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Olden Lore

Scholars Argue Over Gender Inequity in Casting at Royal Shakespeare Company (This Is Interesting I Swear)

After more than four hundred years of preservation and reenactment, it’s no wonder that Shakespeare’s plays have lent themselves to experimentation, adaptation, or modernization of various kinds. But I can understand the Royal Shakespeare Company, being the Royal Shakespeare Company, feels it has some dedication to a traditional staging of the Bard’s work. Shakespeare scholars have been in a bit of a flap lately over a quite modern idea indeed: women playing male parts in RSC productions.

Which is why the picture at the top of this article is Dame Helen Mirren in her role as Prospera in Julie Taymor‘s The Tempest. Not an RSC production in any way, but there you go.

Anyway, the whole thing started when Phyllida Lloyd, director of The Iron Lady, voiced the opinion that:

It was “iniquitous” that the RSC employed “so few women” actors and predicted that European legislation may in future force it to employ equal numbers of each sex. Any problems with not having enough men to fill the male roles could be solved by “some gender-blind casting” – and would allow directors to “have some fun”.

This, admittedly strong, statement raised the ire of Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, who strongly disagreed. “Not all productions are going to be in an aesthetic range that will welcome cross-gender casting,” he told The Telegraph. “Casting more women to play men could make it incoherent to a mainstream audience… People going to see a Shakespeare play expect realism and expect men [playing male roles.] This should be about realism.”

Which, in my opinion is a terrible way to argue is point, since actual Shakespearean audiences were perfectly okay with accepting the “realism” of men portraying women, not just occasionally, but in every single female role. But I see his point, and I don’t believe that anyone should be forcing directors to swap character gender if they’d rather not, and I doubt that the “mainstream” audiences who show up to see the Royal Shakespeare Company do Hamlet are looking for anything but a “traditional” take on the play. (I doubt the general mainstream audience is showing up for the RSC in the first place.) But I also don’t think that audiences would find swapping actor genders so distracting as to put a real dent in things: that’s actor genders, not character genders. Crossdressing has a long history in theater, and if theatergoers can already suspend their belief for set lights, trick knives, and paper mache donkey heads, they can suspend it for some ladies dressed up as men in the supporting cast.

The likelihood of anyone legally forcing the RSC to make sure it’s yearly company reaches gender parity is low, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be something they commit to working toward, and adjust their audience’s expectations accordingly. In other words, methinks Dobson doth protest too much.

(via Jezebel.)


  • Anonymous

    “That woman is a WOMAN!”

  • Brenda/Lysana/either

    I agree with you. Now I want a female Hamlet like burning.

  • Anonymous

    Male actors playing female roles isn’t just a thing from Shakespeare’s own time though. Just last month I went to see Twelfth Night with an all male cast. I wasn’t actually expecting that, yet it only took about 5 minutes before I stopped ‘noticing’. In other plays you may have 20 year old actors playing young children (Dark at the Top of the Stairs), or men in horse masks playing, well, horses (Equus).

    Theatre audiences aren’t thick. People adapt quite quickly to things that might seem jarring as long as they are presented well. Theatre should never be about getting as close to reality as possible. It should be about getting the audience to accept that the world being portrayed is reality for the length of the play.

  • Jenn V

    I can haz gender swapped Macbeth now plz?

  • Verity Strange

    Audiences are smarter than Mr. Dobson implies. My all-female Shakespearean troupe is wildly popular on our college campus, and audiences generally have little difficulty following our plays. Shakespeare’s works should not be distilled for the sake of the audience, and a female actor can play any role with the same strength and dexterity as a male actor. Whether genderswapping roles or putting actors in drag, a production can play with expression in exciting and intelligent ways.

  • MsLinconnue

    See, why don’t they do women’s plays from that period instead of constantly focusing on Shakespeare. I would pay so much money to see a production of Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam where most of the characters are female.

    That being said, Shakespeare actually gets interesting when women are allowed to play the traditionally male roles. It makes for more creative decisions in design and direction, particularly with characters like Iago or Oberon.

  • Liz

    “Casting more women to play men could make it incoherent to a mainstream audience.” …Seriously?

    I’m in the Shakespeare Society at a women’s college. We do a play every semester, and the male characters are played by women in drag. I don’t think it’s ever confused an audience–the characters are clearly male, we bind our chests, we wear makeup to make our face shapes more stereotypically masculine. Similarly, has anyone ever heard of the Actors from the London Stage? They tour entire Shakespeare plays with only five to six actors who play everyone–so yes, women play male roles, since there are normally very few female characters in a Shakespearean play and you only have five people to play everyone.

    It doesn’t necessarily affect the interpretation–you can do very interesting things if you choose to call attention to the gender plays of the casting, true. But you can have women play men without it being “the point.” There are few enough roles for women in classical theater as it is.

  • Kifre

    I don’t know why this should be such a mindblowing concept for me….but right now? All I want out of life is to play Falstaff in community productions of all the Henrys.

  • Melissa Parker

    You can’t understand how much I appreciate that the mary sue includes we book/shakespeare/litereary nerds in “girl geek” culture. Books are my primary area of geek out, but always felt like it wan’t an area of enough nerdy street-cred compared to the more widely seen geek chic cultural areas of sci-fi/comics/fantasy etc. Just had to express some love for the inclusion of peices like this, keep the literary nerd stuff coming.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve seen a local community college that went completely gender-blind in casting of Henry IV part 1. They obviously had more women than men in the theater department, so most of the main roles were women, and then one or two of the female parts were played by men. The woman who played Falstaff was amazing. The best Falstaff I’ve seen.

  • Tony French

    This is such a convenient post, because I just got home from a production of Titus Andronicus where I play a white Aaron the Moor opposite of a black Tamora, and a FEMALE Titus and Lucius, as well as Titus’ other sons being played by women and it is one of the best performances I’ve ever been in and couldn’t be happier with how it came together.

  • Liz

    I just finished playing Falstaff in Henry IV part 1! MOST FUN I HAVE EVER HAD

  • Supermorff

    The RSC already do this, is the funny thing. I went to a play (As You Like It) at the Globe a couple of months ago and Jaques was played by a woman. Granted, that’s only one character and only one play, but it’s already happening so clearly it can and does work.

  • Phoenix Blackmoon

    The best Shakespeare production I’ve seen thus far was a college theater doing “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the roles of Titania and Oberon gender-swapped. They didn’t hide it or play it down, rather they very much played it up, with gorgeous hot pink drag regalia for Titania, and swank suits for Oberon. Other characters were gender swapped as well. The play was quite memorable. Titania in full cape, thigh high hot pink boots and matching corset will forever overshadow all others.

  • Joanna

    We also had that sort of gender bending back in school. I never really thought about it as being “wrong”, because at the end of the day isn’t acting pretending to be someone you’re not?

  • Alana Boltz

    I definitely agree with this. I was a Classics nerd before I ever got into more mainstream geekery such as anime, video games and tabletop RPG’s. I feel like in some ways there is less of a community for literature nerds, and that saddens me.

  • Alana Boltz

    Although she’s a bit later, I’d personally love to see more Aphra Behn productions out there.

  • D.

    This seems so out of date. Sarah Berhnhardt played Hamlet in Hamlet more than 100 years ago. If the Victorians could deal with it, surely we can.

  • Chanel Diaz

    They sound sexist and transphobic. Women can’t wear pants? What are they, stuck in the Middle Ages?

    Realism? Their stories aren’t real, they’re fiction, on a stage, so reality gets thrown out the window, anyway. Unless, they’re telling that people are REALLY getting Stabbed, too.

    Shakespeare and too many ‘traditional’ plays bore me, because there’s already too little opportunities for women to play ‘women roles (much less, empowered roles)” without having to be excluded to play the overabundance of ‘men’s roles,” too.

    I wonder if they’re racist, too and won’t allow non-european descent male actors to play the characters, too. Not to mention, ageist, ableist, nationalist, and hair and eye colorist- BUT ALL IN THE NAME OF REALISM, HUH?

  • Chanel Diaz

    Agreed. I’m OVER Shakespeare by now (I’ve only been as interested enough for some of his quotes, anyway.).

  • Jay, King of Gay

    Yep. Why is it that people act as though the last 5-10 years of status quo have been the default for eons? I would expect someone with the title of “director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham” to know at LEAST as much as an undergrad.

  • Anonymous

    What’s bizarre about this particular criticism coming from a British academic is that over here the first form of theatre we’re exposed to is pantomime. In panto the principal boy is usually played by a woman, and some female roles are played by men. So in, say, Cinderella you’d have the ugly sisters played by men and both Cinderella and Prince Charming played by women. We’re probably the counrty whose ‘mainstream’ is likely to be the *least* confused by cross-gender casting.

  • Life Lessons

    Oh get over it and cast women in male roles so women get to act too. A recent production in my hometown had women playing male roles in Richard III and it worked out just fine.

  • Laura Truxillo

    That is the stupidest explanation I’ve heard in a while. Have you SEEN a modern Shakespeare play? Or any of them from the past, oh…three decades? Something put on at the RSC should be so good that the audience follows whatever they tell them.

    I’ve seen a version of Cyrano (not Shakespeare, I know) put on at a college level. The title character was played by a woman, and her nose was quite dainty, thank you very much. But if that mattered after five minutes of the opening line, then you’re not really a play-watchin’ person.

    Next you’re going to say that the audience will be really confused if you don’t use actual TWINS during “A Comedy of Errors.” Or shoot, can’t cast a black guy as a white guy’s brother in “Much Ado About Nothing”–nobody would understand that they were supposed to be brothers!

    The beauty of Shakespeare and its potential for blind casting is that it’s totally written for radio–anything important, from a character’s status to their gender, is described in words in short order, and in such a way that if you’re enjoying the play, you believe whatever the hell the actors tell you.

    His reasoning is just weasel-speak for “We don’t want to.”

    Now shut up and give me a lady Iago.

  • Laura Truxillo

    Oh. Oh wow, that would be so freaking cool to watch. Like, just messed up as hell.

  • Jerilyn Nighy

    Woman have tended to outnumber men in local theater productions for decades, so it is by necessity that women play male-named roles. It’s entirely appropriate, given Shakespeare’s and Jacobean/Elizabethan theater’s ubiquitous thematic use of layers of identity.

  • Ashleigh Jade

    The reason this is coming up at the moment is because in London at the moment there are currently two one-gender productions of Shakespeare – one directed by Phyllida Lloyd

    The Globe theatre is currently doing an all male Twelfth Night with Stephen Fry (Malvolio) and Mark Rylance (Olivia). I saw this last weekend and it was very good! This is Shakespeare and Twelfth Night isn’t a particularly realistic play at best anyway. Also – it’s a comedy and there were some additional comedic moments created out of men dressed as women.

    There is also currently an all female version of Julius Cesar at the Donmar Warehouse. I haven’t been to see this (but would like to) and it’s mostly getting rave reviews! There is of course the right-wing press (including the Telegraph and Daily Mail) that have not given such great reviews but that does seem to be political. It’s apparently very modern setting with CCTV cameras and a metallic set. Looking at the production stills it does rather make me think of Alien…

  • Sophie

    Oh, I’ve wanted to see a version with a female Hamlet since I studied the play in school. I think the claims of realism are ridiculous. Each version of a play brings something new to the table. A gender swapped version could change the way an audience views the play and I think that can only be a good thing. I’ve seen Hamlet six or seven times in various different forms. I tend to appreciate it when a company decides to try something a bit less typical.

  • JoAnne Thrax

    There are two different ideas here. One is cross-gender casting, as was
    historically done with men playing the female roles in Shakespeare
    plays or vice-versa in more modern times…the other is to re-assign the
    gender of the character, as was done with Helen Mirren playing Prospera
    in Taymor’s “The Tempest.”

    With effective makeup (and, I suppose, the proper actors), cross-gender
    casting can be not-even-noticeable (the casting of Linda Hunt as Billy
    Kwan in the 1982 film “The Year of Living Dangerously” is a fine
    example), such that even the “mainstream” audiences cited by Dobson
    wouldn’t likely take issues with it.

    Interestingly, even the second idea is nothing new: there’s a 1921 film
    by Sven Gade (one of the earliest feature-length film adaptations of the
    play) which casts Hamlet as a woman. I imagine audiences are more
    likely to have issues with these sorts of changes, especially if they’d
    prefer “traditional” versions of Shakespeare, and certain re-genderings
    may stretch the historical credibility of certain parts and make it more
    difficult for certain audience members to suspend their disbelief, but
    there’s also something to be said for pushing those envelopes. Although
    I would wholeheartedly support these sort of casting decisions that
    might make the audience uncomfortable, I can understand why as
    traditional a venue as the RSC isn’t jumping at the opportunity, so
    maybe it’s best left for more innovative Shakespearean outlets.

    Similar situations, no doubt, have arisen in casting racially
    against-type, re-defining characters as people of color, though
    fortunately that seems far more acceptable by the mainstream these
    days. Cross-race casting, however, in which, say, a bunch of white
    people in blackface or yellowface play people of African or Asian
    descent (i.e.: Swedish-American actor Wearner Oland playing Charlie
    Chan) is, I’m pleased to say, far more problematic in this day and age.

    Both casting against-gender and re-gendering of characters can be done
    for artistic reasons (i.e.: challenging the assumptions of the audience,
    making statements on gender or sexuality, etc.), and I certainly don’t
    hold Shakespeare’s plays as sacred to the point where they can’t or
    shouldn’t be experimented with, modernised, abridged, re-cast and
    altered as much as one likes, but if that isn’t the intent of the
    producers/players, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to stick to
    their own artistic vision. I also don’t expect legal action to force
    the RSC to change their
    casting practices any time soon either…and I’m not sure if it should.
    However, sexism (and racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.) are as
    rampant in Shakespearean theatre as they are in the rest of society, so
    that’s no reason to not put some pressure by other means on them to
    perhaps take a few artistic risks in the interest of addressing these
    concerns. Many (if not all) of Shakespeare’s works have proven to be
    highly adaptable to new settings and characterisations (“Forbidden
    Planet” is “The Tempest” in space, Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” is “King Lear”
    set in feudal Japan, the 1995 film of “Richard III” was set in an
    alternate fascist England, the 1929 Hamlet cast Hamlet as a woman, etc,
    etc, etc.), so, fortunately, even if the RSC won’t jump at the chance to
    re-cast “Romeo and Juliet” as a futuristic, psychedelic, kung-fu
    lesbian western, here’s hoping someone else does.

  • Jerilyn Nighy

    Orson Welles staged a version of Othello with himself in the titular role, and all the other actors were black.

  • Ashleigh Jade

    To add to this – I did go and see Julius Cesar and it was totally amazing. The friend and I who went to see it were dumbstruck for a few seconds afterwords. Absolutely awe inspiring!