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Shakespeare in Drag: The Gender-Bending Bard

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April 23rd is the birthday and death day of William Shakespeare, one of the most celebrated and influential authors in history. Most of us have read at least one of his plays in high school, and maybe even memorized a sonnet or two. Behind the iambic pentameter and flowery verse are some heavy universal themes, including surprisingly fluid ideas about gender.

It’s well-known that female roles were played by men during Elizabethan times, since women were barred from acting. Shakespeare seems to have taken this mandate to its logical extreme, exploring ideas of gender performance in the one environment where performing (and transforming) is required – the theater. Hence the prevalence of male actors playing women pretending to be men, like Viola in Twelfth Night.

Viola’s decision to disguise herself a boy and secure a job with Duke Orsino after her shipwreck propels the plot forward; her gender-bending is portrayed as more of a fanciful lark than a deeply rooted extension of her identity. Of course, for transgender young people today, gender expression is a core part of how they present themselves to the world and relate to their peers. Nor does Viola ever imply that her decision to “become” Cesario is rooted in fear, though that could easily be the case (after all, she is a young, single woman, alone in a strange land). Yet once she adapts her male persona, she is never shown to fear the consequences of being unmasked. Again, this differs from the reality that transgender folks face every day and underscores the need for safe and affirming spaces for young people.

Nonetheless, she is an apt illustration of modern ideas about gender identity and gender expression. Gender identity can be defined as a person’s innate identification as a man, woman, neither, both, or some other gender. A person’s gender may or may not correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth (e.g., the sex listed on their birth certificate). Viola presumably identifies as a woman, but she effortlessly plays a man – to the extent that a woman, Olivia, ends up falling for her male persona, Cesario. And while Viola’s gender expression – the way a person communicates their gender to the world (things like dress, grooming, mannerisms, and speech patterns) – is in flux throughout the play, she always manages to hold on to her characteristic wit and resourcefulness.

Viola and Orsino’s romance is especially interesting because the climactic reveal – that Cesario is actually a fake persona, played by Viola – doesn’t seem to change anything. “Give me your hand,” Orsino says, “and let me see you in your women’s weeds.” But she doesn’t have to be a woman to wear them; in fact, just a handful of lines earlier, he addresses her as “boy.” Shakespeare leaves this confusion unresolved, and audiences and readers are left wondering – did Orsino fall in love with Viola, the woman, or Cesario, the man? Is he repressed about his own sexuality, or is Viola’s personality so powerful that it actually transcends gender? The confusion is also a nod to the reality of the play’s casting, in which Viola really is a boy – or at least, the actor playing her is.

Modern interpretations of Shakespeare have embraced his plays’ inherent gender-bending and cross-dressing, either by switching genders during casting, or going for all-male or all-female stagings. In 2013, Phyllida Lloyd directed an all-women version of Julius Caesar, arguably his most masculine play – set in a women’s prison, no less. An interesting conceit, to reinterpret the moral struggles of ruthless politicians in an environment as dehumanizing and disenfranchising as a prison. And just as women were barred from acting when Shakespeare wrote his plays, so too were they forbidden to vote during Caesar’s time. Inhabiting both spaces simultaneously updates the source material and allows women to, in the words of a New York Times critic, “show us what men are truly made of.”

At its best, cross-gender casting transcends gimmick to emphasize the sheer universality of Shakespeare’s characters. Playing a character of the opposite gender, with name, intentions, and language unchanged, can have the effect of erasing gender altogether. Characters are reduced to their essential humanity. Maybe Orsino fell for Viola because she was also Cesario… because she fearlessly defied gender roles and social norms to ensure her own survival and, ultimately, happiness – something transgender young people do every day.

Orsino fell in love with a complex and empowered person. That didn’t change when he found out their gender. Neither should our love for our family and friends.

Sources: The New York Times, True Colors Fund

Note: The title of this blog post makes use of the word “drag.” Dressing in clothing usually associated with another gender does not make someone transgender. For transgender and cisgender people alike, the clothes we wear can be a way to express our gender. But drag is also an art form – an outlet of creativity – and to many others still it’s simply good fun!

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Senior Development and Communications Associate

When not working at the True Colors Fund, Selina is browsing used bookstores in Queens.