It’s been a long time since anyone last dropped me a question behind the scenes, let alone one that required a blog post. But as per usual, I’m happy to answer where the question is well-considered and thought-provoking. I feel like this one certainly is.
The question for today’s post comes from a reader of my ongoing No-Fear Shakespeare project. S/he requested to remain anonymous. The question reads:
“You approached the Bard’s history plays with the idea that Shakespeare was a closest Catholic. Then you came out as trans. How much of your personal journey affected your reading?”
Wow. Loaded question, right? Caught me off guard too, since I wasn’t really planning to blog much about being trans. But it’s a fair question, to be sure.
The short answer is that whenever we enter into an appreciation of any art form, we carry our experiences forward with us. It’s inevitable.
Let’s break this down properly. Personally, I approach art in all its forms as a conversation. There is the work itself. There is the artist who produces the work. And there is the audience. The audience, in turn, is comprised of two parts: the intended audience when the work was produced, and the audience who experiences it with a modern context (i.e., us). Understanding the artist and the time / place / politics surrounding the work and its original audience is of paramount consideration for me if I’m to engage in that conversation on any level. But as Shakespeare’s friend and fellow poet Ben Jonson said in the preface to the First Folio, the Bard was “not of an age, but for all time.” It’s proven to be true as Shakespeare’s words and works have transcended to us precisely because they play to universal themes and hit different types of audiences at different levels. In other words, what we see most in the play is what speaks to ourselves at the deepest levels.
I’ve called out Shakespeare for lacking the courage of his convictions, remaining closeted as a Catholic in a most dangerous time when such people were being persecuted in Elizabeth’s Golden Age. Admittedly, I was in the moment when I wrote that, as he was bagging on Joan of Arc, and I do so admire her. But as was pointed out in the question, I was closeted as trans when I made that original statement. Let’s face it, when we judge someone, that judgment reflects more upon the accuser than it does the one being judged. I take full ownership of that here. The difference, of course, is that one’s religious beliefs are a matter of cultural nurture and upbringing as opposed to being born transgender. But for those on the outside looking in, I don’t suppose this distinction really matters much. Staying hidden is staying hidden, regardless of the reason, and persecution of an unpopular standard still leads to potentially deadly consequences in any time or place where fear undermines compassion. I’m not saying Shakespeare was wrong to stay in the closet. He was hardly a revolutionary soul, and quite frankly I’m glad we got the plays we did instead of him losing his head prematurely. I’m merely saying he had an interesting way of speaking out and staying hidden in plain sight. It’s one of the most fascinating tightrope walks I’ve ever seen. And it’s only because I experienced these plays from the viewpoint of being closeted myself that I saw through to what I believe was Shakespeare’s intent. Being transgender absolutely gave me the insight needed to read the Bard on that level. So, yes, it does tend to color one’s point of view to live in such a closet.
Interestingly, this isn’t a connection I made directly. Rather, I owe this point to a French stage actress that I came to discover by way of the beautiful Art Nouveau posters of Alphonse Mucha, one of my favorite artists. Mucha did a number of playbill posters for Sarah Bernhardt, and one of the many roles she undertook that stirred up some controversy in its day was when she stepped into the title role of Hamlet in 1899.
“The Divine Sarah,” as she was known, wasn’t bulletproof by any means, and taking a male role such as this at that time was as risqué then as it was for Joan of Arc to put on male attire and armor up for the battlefield, albeit less lethal. (Side note: Bernhardt also played Joan on stage). Nothing sells in the world of the arts quite like controversy. As it says in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, “To hell with Gluck and Handel — it’s a scandal that’ll pack them in the aisles!” It’s an interesting reversal to consider that in the Bard’s own time, female roles were played by men as it was considered demeaning for women to be a stage performer (as opposed to all the other ways women were demeaned in that era). In all cases, these gender swaps were still played straight, which is to say the male parts were still played as men, and the women parts were still played as women. Even so, it’s difficult for the gender dysphoric like myself not to make the leap to the next idea. Identity for me is something of a sacred cow, as one might imagine, which is why reboots of my favorite stories and characters tend to stress me out or even offend me when handled badly. I don’t sit back and wonder about gender-bending my favorite characters. I just don’t. But when something lines up in the background, say… when the Bard “protests too much,” I can’t help but see a repeated meme, one that I think any of Shakespeare’s fellow Catholics would have spotted as well. That meme becomes a hypothesis, and in this case, my hypothesis seems to hold up. I like to think I didn’t try to force a square peg into a round hole here, and I’ll leave it to my reading audiences to decide how far off the mark I am. But that’s what I saw, and being transgender is absolutely why I saw it. A closet is still a closet, and the view is pretty much the same through the crack in the door to the outside world. Even so, it took Sarah Bernhardt to hold up that cue card for me at about the same time the Bard’s influence was starting to click for me. Complete happenstance. Or was it?
Thanks to my anonymous reader for the question. I hope this answer satisfies curiosity and was worth the read for the rest of my audience.