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Cross-gender roles and performances permeate many of Shakespeare’s plays. Viola presents as pageboy Cesario for most of the dramatic action in Twelfth Night. Falstaff escapes Ford’s house as the Witch of Brainford in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Rosalind ventures into the woods as Ganymede in As You Like It. In that same comedy, Celia (as Aliena), Phoebe, and Audrey were also played by boy actors in Shakespeare’s time. In Cymbeline, British princess Imogen dresses as a male servant, Fidele, on their quest to find their husband among the Roman soldiers. Read the special issue on contemporary transgender performance of Shakespeare of the open-access journal dedicated to Shakespeare and appropriation, Borrowers and Lenders.

These cross-gender acts have been misunderstood as “cross-dressing,” which implies crossing from one fixed binary position to the other. These works are in fact transgender plays. Centuries of cisgender-centric biases told us we have to suspend our disbelief to understand cross-gender roles.

But: What if the body of the female character and the actor’s somatic presence exist on a continuum rather than in contrary fixations? The enactment of gender practices is not predicated upon “substitutions” (as in substituting the boy actor for Desdemona). It does not entail diagnostic recognition (as in being reminded of the “real” body beneath the illusion of Desdemona).


This is the topic of a special issue of the open-access journal dedicated to Shakespeare and appropriation, Borrowers and Lenders, edited by MIT Global Shakespeares‘ founding co-editor Alexa Alice Joubin. She argues that gender is a set of interpersonal relationships and social practices. As such, gender evolves in the presence of other people, in social spaces, and over time.

In the special issue, Joubin proposes a theory of “trans lens” to correct the institutionalized cis-sexism that assumes the cis status of even those characters with fluid gender practices. Articles and interviews in the special issue question the purported neutrality of cisgender subject positions. Tracing the development of trans presence in Shakespearean and global performances, this special issue demonstrates trans lens at work, delineates the relationships between transgender, adaptation, queer, and performance studies, and reveals the caveats of those fields.

There are two types of transgender performance today that portray, respectively, tacit and overt transness.

Some of these works feature characters with ambiguous identities. These works may not always be trans-positive or bill themselves as trans-inclusive at all, but they can be interpreted productively through the “trans lens.” Richard Eyre’s Othello-inspired film Stage Beauty (2004), with a cisgender cast, is an example of tacit performance of transness.

Other works interpret genderplay more explicitly as transgender practices or employ trans artists, such as Sebastián Lelio’s Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman (2017), starring Daniela Vega, Chile’s first openly trans actress.

Daniela Vega as Maria in Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (2017)

Overt representations of transness are typically seen in documentaries (such as the TLC reality television series I am Jazz, 2015), works by trans artists, and narratives that are inspired by true events (such as Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, 1999).

Both types of works deal with the tension between the truth of one’s gender practices and the screening of those practices in performance. Representations of transness raise new questions about the sociality of gender practices, namely the social processes that enrich or hinder gender practices in various communities.

To read more, visit the open-access journal’s website at


Special Issue

Contemporary Transgender Performance of Shakespeare


Edited by Alexa Alice Joubin

Vol. 14 No. 2, 2023

Borrowers and Lenders


  • proposes “trans” as method and as a social practice
  • argues that the enactment of gender practices is not predicated upon “substitutions”
  • demonstrates trans studies’ relevance to Shakespeare studies
  • highlights practitioners’ voices and amplifies marginalized narratives




Alexa Alice Joubin


Lisa S. Starks


Daniel Lauby


Alexa Alice Joubin




Alexa Alice Joubin


Alexa Alice Joubin


Terri Power and Alexa Alice Joubin


Alexa Alice Joubin



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