Illusion and Dissolution
Gender and the Anti-theatrical Debate in A Midsummer Night's Dream


In making my argument about gender, theatrical illusion, and the anti-theatrical debate in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, I will first give a brief overview of the anti-theatrical debate in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, focusing particularly on the overlapping concerns about dissemblance and about gender. In this paper I will refer specifically to Stephen Gosson's The Schoole of Abuse, published in 1579. I would like to locate A Midsummer Night's Dream within the anti-theatrical debate, arguing that the play embodies the anti-theatricalists' arguments about theatrical illusion and its effects upon a female audience at the same time that it refutes them. My argument grows out of thinking about why the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in their anxiety about the production of their play, imagine their audience as specifically female.

The alleged abuses of the theater in late sixteenth-century England centered on cultural anxieties about gender, and gender-bending in particular. We know that, among anti-theatricalists, theater was "equated with femininity, with weakness, with the yielding to feeling, and consequently with the destruction of all assured props and boundaries."1 We know that anti-theatricalist writers are exceedingly preoccupied with the problem of men in women's clothing on the stage. I see this concern about transvestitism as part of a larger anxiety about the nature of theatrical illusion and real life, seeming and being. Acting, for the anti-theatricalists, is based on hypocrisy and stage-players are nothing more than hypocrites. Moreover, this acting, this hypocrisy, is in fact a blasphemous practice. Jonas Barish, who provides a useful overview of the anti-theatrical debate, summarizing the concerns of sixteenth-century anti-theatricalists, writes that

Players are evil because they try to substitute a self of their own contriving for the one given them by God. Plays are evil for analogous reasons: they attempt to substitute "notorious lying fables" . . . for things that have truly happened (93).

Stephen Gosson puts it succinctly when he declares that "Every man must show him selfe outwardly to be such as in deed he is" (qtd. in Barish 94). To act — to show oneself as what one is not — violates the absolute identity given each one of us by God. Gosson reiterates this point in The Schoole of Abuse,2 which, on the title page, is addressed to "Gentlemen that favour learning." In a separate letter addressed "To the Gentlewomen Citizens of London," he expresses the further concern that theatrical illusion is liable to deceive women.

In this short letter to "Gentlewomen," Gosson, like other anti-theatricalists, is primarily concerned with the visibility of the female body within the space of the theater. His overarching anxiety is that female audience members will become spectacles, attracting the attention of male audience members: he is concerned that female chastity is endangered by the male gaze. "Looking eyes," he writes, "have lyking hartes, liking hartes may burne in lust" (59). But Gosson also exhibits a latent anxiety about women as spectators and the effect of theatrical production on these female audience members. He warns women of the "inchaunting" (61) nature of theatricality, which he calls "a tottering plank that wil deceive you" (60). In the main part of The Schoole of Abuse, which is addressed to "Gentlemen," he is concerned with the dangers of illusion on the actors and the social order at large, not on individual audience members. Presumably, as his male readership is in fact a readership of "Gentlemen that favour learning" he need not worry about their ability to discriminate between theatrical illusion and reality. Gosson for example writes that his own powers of discrimination are sound; he is "not so childishe to take every bushe for a monster" (65). Gosson projects his fears about the deceptive nature of theatricality onto women, who were typically thought to lack reason and judgment and to be credulous and gullible.3 Women, then, would obviously be much more in danger of being deceived by theatrical illusion. Gosson, and other anti-theatricalists, indeed plays themselves, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, figure the endangered audience members of plays as female.