The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0451 Tuesday, 17 September 2013
Date: September 16, 2013 5:55:23 PM EDT
Subject: Useful Question She’s Asking
Did Shakespeare sell women short?
The RSC is turning to Jacobean drama in search of better roles for women. So does the Shakespearean tradition hold actresses back?
The Observer, Saturday 14 September 2013
A leading lady seeking the challenge of a truly great stage role – the equivalent of Lear or Hamlet – often has to reach back into the ancient world, perhaps for Medea or Antigone, or to go to Scandinavia for Ibsen’s Nora or Hedda Gabler. To remedy this failing in British theatrical tradition, the Royal Shakespeare Company has announced that it is reviving three major female roles from Jacobean drama. The plays, The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, the anonymous Arden of Faversham from 1592 and The White Devil by John Webster, will be produced partly as a “provocation”, according to deputy artistic director Erica Whyman. She does not aim, she said, to solve the issue of gender inequality on the stage, but she is “intent on asking some questions”.
Whyman argues that the time is right to look at these rarely performed works because gender power today is in flux, as it was when they were written. But her bold foray into the Jacobean raises a question that sounds almost heretical, especially coming from the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon: did Shakespeare short-change women?
The lack of classic roles for women in English-language theatre is widely acknowledged, but could it possibly be the Bard’s fault? Brigid Larmour, award-winning artistic director of Watford Palace Theatre, suspects the great playwright is guilty as charged.
“The impact of Shakespeare is still inspiring, of course, but it can also be limiting,” she said. “There are huge characters, such as Cleopatra or Beatrice, that we reference all the time in the rehearsal room. But the problem is that we have kept the same gender balance in today’s theatre because of the success and genius of his plays. It created a blueprint that means playwrights do not notice when they have written something for nine men and one woman.”
Larmour, who has worked to create an even proportion of female and male parts in her Ideal World season at Watford, understands Whyman’s concern. “At Stratford the other day I heard actresses talking about how few roles for older women there still are. And these are the actresses who have learned their craft and can really deliver.”
Shakespeare, despite his confident genius, was unaware of the influence his dramatis personæ would have down the ages. And the question of his original gender bias is further complicated by the fact that in his day all parts were played by men.
One actress who has gone on the record about her disappointment in Shakespeare’s legacy for women is Janet Suzman. She complains: “There are no soliloquies of any note, although Cleopatra comes nearest, achieving a Lear-like clarity about her place in the world after the death of Antony. And none of them earns the lengthy scholarly analysis accorded the eponymous heroes of the canon.”
Suzman regards Cleopatra, the second-biggest of Shakespeare’s female roles, as “the chiefest among his female creations”, while Volumnia, Coriolanus’s persuasive mother, also gets a vote. Lady Macbeth, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and lost love Ophelia she dismisses for “fizzling out”.
Conventionally, among the most coveted female roles in Shakespeare are the cross-dressing duo of Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night. Rosalind, with 685 lines, is Shakespeare’s biggest female role, while Viola, despite the warm appeal of her character, comes in tenth. The spiky Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing also packs a big dramatic punch with relatively few lines. But throughout the works the power of a role cannot be measured in lines alone. Lady Macbeth, who drives the plot by calling on her murderous husband to “screw his courage to the sticking place”, has fewer than half his lines. Similarly, the voice of Othello’s Desdemona, the lyric, gentle centre of the play, is dwarfed by her jealous groom’s 880 lines.
Heroines such as Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Isabella in Measure for Measure carry both the weight of their legal arguments, as well as the play’s moral argument, although men get much more airtime. Other roles, such as the wild Katherina in Taming of the Shrew or the passionate teenage Juliet, might come close to seeming mere objects of dispute, if deft characterisation had not ensured that they burn bright.
For 400 years even Shakespeare’s minor female roles have been desired by great actresses. Titania, the fairy queen of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has only 141 lines to speak but in 2010 was played for the second time to acclaim by Judi Dench, though the part is usually doubled up with that of Hippolyta to give it bulk.
Young girls in Shakespeare are full of innocence, yet they are also repositories of wisdom. Among this line-up, with under 200 lines apiece, appear Hamlet’s Ophelia, Lear’s Cordelia and The Tempest’s untouched Miranda, the only female character in her play.
“I always find it an annoying misinterpretation when these small, key roles are played at a high emotional pitch,” said Whyman. “Ophelia is often portrayed as if she is a mess. Why don’t directors think she means what she is saying? She has seen everything, more than anyone else, and yet there is nothing she can do. She is profound and political, as Miranda is at the top of The Tempest.”
While there are some larger neglected parts, such as Imogen in Cymbeline, many memorable female characters in Shakespeare might be described as truth-speaking old dames. The three witches are a clear example, but the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Mistress Quickly in Henry IV part I, Paulina in The Winter's Tale and Emilia in Othello are all also strong in this field.
So can it be fair to say there are no Shakespearean roles with real heft for women? Suzman has no doubt: “There is simply no spiritual, intellectual or metaphysical equivalent to Lear, the Richards, the Henrys, nor the twin peaks of Othello and his demonic tempter, Iago – and certainly no woman baddies of that order. No crazed Timons or Tituses, nor anything like the Everest of Hamlet, towering above them all.”
Larmour agrees, adding that there are still few of the “arduous, testing parts like Lear or Hamlet” in the wider repertoire. “Charlotte Keatley [author of the award-winning My Mother Said I Never Should] is writing the role of Émilie du Châtelet, the mathematician, for us and that will really put the actor through their paces. Otherwise, we tend to go to Ibsen, or to America, or over to Ireland for Shaw or O’Casey.”
In Shakespeare’s time, gender politics was a perilous subject, with Elizabeth I’s power waning at the end of her reign. Women were forbidden to appear on stage and this may well have dampened Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for female roles. Larmour suggests that had this dramatic genius been born later, British theatre would be different now. “If Shakespeare had been writing during the freer Restoration era, we would have far more women’s parts.”
Whyman at the RSC also believes politics were critical. “The confidence of the Elizabethan age had faded a bit when Shakespeare was in his prime. People were anxious about the succession and about the idea that it might not be a man again,” she said. “So although things had fundamentally changed, they swung back. We see that kind of shape-shifting today, where identities and roles are not fixed.”
In the past directors have tackled the lack of weighty women’s roles in Shakespeare with gender-blind casting. Larmour would like to see more of this. “When it comes to colour-blind casting, there is still a long way to go, but there has been some progress. With gender-blind casting we have not got any further at all. If anything we have gone back.” She applauded last winter’s all-female production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse. “It was great, but that kind of casting was fairly standard in the 1980s.”
Given the historical context, Whyman is happy to let Shakespeare off the hook: “While we can say he didn’t write as many parts for women of the kind where you travel with them on a long journey, I do think he thought of them as people, just like his other characters. The range of women Shakespeare writes is, I think, second to none.”
Whether or not the Bard qualifies as a feminist, for Whyman the astonishing achievement is that all his female characters remain so distinct.