'Were I but a man as others are': Secrecy and Gender on the Renaissance Stage

Samantha Diane Dressel


Ben Jonson’s play Epicoene and William Heminge’s play The Fatal Contract both feature metacommentary on the nature of acting. In both texts, the main character is disguised as a member of the opposite gender, even to the audience, for all but the last few lines of the play. In Epicoene, the boy Epicoene serves as a boy-bride, leading to a satirical endpoint of revelation. The Fatal Contract stars the woman Chrotilda, dressed as a eunuch in order to enact her revenge. Both plays therefore present in-play acting along specifically gendered lines, representing the feigning of a woman, and a woman feigning. In doing so, they respond to the complex discussion surrounding both gender and acting, linking the subversive potential of female disguise with other gender-specific evils. This response is not clean or straightforward, with both plays presenting both threats and seductive potentials. Further complicating the discussion is the genre of each play, which imposes additional gender and disguise expectations on the characters. In this paper, I argue that these two plays help to illuminate a metatextual perspective on female acting, with gender and genre expectations fulfilled in order to contain subversive potential. Ultimately, however, both plays and disguised characters defy clean or safe classification.


Gender; disguise; genre; Jonson; Heminge; cross-dressing; acting

Full Text: PDF


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.