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Playing Shakespeare’s Men

Though Shakespeare created around 798 male characters, his dramatic corpus contains only about 149 female ones. That's a ratio of roughly sixteen to three. Yet every year the best conservatories accept at least as many women as men—if not more—and every year they graduate both men and women trained to act in Shakespeare plays. The women are even trained to swordfight. Ninety-nine percent of them never get to use that skill.

The difference undoubtedly accounts for why so many talented women create their own opportunities to play the full range of Shakespeare's best roles, including male ones. This month two productions on opposite sides of the country are providing women with just that chance. The Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company is running Hamlet, directed by and starring Lisa Wolpe, and Taffety Punk in Washington, DC, is producing Riot Grrrls: Titus Andronicus, directed by Lise Bruneau.

Titus is the fifth all-female Shakespeare production of Taffety Punk. Their first, Romeo and Juliet, was staged as a companion to/protest of an all-male production of the play at DC's prominent The Shakespeare Theatre Company. Bruneau, inspired by Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9, and Fiona Shaw's Richard II, has always been interested in the performance of gender. However, with her Riot Grrrl productions, she's interested less in staging a commentary than in staging good Shakespeare.

Lisa Wolpe has been running the Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company for 20 years. This is her second Hamlet. Like Bruneau, she doesn't consider what she does a "concept.” She does it because the parts are great, because she loves it, and because she's good at it. 


Just imagine Claudius as a woman in drag criticizing Hamlet for his “womanish” tears. 


Lisa Wolpe as Hamlet. Photo by Kevin Sprague.

Though both directors are wary of doing anything in production to comment on the sex of the actors, they acknowledge that inevitably text about gender—and there is a great deal of it in Shakespeare—becomes especially loaded when the entire cast is made up of women: Just imagine Claudius as a woman in drag criticizing Hamlet for his “womanish” tears. Both directors have also dipped their toes into gender flipping. Bruneau's Measure for Measure included a pregnant Provost, which I imagine highlighted the hypocrisy of punishing Juliet for something everyone is doing. Wolpe has made her Rosencrantz a woman and believes that doing so reveals something about the nature of the relationship between Rosencrantz and Hamlet.

“Rosencrantz is a player, a woman with an agenda, who wants certain things for herself. She is a player who then gets played by Hamlet,” said Wolpe, during our interview. “And there are women like that. There are women characters in Hamlet like that. Gertrude stands twenty feet away from Ophelia and watches her drown.”

Though the actors in these companies are in it for the opportunity to play great roles and not to study sociology, the fact that their characters are men means that acting the part is different than it is when they play characters of the same sex, and that involves understanding the ways behavior is gendered. Bruneau has interesting insights into the outside-in process of building a character, who has a different relationship to the world by virtue of his gender than the female actor.

“We have found that changing your physical stance changes the impulse,” she said. “Once you change that it can start opening doors to a different perception of information and a different way of responding. It leads to a lot of discoveries about the differences of the sexes, of which there are many.”

Bruneau volunteered an example. “One of the most basic differences we’ve found is that women tend to sort of reach their chin forward as they’re talking and listening, and really try to encourage the other person to speak. We reach forward with our whole face. Men tend to sort of sit back and to receive and they tend to not reach. So that’s a very simple physical difference that makes you realize that they are dealing with everything based on a completely different type of experience than you are.”

According to Wolpe, women tend to break the alignment and the angles in their bodies, their wrists, their elbows. “Usually they’re off their voices, their heads are tilted, their faces are going in one direction and their hips in another, their hands turned open in a helpless ‘what can I do?’ supinated position—not because they’re doing anything wrong, but because that’s what you’re trained to do as an American girl,” she said.

“You’re trained to disempower yourself, to make yourself look less strong, more delicate, more ‘oh push me off of my pumps and I’ll be unable to resist the rape’ type of a thing. It’s not believable in a man who doesn’t have any threats.”

Wolpe went on to elaborate,  “This is a crazy quick map through how to play a guy, but basically: it’s not your fault, you don’t take it on, and if you hurt somebody’s feelings, they’ll get over it or they won’t but it’s really not your problem. The thing about women is we usually anticipate having an apology before there’s even an event. Men don’t negotiate. They command.”


The end game for Wolpe is a production in which the quality of the text and the acting enable audience members to forget that most of the roles are men being played by women.


The end game for Wolpe is a production in which the quality of the text and the acting enable audience members to forget that most of the roles are men being played by women. However, when I saw Hamlet, I did not ever forget that the performers were all women. In fact, I yearned for the fact to be more foregrounded. Though Rosencrantz was a woman, no use was made of the possibility that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be a couple, which would have been logical and, given, the eroticism that pervades Shakespeare's male-male pairs, not un-Shakespearean. Similarly, the revelation about Gertrude's character did not result in her coming across as any more cold-hearted or self-serving than she usually does.

Bruneau reports similar responses from critics in DC who expect her productions to do more with gender, but the Riot Grrrl aspect of her shows represents a desire to be accepted as a serious artist and not be singled out for being a woman doing a man's thing. Similarly, Wolpe repeatedly expressed frustration that people expect her to do anything other than what the greatest actors of their times have always done when playing these roles: Play them well. 

many actors stabbing Ceaser in Julius Ceaser
Riot Grrrls production of Julius Caesar. Photo by Abby Wood.

Unfortunately, productions that keep all the male characters male inadvertently preserve the gender status quo: In their play-worlds, the men still have all the power. On the other hand, flipping some of the male characters and gendering them female would reveal a world in which women can be powerful, violent, and vengeful, too. Women can woo their lovers, protect their families, and command armies. (They could in Shakespeare's time, too, whether he represented them as such or not.) The practice also reinforces a false binary in which men are always masculine and women are always feminine, whereas in reality some men and women defy gendered norms of behavior.

As pleased as I am to watch well-trained women deliver fantastic performances of the kind they too rarely have an opportunity to give, I yearn for a production that reveals that behaviors defined as masculine can be embodied both by women playing men, and by women playing women. Changing gender pronouns does not disrupt the verse—he, she, her, and him are all monosyllabic. Though Anglo-Saxon names like John might require some tinkering, modern audiences are unused to Latin, so they can easily accept most character names as either male or female. If anything, the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s stories become even more apparent when they are populated by people of all colors, shapes, sizes, and sexes.


If anything, the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s stories become even more apparent when they are populated by people of all colors, shapes, sizes, and sexes.


In the meantime, both companies continue to receive rave reviews. Though some Shakespeare purists may still wring their hands at the prospect of women playing men's roles, Wolpe says her experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

“There’s never been a negative comment about an all-female production. There never has been in twenty years. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘You’re ruining the play.’”

Now that these companies, along with Judith Shakespeare and The Queen's Company in New York as well as others across the country have proven that women are capable of playing roles with all of the depth and complexity of Shakespeare's male characters, I hope they'll turn to creating play-worlds in which women don't have to pretend to be men in order to be powerful.

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Of course we need more play-worlds with powerful women. Meantime, the tradition of all-female Shakespeare won't go away any time soon, nor should it -- for many of the same reasons productions of Shakespeare shouldn't go away. Shakespeare's Globe in London regularly performs with all-female casts; I've seen a spectacular all-female King Lear (ages ago now) by Shakespeare & Company; the American Shakespeare Center (formerly Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) frequently gender-reverses roles; Womens Will in San Francisco has a long history of all-female productions; and I'd be remiss not to mention the Wellesley College Shakespeare Society, of which I am an alumna, who have been performing all-female student productions of Shakespeare plays for about 140 years. While that may have begun as a necessity (Wellesley is a women's college), the Society has a keen understanding of the power inherent in seeing women in these canonical roles, and embraces the complexity and subversiveness of the gender politics inherent in all-female casts.

I’m directing an all-female Two Gentleman of Verona for Oregon Shakespeare Festival next season. Like Wolpe, what intrigues me most is allowing female actors to be given the freedom and opportunity to access a spectrum of roles. As women, we see examples of this range in our everyday lives. Why then is it so rare on stage?
I’m interested in what happens when a female actor is allowed to play character first – the bawdy clown, the domineering parent, the young lover who stumbles – where gender is just another quality that can be artistically interpreted. So actors are free to access their masculine side in varying degrees for our storytelling.
I’m also really excited for the conversation with an audience. When will they be aware of gender? When will gender fall away, allowing character to take center stage?

Shakespeare DID depict women wooing lovers, protecting their families, and leading armies...

Your thoughts on letting women play the roles as women are interesting, and I've seen it done to good effect. But unfortunately, theatre never exists in a vacuum. As you yourself said, as soon as Rosencrantz was a woman, you found yourself wondering why she wasn't in a relationship with Guildenstern. A huge part of the joy of playing the male roles is being allowed to interact with male characters without the burden of sexuality that is more or less automatically placed on female bodies onstage. Part of the fun of playing, for example, a character like Horatio is getting to embody a kind of steadfast loyalty that few female characters are rarely endowed with-- but play him as a woman, and people will almost certainly assume what you assumed about Rosencrantz, that she is or should be in love with Hamlet (whether you decide to play your male Horatio that way is a slightly different question). Every interaction of a male character turned female is tinged with the politics of her seizure of that kind of power, and while that does provide an interesting take, I think Wolpe's interview particularly makes it clear that that isn't what she is trying to do. She wants to play Hamlet, as written, not Hamlet loaded with the baggage of being a princess usurped by a male uncle, or an apparently lesbian heir to the throne, or a woman accused of madness and hysteria by those who feel threatened by her. I'm totally in favor of adding those elements on occasion, as they can make for a very interesting refocusing of a play, but insisting that Wolpe and Bruneau ought to be doing so, or that that is somehow an improvement or next step for them, is a misunderstanding of what they're trying to achieve.

When I applied to Boston University's School for the Arts as a performance major, I auditioned with Hamlet's "banished" monologue instead of the ones provided for females, and I got in. They didn't seem to mind.

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Julius Caesar set in a women's prison with an all-female cast directed by Phyllida Lloyd, produced by Donmar Warehouse in London, moved to St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, and it was beyond phenomenal.

Harriet Walter as Brutus was amazingly honest. But I have never seen a more powerful Marc Antony's "Brutus is an honorable man" monologue that starts out with him literally on the floor surrounded by all the conspirators aiming their guns at him, and he convinces them to back off little by little inch by inch until he gets the crowd on his side at which point the conspirators flee while he works the crowd...

Lloyd spoke in a talkback afterwards explaining that she was asked to do whatever she wanted to do when "two women took control of a popular London venue" -- I assume she meant Fiona Shaw and Deb Warner at Donmar. What a great opportunity!

At first I thought that qualifying the show by the conceit of the women's prison was creating a "reason" for an all-female production that, to me, a generation after Ms. Lloyd, seemed unnecessary. Why not just do it for the doing of it? But after seeing it done this way, I have to say that the women's prison works beautifully and added to the production and my understanding of the play, especially since Caesar (historically) had basically turned Rome into a prison.

I have seen The Queens Company work in NYC, and I hail them as bold and imaginative in their approach. I also have written several pieces for all-female casts including an adaptation of Antigone (Antigone's Sister) where an all-female cast wear phalluses (a la Aristophanes) when playing men, and in the scene where Antigone approaches Creon in the Senate, there are women performers playing phallused male actors performing as women... and so it goes...

I am directing two casts (one all male and one all female) in As You Like It this fall at The University of Akron. They will run in rep for two weekends. We open on Halloween. So far it's been terrifyingly fun.

It isn't Shakespeare, but our company has been committed to "production that reveals that behaviors defined as masculine can be embodied both by women playing men, and by women playing women." We did ALL GIRL MOBY DICK last year and we are opening ALL GIRL FRANKENSTEIN in 2 weeks. It is a very rewarding experience generating these sorts of opportunities for women. I think we are going to see more and more of this in the future. Artists and audiences both want it.

I had the good fortune to play Guildenstern in Murmur Theater's production of Hamlet just this past summer in Los Angeles, and I had a blast. Not only did I get to be in my favorite Shakespearian tragedy, but I got to work with talented people who dared to gender-flip some of the characters while staying true to the original dialogue and storylines. Guildenstern was a girl and Rosencrantz was a guy, and gender didn't impede our journey to Denmark.