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:
- 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.
- 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.)