Maisie Jane Garvin
Imagine visiting the theatre and seeing your favourite Shakespearean heroine: Desdemona, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth or Hermia, being played by a man. Perhaps there would be uproar. Yet, it is interesting to note that in the contemporary performances of these plays, the leading ladies would have in fact been played by the opposite gender, without so much as a raised eyebrow.
The practice of men playing women on the stage dates back to the Ancient Greeks, where even titular plays such as Medea, would have had the eponymous heroine played by a male. This tradition in theatre correlated to a woman’s place in society. With most women not even gaining the right to vote until 1920, there is no surprise that the idea of a woman actor in Elizabethan and Jacobean times was out of the question. With strong biblical beliefs, Shakespearean society believed that the Bible set out man and women as represented by Adam and Eve, and that the two genders worked in completely different spheres.
It was illegal for women to act on stage until 1661 and even after this legislation, actress would come under scrutiny for being indecent and immoral
England especially lingered behind their European counterparts when it came to accepting female actors. It was illegal for women to act on stage until 1661 and even after this legislation, actress would come under scrutiny for being indecent and immoral – all connotations that came hand in hand with the job. Although, ‘respectable’ women would not consider a career in theatre, the demands of the job that included the ability to read, memorise lines and sing and dance brought together women from all social backgrounds.
Today, there is a complete reversal of not only how women are perceived as actors, but how some productions of famous Shakespearean plays are produced to include deliberate gender play. There are instances of a complete twist occurring on stage where some of Shakespeare’s best loved male protagonists are played by women. One of the most famous depictions, was Maxine Peake’s portrayal of Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, 2014. The first actress to play the tragic figure in 35 years, following on from other influential females who took on the role such as Sarah Bernhardt in 1899.
The production was praised for proving that women can bring a whole new perspective to traditionally male roles
Several productions have taken the inclusion of female actors even further. To look at just one example, the performance of Julius Caesar by an exclusively female cast at the Donmar Warehouse in 2018. The production was praised for proving that women can bring a whole new perspective to traditionally male roles. The director Phyllida Lloyd described her play to be ‘a feminist mission, a social mission, an inclusivity mission, an education mission’.
It seems therefore, that as we enter 2021, the opportunities for women on the Shakespearean stage are endless. Whether this be as they take on the male lead, be part of an entirely female cast or even bring a new dynamic to one of Shakespeare’s female characters who deserve to be played with confidence and modernity.
Maisie Jane Garvin
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