I've heard that Shakespeare borrowed ideas from the events and other literary works from the time. He uses cross-dressing as a major plot device in several plays. Where did this come from?

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    Note that in Shakespeare's own productions of his plays, all the actors were male. So you had men (or boys) pretending to be women pretending to be men.
    – mikado
    Mar 8, 2020 at 8:50
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    Related: When did men dressed as women stop being the norm in English theatre? As mikado says, cross-dressing was much more common in real life in Shakespeare's day - at least in theatre - than it is today.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Mar 8, 2020 at 10:37
  • Thanks for these comments. That can explain why there men played the roles of women. But tales like As You Like It and The Twelfth Night have cross-dressing in the core of the story itself. Mar 8, 2020 at 11:10
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    I think Mikado's comment serves as the answer to this question. Here Shakespeare was exploiting a fact of the contemporary theatre, not borrowing from another literary work.
    – llywrch
    Mar 9, 2020 at 15:47

1 Answer 1


Among Shakespeare's contemporaries, the motif of a woman disguising as a man had been used before, for example by George Peele in his play Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes, which was written around 1570 and by John Lyly in his play Gallathea (around 1588). (See my related question.)

In his diary, John Manningham had noted similarities between Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and the Italian play Gl'ingannati / The Deceived Ones, which dates from 1531, predating Peele's and Lily's plays. (There is no hard evidence that Shakespeare knew this play, though.) The play introduces Lelia, dressed as a boy. According to Yasuo TAMAIZUMI, Gl' Ingannati contains the earliest example of a female page.

However, the motif of cross-dressing is much older than the Renaissance. For example, Achilles on Skyros is a story available in Publius Papinius Statius's unfinished Achilleid in which Achilles disguises himself as a girl.

In summary, Shakespeare may have found inspiration in sources from Antiquity, from the Italian Renaissance or from contemporary works.


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