“Reading Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf through a Trans Lens,” Las VI Jornadas de Educación en Plurilingüismo y Género in Celebration of Shakespeare’s First Folio

September 27, 2023 :::  Sponsored by the Argentina Ministry of Heath, Chamber of Deputies, Cultural Studies and Gender Association, and Universidad Nacional de Catamarca

Alexa Alice Joubin’s keynote at the Sixth Conference on Education in Multilingualism and Gender in Argentina examines new trans theories informed by anamorphosis and performativity. She proposes inclusive ways to interpret Shakespeare’s plays and Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando through this trans lens which re-calibrates our critical capacity to understand transness.

     Significantly, performativity, as a linguistic function, permeates all narratives (including performance) and therefore has the capacity to expand the scope of trans literature. Transness is defined as acts of traversing and transversing normative gender categories.

     In sociolinguistic terms, performativity can tacitly or overtly affect social actions. Woolf’s Orlando is an example of the first function of performativity: how language tacitly defines social actions. The novel opens with a witty sentence about its sixteen-year-old eponymous protagonist in Elizabethan England by a narrator: “He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it.” Woolf’s em dash and the subordinating conjunction of “though” foreshadow Orlando’s transformation and undercut the masculine third-person pronoun.

     Later, in a matter-of-fact tone, Woolf describes how, after sleeping for seven days, the novel’s immortal protagonist, then the English Ambassador, wakes up a woman in Constantinople (“he had become a woman—there is no denying it.” Orlando lives through male and female embodiments over four centuries.

     The second function of performativity is exemplified by the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses: how language affects social actions in overt ways through explicit descriptions of gender change.

     In Book Nine, Iphis undergoes important emotional and physical transformations. Assigned female at birth but raised as a boy, Iphis identifies as a man and falls in love with a woman named Ianthe. Ovid uses feminine pronouns to describe Iphis throughout even when writing about gender transition. Third-person pronouns are markers of social rejection or acceptance, as the case may be, and their usage is an important part of the performativity of speech acts. Ovid’s choice of pronouns brings Iphis into being.

     In speech acts, gender is both a spatial and temporal concept, reflecting what one does in a given space at a given point in time. One travels through life with evolving gender practices. But genders (as social practices) also involve interpersonal relationships that may shift over time.

     Twelfth Night is unique among comedies that are based on so-called mistaken identities, because it is energized by Cesario’s presence rather than that of Viola’s. Significantly, after the scene on the beach Viola disappears from sight and the dramatic action. Other characters’ speech acts affirm and undermine, in different scenes, Cesario’s personhood in Illyria. Traditional criticism, tripped up by the problematic misconception of “crossdressing” as a convenient and temporary dramatic device, has largely overlooked these trans cues and interpreted Viola as a cisgender crossdressing character. Joubin’s trans lens theory corrects these cisgender sexist biases. 

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