365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

31. Trick or Treat? Answer: Yes.

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In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d talk briefly about Shakespeare’s use of cross-dressing and mistaken identity in his plays. These conventions are mostly seen in the comedies, though they make cameo appearances in some of the others.

Generally, the cross-dressing was used as a plot device to aid his heroines, by protecting them as females out on their own and to allow them freedom to be close to their love interests  (Twelfth Night) and even play at courting them in a safe environment (As You Like It). There are numerous commentaries on what this meant for feminism – was Shakespeare trying to say that women can’t get ahead simply because they are female and therefore must pretend to be male just to get by, or was he of the belief that life was generally unfair to women and wanted to show his audiences how ridiculous it was that a woman couldn’t simply be a smart, strong woman? – but I tend to be of the belief that this plot device made for good theatre, so it made it into Shakespeare’s plays. Whether or not there was a deeper meaning is up for debate, obviously. He clearly wrote some incredible female characters who generally kicked their male counterparts’ behinds when it came to smarts, and that includes when they weren’t in drag. Letting them wear breeches didn’t change their personalities, only their circumstances. They would have been just as awesome in skirts, but disguises make for more interesting theatre.

One of the more interesting examples of cross-dressing is in The Merchant of Venice when Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as pages and rescue Antonio from having to lose a pound of flesh to Shylock’s foul (and luckily flawed) contract. Now, the only way these ladies were able to even go into the courtroom, let alone speak and talk law, was because they were in disguise as men.  Portia is perhaps the most book-smart of any of Shakespeare’s women, and yet would anyone have listened to her brilliant reasoning that the contract only says flesh, not blood, if she had brought it up while wearing a pretty frock? Doubtful. Shakespeare could just as easily have had an equally tense, dramatic scene with one of the gentlemen in the courtroom discovering the flawed deal, but he chose to let Portia figure it out. In pants, sure, but she still got to be the smart one here.

I’m not a huge fan of where The Merchant of Venice goes after that. Portia and Nerissa con their husbands into giving them (disguised as the pages) their rings, then when out of disguise give the poor men a hard time about it. You know what? Who cares about the rings, honestly? I don’t, that’s for sure. I think if I were either of their husbands I would be way more interested in hearing about this whole cross-dressing thing (and wondering how I didn’t recognize them, even under such strain, in the courtroom). That’s why my favorite version of the show I have seen was one that excluded that whole silly ring sub-plot. I know that this play is listed under the comedies, but…it’s really not that funny. The ring plot seems to be an attempt to make it so, but the play packs a lot more punch when the emphasis is on the fact that Portia and Nerissa just saved Antonio from his own stupidity (seriously, even if you think you can pay off your debt, never put your own flesh down as collateral, idiot). But I digress.

The cross-dressing is one of Shakespeare’s best-known comedic devices and remains a favorite to this day…but I’d pay good money to see this done the old-fashioned way: boys playing women disguising themselves as men. Any takers?

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Written by Caroline Mincks

November 2, 2009 at 3:03 PM

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