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  • “No Matter - now - Sweet - But when I’m Earl”: Dickinson’s Shakespearean Cross-Dressing
  • Páraic Finnerty (bio)

A new way of reading Dickinson’s poetic experiments with gender has been offered by the work of Judith Butler and other cultural critics, who contend that gender is socially constructed and neither fixed nor essential. 1 For Butler, gender is “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (Gender Trouble 33). Gender is constituted performatively through a stylised repetition of gestures and acts that establish rather than express a stable abiding gendered identity. This article focuses on those Dickinson poems that construct speakers who blur and confuse the regulatory distinction between the masculine and the feminine, which Butler argues constrains and limits the proliferation of alternative configurations of gender through different repetitions of acts (147–9). These gender-crossing poems can now be read as subversive in that, like drag and cross-dressing for Butler, they disrupt the illusion of gender identity as an essential inner substance by denaturalising and mobilising gender categories (136–8). I suggest that the subversion in Dickinson’s gender-crossing poems is articulated through the theatrical and gender-switching vocabulary of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing plays: The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and Two Gentlemen of Verona. 2 Dickinson’s poems are imaginative sites of gender-sabotage, which italicise the possibilities of gender confusion in these plays. These possibilities were generally ignored by critics in Dickinson’s day, who regarded Shakespeare’s cross-dressers as paragons of ideal femininity, uncomfortable in male attire. In contrast, Dickinson’s poems construct hallucinations of gender, composed of male and female parts: a Queen-page, an Earl-girl, a Woman-boy, a Wife-Czar, an Earl-Bride. These gender-blurring figures, analogous to yet different from Shakespeare’s cross-dressers, confound the inevitable closure of cross-dressing and gender disorder that Shakespeare’s plays were read as proposing. [End Page 65]

Dickinson’s gender-crossing poems have been interpreted as reflecting Dickinson’s masculine aspect or animus (Ward 70–3); her actual identification with males (Cody 121–4, 167–171; Patterson 7–19) or her need to characterised as male that in herself — her powerful creativity — that deviated from conventional femininity (Rich 166; Gelpi 124; Diehl 19–20, 25–6, 81–2; Mossberg 24–31 173–6; Pollak 134–6). Thus these poems have been read as representations of Dickinson’s divided or hybrid sense of self, her identity as poet in conflict with her identity as a woman. Moreover, Rebecca Patterson situates these poems in a nineteenth-century “androgynous” historical moment which contained actresses like Charlotte Cushman who took male parts; a writer like George Sands who dressed as a boy; numerous women writers who used male pseudonyms, especially after the critical success of the Brontës; and women both real and fictitious who fantasised about being male (1–7). 3 Although David Reynolds does not refer to any of Dickinson’s gender-crossing poems, his reconstruction of the subversive imagination that pervaded Dickinson’s culture demonstrates the historicity of Dickinson’s understanding of gender complexity. For Reynolds, Dickinson appropriated all the available female stereotypes of her day including the ultimate adventure feminist that she adopted in the poem “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun” (754) (Reynolds 425–6). This female stereotype of subversive literature often assumed male disguise, as in The Life and Suffering of Miss Emma Cole (1844), The Remarkable Narrative of Cordelia Krats: or The Female Wanderer (1846), Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain (1845) and The Female Volunteer (1851). Catherine Sedgwick, a writer favoured by Dickinson’s father, wrote Hope Leslie (1827), in which a woman disguised herself as the manservant of a rake (345–51). Reynolds also refers to women who by attempting to alter the unfair social and electoral system were characterised in popular newspapers as “squabbling mannish women” (396); Phineas T. Barnum’s freak shows included bearded women (469); and a subversive humour tradition that often parodied feminist utopias where sex role...

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