What is "Drag"?
By definition, Drag is, “clothing typical of one sex worn by a person of the opposite sex —often used in the phrase in drag (Webster.)” Research suggests that the term derives from Elizabethan Slang “quean,” meaning a strumpet or prostitute (Summers, pg.1). This article is centered around Drag, not to be confused with cross-dressing. Drag is contrary to cross-dressing, which is a means of imitation to fulfill a practical purpose in the theatre, drag is “self-referential and sometimes a parody” (Drouin 26). Historically, drag was a practice that dates back to the ancient Greeks, who, like the early modern English, banned women from their stages and therefore had to represent female characters through masks, makeup or other feminine touches worn by male actors. This spurred from the views on gender roles in Western Culture. dragdrag.jpgdrag1.jpgthree-yale-men-in-drag-new-haven-ct-circa-1880.jpg

Drag History: From Greece to England

The earliest forms of Drag were seen in Ancient Greek and Roman times. Women’s role in Greece and Rome can be portrayed as submissive; they were barred from going outdoors, for fear they could be involved with men, so they were mostly isolated in their homes. A woman’s social activity was determined “within her husband’s house and the domain of his power” (Lacey, p. 153). This statement makes it clear that a woman’s power was obsolete, making the thought of performing theatrically, almost laughable. The only people considered citizens were native born men in Ancient Greece, which made up about ¼ population of Athens. Artists were able to express their ideas freely, but women were still not allowed to participate as actors.
Romans were thought to have "taken the remarkable action of granting Roman citizenship to every free person within the borders of the Roman Empire (Shelton)."This makes it seem that women had these same freedoms. However, Roman women were referred to as matron, or head of the extended family, and their only purpose was to bear children and care for their households and husbands. Although they had no “official” power, Roman women were involved with their culture and had some ability to influence their society there is evidence that they dined with their husbands and attended parties, games, and shows. Of course they, like women in Greece were not able to perform in said “shows,” but there is evidence that women performed as mimes. These times left big theatre to the men, forcing them to play women’s roles in performance, and beginning an entire culture within theatre: drag.

Drag has been seen in Ancient Greece, Roman and even Ancient Chinese cultures in theatre, but the standards for Drag spurred in the 16th and 17th centuries from “interpretations of religious scripture in both Catholic and Protestant religions (UMBC,prgh.1)” which forbade women by law to perform, thinking it unsuitable for women to take on acting roles. In Elizabethan England, one’s dress code was a symbol of one’s identity, a representation of “gender and social class” (“FinchPark”). In this time, religion became a heavy influence on theatre and shapes the image of drag and theatre into what it is perceived as today.

The role of women in Elizabethan England stayed true to the ideas of previous cultures: she was to be submissive to her man, and embodied four virtues: obedience, chastity, silence, and piety (“FinchPark”.) Like Grecian women, they were taught to stay confined to one’s house. Elizabethan women, however, would disguise themselves as men to venture out protected; a sort of “opposite” drag then what was proper for the times. This form of cross dressing allowed women to take on more rights than they were allotted and began a rise in women being the gender living in drag. There was much public outcry from this, arguments stating that “transvestitism was an affront to nature, the Bible, and society (“FinchPark”). Although this may have been the general feeling of the society, Shakespeare aides his weary female audience with his cross-dressing female characters being strong and lively rather than having a submissive nature.

William Shakespeare created a new spin on the Ancient form of drag. He complied with censorship laws by having men take on the female roles, but actually inserted drag into about one fifth of his plays. He wrote in men portraying women playing men, and vice versa. He seemed to always look for an opportunity to include drag within his comedies. Within some shows like Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, characters in drag actually help to resolve the conflict in each play. In Twelfth Night, this excerpt is the point where Viola realizes the lengths she must go to get into the Duke's home; she must dress as one of the Duke's servants to conceal her true identity:


There is a fair behavior in thee, captain,

And though that nature with a beauteous wall

Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee

I will believe thou hast a mind that suits

With this thy fair and outward character.

I prithee—and I’ll pay thee bounteously—

Conceal me what I am, and be my aid

For such disguise as haply shall become

The form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke.

Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him.

It may be worth thy pains, for I can sing

And speak to him in many sorts of music

That will allow me very worth his service.

What else may hap to time I will commit.

Be you his eunuch, and your mute I’ll be.

When my tongue blabs, then let mine eyes not see. (I.II.3)
Anne Hathaway as Viola

In Merchant of Venice, drag is used as a device which thickens the plot and adds to the humor. In Act 3, Scene 4, Portia feels confident that she can beat any man standing in her way, declaring: “I’ll prove the prettier fellow of the two, And wear my dagger with the braver grace” (III.iv.64–65) By disguising herself in drag, Portia allows herself to regain power and dominance that her sex alone cannot.

portia in drag.jpg
Portia in Drag

In a time of gender bias and religious control, William Shakespeare changed the course of drag within his time. It was ever-present within his performances, but also within the text itself. He gave a platform to women and men to express themselves even under harsh scrutiny from England’s leaders and created an open advent for the ambiguity of gender.

Movies on Drag

Shakespeare in Love, a film by Joseph Madden that tells the story of a young Shakespeare in a heated love affair that depicts Drag in the Elizabethan era. In this clip, young William Shakespeare is conferring with his “friend” Thomas, who is truly William’s lover Viola, in drag. “Thomas” gives William advice and unveils that she is truly Viola, but in drag. This gives some insight into the constraints that women faced, in the amount of secrecy that they needed to maintain, if they were to break law and participate in theater.

Farewell My Concubine, a film that tells the story of the difficulties of life when Japan invaded China in the 1930s, and the journey of two men towards theatrically performing. In performance, one of the men depicts a female role, while the other plays a male. The clip below gives insight to the brutality and sadness that filled the boys’ lives, and the dream to become a star.

If you are interested in watching more on drag, here are some of the top movies from over the years:

Drag Today


The modern interpretation is Drag is defined as, “a man who dresses, and often acts, like a caricature woman often for the purpose of entertaining (Webster, prgh.1).” This is not to imply sexual identity, since today, most Drag today is closely tied to the LGBT community.
In today’s society, Drag is performed by men who are female illusionists. Competitions are comprised of singing (usually lip syncing), comedy acts and dance all done in extravagant costumes and make-up. These performances became popular in gay bars after World War I (Examiner,prgh.1). These men represent a fabulous community that adopts a transformative lifestyle and has become a way of expression for LGBT people. RuPaul Charles, one of the most renowned Drag Queens today, has been a ground-breaker in the Drag Community.“In 2002 Rupaul was honored by The Most Beautiful Transsexuals In The World Association, commending him for his outreach support on the Gay and Lesbian community with their Lifetime Achievement Award honoring his over 10 year conquest and establishing fashion and glamour in the entertainment industry (IMBD,prgh.4).” He created his show “Rupaul’s Drag Race” to give Queens a platform to have a voice and be able to help other young men struggling with their


Works Cited








Drouin, Jennifer. "Cross-Dressing, Drag, and Passing: Slippages in Shakespearean Comedy."

As the Romans Did, Jo-Ann Shelton

Lacy, W. K. "The Family in Classical Greece." New York: Cornell University Press, 1968.

Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare

Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare