Shakespeare on transgender

University of British Columbia professor of English Literature Mary Ann Saunders is presenting at a conference which begins on Thursday. The conference is called 2016/Moving Trans History Forward: Building Communities -- Sharing Conections and it is being held at the University of Victoria. Keynote speakers are Jamison Green of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and SiriusXM founder Martine Rothblatt.

Professor Saunders' paper is The (Transgender) Tempest: Shakespeare as Trans Archive. She will be speaking, of course, about the character Ariel, the spirit who is the sorcerer Prospero's indentured servant.

On three occasions during the play, Prospero orders Ariel to take on female form.

Saunders based one of her English literature courses around this character after reading a paper that focused on the 2010 film version of Ariel, in which the male character has breasts when taking on female form, but a masculine face.

Saunders said she said she was "irritated" when the article she read described the character in the film as an example of "body horror."

These are her [author of the article] words: is grotesque, is monstrous, and she refers to these embodiments as impossible.

When I read that I was thinking well, okay, but this body looks an awful lot like my body.

And, it looks an awful lot like the bodies of a lot of trans women I know. And our bodies are not horrifying, they are not grotesque, and they're certainly not impossible. Otherwise I would not be here.


From there, Saunders realized there were a number of interesting parallels between Ariel and the lives of trans women.

Case in point: When Prospero makes Ariel take on the form of a sea nymph to lure a prince, it "draws on kind of a cultural stereotype … which is that we take on a false female form in order to seduce or lure unsuspecting men into relationships that they would not otherwise want to be in or chose."

Saunders, who is emphatic that she doesn't believe this stereotype, recalls watching the movie scene in which Ariel watches the prince with Prospera's daughter.

At that moment I see playing out a feeling I know a lot of trans women experience, which is this feeling that the people who we want to love us, the people who we want to be in relationship with us, are not going to be.

They're always going to choose the person who isn't trans over us.


Saunders says she knows this is not a universal condition, but she says it speaks to a common trans anxiety.

There's this place of identification there, which I find really beautiful, and also really bittersweet.





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Of course, in Shakespeare's day...

Robyn's picture

...women were not allowed on the stage, so female characters were performed by young boys. Thus it is no surprise that stage directions always refer to Ariel with male pronouns. It is also the case that on the few occasions that Ariel refers to hirself with pronouns, s/he uses male pronouns.

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