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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton April 27, 2021

“I am not that I play” – The use of hypercorrection in the performance of gender by Shakespeare’s ‘breeches’ parts

  • Alexandra Birchfield ORCID logo EMAIL logo and Rolando Coto-Solano ORCID logo


This study uses variationist sociolinguistic methodology to explore the construction of gender in four of Shakespeare’s comedies. Gender performance is at issue in these plays specifically, not only because, in Shakespeare’s time at least, young male actors play the female roles, but also because each play contains a female character in male disguise. By analysing and comparing the patterns of variation used by Shakespeare’s female, male and “female as male” characters, this study provides further insight into Shakespeare’s construction and conceptualisation of gender. Further, by comparing the patterns of gender variation found in these plays with non-fiction data on the gendered variation of the period (Nevalainen, Terttu & Helena Raumolin-Brunberg. 2003. Historical sociolinguistics. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.), it is possible to investigate how accurately Shakespeare captures the sociolinguistic variation present in his society. This study hopes to provide support both for the validity of using sociolinguistic methods to study literature but also for using data from literature in studies of historical sociolinguistic variation and change.

Corresponding author: Alexandra Birchfield, Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand, E-mail:


The authors would like to thank Professor Miriam Meyerhoff for her huge investment of time and support in this project from the very beginning. We are also very grateful to Professor Jonathan Hope and Dr Lori Leigh for their invaluable advice and expertise. We would also like to thank Dr Lisa Wood for her statistical support. Thank you to the audiences for earlier iterations of this research at NWAV 2018, NZ Linguistic society conference 2017 and HiSoN Summer School 2017. Thank you to Toni Myers for proofreading and our anonymous reviewers for their insightful and valued comments. Finally, thank you to friends and colleagues at Victoria University of Wellington, for conversations, fresh perspectives and much needed distractions. Exit, pursued by a bear.

Appendix A

All lines spoken by Viola, Act 1 Scene 2

Play Character Act, scene, line Breeches Rank Addressee Speech text
TN Viola I,2,48 f m Sailors What country, friends, is this?
TN Viola I,2,50 y f m Sailors And what should I do in Illyria?
TN Viola I,2,50 y f m Sailors My brother he is in Elysium.
TN Viola I,2,50 y f m Sailors Perchance he is not drown’d: what think you, sailors?
TN Viola I,2,54 y f m Sailors O my poor brother! and so perchance may he be.
TN Viola I,2,65 y f m Sailors For saying so, there’s gold:
TN Viola I,2,65 y f m Sailors Mine own escape unfoldeth to my hope,
TN Viola I,2,65 y f m Sailors Where to thy speech serves for authority,
TN Viola I,2,65 y f m Sailors The like of him. Know’st thou this country?
TN Viola I,2,71 y f m Sailors Who governs here?
TN Viola I,2,73 y f m Sailors What is the name?
TN Viola I,2,75 y f m Sailors Orsino! I have heard my father name him:
TN Viola I,2,75 y f m Sailors He was a bachelor then.
TN Viola I,2,82 y f m Sailors What’s she?
TN Viola I,2,89 y f m Sailors O that I served that lady
TN Viola I,2,89 y f m Sailors And might not be delivered to the world,
TN Viola I,2,89 y f m Sailors Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,
TN Viola I,2,89 y f m Sailors What my estate is!
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain There is a fair behavior in thee, captain;
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain And though that nature with a beauteous wall
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain I will believe thou hast a mind that suits
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain With this thy fair and outward character.
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain I prithee, and I’ll pay thee bounteously,
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain For such disguise as haply shall become
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain The form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke:
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him:
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain It may be worth thy pains; for I can sing
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain And speak to him in many sorts of music
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain That will allow me very worth his service.
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain What else may hap to time I will commit;
TN Viola I,2,96 y f m Captain Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.
  1. [1] Under Silverstein’s interpretation it also seems possible for gender to be a “first level indexicality” but we will set this point aside for now.


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Published Online: 2021-04-27

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