Tragedy, Gender Performance: Women as Tragic Heroes on the Nineteenth-Century Stage


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

From the late eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, a remarkably high number of English and American women performed tragic male Shakespearean roles on the professional stage. Although there was a thriving stage tradition of crossdressing in comedy, melodrama, Italian opera, and dance,1 not since the early 1660's, when women replaced the boy actors who had previously played women's roles on the English stage, had the conventions of tragic performance in English professional theater included crossing gender boundaries. The most popular Shakespearean roles for women in the tragic repertoire were Romeo and Hamlet, but women also played Macbeth, Cardinal Wolsey, Shylock, Richard III, and Iago as well as heroes of nineteenth-century works such as Thomas Noon Talfourd's tragedy Ion and Edward Bulwer Lytton's melodrama The Lady of Lyons.2 Women's performances of tragic heroes broke long-established conventions of dramatic representation in the British theater and in the process interrogated many assumptions about character, gender, genre, and performance. Although a considerable number of reviewers criticized crossdressed tragic performances as immoral and lacking in taste, enough audiences and reviewers were receptive to crossdressed performances that a significant minority of actresses3 chose or were assigned serious male roles.

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