Shakespeare, Gender and Renaissance Comedies

Cross-dressing, drag and homosexual desire: can English Playwrights be considered the unwitting champions of gender performativity?

In Shakespeare and several Renaissance plays, chiefly comedies, a particular aspect that can be singled out for its frequency and its repetition is the concept of cross-dressing. It can in itself be considered something of a “stock device” in Renaissance plays, which employ this trope mainly for comedic effect. A woman masquerades as a man or vice versa in order to achieve some goal that is later obtained in the final act and the nature of the artifice is revealed as well, usually after several mishaps and hijinks occur. And while this trope is also utilized in several of Shakespeare’s plays, like Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors and not all of them are comedies and so the trope is not always used for comedic effect, one aspect of this theme remains constant throughout: that of homoeroticism. In every instance where a character in either a Shakespeare or a Renaissance play cross-dresses, there is a subplot wherein another character of the same gender falls in love with the cross-dresser while they are disguised. This aspect, though likely inadvertently, reveals the performative act of gender in itself and presents it as a social construct that society has created—one that can easily be transcended by love. Through the common theme of cross-dressing and homoeroticism, it is possible to examine the way these plays use the trope and by doing so unwittingly champion ideas of gender performativity and queer identity.

Twelfth Night is one of the most widely cited and most well-known textual sites for the discourse surrounding Shakespeare and homosexuality or homoerotic representation. There are several instances and several relationships depicted in the play that can clearly be read as homoerotic, namely that of Antonio and Sebastian, and that of Viola/Cesario and Olivia. However it is the relationship between Viola and Olivia that employs the use of the cross-dressing trope, used by Viola in order to get a job and earn money. When Olivia falls in love with “Cesario”, she falls in love with his intellect and his manner, which is something that Viola was not presenting as a façade or a mask. The only performance she gave was that of dressing and speaking the way a man would, while keeping her inherent core personality traits the same. Despite it all and also despite her vow not to marry or fall in love with anyone as she is mourning the death of her brother Olivia falls in love with Viola—Viola, not Cesario, for Cesario was merely a shell, a shield that aided and protected Viola as she worked for Duke Orsino.

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind cross-dresses as a man and disguises herself as Ganymede, whereupon the shepherdess Phoebe falls in love with her, another instance of how the weak barriers society has erected between the human body and gender can easily be shattered. As You Like It is a comedy rather than a tragicomedy like Twelfth Night, and so the crossdressing and homoerotic elements are treated more blithely and with a blasé playfulness. Rosalind herself, even before she masquerades as Ganymede, is an unconventional heroine, especially when it comes to her pursual of Orlando, her love interest in the play. She is fearless and forward in her attempts to court Orlando, and in one instance she says to him in Act 4, scene 1 as Ganymede with regards to how a woman should be: “The wiser, the waywarder. Make the doors upon a woman’s wit, and it will out at the casement. Shut that, and ’twill out at the keyhole. Stop that, ’twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney.” By saying this, and by implying that women who actively pursue men as opposed to silently being wooed and adopting more chaste, “womanly” roles of subservient and passive are wiser, she is refuting the gender norms of that time period. She and Orlando even as Ganymede have an easy and banter-filled rapport that borders on flirtatiousness. 

Even by choosing the name ‘Ganymede’ as her male alter ego, the name of, in Greek mythology, the son of the king of Troy and one of the foremost symbols of homosexual love during the Renaissance period and classical poetry, she cements the undercurrent of homoeroticism in the play. The name ‘Ganymede’, between the medieval period well into the seventeenth century, came to be known as a symbol of homosexual desire and love. Ganymede was a mortal who was said to be so beautiful that Zeus himself, the king of the gods, was enraptured by him and took him to Olympus to be his cup-bearer so that the halls of the gods would forever be graced by his rare beauty. Ganymede has come to be known over the years, like Saint Sebastian, as being a symbol of homosexuality and queerness. Rosalind, while simultaneously courting Orlando, also enjoys and revels in being desired by both Phoebe and Orlando as Ganymede. Orlando also accepts Ganymede’s courtship and allows himself to be wooed and courted by him, and treats him as a suitor. That Rosalind/Ganymede takes the role of the active pursuer and suitor and Orlando acknowledges this in their relationship both reflects homosexual desire and love as well as subverts gender norms, once again revealing that gender is merely an act, something donned like a mask behind which lies the idea that love can felt between two individuals regardless of their sex.

This idea of cross-dressing, drag and homosexual/lesbian desire can be traced back to early Renaissance comedies in which it was used as a trope that is more farcical in nature. In Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena’s La Calandria, the concept of male cross-dressing was seen when Lidio comes to Rome in search for his long-lost twin sister Santilla. After falling in love with Fulvia, the dim-witted Calandro’s wife, he decides to don the clothes of a woman and cross-dress so as to gain favor in her house and get closer to her while also looking for his sister. However this plan backfires when Calandro falls madly in love with him as Santilla. Lidio’s disguise is one that is so convincing and successful that the clever and shrewd Fessenio, the slave, remarks snidely and ironically that both husband and wife had fallen in love with the same person. His sister also cross-dresses as a man, and her ruse is also as convincing as her brother’s; she is offered her employer’s daughter’s hand in marriage and enjoys bantering and joking in the streets of Rome with the other youthful men as a man. The concept of twins and stolen identities was inspired by Plautus’ Menaechmi, an ancient Roman play, but the fact that the twins in La Calandria are of different genders introduces the concept of cross-dressing and gender identity, particularly that of queer gender identity, into the forefront, though these ideas were not what motivated the change, nor was it likely to have been intentional. Another example where this is especially apparent is when the servant Samia is asked to give Lidio some money and encounters both twins dressed as Lidio and experiences a moment of comedic confusion where she is unable to distinguish between them and they are also unable to recognize each other due to their respective disguises. She is unable to deduce which one of them is actually a man and, finally reduced to a nearly hysterical state, flees the scene. This is one of the more clear moments in the play of gender uncertainty, but La Calandria still serves as an important reference point for the trope of crossdressing and the concept of gender identity.

Another Renaissance play wherein the concept of gender and crossdressing was first observed was the comedy The Roaring Girl by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton. While it lacks the homoerotic and queer undertones of the other plays being discussed, it has strong connotations in gender identity. Moll, the eponymous thief, is a cross-dresser who often assumes the identity of a man. She is sought out by the protagonist Alexander and wooed by him in an effort to make his parents approve of his marriage with his actual lady-love Mary. He thinks that if his parents see he is asking to marry Moll, who is publicly known as a “whore and a thief” they will come to their senses and recognize Mary as a suitable bride instead. However over the course of the play Moll reveals herself to be clever and resourceful, and Alexander learns that she is chaste, having vowed never to marry. By simply existing as someone who did not conform to either gender identity, be it that of males or females, Moll’s cross-dressing tendencies was a cornerstone for this trope to be used later on by Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers. Moll speaks “in cant”, a way of speaking that emulates the jargon and language of a certain group of people. Though she does so while dressed as a man, she is one of only two female characters in the history of drama to do so. Moll’s “cross-talk”, her way of seamlessly taking on the identity of a man and dueling, swaggering and speaking like a man, is reminiscent of the performative aspect of gender that has been spoken about in the previous plays.

Early feminist readings of plays like Twelfth Night and several other plays where cross-dressing and homoeroticism is a common theme was that this theme of gender identity and the inversion of gender roles was an impulse towards androgyny. However, later and more recent readings and discourse among feminist literary critics are more inclined towards how the women in these plays through cross-dressing and transvestic tendencies via appropriating the dress, speech and mannerisms of the opposite sex disrupt notions of gender and gender roles. Through doing so they blur the line between the two genders, presenting it almost unknowingly as a flimsy social construct that is more akin to a performance than something that one is born with. This echoes Judith Butler’s criticisms of fixed gender identity and the separation of body and sex, and her ideas of gender performativity. She states that the distinction between sex and gender presupposes a generalization of “the body” in itself, one that exists by and of itself prior to being attributed to a particular sex or gender. Subsequently, this “body” is more often than not a passive medium that is given a gender identity from a cultural source, one that is decidedly “external” to that body.

Shakespeare uses Rosalind/Ganymede to comment on the nature of manliness and masculinity in act 1, scene 3 of As You Like It, where he/she states that “We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside/As many other mannish cowards have/That do outface it with their semblances”. Even Shakespeare here seems to be unintentionally implying that gender, or being “mannish” or “womanly” simply boils down to an act of performance. To be a man is to act like a man, not to be born as one. This ambiguity, along with the ambiguity of Rosalind and Orlando’s mock courtship wherein she is disguised as Ganymede, Olivia’s love for Viola when she is disguised as Cesario and the blurring of the lines between heterosexual and homosexual love and desire destabilizes the static concept of gender and breaks it down to something more akin to Butler’s notions of gender—a performance.

Arguments have been made against Butler’s theories from the more conservative standpoint that gender is fixed just as sex is, and that one informs the other with certain traits like physicality and  being unavoidable. Critiques of Butler’s theory also include the inherent impossibility of being able to discern the deed from the doer and how the simple act of performativity can truly translate as social transformation. While this may be true for, say, women who like to present as more masculine or men who prefer to apper feminine but still retain the gender they were born with and does not change that, it is not true for people who do not, like transgender people. Transgender men who were assigned female at birth are men because they identify as such, and because they in most cases project an outward appearance that is more masculine. They are paragons of gender performativity, and in doing what Shakespeare and his predecessors did unwittingly deliberately, it can be argued that gender and its performative nature is selective and blurry but ultimately an undeniable truth.

Gender roles were invented, and so they can be remade and reinvented, malleable as they are, into whatever shape the one performing it wishes to. It does not only pertain to transgender people or people who perform against the gender they were assigned at birth but to everyone. Performativity exists whether the one performing is aware or not; a woman wearing dresses and painting her nails, two things seen and understood as being traditionally feminine, is engaging in performativity just as much as a man doing those things would. Since this was established as a comedic stock trope in older Renaissance plays, the intertextuality between these plays can be seen and observed as having connotations in queerness, gender identity and the notion of gender as a construct or a disguise, one that is easily and indeed laughably in more ways than one, overshadowed by love and desire.

Pritha Deshpande
Pritha Deshpande
Pritha Deshpande is a Literature and Cultural Studies student at FLAME University and an aspiring writer and policy journalist. Her idea of a good time is getting cozy at her desk writing with socks on and a scented candle lit. Pritha is an editorial intern at ALMA Magazine.