You may have noticed that, despite what some UKIP candidates and professional Pick Up Artist bloggers may have you believe, feminism has moved on a bit since Shakespeare last picked up his pen. We’ve since all figured out that women don’t need to be broken like horses in order to make good wives, and that universities don’t need to be men-only in order to allow anyone to get any work done. Modern adaptations of plays with plot devices hinging on these outdated beliefs handle them in different ways. Some, like Polanski’s Macbeth, put a strong visual emphasis on the historic setting, suggesting that we should see these values as superficially worn, like the codpieces and ruffs, to give an authorial representation, but clearly not recommending them for adoption off-screen. Some are reimagined freely. In Ten Things I Hate About You, it is instead Petruchio/ Patrick who finds himself tamed by Kat, as she teaches him the joys of feminism, quitting smoking, and “angry girl music of the Indie Rock persuasion”.
Such dramatic tonal changes are harder when the original text is kept, but Branagh manages it in his Love’s Labour’s Lost. The men who contractually give up women for academia are played as young buffoons: the audience finds a lot more sympathy with Alicia Silverstone’s wry glances and sarcastic tone than a more traditional Princess.
However, it’s a lot more difficult to reconcile Shakespeare with modern feminist thinking when that thinking isn’t so orthodox, as with cross-gender casting and character cross-dressing. Although casting women as female characters and men as male characters has become the norm, there is an ongoing trend of all-male productions, a novelty usually marketed to tourists and English undergrads and defended by claims of authenticity and authorial intent. It is certainly true that Shakespeare wrote with boy actresses in mind, and many of the jokes are lost without this visual clue. Beatrice’s complaint in Much Ado About Nothing that “He that hath no beard is less than a man” is a lot more ironic when made by a beardless boy in a dress.
The key word there is “boy”: female parts were played solely by specifically trained pre- pubescent or pubescent boy-actresses, often apprentices loaned to the companies by their masters. This was done at the time out of necessity, as women were not allowed on the stage and to have adult men play women was considered to be distracting and degrading. Beardless boys were both socially and biologically immature: they are not yet men. Beards were interpreted by early modern scientific thought to be a type of seminal excretion, and therefore a sign of reproductive capability and sexual maturity. This was accepted to the point where it was frowned upon by some for a man to marry before he could fully grow a beard, as he would not be expected to be capable of fulfilling his marital duty and produce children. On top of this, they indicated social maturity and financial independence. As financial dependents with no source of income or ability to take on dependents in the form of wives or children, apprentices were closer in social status to women within the patriarchal economy of early modern England. They could play female characters, and female characters could play them.
Which leads us to the cross-dressing. We see a wide range of characters try and fake it as the opposite sex but one specific model reoccurs as the acceptable method: a young woman (Viola, Rosalind, Julia, Portia, Nerissa…) dresses as a boy apprentice, and interacts with adult male characters (Orsino, Orlando, Proteus, Antonio…) who, crucially, remain at a higher social stratum to them. These girl-pages never wear prosthetic beards, despite discussions of wearing codpieces and men’s clothing. This is partially a matter of practicality, as a high-voiced, small-statured girl character or boy-actress simply could not make a convincing strapping, hirsute, older man: socially or physically.
Modern all-male productions of Shakespeare plays cannot be considered more accurate, as the way gender is viewed has changed. The actors playing male and female characters are not divided by whether they have earned their beard, and an audience does not see the latter as more similar to women. When the only point the pro- duction is trying to make is one about historical correctness, the change is at best “distracting” (as Telegraph reviewer Dominic Cavendish put it) and at worst unpleasantly comic. Whether or not the exclusion and imitation of women in these modern productions is insulting on a semantic level, or to glorify the sexist history of the English stage, it inarguably reduces the already disproportionately low number of Shakespeare roles available to female actresses, a serious problem in the theatre business.
For this same reason, there has emerged a trend for all-female productions and women actors playing male parts. This is done either as a result of gender-blind casting, where the director didn’t necessarily envision a woman in the role but the best actor who auditioned was one, or to make a point about gender nuance. These attempts are, in themselves, contentious. For some, they highlight the slipperiness and non-binary nature of gender by demonstrating the ease with which one can alter one’s self, and even exist simultaneously in multiple roles. Further, less restrictive limitations on the visual performance of cross-dressing or cross-gender casting can allow for complex power dynamics that the use of beardless boy actresses sought to prevent in the early modern theatre: the power dynamic of Viola-as-Sebastian and Duke Orsino in She’s The Man is definitely more equal than the master-servant relationship in the original text of Twelfth Night.
Others would argue that by trying to make a point about the (gendered) characteristics of characters, you risk reinforcing stereotypes. When the gender of the cast member is changed but not the character, that actor is then seen to “pass” for the rest of the characters, but not the audience.
It is not my place to speak from my position of privilege on behalf of the transgender community or women or decide for them whether Shakespearean cross-dressing and cross-gender casting is offensive, but I think the potential for offence, or expression, should be considered. It is impossible to stage Shakespeare’s plays as he would have intended, as visual symbols like dresses and beards do not possess the same meaning for modern audiences, and equally impossible to ignore the sources of controversy in his work.