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"Teaching Cross-dressing Comedy with Thomas Middleton's The Widow"

by Dr. Gregory M. Schnitzspahn, Lesley University

(June 2016 Issue / PDF)

Living in a moment when events like Caitlyn Jenner’s highly public transition and the passage of “bathroom laws” in North Carolina and Mississippi have brought mainstream attention to gender identity, many college students find the cross-dressing comedies of England’s early modern theater particularly interesting and relevant. Of course, William Shakespeare’s best-known contributions to the genre––Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It––are already found on countless syllabi for Shakespeare courses and various surveys of English literature. But Thomas Middleton’s 1615 comedy, The Widow, deserves a place alongside these more celebrated works for its far more radical destabilizations of gendered identity. Indeed, this underappreciated play takes cross-dressing to typically Middletonian extremes that often resonate with the concerns of today’s “millennial” students. The Widow, that is, repeatedly does cross-dressing and gender conversions without the use of clothes, and it even ends with a same-sex marriage (well, sort of).

Just before The Widow’s conclusion, a character named Philippa and her waiting woman, Violetta, reveal, with glee, the marriage they have orchestrated between Francisco, a young gentleman who had earlier spurned Philippa’s advances, and Ansaldo, a handsome youth who is disguised in women’s clothing. Rushing onstage ahead of the approaching newlyweds, Violetta can barely control her laughter:

VIOLETTA:  Ha ha ha!
BRANDINO: Speak, speak!
VIOLETTA: Ha! a marriage, a marriage––I cannot tell’t for laughing. Ha ha!
BRANDINO: A marriage? Do you make that a laughing matter?
VIOLETTA: Ha! Ay, and you’ll make it so, when you know all. Enter Francisco, and Ansaldo [dressed as a gentlewoman, followed by Philippa]
Here they come! Here they come, one man married to another!
VALERIA: How, man to man?
VIOLETTA: Ay, man to man, i’faith.
There’ll be good sport at night to bring ’em both to bed.
Do you see’em not? Ha ha ha! (5.1.396-411)

While Violetta and Philippa find the spectacle of Francisco and Ansaldo’s marriage, “man to man,” to be an absolute riot, they also probably do not expect it to be legally or socially valid––much like the marriage between the cross-dressed Kate Low-Water and Lady Goldenfleece in Middleton’s earlier comedy, No Wit/Help Like a Woman’s. And for that matter, the fact that Violetta views this marriage between two men as nothing more than a “laughing matter” might even support David Cressy’s argument that the early modern sex-gender system “was robust enough to play with” (114).

But like so many other cross-dressing comedies from the period, The Widow still suggests that early modern playwrights and their audiences might have had some sense, however vague, of the possibility that the social and linguistic categories of male and female could have more to do with cultural convention than biological fact. Of course, for some students, this observation can feel like an anachronistic projection, a clear example of postmodern sensibility searching for an analog of itself in the past. And admittedly, it was not until the 1980s and 1990s––a time when influential thinkers including Thomas Laquer and Judith Butler were pointing out that the intertwined categories of biological sex and cultural gender are equally constructed and historicizable––that a great many literary critics began to call attention to early modernity’s apparent fascination with the constructedness and performativity of gender.[1] In his 1988 discussion of cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for instance, Stephen Greenblatt articulates the possibility which seems to have been just as captivating for Middleton and his contemporaries as it is for twenty-first-century academics and activists: that “sexual difference, the foundation of all individuation, turns out to be unstable and artificial at its origin” (76). Or, as Laura Levine puts it in her 1994 study of cross-dressing and antitheatricality, the early modern theater appears utterly fascinated by the possibility that gender “may exist only in the theatricalization of itself, only insofar as it is performed” (8). Certainly, the period’s prohibition on female actors in the public theater makes gender into a thing that can be and must be performed, but unlike the representations contained within a play, the real world signs and symbols of gender insist upon their correspondence with some essential fact of biological reality. The Widow, students typically agree, generates much of its comic energies by complicating, if not confounding, this insistence.

That the tidy, stable order proposed by symbolic systems might have no real referent in the world is a common theme throughout Middleton’s plays and poetry, and so it should come as no surprise that cross-dressers appear in about a dozen of his surviving works. But Middleton takes cross-dressing into truly radical territory with his onstage depictions of same-sex marriage: between two women in No Wit/Help and between two men in The Widow. But in each play, these same-sex “marriages” simply do not count, a fact that makes them hysterically, though uncomfortably, funny. Except, in The Widow, while Violetta still laughs uncontrollably about “one man married to another,” one of the titular widow’s old suitors immediately recognizes Ansaldo in women’s clothes: “My daughter Marcia!” (5.1.411). Completely unbeknownst to the play’s characters and audience up until this moment, Ansaldo has been a disguised girl all along, and the marriage of Francisco and Marcia does, in fact, count. Thus, the play ends with order restored through a heteronormative marriage . . . because Ansaldo, or Marcia, who is really played by a boy actor, is “really” a girl, dressed as a boy, dressed as a girl.

Students typically find that these dizzying layers of gender performance take advantage, quite deliberately, of what Marjorie Garber calls the “transvestite effect,” cross-dressing’s troubling potential to uncouple gender from any stable meaning (36). “The transvestite,” Garber explains, “is both a signifier and that which signifies the undecidability of signification. It points toward itself––or, rather, toward the place where it is not” (37). And the signifiers that The Widow uses to point towards Marcia’s “real,” underlying gender are not even vestments, but rather the words of recognition uttered by her father. Marcia’s final transition takes place entirely through language, and the effect of her father’s declaration is both stunning and disorientating: an audience must already presume that the gender of Francisco’s “bride” does not correspond with “her” clothing, but those three words snap gendered clothing and presumably essential being back into accord. But especially given the practice of using boy actors to play women’s parts, one might leave a performance of The Widow wondering just what signifiers of gender point to, other than themselves, or the place where they are not.

Furthermore, The Widow does not rely on Ansaldo/Marcia’s cross-dressing and shifting gender alone to shake-up ostensibly stable categories of being, and an earlier scene uses metatheatric play to complicate the gender identity of the husband in the comedy’s concluding marriage. The play begins with Francisco in pursuit of an affair with Philippa and his friend Ricardo chasing after the widow Valeria. But Francisco does not have much experience with women, and so Ricardo decides to mentor his friend by taking a look at his wooing tactics, telling him to “come, come, make me your woman” (1.2.79). As their friend Attilio looks on in silence, the two men begin their role-play, but Francisco almost immediately objects that Ricardo portrays an unrealistically available woman: “One shall seldom / meet with a lady so kind as thou played’st her” (1.2.106-7). Thus, at Francisco’s urging, the two men resume the wooing lesson with gender roles reversed, and Ricardo’s rather predictable advances––“fairest of creatures, I do love thee infinitely” (1.2.119)––meet with the stern and shrewish rebuke of Francisco’s woman: “hang thee, base fellow” (1.2.125). This mere performance of rejection, however, puts Ricardo into a shockingly real fit of sexual aggression, both verbal and physical:

RICARDO: [to Attilio] What a pestilent quean’s this! I shall
have much ado with her; I see that.
––Tell me as you’re a woman, lady, what
Serve kisses for? But to stop your mouths.
[He makes to kiss Francisco]
FRANCISCO: Hold, hold, Ricardo!
RICARDO: Disgrace me widow?
[Ricardo throws Francisco down]
FRANCISCO: Art mad? I’m Francisco.
ATTILIO: Signor Ricardo, up, up!
[Attilio pulls Ricardo off Francisco]
RICARDO:  Who is’t? Francisco?
FRANCISCO: Francisco, quoth’a! What are you mad sir?
RICARDO: A bots on thee! Thou dost not know what injury
thou hast done me. I was i’th’ fairest dream. This is
your way now, an you can follow it.
FRANCISCO: ’Tis a strange way, methinks.

A strange way, indeed. Perhaps even more than in the Ansaldo/Marcia plot, gender and identity become radically unstable in this scene, if only for Ricardo. But this scene’s complications of gendered identity run much, much deeper.

While Francisco and Ricardo take turns playing a woman, that is, their dialogue abounds with jokes and double entendre built upon the fact that an original audience would likely recognize the actor playing twenty-one year old Francisco from his cross-dressed portrayal of female roles in recent performances. These very specific metatheatric jokes, which are lost in subsequent productions, begin when Ricardo tells Francisco that he is “as likely a / fellow as any in the company” to win a rich widow for himself (1.2.13-4). Then, during one of the many interruptions to their role-play, the younger actor’s very recent graduation from female to male parts, “in the company,” seems to be the joke when Ricardo gibes that he might laugh at his friend without a dress on (1.2.82-8). And Francisco’s suggestion to switch gender roles includes apparent innuendo about the actor’s transvestite past: “Come, come, I’ll play the woman; that I’m used to. / I see you ne’er wore shoe that pinched you yet” (1.2.111).[2]  But while the Francisco actor knows what it is like to squeeze into a woman’s shoe, all of the gender slippage in thisscene occurs without the use of wardrobe or props, just as when “Ansaldo” makes “his” final transformation into “Marcia” at the play’s conclusion. And of course, by calling attention to the female roles previously handled by the actor playing Francisco, this scene also packs ever more layers of gendered, metatheatric complexity onto the marriage at the play’s conclusion: this same young actor––who is used to playing the woman and wearing women’s shoes––will soon walk on stage as husband to the cross-dressed youth playing Ansaldo/Marcia. The Francisco actor’s gender unhinges from a stable referent as readily as Ansaldo/Marcia’s, and because The Widow so openly confesses to its participation in the practice of theatrical cross-dressing, even Ansaldo’s final transition to “my daughter Marcia” might not feel like the end of the story.

The Widow can be studied on its own in various courses that survey early modern literature, but I have found that it works best when put in the context of other cross-dressing comedies. If read in conjunction with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for instance, it helps to give students a sense of the theatrical interplay in London around the turn of the seventeenth century––and of Thomas Middleton as the playwright who always takes things too far. Indeed, Middleton answers the question that Stephen Greenblatt proposes as a mere hypothetical in his famous essay on gender and Twelfth Night: “what if Olivia had succeeded in marrying Orsino’s page Cesario? And what if the scandal of a marriage contracted so far beneath a countess’s station were topped by a still greater scandal: the revelation that the young groom was in fact a disguised girl?” (66-7). Middleton, of course, dares to go where Shakespeare will not: in No Wit/Help, he stages this “still greater scandal” precisely, and as we have just seen, he shows audiences what they believe to be similar marriage between two men in The Widow. When read alongside Twelfth Night, The Widow also presses questions about Orsino continuing to refer to Viola as “boy” (5.1.265), “Cesario” (5.1.381), and “man” (5.1.382) after her disguise has been revealed to him. If a mere three words can turn Ansaldo to Marcia, regardless of his/her appearance, and make an uncomfortable “laughing matter” into a valid marriage, then what do we make of Orsino’s continued use of masculine language to describe a revealed Viola?

Perhaps more importantly, I have found that The Widow’s radical take on cross-dressing comedy generates compelling discussions among my undergraduate students about whether it is clothing (and other aspects of outward appearance) or language that does the most to define gender identities. In the large, liberal city where I teach, I certainly do encounter students who have undergone, or are undergoing, gender transitions themselves, and while some of these individuals take steps to express their chosen identities through their outward appearance, others might not, expressing themselves only by taking control of the pronouns and/or proper name by which they are referred to. While classrooms in other parts of the country might not be populated with such students (or even students sympathetic to them), questions about gender identity and gendered language certainly register on the national consciousness in the twenty-first century, as is plainly apparent on mainstream and social media. For this reason, today’s students of early modern drama will almost certainly have opinions on gender identity, and The Widow can help to both develop and complicate them.


[1] I refer, of course, to Laquer’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud––as well as his earlier article in Representations, “Orgasm, Generation and the Politics of Reproductive Biology”––and Butler’s Gender Trouble.

[2] Warren and Taylor make a compelling case for the metatheatric jokes about the Francisco actor in their notes to the Oxford text, and Taylor takes the assertion for certain fact in both his introduction to the text for the Collected Works and in his discussion of the play’s place in the Middleton “canon and chronology” in the Oxford Companion (379-82). For sake of brevity in my main text, I have left out two potential innuendos that the editors point out. In one of these, they suggest a possible allusion that the Francisco actor played the titular role in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Scornful Woman (1.2.103n), and, in another, they propose the possibility that the Francisco and Ricardo actors had been Beatrice and Benedick in an earlier production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing based on Ricardo’s comment that he will have “much ado with her” (1.2.134n).

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Cressy, David. Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: Tales of Discord and Dissension. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Print.

Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990. Print.

---. "Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology." Representations 14 (1986): 1-41. Print.

Levine, Laura. Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-Theatricality and Effeminization, 1579-1642. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.

Middleton, Thomas. No Wit/Help Like A Woman’s. Eds. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino. Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. New York: Oxford UP,  2007. 779-832. Print.

---. The Widow. Eds. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino. Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. New York: Oxford UP,  2007. 1074-1123. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford, 2005. 719-42. Print.

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