Lady Macbitch: Translations of Shakespeare in Contemporary Drag Queen Performances
Folk etymology tells us that the word “drag” means “dressed resembling a girl”, first used in male theatrical transvestism. Whether tis true or not, saying “Shakespeare” and “drag queen” in the same breath brings a certain humor, since male cross-dressing in theater was a normal occurrence during the Bard’s time. Much like Elizabethan theater back then, drag queen subculture today caters to the masses, what with its slapstick humor and celebrity parodies.
In Shakespeare and Youth Culture (2006), Hulbert and Wetmore agree with Holderness in saying that the institution of Shakespeare and youth culture both benefit from each other. Youth culture gives Shakespeare “street cred” and opens it to more general audiences, while Shakespeare gives youth culture “cultural cred” and makes it more palatable to academics and highbrow entities (8).
Youth culture is characterized as rebellious in nature, non-traditional, and consumptive in their apppropriation like their “gangsta” stylings (6). These are aspects that can be observed in drag queen subculture as well. Drag queens historically sparked the Stonewall Riots, not all of them follow the pageant or ball traditions, and they are consumptive. They use pop culture icons, appropriated in their stand-ups and impersonations.
In the title, the use of “translation” is meant to mean two things. While it could mean “to render from one language to another” or “to change into another media”, there is also the Roman Catholic meaning: “to move the relics of a saint from place of interment to another” (19). Here we see a “translation” of Shakespeare from the shrine of academics and art connoisseurs into the glittery shrine of today’s drag queens. Just how do these men of the cloth handle the Bard’s big relic?
If by relic we mean his oeuvre, then it seems to be in good, creative hands. Season 7 of the TV show Rupaul’s Drag Race produced a “Shakesqueer” episode, wherein drag queen contestants were tasked with performing abridged versions of two Shakespeare plays. The said plays are Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, both tragedies turned into hilarious, reductivist parodies true to the drag queen aesthetic.
Clicking the image links to “Macbitch”, a parody that puts Macbeth in an American high school setting. “Friends, drag queens, hunty-men”, the cheerleading coach says, as she announces tryouts for the cheer team. We see a line from another Shakespeare play, and this seeming misplacement adds to the humor. With the coach’s announcement, several high school girls compete to be the head cheerleader. The Weird Sisters are portrayed as two witches and predict that Lady Macbitch will get the coveted cheerleading spot. “Hey Hogwarts rejects, what’s your prediction?” Lady Macbitch says, in a tone that’s just as pointed as the original Macbeth. The competition for the top spot intensifies with subterfuge and death, just like in the play. “Try this, it’ll help. Oprah’s new Chai *whispers to the audience* with a shot of drain cleaner”, Macbitch utters, just before her rival chokes to death. We see here the use of today’s pop culture references in the translation of Macbeth scenes.
Next, we see Romeo and Juliet with two teenage lovers, “Romy and Juliet”, falling in love while trying to keep their two feuding families at bay. This one is also set in a high school. “First day of school. House of Capulet’s gonna rule!” one character proclaims, before a Montague sneers at her. Meanwhile, Romy spots Juliet among the Capulets. “But soft… what light do breaks”, Romy says, marking the first reductivism of a line. In the balcony scene, Juliet looks below for her lover. “Wherefore art thou Romy-yoww”, says Juliet, marking another reductivism of a famous line in the play, with a hint of slang.
For the remainder of these two parodies, classic Shakespearean lines would get interspersed with several drag queen catch-phrases like “Calm down, Beyonce” and “How is she though”. These are catch-phrases popularized by contestants from earlier seasons of the show. It reminds one of “ghosting”, which Carlson defines as “the process of using the memory of previous encounters to understand and interpret encounters with new and somewhat different but apparently similar phenomena” (Hulbert and Wetmore 10). Actors who are already known for certain movie roles have these roles affect the Shakespeare character they are acting as. An example would be Leonardo DiCaprio, known as Jack from Titanic but also as Romeo from Romeo+Juliet. One could consider ghosting as a way to capitalize on the recognizability of the actor to get more viewers for the film. When Rupaul’s Drag Race used popular catch-prases by past contestants into their Shakesqueer parodies, they kept existing fans interested in the show, as well as attract new viewers with the mainstream appeal of Shakespeare. We could see how the Shakespeare brand is used as a tool to legitimize a small reality TV show about drag queens as a show for mainstream entertainment.
Speaking of “drag queen” and “entertainment”, lip-syncing comes to mind. Drag queens are expected to be good at lip-syncing, especially for those who do pop diva impersonations. Lip-syncing can also be used to impersonate a celebrity reading Shakespearean lines. This is what drag queen Tootight Lautrec does in her Youtube series “This Be The Verse”.
Sonnet 30 Lip-sync
Sonnet 61 Lip-sync
Sonnet 76 Lip-sync
Sonnet 109 Lip-sync
Sonnet 110 Lip-sync
Sonnet 126 Lip-sync
Sonnet 130 Lip-sync
Caliban’s Speech (Tempest III.ii.135-143)
In these videos, the man behind Tootight Lautrec has other drag characters of his own making, like Febreeze McQueef or Shinola Gay who also have their own celebrities to lip-sync to. It’s a spectacle of identities, with the man perfoming as a drag queen performing as a celebrity perfoming Shakespeare.
There is also this indie film that reimagines Shakespeare as a drag performer in modern-day Hollywood. The movie, entitled Billy Shakespeare, is currently on sale at Amazon, as compared to merely being put on Youtube. We see how the Bard can be used for profitable means.
Just like Macbitch or Romy and Juliet, this indie film performance employs humor and pop culture references which really are central to drag queen subculture. Indeed the Bard’s text is getting recognition in today’s drag performances. Soon enough we might see Shakespeare and drag in written word, if this published poem is any indication.
To end this essay, I will quote the words of Lady Macbeth. “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here” (Macbeth Act 1, scene 5, 38-43). She desires to be “unsexed” of her womanhood, which she sees as a weakness in her plan to have King Duncan slain. Drag queens, however, see a power in womanhood that they could never quite wield as gay men out of drag. They wear makeup with wigs and gowns to “unsex” themselves, so they could “slay” or wow crowds with their performance – be it as Hollywood divas or as the Bard’s characters. Once again, the Shakespeare brand has affirmed its universality, this time by getting appropriated in drag queen peformances.
By: Clement Fabian Dan D. Español, BA English Studies – Language
University of the Philippines – Diliman
Carosone, Michael. “A Drag Queen Writes to William Shakespeare”. Upstart: A Journal of English Renaissance Studies. Clemson University. 2013. Web. 29 Oct 2015.
Hulbert, Jennifer, and Kevin J. Wetmore. Shakespeare and Youth Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.
Shakespeare, William, and Eugene M. Waith. The Tragedy of Macbeth. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954. PDF.