Welcome back to another installment of ‘A Brief-ish History of Drag’ – In our last episode, we tried to find an exact genesis point for drag as an artform; to the surprise of absolutely no-one, it’s hard. It’s nearly impossible to lock it down to a single moment in time, an individual performance, or even a specific subculture. As it turns out, humanity has been playing with ‘staged gender’ in a self-aware way for as long as we’ve told stories and acted things out.
We touched briefly on Greek theatre, on how a society that was (against all odds) fairly loose/permissive of same-sex relationships — see also, our present day labels for sexuality ‘Sapphic’ and ‘Achillean’ — was still somewhat limited in view of women-in-theatre. That is, because acting companies would have consisted of men exclusively (with the exception of slave women, which is… yikes), much of early Grecian stagecraft would have had crossdressing-as-comedy baked into the premises. Some of it would have been accidental, sure, but a lot of it would have necessitated self-awareness — if you have a male character wearing a dress for comedy around women characters played by men, you better be ready to laugh at yourself or else the audience’s suspension of disbelief will suffer for it. Maybe this claim is a bit naive, given that much of ancient Greco-Roman culture is well-documented in its misogyny, but that’s what brings us to the subject of today’s exploration — Elizabethan Theatre; acting, storytelling, and yes, gender performance, in the time of Shakespeare.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of theatre — the history of live performance — is aware that men played women in Shakespeare’s day. It’s a well-established, often giggled-at little fact. We, as queer people, love it… because, well, it’s early drag.It also makes any Shakespeare story to feature crossdressing/disguise inherently queer, even by accident. There’s queer subtext in much of The Bard’s work. Picking apart the layers of gender performance in Shakespeare’s England, it becomes clear that a lot of it was probably deliberate.
In something like As You Like It, the original staging would have featured a woman (Rosalind) disguised as a man (Ganymede)…played by a man dressed as a woman. Drag on top of drag. You could argue it’s the genderqueer equivalent of a double-negative, but given that the woman-played-by-man marries a man-played-by-man at the end of the play, you’re at least breaking even on the Gay Vibes.
My favorite example of this is easily Twelfth Night, unjustly relegated to B- or C-tier in Shakespeare’s canon despite having an absolutely kickass 2000s chick-flick adaptation in the form of She’s The Man. The story concerns Viola, a young woman who falls for Duke Orsino, and so disguises herself as a man named Cesario in order to get closer to him. That’s drag just on its face! Cesario is essentially just Viola’s drag persona, allowing her to process the absurdity of the patriarchal society she finds herself in, allowing her to vent and mock and exaggeratedly mimic the so-called ‘male’ signifiers that she observes. Cesario is a parody of the men that Viola has lived around.
Viola’s plan is, admittedly, a bit tenuous — sort of a weird, elaborate friends-to-lovers situation; Orsino is already in love with a woman named Olivia… who develops feelings for Cesario instead. The real kicker is that Orsino begins to fall for Cesario, against his better judgment, leading to an accidentally homoerotic love triangle. It’s good comedy.
I admit that I’m biased towards the narrative — the crossdressing, the accidental lesbian-gay-solidarity — but this is mostly because I was involved in a production of Twelfth Night a long time ago. Our staging, through a result of its casting, gratefully undid the ending’s patented Hetero Cop-Out. See, the play ends with Viola revealing that she’s a woman and that she also has a twin brother — a happy, cishet ending for everyone; Orsino gets Viola without it being gay, Olivia gets a ‘real boy’ version of Olivia. But in the production I was involved in, I played Orsino. By having me, a woman, play a male character, the straight-couple-parachute that is pulled in the final scene is inverted — yeah, I was playing a boy, but the end pairing is now rendered almost-sapphic if the audience squints a little. A good mirror for how the almost-gay ending of the original would have felt for those in Elizabethan England. I got to have this ridiculous, pseudo-drag-king moment for most of the play — a woman overplaying the macho discomfort of a ‘tough guy’ falling for his best friend — but then got to end it on a note more reflective of my real-life lesbian identity.
This is all a very elaborate way to illustrate that Shakespeare’s works and theater culture would have been gay as hell in a way that Shakespeare, as a playwright, had to be aware of. Shakespeare was playing with gender, Shakespeare was producing drag on purpose. As we’ll talk about in the next installment, there’s something about the structure of drag, the concept, that is kind of inescapable onstage. See you then!
NEXT TIME ON “A BRIEF-ISH HISTORY OF DRAG”: We take a look at how pantomime influenced drag in both America and the United Kingdom — one artform, two continents, plenty of history, and a dash of convergent evolution!