A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

CSI and As You Like It

CSI, which stands for Crime Scene Investigation, is a hit TV show that features graphic autopsies and fine-tooth comb searches among the aftermath of hotel room excesses. Its beslabbed victims while living, and its Las Vegas-haunting perpetrators until caught, share what the French (who have words for these things) call a penchant for the louche, a preference for the most distorted of pleasures. If CSI were to be defended in moral terms – not that it particularly can be - it would be for its role as a cautionary tale.

Last night's episode concerned the aspiration to change one's gender. Watching it, I was struck by how much differently Shakespeare handles the same issue. Here's Rosalind, in As You Like It (curtal means broad; swashing means swaggering; outface…semblances means bluff your way through with mere appearances):

"Were it not better,
Because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?
A gallant curtal ax upon my thigh,
A boar spear in my hand, and – in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman's fear there will –
We'll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances."

Rosalind has escaped with her friend Celia from the court of Duke Frederick, Celia's overbearing and dangerous father, to live by her wits in the woods, so she has some reason to recast herself as a man. The CSI casting department, by contrast, performed some real shoe-leather research in finding, by all appearances, actual sex-changed actors, whoops, actresses, to populate their episode. But back in the woods, here's Rosalind (doublet and hose refers to the male clothing of the time, which included hose stockings to advertise the muscularity of men's legs):

Rosalind: "I could find in my heart to disgrace
my man's apparel and to cry like a woman;
but I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet
and hose ought to show itself courageous to
petticoat. Therefore courage…".

At the close of the CSI episode, after the unlicensed sex-change surgeon, herself formerly a man, is arrested, the CSI shift supervisor Gil Grissom rhetorically flourishes the image of an oyster species that can change its sex at will, suggesting a template for human identity that may yet lurk deep within our brains. We are briefly charmed by the infinitely protean potential of nature, presumably including our own.

Shakespeare of course was himself charmed by the imagining of sexual role-playing, which he makes central to As You Like It, Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice. But his characters always understood it as playing, as a temporary exercise designed to instruct ourselves in a greater empathy and understanding for members of the other sex.

Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, but in love with Orlando, meets Orlando in the forest. Orlando is in love with Rosalind and is in fact carving her name along with some bad love poetry onto trees. Rosalind, as Ganymede, offers to cure Orlando of his love if he will visit Ganymede every day and pretend Ganymede is Rosalind and attempt to court her. Rosalind/Ganymede tells Orlando she will behave in such contrary ways that the counseling will work as aversion therapy:

Ros/Gan: "And this way will I take to wash your liver
as clean as a sound sheep's heart, that there shall not
be one spot of love in 't."

Orl: "I would not be cured."

Ros/Gan: "I would cure you, if you would but call me
Rosalind and come every day to my cote and woo me.

Orl: "Now by the faith of my love, I will. Tell me
where it is."

Ros/Gan: "Go with me to it, and I'll show it you; and
by the way you shall tell me where in the forest you live.
Will you go?"

Orl: "With all my heart, good youth."

Ros/Gan: "Nay, you must call me Rosalind…".

This emphasis on love and thought and imagination contrasts starkly with the deadly seriousness of the surgery and hormone-based culture that the CSI episode describes.

Being unincarcerated myself, I can't really speak for those who perhaps do feel themselves trapped in the body of a man while identifying as a woman. But responding to one's tortured soul by torturing one's body into a semblance of an ideal self-image strikes me as a form of idolatry, the substitution of the physical for the spiritual. It's just a body after all. It's supposed to provide health and long life and relative freedom from pain; a vessel primarily for the spirit and not the passions.

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