Conceal me what I am – changing gender in Shakespeare


Shakespeare is a master of cross-gendered roles. After all, every female role was originally played by the other gender. As a process which was embedded within the law until the Restoration, it was accomodated by all. Of course it was a one way street, women could not play men! Shakespeare explored worlds of sexual and gender ambivalence and manipulated this convention to amazing advantage. However, he was also very conventional when it came to marrying people and sending them off into the happy beyond, fulfilled and alchemically transformed, as if marriage was the answer to it all.

Interestingly when i google ‘actresses who played Shakesperean heroes’ i am confronted by women who played Hero in Much Ado, but I remember from my old theatre books that actresses took on roles like Hamlet in the early 20th century.   I wonder what response the audience had to this ? Was it considered an amusement , or was it one of those acting ‘tests’ given to great or successful performers to play something different from themselves?

Escalus running!

Escalus running!

p>As I sit with a number of Shakespeare plays and decide how feasible they might be with  characters not cross gendered, but with changed genders, I imagine people thinking that it is a little old hat to even be concerned. But for me, it is a question of gauging and asking yourself ‘does this work?’ And am I feeling comfortable with it?” And “how will audiences respond?”

The most interesting thing to consider is how it changes the world of the play. When we made Escalus a powerful woman politician/barrister and Pompey a drag queen ( I am sure that has been done, but then everything has probably been done in Shakespeare ) in our production of MEASURE, I felt it pushed the play more into the present, and created many modern resonances, hardly changing a single line. It gave the act of closing the brothels a much wider and more modern contact. Anyone who was outside the conventional world could be thrown into prison by the Duke’s repressive law. Furthermore, the overlooking of Escalus for a promising young upstart like Angelo has many resonances for underrepresented female politicians. These changes of gender expanded the play’s concerns without distubing something fundamental about it.

However, for me , changing the gender of a character can sometimes limit a play within the constraints of that decision.  In other words the play can become a curiosity. The change of gender ends up being the total focus of the production. I have seen a few productions where this has happened. This is not a criticism, because it may have been the reason for doing the production in the first place. It is a result but it can also be seen as a gimmick, something which cannot serve the play as it is.

For me, when you change the gender of a character, I think the strategy should be that  you really ask yourself, ‘ if this male character was a woman [or vice versa] and said these lines then what would she be like? What journey would she be on?” and really pursue that as far as you can go. I felt these questions were not asked in Julie Taymor’s movie of THE TEMPEST , with the usually fantastic Helen Mirren as Prospera, playing the role, I felt, as a man. I was awaiting this fabulous witch like being , and got a rather surprisingly conventional portrayal. I wanted to see an unleashing of fresh understanding in the power of this role and felt I got much of the same as I would have got with a reasonable male actor. Maybe some people would say, well isn’t that the point? But for me, it isn’t. For me, gender does matter, and like all innovations to an old piece, it has to be carried through.

Recently I have been considering characters in King Lear . Which characters, given the text and nature of the relationships could be changed from male to female? Lear himself would be a possibility. But what about Kent, for instance? I truly toyed with this for a while, but no matter what lines were cut , Kent felt like an intrinsically male character. His behaviour with Lear , particularly when in his disguise, was very macho and gruff. What was I thinking of? Gloucester on the other hand might be a candidate. Her reasoning for keeping Edmund away from court would have been understandable in order to preserve her reputation. Any guilt she might have felt for keeping him in the shadows might prove a powerful energy to her gullibility in the plot that Edmund hatches. This journey is attractive and feasible. there is a whole accessible logic there, with a minimum of script alteration.




2 thoughts on “Conceal me what I am – changing gender in Shakespeare

  1. Tony Hegarty

    We do change gender sometimes to challenge the conventional story line and try and escape from the story line’s oppressive thread. I think of the Sister’s of Perpetual Indulgence for example.

  2. sido7

    The American actress Pat Carroll played Falstaff in Merry Wives to much acclaim – even that of Frank Rich. There is a showcase production of Lear going on now in Brooklyn Heights in which a very good actress with who I’ve worked is playing Kent. I’ve played Adam in As You Like It (my fave role ever) and Helicanus in Pericles.

    Shakespeare/gender is still an under-explored issue and I applaud anyone who takes it on – toward discovery!


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