This is an edited version of a paper I gave as part of the Directing and Dramaturgy working group at the Theatre & Performance Research Association (TaPRA) 2019 conference in Exeter. The working group CFP this year asked for papers ‘On Strangeness’. My initial proposal came from a place of thinking about how recent all-female productions of Shakespeare’s plays go out of their way either make the cast’s gender(s) strange, or to make gender un-strange, to attempt to erase it as an interpretive lens (“attempt” being the key word, of course!).
I wrote a much, much, much longer version initially, that covered a number of topics I’d like to return to as this work develops, primarily:
Finally, a caveat that I wrote this paper in the same summer that I was planning a big, fat, Lebanese wedding, working a temp job that left me little brain space for much else, wrapping up other writing projects, and applying / interviewing for academic jobs. There’s a lot that it still needs: archival research, for one. But it’s the start of something that I hope will continue to grow and develop, and I welcome constructive comments that will help the work move forward.
This is more of a rant than a paper – and that’s not an apology, it’s a warning.
But I do need to share a content note at the start: this paper includes discussion of racism and misogyny; discussion of sexual assault and other forms of violence; and abusive lines from Shakespeare’s plays. I’ve done my best to be responsible in how I present these topics, but I acknowledge that this paper may still be triggering.
I also want to note that I’m drawing here on an existing body of scholarship, much of which I won’t quote directly today, but I’m indebted to that work, and because, as Sara Ahmed reminds us, ‘citation is feminist memory’ (Living a Feminist Life, 15), I want to briefly acknowledge some of the giants whose shoulders I stand on, including Ahmed, but also people like Ijeoma Oluo, Roxane Gay, Laura Bates, Safiya Noble, and Kimberlé Crenshaw, like so many of the amazing speakers this week (Royona Mitra, Leni Goddard, Kélina Gotman, Adelina Ong), people like the incredible feminist and critical race scholars working in the Shakespeare and early modern space, and foundational feminist theatre scholars, many of whom are here at this conference – I could spend my whole 15 minutes naming them, so I’ll cut myself off, but I wanted to take space to acknowledge some of the citations that won’t be explicit in this paper. And if you don’t know these people and would like a reading list, let me know.
I really do my best not to get into fights on Twitter. But once in a while something comes along that I can’t just ignore. A few months ago, when a Harvard lecturer suggested that Titus Andronicus – a play that culminates in the honour-killing of Lavinia, a young woman who has previously been raped and then had her tongue and hands cut off so that she can’t tell anyone – when this guy suggested that Titus Andronicus could be read as a “feminist revenge fantasy”, I didn’t let that one slide. Possibly because this was happening on the same day that police were called to the current Prime Minister’s home because a neighbor heard his partner “screaming”, the same weekend that an MP was suspended for grabbing and shoving a female climate protester, the same week that yet another woman came forward to say that the President of the United States had sexually assaulted her, I didn’t let this one slide.
When I challenged his interpretation of a play that, to me at least, is self-evidently both racist and misogynist, the lecturer responded that it was ‘not a point [he] would dig in on’ – before proceeding to do just that. Over several hours, first in reply-tweets and then in our private inboxes, I came to understand his deep investment in the view that Shakespeare cannot possibly be anything other than a force for good in the world and, as such, must necessarily be anathema to misogyny, racism, classism, or any other -ism – and he’s not the only one. This is a dangerous and surprisingly pervasive myth. When we reproduce this myth in classrooms and on stages, and in the popular press, when we allow those ideologies to pass through us unquestioned and unexamined, we send the message to our students and our audiences that how these plays treat women, people of colour, and other marginalized groups is acceptable and appropriate.
I want to suggest today—echoing many prominent voices in Shakespeare and early modern studies at the moment—that we have to make Shakespeare strange if we are to find ways of teaching and performing his works ethically, responsibly, and intersectionally. And if Shakespeare is ‘our contemporary’, as Jan Kott so famously argued, we have to examine what that means. Rather than taking Shakespeare’s contemporaneity as a straightforward cultural “good”, we need to be braver and more consistent in our attention to Shakespeare’s least appealing parallels with the present day. Because, after all, what does it say about us that a play like Measure for Measure, which hinges on a coercive sexual proposition from a government official, feels so contemporary?
A related but just as pervasive, and just as dangerous, myth tells us that by casting women in classical roles traditionally assigned to men, we have either done something very radical or completed the work of diversifying our stages. Box ticked, job done. While this myth is perhaps not as popular in academic circles, it certainly pervades press coverage of such productions, and imbues the marketing and media surrounding them.
For example, the RSC’s 2019 Taming of the Shrew, which cast Claire Price as Petruchio and presented Shakespeare’s Padua as a matriarchal society, marketed the play as ‘an explosive battle of the sexes’ and an ‘electrically charged love story’. This is the same play in which Katherine (played here by Joseph Arkley) is starved, forced to stay awake, and kept from family until she agrees to submit to her husband’s control. Here’s just one example, from Act 4 of the play, in which Petruchio – halfway to Katherine’s family home – refuses to carry on until she acquiesces to say as her husband says:
Petruchio: Come on, a God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
Katherina: The moon? The sun! It is not moonlight now.
Petruchio: I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
Katherina: I know it is the sun that shines so bright.
Petruchio: Now by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d! (4.5)
It’s pretty classic gaslighting. Note also the classic abuser tactic of blaming her for the problem that he has created (‘Nothing but cross’d!’). Just the kind of electric love story we all dream of, eh?
I would like to respectfully suggest that changing the genders of these characters does absolutely fuck all to remediate the extremely toxic relationship exemplified here.
And – not to put too fine a point on it, but – even Michael Billington agrees that the production ‘never shows why physical abuse and financial opportunism are any more endearing when practised by women than by men.’
I’ve made no secret that I’m quite skeptical of productions like this Taming, that attempt to address issues of gendered violence and misogyny in early modern plays by simply flipping the genders of the characters, or by casting women in roles typically assigned to men. Directors and producers seem to think that such a tactic will make the play strange to us, will allow us the critical distance to question the existing structures of power that we live within.
It’s not a bad idea, in theory. But what do we learn by witnessing an imagined oppressive white hetero-matriarchy that nonetheless still speaks the language and exists within the frameworks of the all-too-real oppressive white hetero-patriarchy? And if we can understand this as making patriarchy ‘strange’, who is the audience for such strangemaking?
As Ahmed puts its, we need not be ‘grateful when a system is extended to include us when that system is predicated on inequality and violence’ (Feminist Life, 263). Merely depositing a (white) woman into a Shakespearean dramaturgical framework does very little to address the inequalities woven into the fabric of the play. As Audre Lord reminds us, we need different tools if we actually want to dismantle these structures – and sometimes, with a nod to Emilia and to Ben Poore’s paper earlier this week, we just need to ‘burn the whole fucking house down’.
Easier said than done, of course: as Ayanna Thompson put it on a segment for NPR’s Code Switch podcast recently, people keep producing these plays because Shakespeare is ‘a huge industry. There’s a lot of money residing in Shakespeare’. And, as she went on to say, theatres are often hanging by a financial thread, and Shakespeare is a good way to get butts in seats—but audiences have certain expectations of what Shakespeare’s plays are and do. That’s a lot of burning.
Despite that, I want to argue today that if we don’t intervene in these plays at a structural level, then we are engaging in incomplete dramaturgy: we’re taking a shortcut, hitting on a marketing strategy or picking up on a ‘trend’ (although women have been playing Shakespeare’s male characters on professional stages since Sarah Bernhardt at least…) or, with all the good intentions in the world, trying to cast amazing women in star-making roles – but perhaps not really thinking through to the end of the decisions being made, and how they will affect the play as a whole. Such choices can (paradoxically) end up propping up the oppressive structures they claim to be dismantling or challenging.
So let’s look, for example, at the 2018 Donmar Warehouse production of Measure for Measure. As I mentioned a moment ago, the play turns around a sexual proposition from Angelo, the Duke’s deputy, to Isabella, a young woman pleading to the deputy for her brother’s life. The Donmar production showed us a cut-down version of Measure twice – once, in the first half, with the roles assigned as they usually are: Hayley Atwell playing Isabella and Jack Lowden playing Angelo. The roles switched in the second half, such that Atwell took on the role of the Duke’s deputy and Lowden the role of the supplicant pleading for his brother’s life. As the proposition scene escalates, Isabella threatens to go public: ‘I will proclaim thee, Angelo,’ she says, ‘Sign me a present pardon for my brother, or with an outstretch’d throat I’ll tell the world aloud what man thou art’ (2.4). The second half of the Donmar production departs from both the playtext and from Lowden’s performance in the first half by having Atwell-as-Angelo imply that she would use manufactured tears to undermine any testimony against her from Lowden’s Isabella. This is problematic under any circumstances but—as Pete Kirwan points out in his review—it was in particularly bad taste given that the production opened the same week that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was testifying to the United States Congress about being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, with tears in her eyes, and being very publicly accused of making it all up.
I want to be clear that I am absolutely not saying that women shouldn’t be cast in these roles –don’t be ridiculous– but I am suggesting that merely casting women (and white women in particular) is no longer (and perhaps never was) the radical intervention that some make it out to be, and that greater attention is needed to how, when, and where more significant dramaturgical changes are made (or not) in these productions. If a director wishes to make a point about gender, casting is one of many tools at their disposal in order to do so – and yet many stop at that first hurdle, relying upon casting to do the work of dramaturgy. This is why I call such dramaturgy “incomplete”: it hasn’t been finished. It’s the opposite of an intersectional dramaturgy: rather than finding the complex crossings of the knots that hold the structures of power together, it pulls one thread and calls the job done. It therefore is often a white feminist approach, using mixed-gender or all-female casting as a shield to hide behind, a diversion that protects the creative team from questions about the intersectional politics at play.
A really clear example of this way of thinking pops up in Harriet Walter’s book Brutus and Other Heroines, in which she reflects on decades performing Shakespearean roles. In her chapter on playing Brutus for Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production Julius Caesar, Walter explains her initial process with Lloyd in terms of building their concept for the show. They felt that a prison setting would provide a plausible frame for an all-female cast in a play about war and power. In terms of casting – I’m quoting her verbatim now, from her published book – “…once the prison idea had established itself, we needed a cast that could believably represent the racial and social mix of a prison population” (160).
Never mind a cast that could believably represent the population of modern London – or, for that matter, early modern London – or, for that matter, Ancient Rome. No, no – according to Walter (and, implicitly, Lloyd), it’s prisons, apparently, where a multicultural group of women performing a Shakespeare play will not seem strange. How telling.
Without letting Walter off the hook here, I do want to acknowledge that Cush Jumbo’s career in particular really took off following her Olivier-nominated performance as Mark Antony in the production: in addition to numerous theatre roles, she landed a recurring and then a lead role in the US television dramas The Good Wife and The Good Fight, and tickets to see her as Hamlet at the Young Vic next summer are already running short. Does Walter’s comment matter in light of that success? I think it does, but I’m not sure yet what to do with that knowledge.
I don’t really know how to end this paper, either, and I realize that I’m setting out a problem here without presenting a solution. I do think solutions exist, and I think the first step is finding ways to push past the incomplete dramaturgies that we so often see on our stages, where casting becomes a shorthand for the harder, deeper work. So I’ll leave that as perhaps a provocation to the room. Thanks.