In several of Shakespeare's plays, women disguise as men (for a variety of reasons). For example,

  • In The Merchant of Venice, Portia disguises as a lawyer; Jessica disguises as a man when eloping with her non-Jewish lover.
  • In As You Like It, Rosalind disguises as Ganymdede, and her friend Celia as Aliena.

Philip Stubbes or Stubbs, writing before the start of Shakespeare's career as a dramatist, criticised this type of crossdressing in his book Anatomie of Abuses (1583). So what was the first English Renaissance play that involved women disguising as men?

Update in response to various comments:

  1. Crossdressing may have been a feature of a number of plays from classical antiquity, but this is only of limited relevance to my question. A thousand years passed between the end of classical antiquity and the beginning of the English Renaissance. The theatrical tradition had been interrupted; the most common types of plays in Medieval England were mystery plays and morality plays, which were based on a Christian tradition and far removed from the ancient Greek and Roman plays.
  2. Cross-dressing seems innocuous now (at least in the West), but this was not the case in Shakespeare's time.
    • There were sumptuary laws that regulated who could wear what types of clothes or materials; several such laws from the reign of Henry VIII were re-enacted in 1565. For example, only the nobility was allowed to wear imported woollen fabrics; only those with an income of £ 100 per year were allowed to wear satin, damask, silk, camlet or tafetta. The goal of these laws was to keep the "natural" class distinctions intact. (Source: G. Blakemore Evans, ed.: Elizabethan-Jacobean Drama: A New Mermaid Background Book. 1988. Pp. 129f.)
    • Cross-dressing was frowned upon; see e.g. Deuteronomy 22:5: "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for all who do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.". "Cross-dressing" could be as simple as women wearing bodices done up with buttons (buttons were very "masculine") or a hat; people were shocked and complained you couldn't tell the sexes apart. (Source: Ruth Goodman: How to Be a Tudor. 2015. Pp. 67, 85.)
  • 1
    Related (a sort of converse to this question): When did men dressed as women stop being the norm in English theatre?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 17, 2017 at 20:02
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    Stories where a man disguises himself as a woman go back to Greece and Rome.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 18, 2017 at 15:45
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    It was common in Italian theater before the first English theater was built. It may be hard to pinpoint a specific play in English, since I suspect it would likely have been a translation of a play like The Deceived Ones. I don't know the history of the English-language performances of that play. Dec 18, 2017 at 18:46
  • I think Shakespeare was a pioneer of it in England because he was inspired by female characters in foreign contemporary plays and historical figures who dressed as men. In which case it was probably The Merchant of Venice.
    – Fabjaja
    Dec 19, 2017 at 12:44
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    @Fabjaja The examples I found predate Shakespeare's plays.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 27, 2017 at 13:47

1 Answer 1


After some more research, I found the answer to my question. According to The Growth Of English Drama by Arnold Wynne (p. 176),

[George Peele's play] Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes merits a passing notice if only because it contains the earliest known example of a girl disguised as a page, the Princess Neronis waiting upon her lover in that office.

Since the play was probably written around 1570, it predates John Lyly's play Gallathea, which was written around 1588, and in which two women disguise as men. (Gallathea was the earliest example I was aware of when I posted the question.)

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