April 26, 2006

Shakespearian Epiphany

Hatched by Dafydd

Try this on your English-Lit prof.

William Shakespeare wrote a number of plays in which girls disguise themselves as men (not too many where men drag-up as chicks). I have a theory why this worked then but seems absurd today.

I actually developed this thesis long before the movie She's the Man -- an updating of WS's Twelfth Night, or What You Will -- came out; but it's a good example. So is the Merchant of Venice, in a more serious vein.

But why did this plot device work so well in 1600, yet seem so ludicrous today? Why would anyone have believed Viola could get away with posing as her brother (albeit twin brother) Sebastian in Twelfth Night, or Portia posing as Balthasar in Merchant? You and I have no difficulty telling a hart from a hind... couldn't people do the same ca. 1600, when those two plays were written?

I started pondering this in 2002, when I saw a play by French 18th-century novelist and dramatist Pierre de Marivaux (actually, Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux), a contemporary of Voltaire. In this play (first printed in 1732, I think), a princess inherits a throne that she thinks rightly belongs to a self-exiled prince, who she secretly loves. The prince has renounced romantic love, and he resides in a compound with an old philosopher and his old sister -- the only woman in the joint.

To worm her way inside, the princess masquerades as a young man. What amused me was that she easily fools the old philosopher and sister... but the younger men quickly realize she is a woman disguised as a man and begin not-so-subtlely courting her. Why, I asked myself (silently, for which other theater patrons thanked me, or would have, had they only known) why do the cross-dressing gals in Shakespeare always get away with it, while in Marivaux, they're seen through as easily as a "pro-defense" Democrat?

And then it struck me: back in Shakespeare's day, there were no woman actors in the theater. The role of Viola in Twelfth Night and Portia in the Merchant of Venice were played by men. (You all saw the movie Shakespeare In Love, right?)

So in fact, what you had was a man cross-dressing as a woman cross-dressing as a man... or (snipping out the unnecessary intermediary) a man pretending to be a man. Even I would have no trouble believing that! Certainly, it would seem perfectly normal that the noble Olivia would fall in love with the fake-Sebastian -- who is, in fact, played by a man: a woman falling for a man is easily believed.

But today, when that play is staged, Viola (hence the fake-Sebastian, when she disguises herself as her brother) is played by a woman, of course: the über-sexy Amanda Bynes in She's the Man, and a woman in every production of the play itself that I've ever seen, probably at least a dozen. So when we contemporary audience members watch Twelfth Night, and Viola hams it up as her brother, it looks obvious, and we conclude that Olivia is either a moron or a metrosexual. But back in the day, it made perfect sense: Viola looked just like a man because "she" was a man!

But I believe that by Marivaux's day, 140 years later, in the French Comédie Française and Italian Commedia dell'arte, the female roles were probably played by actual women. So when the princess in the Triumph of Love butches up, she's still obviously a woman.

(In fact, Marivaux might be slyly mocking Shakespeare, as Cervantes both mocked and bowed to the romantic, chivalric novels of his day in Don Quixote.)

Since the audience sees her as a woman dressed as a man, any character who fails to figure that out is supposed to be a dolt. Which is just how Marivaux played it: the inability of the philosopher and his sister to notice tells us that they're classically over-educated, intellectual eggheads who can't balance a checkbook or remember their telephone numbers. We're supposed to laugh at them, not with them.

At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it!

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, April 26, 2006, at the time of 4:36 AM

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The following hissed in response by: Binder

Yeah, Commedia dell'Arte used female actors in female roles, many troupes were built around family groups. The English were more or less the last European nation to allow women on stage, that was a change Charles II made after his Cromwell-imposed exile in France, where women were allowed to act.

The above hissed in response by: Binder [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2006 6:36 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dan S

Sounds good to me. The medium allowed the message, so to speak... We saw analogous things with the advent of movies and TV. The improvement of FX (technology) has allowed more ease in suspending disbelief with many things that are technically unbelievable.

My faulty memory suggested some of Shakespeare's contemporaries in France and Spain may have used the device, but a cursory glance through the Lope de Vega and Moliere I have showed no sign. Can't remember any in Cervantes either. The whole gender-bending angle in The Bard has always interested me, how it's great fun while not exactly believable. It requires more effort to willingly suspend disbelief than many plays, yet any effort to do so is rewarded amply.

But the modern analog (pun unintended but appropriate) to those plays isn't the cross-dressing flick, it's the actual exploration of real sex change. I've been rereading Bujold and her "A Civil Campaign" flat knocks my socks into Siberia (and I live in the Southern USA Georgia, not the ex-republic!) It's more a one-way change, though. I suppose one could posit changing back, to achieve the effect of masquerade followed by the revelation of real identity, but times have changed and we're more interested now in how a woman can be a man, or a man can be a woman than in how they can't be even if they choose to pretend for a while.

That isn't a statement that either of those topics are correct or incorrect, just that those are topics that are or were of interest.

The above hissed in response by: Dan S [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2006 6:40 AM

The following hissed in response by: GawainsGhost

Well, Dafydd, you're close to the mark but off a little bit. It is true that women were not permitted to be actors during the Renaissance, but the reason why is often misunderstood.

At the time, acting--that is, putting on another's or a false face--was considered a form of prostitution. (Which it really is, considering the current crop in Hollywood today.) Thus, disallowing women from playing a part was more an act of chivalry, albeit somewhat misguided, than anything else. Not allowing women to act was akin to not allowing them to prostitute themselves, thus protecting or preserving their virtue, as it were.

Leave aside the hypocrisy of men prostituting themselves to prevent women from prostituting themselves, and you'll see where you're off the mark. Of course the audience can distinguish between a female and a male character--they've been following the plot. That other characters in the play, be they male or female, cannot is illustrative of their characters. The audience wouldn't miss that either.

You make a mistake when you assume the focus is on the actor and not the character. This is symptomatic of contemporary culture, which is actor-centric. In today's theater, a play or a movie is not about the characters in Twelfth Night, for example, but more about the actors and actresses playing or defining the roles. A production of Romeo and Juliet today would be about Leonardo DiCaprio and Hillary Swank, or whoever, playing Romeo and Juliet, not about the characters themselves. This misses the point of the entire play.

It matters little whether a female character is actually played by a female or a male. It matters even less who the actor or actress is. What matters is the nature of the character, for that alone has significance in the plot.

In Shakespeare's time, the culture was character-centric, and the audience rightly focussed on the characters themselves and on their parts in the development of the plot. The great significance of Shakespeare is in this regard is the wide range of female characters in his work. In fact, no other writer has a wider range of female characters, and it can be rightly said that every possible type of female--from Juliet to Ophelia to Lady Macbeth--can be found in Shakespeare.

We read literature and watch plays to learn of the human experience and condition. And you can learn more about women by reading Shakespeare than you ever will by reading Freud. Then you might come to a real epiphany.

The above hissed in response by: GawainsGhost [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2006 6:41 AM

The following hissed in response by: Sachi


Not allowing women to act was akin to not allowing them to prostitute themselves, thus protecting or preserving their virtue, as it were.

Similar reason was used to ban female to perform in Japanese theaters as well. Kabuki still maintains that tradition. But their female impersonators do look like women.

The above hissed in response by: Sachi [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2006 7:56 AM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

In Shakespeare's time a woman dressed in men's clothing would be as odd as a man in a dress is today -- perhaps odder. The concept of "men's clothing" pretty much disappeared during the 20th century, at least in the West. Half the women you meet on the street every day are wearing unisex clothing -- which would have been "men's" clothing a hundred years ago. We have had decades of training to look for other cues in determining a person's gender.

But then again...

With the acting profession being what it is today we need women to play those roles. A man playing a woman in men's clothing would find himself on a stage full of "men pretending to be men" and would have trouble standing out.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2006 10:16 AM

The following hissed in response by: Michael Heinz

Not to puncture your wonderful theory, but have you heard of...

"Self-Made Man"?


The above hissed in response by: Michael Heinz [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2006 12:03 PM

The following hissed in response by: Michael Heinz

What just happened? I was typing and the page refreshed. I hope this isn't a double post, but...

Have you heard of "Self Made Man"?


Obviously, some women can pass more easily than others...

The above hissed in response by: Michael Heinz [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2006 12:04 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Michael Heinz:

Actually, I saw a TV special about this woman (I think it was she), and they used a hidden camera to follow her around and show how easily she "passed."


She based her conclusion that she "passed" on the fact that nobody pointed and yelled out "you're really a woman!"

But why would they? What I saw via the hidden-camera special was that a large number of people she met looked at her very strangely, then seemed to rally and treat her like anyone else.

Now, some of those might not really have known she was a gal; but I suspect that quite a few did, or at least knew much of that disguise was makeup and may have guessed. However, in our culture today, the ethic is not to react to how people choose to look, no matter how strange.

Now, there are women who have "passed," in some ways; for example, there was a woman who served as a sergeant of artillery during the Revolutionary War. But even in that case, there's good evidence that quite a few people around her actually knew she was a woman -- but because she was a good gunner, they chose to ignore the fact and let her go on with her farce.

However, my understanding of Elizabethan theater is that not only were women not allowed to play female roles, neither were young boys; so the men playing the female roles were actually men who looked like adult men.

And as Sachi notes, it wasn't like in Kabuki either, where you literally had multi-generational cross-dressing men who really could look amazingly like women -- especially under the much heavier makeup of Kabuki.

But to get back to your point, the only "theory" of mine that you could be "punctur[ing]" is where I said we today can tell a woman from a man. And I think that woman is deluding herself when she concluded that since no one cried her out, that meant they were all fooled.

What it meant was that they were all polite.

In any event, in Shakespeare's day, female roles on stage, from "Juliet to Ophelia to Lady MacBeth," were in fact played by men who looked like men. Not by women, or boys, or professional transvestites. That was Shakespeare's expectation when he wrote his plays.

(Interestingly, the idea of actors remaining in character even when they weren't speaking is a relatively recent one, so far as I know; in Shakespeare's day, when not declaiming, they would probably just be slouching around, making them even more man-like.

(I believe that in Shakespeare's time, the actors were typically given booklets with only their own scenes in them, sometimes only their own lines. It wasn't like today, where they remain strictly and firmly in character from curtain up to curtain down.)

So I'm pretty certain men playing women playing men would be more believable as men in the England of 1600 than women playing women playing men in the time of Marivaux, more than a century later and in France.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2006 1:36 PM

The following hissed in response by: Bill M

I think I'll just have a drink.

The above hissed in response by: Bill M [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2006 6:44 PM

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