Gender fluidity in Shakespeare's Comedies

Ronan Paterson

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


It can be argued that there are very few places in the world where gender matters less than on stage. Because the stage is representation, not reality, and because the audience is aware of that, a character becomes a character simply by claiming to be so. A king is not played by a king, a murderer is not played by a real murderer, a pair of lovers do not have to actually love each other. By the same token, a man can play a monkey, a woman can play a river, and a woman can be played by a man, or vice versa. Because the actor is only representing the character, it is possible for frail human beings to show gods, heroes, villains and the embodiment of external forces, in a fiction in which the audience colludes. Both actor and spectator agree to pretend that the figures in front of the audience are who or whatever they say they are.

Historically the situation has been made more complex by cultural layering. In Ancient Rome, or in 19th century Russia, actors were slaves, or serfs, and had a lower than human status. In Ancient Greece, in Shakespeare’s theatre, in many of the historic classical theatre traditions all around the world, women are absent as performers. But if theatres do this, playwrights do not necessarily play along.

Of all the writers in the English language, William Shakespeare reigns supreme. He epitomises the classical English tradition. No other writer in the English language is as widely known around the world. His works are translated Into almost every language, his plays are seen on the stages of almost every country in the world. For many people Shakespeare IS English literature and drama. He, as much as anyone, has created the perception of English language writing. But in the area of gender he is far from straightforward, and he walks a precarious line between definitions of gender and sexuality, and plays with the conventions and stereotypes of men and women. He did this in his own time, and the questions he asks of us are no easier to answer in the present day.

In his tragedies gender roles are often conventional, although many of his female roles are considered the most demanding as well as the most rewarding for actresses all over the world. but in his comedies he pushes gender stereotypes and gender definitions to the extremes. Writing for a theatre in which girls were played by boys, Shakespeare explores male and female aspects of human beings to an extent unequalled by any other writer in the Anglophone world.

Taking as its starting point Shakespeare’s comedies Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, this paper examines the elasticity of Shakespeare’s gender roles, where the definitions of boys and girls become fluid, and in some cases disappear.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 6 Nov 2020
EventIntersections in Shakespeare: 4th Biennial Conference of the Asian Shakespeare Association - sejong Conference Centre, Sejong University, Seoul, Korea, Republic of
Duration: 5 Nov 20207 Nov 2020


ConferenceIntersections in Shakespeare
Country/TerritoryKorea, Republic of


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