Monday, October 28, 2019

Carly Healander - Shakesqueers Genderfuck: A Look at Shakespeare Through the Queer Eye

(Trigger warning: use of the word queer(never used negatively), discussion of a slur)
Shakesqueers Genderfuck: A Look at Shakespeare Through the Queer Eye
English 102 M/W 2:00-3:15
Carly Healander
            “All the worlds a stage, and all the men and women are merely players” (2.7.146-73) (Moway, 1997). A classic Shakespeare line but a complex one. Often, the way we play on this stage is in the circles of gender, man or woman, male or female. Although we become dictated by these circles in theatre or life, Shakespeare engages in a different play by turning the concept of gender on its head; executing complex ideas with brilliant prose in such a way that he was writing transgender narratives before the vocabulary to describe this experience was fully defined. By viewing the text with a Queer lens, the meaning behind the words are enriched, deepened by the voices of the lgbtq+ community, and provides diverse casting options, retellings and analyses when performing a Shakespearean piece. In this essay we will be unlearning gender, unlearning Shakespeare and relearning our sense of play. But first, a few terms to take into account when Queering the text:
            The language of gender in the lgbtq+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and others) continues to grow and develop just like our understanding of Shakespeare. Although this is the vocabulary we have now, the community may find more ways to identify or may not be using these terms and labels at all in the coming years as the humans that belong in it further their search on what it means to be human. Here are some terms that will be discussed: Gender Expression is how a person chooses to express our gender outwardly in ways of clothing, voice, haircut, physicality, behavior, etc. Gender Identity is a person’s personal sense of what gender is. How a person views gender, how it applies to that person personally, what aspects of gender is that person comfortable or uncomfortable with, etc. Gender Presentation is how the outside world views a person’s gender (Trevor, 2016). Inside these terms are multiple identity terms such as transgender. This is when the person does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Transmasculine or a transman is a person who was born female but identifies as male. Transfeminine or a transwomen is a person who was born male but identifies as a woman. Nonbinary is a person who doesn’t identify with either gender. Genderqueer is a person who identifies with both. Cisgender is a person who identifies with the gender they were assigned as (Woodstock, 2018). These words are more complex than their definitions and the people who identify with them are more complex than the definitions, but these words can provide community and a guide for any person exploring their gender identity. Using a Queer eye, a reader of Shakespeare can see how these experiences are shown in the text.
In the theatre, specifically Shakespeare, there are terms connecting the text, the actor and gender. Cross-dressing, a term commonly used in the theatre, is when an actor/character crosses from one gender to another. This term relates mostly to gender performance, when an actor is performing as another gender. Trans-dressing, is more than an actor/character ‘crossing’ between genders, but embodying them. Feeling a deep connection with the gender they are presenting as (Power, 2018). This gives a more in depth look into the stories and a way to bring queerness to the light in the classical theatre.
Now that these terms have been established, take a look at Viola’s monologue from Twelfth Night through the queer lens. In this monologue Viola is presenting as Cesario(her male identity). She has just been given a ring from the countess Oliva, who has proclaimed her love for Cesario, not knowing Viola’s birth gender. Viola is also stuck with the fact that she is in love with Orsino, a duke, who is unaware of her and Cesario being one of the same. Orsino, is in love with the countess Olivia but later falls in love with Viola/Cesario, which is unknown to Viola at first.  Essentially, she is dealing with one big love triangle.
I left no ring with her. What means this lady?
Fortune forbid my outside have not charmed her.
She made good view of me; indeed, so much
That, as methought, her eyes had lost her tongue,
For she did speak in starts distractedly.
She loves me sure; the cunning of her passion
Invites me in this churlish messenger.
None of my lord's ring? Why, he sent her none.
I am the man. If it be so, as 'tis,
Poor lady, she were better love a dream.1
Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.
How easy is it for the proper false
In women's waxen hearts to set their forms!
Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we,
For such as we are made of, such we be.2
How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly;
And I (poor monster)3 fond as much on him;
And she (mistaken) seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master's love.
As I am woman (now alas the day!),
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe?4
O Time, thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me t' untie.
1 Transman: This can be read starting off with a sense of confidence in a male identity. Viola is excited by Olivia falling in love with him, excited his male identity is seen. Then is struck by a lack of confidence, Viola feels as though if he were to reveal this part of himself, the outside world would view him as a liar.
Transwomen: This can be read in the opposite way as a transmasculine person. Viola is frustrated that the outside world views her as a man and is placed in this identity but inside she knows she feels female, so it all feels like a trick.
2 Queer/Trans: In the end of this section, regardless of how the director decides Viola identifies, this line can be read as finding solace in the self. That even though Viola may be rejected by society, as long as she knows herself and lives honestly she is okay with that. For such as we are made, if such we be. There is nothing wrong with who you are, it is just how you are made.
3 Nonbinary/Genderqueer: It is important to regard the use of ‘monster’ in this monologue, used as a slur, but also interesting to view in regards of its definition. ‘Monster’, was a term during Shakespeare's time used for a person identifying with both sides of the binary gender, a man/women (Folger, 1993) which we now know to be a very natural experience and use the words nonbinary or genderqueer to describe it. Aside the cruel phrasing, it is proof that nonbinary people have been explored in history. This line could also be read as Viola does not feel she can love Orsino as a man or a nonbinary person because of the numerous social pressures.
4 Nonbinary/Genderqueer: As I am man, as I am women. In both cases Viola still has this major crush on Orsino. Oliva, in a sense, can represent the outside world criticizing Viola on their emotions and forcing Viola to be one or the other.
In each of these examples from the text, Viola's character uses a lot of aspects of trans-dressing. From the queer eye perspective, she not only expresses gender but feels a connection with each presentation. Throughout the play this is explored further in dialogue between characters, relationships and the overall plot, especially toward the end. Orsino, the guy Viola has a major crush on, proposes to her right after she reveals her assigned gender. There are no questions only a statement that shows Orsino still sees Viola’s, as a person between and beyond gender and recognizes her personhood and loves her all the same (Elise, 2019).
“And since you called me “master” for so long,
Here is my hand. You shall from this time be
Your master’s mistress” (5.1.339-340)…
“—Cesario, come,
 For so you shall be while you are a man.
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen” (5.1.408-411).
Throughout all the many ways to Queer Twelfth Night, one message is clear: good love speaks not with the body but with the heart. A message many need to hear.
It can be seen that this Shakespearean tale would be beneficial for a young queer audience with the Queer eye in mind. Not only to show them that they can love who they wish, but are free to explore their gender outside of what the binary tells them to be stuck in. The show displays the complexity of being human and human questioning their gender but remaining the same at heart. Casting transgender actors in Shakespeare told from a queer eye, would not only improve work for transgender/queer actors and show authentic experiences, but diversify the Shakespearean world for audiences and actors to come.
Fionn Shea, a transmasculine actor, writer and musician from New Hampshire, found solace in another trans-dressing character from As You Like It, Rosalind. He explained in an interview with the New Hampshire Public Radio, that he came to terms with his gender identity in the middle of performing one of Rosalind's lines in As You Like It.  Fionn said,
[In regards to the line]
"Were it not better [...] That I did suit me all points like a man?" 
And all of a sudden, I sort of understood what she was talking about and had this
realization and complete certainty of just how much that felt like it applied.
            This realization lead Fionn to establish a deeper understanding of Rosalind and himself for the rest of the production and into life. (Biello, 2019).
            Another Shakespearean play Fionn said he identified with and saw as a story that could be told through the Queer eye, was Richard III. Which another playwright saw as a way to explore the transgender journey as well.
Terri Power, an actor, artist, scholar and educator, constructed a play in which she combined Richard III with the transgender experience and ally of a transgender person’s experience. Drag King Richard III, switches between the narration of ‘Lady Femme’ the ally, and the Shakespearean text of Richard the III, regarding her friend Lawrence’s experience with being transgender. The play draws clear connections to Lawrence’s life to the text, Queering it in the most authentic way possible. The play itself is full of heart and heartbreak and at its core, the struggles of being human. (Power, 2016).
These stories brings up the question of how many trans people Shakespeare could help find their truest selves or feel visible in a world where trans visibility is so rare. And to cisgender audiences, to become more exposed to an experience they may be unfamiliar with. Using Shakespeare in a Queer eye normalizes the experience while being in a genre most people are fairly familiar with. Hopefully, theatre companies will begin to see the importance of this and begin to apply it to productions so maybe a young queer kid will see them self onstage in a place where they never thought they could. In the big picture, regardless of gender or how these characters are read, these genderfucking characters and people are human as a human can be. In the words of Dugald Bruce-Lockhart  “And whether that character is a grandfather, an uncle, a daughter, a son, it’s a character in a story and that's it.” (Power, 2018). Off or on stage, there’s some real truth in that.

Belsey, C. (2009) Twelfth night: A modern perspective New York: Simon & Schuster

Biello, P. (2019, March 29) The Bookshelf: Coming out as trans, with help from shakespeare. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from

Elise. (2019, May 12) Love me for who I am: An essay on william shakespeare’s twelfth night. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

Moway, B., Shakespeare, W., Werstine, P. (1993) Twelfth night: Folger shakespeare library. New York: Simon & Schuster

Moway, B., Shakespeare, W., Werstine, P. (1997) As you like it: Folger shakespeare library. New York: Simon & Schuster

Power, T. (2016) Shakespeare and gender in practice. New York: Red Globe Press

The Trevor Project. Trans and gender identity. (2017, September 2) Retrieved from

Woodstock, M. (2018, January 8) Gender reveal: Gender 101 [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from

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