Gender as Ambiguous and Performative in Twelfth Night and in the Case of John/Eleanor

As I made my way through this week’s readings, I couldn’t help but draw connections between the case of John/Eleanor Rykener and Twelfth Night. Despite the fact that the John/Eleanor case is nonfiction from the late 14th century, while Twelfth Night is fiction from the early 17th century, I think that the common theme of crossdressing calls for some analysis of these two together.

I find both the ambiguity and the performative nature of gender in each of these sources to be particularly worthy of discussion.

As I noted in response to Adam’s post on Friday, Twelfth Night deals heavily with what Casey Charles calls a masked but “decided anxiety about what is feared to be the actual fluidity of gender” in sixteenth- and seventeeth-century Europe (Charles 124). That is, if Viola can transform into Cesario, and Cesario into Viola, and if Cesario is indistinguishable from Sebastian, then what is gender? How set and defined (i.e. not fluid, unambiguous) can gender possibly be? Moreover, Charles explains that Viola/Cesario “collapses the polarities upon which heterosexuality is based by becoming an object of desire whose ambiguity renders the distinction between homo- and hetero-erotic attraction difficult to decipher” (6). Ambiguous or fluid gender, then, has consequences for desire as well.

Similarly, in the Rykener case, there seems to be an ambiguity and fluidity to John/Eleanor’s gender. John/Eleanor was presumably raised as John, yet lived a sizeable portion of his/her life as Eleanor, whether as a prostitute, an embroideress, or a tapster. John/Eleanor reported having sex with men (“as a woman”) for pay, and with women (“as a man”) not for pay. And, as Ruth Mazo Karras and David Lorenzo Boyd point out, John/Eleanor’s gender was so ambiguous that court officials seemed unable to classify him/her either as a prostitute (defined most simply as a woman who had sex outside of marriage, though also with implications of selling oneself—hence a classification only applicable to woman) or as a sodomite (101). Furthermore, John/Eleanor’s gender ambiguity, much like Viola/Cesario’s, carries with it implications for sexual desire, as we can see when Carolyn Dinshaw questions the motivations of the men who solicited John/Eleanor: “…are those clerks really unsuspecting, or might they want a feminized man, or a phallic woman? Might they want something that’s not a woman but not a man either, something that seems to them neither fully masculine nor fully feminine? Is this what makes them ‘ignotos’—not only unsuspecting, bur profoundly unknown themselves, because what they want is unheard of?” (Dinshaw 110-111).

In light of this apparent ambiguity of gender, a whole host of new questions arises for Viola/Cesario and John/Eleanor. What makes gender—clothing? behavior? biological sex? personal preference? sexual positions? Who defines gender? Must one fit completely into the “male” or “female” categories, or are there spaces between or outside of this dichotomy? Both Twelfth Night and the Rykener case seem to deal with questions like these using the idea of gender as performative. In Twelfth Night, Charles argues that “the effects of Viola’s cross-dressing point to the socially constructed nature of gender in Shakespeare’s play” (122); her success in presenting herself as Cesario “consequently points to the constructedness and performative nature of gender itself” (123). In the case of John/Eleanor, Karras and Boyd point out that the court document does refer to Rykener as a man when s/he is the penetrative sexual partner (i.e. when s/he has sex with women), but it “repeatedly treats Rykener as a woman” as well, gendering him/her female whenever s/he takes on the “passive”/“penetrated” role (109). It seems that, for Rykener too, then “gender was seen as performative”: “it was behavior and not intrinsic nature that made one a man or a woman” (109).

What do you all think about this whole gender ambiguity / gender as performance idea? What implications might it have for sexuality? 

6 thoughts on “Gender as Ambiguous and Performative in Twelfth Night and in the Case of John/Eleanor

  1. This is an extension post.

    Marisa likens the case of John/Eleanor Rykner to the cross-dressing present in Twelfth Night, and calls into question what constructs or defines gender and why it is of importance. Recalling details from the case, she points to the “ambiguity and fluidity” of John/Eleanor’s gender, as s/he spends a majority of her life, after the original “switch,” as a prostitute, embroideress, and tapster. Though it is apparent to the reader, through “Cesario’s” weak attempt to duel and non-masculine characteristics in both speech and action, only when Sebastian shows up is Cesario/Viola’s gender brought into question. Similarly, Marisa points out the men that were sexually entangled with Rykner may not have been totally oblivious to her “true” nature, and instead have been going after something they want that is previously “unheard of” (Dinshaw, 110-1). Similarly, while Olivia falls in love with Cesario, we have discussed in class in the two dialogues (1.5 and 3.1) some lesbian undertones to the conversation, suggesting Olivia is truly attracted to a creature somewhere in between “male” and “female.” Marisa is correct in both connections—the roles are fluid and ever changing, and while others may not explicitly know it themselves, the interchangeability appeals to them.
    However, a likeness between the two that Marisa did not point out is the similarity of societal reactions after the gender ambiguity is revealed. Or, to use Marisa’s words, after the “performance” is over, when the clothes are metaphorically ripped off, and society is left to decipher what is left. Most times, the publicity of interchangeable gender, in both the play and real life, puts an abrupt end to life as the “subject” knew it. Gender may as easy to change, as Marisa suggests, by a “change of clothes…sexual position…[or simply] behavior,” but once the change is made public, the social construction of gender is too deeply engrained for the subject to return to their ambiguous, fluid rolls. Viola is immediately directed to change out of her clothes and return to becoming a maid; as Dinshaw suggests the “the silence of the records [regarding Rykner’s] case might be the final silence of a violent death, or the muteness of a maimed life” (Dinshaw, 112). In addition, the case of the transgender person we discussed on Monday (Dr. Evans, you’ll have to help with the name) ended with the courts decreeing that he/she has to pick a gender and stick to it. What I’m getting at here is while gender itself may be easily switched because of its socially constructed nature, the impact of gender and the role it plays in society is not nearly as fluid or interchangeable. The confusion nearly causes a debacle in Twelfth Night, and, despite the fact that the feelings were developed with the gender roles flipped (“Cesario,” by strict gender construction fell in love with Orsino), the “justice” (in this case, Duke Orsino), commands V/C to the gender that conforms with his ideal, and then, only when “in other habits [Viola] is seen” (5.1.382) can Viola/Cesario ascend in social status to queen. This is the happy ending of society’s influence on gender. For John/Eleanor Rykner, in Dinshaw’s best case scenario is a life strikingly different from the one he seemingly enjoyed, sex aside. The worst is death, an outcome fit, in society’s terms, for a “poor monster” (2.2.33). In conclusion, while I agree with Marisa’s point about the fluid and performative nature of gender, I think that, however we choose to define it, gender is so deeply engrained in the mind of society that when the roles are openly challenged or when both roles are presented, society works quickly, either judiciously or violently, to “correct” the gender issue. So while the performance itself may be easy, the judgment of it is not so and complicates both gender and sexuality as a whole.

  2. I would like to write an extension post dealing with the issues Adam brought up when we look at gender as a performance. This is also an attempt to clarify my fumbled question during class, so I hope I’m able to redeem myself.
    Adam notes that insofar as gender is a performance, performances usually come to a close. I think this is a brilliant observation. This is where we seeing the “rigging”; this is not center stage anymore, but behind the curtain. If we are going to look at gender as performative, we must look at every participatory role that goes into creating such a performance.
    The other day I mentioned a divided line; one that separates, however slight, the biological sex of a person and their gender (masculinity/femininity). When the performance of Viola/Cesario is over, we see in Orsino’s declaration to change her clothes a contest between the individual and the community in deciding a gender identity. Not only that, but gender is revealed to be a constant participatory act that simultaneously perceives, regulates, and projects biological norms. Gender is an artificial inference that is imposed upon the subject of scrutiny, which is exposed when Eleanor Rykener is punished as John Rykener despite his sexual behavior as a “woman” because it is only natural (for society at the time) for a man to seek out sex as aggressively as he does. This scrutiny is also taken a step further, when it becomes less about projecting biological norms and more about enforcing the perceived differences through symbols (clothing) that makes it easier for this cycle to reproduce itself. Eventually, the process becomes so distended that it has becomes less about inferences drawn from the biological sex and more about imposing desired roles. This is especially apparent when people with two biological sexes are scrutinized. Drawing inferences from their biological sex(es) in an attempt to find a role for them through gender is impossible in this already distorted cycle.
    What becomes problematic, for me, is when we look at the individual’s side in this contest of identity. If the individual “won out” against these forces, would it be an internal resolution to see yourself as your biological sex despite your gender-opposite actions? Or, would it be much more than that in the destruction of gender itself? Refusing to participate in the artifice, or perhaps being unaware of it at all, would see John wearing a dress because it is stylish and comfortable, not because he wants to be a woman. The latter would not be a born notion (nor a direct inference drawn from biological sex), whereas the former would if John were a “blank slate.”
    To separate sex and gender would mean the eradication of the latter, which is something I see as improbable considering the conscious society-wide coordination such a thing requires. But what I do believe is that gender is much more than the center stage of a performance. Society is both the audience and script writers, and without them there is no performance.
    I wonder if this is an adequate extension of the performance model we’ve been using, and I do hope someone refines my logic.

  3. This is an extension post.
    I take Marisa and Adam’s point; we are drawn to the similarities between John/Eleanor and Viola/Cesario despite the fact that one is a historical character and one is literary, and the two are from disparate social ranks and eras. Were the two committing similar “crimes”? What motivated them to break society’s rigid gender and sex laws and cross-dress?
    Dr. Dinshaw’s question about applying the term “transgender” to John/Eleanor raises many interesting issues: how do we think of trans today, how do we reach back through history to apply the term anachronistically, and should we even try? The question of intention seems crucial here, and while it is impossible to reconstruct either individual’s motivations, we can see what each gained in a practical sense. John/Eleanor and Viola/Cesario both cross-dressed to fill an occupation typically filled by a member of the opposite sex: John/Eleanor worked as a prostitute, tapster, and embroideress under the mastery of Elizabeth Brouderer, and Viola/Cesario served the Duke Orsino. This does not seem to be the only motivation, however: “Why did John/Eleanor choose this labor over other kinds of labor available even to very poor men?” (Dinshaw 108). Certainly there was more than one job open to Viola, as well, yet both appear to adopt these new roles readily.
    We discussed cross-dressing in terms of passing or disguise, but John/Eleanor and Viola/Cesario do appear to attempt to go unnoticed. Viola, in her decision to cross-dress, immediately assigns herself a male alter-ego: “Viola, in planning to take on a new identity, refers to her disguise not as a form of cross dressing or change of gender roles but as an actual cancelling of biological sexuality. She is to play the part not of a boy but of a castrate: ‘Thou shalt present me as a eunuch to him’” (Elam 1-2). John/Eleanor also does not use cross-dressing simply to fill a female occupation, as John/Eleanor participates in several roles, even living as a woman with a man in his/her time as a tapster. Neither character seems to be merely acting a part, but becoming a new figure altogether.
    Thanks to Bob’s excellent thoughts about the roles of identity verses performance, I began thinking about exactly whose identities are at stake in the crossing of John/Eleanor and Viola/Cesario. Is it just their own identity that is confused, or are other people involved as well? There exists a theme in both cases of the cross-dressing individual replacing an already present, “properly” sexed individual. Poor Valentine is replaced within a matter of days: “Viola/Cesario undoubtedly does get through to Olivia as Valentine cannot…[but] the substitution of Viola/Cesario for Valentine [is not] simply the substitution of a forceful emissary for a feeble one” (Crewe 101). Viola/Cesario replaces Valentine because Orsino “hath known [Viola/Cesario] for but three days, and already [s/he is] no stranger” (1.4). Viola/Cesario brings something to the male role that Valentine does not. Similarly, John/Eleanor is used as a substitution for the girl Alice, who is placed with diverse men “in their beds at night without light,” with her pimp mother “making her leave early in the morning and showing them the said John Rykener dressed up in women’s clothing, calling him Eleanor and saying that they had misbehaved with her.” We do not know why John/Eleanor replaced Alice, but we do know that John/Eleanor was deliberately brought in as a substitution for a person who already existed. From this, I would like to make a guess about Medieval and Early Modern concepts of cross-dressing and gender roles. John/Eleanor and Viola/Cesario did not only cross over from one gender to another, but they were used to fill gaps because perhaps they somehow fit better. In some ways we can read John becoming Eleanor as Eleanor becoming Alice, and Viola becoming Cesario as Cesario becoming Valentine. The crossing in both cases is so difficult to define because the “crime” of each seems to be that they take a place in society that has already been claimed.

    • Crewe, Jonathan. “In the Field of Dreams: Transvestism in Twelfth Night and The Crying Game.” Representations 50 (1995): 101-121.
      Elam, Keir. “The Fertile Eunuch: Twelfth Night, Early Modern Intercourse, and the Fruits of Castration.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47.1 (1996): 1-36.
      Twelfth Night
      John/Eleanor Rykener court transcript

  4. I’d like to query with and perhaps connect different parts of all the posts thus far, or at least the ones that I can see published (Marisa, Adam, and Bob). I think they each raise relevant and valid points that should definitely be on the radar as we ponder these questions.. What is gender? And what is gender saying about sexuality? Disclaimer: I may not come to any conclusions by the end of this.

    It is very difficult to refute either Marisa or Adam in their arguments, and I don’t intend to. We can insist that repercussions to those caught gender-crossing were strictly to reinforce the binary of male/female; however, Shakespeare’s treatment of gender as fluid and ambiguous is clearly a commentary or a desire for gender to be more than the restrictive binary. Also, all of the descriptions of John/Eleanor “acting as a man” and “acting as a woman” point to gender being rooted in actions, in performance. They say that it is possible to live on the line, or to switch back and forth (to my understanding, this is what Marisa is saying). Whether or not you should, or whether or not society will reprimand you is another question (I think this is what Adam is getting at). Basically, I don’t think these arguments are at odds with each other; they can work together. Yes, gender (which, at this point, I take to be the performed expression of one’s sex) can be ambiguous; but, society is likely to reprimand a person for that ambiguity, especially if it goes so far as gender-crossing.

    But Why? For me, this is the biggest question. Why does medieval society feel so threatened by a man wearing woman’s clothing or vice versa? What is so terrifying about gender-crossing that it has the potential to “disturb the public order”? or that when masks are off, Viola must change into women’s clothes before Orsino will take her hand? When raising these questions, I can’t help but come back to sexuality and Marisa’s last question: What implications might gender have for sexuality. I’d like to venture to say that gender itself, or perhaps the stress society places on it to be binary, is an implication of sexuality, specifically the mystery of sexuality. The law that confines gender to a binary may be a result of no one really understanding what sexuality is. There was no control and that was threatening. So what do you do? You make rules based on societal values (i.e. The Church), and then work within that box. As Bob said, “Society is both the audience and the script writer” (The blossoming of discourse!). Obviously, we see the problem with this. As soon as someone in real life comes along who does not fit in your box… John/Eleanor.. You’re screwed.

    It is a bit funny really. As much as we’re trying to deconstruct, and figure out exactly what was going on in these people’s heads, or perhaps the medieval consciousness as a whole, we are still, in a sense, placing them in boxes. As Carolyn said in class on Wednesday, this desire to know more details about John/Eleanor’s case, to want to use labels at times, to understand… It is all very telling about our own feelings toward sexuality. We still don’t really know what it is (at least I don’t). So far, I think I’ve found that there were many more boxes than perhaps medieval gender-binary society wanted… just haven’t quite found out what to call those boxes yet.

  5. From what I understand, to claim gender is performative is to suggest that behavior is the basis for gender assignment, rather than gender being the basis for certain behaviors, the latter being a more contemporary idea. Gendered desire, then, would be an attraction toward a certain set of behaviors, an aesthetic taste. And if gender is performative, then it is also malleable; changing gender would be as simple as changing particular elements of appearance or manner. As both Adam and Bob note, Viola is ordered by Orsino to change into women’s garments at the end of Twelfth Night, and this signifies the society-imposed change of genders. Additionally, if gender is based on behavior, then it is not inherent, but always motivated and constructed. For example, Viola adopts a masculine persona solely to gain access to the court of Orsino. When read from a “gender as intrinsic” perspective, this is mere artifice or disguise; however, when read from the “gender as performance” perspective, this is an authentic form of her gender expression, just as authentic as the feminine persona with which she begins and ends the play, which is based on adherence to the social norms imposed upon her biological sex.

    Society thus regulates gender through establishing and propagating acceptable modes of behavior corresponding to biological sexes. If the fluidity of gender is a threat, then these norms work as an institution to contain it. Paradoxically, these norms are what define gender and give it its fluid and performative nature; without them, forms of gender expression would lose their meanings. Bob posits the idea of John Rykener as a (hypothetical) “blank slate” individual, which I would like to use to illustrate my point. For such an individual, the choice to wear a dress would be based on utility, rather than defiance of any social standards. While free from the tangled influence of gender and sex, he would not be able to use the dress as a instrument of gender expression; to return to the idea of gender as performance, he would be left without any props or costume. I would like to extend this idea and apply it to the case of John/Eleanor Rykener, who may have ultimately benefited from these gender norms despite how (s)he was regulated by them.

    As mentioned in class, the way in which Rykener was interrogated is reminiscent of the Foucauldian idea of pleasure being derived from sexual discourse. For this reason, it is a possibility that Rykener was actually seeking to be caught. The complexity of Rykener’s gender/performance could not have been fully appreciated by his/her primary “audience”; it would not have been understood to be anything other than normative by anyone except his/her patrons—and there is ambiguity regarding whether or not they even knew (s)he was actually a male. Moreover, given the likely setting (in a dark area), would these patrons have been aware of Rykener’s sex, the effect it would have had on their experience would have been diminished. To be able to present the largest and fullest experience, Rykener had to be caught, arrested, and given the chance to tell his/her story. At this point is where the way in which Rykener’s non-normative gender distinguishes it as a performance. The case of John/Eleanor Rykener, immortalized in a court transcript, is the only one of its kind; it is a “queer relic,” an artifact that offers the modern queer reader an “affective relation” to the past (Dinshaw 142). Though society may have punished Rykener, possibly with death, it also immortalized him/her and his/her “performance” as a landmark for gender and its relationship with society in the past.

    Works Cited
    Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999. Print.

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