The Lady Canon

The anecdotal agreement seems to be that so-called “gender blind” casting is on the rise. Dominic Cavendish got annoyed about it last year. But as long as only select roles within a production are cast against their written gender, it’s all but impossible for the casting to be “blind.” Their conspicuous altered presence, even tokenization, draws attention to the fact of the switch, and raises questions about which roles directors are open to switching and why. This latter question has been particularly interesting to me lately, as I’ve noticed distinct patterns not just in the specific roles that get offered to women, but the things these roles have in common. So I’d like to explore a few of the patterns I’ve been noticing. This is certainly not comprehensive– just some of the most interesting examples.

(A side note: I’ve really been struggling with how to break this conversation out of a gender binary, and haven’t yet found a way to do it. I’m comfortable referring to the roles themselves as male roles, because the characters are indeed written to be cisgender men, but I struggle to find the right language to for the individuals taking these roles (given the theatre industry as it stands now, these are almost exclusively cisgender women, but I’d like to find language that is more open to accommodating the expansion beyond this binary that I hope will someday take place) and for the process that is undertaken when this casting happens. “Switched,” “flipped,” and “swapped” all imply– at least to me– a binary, shifting from one pole to another. What is a verb that can contain the idea that these roles were male, but are being played by non-male individuals who are usually women? I’m still working on it, and for now, I apologize for the fact that this list will break down into a male/female binary, because that reflects the ways these roles have been cast in major productions so far. There is a whole separate conversation to be had about amateur/fringe Shakespeare and how such productions are more expansive in their experimentation with sexuality and gender, but that’s… one for the postdoc, maybe. And this isn’t even getting started on how much I hate using the word “female”…)

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern
I do literally mean Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are very frequently either both women, or a man and woman pair these days, but I also use it to stand in for similar small but speaking roles: Cornelius and/or Voltemand in the same play, the ambassadors in A Winter’s Tale, Henry IV’s other sons, Lady Grey’s older sons in Richard III. These types of roles are both easy and essential. If they are the only male roles being offered to women, then that’s just lazy. But a sufficiently wide spread of gender diversity, including such minor roles as well as major ones, is what helps shift attention from a single, token female lead, instead creating a theatrical world that can allow for actual “blindness” to gender.

Don John
I have seen three female Don Johns in the past two years, two of them within the past six months. Does this count as a trend yet? If so, I’m not sure I like it. I absolutely think that women should get a chance to swagger in black leather (don’t Don Johns always wear black leather?) and be pointlessly and a bit ineffectively evil, but when set against the gender politics of the play as a whole, this choice gets a little more troubling. I’m not sure if directors are making this choice because it will provide “motivation” for Don John’s envy of her brother and Claudio– of course she’s jealous! Women, amirite?– or because they think it will somehow soften the play’s incredibly troubling gender politics to have a women spearhead the aggressive (fake) slut-shaming of another woman. Neither of these sits right with me, the former for obvious reasons, the latter because it seems absurd and unfair to defang the play’s critique of chastity-obsessed patriarchy by turning its most active proponent into a woman. There are sexist women who hate women, of course, but Don John is not a role with sufficient complexity to responsibly explore that issue. Or they’re just not thinking about it at all, and think it would be fun to have a woman strutting evilly in black leather, which I empathize with. But my point is that we must think about these things beyond just the blanket assumption that any opportunity for women is narratively good– especially in a play whose embedded gender politics make “gender blindness” more or less impossible.

Kent, Benvolio, Horatio
The Globe’s King Lear this summer featured Saskia Reeves as Kent, and the Ian McKellan Chichester production soon to transfer to the West End had Sinéad Cusack, who I assume will also be in the West End version, but it hasn’t been announced.

Last year, I was at a conference about gender equity in the arts, and was attending a panel about the topic this post is exploring: making more space for women in the classics. I asked a version of the question I’m exploring here– what do you think of the fact that women are generally cast in the same types of male roles over and over?– and offered Benvolio as an example. One of the directors on the panel replied, “Well, I do think Benvolio should always be a woman!” Which both did and didn’t answer the question.

Finally, few recent major Hamlets have had women as Horatio, but it pops up quite a lot in regional production– my most recent was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016.

I lump all of these roles together because I think they are very similar tonally and in their relationship to the main character of their respective plays. They are all solid, prominent roles– Kent perhaps moreso than the other two, Benvolio perhaps less– but they make the top half of the cast list for sure. Their major function is to act as helpmeets and voices of reason in support of a male main character. Benvolio and Horatio are both pointedly non-violent in very violent plays. They are tirelessly devoted, even though they don’t always get the credit or respect they deserve for their efforts.

To say that a character like Benvolio should always be a women offers a slightly troubling implication about the types of roles we feel women “should” play. The thinking behind this assumption is obvious: he’s the pacifist of the group, he’s a voice of reason, he doesn’t really engage in the bawdy punning of the other boys. The same can be said, more or less, of Horatio and Kent. Only casting women in roles that reinforce stereotypes about femininity is contrary to the spirit of these casting experiments, in my opinion, and is not particularly creative at this point.

The Clowns: Feste, Touchstone, Jaques, Lear’s Fool, etc.
I think a major element of these is that most of the clowns are wholly sexless: there’s no risk of accidentally creating a queer relationship (the horror!!!)– except with Touchstone, but he’s also the one I’ve seen least. Their narrative isolation makes them easier to transform without much of a ripple effect. Even in a production that’s adhering to a historical setting that supposedly makes the introduction of women into more active roles complicated, the clowns and fools already exist in a set-apart place, literally granted license to live outside the ordinary social order.

To my mind, there is something a bit problematic about constraining women– especially under the excuse of “historical accuracy”– to these exceptional positions. There shouldn’t need to be a reason or an excuse for women to exist in your theatrical world– they’re already speaking in verse, for goodness’ sake. None of this is real. (And that’s not even getting into the fact that our popular ideas of “historical accuracy” as relate to the positions of women and people of color tend to be wildly inaccurate anyway.)

It’s also sometimes difficult to know what the heck to do with the clowns, written as they usually were for specific performers, capitalizing on set bits and audience expectations that are now mostly lost. So I’m often readier to believe with the clowns and fools that they genuinely are a type of “gender blindness”– that the directors really have chosen the person who they feel will find something to bring to the role, some way to fill out and contextualize them, and the gender of the performer is sort of beside the point.

Julius Caesar seems to be a show that is particularly likely to be cast wholly with women, or to feature “gender-blind” casting in various combinations– possibly because it is so often re-set into a contemporary context, and the relative lack of romance (you don’t tend to see female Brutuses in mixed-gender casts) makes it easy to avoid queering existing romantic relationships. I realize I keep alluding to this, and it’s because I can only assume this is a major concern for directors, because they so aggressively avoid it. The one time I’ve seen a female Julius Caesar (a choice I generally quite liked), Calphurnia was cut and her lines of warning reassigned to Mark Antony. 

In a mixed-gender cast (including right now in London), the lead most likely to be swapped seems to be Cassius. Though certainly one of the main roles, it is certainly the least impressive and least famous of the leading trio of Brutus, Antony, and Cassius. It is also the role explicitly identified as likely acting out of envy and insecurity. Unlike Brutus, he’s not particularly principled, is accused of accepting bribes, and even his death is actually just an accident resulting from a ridiculous miscommunication.

Is Cassius a great role? Absolutely. Am I arguing that it’s problematic to cast women as flawed characters? Absolutely not. But the nature of Cassius’s flaws– envy of powerful men, a hot temper and uncontrolled emotions, a death that results from a misreading of battlefield tactics– do evoke sexist stereotypes. I’m not necessarily saying women shouldn’t play Cassius, or directors can’t make something interesting out of these uncomfortable associations– but one does wonder why it’s Cassius they default to, and not the honorable Brutus, or the ultimately triumphant and scene-stealing Mark Antony.

Speaking of queering romantic relationships… I haven’t seen this that often, but it did happen twice in London recently. Turning the priggish, universally disliked (by the others onstage) character who is shamed and mocked for his inappropriate love interest into a lesbian? Yeah, cool.

This one’s great because there’s a film! It’s not particularly easy to access, in my experience, but at least one instance of gender-swapped Shakespeare is permanently recorded as the Official Film Version. So that’s nice.

Despite their obvious differences in role size, power, and, uh, competence, I can’t help but think of Don John again, and the effect this casting has on the play’s themes I always slightly feel like a female Prospero disrupts or defangs the play’s patriarchal commentary. On the other hand, if you’re taking a post-colonial angle, white women are certainly as complicit in the violence of colonialism as white men.

But there’s also the more positive take on Prospero– one that I’m always slightly surprised to see because of the strong critical strain relating to Prospero’s patriarchal abuses, but which really is the more common theatrical version, in my experience. This taps into the cultural associations of Prospero with Shakespeare himself, and often comes in productions that bill the play as Shakespeare’s last, the epilogue serving as both the magician and the playwright’s farewells to their crafts. There is something compellingly subversive in having a woman inhabit this association (they do tend to be white women, though, so it’s not quite the height of radicalism just yet).


The title of this post is a reference to Dr. Jami Rogers’ concept of the “black canon,” a remarkably consistent set of roles in which black actors tend to be cast at the exclusion of other, usually better, parts. I believe we can see the same patterns in the roles generally offered to women, with related (probably subconscious) generalizations underpinning the choice of roles. Rather than blindly applauding casting choices on the basis that they provide opportunities for women, I’d like to see more rigorous interrogation of the types of opportunities that are consistently being offered, and more attention paid to these patterns, rather than approaching each instance as an isolated choice without broader resonance.


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