There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
Female actors were outlawed during the Bards time and female characters were played by young boys or teens who voices were yet to break. They were also paid the least of all actors and many suffered disease or even death from lead poisoning caused by the lead based make-up of the time. Being that it is the great play rights 400th anniversary since his passing I was thinking about how gender ideas during history compared to today. I would like to explain this is a brief appetiser of the trans umbrella through the ages and not meant as a serious historical study by any stretch.
One thing I have always noticed about history is how much is written by, for and about men. To further the point many of our greatest female writers had to use male pen names for fear they would not be taken seriously as novelists. Not hard to understand when you consider the separate educations for boys and girls, academic versus domestic that was prevalent throughout time. It was certainly harder for the fairer sex in the past but what can history tell us about those who did conform to their birth gender or societies expectations of them.
Women were banned from performing on stage in ancient Greece just like in Shakespeare’s time so men portrayed female characters. Aphroditus was an intersex god and their worshippers would cross dress during sacrificial rituals. Although they were myths, there are many situations where gods and goddesses appear as the opposite gender to either seduce a mortal or pretend to be another person.
Elagabalus, a Roman Emperor, was thought to be transgender although there is no factual evidence and we need to rely on contemporary sources from the time. Sources who may, or may not, have known him. It is thought that he would offer money to surgeons who could give him reassignment surgery and would regularly cross dress to prostitute himself to men. It is also thought that he used make-up and wigs to fulfil his desires to transition.
Rome had very strict ideas about who could wear what. There were certain clothing types for head of the household, children and commoners to name but a few. So it is clear that any form of gender bending would most likely have been seen as deviant or barbaric in nature. It is of interest to note the notion of a ‘third gender’ through the Galli who were castrated and dressed in feminine attire. They were part of a priesthood of sorts serving the goddess Cybele. It is a shame that nor more is known about the reasons behind their transition as it may well have been a way of dealing with transgender issues in Roman times.
A classic that must be mentioned is Joan or Arc who was known for dressing in men’s clothes. Although this is disputed because records may explain that she was wearing a soldiers outfit to protect herself form rape whilst being held prisoner by English soldiers. Lets say for arguments sake it was true that she dressed in male attire, it is not that hard to feel that it was most likely out of practicality rather then anything else. I would love to think that Joan of Arc, one of my historical heroes, was transgender and saw herself as a man, but is far more likely that the truth is it is very hard to fight the English in a gown, kirtle and chemise! Armour is far more appropriate, as would a soldiers uniform when slumming it at camp. It is important to mention that the authorities at the time were looking for any excuse to rid themselves of Joan and it is quite plausible to think the prosecution were using cross-dressing, then a recognised sin, to add fuel to their heresy claims against her. But her feats of taking on the male role of war to defeat her foes should not be undermined and I feel she is one of the most important figures to feminism today. She truly broke the mould and is a great example that our birth sex does not have to determine how we are shaped by society. I put her in the same category as Boadicea who was also famed for breaking into the male dominated world of war when she took on the Romans.
I was always fascinated by the idea of male actors playing all the female parts back in the day. During this time there was outrage in London towards women who had started to dress in a more male style and James I ordered preachers to publicly renounce its practice. It is unclear why the notion of masculine men had come about but it was maybe the early creaks of equality without anyone actually knowing what that was. The fact it took a special pamphlet to be produced showed that the all powerful church was worried enough about what was occurring. It is known that apparel was more then just to cover yourself, it stated your social status, it was not uncommon for local laws and ordinances to be created to control the populaces clothing. For instance gentleman would have to wear silk and gold, priests purple and so on. So maybe it was that some women were facing up to the rigid constructs of society and basically sticking two fingers up to it? This blatant disregard for gender conformity could be seen as androgyny making its way into more modern society.
It could was thought that cross dressing obliterated the persons identity, nobleman, yeoman etc. A male transvestite would ultimately be giving up his entitlement over women as was the hierarchy of the day. And for the most part female transvestites were seen as prostitutes because they were not conforming to the strict regulation laid out. At the time women were seen as an object of desire with strong sexual needs, that needed taming of course! And the men were at hand to do just that. It is odd then that it was normal, if not expected, for men to dress as women while on stage. Although there are instances of attacks on this practice from commentators and those who advocated the class system at the time.
Following Elizabethan and Jacobian times there are some other notable historical figures. There was the pirate, Mary Read, who was one of only two to women to ever have been convicted of piracy. She was brought up as a boy by her mother so she would continue to receive support following the passing of her son. Mary joined the navy and was eventually captured by the infamous Anne Bonny who tried to seduce the boy. This was when her secret was discovered and she joined Bonny’s pirates. On the flip side of this there are many instances of women serving as male soldiers, again serving to bridge equality and paving the way for the acceptance of women in the military.
James Barry, may well be the first transgender doctor of modern medicine. James was born as Margaret and it is thought he transitioned or cross dressed to enable a career in medicine and be able to attend university. It is unknown if James thought of himself as male as he lived a stealth life and had a very successful career. His birth gender was only discovered after his death where his gender was recorded as male. There is no conclusive proof that James was born female or intersex. It is a shame that there is not further information as James could be hailed as a very successful transperson. Whatever the case it shows the courage and spirit James had to aim so high under what was undoubtedly a very pressured life throughout.
Another historic hero of mine is Lili Elbe, not just because of the recent film adaptation of her biography, but because of the sheer persistence she showed throughout her life. Lili took bravery and self belief to a whole new level and was a trailblazer. In my opinion she is the first actual transsexual due to her being the first transwoman to have successful reassignment surgery that we can be sure of. I have no doubt there were others before or maybe around the time that tried but the records are thin and inconclusive. In my mind it is the risks and sacrifices that Lili made that allow me, and other like me, to be who we are today.
No matter what happens in the future, there is already a rich history of transgenderism. From cross dressing warrior queens to pioneers in the field of medicine, I am sure if the Bard knew what we know now he would have made even more complex and interesting characters. So here is to you, Will. Your plays and poems have stood the test of time just like my brothers and sisters who make the beast with two backs to gender conformity. Blackguard!