Performative Subversions of Social Hierarchies in Shakespeare’s Comedies

In the wake of Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, much has been written on the topic of gender cross-dressing in Shakespeare, particularly in the comedies. I would like to extend this study by expanding the category of cross-dressing to encompass inter-class cross-dressing as well as inter-gender cross-dressing, both of which, for the sake of simplicity, I will simply refer to as cross-dressing, unless specific clarification is necessary (the word ‘disguise’ could work, but it entails the idea of aberration from an essential nature, and would therefore detract from my argument). I will explore Shakespeare’s uses of cross-dressing and their implications on the structures of social class and the conventions of comedy. I will argue that the genre of comedy is by its nature essentialist and authoritarian, and that Shakespeare’s ambiguous position in society leads him to a highly complex and ambivalent attitude towards the hierarchies of contemporary society. In ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, Judith Butler argues that ‘if the ground of gender identity is the stylised repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style.’(i) In this view the individual is a sort of tabla rasa who performs an arbitrary social identity, which can be subverted or transmuted by a different performance or repetition of acts. Butler thus rids gender of essentialism. It seems to me obvious and unproblematic that this theory can also be applied to other forms of social identity, such as class. At times Shakespeare’s cross-dressing characters come extremely close to exposing the arbitrariness of gender and class hierarchies, but he is never quite able to fully realise such a radical position, as he is working, both literally and artistically – through the medium of comedy – within the ideology that perpetuates these hierarchies.

Peter Holbrook, in an essay arguing for greater attention to issues of class in Shakespeare criticism, helpfully explains Shakespeare’s simultaneous preoccupation with and ambivalence towards rank, by illustrating his position ‘as someone both inside and outside the dominant culture.’(ii) Shakespeare became very wealthy, but this wealth was acquired, rather than inherited, and through a profession that was barely socially acceptable. In 1996 his father successfully applied for a grant of arms, thus making him a gentleman. His success with his company becoming the King’s players meant that he was privy to the royal court, and yet excluded from being a real member of it. From his biography we can see that he was socially ambitious but his simultaneously internal and external position in the social hierarchy also meant that he could view this hierarchy critically. He was educated in a grammar school, but did not go to university, and was therefore highly critical of the intellectualism and book learning of those playwrights and poets who did. On the other hand, his earlier work, such as The Comedy of Errors, was perhaps more rigorously formal than the works of his university educated contemporaries. The rather odd altercation between Touchstone and William in As You Like It is almost certainly a joke on the perception of Shakespeare held by other playwrights. The shared Christian name, along with the location in the forest of Ardenne, which recalls both Shakespeare’s birthplace and his mother’s maiden name, indicates that the inarticulate peasant, William, represents the snobbish perception that these playwrights had of him. Touchstone’s language, while more intelligent than William’s is condescending and pretentious to the point of ridiculousness:

‘Therefore you clown, abandon – which is in the vulgar leave – the society – which in the boorish is company – of this female – which in the common is woman…’(iii)

Holbrook argues that Robert Greene’s description of Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’ was likely to have affected Shakespeare somewhat, which explains the ways in which he seems to have simultaneously shown himself to be equal to, and mocked, playwrights of a higher rank.(iv) He later asserts that Shakespeare ‘presents his most attractive characters as those who have struck a mean between courtly virtues of grace, wit, eloquence and idealism and a plebeian grasp of reality’.(v) We see already that Shakespeare had contradictory views on social hierarchy and that in his own life he was exploring the possibilities of performativity and ‘a different sort of repeating’. Along with this complexity in Shakespeare’s personal social position, there were tensions within the social system itself. Rather than viewing themselves as members of a horizontal ‘class’ within society, individuals in the early modern period were more likely to think of themselves in opposition to their superiors and inferiors, in a vertical system of rank. This system of dominance had different strands, the primary one being the hierarchy of God, downwards through men, to the rest of his creation; similarly, the hierarchy of the monarch and their subjects in the feudal system. These two are reconcilable, but tensions arise when we account for the hierarchy of men over women, as the power balance becomes uncertain in the case of a woman of noble class and a man of peasant class. The instability therefore is not only in Shakespeare’s position, but also in the entire social structure at the time. This instability and illogicality in itself challenges the essentialism inherent in the political system and it is easy to see how Shakespeare was able to channel this in a critical way.

Since what is at stake here is the legitimacy of a system of social organization that relies on an essentialist notion of class, we must find the essential features that categorise each class within the plays. The first distinguishing feature for the contemporary audience would have been each character’s costume. The ‘Statutes of Apparel’ of June 1574 set out very specific rules for which clothes could, or more specifically could not, be worn by members of each rank. Due to the nature of their work actors were exempt from this law, meaning that the majority of costumes owned by theatres were bought from knights, lords and gentlemen who were struggling financially. The specificity of these statutes means that the contemporary audience would have been immediately able to identify very precisely the rank of any given character from their costume. However, cross-dressing immediately removes the possibility that apparel may be the essential feature of social identity. In the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew, the drunken beggar, Christopher Sly, is found unconscious by a lord’s hunting party, who play a trick on him by dressing him in a ‘costly suit’, which would have been illegal under the Statutes of Apparel, carrying him to the lord’s bedroom and pretending that he has merely been dreaming his existence as a beggar and is in fact a lord.(vi) The serving men repeatedly call him ‘lordship’ until he is himself convinced of the truth of the trick. The interesting question raised by the theory of performativity is whether the trick in fact becomes the truth. The repetition of the old ‘style’ (Sly as beggar) is broken and replaced by ‘a different sort of repeating’. That it is so easy for Sly to go from being a beggar to a lord, simply by changing his raiment, acquiring servants and performing the role of the lord, illuminates the arbitrariness of each individual’s social position. Very interestingly, laws began to change around the exemption of actors from the Statutes of Apparel, as it became clear that actors were wearing clothes that had previously been owned by lords and other high-ranking subjects. This subversive element of performativity spilt over from the theatre into real life and was stamped out by the authoritarian system, as I shall later argue, it is suppressed within the theatre by the conventions of comedy.

Clearly apparel cannot be an essential feature of social position; it is too contingent and changeable. We saw from the earlier example of Touchstone and William that language and wit can signify the social class of a character. However, even in this example Shakespeare slightly subverts this notion, through Touchstone’s ridiculous verbosity. While William is truly inarticulate, due to his function as a joke about attitudes towards Shakespeare, there are several instances in As You Like It, when the courtly characters meet those of much lower stations and their expectations are clearly not met, often making the lower class characters appear to be the more intelligent ones. The first instance of this occurring is in Act II, Scene 4, when Rosalind and Touchstone first meet the shepherd Corin. Touchstone immediately takes a condescending tone, calling Corin a clown (63) and responding with, ‘your betters’ (66) when asked who they are. Rosalind is far more polite, but shows herself to be completely ignorant of the workings of peasant society, assuming a monetary exchange system in which she can pay with ‘love or gold’ (70). Corin’s answer is both eloquent and intelligent. He gives a sort of proto-Marxist analysis of the alienation caused by the division of labour in feudal farming (‘I am shepherd to another man,/And do not shear the fleeces that I graze’) (77-78).(vii) In Act III, Scene 5 Rosalind witnesses Phoebe’s rejection of Silvius and interjects to berate her for it. Here we see an instance of a shepherd attempting and failing to perform a noble social position using the discourse of courtly love poetry. His insistence on calling Phoebe, ‘sweet Phoebe’ (1), is not only clichéd, but also imbalances the chiasmus in the line and jars with ‘bitterness’ (3), two lines later. He is unable to control the pentameter, slipping into a hexameter in line three, because of the unnecessary use of the word ‘common’. His vocabulary is as hyperbolized and Hackneyed as the worst of courtly love clichés and it is his insistence on using physical images, such as ‘the axe upon the humbled neck’, to describe a metaphysical pain that fails to impress Phoebe. While courtiers were far enough removed from physical labour to be able to discuss emotional pain in terms of physical torture, those of a working class were used enough to cuts and bruises to see the absurdity in this, and Phoebe with a carefully measured pentameter, witty irony, and far more effective and original imagery, such as ‘eyes, that are the frail’st and softest things,/who shut their coward gates on atomies’ (12-13), is able to mock his pretention in a way that once again is very sophisticated for a peasant. The joke also falls upon Rosalind, who takes Silvius’ side. Like Silvius her pentameter slips into hexameter in her third line and her language is crude and insulting (‘what though you have no beauty-/As, by my faith, I see no more in you/Than without candle may go dark to bed) (38-40). Rosalind’s response to Phoebe is remarkably conservative, considering she is widely regarded as being one of Shakespeare’s most free-spirited and anti-establishment characters. This authoritarian streak could be a product of Rosalind’s performance of masculinity, but she seems to take Silvius’ side until the end of the play, and besides, as we shall later see, she doesn’t in general play this part well. Her attitude then is more likely to be a result of the class difference between the two female characters. In Rosalind’s view it is okay to resist patriarchal power only if one is of a noble class, with normal rules applying to those who are not. She is therefore analogous to a feminist like Virginia Woolf, while Phoebe’s resistance is closer to third wave feminism.(viii)

This episode leaves Shakespeare once again in a contradictory position. Through the differences in language we are encouraged to side with Phoebe over Rosalind. This is a very progressive position to have taken, but it comes hand in hand with the mockery of Silvius’ inability to perform the courtly role he attempts to play. The implications of this mockery seem to be an advocacy of class essentialism and a conservative rejection of the possibility of social mobility. However, this contradiction becomes more complicated when we consider Orlando’s love poetry in Act III, Scene 2. Rosalind reads eight lines of a poem that Orlando has carved onto a tree:
‘From the east to western Ind
No jewel is like Rosalind.
Her worth being mounted on the wind
Through all the world bears Rosalind.
All the pictures fairest lined
Are but black to Rosalind.
Let no face be kept in mind
But the fair of Rosalind.’(ix)

The imagery of global exploration and exotic riches such as jewels had, by this time, become as clichéd as that of pain and torture in love poetry. A comparison between the love object and something widely acknowledged as beautiful was another trope, ‘all the fairest pictures lined’ being a particularly unimaginative variation on this. The metre in this extract is based on lines of feminine pentameter, which makes the feminine hexameter in line 3 sound uncomfortable. Perhaps Orlando’s biggest literary crime is his indecision in deciding how to pronounce ‘Rosalind’. Through the eight lines he rhymes it with ‘Ind’ and ‘wind’, but then also with ‘lined’ and ‘mind’. Orlando’s poetry is as bad as Silvius’ attempt at courtly love rhetoric, so the apparent conservatism could be a product of the tensions in strands of hierarchy mentioned earlier. In making a progressive point about the subordination of women to men who are often their intellectual inferiors, Shakespeare is forced into a mocking the social ambition of a working class character.

In The Taming of the Shrew eloquence and intellect once again do not reflect the social status of many of the characters. Christopher Sly may be drunk and illiterate, but the relationship between Lucentio and Tranio is far more complex than what we would expect from a master-servant relationship. The play begins with Lucentio expressing his intention to undertake ‘a course of learning and ingenious studies’ (9) in Padua. Tranio replies with the warning, ‘let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray,/Or so devote to Aristotle’s checks/As Ovid be an outcast quite abjured’ (31-33). Lucentio’s reply is grateful, saying ‘gramercies, Tranio, well dost thou advise’ (41), so Tranio’s intellectual superiority is made clear from the start.(x) The relationship between the two seems to be one of friendship, rather than a simply professional one. Lucentio asks Tranio to ‘counsel me, Tranio, for I know thou canst./Assist me, Tranio, for I know thou wilt’ (155-156) and Tranio later says, ‘I am content to be Lucentio/Because so well I love Lucentio’ (214-215).(xi) The fact that Lucentio decides to swap costumes with Tranio shows that their relationship is built on mutual respect. It also raises once again the question of performativity. Tranio plays the part of Lucentio so well that it takes the arrival of Vincentio to reveal his identity. This is perhaps understandable, as a servant to a wealthy master is likely to be educated. More interestingly, perhaps, the pedant empolyed by Tranio to play Lucentio’s father is equally adept at the task, to the extent that when Vincentio arrives, Baptista believes the pedant and Vincentio is almost taken to jail.(xii) This challenges the essentialist view of class structures by showing us that given the correct attire anybody can, not only perform, but be of any class. It is significant that before changing clothes Lucentio does not tell Tranio that he shall pretend to be Lucentio, rather he says, ‘thou shalt be master, Tranio, in my stead;/Keep house, and port, and servants, as I should./I will some other be’ (my italics). (xiii)
This would have been an incredibly radical position for Shakespeare to take and he is not able to fully realise it. While Shakespeare had the distance of a form of exclusion from the society that he kept company with and was therefore able to view it critically, he was still not fully external to its hierarchies and was still subject to the pull of ambition and the will to conservation that accompanies wealth. However, he was not only working within an authoritarian society, but also an authoritarian artistic medium. The genre of Renaissance comedy was highly conservative mostly due to its insistence on marriage, which at the time was an authoritarian institution designed to perpetuate the existing social hierarchies; both in terms of class or rank, and gender. Marriage in this period was based on succession and the desire to retain social position, and as a result was heteronormative and confined to within classes (women had the ability to be somewhat socially mobile, but men certainly could not marry above their own rank). It is often noted that Shakespeare’s comedies occur in the world of the aristocracy, while his tragedies are about royalty. I would argue that this is because royal lines are regularly broken and replaced. The true ‘old blood’ is to be found in the nobility, as we can see by the fact that there have been three royal families since Elizabeth I, whereas the descendents of Robert Cecil, whom Elizabeth made Earl of Salisbury in 1605, still retain their title and family name. Women during this period were little more than a vehicle for reproduction and we can see the marriage rite as a binding economic exchange between men – the father ‘giving away’ the bride to the groom. This explains Celia’s reluctance to read the rite, but when she does it is an extremely subversive act. She is a woman and is not ordained, overseeing the marriage of a man with a woman dressed as a man. It was also illegal to enact the rite anywhere outside a real marriage ceremony, so this was a risky move on Shakespeare’s own part.
We need only examine the consequences of cross-dressing in the plays to see the ways in which comedy seeks to reinstate the social hierarchies. The noble characters face no consequences by dressing down in class and are easily able to return, which implies that they retain some essential nature. On the other hand, Tranio and the Pedant are forced to flee upon the arrival of Vincentio as the logic of comedy requires that Lucentio be the one to marry Bianca. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio is punished and mocked for his wish to marry Olivia. We know nothing of Viola’s and Sebastian’s parentage other than Viola’s assertion to Olivia, as Cesario, that ‘I am a gentleman’ (xiv), until upon hearing who his father is, Orsino says of Sebastian, ‘right noble is his blood’.(xv) This is an instance of what Stephen Greenblatt calls comedy’s tendency to ‘swerve’.(xiv) He draws attention Sebastian’s line after Viola’s revelation. He says to Olivia, ‘lady, you have been mistook./But nature to her bias drew in that’.(xvii) This points to the authoritarian mechanism of comedy, whereby a swerve in the narrative aligns the conclusion to ‘nature’s bias’, or more precisely, the bias of renaissance social order. This bias requires that Viola be a woman in order to marry Orsino, and that Sebastian be a gentleman in order to marry Olivia.
Shakespeare himself seems to have noticed this authoritarian tendency to swerve in the conventions of comedy and satirises it by exaggerating it to absurdity in As You Like It. In the final scene of the play the marriages required by convention do occur, but in order for that to happen gratuitously convenient swerves are abundant. Oliver decides for no given reason to side with Orlando, the tyrannous duke decides to give up the court to Duke Senior, and Hymen arrives out of nowhere to ensure that Rosalind’s anti-patriarchal meddling ceases and the marriages that will continue the social order occur. Thus, Rosalind and Phoebe marry within their social class to their intellectual inferiors, to become their subordinates for the rest of their lives. This is even darker in Phoebe’s case as she has been tricked into marrying somebody that she does not want to. The ending is deliberately bad, showing us that comedy’s drive towards marriage is so strong as to sacrifice good writing and the happiness of the characters. Similarly, Kate, in The Taming of the Shrew, is forced to give up her individuality to be subordinated in marriage to a man that, not only did she not want to marry, but is also abusive. In the same play, however, there is a much more hopeful and progressive parallel storyline – that of Christopher Sly. The induction is never resolved, meaning that Sly remains on stage throughout the play and finally walks off stage and out into the world, still dressed as a lord. Shakespeare is forced into an extremely strange plot device, in eliding the ending to the Sly story, and only by doing this is he able to save Sly from comedy’s inevitable swerve. In Twelfth Night, there is a similar, if far more subtle subversion of comic convention. In a play full of homoerotic undertones, comedy appears to win again; the issues of social class are resolved with previously discussed swerve, and the two heterosexual couples are engaged to be married. However, performativity once more rears its head. Viola does not immediately remove her ‘masculine usurped attire’, instead promising to retrieve her ‘maiden weeds’, but does not do this during the remainder of the play.(xviii) This means that Orsino decides to marry her while she is still dressed as a man, and she leaves the stage in this way.
Why then are Sly and Viola allowed to remain in their new socially elevated roles? I think the answer can be found once again in a quote from Butler, in which she says, ‘significantly, if gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief’, again expanding gender to any sort of social identity.(xix) It appears to be their belief in their performed roles that makes those roles their reality. Sly is convinced out of doubt that he is in fact a lord and Viola meets Orsino, falls in love with him and has that love returned, all in the guise of Cesario. Her flirting with Olivia shows us that she has become the character that she was previously performing. Thus when she promises to change back into her ‘maiden weeds’, it is clear that this is another costume, rather than any essential self. Rosalind is not able to resist the logic of comedy, as her own disguise never convinces her. She falls in love with Orlando as Rosalind and even while pretending to be Ganymede, pretends to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind while with Orlando. In fact, it seems that her disguise is barely a disguise, otherwise it would be incredibly strange for Orlando to go along with the pretence of calling Ganymede Rosalind and wooing him. Rosalind never becomes Ganymede, but instead remains Rosalind in disguise, hence her fainting in Act IV, Scene 3, and ceasing the pretence whenever talking with Celia in private. These ideas of performance and authoritarian resolution can be expressed in terms of festive comedy. I have argued that comedy, as a genre, is an authoritarian mechanism of the existing social order, allowing for a festival period of chaos and freedom, before returning to the original position. Shakespeare, while not being able to defeat this aspect of comedy, through his use of cross-dressing, hints at a more hopeful, Bakhtinian vision. While the return of social order is inevitable, we can choose our identity for ourselves, providing we perform our chosen roles with belief and conviction.

i) Judith Butler, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution (1988), in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Rivkin & Ryan, 2nd ed. 2004. Oxford: Blackwell
ii) Peter Holbrook, ‘Class X: Shakespeare, Class, and the Comedies’, in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Comedies, ed. Dutton &Howard, 2006, Oxford: Blackwell, p.69.
iii) As You Like It, William Shakespeare, ed. Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor (2005). The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works,. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. V.I.45-48, p.676.
iiii) Peter Holbrook, p.72.

v) Ibid, p.79.
vi) The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare, ed. Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor (2005). The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works,. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Induction, p.27.

vii) As You Like It, II.4.63-99, p.664.

viii) Ibid, III.5.1-41, p.671.
ix) Ibid, III.2.86-93, p.667.
x) The Taming of the Shrew, I.1.1-46, p.30.
xi) Ibid, I.1.155-218, p31.
xii) Ibid, V.1, p.49-50.

xiii) Ibid, I.1.119-202, p.31.
xiv) Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, William Shakespeare, ed. Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor (2005). The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works,. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. I.5.269, p.725.
xv) Ibid. V.1.262, p.741.
xvi) ‘Fiction and Friction’, Shakespearian Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, Stephen Greenblatt, 1988, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
xvii) Twelfth Night, V.1.257-8, p741.
xviii) Ibid. V.1.248-253, p.741.
xix) Judith Butler (1998)


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