Twelfth Night
June 6 – July 23, 2023

“What I Am and What I Would: Shakespeare and Non-binary Imagination”

June 1, 2023

by Abby Weissman and Leo Mock

Shakespeare is not our queer icon. He spends much time describing the differences between men and women, their faults and their gifts. In Love’s Labours Lost, we hear Berowne’s effusive praise: “[women] are the books, the arts, the academes That show, contain, and nourish all the world.” (Act IV, Scene 3). Conversely, As You Like It’s heroine, Rosalind, describes a laundry list of defects: “jealous”, “clamorous”, “weep[ing] for nothing”, “laugh[ing] like a hyena”. ( various scenes). As for Twelfth Night, in Orsino and Cesario’s debate on men vs. women’s capacity for love, we see a false debate about the supremacy of one gender over another (Act II, Scene 4). And yet, Shakespeare’s plays were and continue to be a space in which actors play with gender performance. He writes characters that accomplish what he cannot – disrupting binaries and presenting endless possibilities for expression and expansion. One of his most intriguing ruminations on gender is found in Sonnet 20, addressed to a “master-mistress”. Shakespeare describes him as, “a woman first created” then “pricked” for women’s pleasure, carrying all the virtues of womanhood with none of its vices. Shakespeare explores a binary by exploring a character who is not easily categorized within it, who moves between worlds, and who “steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.” Queer artists are often drawn to Shakespeare’s plays as a playground where they may embody characters who resonate more fully than many of those in the American theatre canon. Shakespeare best serves the queer and trans community when we lean in to breaking expectations. 

Twelfth Night is, among other things, a play about defying fate. Our characters survive impossible storms, challenge expectations, and outwit those with power over them. Shakespeare’s frequent exploration of the confines of fate has much to do with his rejection of absolutes and binaries. Each and every either/or is met with a character who finds a way to walk both worlds or between the lines of, to name a few, Capulets and Montagues (Romeo and Juliet), Romans and Volscians (Coriolanus), courts and wilderness. This is to say nothing of our clowns and fools, whose very purpose is to poke holes in the logic that holds up the binaries of formal society. Likewise, about a fifth of Shakespeare’s plays include a character who spends some time behaving and being perceived as a gender other than their own. 

Shakespeare best serves the queer and trans community when we lean in to breaking expectations. 

Shakespeare’s use of disguises and masks allows his characters the freedom to explore nonbinary options for themselves. These nonbinary options expand beyond gender and into realms of class, rank, nationality, and sexuality in many circumstances. As a soldier, King Henry can speak to his army as peers at Agincourt (Henry V), and Duke Vincentio attempts to right the wrongs of his lax rule, operating not as a Duke, but as a friar (Measure for Measure). Similarly, five of Shakespeare’s heroines use a disguise of manhood to seek safety and/or power. While in disguise, Viola (Twelfth Night), Rosalind (As You Like It), and Imogen (Cymbeline) all form deep loving relationships with the men around them. These bonds may not have formed without their performances of masculinity. However, while disguise offers these women freedom, Shakespeare’s two men disguise themselves as women explicitly to fool other men. It is vital to clarify that while we can explore modern trans experiences through characters who don gendered disguises, we do not conflate the two experiences, or extrapolate trickery from two literary figures onto judgements of real people. Gender is contextual, and therefore texts explored out of the time they are written cannot fully capture the lived experiences of us today. Many trans people today are faced with threats to their right to exist publicly due to beliefs founded in tropes around disguising oneself as a different gender explicitly to trick or harm others. The so-called “gay & trans panic defense” is wielded across the country to excuse violence against trans and queer people across the country, and many bathroom bills restricting trans individuals’ right to public facilities are founded in the belief that trans people are entering that space with the intention to harm others. The stories we tell on stage and screen contribute to how queer and trans people are perceived and punished for existing authentically. It is of the utmost importance to us to tell stories of gender exploration and performance that center joy, authenticity, curiosity, and play, rather than making gender nonconformity the butt of a dangerous joke. 

Which brings us back to this Twelfth Night. With queerness inherent in this text (think of Antonio, arguably one of the canonically queer characters in Shakespeare) and a proposition from Director Yury Urnov to consider all of life a beach, we have the opportunity to invite in expressions of gender and sexuality that suit our modern community. With one actor playing two twins, we reach a point in which the fabric of the gender binary itself does not suit this world, and we get to witness its glorious and beautiful dissolution. 

With one actor playing two twins, we reach a point in which the fabric of the gender binary itself does not suit this world, and we get to witness its glorious and beautiful dissolution. 

When we look at gender as a spectrum rather than a binary, everyone benefits. Not only do we make space for the experiences of trans and nonbinary folks, we are making space for everyone to experience and express their gender according to their values, which may diverge from restrictive social norms. We love to see how our Illyria embraces this space as an invitation into more authentic lives. Gender is culturally-specific, temporally-specific, relational, and shaped moment-to-moment. Performing gender goes well beyond performing A Gender, like “man”, “woman”, “nonbinary”, or any singular gender identity (or as Hil Malatino writes in Trans Care, “There are genders and there is Gender”). If Gender is the instrument, and our character’s experiences, values and expectations are the notes, then we see that the possibilities for performing gender, both on and off-stage, are an infinite symphony. 

Abby Weissman and Leo Mock are the Gender and Intimacy Consultants for The Wilma Theater’s production of ‘Twelfth Night,’ on stage June 6-25, 2023.