Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England
Shakespeare and the Jews
How does a girl become a boy? In his recent film version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Trevor Nunn shows us the shipwrecked Viola transforming herself into Cesario in order to be employed by Orsino. Her long hair is cut into a pageboy’s bob; she binds her breasts tightly against her body; she dons trousers, not forgetting to stuff a handkerchief down the front to hint at a penis; she sticks on a false mustache. Then she learns how to move like a man, imitating the sea captain who is helping her: walking with her legs swinging from the hips, finally yawning in an extravagant manner with her arms thrown wide and her mouth open wider. The visible and concealed body, costume, and movement: these are, for Nunn and Imogen Stubbs (Viola), the three features that provide the code for gender. When Viola is reunited with her brother, it is, for Nunn, the mustache that becomes the means of redefining Viola as a woman. Apparently nothing that Shakespeare gives Viola to say is half as convincing as peeling away the false mustache from her upper lip.
But Shakespeare’s Viola did not transform herself into a boy. Her instruction to the captain is disconcerting but explicit: “Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him.” Here, as occasionally elsewhere in the film, Nunn has adjusted the text: his Viola says “boy,” not “eunuch,” and the troubling hint of castration—a hint that the play does not follow up and that would, in the Victorian atmosphere of Nunn’s film, make even less sense than it normally does—is itself neatly excised.
In Impersonations, his exhilarating study of the performance of gender in Shakespeare’s England, Stephen Orgel has much to say about Viola’s strange use of the word “eunuch,” a word which has not much troubled the play’s editors. He pursues the implications of Viola’s choice of the name Cesario: not only its clear implication of someone “belonging to Caesar” but also the etymological suggestions of “cut” in the name Caesar itself (from the verb caedo by way of Caesar’s Caesarian birth). The name implies, deep within itself, the surgery performed on the boy to turn him into a singer, the specific skill Viola possesses which will make her employable (“for I can sing,/And speak to him in many sorts of music/That will allow me very worth his service”). Where some editors have wondered why it should be that Viola actually does not sing, and have asked whether the original text was revised, Orgel is concerned with a broader problem:
The question, then, is not how this moment functions dramatically, since in any practical sense it does not function at all, but, precisely because of its discreteness and uniqueness, what cultural implications it has.
Viola seems to be proposing not only a gender transformation but also a neutering, “a sexlessness that is an aspect of her mourning, that will effectively remove her…from the world of love and wooing.”
But, as Orgel recognizes, the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.