By David Jenkins, guest blogger
Part of life in the performing arts includes the many international scholars who study theater, music and dance, writing on these topics and delving into impressive intellectual inquiry into the art forms and why they matter. One area of interest naturally includes the examination of sexuality and gender identity in many famous plays. In fact, one of the most well-known playwrights to consistently incorporate switched gender roles was William Shakespeare, particularly in his comedies. Jobsite Theater, our resident theater company, opened Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night this week, which includes the character Viola, a woman-pretending-to-be-a-man-who-is-in-love-with-a-man-while-a-woman-who-believes-she-is-a-man-loves-her. Typical Shakespeare! To discuss the context of these gender switcheroos, Caught in the Act enlisted the help of David Jenkins, Jobsite’s Artistic Director and PhD candidate in Communication, specializing in performance studies.
When originally staged, Twelfth Night might have been more believable to a general audience than it is today in terms of all the characters on stage believing that female Viola was male Cesario, the young man she pretends to be. In Shakespeare’s day, women were not allowed on stage, so those famous female roles, from Juliet to Lady Macbeth, would have been played by boys.
So, follow me here: we would have had a boy actor playing a woman who was pretending to be a young man. Not too hard to buy, right?
But, we might also take this circumstance a step further in terms of gender confusion in that the male actor playing Orsino, the object of Viola’s affection, is in love with Olivia, who would have been played by a boy, and the boy-acting-like-the-girl-pretending-to-be-the-boy in Viola. Then we have a boy playing Olivia who is also in love with boy/girl/boy Viola.
Twelfth Night becomes a fascinating site of study when we consider both the fluidity of gender as a social construction and the continuum of human sexuality.
I should offer a few definitions so we’re on the same page:
Sex refers to the parts a person is born with and though most people are born with male or female genitals around 10% of the human population is somewhere between these poles, not to mention those who surgically alter themselves, and so we should view biological sex not in terms of two or even three positions but as a whole continuum (Fausto-Sterling 2000).
Gender is social construction, something we (individuals and/or society) place on a body. Judith Butler (1988) offers that gender is “a stylized repetition of acts through time” making it a performance unto itself. Simone de Beauvoir is often quoted as saying that one is not born but rather becomes a woman. Gender has historically been used as a way to set the norms of behavior for men and women in any moment in time as a method of social control.
Sexuality then refers to whom any of us are attracted to. These three concepts are mutually exclusive of one another. Gayle Rubin (1984) argues that we must separate them when we discuss human behavior to gain a better understanding of ourselves.
Drawing these definitions back to Twelfth Night, we can see how the confusion in terms of who is actually what and who is really into whom might provoke thought and discussion among audience members. What is “normal” for a man or woman, what really defines masculine or feminine, what do these designations even mean and who do they serve? Can we control how or why we fall in love with another, and what is it that drives us to even love at all?
Shakespeare in performance has the opportunity to reinforce gender roles, as we can do with Lady Macbeth’s femme fatale machinations to the virginal and helpless Ophelia who Hamlet casts aside. But, in a case like Twelfth Night, it can challenge and subvert those same roles. I try to avoid what Penny Gay (1993) calls “radical chic” in making choices on stage that are done just in the name of being non-traditional (“Oooh, let’s do Troilus and Cressida dressed as panda bears!”), but, in our production, I’ve cast the part of Olivia’s fool Feste as a woman dressed as a man. I purposefully left all references to Feste as “he,” “him,” and “sir” specifically to the end of creating an ambiguous space that destabilizes what terms like man or woman really even mean. It has also given us a really interesting moment to play on stage as Feste, at one point, is able to show the audience (and Viola) that s/he sees through “Cesario’s” disguise. That moment is not set in Shakespeare’s text, but is possible for us to communicate through the actors’ delivery and interaction.
When presented with two options: male or female, gay or straight, masculine or feminine, we cannot but help uphold that very binary which always privileges one term over the other. In fact “male” is only truly defined by what it is not: “female.” We can similarly apply that to any binary: the one thing only has meaning in that it is not the other. When we begin to look for those third terms such as androgynous, bisexual, intersex we disrupt binary and place things in continuum which is necessarily ambiguous terrain. Kenneth Burke (1945) notes that in this ambiguous territory, true transformation takes place. And, yes, it’s also what often freaks people out about someone who defies categorization or passes as one thing when they are in fact another. It freaks us out because in that moment we’re forced to reckon with what we think we know.
Judith Butler (2004) observed we need to resist the urge to resolve those tensions that create these kinds of spaces. I’ve tried to do that with Twelfth Night. Perhaps people will get it, and if they don’t, to be perfectly honest, it won’t get in the way of them simply enjoying themselves in the theater for a few hours with a first-rate performance.
As a director, I believe what we do on stage is part of a conversation, a dialogue, even if the audience doesn’t always speak back. It’s an exchange: as artists we get immediate feedback from what we’re offering them which can come in the shape of anything from laughter and sighs to bored shuffling of feet and people uncomfortably leaving the theater. In my belief that ambiguous spaces can often be transformative, I try to “resist conclusions” as Dwight Conquergood (1985) says so that the conversations can continue among people or even just in the individual mind as people go back to their lives outside of the Shimberg Playhouse.
In other words, I don’t need to put a pretty bow on the end all the time. Let the work speak for itself and let people think.
When presented with questions by students (even audiences or critics) as to why Shakespeare matters, Twelfth Night’s tensions about gender, sexuality, and our ability and urge to love is one of the first things I point to. We still struggle with these concepts. I can point to teenagers committing suicide over not being understood, people of all ages facing violence over how they choose to live their life, even our own state and local governments fighting the people over who gets to count when it comes to marriage.
— David M. Jenkins is the Producing Artistic Director of Jobsite Theater. He is a doctoral candidate and teaching associate in the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida, where he also teaches as an instructor in the Department of Theater.
Find this stuff interesting? You might like these books:
As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women, Penny Gay
Upstaging Big Daddy: Directing Theater as if Gender and Race Matter, Ellen Donkin and Susan Clement
Theatre and Sexuality, Jill Dolan
The History of Sexuality pt. I, Michel Foucault
Undoing Gender, Judith Butler
Sexing the Body, Anne Fausto-Sterling
Burke, K. (1945). A Grammar of Motives. London, University of California Press.
Cima, G. G. (1993). Strategies for Subverting the Canon. Upstaging Big Daddy: directing theater as if gender and race matter. E. Donkin and S. Clement. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press: 91-105.
Conquergood, D. (1985). “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance.” Literature in Performance 5: 1-13.
Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the Body. New York, NY, Basic Books.
Rubin, G. (1984). Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. PLEASURE and DANGER: exploring female sexuality. C. S. Vance. London, Pandora.