In her recent article in The Guardian, ‘Did Shakespeare sell women short?’ Vanessa Thorpe examines the limitations of Shakespeare’s female characters and namely the RSC’s recent response to this concern. The RSC has announced that they will be producing three Jacobean dramas that feature major female roles. Brigid Larmour, has this to say:
“The impact of Shakespeare is still inspiring, of course, but it can also be limiting,” she said. “There are huge characters, such as Cleopatra or Beatrice, that we reference all the time in the rehearsal room. But the problem is that we have kept the same gender balance in today’s theatre because of the success and genius of his plays. It created a blueprint that means playwrights do not notice when they have written something for nine men and one woman.”
My emphasis. I can’t be sure how intentional, but it was great to see women’s opinions sought after for this piece (albeit they all appear to be White women, but I guess the scope of this article was made pretty clear). There is also some comprehensive summaries of some of Shakespeare’s ladies actual line counts vs. their male counterparts. And how did I not know that only Cleapatra had what is closest to an actual soliloquy!?!?! Jesus. I’m glad the article mentions Volumnia, Lady Macbeth, and Gertrude – all powerful women in their own right, but at the end of the day, how many of the Bard’s plays pass the Bechdal Test? Two sources, here and here, say that things look pretty grim. Orlando, the writer of that second examination of my link, has this to add:
The great strength of what Shakespeare does for women lies less in their number than in their complexity. At first glance they seem easily classifiable as ingénue, matron, villainess and so on, but always reveal themselves as much more when examined closely. In addition, one of the scenarios he returns to most often is of women supporting each other, even in the ranks of death, which belongs to that quirky category of things that happen all the time in life, but hardly ever in the movies.
Ok, I’d agree with that, and maybe even one could say that Shakespeare was one of the original, Western, writers to employ a sense of “Trojan Horse Television,” where “using characters and ideas with whom audiences think they’re familiar to lure viewers in, and then taking them to entirely unpredictable places.”
But so what? Why should we be applying modern social criticism to a White, male writer who died 397 years ago? Because a lot of people teaching Shakespeare’s text to both literature students and actors (and also our theatre industry but don’t get me started) tend to perpetuate that Shakespeare is a voice for timelessness and the scope of human nature. Shakespeare Scholar Sarah Werner cautions:
This emphasis on individuals and common humanity distances the actor from any type political action or sense of history, and naturalizes the social order found in Shakespeare…
I would clarify here and say it has the potential to do that. And that it’s been done a lot. I’ve been co-teaching a Shakespeare text workshop over the past few weeks in Seoul to participants who have mostly had limited experience with the performance of his writing. In my enthusiasm to make his words less academic, more egalitarian, more accessible – I have found myself tempted to go into universalist overtures. The well-intentioned platitudes like “Shakespeare is for everyone!” “His stories and characters are timeless!” and “they speak for us all” allow us to efface Shakespeare’s identity locations of being White, male, and English and decontextualizes the society he lived in, which was patriarchal and colonialist. Thorpe writes in her Guardian piece,
In Shakespeare’s time, gender politics was a perilous subject, with Elizabeth I’s power waning at the end of her reign. Women were forbidden to appear on stage and this may well have dampened Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for female roles. Larmour suggests that had this dramatic genius been born later, British theatre would be different now. “If Shakespeare had been writing during the freer Restoration era, we would have far more women’s parts.”
Of course, the fact that women weren’t even allowed to play his characters onstage during his lifetime is going to have an impact on his writing. How could it not? I remember seeing Much Ado about nothing for the first time, and watching Hero choose to ultimately marry Claudio after all the humiliating bullshit he puts her through. I was filled with rage. Rage and disgust. Shakespeare was not speaking for ME in that moment. And of course, one could say that the theatre was staging this play or that we have our students play these parts in order to raise concern, discussion, debate, reaction. But that justification isn’t exactly going well for The Ordway in Minneapolis, who is referencing those very same things in defense of their upcoming production of the very racist musical, Miss Saigon.
Things are starting to become tangential (but important tangents nonetheless) so I will move forward. What are the implications, then, for our students?
‘What postcolonial actors need to develop is a theory and practice of actorly agency – a way of achieving interpretive and performative autonomy – by means of, within, through,and finally, outside of, clearly separate(d) from the will to power represented by the Shakespearean text’
Shockingly, I keep returning to the idea of context and the rejection of lazy binaries that Shakespeare is either universal or an ignorant misogynist. I like to think that all of our voice, text, acting work is an invitation. We invite and the students have every right to engage or not. And as teachers, we hope to empower them through their choice of engagement. We are also responsible for finding other texts that offer us more diverse and powerful woman characters. That, and playing with more cross-gender casting, in both productions and class scene work. Let’s honor the shifting of gender identity locations and how they can shift in both Shakespeare’s work and in the literal bodies of our students.