Unveiling the Theatre: Exploring Drag Culture in 16th and 17th Century England

Jack Dradey

This is the first article exploring the fierce Drag history throughout Britain between the 16th century and the modern day

I will take you back to 16th and 17th-century England. During these two centuries, we see the rise of one of history’s most famous playwrights, William Shakespeare, and with this came along the rife increase of theatre, which laid the foundation for Drag culture in Britain. Before we start this exploration, it is important to understand the meaning of Drag. A modern-day definition of ‘Drag Queen’, from the Cambridge Dictionary, is as follows a person, often a gay man, who dresses in highly decorated women’s clothes, wigs...jewellery, make-up, etc., as a costume and performs as a woman for entertainment. However, as a long-time follower and supporter of Drag culture, it is hard to capture the definition of Drag as Drag is for anyone and can mean anything. Sometimes it can be for theatrical purposes; for others, it is an escape from reality. However, looking at the definition of Drag makes me think; how did the phrase come about? The term Drag only appears to be originated centuries later from when we are discussing, in the 1800s. But it is believed to have its roots in Shakespearean Theatre. The origin of the term Drag has been quite ambiguous and debated by many. Some argue that it refers to Shakespearean actors and actors of the 19th century, who played women’s roles, and they would be seen wearing long petticoats that would drag across the floor. Others have recently argued that it is an acronym for ‘dressed as a girl’, forming the term Drag. When looking at Drag culture in 16th and 17th century England, it is essential to acknowledge the social landscape of England at the time. During Tudor and Stuart England, gender expectations were firmly set. Societal expectations and standards were based on the rife religious devotion of the population, alongside the long-standing tradition of authoritative male and subservient female relationships. Women were expected to be submissive to men and were confined to domesticity, whilst men had authority and were expected to be the breadwinners for their families. This oppressive binary ultimately was the building block for the first proclaimed drag performers to explore gender expression, leading drag culture to flourish into how it is today.
Unveiling the Theatre: Exploring Drag Culture in 16th and 17th Century England
William Shakespeare

The Historians Magazine

One of the fastest growing Independent history magazines in the UK, championing emerging historians.

Unveiling the Theatre: Exploring Drag Culture in 16th and 17th Century England
The Globe Theatre, London

When looking at Drag culture in Tudor and Stuart England, there is a gap in histography as people didn’t comment on men playing female roles because it was an artistic norm

When looking at Drag culture in Tudor and Stuart England, there is a gap in histography as people didn’t comment on men playing female roles because it was an artistic norm. Also, there is no mention of Drag Kings, as the creative form of Drag wasn’t formed yet alongside the strict societal standards women had to follow. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the theatre was the place to see Drag culture. During these two dynasties, you mainly saw young boys and men walk the wooden planks of the stage. This only changed in the late 17th century whereby in 1660, King Charles II issued a royal proclamation stating, ‘Wee doe … permit and give leave That all the woemen's part to be acted in either of the said two Companies for the time to come may be performed by woemen’. The trend to exclude female actors from the stage dates back to the Ancient Greeks, who considered women on stage as dangerous. Therefore, they implemented male actors to avoid this. However, these men and young boys who played some of Shakespeare's most iconic female characters, such as Desdemona and Lady Macbeth, had not the faintest idea that they were partaking in the form of Drag. It would have been frowned upon for a man to wear female attire outside of the theatre as they would have been stereotyped as homosexual, which was illegal under the Buggery Act of 1533 issued under Henry VIII. However, a male wearing stereotypical female clothes in theatre was believed acceptable, and a necessity by most, and even those writers who disagreed with men playing female roles thought it still better than having a female actor on stage as mentioned before, there was no Drag King culture in the 16th and 17th centuries, even in theatre. This is evident in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, where the female character Viola disguises herself as a man. Instead of letting a woman play this role, they made a male actor play a woman who dresses and acts like a man...quite confusing if you ask me. However, the exclusion of women from the stage is not what started the fierce world of Drag and is not what is at the heart of Drag culture today; it is the male actors that explored their gender identity and broke the boundaries of society that started the iconic world of drag which we know and love. Like today's iconic Drag Queens and Kings, 17th-century ‘Drag Queens’ faced hurdles. The execution of King Charles I, brought about the establishment of the Protectorate, now known as the Commonwealth, and Oliver Cromwell was known as Lord Protector. Cromwell had strict Puritan values and considered the Theatre sinful because it distracted others from attending church. Therefore he closed all the theatres, which remained closed until Charles II took his rightful place as King of England in 1660. With the theatres closed, it eradicated 16th and 17th-century English drag culture, as men did not need to play any roles now. Even when theatres reopened, and Charles II gave women their well-deserved right to be on the stage, men had a minimal need to play female roles. Therefore, in the essence of theatre, drag culture started to spiral downwards. As you continue to read the articles about the history of Drag culture in Britain, you will find that with the introduction of female actors, the notion of men playing female parts in theatre started to get associated with homosexuality. Overall, people might comment that 16th and 17th-century British actors weren’t drag, but it was a start. Though they did not know they were involved in the first form of British Drag, they were still partaking in extraordinary theatre with huge gowns and portraying a character many Drag performers can relate to today. Theatre opened up avenues for those young men and women who wanted to explore their gender identity and tackle societal expectations of what gender should be. As this series of articles continues, you’ll see how Drag culture started to leave the creaky wooden planks of the stage and evolve into a global phenomenon.
Ancestry UK
Unveiling the Theatre: Exploring Drag Culture in 16th and 17th Century England

Jack Dradey

Hello, my name is Jack and I’m currently studying History at Royal Holloway University of London. My interests include medieval history and fashion history. I am the writer of a historic fashion blog called Historic Fashionista. I enjoy investigating parts of history and the changes of continuities of certain periods. When I’m not up to my neck in essays and book I am normally found in museums finding out new information…or you’ll find me in the museum gift shop looking for a new tote bag.
Young Queen Elizabeth I
Princess Elizabeth and Her New Year’s Gift Translations
Untitled design (47)
Early Gay and Lesbian Youth Groups in England
Elizabeth I of England
The English Armada – The Tudor Naval Disaster that you’ve never heard of