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 marginalized groups 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.

Cassius
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.

Malvolio
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.

Prospero
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.

 

Starring Hamilton

When Lin-Manuel Miranda enters as Alexander Hamilton, introducing himself as such in song, he is greeted with rapturous applause. This moment seems written into the music itself– that space to pause between “Alexander Hamilton… my name is Alexander Hamilton,” and to wait for a moment or two (or several more) after.

When Jamael Westman enters as Alexander Hamilton, introduces himself as such, he’s greeted with dead silence. The name hangs in the air, and into that silence he speaks the assurance that suddenly feels electrically charged: “Just you wait.”

Westman is tall and slim as a knife blade, and he always but always stands perfectly erect. With his long, long frame, his hands folded behind his back, even as he towers over absolutely everyone he meets, there is no one who will make him stoop. He is still and controlled. He is going to take up all the damn space he needs. When he smiles (not often– smile more), it’s sharp and often smug.

Whether the London cast of Hamilton should be seen as a kind of replacement or tour cast, or a whole new original, is a vexed question. The glossy souvenir brochures in the lobby feature pictures of the Broadway cast, and everyone here has been mainlining the original soundtrack. In either case, it’s rare– at least in my experience– to see a leading actor transform a role. Javier Muñoz, who I didn’t see, apparently uncovered many of Hamilton’s spikier edges. But Muñoz is a known quantity with Broadway experience and a long association with Miranda. This is Westman’s first musical.

I expected him to be cheered when he announced himself as “Alexander Hamilton” anyway– I assume the touring Hamiltons are, an expression of delight to be meeting the title character, no matter who he’s played by. Like I said, the music itself practically invites it. But that silence was immensely moving– that reminder that this young actor, stepping into the shadow of the beloved Lin-Manuel, would had to prove himself to an expectant audience just as his character is proving himself to a skeptical onstage world.

And it is, as it turns out, a slow unfolding. This makes sense in a role written for the show’s creator and a well-established star, who has no need to win the audience’s loyalty, but it takes a while before Hamilton is really asked to display the full range of his abilities. Like the characters, we have to wait for his talents to unfold: gosh, he’s good with that high-speed rap– oh, he can sing, too– oh, he can act. He has arrogance and menace and charm and relentless drive. It’s so obvious why everyone hates him, but we love him anyway. He and Jefferson, a pair of gaudily-dressed egomaniacs, seem like a newly equal match. Burr (played, fittingly, by the established West End star Giles Terera, who did get entrance applause) and his envy and irritation with Hamilton’s striving makes a whole new kind of sense. It strengthens his opponents as characters when their disdain for Hamilton doesn’t seem to be based only in envy and class prejudice (and possibly weakens Eliza a little bit, but that’s a separate essay). A more flawed Hamilton makes for a stronger overall show.

Most of all, though– in the early scenes especially– the double layers of a relatively untried newcomer, both Hamilton and Westman himself, forcing his way with confidence onto the stage he knows he deserves is captivating and touching and beautiful. Before long, I suspect he’ll be a star, too, greeted with the same rapturous applause as the American Hamiltons. But for now, there’s that silence, that breath of uncertainty: just you wait. 

Back to the Source

I’ve finally started reading some of the older Elizabethan history plays I probably should have read a long time ago. I’ve read some Holinshed and the other chronicle sources that have been identified as Shakespeare’s source material, but it’s instructive to see that some of his strongest influences were really earlier plays.

The case that has intrigued me most– in large part because it’s one I’ve barely seen discussed– is Shakespeare’s King John and its predecessor/maybe-source, The Troublesome Reign of King John. 

I fully recognize that this has almost certainly been discussed at length in scholarly literature I haven’t yet read, but I’m equally interested in the fact that while Shakespeare’s relationship to predecessor plays like The Famous Victories of Henry V and The True Tragedy of Richard III is common knowledge, this one doesn’t seem to be. Which is particularly interesting because some of the most famous features of the play– ones that Shakespeare gets a lot of credit for– actually derive from this earlier play.

Mostly, I’m talking about the Bastard.

He’s frequently correctly credited as Shakespeare’s only wholly fictional main character, but in such a way that also tends to give Shakespeare credit for making him up. But The Troublesome Reign of King John makes it plain that, fictional or not, he was an established aspect of the King John story that Shakespeare was adapting. So is the prominence of Queen Eleanor and Constance, and their sudden disappearance partway through the play, a structural feature I’ve seen frequently puzzled over.

While it’s not quite an answer just to say “it happens because he was copying his source play,” it does shed some light. We can’t fully understand what Shakespeare is doing in a play if we incorrectly believe he has originated characters and ideas that in fact he has borrowed from others. And it obscures what Shakespeare did innovate– in this case, for example, the deep ambivalence of the Bastard character, or Constance’s effusive mourning. And what he didn’t: the abrupt disappearance of Elinor and Constance.

It highlights the problems with only considering Shakespeare in isolation. Not only can it paint an inaccurate picture of the theatrical scene as a whole, it can create misleading assumptions about the plays themselves.

 

 

Artemisia Gentileschi and Historical Fictions

One of my pet peeve posts is back in circulation– this tumblr thread, which, despite the correct attribution of date and artist in the original post, excitedly seizes onto the idea that an x-ray scan has revealed that 16th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi ‘originally’ painted a much more anguished and angry portrait of the Biblical Susanna than the one patriarchal forces ultimately permitted her to reveal.

Perhaps this did indeed happen, but that image isn’t proof of it: it’s an original work created in 1998 (by Kathleen Gilje— let’s not erase one female artist in favor of another).

If you don’t feel like reading it, the gist of the thread is that this x-ray is important because of course Gentileschi, a rape survivor, would have wanted to portray a more realistic version of Susanna (who, in the Bible story in question, is harassed and assaulted by two elders, who threaten to falsely accuse her of adultery if she won’t have sex with them). That Gentileschi’s original concept was evidently suppressed and forced to be altered is just another example of the ways in which the patriarchy has suppressed the voices of women– especially rape victims– throughout history.

Now, the latter is certainly true, at least in general. Whether or not it’s true of Gentileschi and this painting is a question we can’t answer.

One of the subsequent posters praises the x-ray version for being “real,” and points out that Gentileschi’s paintings are of particular interest today (particularly from a feminist perspective) for generally portraying less sanitized, idealized versions of Biblical heroines than those that were popular at the time. Just not quite as much so as the x-ray.

Annoyingly, there are several posts floating around that attempt to correct this post and identify the actual artist of the x-ray painting, but they never seem to catch on the way the original, incorrect post has.

Working with Shakespeare– especially Shakespeare in performance– means working in a field where these kinds of historical myths proliferate. I’ve always been fascinated in what causes certain historical fictions to take hold rather than others (or rather than the truth), and as annoyed as this post makes me, it does point to a couple assumptions that I think often apply in these cases.

First, that a historical artist’s idea of “real” would look exactly like ours. The x-ray photo is indeed more realistic than Gentileschi’s painting to a contemporary eye– both in the sense that the figure is less idealized than we are used to seeing in Renaissance art, and that (as the poster reinforces) this is what we imagine a woman being assaulted would or should look like.

Next, that Gentileschi would naturally express her understanding of a woman’s place in the world and a woman’s experience of sexual trauma in ways we find immediately recognizable. It’s related to the first idea– this is how a woman who had experienced trauma would express herself. Because it’s how we’d expect a female painter to do so today.

All of these assumptions stem from an ignorance or rejection of Gentileschi’s historical artistic milieu. We can’t seek to interpret the style and content of her work simply by glancing at a few paintings of the same Biblical scenes and declaring hers more “real.” We have to understand the breadth of the movement she was working within– and understand that the ways bodies, emotions, and trauma were depicted within that style may have looked just as “real” to the people seeing them as film and television look to us, because that was their familiar artistic language.

It’s like the way CGI can look perfectly realistic, or at least acceptable, in the moment– but when you return to that movie five years later, you suddenly can see how distractingly bad it looks. We become accustomed to the tropes and techniques that are presented to us– the development of new fashions or technologies makes the old ways look strange.

This also plays into the idea, so common with Shakespeare too, of the solitary artistic genius, who is not working within or expanding upon, but in constant, active defiance of their surrounding artistic landscape. Such people existed, of course, but not every artist we admire is or has to be one of them. (And again, Gentileschi may secretly have been, but this painting is not proof of that.)

The problem is basically a lack of historical context (though in this specific instance, also a failure to actually read the original poster’s caption). The assumption that artists would work exactly as we do today, in styles and shorthands that are identical to ours– and that we, from our own context, can look at a historical work and read it as clearly and easily as we do contemporary art. The historical myths that catch on seem to be the ones that reinforce these ideas.

The appeal is obvious: it says that your personal response to and understanding of a work is not only valid (which it is) but also objectively true (probably not). I don’t think it’s elitist or gatekeeping to say that all art is borne of its historical moment, and you need to have some understanding of that historical moment to attempt to interpret what a work was trying to do and say in its own time, rather than what it seems to say now.

That’s what makes historical art so fascinating to me: the reminder that, while some things do seem to come down to human nature, so much of what we take as objective truth about humanity and the way we see the world– both good and bad– is really just a product of our time and place. Fundamentally different perspectives have existed, and can and will.

Caroline, or Change & Nice White People

I’ve been wondering for a few months now why Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s amazing musical Caroline, or Change hasn’t been a go-to for theatre companies this season given its intense relevance to some of our most urgent social issues (the recently-discussed subplot involving the defacing of a Confederate statue not least among them).

Because Kushner and Tesori are amazing, the piece resonates on so many levels. One that I think is particularly urgent, and a bit subtler than the Confederate statue subplot, is its treatment of the role of well-intentioned white people in questions of racial equality. In Caroline, or Change, the family the titular Caroline works for are not your average middle-class white Southerners: they’re also Jewish, raising the still-timely question of how white people who have their own claims to oppression can still be complicit in white supremacy.

The achingly awkward Rose, Northern transplant to New Orleans, unhappily married stepmother to a resentful ten-year-old, and Caroline’s boss, clings to an all-too-recognizable attempt at friendliness in order to overcome her discomfort with the power relationship between herself and Caroline. Rose insists that her scheme to give Caroline the unofficial raise they otherwise can’t afford– letting her keep any change her stepson Noah leaves in his pockets when Caroline does the laundry– is her “trying to be friendly… just trying to be a friend.” But she doesn’t see any contradiction between her protestations of friendship and her frantic asides wondering why Caroline isn’t as nice as other people’s maids.

Rose is not one of the virulently racist housewives of something like The Help: after Caroline quits unannounced, her bewilderment seems sincere when she says that, “It’s just no way to treat a friend.”

The recurring word friend becomes a mask behind which white characters hide their discomfort and insincerity. While eulogizing President Kennedy, Rose’s mother and father-in-law describe him as “friend to the colored, friend to the Jew”– while the two black characters who comment are far less sure of that.

“JFK/Swore to help black folks someday/sure he was a little slow/getting round to doing so/but he swore it and I know/he was set to help our cause,” Caroline’s friend Dotty says. But the best she can conclude is: “Our almost-friend has gone away.”

Caroline’s daughter Emmie is blunter: “I ain’t got no tears to shed/for no dead white guy.”

Dotty and Emmie recognize that friendship is an action, not a title; something that is earned through behavior that demonstrates one’s commitment, not just something one can decide to say they are. Rose may claim to be Caroline’s friend, but as long as she’s Caroline’s boss (not to mention so painfully uncomfortable around her), she can’t be.

In a gesture that feels particularly radical these days, Kushner gives no extra credit for good intentions. Rose is held responsible for her ignorant bumbling, even though it’s well-meant, even though she’s far from home and sad and sincerely wishes she could help Caroline more. He holds Noah, her ten-year-old stepson, responsible for his racism, too. The show’s emotional climax is triggered when Caroline decides to keep a $20 bill Noah accidentally leaves in his pocket and Noah, enraged at the ‘theft,’ responds by furiously parroting racist threats he’s obviously overheard, or at least made up based on things he’s heard.

When Caroline does decide to return to work anyway, Noah hides from her. But in one of the play’s dreamy nighttime dialogues that take place between physically distant characters, Caroline reassures him that the rupture is not permanent. Noah asks, “Will we be friends then?”

Caroline’s melody is gentle and her words blunt: “Weren’t never friends.”

It’s the culmination of a recurring thread of her denying their friendship while Noah insists upon it, but it’s also clearer than ever in that moment that it’s true. But it leaves open the possibility that it could become true, if Noah ceases to hide behind that meaningless word and grows up to confront the deep cultural and systemic issues that keep him and Caroline apart.

Caroline’s friend Dotty says near the end of the play, “I know it hurt to change./It actually hurts, learning something new.” Dotty reminds Caroline of what Rose and Noah’s contrasting examples prove: not just that change can hurt, but that it must hurt. That’s the only way it can take place. Caroline has personal change to work through over the course of the play, but the weight of the painful personal changes that can lead to broader social transformation is placed firmly on the backs of the white characters. Politeness and protestations of friendship are meaningless without the courage to confront the prejudices, personal and social, that they’re attempting to paper over.

 

 

Justice for Ellen (and the women of Will)

(this post contains spoilers)

We’re four episodes into TNT’s new Shakespeare drama Will before we learn Ellen Burbage’s first name.

Between the boy players and Shakespeare’s absent wife and, you know, the general sexism of 16th century England, it’s easy to create stories about the early days of English drama that include no women at all. So Will deserves credit for its inclusion of James Burbage’s wife Ellen as a clearly integral part of the day-to-day running of the Theatre. But she’s Mistress Burbage, and Richard and Alice’s mum, and it’s not until four episodes in that anyone actually bothers to identify her by her first name.

It’s a little thing, but emblematic of Will’s not-quite-there treatment of its female characters. The show comes so close to finding a space for women in the tale of the early modern English theatre that it’s all the more frustrating that it falls short. The desire for interesting, important female characters is obvious, but the show stumbles in the execution, falling back on tired and disempowering period drama tropes.

Take Ellen Burbage. One of the best episodes gives her props as the power behind the throne, the real manager of her husband’s playhouse– but we never really see her doing this, and the idea is never quite mentioned again. Her real role is to alternately nag and support her family– and, in classic period drama mama fashion, push her daughter towards a sensible but loveless marriage and become furious when she refuses it.

It’s not nearly as bad as poor Anne Shakespeare, who of course Shakespeare does not love, and spends most of the series cheating on. Her role is only to realize that she is a fool for wishing her husband would be sensible and make money and help their three children, and instead must recognize his genius and– in her own words– “leave [him] free to succeed.” That is literally what she says. Literally. We’ll return to this idea.

Will gets points for including Emilia Bassano (and for casting her with a black actress), and loses them again for how she is used. There are a few striking scenes– and parallel scenes earlier, with Alice– in which Emilia makes key suggestions about the shape of Shakespeare’s works-in-progress. It might be an exciting example of someone finally depicting the collaborative nature of early modern playwriting– but it’s not. Shakespeare happily absorbs Emilia and Alice’s ideas without expectation of credit or acknowledgement on either side. He’s the writer, of course they have no use for their words or ideas (though Emilia’s own poetry is referenced, once) except to give them to him.

Obviously this is a slightly uncharitable reading– any writer knows that friends offer ideas and you duly steal them all the time. But it’s the positioning of both these women, both of whom claim to be artistic and ambitious in their own right, as having no real function except to serve Shakespeare. One suspects the writers think they are paying the women their due by having them make major contributions to famous works like Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and lines that will eventually go into Romeo and Juliet, but it only highlights their inferior position: they may make contributions, but the plays and the genius are still firmly Shakespeare’s.

Which brings us to Alice Burbage, Richard Burbage’s sister, Shakespeare’s love interest. To define her in any other terms is almost impossible, though there is a funny scene wherein she’s asked what she does at the playhouse, and she replies, “Not much,” before rattling off an endless list of scrivening, prop sorting, prompting, costume mending…

Like Ellen, the show fully accepts Alice’s role in the family business, though unlike Ellen, there are always hints that perhaps it’s inappropriate, perhaps she needs to marry. When Shakespeare firmly rejects her (at Ellen’s command), Alice turns to another idol, represented by another handsome young man: she converts to Catholicism under the guidance of Shakespeare’s cousin, the underground priest Robert Southwell. His luring of Alice smacks of nothing so much as the way cultists prey on the vulnerable, but by the end, the show tries to insist that we view this choice as Alice finally exercising her free will, that it has nothing to do with Shakespeare– though, of course, it has everything to do with him, as every single episode of the show has demonstrated. Even her departure has to do with him: she writes that she cannot be “part of [his] world”– even though it was her world first.

Alice, whose only wish has been to find a place for herself in the playhouse, is forced out to make room for Will, surrendering her piece of the Burbage family legacy in an act the writing attempts to frame as self-actualization, but just reads– ship voyage and all– exactly the same as Viola at the end of Shakespeare in Love, removing herself as a real, full person in order to become something more important: a character of Shakespeare’s, a piece of his mythology. Viola becomes Viola of Twelfth Night; Alice, associated throughout with lines from Romeo and Juliet, signs her final letter as Shakespeare’s “bright angel,” suggesting Shakespeare will use her as inspiration for Juliet. What better fate for a woman, these endings seem to say, than to be subsumed into a man’s legacy as a fictionalized, idealized version of yourself?

Joking discomfort with the fact of boy players means that, as Shakespeare conceives of and we see snippets of the plays performed, female characters are consistently erased or marginalized. The example I continually find most galling is Richard III. Even though Shakespeare and Alice earnestly discussed the character of Queen Margaret in previous episodes, no mention of her is made in that play, nor of the fact that Shakespeare’s only wholly original scenes, with antecedents in none of his sources, are those featuring the female characters.

The other female characters consist of a prostitute older sister who dies trying to flee with her younger brother; Richard’s friend/maybe-love-interest Moll, who gives him shit but ultimately believes in him; a love interest for Richard’s best friend, who is introduced and dies in a single episode; a tavern hostess/landlady; and a host of peripheral wives and children who are often, in traditional period drama fashion, used as the living emblem of the cost of whatever conflict their male relatives have become embroiled in.

The existence of Ellen, Alice, and Emilia alone put Will a step ahead of almost any other Shakespeare-related show or movie I can think of. But though it tries to make room for women, and deserves credit for the effort, it still can’t conceive of them as anything but satellites to men’s stories, defined primarily by their ability to advance or impede a man’s ambitions.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Isabella?

Measure for Measure might be my least favorite Shakespeare play. Actually, I’m surprised it’s not being performed more often these days: it’s so perfectly in keeping with the black-and-grey, sexually obsessed moral flavor of so many popular prestige television shows.

One of the show’s key difficulties in my experience lies with the ostensible protagonist, the novice Isabella. Isabella goes to Angelo, standing in as leader while the Duke of Vienna is mysteriously absent, to plead for her brother’s life. Claudio has been sentenced to death for fornication under Angelo’s draconian new morality laws, and Isabella hopes to convince him that Claudio should be spared. Angelo, fastidiously morally upright, makes a shocking offer: he’ll free Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. For Isabella, this is a no-brainer. But Claudio is shocked that she would choose her chastity over her brother’s life– and in my experience, modern audiences and readers tend to agree.

The fact that we don’t generally see this potential encounter as rape points to the shortcomings of popular understandings of consent. But it’s also a great example of a place where the gap between Shakespeare’s culture and ours tips the moral scales of his writing out of balance. We cannot conceive of weighting a woman’s virginity– even a nun’s– in equal balance with a man’s life. In the play itself, Claudio also represents this point of view, but it seems clear we’re meant to view Isabella’s dilemma as far more difficult than Claudio is right and Isabella is being a prude. I’ve read so many reviews that eagerly describe the chemistry between Angelo and Isabella– or condemn the lack thereof, as if the play clearly requires that Isabella share some form of Angelo’s attraction.

Randy Reinholz’s Off the Rails, an adaptation of Measure for Measure making its world premier at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, comes close to resolving this dilemma for a modern audience. Reinholz sets the action in late 19th century Nebraska, in a tiny wild west town that lies at the end of the railroad line, with one saloon, one jail cell, and an Indian boarding school. The ‘kill the Indian, save the man’ philosophy that formed the heart of the era’s forced assimilation policy for Native Americans becomes a central moral conflict of the play. Isabella (now Isabel) has converted to Christianity, graduated from her boarding school and is studying to become a teacher there. Her younger brother Momaday (the Claudio role) is rebellious and unwilling to renounce their Pawnee culture. When he impregnates an Irish servant in town, Angelo’s anger is as much racial as moral.

When Momaday criticizes Isabel for her refusal to sleep with Angelo to save his life, he turns the argument into a condemnation of her assimilation: she has chosen Christian morality, and the value it places on chastity, over her brother– and, by extension, their family and their culture.

Off the Rails does provide a more explicit outside defense of Isabel’s decision than Shakespeare, in the form of Madame Overdone, transformed from a bawdy, comic-relief bit part into the formidable proprietor who takes over the Duke’s role as orchestrator of the play’s resolution. To her, Isabel explains that she can’t bear the thought of bearing Angelo’s bastard, a position Madame Overdone sympathizes with, and one the program, if not quite the production, hammers home with its detailing of the characters’ mixed parentage: Lakota and French, Choctaw and Scottish.

But this grounds Isabel’s emotional and moral objection in practical reality, thus suggesting that these reasons– to not want to be coerced into sex, to think that chastity is important, to genuinely believe in her adopted Christian faith– are not enough. The racial politics of the situation (not to mention the utterly reprehensible Angelo of this production, who, despite hiding his violent religious fervor beneath a genial demeanor that’s honestly sort of charming, is established as a brutal hypocrite from the moment he’s introduced as the superintendent of the boarding school) helps weight the scales in Isabel’s favor, but Momaday’s castigation of her decision as a cowardly surrender to white, Christian morality swiftly unbalances them again. The physical practicality (one that you’d think a madame like Overdone would know how to avoid) is what allows Isabel to carry the day, not any respect for her ideological standpoint.

It’s enough for the purposes of the play. But it points to our enduring difficulty with granting a woman true autonomy over her body, with recognizing that violation can take place without violence. In Shakespeare’s day and Shakespeare’s play, there are troubling patriarchal mores that lend weight to Isabella’s obsessive defense of her virginity, and those are best lost. But even without them, there’s power in her refusal. I don’t know that we’re meant to think Isabella is wholly right– but nor should we think that Claudio is.

It’s ironic that we find Isabella’s lack of lines to accept or reject the Duke’s ending proposal so troubling, but often argue that her staunch unwillingness to take up Angelo’s offer is slightly absurd, or proof of her flawed character. Reinholz finds a workable dramatic solution, but not one that truly respects the simple fact of Isabella’s right to choose.

 

Trumpius Caesar

So people are really mad about the Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar that dresses Caesar up as Trump. And lefty theatre people are sort of gleeful at the rightwing anger, because look! Theatre causes controversy! We’re important!

But one thing that’s jumped out at me in the furor is the implication– suggested by my Twitter timeline’s, “It’s Shakespeare, stupid,” response to a Fox news article attacking the “New York City play” in terms that made it seem like they thought it was a new anti-Trump play– is that there is inherent Trumpiness in Shakespeare’s play. That Oskar Eustis didn’t add anything except an orange wig and some pussyhats to what was already there.

But as always, Shakespeare is way slipperier and more equivocal than directors seem to expect, and the supposedly self-evident commentary on dictatorship that Julius Caesar offers is no exception. Today I keep thinking about a production I saw several years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the Vilma Silva played Caesar. Suddenly, the conspirators’ accusations of tyranny took on a more suspicious cast. Why were they so threatened by her? Should we believe their accusations of actions we never get to see? Why is Cassius so obsessed with her physical weakness, with feeling degraded by being subordinate to her?

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival didn’t change the text either– Caesar still had a distinctly self-aggrandizing air, still less-than-secretly craved a crown. Was still a war hero, and beloved by the people. There was good and bad. But her gender added an additional wrinkle, forced a reexamination of the conspirators’ virulent hatred. That wrinkle went some way towards standing in for an Elizabethan audience’s acceptance of the self-evident good of monarchy, a counterbalance to the conspirators’ language about tyranny and freedom that tends to ring completely convincingly to contemporary audiences.

I can’t see the Public’s production, so it’s very possible that they offer much more complication than the reviews and responses have suggested so far. But it seems to me that they have unbalanced the play’s morality by depicting Caesar as Trump– especially given their New York City (read: probably liberal) audiences, who are coming in with a certain set of biases (to say the least). Caesar is not just a cardboard tyrant, and Shakespeare’s central question is more complicated than just “is assassination of an objectively horrible leader right or wrong.” I don’t think it would have been any better to put Caesar in a pantsuit and make Calpurnia her white-haired southern husband, but it might have left more room for the text’s uncertainty about Caesar’s dangerousness.

In short, while Oskar Eustis may not have added anything to turn Caesar into Trump, it’s reductive to suggest that he was just tapping into was was already obvious and explicit in Shakespeare’s words.