Shakespeare’s Prince

I thought this was an interesting and partly correct observation:

Another way of saying this, of course, is that we’ve pushed the domain of transgressive sexuality and gender identity from artistic expression and culture into public recognition and law. I don’t think I’m unique in thinking there’s a lot less gender bending in popular music now than in David Bowie and Prince’s heydays, and that the trend in both movies and music is toward hyper masculinity for straight male characters and singers rather than ambiguity of any kind.

Today’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and wild Bill is famous for gender bending and cross-dressing, across many of his plays but particularly in the comedies Twelth Night and As You Like It. His most famous tragedy is also in some ways an “interrogation of masculinity,” as the English professors say: the main conflict could be summarized as why Hamlet can’t be a real man like his dad, to avenge his dad.

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,

That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,

And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,

A scullion!

(That’s not exactly the same thought as When Doves Cry- but there’s a similar pathos. And Purple Rain’s protagonist could probably relate to Hamlet’s family problems, even if they’re not exactly the same.)


Our time would be happy to assign Hamlet a label- gay or trans- and attribute his problems conforming to his father’s model of masculinity to his unacknowledged, true identity. But in doing so we make the space of accepted, heterosexual masculinity smaller than in Shakespeare’s time rather than larger. Judging from my experience with high schoolers, “Claudius, do you even lift?” is about all that Hamlet could get away with now.

One can’t know whether the tensions and and crosses and reversals of his plays reflected Shakespeare’s “true” identity, as the bisexuality of the sonnets would suggest, or whether that was (like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust) in part a convenient pose. Certainly, gender-bending and cross-dressing exist in earlier forms across all the Italianate poetry, Latin plays, and European folktales from which Shakespeare drew themes and plots, and these themes and dramatic practices survived him for centuries- in the Beaumarchais play which became Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, for example, the stage directions state that the young man Cherubino must be played by a beautiful woman, even before Mozart wrote “Voi che sapete” for a soprano playing Cherubino to sing.

The idea that our time is uniquely tolerant of fluid or shifting identities seems unlikely. The contention that changes in law and custom in our own time that make permanent changes in identity more feasible make the rest of the society more able to let their freak flag fly, rather than holding more tightly onto received identities, seems to me rather unproven.

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