‘Unsexing’ Roles – Shakespeare and Cross-dressing


Society- the structure that has bound together the human population into a cohesive and productive unit, but has, since its very inception, set standards that may not have been the most liberal or the fairest to people who were not the norm. Gender- the intangible construct made by this very society that has liberated and imprisoned many. Nearly three centuries ago, Shakespeare wove together these seemingly obscurely related notions to implicate on the larger realities of the society by using the instrument that was to render his name unerasable from the history of English literature- theatre.
Shakespeare’s depiction of gender followed a wide range of techniques and thematic overlays that cannot be dealt with at a glance for no other reason but because of its extensiveness. This article therefore focuses on one of the many techniques he used to portray gender issues, which is the technique of cross-dressing. Cross-dressing men as women for roles was something that was categorically followed during Victorian times, and even long before it because women did not come into acting until much later. However, Shakespeare uses cross-dressing as an element within his plays to expound on pertinently serious ideas.
In several of his comedies, the female leads within the plays cross-dress as men, whether it is Viola from Twelfth Night, Portia from The Merchant of Venice, or Rosalind from As You Like It. On a technical level, this is employed to create situational humour and bring about dramatic irony. Comic encounters of misplaced romance, confusion of identities and inexplicable acts all play into this purpose. However, the very act of cross-dressing raises some important, and often paradoxical notions. Consider first, the fluidity it hints at as far as gender is concerned- if a woman can become a man just by a change of clothes, is gender truly fixed? And if it is only so prone to change, why the incessant harping on the inherent nature of gender?
In essence, the idea of cross-dressing could both be seen as something empowering, but also assomething disarming to women. By showing that women can adopt the persona of a man, the plays depict their ability to act decisively, be in a position of importance and think for themselves. The essentialized notions of a woman being inept at doing any of these things is subverted. It shows she is as capable as a man, in fact, quite literally, she is exactly like him in every other way besides in appearance. However, the flip side poses a problematic interpretation- the very fact that a woman has to dress like a man to be able to survive or exercise autonomy is more submissive than subversive. The only way she can be brought to parity with a man is if she can shed off her gender identity.
If we also focus on the debate that ensued outside the theatrical plot, there were categorical objections from a good half of the English society to see young boys dress as women for a particular play. Their fears were twofold. Firstly, they were afraid that this sort of cross-dressing would ‘confuse’ the boys about their true gender, and harbour the dangerous possibility of them becoming homosexuals. Secondly, it was believed that the idea of cross-dressing evoked sexuality from both the genders within the audience. Men would feel attracted to these boys dressed as women, or women would feel attracted to these young boys that played women, and this multilayered gender alternation would lead to the blurring of lines between the two genders themselves.
Theatre, consequently was widely criticized on this front by tracts of the society. Shakespeare however, refused to submit to their criticism and induced cross-dressing on multiple levels, outside of the play as well as within the play. His intentions however, remain unclear for the resolutions of his plays showed the restoration of the normal social order. Fringes of subversive elements were induced in the plot but later confined themselves to the limits of the society. Viola ultimately ends up in retrieving her true woman identity and marry Orsino, and both Portia and Rosalind too, by the end of the play, come back to being women.
Before accusing Shakespeare of hypocrisy however, one must remember the intense conservatism that prevailed in the Victorian era and ponder upon the true scope of Shakespeare to absolutely outrightly defy social conventions. In a society that was ridden with puritanical religious orthodoxy, dictated by the Crown and the Church, he could not have truly afforded to bring forth the ideas of gender fluidity with absolute honesty. What he did was perhaps not enough, but was still commendable.

– Contributed by Tinka

Picture: Cross-dressing in movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ (Credits – shakespearesglobe.com)

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