Shakespeare Re-Dressed: Cross-Gender Casting in Contemporary Performance

Shakespeare Re-Dressed: Cross-Gender Casting in Contemporary Performance

Shakespeare Re-Dressed: Cross-Gender Casting in Contemporary Performance

Shakespeare Re-Dressed: Cross-Gender Casting in Contemporary Performance

Synopsis

Since the early '90s, cross-gender casting in performance of Shakespeare's plays has become an increasingly common phenomenon. Examining performances through the lenses of feminism, queer theory, and cultural materialism, this title situates cross-dressed Shakespeare in the context of critical debates over the social construction of gender.

Excerpt

James C. Bulman

IN A GROUND-BREAKING BOOK PUBLISHED TEN YEARS AGO, RE-DRESSING the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender, to whose title this collection pays homage, Alisa Solomon traces the link between female impersonation and theater from Aristophanes to the present, arguing that “the mutability of human identity promised by theater, and figured by the norm of transvestism, is precisely what makes theater the queerest art, perennially subject to railing by those with a stake in promoting the ‘natural order’ of the status quo.” The tradition of men and boys playing female roles in Western drama inevitably has made the representation of women a male construction: the convention of cross-dressing thus can be interpreted as a way in which theater reproduces and affirms the ideologies of patriarchal culture. Yet as Solomon suggests, theater has always, by its very artifice, managed to interrogate its own representational strategies and in so doing to qualify, even to subvert, the “natural order” of those power structures that critics of transvestism fear are threatened by it.

What makes the practice of transvestism on the stage so politically vexed is that it is sometimes seen covertly to promote the idea that gender itself is an unstable concept, culturally rather than biologically determined. Since the early 1990s, queer theorists such as Judith Butler have asserted that there is no fixed, essential nature of maleness or femaleness: rather, gender identification depends on performativity, a term she borrows from J. L. Austin and redefines as “the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names.” While theater scholars have sometimes used “performativity” simply to mean gender as performance, the cultural and discursive significance accorded it by Butler is of greater value in explaining how cross-gender casting works in the theater. Solomon’s link between female impersonation and theater, for example, is predicated on the relationship between how one identifies the gender . . .

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