Cross Dressing or the act of wearing clothes worn by the opposite sex was a practice noticed in existence in early sixteenth and seventeenth century England both on stage and in real life. Women cross dressed as men on the streets of Elizabethan England to hide their real identity. Michael Shapiro notes that these women mostly included “prostitutes seeking customers, maidservants slipping off to meet lovers, women delivering love letters, and others who wished to remain unrecognized for whatever purposes dressed as men in order to move about the city without being detected”. Because of the nature of these disguises, cross dressing in England was assumed to be a cover for dalliance and sexual deviance. Cross dressed women were often punished for being ‘whores’ and their “cross dressed apparel” seen as “a demonized ‘sign’ of their enforced sexual availability” (Jean E. Howard)
On the Elizabethan stage, male actors dressing up and playing the part of women characters was a common practice since no women were allowed to act onstage. While most people readily accepted the practice, it also provoked fears about male homoeroticism and feminization of men. Cross dressing in general was seen as a threat to the stability of traditional gender and societal roles in a patriarchal society where subordination of women to men was taken as a given. This anxiety about typical gender roles also signaled a society in transition where women and lower social classes were beginning to crave for equality and independence, though it still remained a far-fetched dream.
Almost a fifth of Shakespeare’s comedies deal with the figure of the ‘cross dressed heroine’ who often adopts the garb of a lower class boy/man. A male disguise is usually adopted for reasons of safety, protection, greater freedom and accessibility in terms of love in comedies such as As You Like it, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. Shakespeare capitalizes on the wealth of ironies and misunderstandings resulting from the gender fluidity of the situation.
In Twelfth Night, for instance, a shipwrecked Viola who finds herself stranded in a strange town; adopts male disguise as a cover to conceal her identity from the world until she finds the appropriate occasion for disclosure. Her initial plan is to serve in Olivia’s household but since she has cloistered herself from the world, Viola adopts the next best recourse- serving as a ‘eunuch’ in Orsino’s court. The word ‘eunuch’ has been subject to much discussion and analysis since the word evokes connotations of ‘castrato’ or ‘opera singers’ and simultaneously suggests gender ambivalence and ambiguity. The name that Viola chooses to identify herself with –‘Cesario’-also suggests ‘caesus’ or ‘cut’ and therefore castration. While there are no other references to her status as a ‘eunuch’, Viola’s choice of being presented as a ‘eunuch’ to Orsino places her in a double bind and implies untold sexual possibilities for other characters since they see her as both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’.
Keir Elam in his influential essay ‘The Fertile Eunuch: Twelfth Night, Early Modern Intercourse, and the Fruits of Castration’ discusses the two-fold significance of Viola’s ‘eunuch’ reference and states that it may be an attempt to ‘hide not only her innate sexuality but also her assumed masculinity; ensuring a double barrier of chastity against potential sexual dangers in the world of Orsino’s court and a doubled privatisation (through the self- privation of her ‘private’ parts) in her personal dealings with the courtiers’. Her assumed hermaphroditic disguise protects her as a woman in a world inhabited by men; as also rescuing her from questions about her ‘masculinity’ in everyday dealings with the courtiers. It also affords her greater freedom in gauging Orsino’s heart and mind, and schooling his misogynistic perception of women.
“Dear lad, believe it.
For they shall yet belie thy happy years
That say thou art a man. Diana’s lip
Is not more smooth and rubious. Thy small pipe
Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman’s part.
I know thy constellation is right apt
For this affair.”
Orsino comes close to questioning Cesario’s gender when he makes a reference to his ‘lips as smooth as Diana’s’ and his ‘small pipe’ like a ‘maiden’s organ’. While he is ostensibly referring to Cesario’s ‘feminine’ voice, ‘pipe’ may also be a reference to his ‘sexual organ’, thus implying that ‘all is semblative a woman’s part’. Perhaps, it is these very youthful attributes that make him a suitable messenger in furthering Orsino’s suit of love before Olivia. Orsino’s minute detailing of Cesario’s physical attributes in this scene are further complicated by the fact that it is a boy actor dressed as Viola who is then disguised as Cesario. The scene therefore not only compounds gender ambiguity but is riddled with homoerotic overtones with two male actors playing the parts of Orsino and Cesario on stage.
Cesario’s charm as a young man and references to his ‘manhood’ are made further when Malvolio introduces him as “not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy, as a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a codling when ’tis almost an apple. ‘Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man…one would think his mother’s milk were scarce out of him.” Malvolio’s description alludes to Cesario as occupying an indeterminate stage between a boy and a man; which indefiniteness makes him all the more attractive to both men and women and ‘renders the distinction between homo and hetero- erotic attraction difficult to decipher’ (Casey Charles)
Viola herself recognizes the dangers of her own indeterminate disguise when she realizes Olivia is falling for her. Her oft-quoted speech ruminates on the implications of cross dressing since she realizes that in her assumed attire of a man, she can never openly avow her love for her master- Orsino; and as a real woman, Olivia’s love for her will never be accomplished.
“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…
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!
O time, thou must untangle this, not I.
It is too hard a knot for me to untie!”
Her veiled confession to Orsino while still trapped in disguise – “My father had a daughter loved a man, As it might be perhaps, were I a woman, I should your lordship”- is as forthcoming as allowed to her within the limitations of her cross dressing. It is something that Orsino understands only at the end of the play, though it is surprising that even after Viola’s disguise is revealed, he continues to address her as ‘Cesario’ and a ’boy’. Even at the end of the play, neither Orsino nor the play’s audience sees Viola without her masculine attire. Viola can only promise to return in her ‘maiden weeds’ while Orsino can only promise to accept her as his ‘mistress and fancy queen’ when she would be seen in her maidenly habit- a promise whose fulfillment is never actualized in the play.
Several critics have raised questions about the subversive potential of cross dressing in Shakespeare’s comedies. While characters like Rosalind in As you Like It adopt an active role in their assumed male attire and question pre conceived roles for men and women; we don’t see any significant overturning of power structures as far as Twelfth Night is concerned. From the start to the end of the play, there is no doubt about Viola’s ‘feminine subjectivity’ (Jean Howard), nor any attempt on her part to usurp roles of men. She is crystal clear in her sexual orientation and asserts that it is a ‘barful strife’ for her to be wooing for a man whose wife she herself would want to become. She is transparent in her meetings and dialogues with Olivia, and frequently asserts that ‘I am not what I am’. At no point does she try to delude Olivia, rather sympathetically understands her situation as a woman. Her explicit rejection of Olivia’s overtures of love leaves no doubt about her feminine subjectivity.
“I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth,
And that no woman has, nor never none
Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.”
Her sense of fear at having to fight a duel with Sir Andrew makes her admit ‘how much I lack of a man’. If there were any doubts about her aspirations towards dominance, they are removed towards the play’s end as she is all set to occupy her place as Orsino’s wife. Jean Howard comments that any threats posed by Viola’s masculine attire are contained and countervailed by ‘her release from the prison of her masculine attire and return to her proper and natural position as wife’. However, as mentioned earlier, while Viola may be a poor contender as somebody espousing women’s rights; yet she never sets herself free from her masculine attire till the end of the play. The actual wedding and the actual sighting of Viola in a bride’s attire is never realized on stage.