Cross-dressing in Shakespeare's plays is often inextricably linked with times of carnival. Although the rituals associated with modern-day carnivals developed from this concept it was obviously incredibly different during the early seventeenth century. Carnival was a period of license in authoritarian England which involved masquerade balls (which are themselves a form of cross-dressing), bouts of drinking, and a general inversion of social hierarchical order. Shrove Tuesday, the May Games and Misrule - the period extending from Christmas to Epiphany - are key dates associated with it. Carnival is followed by a period of lent or fasting.
Shakespeare highlights that Twelfth Night is going to be associated with carnivalesque themes through the very wording of this play's title. Twelfth Night is the last day of the period of Misrule, the most extravagant period of carnival in the year.the tension between carnival life and lent is evident throughout the play, and is potently explored through a multitude of characters' cross dress. the most obvious example of this is Viola who not only re-configures herself physically, but gives herself a man's name: Cesario. Viola subverts the natural hierarchical order of her position in society through this disguise. She recognises that in order to survive the shipwreck socially she must become a man; in this respect she saves her life to a greater extent than the Captain does. Here, to occupy the space of a woman onstage is to render oneself powerless. There is also a great deal of humour created through this disguise as the actor playing Viola in this play would have been a boy playing a woman playing a man. Humour and laughter are tropes of periods of carnival. Moreover, the layers of cross-dressing here hyperbolises the chaotic confusion of social hierarchies which carnival induces.
It is interesting to see how cross-dressing creates an interplay with one's sexuality. Viola must engage in the language of courtship with Olivia on behalf of Orsino, which results in Olivia's acquisition of a homosexual attachment to Viola. This can evidently never be satisfied. Moreover, Viola's disguise renders the sexual boundaries of her and Orsino's relationship into a state of confusion. When he believes that Viola is a man he recognises the beauty of Viola/Cesario's red lips. Moreover, Orsino continues to call Viola Cesario even after she has revealed her female nature. Perhaps Shakespeare characterises these characters in such a way as to indicate that all genders and sexualities are performative. This allows Olivia's love for Cesario, as well as the homosexual relationship between Antonio and Sebastian, to evade negative connotations. There is a certain fluidity inherent to all gender relations in the play.
Similarly, in As You Like It Rosalind alters her gender in a performative manner in order to evade social ruin. She escapes her town and secures the man she loves as a result of her cross-dressing, This indicates that perhaps socially it is safer to be a man in Elizabethan England rather than a woman. Men, according to psychological theories of this period, were more rational creatures than woman, which may be a reason for Rosalind's success at manipulating her situation and keeping calm whilst she performs as Ganymede. the inverse of this is explored in Titus Andronicus when Titus dresses up as a female cook to enact his bloodthirsty revenge upon Tamora and her sons. The frantic bloodbath which follows highlights the chaotic nature of a woman's hysterical passions. Conversely, In Macbeth Lady Macbeth masculinises herself in order to conduct cold, efficient revenge.
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