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Costumes And Actresses Essay, Research Paper
“El traje de hombre”: Costume as performance in Tirso’s El vergonzoso en palacio.
In her discussion of commedia dell’arte, Kathleen McGill argues that the appearance of women drastically changed how
performance functioned and what type of drama was staged: “Whereas prior to the participation of women, male troupes
generally performed simple farces, women performers, according to the report of their contemporary audiences, demonstrated
a facility for eloquent dialogue which surpassed that of the poets” (61). Many highly educated and verbally astute courtesans
became actresses, and it was their facility with oral language, McGill posits, that inspired the development of improvisation and
the inclusion of non-literary forms of lyric in the commedia. Peter Parolin contends that, “Actresses may not have been the
center of every play, but in the Italian theater, the advent of actresses did bring about a new cultural, economic and
representational centrality for women” (8). The commedia had an enormous impact on the Spanish stage, and following their
Italian counterparts Spanish actresses shaped the nature of performance in the comedias. The “representational centrality” of
women on the Spanish stage created a space to interrogate what is means to be a gender, what it means to perform a gender,
and what it means to love a gender. Stephen Orgel argues, “Clothes make the man, clothes make the woman: the costume is of
the essence” (104). This paper will analyze the performative power of costume and how it permits gender transformation: to
dress is to act and-to a certain extent-to act is to become. The centrality and power of costume on the stage can be
evidenced in the legal attempts to control theater and audience alike through the legislation of costume.
In Tirso de Molina’s play El vergonzoso en palacio (The Shy Man at Court)1, gender is performed and transformed
through the use of transvestism. The character Serafina is both what Melveena McKendrick has termed a mujer varonil-or
masculine woman-and a mujer esquiva-disdainful woman.2 Serafina delights to dress and to perform as a man, and
throughout the majority of the play she eschews any male advances. The mujer vestida de hombre (woman dressed as a man)
was a popular plot device meant to accentuate the erotics of having women on the stage; seeing a woman appear as a boy is
what is titillating, since male clothing exposed the legs. The idea of vacillating gender may be arousing in and of itself. This
becomes true for the character of Serafina as well; when she finally falls in love, it is with a portrait of herself in the habit of a
man. The majority of the play contains interesting examinations into the definition and mutability of gender, but, as in Measure
for Measure, the complexity is simply solved at the end in a formulaic manner-marriage. So, for the purposes of this paper, I
will mostly put the ending and its conventionality aside to discuss the elaborate circumstances in which gender is constructed and
Actresses and Performance: from Commedia to Comedia
Before explaining the argument, I will first trace the influence that the Italian commedia had on Spanish comedia nueva, as
it is necessary for the understanding of the actress’s role in the drama, which in turn is related to how gender is constructed on
and, perhaps, off the stage. The arrival of the commedia in Spain is well documented 3; in 1574, Alberto Naseli, known as
Ganassa, arrived in Madrid, where he performed the zanni character Harlequin to packed houses, luring the audiences away
from native performances. Ganassa’s success prompted the arrival of other Italian troupes, from the late 1570s onward. Their
popularity caused Spanish dramatists, particularly Lope de Vega and his later followers Tirso de Molina and Pedro Calder?n
de la Barca, to appropriate their content and techniques, including intrigue plots, character types, emphasis on language,
schematized situations introduced by improvised theater, and actresses. According to Melveena McKendrick, the Italian
commedia “almost certainly introduced the idea of using professional actresses. Lope de Rueda’s wife was a dancer but there
is no evidence that she ever acted, and the Council of Castile’s 1586 decree banning the public appearance of women on stage
probably referred to singers and dancers” (Theatre in Spain 49). In fact, the arrival of the commedia troupe caused the first
legal action that sanctioned the appearance of women on the stage.
In 1587, the Italian company Los Confidentes applied to the royal counselor Pedro Puertocarrero for a license permitting
their actresses, Angela Salomona, Angela Martinelli, and Silvia Roncagli to play on the stage. They argue that, “las comedias
que traen para representar no se podr?n hacer sin que las mujeres que en su compa??a traen las representen” (quoted in Arr?niz
275), which is to say that the comedies that they were to present could not be done without the women of the company.
Puertocarrero granted the license, thereby setting a legal precedent for female performers. If what this petition indicates that the
company only needed women to play the female characters necessary to the plots of the plays, then why could they not simply
find a local boy actor to fill in? Instead, I think their request reveals that women were essential in the performance of the plays,
that their facility in improvisation, their technical skills, and their performance as women were key for the plays’ success.
Perhaps, Angela Salomona, Angela Marinelli, or Silvia Roncagli had scenes similar to the Isabella Andrieini’s’ famous La
pazzia d’Isabella, in which madness is performed as a mixing of languages and the recovery from madness as linguistic
eloquence. In 1589, Giuseppe Pavoni recorded one of Isabella’s performances. He recounts:
[H]ow on finding herself deserted and her honor compromised [, Isabella] abandoned herself to grief and passion,
went out of her senses, [and] like a mad creature roamed the city ?speaking now in Spanish, now in Greek, now
in Italian and in many other languages, but always irrationally?.[Then] she began to speak French and to sing
French songs?.Then she began to imitate the ways of speaking of her fellow-actors-the ways, that is, of
Pantalone, Gratiano, Zanni, Pedrolino, Francatrippe, Burattino, Capitan Cardone and Franceschina-in such a
natural manner, and with so many fine emphases, that no words can express the quality and skill of this woman.
Finally, by the fiction of magic art and certain waters she was given to drink, Isabella was brought to her senses
and here, with elegant and learned style explicating the passions and ordeals suffered by those who fall into love’s
snares, she brought the comedy to its close, demonstrating by her acting of this madness the sound health and
cultivation of her own intellect. (quoted in Richards and Richards 74-5)
The knowledge and facility in foreign languages, eloquence in Italian, and skill in imitation necessary to the scene illustrates that
the actress could not be simply replaced by a boy dressing as a woman; without Isabella and her particular talents there would
be no La pazzia d’Isabella. For Los Confidentes, without the actresses there would be no theater at all.
Though Spanish comedia nueva did not rely on improvisation in the same manner as commedia dell’arte did, nevertheless the
dramatists incorporated the commedia scenarios, which were dependent upon female performers. Many of these roles written
for women are the most demanding theatrically, requiring technical facility on the part of the actresses. Much of the fun in the
woman’s roles comes from playing on the fact that they are actual women, dressed as men. In fact, the plots are often
dependent on the crossed dressed women, just as Ben Jonson’s plot in Epicoene is dependent on having a boy playing a
woman. Certainly, the nature of the Spanish theater company probably influenced the prominence of interesting female roles.
McKendrick posits that “Leading ladies (often actor-manager’s wives) had to be given appropriately prominent roles, which
goes some way to explaining the dominant role played by women in so many comedias” (Theatre in Spain 75). Like 18th and
19th century Opera composers who wrote intricate arias so that specific divas could show off their talents, Spanish playwrights
wrote good scenes for good actresses. In Lo fingido verdadero, Lope de Vega comments on the theatrical necessity of
Como te va de mugeres, That’s how it goes for you concerning women
que sin ellas todo es nada Without them all is nothing.
(quoted Shergold 217)
It was the talent of actresses in Spain that drew the attention of spectators. In 1623, when Prince Charles of Wales visited
the Spanish court, one member of his entourage recorded his impressions of a play presented:
The Players themselves consist of Men and Women. The Men are indifferent Actors, but the Women are very
good, and become themselves far better then any that I saw act those Parts, and far handsomer than any Woman I
saw. To say the truth, they are the onely cause their Playes are so much frequented. (quoted in Shergold 266)
This spectator is impressed with the quality of the women’s artistry, articulating that they are the performers who carry the show
and are responsible for its success. Revealing that he had never seen “those parts” performed so well may be an
indication-since he was English-that he normally saw the female roles played by boys, who could not perform the roles as
convincingly as actual women. However, as he is a member of the court, he may have witnessed women players in English court
masques, so that the difference in quality has to do with professional versus amateur actresses. It is also possible that this
witness had seen professional actresses playing those roles, either foreign actresses on the English stage or in other foreign
countries, and these Spanish actresses were in fact particularly talented and attractive. If one reads “those parts” as women’s
roles in general as opposed to specific parts in particular plays that the spectator had seen before, then his comments confirm
that Spanish dramatists particularly highlighted the virtuosity of the actresses in their plays.
The scenes written for the females often emulate commedia style improvisation. Perhaps the scenes in the court
performance were similar to La pazzia d’Isabella, in which the actress played all the maschere of the commedia. For El
vergonzoso, Tirso de Molina wrote a scene in which Serafina acts out an entire drama, playing both the male and female parts.
Then perhaps to accommodate the other actress in the company, Tirso composed a scene in which the other heroine,
Magdalena, stages a situation in which she pretends to be asleep and then carries on an entire conversion between herself and
her lover. Part of the appeal for the audience in these scenes is the eroticization of the women. Serafina’s legs are exposed, as
she plays the entire scene vestida de hombre, and viewing a woman, supposedly asleep but instead performing for her lover,
has its own erotic qualities. Certainly, the court spectator associates the actresses’ attraction not only with skill but also with
beauty, as they were “far handsomer than any Woman” he had seen. Part of the erotics of the women is the sense of women
performing for men in general, exposing themselves for all to see and at some level to possess-at least visually. Dawn Smith
comments: “Such effects were regularly reproved by zealous church authorities, constantly alert to possible lapses in moral
decorum as a reason for censoring or even closing the theatres” (93). In 1589, Father Pedro de Rivadeneira complained that,
“Pues las mujercillas que representan comunmente son hermosas, lascivas y que han vendido su honestidad, y con los meneos y
gestos de todo el cuerpo y con la voz blanda y suave, con el vesdido y gala, a manera de sirenas encantan y transforman los
hombres en bestias” (quoted in Shergold 523, n. 1). [Then the women-who present openly their beauty, their lasciviousness,
and that they have sold their honesty, and with the movements and gestures of all of the body and with the voice smooth and
suave, with costumes and finery-in the manner of sirens sing and transform men to beasts.] Performance, being on the stage
for the gazing male audience, has the power to literally turn men to beasts. The problem then is not what happens morally to
women, the performers, but to men in the audience. The transformation is not from woman to man, via their costumes, but from
man to animal. It is man who experiences the transgressive performative inversion. It is the perceived availability of the actresses
and the spectacle of appealing costume is what warrants authoritative contro, but the legislation, read through the lense provided
by Father de Revadeneira, appears to police the actions of men-not women.
The 1587 license granted to Los Confidentes specified that the actresses had to be married and they were not entitled to
dress as men. McKendrick argues that the injunction against cross dressing was most certainly ignored,3 as so many plot
devices call on women disguised as men and as later legislation also continued to decree similar sartorial restraints. During the
late 1590s the theaters were closed completely; however, in 1600 an edict permitted playhouses to reopen but again imposed
limitations on the actresses. They had to be married to members of the company, which would seem to indicate that the
authorities are attempting to contain the actresses to the stage side of the theatre so that they will seem less available to the male
audience. The idea being that the men would be less tempted by a married woman, than by ones who have “sold their honesty”
to the audience. The 1600 law included restrictions on dress once again stipulating that they were not to dress as men, but only
to wear long skirts. Here the legislation becomes move explicit, not simply restricting male attire but also dictating female
apparel. In addition, actresses were limited in their street clothing; there were not to violate sumptuary laws, a move that seems
to indicate the potential danger of women crossing not only gender but class lines. Theatrical costume consisted of aristocratic
hand-me-downs, so when an actress left the theater in her costume, she entered the street in aristocratic clothing. The consulta
making recommendations about the theater advised that it was preferable to have women on the stage, than boys dressesd in
female attire; however, they granted that if boys were to perform female roles, they should not be permitted to wear make-up.
What is interesting here is that the consulta seems aware that companies will use boys in female roles, but what they are really
concerned about is the use of make-up. What is it about make-up that causes consternation? Perhaps they are concerned that
the use of make-up the boys will in fact paint themselves as women, and that their portrait will also cause a bestiality in the men
of the audience. Again in 1608 and 1615, there were enjoinders against women wearing male apparel and boys appearing on
the stage as females.4 All of these injunctions attempt to control the unruly theatre by controlling dress. Costume has a powerful
performative function in gender and class construction, both on and off the stage, and that by changing one’s clothes one can
change or “translate” one’s erotic and economic positioning.
Performance as Translation: El vergonzoso en palacio
Once such translation or “crossing over” that happens in El vergonzoso is related to the inversion associated with Carnival
and misrule, as Serafina’s occasion to dress as a man is a Mardi Gras festival performance. Stuart Clark notes that “Throughout
the late medieval and Renaissance period ritual inversion was a characteristic element of village folk-rites, religious and
educational ludi, urban carnivals and court entertainments. Such festive occasions shared a calendrical licence to disorderly
behaviour or ‘misrule’ based on the temporary but complete reversal of customary priorities of status and value?[One
recurring idea] was the exchange of sex roles involved in the image of the ‘woman on top’ or in transvestism” (101). In the first
scene that we truly encounter Serafina demonstrates that she wishes to use the Carnivalesque inversion to her own advantage,
for her amusement in playacting, which allows for her to enact her desires. Serafina tells her maid Do?a Juana that:
Fiestas de Carnestolendas At the Feasts of Carnival
todas paran en disfraces. Every woman ends up in disguise.
Des?ome entretener I desire to amuse myself;
de este modo; no te asombre It should not surprise you
que apetezca el traje de hombre, That the clothing of a man attracts me
ya que no lo puedo ser. Since it is that which I cannot be.
Serafina explains that since it is Carnival, all the women dress as men, but Serafina’s desire to be a man seems to go beyond the
inversion available at Mardi Gras. Serafina as a mujer esquiva has rejected the idea of getting married and having to be
subservient to any man. Carnival entitles her temporary access to a world of action and freedom, even if that access is only
imaginary by means of playacting.
For Serafina the play has a kind of reality, not normally available for a woman of her station-a woman whose life is to be
arranged by her father and then by her husband. The play permits her as a performer to be the agent of action. What grants her
this power is the costume itself; clearly, Serafina wants to be a man since she declares she cannot be a man “no lo puedo
ser”-the next best thing is dressing like one. In the theatre, costume enables the performance of gender that leads Serafina to a
desired existence. Wearing “el traje de hombre,” Serafina begins to act as a man; her performance becomes so real to her that
at some level she forgets herself as a woman and becomes a man.
Appropriately, Serafina, the character who most believes in the transformative power of costume and theater, is the mouthpiece
for Tirso’s rhetorical defense of theatre, echoing the sentiment in Lope de Vega’s own manifesto Arte nuevo de hacer
comedias en este tiempo (New Art of Writing Plays in Our Time).5 Serafina believes that the play contains all that the audience
?Qu? fiesta o juego se halla What feast or game
que no le ofrezcan los versos? do the verses not offer?
En la comedia, los ojos In a play, do not the eyes
?no se deleitan y ven delight and see
mil cosas que hacen que est?n a thousand things
olvidados sus enojos? that banish trouble?
La m?sica, ?no recrea The music, does it
el o?do, y el discreto not beguile the ear?
no gusta all? del conceto And what connoisseur does not enjoy all
y la traza que desea? the ideas and designs?
Para el alegre, ?no hay risa? For happiness, is there not laughter?
Para el triste, ?no hay triseza? For melancholy, is there not sadness?
Para el agudo, ?agudeza? For wit, cleverness?
De la vida es un traslado, The play is a translation of life,
sustento de los discretos, sustenance for the discriminating,
dama del entendimiento, a lady of understanding,
de los sentidos banquete, a banquet for the senses,
de los gustos ramillete, a bouquet for delectation,
esfera del pensamiento, a sphere of thought,
olvido de los agravios, oblivion to forget misfortune
manjar de diversos precios, a feast of precious amusements
que mata de hambre a los necios that kills the hunger of the fool
y satisface a los sabios. and satisfies that of the wise.
For Serafina, every emotional and sensual level is affected by drama. All desires and imaginings can be seen and experienced by
the audience but also by the actor, perhaps even actor as audience for her own performance. Her performance allows her to
view herself in a particularly desirable way, at least for the duration of the play. Serafina does not specifically say that the play
offers women a chance to be men, but she demonstrates it in her own costume and her own actions. As the play is a lady of
understanding “dama de entendimiento,” the genre of drama itself is codified as female, one which is an enlightenment object.
Theater is a woman who understands interpollated signifies that an understanding lady is inherently theatrical, perhaps a lady
needs theatre to understand. To understand love, Serafina will eventually demand theatrical performance. The erotics are caught
up into what is theatrical. In this scene, the audience’s and Serafina’s “eyes delight and see” her as a man, and as a man Serafina
can banish the troubles surrounding the limitations of her gender. Certainly, Don Antonio, who watching the scene from the
bushes, and the actual audience in the theatre delight their eyes erotically with her performance and her costume.6
When she rehearses La portuguesa cruel, a condensed version of Lope’s La portuguesa y dicha del forastero, 7 the play
becomes the “traslado” of live. Translation and traslado descend from the Latin transferre, literally meaning to carry over or
across; it is a word connoting movement from one position to another. The Diccionario de Autoridades defines trasladar, as
“Llevar o mudar a una persona o cosa de un lugar a otra” [to carry or move a person or a thing from one place to another]. The
play or performance then encourages translations or movements of various sorts, including the translation from one gender to
another. This in turn gives us insight into the nature of performance in Spanish comedia nueva. Surely, la portuguesa cruel is
meant to identify Serafina’s personality in El vergonzoso; however, in her own presentation she primarily plays the male role of
Prince Pinabelo. In the first part of the play, the prince, who is in love with Celia, has gone into the woods to fight his rival, the
count. Serafina uses her maid Juana as both audience of and participant in her performance. First Serafina positions Juana as the
count; Serafina becomes so involved in her role that she nearly runs her maid through with a sword. Serafina loses herself in the
role so much so that Juana has to remind her that she is not the real count. Next, Serafina plays a love scene-this time placing
Juana in the character of Celia, the object of her desire. Here she is so swept up that she embraces Juana, as if she were truly
Celia and Serafina were truly Pinabelo. All the time Juana is amazed that Serafina can play the role of the lover so convincingly,
since she is not in love herself. What Juana does not question though is that she can play a man so persuasively. In fact, Serafina
is so convincing that Juana says that she herself could fall in love with Serafina as Pinabelo. Finally, Serafina, in a grand finale,
plays all of the roles in the drama, moving from one character to the next, just as Isabella Andrieini had played all of the
What is implict in the scene is that performers begin to live their parts. Serafina happily acknowledges to Juana that she has
gotten completely carried away in her acting. She says: ” Encend?me, te prometo,/ como Alejandro lo hac?a,/ llevado del
instumento/ que aquel m?sico famoso/le tocaba. (II. 1040-44) [Acting inflames me, I promise you, just as Alexander was
inflamed when heard the famous music played for him.] She is affected by her performance so much that she loses herself. Yet,
she also associates herself with the audience, as she is like Alexander who is listening to the music, not playing it. Serafina is
translating life into the drama, as a good humanist would translate from one language to another-retaining the essence of the
original, yet creating something new. Serafina translates herself into a man of action, while maintaining an awareness at some
level that she is a woman. As in La pazzia d’Isabella, Serafina loses herself in her into the “madness” of the character who is
overcome by love. On step further shows us that the actual actress also had to translate herself into Serafina translated into the
character of Prince Pinabelo. The virtuosity of actress’s performance is that she moves from Pinabelo to the various characters
in the Shrovetide drama back to Serafina and like Isabella “demonstrated by her acting of this madness the sound health and
cultivation of her own intellect.” Serafina’s performance is also convincing to Don Antonio, as he will eventually becomes the
kind of man that she acts out. If he wants to win Serafina, Don Antonio must create his own drama and must take action as
Serafina does in her comedia.
The Performance of Audience
Learning from Serafina the power of theatre, Antonio transforms Serafina from performer to audience. Watching Serafina
from the bushes was also a painter whom Antonio had commissioned to depict her, dressed as a man. The painter only makes
alterations in the color of Serafina’s costume in the painting, changing her black apparel to blue and gold. With portrait under
arm, Don Antonio finally confronts Serafina to make his feelings known to her, but she rejects him outright. Upon leaving,
Antonio throws the portrait down at her feet. She, surprised, says:
?Un retrato! A painting!
Es un hombre, y me parece It is a man, and I think
que me parece de modo so like myself
que es mi semejanze en todo. that it resembles me completely.
Cuanto el espejo me ofrece It is a mirror in which I see myself;
miro aqu?: como en cristal as if in a polished crystal
bru?ido mi imagen propia my own image
aqu? la pintura copia here is painted a copy,
ya un hombre es su original. Yet a man is its original.
No en balde en tierra os ech? Not in vain did he throw you to the ground
quien con vos ha sido ingrato, he who was so infuriated with you,
que si es vuestro original if the original
tan bello como est? aqu? is as beautiful as
su traslado, creed de m? its translation here, I believe
que no le quisiera mal. that I would not dislike you.
Y a fe que hubiera alcanzado And in truth he may have struck
lo que muchos no han podido, where others have missed,
pues vivos no me han vencido, though they live, they do not defeat me,
y ?l me venciera pintado. but he, the painted one, has conquered me.
Mas, aunque os haga favor, Though this flatters you,
no os espante mi mudanza, Do not be amazed of my transformation
que siempre la semejanza because always resemblance
ha sido causa de amor. has been the cause of love.
What is attractive to her is the fact that the painting is so like herself-resemblance is the cause of love “siempre la semejanza
han sido causa de amor.” She doesn’t recognize the painting as herself vestida de hombre, even though Juana has given her
numerous clues that she is being painted. However, as Orgel has argued, “there are scarcely a handful of instances in which
anyone sees through a disguise in English Renaissance drama” (102) which also may be said of Spanish Renaissance drama.
When Serafina is dressed as a man she was not intentionally in disguise, as those who see her know that she is the woman
Serafina. Her costume only becomes a disguise when it is translated into a painted image, and only she is fooled by her own
disguise. As Orgel contends, it is clothing that truly makes the man. Costume is so convincing in gender determination that
Serafina cannot see through her own disguise once the painter has made slight color alterations to the costume. Serafina had
dressed like a man, because she could not be one, but costume does in an odd way truly transform her into a man, or at least a
believable image of one-believable enough to fool herself anyway. Serafina is in love with the stage-the only rival for this love
is for a painted image of herself-dressed in theatrical costume. The image in the painting becomes the manifested image of the
male character she portrays in La portugueza cruel. The painting, like the play, is also a “traslado” of life, one that Serafina can
By having Serafina fall in love with the portrait of herself vesdida de hombre, Tirso transfers the male audiences’ erotic
response to the transvestite actress. Though Serafina remain
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