Printer Friendly

"In That Dimension Grossly Clad": Transgender Rhetoric, Representation, and Shakespeare.

In may 2017, the Globe Theatre released a short blog post promoting its summer production of Twelfth Night. In the blog, scholar Will Tosh compares Viola's disguise as Cesario to the experience of contemporary trans and gender-nonconforming youth:
   Shakespeare's vision of a gender identity that can slip along the
   scale from female to male and back seems, in 2017, intriguingly
   familiar. [...] But if the number of transgender people seems
   greater today than in the past [...] it's worth remembering that
   gender fluidity is no 21st-century invention: Shakespeare's
   comedies show that when it comes to gender, it's all a matter of
   performance. (1)

Tosh suggests that one can use Shakespeare as historical documentation of gender fluidity in order to validate the legitimacy of transgender youth. In exchange, the implicit payoff for the Globe is that Shakespeare is rendered both sociopolitically relevant and (given that Tosh specifically cites the LGBT media monitoring organization GLAAD's statistic that "more than one in ten young people identified as gender non-conforming, compared to 3% of the over50s") more accessible to younger audiences by the inclusion of gender-fluid characters. The Globe is not alone in this desire to model gender inclusivity as a feature of Shakespeare performance. California Shakespeare Theater's 2017 production of/Is You Like It specifically sought out a genderqueer actor to play Rosalind, and the program details cast engagement with local trans and gender-nonconforming community groups "to hear other's stories about gender journeys ... inviting a deeper investigation of the character of Rosalind and her own journey." (2)

Obviously, attention to gender and cross-dressing have a long history in Shakespearean criticism, perhaps as long as the history of Shakespearean criticism itself, but as critics begin to annex older rhetorical maneuvers invoking the "transvestite" or "hermaphrodite" to the contemporary labels "genderqueer" and "transgender," it is worth pausing to try to sort out exactly what the connection is (or might potentially be) between Shakespeare and contemporary social justice movements. (3) The preponderance of scholarship on cross-dressed characters like Viola or Rosalind unraveling the gender binary would seem to suggest that trans identity--even avantla-lettre--has indeed been integral to Shakespearean performance and criticism. However, because of both structural and social inequalities in casting practices, trans and gender nonconforming actors appear only rarely in these or any other roles in Shakespeare. (4) Living, non-fictional, self-identified trans people thus have both a privileged and completely disposable relationship to the bard.

Because we persist in reading androgyny or genderqueerness in the performance of a eis actor, we participate directly in constructing the image of androgyny and genderqueerness from the performance of a cisgender body. (5) The discussion of trans actors in theater is almost completely divorced from the discussion of genderqueer or androgynous characterization in Shakespeare performance. The desire to either inject sexualized androgyny into or de-gender a role_what Elizabeth Klett calls in her reading of Fiona Shaw's portrayal of Richard II "the sexless and the sexy" branches of androgyny--is almost always fulfilled by a eis actor through hair, makeup, and costume choices. (6) The willingness to see these as separate issues is both generative and problematic: it creates space within gender and gender performance, but edges trans people out of that conversation, as when Klett remarks "The body--both in real life and on the stage--cannot transcend or forget its gender," which seems momentarily to forget that trans people exist at all. (7) Dependence on the eis body for these readings then produces a fictional "trans" body continually defined by the same cisgender norms--a performative fiction of androgyny and genderqueerness that is uninterested in the varied branches of androgyny that medical and social transition have actualized.

While both Shakespearean performance and criticism rely fundamentally on the rhetoric of gendered bodies in transition, actual trans people and bodies are predominantly absent from discourse and performance. Even textually, the representation of crossdressed characters varies importantly from the experience of contemporary trans people. So, are these cross-dressing characters "trans"? Or not? Are trans people important to Shakespeare? Or not?

I am not interested in rehashing the queer historicist debates which have had so much ink spilled on them already. Clearly, there is both a value in finding resonance across history for queer identities, as well as a cultural specificity and a separation of centuries that should give us pause. As Valerie Traub writes, "neither will we find in the past a mirror of ourselves nor that the past is so utterly alien that we will find nothing usable in its fragmentary traces." (8) Or, as Fran Dolan has put it, "Frankly, I don't feel all that at home in the present, either." (9) Yet, when we bring the language and lens of the present to the people and objects of the past, it is always in the service of the present. In this paper I argue that the current mode of "finding" trans people in Shakespeare's work not only loses the cultural specificity of early modern gender nonconformism, but also loses the cultural specificity of contemporary trans people and the narratives they have produced. Put simply, for a group of people who talk at length about genderqueer bodies and performance, some of us do not seem to listen very carefully to what trans people have said about their own experiences in self-fashioning.

This phenomenon is a result of a genealogy of scholarship that has long been a study of transvestism, which is to say that it was primarily concerned with clothing, not identity. It takes little more than a pair of pants to turn Rosalind into Ganymede, Viola to Cesario or Portia to Balthazar, which is inconsistent with the experience of anyone attempting to transition in 2018. This may be because, as Bridget Escolme writes, "Most disguises in the early modern theatres simply work." (10) Or it could be because protesting too much at the convention of cross-dressing might break the illusion in a theater which already relied on boys acting as women, but to read clothing and disguise as hallmarks of a proto-trans identity risks creating a binary between the body--which is "true" and essential--and the clothing that is "trans" but also deceptive. It also significantly elides the labor of constructing a habit (of clothes but also manners) that "passes." If you go to any internet forum for trans people, you will find people talking to each other about how to transition--practically, legally, socially--and pages and pages are devoted to passing. What this should suggest is not that passing is mandatory, but rather that it is hard. In Shakespeare, the magical transvestism of The Pants is instant and absolute. Although Orlando has been wandering the woods for days thinking of nothing but Rosalind, when presented with Ganymede--who presumably, still looks exactly like Rosalind, the person he has been thinking about continuously--he makes no connection, and addresses the stranger only as "pretty youth" (3.2.328). (11) Similarly, when Sebastian encounters Cesario at the end of Twelfth Night, he thinks Cesario looks, not like his lost sister, but like himself, as he marvels "Do I stand there? I never had a brother" (5.1.222). Even when Cesario explains that he had a father named Sebastian, and a brother also named Sebastian, and that he comes from their home of Messaline, Sebastian does not see his sibling in the person standing before him:
   Were you a woman, as the rest goes even,
   I should my tears let fall upon your cheek,
   And say "Thrice-welcome, drowned Viola!"

Sebastian's inability to recognize Viola as Viola is rooted in his inability to believe she is not a man. He sublimates any doubt about gender to a doubt about identity. At the level of cognition, this cedes ontological and intimate knowledge of a person to the knowledge of their gender, seeming to suggest Sebastian knows his own sister less than he imagines he knows this stranger's genitals.

But for many trans people, their families are some of the most difficult people to convince of the legitimacy of their gender. Looking at online forums and digital communities, familial doubt is a common thread. One finds thousands of results for searches like "How can I get my parents to use my preferred name?," "How do I get my parents to use my pronouns?," and "My mom/dad/sibling doesn't believe I'm trans." Characters like Viola may present a Utopian vision of transition: one of such ease and striking completeness that even your own brother would instinctively use the right pronouns. However, taking such instances as uncritical parallels for transness obscures much of the anxiety, ambivalence, and danger that this familiar scenario presents for many.

Indeed, Shakespeare gives what might now be considered very bad advice for passing. In Cymbeline when Pisanio instructs Imogen on how to pass for a man, he tells her to turn "fear and niceness ... into a waggish courage, / Ready in gibes, quick-answer'd, saucy, and / As quarrelous as the weasel" (3.4.155-59). Equally pugnacious, As You Like It's Rosalind promises Celia that they will "have a swashing and a martial outside" (1.3.117). Portia makes a similar brag in Merchant of Venice when she says she will "speak of frays / Like a fine bragging youth: and tell quaint lies" (3.4.68-69). Waggish, saucy, quarrelous, swashing, bragging--across the comedies, all parties agree that affecting the personality of a young, bravado-filled boy is the formula for passing. This spectacle of waggish masculinity seems out of step in the current cultural landscape where discovery is fatal and "stealth" is a virtue, where the common wisdom is that to pass you would do well to keep a low profile. (12) The popular FTM ("Female To Male") style blog The Art of Transliness suggests that "Dressing like a generic guy can often (though not always) increase your chances of being read as male" (emphasis mine). (13) Or, as Vice Chair of the Trans United Fund Allison Gill says in a 2016 NPR interview: "The last thing you as a trans person would want to do is draw attention to yourself." (14)

The point here is not that Shakespeare fails to prefigure the American transgender experience adequately, nor that we should never look for transgender resonances in the past, but rather to suggest that we need to challenge our scholarship to locate transgender identity in something other than clothing. Perhaps we need not a narrower criterion for identifying and applying trans theory to characterization and identity, but a wider one with the ability to draw on contemporary resonance in robust ways. What characters in Shakespeare might participate in discussions of body dysphoria, a major mental health issue for trans people? What characters experience harassment by law enforcement figures, as do over one third of trans people? What characters experience homelessness, a situation that affects one in five transgender people? (15) What characters experience sexual violence, something that over 50 percent of trans people report experiencing? (16) We can use these questions as a lens for our critique of cross-dressed characters--we might think about how Rosalind is kicked out of her home by her family, use dysphoria as a way of reading Joan la Pucelle's madness, or realize that in Merry Wives, it is while Falstaff is dressed as the Old Woman of Brentford that he is subject to Ford's harshest verbal and physical abuse. Or, we can de-center clothing entirely. Hamlet is disallowed from inheriting his military position, prevented from attending his school, deeply depressed, considering suicide, ejected from his home and filled with anxiety at the task that generations of scholars have insisted is the Ur-quest of masculinity and patrilineage and--I think I just outed Hamlet. (17)

If we as scholars are going to engage in a practice that believes trans people are integral to Shakespeare, it seems important to create scholarship that is rooted in experience, not abstraction. If we are going to visit the past to serve the present, it should actually and meaningfully serve those populations whose language, identities, and communities we are borrowing.


(1.) ShakespearesGlobeBlog. Tumblr. "What you will." 5/11/2017.

(2.) Encore Arts Programs. "Cal Shakes: As You Like It." Program notes for Shakespeare's As You Like It. California Shakespeare Theatre. Dir. Desdemona Chiang. Orinda, California: Bruns Amphitheater, June 2017.

(3.) A complete bibliography of the transitional texts bridging "hermaphrodism," "transvestism," "genderqueer" and "transgender" would be its own project, but see: James C. Bulman, Shakespeare Re-Dressed: Cross-gender Casting in Contemporary Performance (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008); Simone Chess, Maie-to-Female Crossdressing in Early Modern English Literature: Gender Performance and Queer Relations (New York: Routledge, 2016); Helen King, The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence (Burlington: Ashgate, 2013); Terri Power, Shakespeare &? Gender in Practice (New York: Palgrave, 2016); Emily Rose, "Keeping the Trans in Translation: Queering Early Modern Transgender Memoirs," TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly (2016) 3(3_4); 485-505; and Alan Sinfield, Shakespeare, Authority, Sexuality (New York: Routledge, 2006).

(4.) No studies explicitly detailing the numbers of trans people in acting professions currently exist; however, I posit that given that the majority of MFAs in the United States are unfunded and/or costly and that the NCTE's large-scale survey of trans people in America in 2015 found trans people experience poverty and homelessness at rates above the national average, a de facto institutional barrier has been created. See "The Report of the 2015 National Transgender Survey" National Center for Transgender Equality, 2015, USTS-Full-Report-Decl 7.pdf

(5.) Although the stability of a legibly cisgendered body may be a fictional ontology, vis-a-vis Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex' (New York, NY: Routledge, 1993), an assumption of stability seems to underscore much of our scholarly fixation on Shakespeare's cross-dressing boy actors. Boy actors in female roles become a provocative site of gender investigation precisely (and to my mind, problematically) because the scholar already "knows" what they "really are."

(6.) Elizabeth Klett, "Many Bodies, Many Voices: Performing Androgyny in Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner's Richard II," Theatre Journal 58, no. 2 (May 2006): 182.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Valerie Traub, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 32.

(9.) Frances Dolan, Marriage And Violence: The Early Modern Legacy. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 17.

(10.) Bridget Escolme, "Costume, Disguise and Self-Display." Shakespeare's Theatres and the Effects of Performance, ed. Farah Karim-Kooper and Tiffany Stern (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) 118-140.

(11.) All Shakespeare citations from The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works, ed. Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson, and David Scott Kastan (Walton-on -Thames: Thomas Nelson, 1998).

(12.) The performance of masculine bravado actually combines two major passing hurdles: not only drawing attention to oneself, but also speaking. Voice is considered one of the biggest "tells," and a source of much community discussion--a YouTube search for "how to lower your voice pre-T[estosterone]" generates over twenty thousand results.

(13.) The Art of Transliness. Tumblr. "The Art of Transliness Guide to Being Read As Male." March 19, 2012. the-art-of-transliness-guide-to-being-read-as-male. Emphasis mine. See also "The FTM's Complete Illustrated Guide to Looking Like a (Hot) Dude." September 29, 2014. Here, even a simple choice between boots or no boots is considered a make-or-break: "Boots are going to be eye-catching. Boots are not a 'safe' or fashion-neutral choice; on men, they make a statement, so if you are trying to sneak below the radar and pass for male without drawing attention to yourself, boots are not your best option." Similarly, see ManlOl. Tumblr. "Why You Don't Pass. Part 1." April 15, 2011. which rules out buzzcuts, fauxhawks, and tank tops for similar reasons.

(14.) Jeff Brady, "When A Transgender Person Uses A Public Bathroom, Who Is At Risk?" Around the Nation. May 15, 2016. when-a-transgender-person-uses-a-public-bathroom-who-is-at-risk

(15.) "Issues: Housing and Homelessness" National Center for Transgender Equality, 2015,

(16.) "Transgender Rates of Violence" FORGE, 2011, FAQ-10-2012-rates-of-violence.pdf.

(17.) I draw here on Hamlet's performance history as a generative and gender-ambivalent space, especially Asta Nielson's female Hamlet (as distinct from female actors playing male Hamlets). See: Tony Howard, Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
COPYRIGHT 2019 Associated University Presses
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Next Generation Plenary
Author:Kemp, Sawyer K.
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2019
Previous Article:Audiences Writing Race in Shakespeare Performance.
Next Article:Matisse in the Playhouse.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters