Gender Swaps in Shakespeare Plays

by Brittany Stigler, Great Performances Program Coordinator
Elizabeth I. The "Rainbow Portrait", c. 1600, an allegorical representation of the Queen of England.

Elizabeth I. The “Rainbow Portrait”, c. 1600, an allegorical representation of the Queen of England.

Shakespeare wrote most of his plays during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558 – 1603), who allowed theater and drama to flourish, but forbade the subject of politics or religion on stage. As for the era’s societal restrictions, a female actor would be considered an abomination, and so men and boys performed the roles of both sexes. England lagged far behind European countries in accepting female actors.

Shakespeare never shied away from confusing gender-swaps and played with the all-male mandate to create cross-dressing roles that were both challenging and entertaining. Now that men and women are both allowed on stage, deliberate gender play in Shakespeare productions such as London-based Donmar Warehouse’s all-female staging of Henry IV are inherently valuable for their comment on gender constructs. This summer the all-female Manhattan Shakespeare Project presents free park performances of A Study in Othello, which examines “the other” through Shakespeare’s Othello text and writing by Muslim girls in New York City schools.

Below are some gender-swapping moments as conceived by the Bard himself.

AS YOU LIKE IT

Ganymede (Rosalind in disguise) and Orlando in As You Like It. Image courtesy Grandma's Graphics.

Ganymede (Rosalind in disguise) and Orlando in As You Like It. Image courtesy Grandma’s Graphics.


The swap: A woman disguises herself as a man to travel safely in the forest after being banished.

Rosalind disguises herself as a young man named Ganymede after she is banished from the royal court. In the Forest of Arden, Ganymede runs into the exiled Orlando, who is aching for Rosalind, who happens to love him back. Ganymede tells Orlando that “he” can cure him of his lovesickness by pretending to be Rosalind, so Orlando can express his feelings out loud. In the meantime, Phoebe falls in love with Ganymede, causing a huge fight because Silvius loves Phoebe. Ganymede solves this by having Phoebe promise to marry Silvius and Orlando promise to marry Rosalind. This the pastoral comedy that features Shakespeare’s often quoted speech, “All the world’s a stage.”

Painting of Falstaff in the Washbucket (1792) by Henry Fuseli.

Painting of Falstaff in the Washbucket (1792) by Henry Fuseli.

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

The swap: A man disguises himself as a woman to hide from the man whose wife he is wooing.

Short on funds, Falstaff decides to court two rich housewives—Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. Not knowing that they are in on the plot, Falstaff is tricked by the merry wives into dressing as Mistress Ford’s obese aunt to hide from Mistress Ford’s husband. The husband, however, hates the aunt and beats the cross-dressed Falstaff.

TWELFTH NIGHT

The swap: A woman disguises herself as a man to serve a Duke.

TwelfthNightTwinsThis romantic comedy begins with a shipwreck that separates Viola from her twin brother Sebastian. Viola disguises herself as a man, Cesario, so that she can get employment by serving Duke Orsino. She falls in love with the duke, who loves Olivia, who falls for his new servant, Cesario. Oliva mistakes Sebastian for Cesario and asks him to marry her. After much confusion, Viola reveals her identify and marries Duke Orsino.

Illustration of Portia in Merchant of Venice, by Henry Woods (1888).

Illustration of Portia in Merchant of Venice, by Henry Woods (1888).


THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

The swap: A woman disguises herself as a man to come to the aid of a man.

The wealthy heiress Portia disguises herself as a doctor and takes her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, dressed as a law clerk, to court in order to defend Antonio, the merchant of Venice, against his debtor, the money-lender Shylock. Shylock is demanding a pound of flesh from Antonio for a debt owed by Bassanio, Portia’s husband. Portia’s speech in court, which refers to the “quality of mercy” is considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest passages. Portia and Nerissa outsmart Shylock and save Antonio’s flesh.

 

CYMBELINE

Drawing of Iachomo stealing Imogen's bracelet, Act II Scene ii of Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Illustration was designed for an edition of Lamb's Tales, copyrighted 1918.

Drawing of Iachomo stealing Imogen’s bracelet, Act II Scene ii of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Illustration was designed for an edition of Lamb’s Tales, copyrighted 1918.

The swap: A woman disguises herself as a boy to survive a murder ordered by her lover.

Iachimo bets Posthumus that he can seduce his wife, Imogen, and by stealing her bracelet, makes Posthumus believe he has succeeded. Posthumus sends his servant Pisanio to kill Imogen. Instead, Pisanio advises Imogen to disguise herself as a boy named Fidele and flee. Eventually Fidele and Posthumus end up in jail together, where Iachimo comes clean about the bracelet theft that led Posthumus to believe in the affair. Posthumus states his guilt in having Imogen killed. An elated Imogen, still disguised as Fidele, throws “himself” on Posthumus, who strikes the boy, which leads to Pisanio revealing that Fidele is Imogen. All reconcile in this play that veers between tragedy and comedy.