Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Executive Transvestites

“What shall I call thee when thou art a man?” (As You Like It)
How fixed is identity in the plays?

The two plays I have chosen to discuss in relation to this question are As You Like It and Twelfth Night. These two plays have some striking similarities in terms of plot, both exploring identity and its fluidity in terms of gender with cross-dressing heroines, and more generally with other disguises, such as Celia as Aliena in As You Like It and Feste as Sir Topas in Twelfth Night. This is reflected in terms of the play’s titles: Twelfth Night’s alternate title is What You Will, meaning essentially the same as As You Like It. Both As You Like It and What You Will place emphasis on the identity of the individual “you” and the idea of choice, which can be read as a sense of control over the altering of one’s own self.

Gender is fundamental to an individual’s identity, and the cross-dressing heroines of both plays guarantee that this is by no means fixed. As Howard writes, this transvestitism “makes problematic how natural are the gender distinctions that supposedly separate man from woman.”[1] This is complicated further by the fact that, in Elizabethan theatre, female characters were played by boys. Gender distinctions blur still further in As You Like It, Howard explains: in the 1590s, Shakespeare wrote four plays featuring cross-dressing women: Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Of these, Rosalind’s case is “arguably the most complicated”[2] because she’s Rosalind pretending to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind. “A woman disguised as a man thus makes her own identity into a fiction she performs!”[3]

This transformation of identity achieved through transcendence of gender has both advantages and disadvantages for Rosalind and Viola. It appears at first glance that Viola’s transvestitism is painful and Rosalind’s joyful, but the situation is actually far more complicated than that. Both adopt “the privileges as well as the dress of the supposedly superior sex”[4] but they are paralysed as well as freed by their new identities. They are left unable to speak their true feelings, other than in equivocation or asides, and are prevented from pursuing their own romantic interests. For Viola this is doubly hard, as she is forced to court another woman on behalf of the man she loves. Nevertheless, particularly in As You Like It, there is an atmosphere of adventure, of venturing into new territory in terms of selfhood. As Palfrey writes, disguise enables characters to “more fully realise their own possibilities and more faithfully express their ‘true selves.’”[5]

There is danger in this, however: identity can become so fluid that characters can become confused as to who they actually are, or can seem to become the persona they enact. As Viola says, “I am not what I am.” (3.1.129-135) Palfrey writes that disguise can make it difficult to define “where a particular character begins and ends.”[6] The boundaries between self and other, between the true identity and assumed disguise, merge. For this reason, disguise is “a challenge to the very idea of coherent individuality.”[7] Shakespeare’s exploration of disguise in terms of identity is fuelled by the possibility, in Malcolmson’s words, “that external forms can determine internal states;”[8] or, put more simply by Howard, “clothes here make the man – or woman.”[9] It is perhaps no accident then, that when Viola asks the Captain to help her dress as a man, her words “Conceal me what I am” (1.2.49) sound more like “Conceal from me what I am.”

In this case, then identity is both fixed and not fixed: the individual in disguise seems almost to split into two. For Viola, this also is extremely painful. She calls herself “poor monster” (2.2.32) because she has become, effectively, both male and female:

“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!” (2.2.34-7, my italics)

Shakespeare explores this further in Twelfth Night through the phenomenon of male and female twins. In the final scene, in which the twins confront one another while Viola is still dressed as Cesario, Shakespeare forces the audience to see this duality of self visually. As Orsino remarks:

“One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,
A natural perspective that is and is not” (5.1.208-9)

Shakespeare deliberately drags this out, as the twins grope through their family history in order to place themselves. (5.1.208-256) Shakespeare demonstrates then, that identity is only fluid to a certain degree, and experimentation comes at a cost.

The characters in Twelfth Night and As You Like It who adopt transvestite disguises experiment not only with their own identities but with those of other characters, particularly those with whom they are romantically involved. This is because identity is inseparable from sexuality. Shakespeare highlights this to his audience in As You Like It with Rosalind’s choice of name. Ganymede was a boy desired by Jupiter and taken to Mount Olympus to be his cupbearer and so, as Howard writes, the name “had long-standing associations with homo-erotic love.”[10] In the final scene, though, “Rosalind reassumes her female clothes and Ganymede disappears,”[11] and so the play ends with the traditional union of man and woman – except, of course, that on the Elizabethan stage, Rosalind was played by a boy. For Viola and Orsino, this is even more subversive: Viola does not change her clothes and Orsino continues to call her Cesario. Both Olivia in Twelfth Night and Phoebe in As You Like It pursue women in disguise as men, and as Howard writes, it is unclear whether each desires “the man she thinks she sees or the woman beneath.”[12] However, we must remember that “in the early modern period, people were not assumed, as they often are today, to have a fixed sexual identity,”[13] to be heterosexual or homosexual, so these homosexual overtones are not perhaps so significant in terms of identity as they would be in a modern play.

Of course, identity is multi-faceted and does not rely purely on gender or sexuality. It is also worth exploring its fluidity in terms of status. Social mobility is something of which Shakespeare would have been acutely aware: between 1500 and 1700, the population doubled but the upper classes trebled.[14] Perhaps the fullest examination of this lies in the character of Malvolio. His fantasies are of power, extravagance and fulfillment of lust: he imagines himself: “sitting in (his) state” in a “branched velvet gown” whilst “having come from a day-bed where (he has) left Olivia sleeping.” (2.5.39-44) All this starkly demonstrates his Puritanical hypocrisy, for which he is punished and humiliated. This would seem to suggest that, in Shakespeare’s plays, status is fixed, and aspiration is condemned. However, closer examination reveals that this is not the case. Olivia would have married the servant Cesario. Shakespeare himself was socially mobile: as Greenblatt reminds us, he was the son of a glover, who acquired a coat of arms and second largest house in Stratford.[15] As Malcolmson writes, it is not Malvolio’s ambition which is punished, but rather his “desire to establish his superiority and to impose his will on others.”[16]

In conclusion, then, Shakespeare’s love of experimentation with identity as a concept is ubiquitous in these two plays. Both plots are essentially based on cross-gender disguises, and Twelfth Night is also full of mistaken identities used for comic purposes. This fluidity of identity is not complete, however: it leads to a fractioning of the self, confusion and heartache in general. This is not only the case for Viola: Celia’s choice of a name, Aliena, reflects her sense of alienation, functioning in a society without a fixed identity. Experimentation with gender identity leads to experimentation with sexual identity, which can be both exciting and confusing. The self in these plays can be warped and explored, but it cannot ultimately be escaped.

Callaghan, D. ‘And all is semblative a woman’s part:’ Body Politics and Twelfth Night in White, R. S. (ed.) Twelfth Night (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996)
Greenblatt, S. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).
Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E and Maus, K. E. (eds.) The Norton Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Ltd., 1997).
Malcolmson, C. ‘What You Will:’ Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night in White, R. S. (ed.) Twelfth Night (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996)
Palfrey, S. Doing Shakespeare (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2005).

[1] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1595.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, p. 200.
[6] Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, p. 199.
[7] Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, p. 200.
[8] Malcolmson, C. Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night, p. 170.
[9] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1595.
[10] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1596.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1597.
[14] Malcolmson, C. Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night, p. 167.
[15] Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, p. 7.
[16] Malcolmson, C. Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night, p. 178.


the2phantom said...

Very interesting and correct thoughts. I feel more attached to the character of Viola now by seeing your view of her change of gender as painful. If I may ask, do you do these blogs because they are assigned to you by a teacher or do you do it in your free time? Your a very good writer either way. I will definately visit this blog over and over again.

Decidedly Bookish said...

Thank you! My blog is off my own back, but I do copy/paste essays into it as well. Particularly as I don't have time to blog much during the term.

the2phantom said...

please write soon when You get the time and if you have any essay writing tips, I would greatly absorb them for I can write everything else but essay's