Ellen Boyer

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Theatre Arts


The purpose of this study is to investigate the transvestite female Shakespearean phenomenon of the theatre, determining why actresses chose to portray male Shakespearean heroes and how they were able to achieve notable levels of success in transvestite Shakespearean endeavors.

The initial stage of my study presents an historical overview of transvestite acting in the theatre and the relevant events leading up to the emergence of the first transvestite female Shakespearean actresses. This preliminary stage of my research relies primarily on George C.D. Dell's Annals of The New York Stage, Charles H. Shattuck's Shakespeare on the American Stage, theatre reviews and critiques by drama critics of the nineteenth century. The second stage of this study pursues a concentrated study of Charlotte Cushman's tremendous success as Shakespeare's Romeo and Sarah Bernhardt's famous transvestite portrayal of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Research involved for this stage of the study involves autobiographical and biographical material, theatre reviews and dramatic critiques written by contemporaries of the nineteenth century.

The findings of this study reveal that the transvestite female Shakespearean phenomenon was particular to the nineteenth century and characterized by an excessive number of transvestite interpretations of the Shakespearean tragic heroes; Hamlet and Romeo. Although several very successful transvestite actresses were produced by the movement, more often than not the phenomenon was characterized by unsuccessful novice protrayals. This study finds that the most successful transvestite female Shakespearean actresses were Ellen Terry, Mrs. Lewis, Charlotte Cushman, Fanny Vining, Esme Beringer, Sarah Bernhardt and Eva Le Gallienne.

The most famous tranvestite Shakespearean successes of Charlotte Cushman and Sarah Bernhardt were contingent on their respect for Shakespeare's original text and the respectively unique artistry each actress exerted in an honest and very professional effort to recreate for themselves and their audiences the catharsis inherent in both Shakespearean tragedies.

The results of this study concludes that actresses of the nineteenth century were attracted to transvestite acting for several reasons; popular appeal, repertorial problems created by insufficient existing female roles, a desire to partake in women's liberation, the inability of mature actors to meet the physical demands of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, Hamlet and Romeo, and the unparalleled challenge in acting a transvestite female Shakespearean role.