From Shakespeare to RuPaul

In a special summer course this year, Ursinus students are exploring the history of drag performance and how drag reflects and responds to cultural shifts over time.

Although the title of the class (“From Shakespeare to RuPaul: The History of Drag Performance”) suggests the course starts in the Shakespearean era, the class explores the art as far back as ancient Greek performances. For centuries, the concept of a binary gender swap has been prevalent in theaters around the globe.

“This is a theatrical tradition that has been a part of many cultures over many different eras,” says Domenick Scudera, a professor of theater at Ursinus who is teaching the course.

“What’s fascinating about it is that it allows us as scholars to examine so many different things that go beyond just the theatrical history,” he explains. “We’re able to take a look at the role of gender in society and what we ascribe to masculinity and femininity; what that means to different cultures and how those different cultures are shaped based on perceptions of gender. The class opens up a lot of discussion about some very important issues dealing with gender and sexuality.”

One example is Shakespeare in Love, a play (based on the popular film) that borrows from Shakespeare’s real life and from fictional elements of his scripts. It depicts a woman who wishes to perform on stage and who disguises herself as a man to reach her goals. The class saw the play at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.

In the original days of Shakespearean performance, women were forbidden from acting on stage and all of the roles, male and female, were performed by men. The class is also reading Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night is a play that has a female character disguising herself as a man. When you think about what that was like in Shakespeare’s time, that means a man was playing a woman disguising herself as a man, creating three layers,” Scudera says.

The course also discusses modern day drag, with particular emphasis on prominent figures in the community, like RuPaul. RuPaul Charles is widely considered to be one of the most successful drag queens in the world and has found massive success as a singer, songwriter, actor, model and television host.

“The drag performer that we see today is a very different kind of performer than one found in other periods,” Scudera says. “A man in Ancient Greece playing Antigone or Medea was doing something very different than RuPaul is today.”

“In one section of the course, we examine this particular moment since it is the most accessible and familiar to us,” he says. “What is this phenomenon in mainstream culture right now with the fascination of drag queens? I do think it starts with RuPaul, who is a trailblazer and who has created an industry that empowers people and who teaches through drag that anyone can have the ability to reinvent themselves and make themselves strong, beautiful and confident.” —By Mary Lobo ’15