Crossdressing, Shakespeare, Victorian


In 2017, Madame Le Gateau Chocolat, a black drag queen, sashayed onto the stage of the Globe theater to portray Feste in Emma Rice’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This bold move not only gave anxiety to its investors (eventually leading to the stepping down of Emma Rice), but also raised questions about the validity of drag performance within Shakespeare plays. Shakespeare has historically been inseparable with traditional cross-dressing (both in performance and in the narrative itself), although the relationship has not always been cordial. In Victorian England, cross-dressing was often set equal to homosexuality or moral deviance, and was similarly punished, as in the case of Boulton and Park. However, the bumpy relationship of Victorianism and theatrical cross-dressing is actually at odds with Lynn Voskuil’s argument that Victorians praised authenticity-in-theatricality, a breaking down of the dialectic between real identity and constructed fiction. How did Shakespeare function within this tension of Voskuil’s theory and theatrical cross-dressing? And what how would a modern conception of drag performance inform this discussion further?

My paper analyzes cross-dressing theory in both traditional Shakespeare scholarship and in Victorian historical accounts. It conceptualizes the Victorian cross-dresser as limited in her ability to be authentic-in-theatricality, complicating Voskuil’s theory and even pushing back against cross-dressing theory itself. These tensions can be clearly seen through an analysis of Victorian accounts of theatrical Shakespearean criticism , as well as in illustrated Shakespearean scenes. However, drag theory, with its focus on “realness” (both in full gender impersonation and in androgyny) offers a sense of resolution to the Victorian problem, paradoxically during a time outside of Voskuil's purview. Le Gateau Chocolat, then, is a valid choice for Feste in Twelfth Night precisely because she brings drag theories into conversation with historical conceptions of cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s plays. Finally, this conversation informs a critical reading of Twelfth Night that wouldn’t be possible without the theories of cross-dressing, authenticity-in-performance, and contemporary drag culture.

Issue and Volume

Vol. 11, no. 1