Friday. July 1, 2016.
Click on the link to read Act I.
Sarah Bernhardt (left) as the Prince of Denmark in a short film of the duel scene from her 1899 production of Hamlet.
I was pretty proud of myself for suggesting to Mrs K that she could cast girls in some of the men’s roles. I didn’t think it was an original idea. I was proud of myself for knowing that it wasn’t an original idea. I knew all about Sarah Bernhardt and how she’d starred as Hamlet back in 1899. I don’t remember if I knew that it wasn’t an original idea when Bernhardt alased over poor Yourick’s skull. Fifty-four years before that, in 1845, in a production of Romeo and Juliet at London’s Haymarket Theatre, an actress and impresaria named Charlotte Cushman cast herself as Romeo to her sister’s Juliet. And this sort of sister act became a theatrical tradition. In a comment on the first part of this post George Roberts reported that in 1896 his great-great-aunt Esme Beringer played Romeo opposite her sister Vera, George’s great-grandmother, as Juliet.
So casting women in men’s roles is nothing new and nothing rare. A few years back, Helen Mirren played Prospero, gender-swapped as Prospera, in a film version of The Tempest directed by Julie Taymor.. The trailers and online clips didn’t make it look very good to me but not because of the gender-swap and certainly not because of Mirren. Too much weirdness, not the least sign of whimsy. But I don’t like the play much anyway. The Public Theater is staging Taming of the Shrew with a cast of all women. That strikes me as either a stunt on the Public’s part or a statement by the director, and I don’t go Shakespeare’s plays for the directors’ statements. But a woman playing Pertruchio as Petruchio or Petruchia? Why not? (Well, except that a Petruchia makes Kate’s final speech quite a conundrum.) As far as I’m concerned, that’s the answer to Tina Packer’s lament that actress who love Shakespeare have been shortchanged by the Bard, and it’s easy enough to pull off. You don’t have to do any gender-bending nor, on the other hand, do you have to require actresses to play the parts as men.
There are male characters who could be played by a woman without her having to be a convincing male impersonator. I even recommend not bothering with beards and mustaches or attempting whatever’s the opposite of a falsetto. The younger male characters, particularly, could be played fairly straight. So to speak. Hal in Henry IV. Octavius in Antony and Cleopatra. Romeo. Whatever traces of her femininity she failed to hide would contribute to the character’s youthfulness. And then there’s Richard II who’s usually played with more than a trace of femininity. (Actually, often as effeminate, but I think that’s a mistake.) I’m not sure how I’d react to an actress as Falstaff, Macbeth, Othello, or Shylock, but it would be interesting to find out. You might need the facial hair and false baritones for them, though.
I could definitely accept a female Lear.
Or a Queen Lear.
And like I said, you don’t have to have your actress play the part as a man, if the play is taken out of period and set in the here and now or in a time and place that never really existed. Kent in King Lear would be a good candidate. These days a king’s top advisor, strong right hand, and chief bodyguard could be a woman but Game of Thrones provides an excellent model as well for a Lear set in a world of sword and sorcery in the form of Brienne of Tarth. And while I’m not particularly interested in casting as a political statement, I can be intrigued by casting for psychological insight, that is, as a way of exploring an aspect of the character’s character and affecting the dynamics of his/her relationships with other characters. Mercutio could be played by a woman as a man, easily enough, but a Mercutio played by a woman as a woman opens some interesting possibilities.
Mercutio is a brawler and a duelist. And a hothead. He accuses a friend of having a head as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat but he's describing himself. He dies because he provokes Tybalt into the duel Romeo's trying to avoid. This is no problem for an actress playing Mercutio as a man.
But it's really no problem for an actress playing "her" as a woman either, if she plays her as an ultra Tom-boy like Starbuck in Battlestar Galactaca or Black Widow in The Avengers and the production's set in a time and a place where she could go about swaggering and boasting and getting into fights she can win handily because she's faster with her fists and deadlier with a blade than any of the gang of men she hangs out with. Her quarrelsomeness and belligerence might stem from her feeling she has to prove she’s tougher than all the guys. Mercutio as written is a Roaring Boy but she could just as well be a Roaring Girl.
There's an interpretive question for any actor playing Mercutio, though. Why does he make so much fun of Romeo for being in love?
The simple answer is right there in the text. Romeo famously cries that he is fortune’s fool. But that’s later. At the start of the play he’s a fool for love. Falling in love is what he does. The play opens with him infatuated with a girl of the moment named Rosaline. There's no reason for Mercutio to take this romance any more seriously than the previous ten. And being in love makes Romeo boring company. He’s always “groaning for love.”
Add to this that Mercutio is young man and has a young man’s easy cynicism and sense of entitlement. As far as he’s concerned, life is meant to be fun and part of the fun is lots of casual sex. Undying love for one girl puts a damper on that.
But many actors and directors read more into it. They believe Mercutio’s jealous.
Their Mercutios are gay and in love with Romeo themselves. I can see it. I have seen it. I don’t think it’s there but why not?
The thing is that if your Mercutio is a young woman then it’s going to be there whether you want it or not---it being her unrequited love for Romeo---because audiences are trained to look for sexual attraction between pretty male and female characters, so you might as well run with it.
The ridiculous and incomprehensible and therefore nearly unplayable Queen Mab speech makes a little more sense if it’s played as Mercutio showing off flirtatiously for Romeo. There are different kinds of flirtatiousness producing different sorts of inherent sadnesses, depending on whether Mercutio is a man or a woman, but the flirtation and the sadness are still real and still true to life and therefore true to Shakespeare who was always true to life.
To make Mercutio’s story the story of his or her unrequited love for Romeo might be to put too much Mercutio into the play and there’s already close to too much of him as he is. There’s too much of everybody in all of Shakespeare’s plays. That was a part of his genius. Characters with just a single speech reveal their entire backstories and give you glimpses into the comedies and tragedies of their lives with that one speech. The point is that you could make the gender switch and the play would still be Romeo and Juliet. It would still be Shakespeare’s play.
You can play this game with just about every male character. What if, say, Iago was a woman? She’d be a lesbian, but that doesn’t have to mean anything. On the other hand, it might. Iago’s hatred of Othello seems so evil because it is motive-less or far in excess of its ostensible motivation, his (her) resentment at having been passed over for promotion. But at one point when asked by his stooge Roderigo why he wants to ruin Othello’s life, Iago says he suspects his wife of cheating on him with Othello.
Usually this is taken by directors and actors playing Iago as just something Iago says to shut Roderigo up. He doesn’t believe it himself and, considering how indifferent he seems towards his wife, probably wouldn’t care if she had. Which by the way raises the possibility he’s a closet case and his unacknowledged sexual attraction to Othello or Cassio or both is what’s twisting him up. Now imagine the complications if it’s a woman jealous of her wife whom she suspects of cheating on her with a man and that man, the manliest man in all the Mediterranean.
Then there’s the possibility that Iago is in love with Desdemona himself…or herself.
I like the idea of a nearly motive-less Iago, whether he’s a she or she’s a he. But I hope you can see where I’m going with this.
Casting women in men’s roles, even if you then swap the genders, doesn’t make the plays less or even all that different from what they already are, because there’s so much human in them. Whatever aspect of human nature you go looking for, Shakespeare’s put it there for you to find.
By the way, Mercutio never meets Juliet on stage which opens up an intriguing opportunity for doubling, with different effects depending on whether the actress playing Mercutio plays him as a man or a woman, but that would defeat the purpose of giving more good parts to more actresses.
Which is one reason I’m not keen on the idea of casting men in the women’s roles. Another reason is that there’s no reason to do it except to make some sort of statement and like I said I don’t go to the theater to hear the director make a statement.
Plus, men in drag are still something of a joke, even in our more enlightened day and age. (That was a sarcasm.) . A very good actor can make an audience forget that he’s a man in drag. Laurence Olivier is said to have made a fetching Kate in a production of Taming of the Shrew when he was fifteen. But why bother except to make the statement or the joke? And the statement has become a cliché and the joke isn’t funny to anyone but the Brits.
Anyway, that’s how I’d deal with it if I ran the world. Cast as many good actresses as I could in whatever roles they could do the best jobs with. And there are many male characters who could be played by a woman without the director or the actress having to worry about the gender or the politics, again depending on the setting, characters defined by their jobs or the role in the plot rather than by their sex or their romantic relationships. The gravedigger in Hamlet. The porter in Macbeth. Justice Shallow in Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Jacques in As You Like It. Cassius in Julius Caesar.
There’s an old tradition of casting girls as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The great Victorian actress Ellen Terry got her start in the theater as a little girl playing Puck. But even earlier than that, in 1840, an actress and producer known as Madame Vestris cast herself as Oberon. But why not an actress as Bottom as well, played as either a man or a woman. What is bottom but a vain, self-aggrandizing, self-infatuated blowhard, and men don’t have a monopoly on those traits. If she’s played as a woman that adds some sexual confusion to Titania’s falling in love with her, but Titania’s falling in love with a donkey not a person and it almost doesn’t matter if the donkey’s male or female. The joke isn’t on her anyway. The joke is in how quickly and easily Bottom takes to being both a donkey and petted favorite of a queen. It’s perfectly natural to him for a weaver to be treated like a monarach and waited on hand and hoof by fairy servants of whatever sex.
The point is that it doesn’t matter how she gets to it, an actress has the great pleasure of delivering this speech:
When my cue comes, call me, and I will answer. My next is “Most fair Pyramus.” Heigh-ho! Peter Quince? Flute the bellows-mender? Snout the tinker? Starveling? God’s my life, stol'n hence, and left me asleep? I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom. And I will sing it in the latter end of a play before the duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.
Ok, I’m done. I’ll let Puck, boy or girl, bow us out now
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.