As they liked it: the ancient fashion for cross-dressing

I myself have spent some time in a Brownie uniform, and David Beckham has worn his wife's underwear
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The Independent Online

Shakespeare scholars are still trying to untwist their hoses following the identification of a portrait, previously thought to be of a 16th century socialite called Lady Norton, as a lipsticked and rouged Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton.

This is significant because Southampton was Shakespeare' s patron, with some evidence to suggest that he might also have been the playwright's lover, and the "fair youth" to whom many of the sonnets are dedicated, including the glorious: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

The apparent discovery that Southampton was a transvestite, an Elizabethan Eddie Izzard, throws fascinating light, scholars suggest, on Shakespeare's own predilections. Far from the rampant heterosexual marvellously portrayed by Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare In Love (although even he spent part of the movie dressed as a woman), it is now supposed that Shakespeare was a man of ambiguous sexuality who enjoyed consorting with aristocratic drag-queens and, oddsbodikins, may even have been something of a cross-dresser himself.

Which would certainly explain his preoccupation with gender confusion in his plays, situations rendered doubly confusing by the Elizabethan convention of men playing women pretending to be men, from Rosalind in As You Like It to Viola in Twelfth Night, who says, confusingly, to Orsino: "My father had a daughter loved a man – As it might be perhaps, were I a woman, I should your lordship." A more appropriate quote in the light of all this theorising, however, comes from Lavatch the Clown in All' s Well That Ends Well: "It is like a barber' s chair that fits all buttocks." In this instance, Shakespeare himself is the barber's chair and prevailing theories – no offence intended to the erudite literary historians who have entered the debate these past couple of days – are the buttocks.

Shakespeare was not one man but several; Shakespeare was Christopher Marlowe; Shakespeare was left-handed; Shakespeare was Scottish; Shakespeare invented the skateboard. I have heard them all except the last, and even that is but a matter of time. And now we learn that Shakespeare's patron was a transvestite, from which we are told to assume that the great man himself was not averse to choosing a nice frock and pair of earrings, and heading down to Madam JoJo' s, or its 16th century equivalent, of a Saturday night. Nay, nay and thrice nay, as Brutus says in Julius Caesar – or was it Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii!?

I'm not having it. Even with academic sanction, it's still mere conjecture. Not that I don't wish to believe that Shakespeare had drag-queenly tendencies. After all, there is a venerable tradition in this country of cross-dressing. I myself have spent some time in a brownie uniform, although not recently, and not especially for my own delectation. And our poor, crocked national hero, David Beckham, has been known to wear not only a sarong, but also his wife's underwear. Besides, Britain' s cultural heritage would be much the poorer without pantomime dames and principal boys. My children's Christmas was greatly enriched by Lyn Paul, formerly of The New Seekers, and her interpretation of Dick Whittington at the Theatre Royal, Windsor. As was mine, if I'm honest, especially when she sang "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing".

No, the main reason I'm not having it is because it is always misguided to apply to the past the sensibilities of the present. In the 16th, 17th and particularly the 18th century, committed heterosexuality and high camp were by no means mutually exclusive. The more affluent classes in those days were full of Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowens, a notion that might put us right off the idea of time travel, but should also disabuse us of the belief that behaviour now considered peculiarly effeminate was then anything less than normal.

Moreover, the relentless speculation about other folks' sexuality, across continents, decades and now even centuries, is getting a mite tiresome even for those of us who previously rather enjoyed wholly unfounded gossip – of the "a friend of mine knows someone who swears this is true because her cousin actually saw them at it" variety – about a gay relationship between two Tory ministers, or between a former Blue Peter presenter and a jazz diva, or a prince of the realm and a pop singer.

The other common manifestation of this unhealthy early 21st century obsession is to unite the most improbable pair imaginable, usually as lovers, but sometimes as relatives. Did you know that Clint Eastwood is the illegitimate son of Stan Laurel? Poppycock, of course, but I' ve heard it numerous times, always from people who think they are privy to a fact previously unknown, much like the one about Shakespeare's patron, and therefore Shakespeare, having been transvestites. Which to my mind is poppycock too, else why would Flute say so indignantly to Quince, in A Midsummer Night' s Dream: "Nay, faith, let me not play a woman; I have a beard coming."

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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