The Bard in Drag

Ruffs, make-up and boys in drag: when we think about Shakespeare productions through history, the notion of all-male casts and all their trappings is bound to come to mind. But this is not a directorial decision that has been consigned to the annals of theatrical past: all-male productions continue to be staged today, often with great success. An acclaimed current example is the man extravaganza that is Propeller, which has even managed to work in bits and pieces of Beyoncé to heighten the theatrical experience. Contemporary revivals of this casting choice are sometimes attributed to ‘authenticity’ (although the authentic tradition of bear baiting in the interval always seems to get overlooked), or for the sheer energy and testosterone that it can bring to the more masculine of Shakespeare’s plays. 

But what about the other side? Are all-female Shakespeare productions ‘a thing’? It certainly happens, but does it work?  Many of Shakespeare’s plays are characterised as being overwhelmingly masculine – they are stories of military campaigns and political intrigue, with the female characters often represented as concerned wives or trophies of war.  And from a feminist perspective, some of these roles are deeply, deeply problematic: take novice nun Isabella, from Measure for Measure, who is eventually married off after five acts of resistance without so much as a by-your-leave. But how do these characterisations affect all-female renditions of Shakespeare’s greats? You’d hope that these would present a more nuanced representation of the work, with  a female perspective on imperial power, honour or truth. Unfortunately, the opposite is true: these all-female productions have a terrible habit of being somewhat lacklustre.

An all-female production of Julius Caesar set the play in a playground, between squabbling schoolgirls. It’s an interesting idea, but one that may appear to many to be missing the point – can schoolyard hierachy adequately convey the play’s exploration of imperial power? Some attribute resistance to the idea of women playing these sorts of roles to an ingrained societal prejudice against the idea of women holding political power. Equally though, Shakespeare’s plays are a product of their time – a time of rigid gender roles – of course there are strong women, but they still all end up in the same place. 

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Having said that, we are not without a handful of exceptional cases of cross casting – Hamlet being  an  excellent  example. The first female Hamlet, Sarah Bernhardt, appeared in 1899, to rave reviews.  Actors have been discovering new aspects of the Danish Prince for generations; as Oscar Wilde said, there is no ‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet’.

With a character so famed for being open to interpretation and reinvention, it would be absurdly reductive to halve the number of potential players.  A female Hamlet could indeed be able to discover hidden depths in this seemingly inexhaustible character, but the individual performance will always be more important than the actor’s gender. Opening Shakespeare’s greatest characters up to women doubles the number of exceptional individuals who can play those parts, and potentially the number of innovative interpretations.

Does this mean that cross casting Shakespeare should be taken up with gusto? Maybe. Sometimes it is out of sheer necessity – as many Oxford directors will know, finding enough theatrical young men to fill all the parts demanded can be a struggle. But necessity often breeds creativity, and these cross-cast productions have, in recent years, made for fascinating interpretations of classic texts.