Old Plays, Modern Ideas

My gender identity story is not so dissimilar to Shakespeare’s gender-bending plays.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Sophia Li

I am the daughter of Fuzhounese immigrants. Though I was born in a Brooklyn hospital, I spent the majority of my childhood in the predominantly white suburbs of Dillon Valley, Colorado. I loved skiing during the winters and was obsessed with Marvel action figures. As a carefree seven-year-old, I didn’t see anything wrong with my “boyish” hobbies, but deep down, I knew the Dillon Valley girls saw me differently. They’d gawk at me from the American Girl section of book fairs as I flipped through Lego Ninjago comics by myself. They’d stare at me by the field as I ran around the jungle gym. I wanted to fit in. I wanted friends. I asked my mom to buy American Girl dolls and hair clips, even though I did not care for them. I tried faking my way through conversations by mimicking their “lady-like” mannerisms, but ultimately, I could not change their tainted perception of me.

When I turned eight, my family moved back to New York. I was eager to start anew. I attended P.S. 40, another predominantly white school. Things did not change. One day, we were sitting in a circle on a carpet laced with ABC blocks. One of the girls got up and playfully assigned ratings based on our appearances. When she finally got to me, she paused for a moment. The silence was painful. Another hesitation elapsed after a sigh. “Zero,” she said. Zero. For a number that equated to nothingness, it sure weighed heavily on the shoulders of my eight-year-old self. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t want to laugh along, because then I’d look dumb. All I could do was stare at my grubby, tan fingers as their laughter died down painfully slowly. After that day, I threw away all my dresses, my American Girl dolls, and my hair clips. I felt ugly. I cut off almost all of my hair. I didn’t want to associate myself with the P.S. 40 or Dillon Valley girls. I didn’t feel worthy of being a girl anymore.

On the other side of the globe, 400 years ago, William Shakespeare wrote “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” one of his most famous plays. Even in a society that restricted women’s rights, Shakespeare never shied away from discussions about gender roles. Notorious for its stage superstitions, “Macbeth” is considered an unlucky play by actors and fanatics alike. The play features both the supernatural and natural worlds, and the boundary between the two entities is obscured by the introduction of three gender-neutral witches who permeate the entirety of the play. Shakespeare questions traditional gendered expectations through the struggles of a revered general-turned-tragic-hero, Macbeth, and his ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth.

Stereotypes surrounding masculinity prevent Macbeth from expressing vulnerabilities deemed feminine, such as fear, remorse, and compassion. After reading Macbeth’s letter at the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth is informed of the bearded witches who foretold Macbeth’s rise to power as Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland. She wants to act upon these ambitions through violent means associated with her perception of masculinity. Lady Macbeth then pressures Macbeth to kill King Duncan, the first of many murders. Macbeth, however, is reluctant to act upon these instincts, and his manhood is questioned by Lady Macbeth.

While Macbeth battles the suffocating confines of toxic masculinity, Lady Macbeth struggles with restrictions placed on women at the time. Despite the female monarch, Elizabethan women could not yield the same power or own property like men, and they instead dedicated their lives to motherhood and domesticity. Directors also had to submit to these conditions, and women were prohibited from performing. Shakespeare’s cast only consisted of men, even though his plays highlighted progressive ideas. With these limitations, femininity in this era meant incapability and defenselessness. Both the Macbeths want to express traits associated with the opposite gender. In one of her most famous lines, “Under my battlements. Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,” Lady Macbeth attempts to break free from the fetters of traditional gender roles.

Similarly, Shakespeare's cross-dressing romantic comedy “Twelfth Night” is also premised on the boundaries of gender and sexuality. The play centers around identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, who each think the other is dead after being separated in a shipwreck. Viola, who washes ashore on the Adriatic coast of Illyria, laments the supposed death of Sebastian and decides to fend for herself by seeking employment as a eunuch for Duke Orsino under the guise of a male alias, “Cesario.”

Viola and Lady Macbeth’s journeys are not so different from mine. They both learn to adapt to a world that feels out of place. After my exile from the tribe of girls, my sights shifted to “the boys.” Second-grade boys didn’t care about appearance, instead favoring the Yankees and the Avengers. Deep down, I knew I was still a girl; I didn’t want to let go of my feminine attributes. But my choices at the time seemed limited; I could be team boys or team girls, no in-betweens. Like Lady Macbeth, I called upon the spirits to “unsex” me and put on my “Cesario” disguise. At first, this facade felt comfortable. I could finally talk freely about my interests. I wasn’t the last one picked for school projects anymore. But soon, my suppressed duality started to tear me apart like “two spent swimmers that do cling together/ And choke their art” in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”As time went on, I felt more and more alienated from my sense of self. I grew tired of my “Cesario” attire and secretly longed for my hair to grow back.

On the coast of Illyria, Viola, still in her male attire, is also confused by her clashing duality as she resides in a gray area between both sexes. In a turn of events, Countess Olivia falls in love with Cesario and reaches out to “him” by returning a ring that Viola never had in the first place. When Viola realizes her feelings for Count Orsino and Olivia’s feelings for her Cesario persona, she feels like a monster. She, like me, is also confused by the fluidity of gender and sexuality. In many instances, she is told she is acting manly even when she behaves in a stereotypically feminine manner. Through Viola's dilemma, Shakespeare suggests that figuring out one’s identity can be puzzling, messy, and even gruesome.

Reading Shakespeare’s plays has allowed me to reflect on my past and current sense of self. Like Viola, I have not fully come to terms with my conflicting masculine and feminine characteristics. She never comes out of her male costume, even after her identity as a woman is revealed. Count Orsino has never met Viola outside of her gentleman’s attire and continues to address her as Cesario. He declares her his “mistress, and his fancy’s queen” immediately after she unveils her identity, indicating that even Orsino falls in love with Viola’s male persona. In other words, Viola’s male counterpart never really goes away; it is still a central part of her identity.