Friday, March 29, 2013

The Golden Age of Cross-Dressing

Clothes make the man (even if you're a woman).
Still from a production of Life is a Dream (1635) by Calderón de la Barca. Image credit
Hello, dearest petticoat rustlers! I am happy to report that I've made it through the written exams and will move on to the oral exam coming up in the first week of April. Although the thrill of battle continues, I will be back to regularly posting here again!

Over the course of the past month, I've feverishly been reading, taking notes, reading notes and buying used paperbacks like some kind of literary doomsday-prepper. This was all in preparation for those 4 hours I was given in which to convince my professors that I understood what I had read and could string some coherent thoughts together about groups of books from certain geographic and historic categories. The questions I was asked were fantastic, and I really did have a great time writing responses for them. 

And yet, after a month of round-the-clock studying, intravenous coffee supply, and total immersion in the literature, I left the exam room feeling that there was so much more I was obsessed with longed to say about these books in which I'd been living. Chances are good that I'm not going to get any questions about cross-dressing in Golden Age literature, so I decided to regale you with some of my favorite gender swap scenes of 17th century Iberia. 

A scene from "Don Gil of the Green Breeches" by Tirso de Molina
Perhaps the most wonderful example of the glory of Golden Age cross-dressing comes from the hilarious play, Don Gil of the Green Breeches (c. 1615) by Tirso de Molina (author of The Trickster of Seville, a play about Don Juan's naughty--and fatal--sexcapades). The very crux of this play is the protagonist's skill in crossdressing and disguise. Doña Juana has been spurned by her lover, Don Martín after he and his father hatched a plan to marry him off to the far richer Doña Inés. 
Having given away her honor (virginity) in exchange for the promise of marriage, Doña Juana sets out to make Don Martín hold up his end of the bargain. She decides to foil his plans with Doña Inés by dressing up as a gentleman and courting her under the alias Don Gil--the very alias Don Martín planned to use (he couldn't have used his own name after already having announced his engagement to Doña Juana). 

Doña Juana, dressed in green breeches arrives first and presents herself as "Don Gil" to Doña Inés and her sister, Clara. Both women immediately become smitten with the crossdressed Juana. Don Martín shows up later and introduces himself as Don Gil, too, but the ladies claim to have already fallen in love with the Don Gil wearing green trousers. 

The plot then becomes extraordinarily twisted and complex, as Doña Juana dons other disguises, dressing as a lady of high society and moving in next to Doña Inés to befriend her and learn her secrets. 

Doña Juana beautifully manipulates everyone around her and executes so many unexpected tricks of wit both in and out of her green breeches. Towards the end of the play, everyone has become so jealous of the smooth-talking Don Gil that in one scene the majority of the characters (men and women) have all dressed up as Don Gil of the green breeches--and a very funny sword fight ensues! In the end, Doña Juana gets to reveal her many identities and the cunning way she got what she wanted-- as a man and as a woman. 
Segismundo, in chains.
Image source
Another example of a spurned woman dressing as a man in order to get back at a lover is found in the brilliantly intellectual play by Calderón de la Barca: Life is a Dream (1635). The cross-dressed woman in this play is not the protagonist; her narrative unfolds alongside the story of Segismundo, a man who grew up in chains in a secluded mountain tower, after his mother died during childbirth and his father, King Basilio, received prophetic warnings about his son taking over the kingdom violently. 

Rosaura (our cross-dresser) is out to get her ex-lover -- none other than Astolfo, Duke of Moscow. He'd promised to marry her, taken her honor, and then run off as to marry his cousin, Estrella, a princess of King Basilio's court. Basilio was getting old and seeking a successor; Astolfo and Estrella thought they could share in the inheritance of power by marrying. But when they arrive at the castle, the king informs them that he indeed had a son (and therefore successor) but that, like a complete cad, he'd kept the poor boy chained in a tower. 

The king's plan, then, was to drug Segismundo and transport him to the castle to test his temperament and see if he was fit to inherit the kingdom which was lawfully his. But this king was very cautious, and so he told everyone to remind Segismundo while he was in the castle that "this could all be a dream," so that if he behaved badly, they could simply take him back to the tower and tell him he'd dreamed the castle, the clothes, the servants, the sight of women. 

The play calls into question the construction of reality and the unstable relationship between dreaming and waking. The story of Rosaura shifts the idea of gender into this unstable plane-- when the play opens, she is dressed as a man, prepared to kill Astolfo for having spurned her love and made off with her virginity. In the middle of the play, she dresses as a lady-in-waiting for Estrella, as she tries to gather more information and get close enough to murder Astolfo. Finally, at the end of the play, a war has broken out and Rosaura dresses openly as a woman, but wearing masculine battle garments. It seems then, that her truest outward expression of gender is neither here nor there. 
"Decameron" by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
 Finally, the Golden Age text that most surprised and horrified and delighted me was The Disenchantments of Love (1637) by María de Zayas. Although many women wrote poetry, plays, and stories in Golden Age Spain, there was a stark disparity between the publishing rates of men and women. The works that we have today by María de Zayas are treasures of literature, not only because they represent an important part of a small number of texts published by female authors, but also because de Zayas was an incredible writer. 

Maria de Zayas, author of The Disenchantments of Love 
The Disenchantments are a series of 10 intensely violent, sexual, and tragic tales related by the female storytellers of a frame story that is itself full of tangled love triangles and vengeful plots.

After suffering a terrible heartbreak and subsequently life-threatening lovesickness precipitated by the fickle attentions of don Juan, Lisis, the protagonist of the frame story, begins regaining strength through the intersession of female friends and the marriage proposal of don Diego. On the three nights leading up to what was intended to be her wedding celebration with Diego, Lisis arranged for a group of her women friends to entertain and “disenchant” gathered spectators, whose numbers swell each night, until becoming a veritable crowd brimming with disapprovingly curious, novelty-seekers, and fellow disenchanted women. 

The stories these women tell contain the most sadistic punishments of the female body, the depths of the wickedness of both men and women who carry out unspeakable acts against innocent female victims. There is only one happy ending in all ten of these stories, and the favorable outcome is only due to the direct intervention of the Virgin Mary. The rest of the stories all end with the blood of a young woman.

The cross-dressing in the Disenchantments is different than the two dramaturgic examples described above. For instance, in one of the stories, it is a man who dresses as a woman so as to get close to the object of his desire-- he seduces her dressed as a woman. There are so many other little moments in these stories that are worth writing about-- so many that it would require another post! So my recommendation in the meantime: read this book! 

You look handsome, ma'am.
Image source
And so my dear petticoat rustlers, the variety of cross-dressing characters in these three examples alone leads me to believe that there is something more complex at work than the simple theatrical value of a woman putting on breeches or a man donning a dress. 

The definition of gender in the 17th century relied heavily upon wardrobe choices. Perhaps it is this very fact that enabled men and women to more readily break with the established gender roles. So much about gender was connected to one's ability to perceive reality through the use of their senses-- if she looked like a man, she was a man. 

And yet, in Life is a Dream, Segismundo learns that you cannot trust your senses in discerning what is a dream and what is real life. He rejects his ability to learn the truth through outward observations. The developments in physics at this time began questioning the efficacy of the senses in drawing accurate conclusions, as well. 

This is significant, as it has implications for the way we interpret the other gender-swap cases we've discussed: not only is it easy to pretend to be something you're not, you have in truth become that "other" thing based on the consensus of your community, if they use only their senses to evaluate who you are. (Eat your heart out, Judith Butler!) 

Ultimately, the (excessively) repeated mutilation of the female form in de Zayas' stories abuse and punish the senses. Women are tortured and murdered and suffer in horrible ways in each one of the stories (the protagonist of the one with the happy ending still has her eyes put out and is forced to live in a cave for 8 years). There is pain inscribed in the female body, and the impulse to cross-dress may present the promise of alleviating this pain. But whether dressed as a woman or dressed as a man, one cannot rely on their senses to know the truth--the female body as an object of desire but also an object of violent scorn underscores the tragedy of acting upon only one's fickle senses.

What are your favorite cross-dressing moments in literature? 

Until next time-- keep the petticoats a'ruffling! 

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