Cross-dressing in As you like it
Putting on mannish clothes, women blasphemously imitated God in an attempt to recreate their bodies, their speech and behaviour. The theater was the very place where such “imitation” occurred in a doubly transgressive way. First the theater violated the sumptuary laws which prohibited the use by the lower classes of fabrics and designs employed by higher classes.
Actors often belonging to the lowest social categories wore cast away clothes which used to belong to nobleman. Costumes were the most valuable property of the theater and the use of genuine pieces of clothing often conditioned the success of the performance.
Secondly the very theatrical practice of having boys acting female roles presupposed the contamination of gender definitions. Shakespeare used the device of disguising the leading female role in a number of comedies. Disguise allows for the compounding of comic confusion, in its potential for mistaken identity and dramatic irony.
In “As You Like It”, Rosalind’s disguise is first adopted as a protection. As the heroine in the comedy, Rosalind exemplifies the best of virtues to be found in a Renaissance English woman. She is intelligent, warm and strong of character.
When she decides to dress up as a boy, Rosalind seems to think a mannish outside sufficient to convince the world at large. She is “more then common tall” and therefore all she needs is a “gallant curtle-axe”, a “boar spear” and a “swashing and a martial outside” to hide her feminine anxiousness. Taking it for granted that no one will have the hunch to look beyond her male costume, she reasons that since cowardly men are able to hide these feminine qualities, she should be able to pass off as a man, simply by behaving mannishly.
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