Those of you who recognized the quote that serves as my title are most likely familiar with Shakespeare. Those of you who didn’t probably still know that Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed by all-male casts, due to the gender restrictions of Elizabethan England. But few of you may be aware that all-male Shakespeare companies are making a comeback.
If you’re a theatre buff like me, you may have already heard that all-male productions of “Twelfth Night, or What you Will” and “Richard III” are coming to Broadway from The Globe Theatre in the fall of 2012. When I first heard this, I squealed. As a Shakespeare nerd, I found myself contemplating how much it would cost me to slide down to New York on the Megabus for a weekend during school and catch one of these. But a lot of people are upset about this recent returning trend.
After giving it some thought, I decided that while my not-so-inner nerd was contemplating setting aside my dislike of New York to see a bunch of men dressed up as women, I wasn’t completely married to an opinion on the idea. So I did what any normal Shakespeare aficionado would: I pondered the pros and cons in order to decide whether to be or not to be unhappy with the latest incarnation of the Bard’s legendary work.
The first con is obvious: FEWER PARTS FOR WOMEN. As if they weren’t scarce enough already! Being denied the ability to play a Shakespearean female character is, for many, perhaps worse than simply having to settle for the housekeeper with three or four lines (because the protagonist, antagonist, norm, raissoneur, catalyst, and even the foil just had to be written for men). The fact is, Shakespeare wrote women in such a rich, iconoclastic way that any actress with her wits about her would jump at the chance to sink her teeth into Ophelia, Katherine, Beatrice, or the almighty Lady M, to name a few. It doesn’t take a literary scholar to tell you that although the characters were (allegedly) written by a man, they are more likely to be portrayed effectively by females.
For more insight into this, I reached out to Emerson’s own drag queen extraordinaire, Duncan Gelder (known to many as Lucille). “I think that for every man that is denied a female role, there are hundreds of plays that don't have strong characters for women to play,” he said. “While I know that Shakespeare was written to have men play the women, many people believe that Shakespeare himself would have preferred women to play the parts…part of the complexity of a character like Lady Macbeth comes from what it means to be a woman, and to have this part played by a man almost takes away from this intricate and complicated character.”
This calls back to the scores of wonderfully written female characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Focusing on Lady Macbeth, it would be traditionally difficult for a man to connect to the idea of giving birth to and nursing a child, only to kill it later. And perhaps a man may not have the ability to understand the idea of giving a child away to a horrible man like King Richard III and knowing that their opinion will not matter due to their gender, as Lady Anne does.
There is also the problem that the return to an all-male approach to Shakespeare takes us back to the days when women were not allowed onstage simply because they were women. A natural reaction may then be something along the lines of, “well, women are allowed to be onstage now… So why aren’t they? Why do we have to go back to this?”
The fact is: we don’t. And many theatre groups are choosing not to. Companies such as the Manhattan Shakespeare Project and the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company are well-known theatre troupes that only cast females. Major theatres such as the National Theatre Cottesloe in London have done gender-bent productions (such as their 1995 production in which Fiona Shaw played Richard III). Even children’s theatre is beginning to catch on; my first acting classes were through an all-girls Shakespeare group in Chicago called The Viola Project, named for Shakespeare’s Viola of “Twelfth Night.”
So this talk of all-female Shakespeare ultimately leads back to its all-male counterpart and the benefits therein. One cannot fully explore this topic without ultimately wondering about the possibilities of seeing Cleopatra or Desdemona played by a man. Just as Helen Mirren played a fabulous Prospera in Julie Taymor’s film adaptation of “The Tempest,” could a man do just as much justice as a Miranda?
The conclusion that I have come to is as follows: when discussing all-male Shakespeare, it should not necessarily be a question of whether or not it should be accepted. Instead, we should begin to look into what gender means in the theatrical world. Shakespeare himself wrote many cross-playing roles into his plays, such as Viola and Portia, along with the more comedic all-male play within a play of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Would a man playing a woman fall short of an ideal performance, or would it, like many all-female productions do, bring something new to the table and create a more thought-provoking statement?
In the end, I don’t think that this is a bad trend by any means. Instead, I hope that it will encourage more female activity and availability in the world of Shakespearean theatre. I would like for this issue to get people talking about the importance of gender in theatre and perhaps see theatre in a way that people of our century may not be used to.
Cora Swise is a freshman B.F.A. Acting major. She likes black and white movies, tofu, and Tumblr.