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 surgery did not remove desire, only the possibility of sexual performance, leaving the eunuch in a world of imagined but unperformable sexual activity, as Mardian, a eunuch in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, reminds us: “Yet have I fierce affections, and think/ What Venus did with Mars.” In his search for the “cultural implications” of Viola’s choice of disguise, Orgel turns to the castrati of the Vatican, the most famous example of eunuchs in Shakespeare’s time, and finds them used, like the boys of Shakespeare’s acting company, to play women’s roles in performances, so that the choirboys “enabled the introduction of overt sexuality, simultaneously heterosexual and homosexual, into the world of ecclesiastical celibacy.”
Cautiously and convincingly, Orgel’s argument reaches a point where he can suggest that when Viola identifies herself as a eunuch she “both closes down options for herself and implies a world of possibilities for others.” These possibilities include a form of sexual ambiguity and doubleness, what Orgel calls “sexual alternatives and equivalents of either-and-both,” so that, as Viola says to Orsino, “I am all the daughters of my father’s house,/ And all the brothers too,” and, as Sebastian tells Olivia, “You are betrothed both to a maid and man.” From here, Orgel will move on to the “master-mistress” of The Sonnets and to Rosalind in As You Like It.
Orgel’s treatment of Twelfth Night‘s momentary reference to Viola as a eunuch exemplifies his method, which is to make us look freshly at a word we have often read or heard but have usually ignored, enabling us to see it as a crystallization of the way a culture considers gender. Here, as so often in his brilliant short book, Orgel’s wide-ranging exploration of Renaissance culture is linked to current studies that interpret gender as something both internal and external. Most such analyses concentrate on the differences between the way people identify themselves as male or female and the ways others perceive them and understand their gender by their gestures, clothes, or mode of speech, as well as the nature of their genitalia. Orgel brings to the subject the discriminating eye of a fine literary critic, testing his evidence with acute sensitivity.
Viola, he writes, chooses to create a gap between her sense of herself as a woman and others’ sense of her as a boy, Cesario. She makes an explicit decision, which the play delightedly tests when it shows the perception of others to her. Viola is allowed by Shakespeare an exhilarating sense of self, which she can set against the way others see her and objectify her, making assumptions about her that must often prove untrue. But at the end of the play the dilemma raised by Viola’s choice is still present for her: Is Orsino in love with Viola or with Cesario, with the woman or the boy? Impersonations argues that in order properly to understand what it means for Viola to disguise herself as a boy or a eunuch, we need to learn much more about the entire way English Renaissance culture understood what it meant to be a boy, or a man, or a woman.
In his densely scholarly study Shakespeare and the Jews, James Shapiro is also concerned with castration. In The Merchant of Venice, when the bond between Shylock and Antonio is formulated early in the play, Shylock proposes that the forfeit for defaulting should be “an equal pound/ Of your fair flesh to be cut off and taken/ In what part of your body pleaseth me.” It is not until the trial scene in Act Four that the play firmly identifies where that part of Antonio’s “fair flesh” is actually placed: “Nearest the merchant’s heart.” Because of our familiarity with the play—we know the story long before we even read or see it—we tend to read it backward, as if the location of the pound of flesh is always explicit. But for a Renaissance audience, there could have been no such assumption, as they watched the long expanse of the play between the bond and the trial scene. Shapiro convincingly argues that, until the trial scene makes all clear, they might have expected the pound of flesh to have been found in a different part of Antonio’s anatomy.
As Shapiro notes, the Geneva Bible (1560), in Leviticus, uses the word “flesh” consistently for “penis.” Shakespeare had used “flesh” in the same way in Romeo and Juliet. Even more explicitly, Alexander Silvayn’s The Orator, translated in 1596, shortly before Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, and a probable source for the play, has a Jew who announces to the judge, as he demands the execution of his bond,
What a matter were it then if I should cut of his privy members, supposing that the same would altogether weigh a just pound?
Until the trial scene, Shakespeare’s audience was quite likely to have wondered whether Shylock had in mind a form of extremely radical circumcision. Shapiro subtly relates this to Saint Paul’s redefinition of religious identity, a passage crucial to Christian understanding of the meaning of religious identity and one which greatly troubled Reformation theologians:
He is not a Jew which is one outward, neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew which is one within, and the circumcision is of the heart.
Saint Paul moves the true significance of circumcision from a visible sign to an invisible one, from the penis to the heart, from outside to inside. Shylock’s knife is, in the trial scene, aiming to make this space of inward circumcision, the area “nearest the merchant’s heart,” gorily visible.
Yet the two explorations of the possible implications of castration epitomize the difference between the two books under review. Orgel writes with unfailing clarity and authority, laying bare the steps of his own thinking step by step, encouraging us to entertain objections to his argument, each of which he carefully answers, while never losing sight of the central theme of his book. Shapiro is so fascinated by the range of material he has found that his argument about the implied castration of Antonio includes a digression on Elizabethan travelers’ accounts of witnessing circumcisions abroad and a long disquisition on the use made by Shakespeare’s editors of a story of a Christian’s attempt to castrate a Jew in Gregorio Leti’s Life of Pope Sixtus the Fifth. His account of Silvayn’s The Orator contains the delightful revelation that Furness, the great nineteenth-century Shakespeare editor, bowdlerized his quotations from it in his edition of The Merchant of Venice, so that the threat to the Christian’s “privy members” became, comically, a threat to his “head.”
Where Orgel wears his immense learning with enviable lightness and Impersonations becomes an authoritative summation of the vast recent research in the tumultuous field of Renaissance gender studies, Shapiro has an enthusiasm that leads him into rich and entertaining side paths. As a result, Shakespeare and the Jews is a repository of information about a great many matters long in need of the kind of intelligent analysis that Shapiro gives them.
Both books take as their central subject the deep cultural anxiety in the Renaissance over the nature and permeability of boundaries. When Shapiro explores Renaissance beliefs about Jews, many only remotely connected with Shakespeare, he describes, in a passage which is peculiarly unnerving for the way we now perceive gender difference, the then-widely held bizarre notion that Jewish men menstruated. Thomas Calvert, writing in 1648, reported the claim that “Jews, men as well as females, are punished curso menstruo sanguinis, with a very frequent blood flux.” The blood-libel, the belief that Jews had to murder Christian children to provide themselves with the blood needed to make matzos for Passover, is bound up with this transgression of gender boundaries: Jewish men murder to collect blood to replace the blood they have lost through the perversion of their masculinity.