Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Was Shakespeare transgender?

The Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron

Shakespeare died 400 years ago. In the centuries since then, surely every wise thought that could be entertained about this writer has been tested to destruction?  Well, perhaps not. There is one idea that has never been taken seriously enough, although it bubbles under in the literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who said in his Table Talk of 1832 that a great mind has to be ‘androgynous’, Virginia Woolf declared that Shakespeare’s mind was ‘the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind’.

Nowadays we are rightly suspicious of efforts to ‘gender’ the brain – even if the concept has regained scientific respectability in the work of Simon Baron-Cohen and others. But Woolf’s argument, however time-bound its terminology, suggests something. It suggests a thought-experiment…

What if Shakespeare were what we would now call ‘transgender’?

The thought is not unthinkable. Indeed, it’s far less outlandish than some of the wilder biographical speculation that denies that a glover’s son from Stratford could have written the plays attributed to him. We are still far from understanding the causes of gender variance, but the safest assumption is that, in its manifestations, we’re looking at a combination of biological and environmental factors, of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. If we further assume that its natural occurrence is roughly similar from generation to generation, even from century to century, then we would expect to encounter trans people 400 years ago. But long before the concept existed, at a time when understanding of sex and gender was quite unlike our own, public perception would have been different; self-perception would have been different. Upbringing, education, legal sanctions: many environmental constraints would have acted differently upon gender identities which we are – belatedly – learning to recognise and accept.

Prove it! Well, of course, I can’t. Any more than I can prove the Bard was a closet Catholic or a wife-deserter or a tax-dodger. As one editor of the Sonnets, Stephen Booth, has wryly observed: ‘William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter’. But that doesn’t invalidate the thought-experiment, for I acknowledge from the outset that I’m not running my experiment on scientific principles. The assertion that ‘Shakespeare was transgender’ isn’t ‘falsifiable’. (Falsifiability is the belief that for any hypothesis to have credibility, it must be inherently disprovable before it can become accepted as a scientific hypothesis or theory.) But, if it were true, what consequences would follow?

If our Elizabethan were of artistic leanings, we might expect him to be drawn to a medium where a transgender sensibility could find expression. Centuries later, Virginia Woolf toured that realm in Orlando. But the novel, as a form, was barely in its infancy in the late sixteenth century. What had matured in leaps and bounds was the theatre. And the English theatre had a unique characteristic not shared by its Continental equivalents: the female parts were played by boys. It was a place where everyone was someone else – a stage, in every sense of the word, for the exploration of sex/gender difference.

Of all the theories advanced for what Shakespeare was up to in his ‘lost years’ this is the one I most like: that the stage-struck provincial joined Queen Elizabeth’s Men in 1587, after the sudden death of actor William Knell in a fight while on a tour which passed through Stratford. The other actors shuffled up to cover the dead man’s parts and young Will filled the vacancy – which brought him to London and theatreland. Once in the more tolerant ambience of the city, he consolidated his position as an actor, did a little play-doctoring and started writing, making himself by 1592 into what Robert Greene enviously called ‘an absolute Johannes factotum… in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey’.

Over a twenty-year career, his plays would resort at intervals to ‘travesty’, often using a well-worn convention to hint at more subversive purposes. There are girls dressed as boys in Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and Cymbeline. There are expressions of ‘anxious masculinity’ (to use Mark Breitenberg’s phrase) in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Antony and Cleopatra and the Taming of the Shrew as male crossdressing is either depicted or alluded to. Late in his career Shakespeare created a true hermaphrodite in Ariel (The Tempest). And in between he was writing those pesky sonnets, so apparently pregnant with meaning, so resistant to interpretation:

A woman's face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure. (20)

For anyone tempted down this speculative path, there would be much ground to cover. One must define terms. One must grapple with the peculiarities of Elizabethan and Jacobean attitudes to the ‘sex-gender system’. There are the notorious pamphlets of the day excoriating the depravity of the theatre and the confused boundaries between male and female (Hic mulier, Haec vir). Then there are the plays themselves, not to mention those suggestive longer poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which alone sufficed for Ted Hughes to derive an entire mythology in his frustrating study Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. Hughes eschewed Shakespeare criticism entirely; his book contains no bibliography and almost no references. The scholar cannot be so cavalier. But oh dear, how much reading one would have to do to become a Shakespeare ‘expert’! And still, beyond all the specificities, lies the bigger question posed by Coleridge and Woolf: what is the relationship between androgyny and creativity?

In the absence of ‘facts’, it’s always tempting to make them up. I was surprised to see, in a recent newspaper article by James Shapiro, an undoubted Shakespeare expert, how sympathetic he was to Shakespeare in Love, the movie. Enjoyable tosh, I thought. Still, fiction is next to ‘faction’ and faction is next to fact, so let’s make it up, in this our non-scientific experiment. Let’s suppose that we can reconstruct Love’s Labour’s Won, the notorious ‘lost’ play, and let’s imagine this is the key to unlock the transgender Shakespeare. Perhaps the Bard went a little too far; that’s why the play was suppressed and never printed…

But perhaps I’m stumbling where I have no business – into the realm of wild biographical surmise. Perhaps all one can say with confidence is that in the richness and variegation of Shakespeare’s writing, among so much else, there are figurations of what trans individuals feel. This is the line taken by Canadian professor Mary Ann Saunders, herself a trans woman, who finds resonance for her own experience in The Tempest. She likens the character of Ariel, an ‘ayrie spirit’ at the whim of Prospero’s command, to transgender individuals who depend on medical practitioners to allow them to present in the embodiment they choose.*

At Yale, a petition has recently been launched to ‘decolonize’ the English Department’s course on ‘Major English Poets’. The course requires the study of Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, TS Eliot… and Shakespeare. One student, Adriana Miele, wrote a column in the Yale Daily News in which she criticised the course because while students ‘are taught how to analyse canonical literature works’, they ‘are not taught to question why it is canonical, or the implications of canonical works that actively oppress and marginalise non-white, non-male, trans and queer people’.  

We are such stuff as (cross)dreams are made on.
*Karen Wang, ‘Exploring The Tempest’s Ariel as a lens to transgender individuals’, The Ubyssey, 6 April 2016 


  1. Well yes, if you mean did he have a female brain, well he did, at least from looking at the available evidence. Did he identify as a woman? Well probably not.

    The MTF transgender brain is 'special' in that the personality seems to go through more stages of development over the lifecycle than someone cisgender, so someone that starts out being very quite/shy and highly studious as a child way well become much more flamboyant and incredibly creative as an adult.

    You spend the first 30 odd years of your life quietly sucking in all the data in the surrounding environment and then at mid-life go through some kind of a 'crisis' phase when you perhaps switch from being very defensive to being more outgoing, and repeat all the patterns you have learned back out into the environment through your creative works, stunning the younger generations with your amazing intellect, and finally 'coming good' in the eyes of your parents, if they are still around, and that's what we call a 'genius'.

    It's then that some of these people get venerated, and have entire fields of study devoted to analyzing their works, while others never achieve such significant widespread acclaim and are quietly lost to history.

    To me someone living today like Sid Meier is just as much of a Genius as Shakespeare ever was, but since he wrote computer games rather than plays, which don't yet have quite the same kind of a cultural following, or at least not one that is taken nearly as seriously by the intellectual mainstream or those over 40.
    In terms of his full sweeping understanding of 'the human condition' Sid is up there with Shakespeare, and writing that much computer code is probably just as intellectually taxing as all that output in iambic pentameter, if not significantly more so, it just that most people don't ever get to see the underlying workings-out. A really well-designed computer game like that can be just as educational as any play in terms of understanding human dynamics and the flow of history.

    So, I guess that's the advantage to having been born with the wrong anatomy. If you'd just had a vagina and ovaries from the start you would just have been expected to start having kids, and maybe wouldn't have had the time or energy left over to produce other major creative works, or at any rate maybe a lot of the creative works you did produce wouldn't have been taken nearly as seriously by those around you.

    Well probably it would have been like that 400+ years ago, nowadays it's a bit different, take J K Rowling etc, I mean Shakespeare was never a billionaire in his own lifetime.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Edward. Much to mull over here. One immediate thought...

    "Did he identify as a woman? Well, probably not." I’d go further and say almost certainly not. There was little understanding of the transgender phenomenon in his day. It was a wonder or a monstrosity, depending on your point of view or which gender role was being taken on. Whatever his proto-feminist credentials (which modern critics are quick to pick up on) he seems to have been still deeply rooted in Galenic physiology: the notion that men and women were versions of the same unitary species but women were imperfectly formed men, with genitals inverted and carried internally rather than externally. This meant that manhood was something that had to be striven for and maintained, lest the man sink back into the female state and his willy collapse into a vagina. One thinks of Romeo addressing Juliet: “Thy beauty hath made me effeminate, | And in my temper softened valour’s steel”. Conversely, Antony is unmanned when Cleopatra dresses him in her clothes, her “tires and mantles”, in some form of sex game. It’s striking that while there are a number of positive representations of FTM crossdressing in the plays – donning male attire gives female characters the freedom of action and travel denied to women in Shakespeare’s day – the few instances of MTF crossdressing are either pejorative (like Antony) or comical (like Falstaff’s escape in drag from a cuckolded husband in Merry Wives of Windsor).

  3. Hmm, I think I'm starting to see it the other way around. Men are imperfectly formed women, a specially developed subspecies of self-motivated mobile sperm dispensing units designed to transport the precious genetic information between one generation of females and the next for propagating the species.
    Seems like it's the female brains that actually do all the really clever stuff and the straight male brains are just designed for competing with each other and digging roads and such. ;-)
    It's just that the holders of the male brains like to think that they are the ones who are ultimately in charge, and the people with the female brains are happy to let them think that because it saves a lot of arguments. If you want anything really creative done, besides manual labour, it really takes the female cerebellum to do the job. You'll probably find that most of these top CEOs and are people like us, to one degree or another.

  4. That's the modern view, yes - that males are an aberration; Adam was formed from Eve, not the other way round:

    "Initially, all human fetuses are primed to have a female sex, in that the default pathway for development is toward female anatomy. During the eighth week of gestation, fetuses with a Y chromosome and a functional locus for the SRY gene product, also called the testes determining factor (TDF), undergo testicular development. This process converts the inherently female fetus into a male one, as a steadily increasing surge of testosterone is then produced by the testes." http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/917990-overview#a2

    But Poor Will didn't have access to modern knowledge about embryology. And the Galenic view conveniently reinforced centuries of patriarchy.

    I'm not sure how far I'd go with talk of 'male' and 'female' brains. The brain seems to be such a malleable organ and the relationship between nature and nurture so unfathomable and complex in the early years of life that I reserve judgement.

  5. Well I think male/female brain thing is probably down to a misunderstanding of what people are looking for. If we use the digit ratio thing as a proxy, then the majority of people, regardless of genitalia, fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve. So comparing the brains of the average person with penis and the average person with vagina will probably prove somewhat inconclusive.
    Now if you did your study comparing the average person with very high digit ratio and the average person with very low digit ratio, regardless of their genitals, then you'd probably be getting a much better idea of what the actual sexually dimorphic brain differences are. It would clear up a lot of arguments anyway.

    The stone butch lesbian woman and the really masculine man would be at one end of the scale, and the bimbo and people like me at the other. The difference between the bimbo and me being all the time I've spent being driven by testosterone post-puberty, causing a much slower developmental trajectory.