Bosola, Gentleman of the Horse to the Duchess, goes so far as pointing out that her attire is contradictory to Italian fashion (103).

‘There was a lady in France that, having had the small-pox,

flayed the skin off her face to make it more level;

and whereas before she looked like a nutmeg-grater,

after she resembled an abortive hedge-hog’


In this part of the play, Bosola describes a woman that flayed of her skin in order for it to look smooth, but instead ended up looking like an ‘abortive hedgehog’. The Duchess is criticized about the use of cosmetics throughout the entirety of the play. Women are even frequently compared to witches.

‘T will poison your fame; look to ‘t. Be not cunning;

For they whose faces do belie their hearts

Are witches ere they arrive at twenty years,

Ay, and give the devil suck’


Witches at the time ‘were perceived mainly as female tyrants, deceptive, demonic and unstable’ (Karim-Cooper, 2006, 105). This was associated with skin flaying, which was a medical practice that took place in Europe, and it was considered barbaric and frightening.

Because women were frequently called witches and judged for the use of cosmetics, we can think about it in the context of young men doing the same thing on stage. The Duchess, played by a young man in tight dress who is wearing makeup, being judged by other men on stage for the use of it.

In conclusion, in both plays young men portray women of higher status. The fact that young men played them instead of women would suggest that young men were treated almost like a different gender, as it was in the speech from As You Like It that I mentioned before. Shakespeare’s play pushes the boundaries of gender with the character of Rosalind that is played by a man and tries to pass as a man within the play. The Duchess of Malfi explores the ways in which feminine women were judged in the society. Webster, arguably, tries to make femininity the norm when he writes the part of the Duchess for a young male actor, to show society that men can wear dresses and makeup too and not be judged for it so harshly.


Brown, P. (2017). Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Actresses? In P. Holland (Ed.), Shakespeare Survey 70: Creating Shakespeare (Shakespeare Survey, pp. 182-187). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fisher, W. (2006). Materializing Gender in Early Modern English Literature and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Karim-Cooper, F. (2006). Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance drama. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Lennox, P., Mirabella, B. (2015). Shakespeare and costume (The Arden Shakespeare).

Lublin, R. (2011). Costuming the Shakespearean stage visual codes of representation in early modern theatre and culture (Studies in performance and early modern drama). Farnham, Surrey, England ; Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate.

Shakespeare, W., Wells, Stanley, & Taylor, Gary. (1986). William Shakespeare, the complete works (Original-spelling ed.). Oxford [Oxfordshire] : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press.

Webster, J. (2009). The Duchess of Malfi. Auckland: The Floating Press.

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