Monday, 14 February 2011

Gender-bending in Shakespeare

When in Shakespeare's comedy, "As You Like It" Rosalind disguises herself as a boy, she decides to take the name of "Ganymede", saying that this name was borne by "Jove's page": in classical mythology a beautiful boy abducted by the god Zeus to serve as his cup-bearer. But there was rather more to it than this, as Shakespeare was no doubt aware. The story of Zeus and Ganymede was often used in the context of sex between men and boys.

In John Aubrey's "Brief Lives", written in the later 17th century, he recounts the life of Shakespeare's contemporary, Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon. Aubrey informs us that Bacon was a pederast (what we would nowadays more vaguely call a paedophile), and he refers to Bacon's harem of boys as his "Ganymedes", a reference that he expects his readers to understand.

If this terminology was indeed widespread, we can put Shakespeare's usage in context. Remember that in Shakespeare's theatre there were no actresses: female roles were played by boys. So "Rosalind" would actually be a boy actor playing a girl pretending to be a boy. Now that really would be gender-bending!

I wonder therefore, when Rosalind announced that her name would be "Ganymede", whether it would have brought dirty chuckles from the audience? And would Shakespeare have intended this?

Things are not dissimilar in "Twelfth Night", where Viola pretends to be a eunuch called Cesario: he/she rapidly gains the love of both the lady Olivia and Duke Orsino. Some years ago I saw a school production of "Twelfth Night" in modern dress, in which Feste the jester was played by a girl dressed as Boy George. I can't help thinking that Shakespeare might have enjoyed this gender confusion.

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