Mined from the notebooks. Started this one to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. April 23, 2016. Posted June 29.)
La Folie de Titania, Paul Gervais, 1897. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act III: Scene 1. Not as Shakespeare wrote it but, who knows, maybe how he envisioned it and wished he could have.
Going by the script, all the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are male.
They’re almost never cast that way. They’re almost always all female. Usually they’re played by young women dressed like Tinker Bell. Often they’re played by young teens and even little girls. Which has resulted in the odd production in which, thanks to a director who refused to change a word in the script, Bottom addresses an obviously girlish fairy as Master Peaseblossom.
The reason for this gender rearrangement is that when Shakespeare wrote the play women were not allowed on stage. Female roles were played by boys and the number of boys who were good enough actors to play adult women like Rosalind or Lady Macbeth was limited. Shakespeare’s company seems to have had only two or three or at most four at any given time. There are four significant female roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Doubling on the part of all members of the company was routine but Midsummer requires one of those boys, whoever was playing Titania, to be onstage with the fairies. The popular conception of fairies in Shakespeare’s day wasn’t anything like Tinker Bell. It may have been that fairies were imagined as being like the elves in Lord of the Rings and middle-aged male faeries would have been easy for Elizabethan audiences to accept without a second’s thought. On the other hand, the play is set in ancient Athens and it’s likely that many people who knew their mythology, which naturally would have included ‘Shakespeare himself, would have equated the fairies with wood nymphs, so I think Shakespeare would have written them as all female if it had been practicable.
But ever since women were allowed to take the professional stage (in England that happened with the Restoration), directors who decided to cast strictly according to the script would have had casts of at least a dozen men and four women, which means explaining to a lot of actresses why they’d be out of work. It also means forgoing the box office appeal of having pretty young women onstage dressed like Tinker Bell or, as has been done in some more daring productions, not dressed at all.
But this post isn’t about about nubile actresses in a various stages of undress, or about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, specifically, or even about Shakespeare, exactly. It’s about this fact:
Only 17% of speeches in Shakespeare’s plays are by women.
That’s lifted from an article in the Guardian, What’s in a number? William Shakespeare’s legacy analysed, which the editors introduce thus:
Shakespeare’s ability to distil human nature into an elegant turn of phrase is rightly exalted – much remains vivid four centuries after his death. Less scrutiny has been given to statistics about the playwright and his works, which tell a story in their own right. Here we analyse [sic; British, donchew know?] the numbers behind the Bard[.]
Mostly the article is the reporters playing counting games. How many characters die by being baked into pies. (Two.) How many times Shakespeare uses the word “love” (1,640.) Which play is performed the most. (Looks like A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream: 2,058 productions between 1959 and 2015.) Which character’s the most talkative. (Hamlet. You didn’t even have to think about it, did you? He has 358 speeches.) And what percentage of all the speeches in all the plays did Shakespeare give to his female characters.
This is fun and the graphics are amusing, but it was something in this passage that caught my attention and sparked this post:
Shakespeare may have been widely championed as a visionary, but this description can’t be applied to his record on gender equality. On average men are given 81% of speeches, while 17% go to women and the rest are made up of unknowns or mixed groups, according to Open Source Shakespeare. Women tend to come off worst in his tragedies: Timon of Athens features just nine speeches by women, compared with 725 by men. And yet the population of Shakespeare’s England was roughly 53.5% male and 46.5% female. “It's been rough on women actors with a passion for Shakespeare these 400 years,” says Tina Packer, the actor and artistic director at Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts.
I’ll give whoever wrote that a pass on trying to spice up a game of trivial pursuit with a bit of 21st Century gender politics, but the implication that Shakespeare was somehow being willfully sexist in excluding nearly half the population from his plays fudges the practical reality. The reason there are proportionately few speeches by women in Shakespeare’s plays is that there are proportionately few women characters and a main reason for that is what I was saying above. There are fewer women’s roles than men’s roles in all Shakespeare’s plays because he didn’t have enough actors who could play more of them them. The actual population of England at the time was irrelevant to his purposes. He had to write for the company he had.
Certainly sexism was at work. Shakespeare appears to have been less misogynistic than the average Elizabethan man, but he wasn’t enlightened to the point of being far ahead of his times in his attitudes about the roles women should play in life and on stage and the opportunities that should have been available to them. But it was his times more than his own attitudes that determined how many female characters there are in his plays.
Women were almost entirely excluded from public life (with one notable exception) and the majority of Shakespeare’s plays---the histories and the tragedies---focus not just on the public lives of his main characters but on the public life of England. (Every one of Shakespeare’s plays is set in England, just sometimes he calls it Rome and sometimes Venice and sometimes Illyria.) There are a plays in which characters’ private lives interfere with and determine public affairs, and it’s worth noting that several of those plays include some of Shakespeare’s strongest and most vivid female leads---Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, King Lear, Hamlet---but all his plays that aren’t comedies or one of the problem plays are heavily populated with military officers, government and church officials, soldiers, and the occasional king or prince who for one reason or another finds himself leading an army into battle.
(One of the saddest scenes in all Shakespeare is in a play in which we’re given a glimpse of things working the other with a character’s public life intruding tragically into his private life, Julius Caesar. It’s the scene in which Brutus’ wife Portia comes out into the garden where Brutus is brooding the night away as he hardens himself to assassinate Caesar. She tries to get him to talk about what’s so obviously worrying him but he pushes her away, breaking her heart. It’s a great part for an actress but it’s really just an extended cameo.The only other female character is Caesar’s wife Calpurnia and she’s a victim of the same exclusion from her husband’s public life and consequently also a cameo role.)
Shakespeare might have included a few more female characters if he’d had the actors but the they’d have been---like most of the male characters, actually---minor characters with little to say.
But, as with Midsummer and nearly naked actresses, explaining---never mind excusing---the sexism of Shakespeare’s times isn’t the reason I’m writing this post.
It’s that quote at the end of the passage from Tina Packer, the artistic director at Shakespeare & Company up there in Massachusetts:
“It's been rough on women actors with a passion for Shakespeare these 400 years”
Shakespeare wrote many splendid female leads. Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice, Rosalind, Katherine, Viola, Portia (the other Portia, from The Merchant of Venice. “A Daniel come to judgment!”), Juliet. It can be debated forever whether these characters are as iconic, as culturally influential, as dramatically interesting, as profound as their male counterparts like Macbeth, Hamlet, and Lear, and whether sexism is at work in our seeing the men as the greater roles, more challenging and therefore career-defining in a way the female leads haven’t been for great actresses who’ve played them. Every great stage actor’s Hamlet is seen as a high---or low---point in his career. People whose parents and grandparents weren’t even born at the time will talk about Barrymore’s or Gielgud’s or Burton’s Hamlets. A great actress’ Rosalind is rarely even brought up in appreciations of her career. For the record, I would love to be able to go back in time and see Redgrave’s and Mirren’s Rosalinds,
(I left Olivier’s Hamlet out up there for the obvious reason. Everybody’s seen it or ought to have.)
But it’s when you get past the leads that the difference really shows.
There are no great female villains on the order of Richard III or Iago. (The Macbeths aren’t villains. No, they’re not. To start with, they both have consciences.) There are no significant second female leads and supporting characters. No female Mercutio, Horatio or Laertes. No Kent. No Enobarbus. No Philip the Bastard. The melancholy Jacques of As You Like It isn’t much of a character, he’s almost nothing more than an attitude, an annoying attitude, except that he is defined by that one speech, but it seems unfair that an actress shouldn’t get her moment in the spotlight pronouncing all the world a stage and all the men and women in it merely players.
There are very few show-stopping character parts for women. No drunken porters or cheerfully philosophical grave diggers. No clowns. No comic servants.
Shakespeare simply didn’t write enough female roles for all the actresses who love his plays and want to act in them.
This is something that bothered me back in high school.
I was a little over-eager in those days and overly ambitious on behalf of our drama club and I regularly pestered our wonderful and wonderfully patient teacher and adviser with ideas and suggestions for our next production. I was in thr process of reading my way through the drama sections of both our school library and the public library and I was full up to the back teeth with plays I thought we could do, all of them chosen because they contained parts I wanted to play, dramas, comedies, new plays, old plays, my favorite Shakespeares:
Macbeth. (I wanted to play Macduff.) Henry IV. (I wanted to play Hal.) Julius Caesar. (I wanted to be Brutus but would have “settled” for Marc Antony.) King Lear. (Edgar. Or Edmund. I was flexible.) Romeo and Juliet. (Mercutio.) Othello. (Iago.)
Mrs K didn’t point out that we didn’t have actors capable of playing Macbeth or Falstaff or Othello or Lear or, well, Brutus, Iago, or Mercutio. Instead she said what she said to some of my other suggestions like Mister Roberts (Ensign Pulver.), if we put on those plays, it would be unfair to the girls in the club. Too many would be left out.
It took a while for that point to sink in. But it did sink in and I eventually began looking for plays that had more than one or two good parts for actresses.
This wasn’t all due to a raised consciousness on my part. It dawned on me that if I’d wanted to spend a couple hours everyday after school in the company of mostly guys I’d have gone out for sports.
I found more than a few but I still wanted us to do at least one of my favorite Shakespeares.
And I hit on a solution.
Why not just cast some of the girls in the men’s parts?
End of Act I. Act II after intermission.