What are we trying to censor in Shakespeare?

Between the Twitter discussion surrounding the Globe’s Shakespeare and Censorship event (which I fully recognize could not have captured the nuance of the speakers’ actual talks) and a conversation that came up during a plenary on teaching Shakespeare at this year’s BritGrad conference, I’ve been grappling with the question of what we’re talking about when we’re arguing for or against “censoring” Shakespeare (and that’s not even getting into the obviously biased moral weight of the use of that word). I’d like to try to define my take on this debate with a series of questions, because I think so many things are getting lumped under one umbrella, it’s almost impossible to actually discuss the problem.

What do we mean by censorship? 

First and foremost, two issues I think are actually completely separate have been lumped under one category. First, there’s the kind of censorship undertaken by the Bowdlers in The Family Shakespeare, which expurgated lines and passages that were deemed inappropriate for women or children by the standards of the day. Then, there is the kind advocated by Mark Rylance a few years ago: quietly removing out-of-context anti-Semitic remarks, in his specific example, or other instances of racism, sexism, ableism, or whatever else that were unremarkable in the period but have a different resonance now.

These are not, to my mind, the same issue, though I think the people who group them both under the banner of “censorship” would like them to be. The question comes down, for me, to one of harm: no one is going to be hurt by a bawdy joke, the word ‘damn,’ or a reference to suicide (all things the Bowdlers cut). Casually using “Jew” as a synonym for “a disgusting idiot,” or “Ethiope” as a synonym for “dark-haired and ugly” is startling and harmful, particularly because the text provides no space for unpacking, undermining, or lingering on these words: they just pass by.

But those who cry “censorship” would surely say that it’s essential we confront these ugly parts of Shakespeare.

Who are we asking to confront these things? 

Who is unaware that the past was sexist and racist and ableist and a bunch of other things? Who actually needs to be reminded that there were periods in history (including, you know, the present) where aspects of one’s identity were so hated that the words themselves were insults? Probably mostly people who don’t hold any of the identities that Shakespeare is casually demeaning. The assumed audience therefore becomes one that is white, able-bodied, not Jewish or Muslim, probably not poor, probably male, and many other intersections of privilege. People who don’t need to learn the lesson that they have been and still are often dehumanized by the dominant culture are doubly  alienated, both by the assumption that they too need to ‘confront’ something they already know, and by being forced to confront it for the benefit of the more privileged members of the audience.

Adults, at least, can decide they don’t want to put themselves in that position. I don’t have to go see The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew. But what about educational Shakespeare, where this conversation often gets especially vehement? Maybe a school trip to Othello can be a learning experience about racism for white children. But what burden is being placed on the black children in that class, both to witness and then presumably have to discuss and become the emblem of a lesson they already know too well? How completely alienating, to be forced to publicly grapple with the fact that the writer you are going to see because he is The Greatest English Writer in fact casually but explicitly demeans you and your identity, to realize in front of all your classmates that apparently Shakespeare’s supposed universality doesn’t include you.

Maybe this is an important lesson to learn. But I argue that it’s a lesson to be learned on one’s own terms, not by surprise at a school matinee– and certainly not a lesson one learns before being forced to continue studying Shakespeare anyway.

What is this confrontation supposed to empower us to do, if not reject Shakespeare– or parts of Shakespeare– if we so choose? 

Every generation re-evaluates the art it has received and decides whether or not it is still worthy and relevant to their interests, but it feels like we’re in a moment of particularly intense scrutiny right now. Maybe it’s important to remind Shakespeare-lovers that much of Shakespeare’s work is deeply problematic. But if we’re going to force people to confront Shakespeare’s problems, then what is the point if we’re not allowed to then say, “Actually, you’re right, this is incredibly offensive, hopelessly out of date, and I want to walk out of this play/stop studying this subject/decide never to watch, read, or produce Shakespeare again.” I think that’s a legitimate response, but not the one, I suspect, that people who are most precious about censoring Shakespeare would support. And in the context of a school or even just being in the middle of a performance, it’s not actually one that’s allowed (at least, not without causing a scene).

I personally still think Shakespeare’s plays are worth doing (otherwise this degree would be a massive waste of time). But how can we negotiate the terms under which we do them in order to do more good than harm? If we have decided to do Shakespeare, how can we do the most welcoming Shakespeare possible?

I completely understand the impulse to say that it’s equally problematic to whitewash Shakespeare and pretend he never wrote anything bad. But I have to ask again: who exactly are you trying to educate that in that instance? People who experience some form of oppression already know they are and have been oppressed. I can assure you that anyone who loves Shakespeare and is a member of a group he demeans has already grappled with that fact. Maybe they want to come to the theatre and watch a playwright they generally like and also not hear their identities casually derided in order to shock and educate others.

I can’t help but feel that an insistence on retaining the most casually bigoted parts of Shakespeare, feelings be damned, is an insistence on maintaining Shakespeare’s air of exclusivity. Such a producer doesn’t care who he is alienating or insulting: Shakespeare, a dead guy, matters more than the living people who might encounter this play. The privileged audience members who need to learn a lesson matter more than the less privileged audience members, the ones whose actual, lived identities are being treated as no more than a thought experiment.

Plays like Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew raise their own sets of problems in this respect. Their offensiveness is baked into their story and structure, and while I think we should ask more questions than we do about why we not only continue to produce them, but continue to produce them a lot, there are cases that are so much simpler. Despite all the furor that followed his comments, Mark Rylance was talking about quietly amending individual words. It’s not that hard. It makes a big difference.

“I defy you, [script]!” (or, changing Shakespeare)

There is (and has been for a while) a tendency in Shakespeare performance which implies that the more miserable your female characters end up, the more feminist your production is. To wit, Hero should be all but dragged to the altar at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, Jessica in The Merchant of Venice should seem like she’s made a terrible mistake, and no one in Twelfth Night should want the partner they’ve got. And, of course, we must keep on physically and psychologically abusing poor old Katherine Minola, just in case.

The opposite pattern– to try and smooth over the endings that are more obviously unsettling, like Measure for Measure and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, feels much less common these days. But that’s the angle I found myself thinking of while watching the Globe’s current production of Two Noble Kinsmen, which does its best to make the bizarre subplot of the Jailer’s Daughter, who goes mad for love of one of the titular kinsmen, as sweet and palatable as possible. As with so much in that play, the intended tone of her plot’s resolution is difficult to discern: a local doctor commands a local boy to pretend to be Palamon, who she loves, and have sex with her, at which point she’ll either be cured and they can marry, or she can just think she’s marrying Palamon. There are certainly some disturbing seeds there, particularly in a play that is overall so skeptical as to whether heterosexual marriage is really all it’s cracked up to be anyway. But in director Barrie Rutter’s version, there are no such concerns. Though there’s much joking about the Jailer’s horror at the doctor’s casual suggestion of extramarital sex, the fact of having sex with a girl under false pretenses is not really given much weight. The Jailer’s Daughter is eager enough, but as her final scene progresses, the softness and sweetness with which she and her faux-Palamon address each other seems to suggest either that her delusion is lifting and she is seeing and loving him for who he really is– or that we as audience are meant to set aside any concerns and accept that this lie-based love might be a kind of real anyway.

From a contemporary performance perspective, brightening up this subplot makes some sense, as the central plot’s resolution is murky and not particularly happy or satisfying. I’m not inherently opposed to this approach. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which I loved, took a similar tack, reassigning some of Valentine’s ending lines to Julia, so that she, too, had the opportunity to openly and explicitly forgive Proteus. Despite our tendency to devalue the power of forgiveness, this was an empowering and moving gesture. It was a choice that made the play better, from my perspective as a contemporary audience member, but they did have to change the play in order to make it.

Is changing Shakespeare in this way sort of like taking the n-word out of Mark Twain– censoring the past and attempting to turn a blind eye to the many shortcomings of the most iconic English-language playwright? If we are going to continue to produce Shakespeare, do we have a moral duty to then grapple with all the most troubling elements of his work and lay them bare– and to say, if we find certain elements too troubling to retain, then maybe we shouldn’t be performing the play at all? Or is it better to say that replicating offensive 16th and 17th century patterns is unnecessary, especially when it is often relatively simple to find an angle that allows for more hopeful and empowering readings?

I don’t have an answer, obviously. As you can probably tell, I was a little unsettled by Rutter’s take (though Francesca Mills, who plays the Jailer’s Daughter, is herself one of the highlights of the production), but I loved OSF’s very similar changes to Two Gentlemen. In general, I think in fact it’s more empowering to find ways for female characters to be happy than otherwise, particularly because subverting apparent happy endings often has the unfortunate side-effect of suggesting that even though these characters have told us what they want, we are not to believe them. Perhaps this is the difference between the cases of Julia and the Jailer’s Daughter: Julia is given new words, a new way to consent to what is otherwise unnervingly done on her behalf. The Jailer’s Daughter, on the other hand, has only her old words used a new way– but this new way requires that we take at face value what we know to be a lie.

It’s a trickier question, in other words, than ‘is it okay to change Shakespeare?’– and for now, it’s interesting to see the results of both approaches.

Does Hamlet Hate Women?

As anyone unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter knows, I watched the BBC2 broadcast of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet last night, directed by Robert Icke. While it was met with basically universal critical raves, I was more or less irrevocably turned off by the production around 40 minutes in. Icke compresses the first four or five scenes of the play so that they take place on a single, chaotic night– a feeling he uses to good effect later, in the aftermath of Hamlet’s play, but doesn’t add much here. Except, that is, for the opportunity for Hamlet to leave his ghost sighting and immediately surprise Ophelia as she is taking a bath, and attack her. The camera cuts to the scene, which takes place far upstage behind glass, after Scott has entered, so it’s hard to tell how the sequence begins, but he seems to have surprised her, and Jessica Brown Findlay, who plays Ophelia, is rubbing her head as if he’s startled her into banging her head against the side of the tub, or maybe has even pulled her hair. She turns to Hamlet, he bends to her, and they kiss. But then he grabs her by the arm and wrenches her hand violently towards him. She pulls away, and he reaches out and grabs her by the throat.

This is, it becomes clear in the next scene, the encounter Ophelia describes to her father, when Hamlet approached her with “his doubled all unbrac’d.” In her own description, Hamlet does indeed take her by the wrist and hold her hard. She says nothing about being grabbed by the throat– nor, of course, about being naked and vulnerable in a bathtub.

I can’t stop thinking about this sequence– how offended I am by it, how no one mentioned it to me despite months of raves (possibly, as a friend noted, because it was difficult to see clearly in the live performance, which only raises the question why bother doing it, then), and just generally what a bad, bad choice it is– particularly in a show that then goes on to seize every opportunity to have Hamlet enact violence on Gertrude and Ophelia.

But the key word in that sentence is, of course, opportunity— which is to say, the text does offer these opportunities. There is a long tradition of Hamlets manhandling Ophelias and Gertrudes– after all, he has to be acting so wild and violent that both Gertrude and Polonius sincerely think Hamlet might kill her (Scott’s Hamlet goes on assaulting Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude long after this, at one point wrestling her to the floor). While I do feel that the sexual tone of this Hamlet’s attitude towards Ophelia was particularly marked– during the ‘nunnery’ scene, he kept forcing her to kiss him, as she struggled to try and break away– Hamlet is hardly less sexually crude and cruel verbally during the play scene, with his public taunting about country matters, with Ophelia offering terse responses that are hard to read as anything but embarrassment and discomfort. That is to say: did Icke’s addition of this assault (and unnecessary nudity) simply prime me to more readily notice what has always been there? Did the fact that I generally like the character Hamlet make me too willing to ignore his misogyny and violence?

Yes, I think. Sort of. To a certain extent. Hamlet is a misogynist. He treats Ophelia and especially Gertrude very, very badly. He constantly speaks slightingly of women, and his great love for Ophelia does not extend to actually speaking to her about anything or trying to let her in on his plan. Maybe, possibly, if you really think Gertrude helped kill her first husband, you can explain why Hamlet treats her the way he does, but otherwise it’s a stretch. Maybe, in a funny way, it’s good to lay his treatment of them bare– turn it into a midnight assault while she’s naked in a bathtub if that’s what it takes to make us see it.

But there are real differences between the way Ophelia describes her encounter with Hamlet and what Icke decides to show him doing. Though Ophelia describes Hamlet’s behavior as wild, and he grabs her by the arm, the bulk of her impression is of stillness and sadness: he stands staring at her, and she fixates on his sigh, “so piteous and profound, it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being.” She seems scared for him. Findlay’s Ophelia, on the other hand, should probably be scared of him. His attacking her in the bath turns their exchange in the nunnery scene more frightening: Hamlet, who previously realized that Polonius was bugged while speaking to him, tries to flirt and kiss her, and playfully gropes around the collar of her dress searching for a microphone. As it becomes clearer and clearer that Findlay is not joking or just putting on a show for her dad, Scott’s Hamlet gets angrier and angrier, culminating in the sequence described above, where he repeatedly forces her to kiss him. In light of his initial assault, I couldn’t read it as anything but an abuser growing violent when faced with repercussions– Ophelia breaking up with him– for his actions.

The ‘nunnery’ scene can certainly be frightening and violent, but the text leaves space for various explanations of what is happening. Is Hamlet trying to communicate to Ophelia that she should get the hell out of Denmark, and she doesn’t get it? Does she make it too obvious that she’s spying on him, and he loses his temper at the betrayal? None of these make Hamlet look great, but some make him seem less actively abusive.

But maybe I’m just trying to talk around the idea of Hamlet the abuser because I don’t want it to be true. Or, more accurately, I don’t know what to do with it. How do you perform that play? You can make it explicit, as Icke does, but that’s a risky choice, to say the least, and one the text doesn’t leave much space for dealing with. We have two and a half more hours to spend with this guy, what do we do with that time if we already hate the abusive protagonist? Can you even do Hamlet anymore if that’s who it’s about? It’s a case where you’d like to come up with a version that lays that bare, that centralizes the stories of Ophelia and Gertrude and maybe even Horatio and Laertes in response, but Shakespeare’s text simply does not allow for that.

That’s also clearly not the problem Icke was attempting to grapple with. I don’t know what he thought having Hamlet attack Ophelia in a bathtub would add, but it was certainly not meant to lessen our love for Scott’s Hamlet. He’s the star in every possible way, and we are so obviously meant to continue to find him intelligent and charming, and to feel bad for his pain. While Findlay’s journey through her scenes with Hamlet made perfect sense when read as a woman whose partner has suddenly attacked her, and for that reason she’s willing to go along with her father’s instructions to leave him, Icke’s not actually interested in Ophelia’s voice– a fact he makes abundantly clear by cutting almost all the text of her madness. The production overall cuts almost nothing– adds things, even including a very nice Q1 scene between Horatio and Gertrude– but Ophelia’s lines are gone. She has one or two of them, but it’s mostly singing. Where Shakespeare’s Ophelia repeatedly forces her way into the room, Icke’s is wheeled in in a wheelchair, not even allowed to move under her own power, her strange and troubling language of grief replaced with her beating her own chest and face. I have a lot of difficulty with Ophelia’s mad scene, and am always open to experimenting with it, but in this context, to replace language with silence and self-inflected violence felt frustrating and almost offensive in a context where almost no other lines had been cut, and this was an Ophelia who had explicitly been a victim of violence at the hands of the hero. It seemed to say that Icke values Ophelia more as an object upon which violence can be enacted than as a character who takes up space and has things to say.

So Hamlet may well be more problematic than I’ve fully allowed myself to realize before now. But I also think Icke made a textual problem much, much worse with wholly unnecessary nudity and sexualized violence towards the play’s female characters– and worst of all, didn’t really seem to realize he was doing it.

Tyranny is a Red Hat: Caesar at The Bridge

I have two responses to the Bridge Theatre’s Julius Caesar, and that they are only tangentially related is both a strength and a weakness of the show. Which will make sense by the end of this post, I hope.

First: I liked it! I am desperately in love with Michelle Fairley’s spiky, besuited Cassius. Though I implied otherwise in my last post, I do love a well-done female Cassius, and this is one of them, especially because she was not the token woman in the group of conspirators. The mid-storm conversation between Cassius and Casca (Adjoa Andoh) happening between two very smart, grimly determined women was really great.

Ben Whishaw’s deeply nerdy Brutus turned the character into a caricature of the much-mocked liberal elites, a highly intelligent, passionate scholar who seems to be turning his philosophy into direct action for the first time in his life, and doesn’t see why the rest of the world isn’t as fired up by complex philosophy as he is. He can’t break his nuanced, convoluted thoughts down into crowd-pleasing sound-bites, just as he can’t compromise his principles to raise money for his legions or to give ethically-dubious but necessary allies a pass. In Brutus, the play becomes about the ways in which the loftiest, most well-meant philosophy is no match for empty rhetoric that rouses the spirit.

Which is what leads into point two: I was startled to find myself not just annoyed, but actually offended by the production’s Trump-related imagery. The red hats with CAESAR embroidered on the front in a white serif font are the most obvious example; they were worn by characters, and were also available for the audience to purchase.

It offends me because the play is incapable of seriously entertaining the actual, contemporary questions that attend the potential death of an actual, contemporary figure like Trump. Reinforcing the already classist, sexist, and racist media tendency to limit discussions of Trump’s danger to hypothetical questions about American identity when there are people whose literal lives are at risk because of things he has already done and will do is shallow and counter-productive. I don’t blame Shakespeare for not raising these issues, but for a play now to insist on direct contemporary relevance and yet leave no room for considering the arguments of the people who would be/are most immediately impacted by such a leader’s policies is irresponsibly narrow. Shakespeare isn’t always the right vehicle for saying what needs to be said.

Because people have died because of Trump. More people will die because of Trump. His presidency is not a political abstraction about the powers of populism, it is a presently threatening fact. Trump and his stupid hats are not just punchy imagery to use to decorate your performance and give it some contemporary resonance, they are the banners of a movement which, within the past year, has caused innocent people to die.

This is all particularly uncomfortable when it comes to an immersive production, and raises interesting questions about immersive productions in general: what happens when you are being asked to immerse yourself in an experience you actively oppose? I refuse to even imaginatively participate in a pretend Trump rally under a symbol (that is, the hat) that, in the United States, has become an explicit emblem of prejudice and hate. I did not clap for him, and I did not cheer. I wasn’t standing in the pit, so I was able to enforce that distance for myself. I’m not sure how I would have done so down there, or if I would have been allowed to.

It is both damning and a saving grace that the Trumpian ideas basically disappeared after the play’s first three scenes. It’s proof that it’s not a particularly effective concept: it doesn’t map well onto the language the characters actually use about the political situation, and thus becomes difficult to sustain (unless you slap some novelty wigs on various characters, I guess). Fortunately, this meant that my distaste for the enforced parallel didn’t ruin the show for me, and I was able to set that soon-irrelevant imagery aside and enjoy what was actually happening.

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.

 

Blackfriars Diary: Day 4

The Panels

I gave my paper today, which I think went very well! I didn’t get too immensely nervous until just before it happened, and I didn’t knock anything over, accidentally swear, or utterly lose my place, so that counts as a win.

I’m proud to have been on a really wonderfully strong panel, with a bunch of fantastic papers, including Paige Reynolds’ captivating discussion of the use and abuse of Desdemona’s body after she is killed, Elizabeth Kolkovitch’s examination of how contemporary productions stage the masque in Timon of Athens (and, basically, their varying degrees of sexism), and Annalisa Castaldo and John Culhane’s investigation of a question that has been troubling me recently– whether or not bed tricks, such as that in Measure for Measure, would have been construed as rape.

Patrick Harris’s paper about the ring exchanges in Merchant of Venice provided another excellent example of the fruitful use of actors, as he played with the various shades of meaning that emerge when the characters in the play give and take Portia’s ring in various ways.

Michael Dobson’s keynote address was very exciting as well, comparing Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost through the lens of the various temporal settings the plays are given in contemporary productions, and why Much Ado tends to feel so quaint and distant precisely because it is so rooted in the reality of Shakespeare’s own time, whereas Love’s Labour’s intentionally fantastic and idyllic tone in fact helps it feel more present and real.

The Play: Much Ado About Nothing 

I found myself keenly aware of actor repertory while watching Much Ado About Nothing. Four days in a row of watching the same twelve actors in four separate plays will do that to you, of course. But I was most struck by a specific pair: Lauren Ballard and Benjamin Reed. Ballard played Edward Lancaster, Molly Aster, Maria, and Hero. Reed played Edward York, Peter, Longaville, and Claudio. They were explicitly linked across all four plays, and romantically in three of them.

This had the odd effect– completely coincidental and entirely based on the order in which we happened to see the plays– of easing, somehow, the often troublesome fact of Claudio and Hero’s reunion. This was due partly to their strong performances, of course, but there was also a degree to which I had become accustomed to seeing them together. The fact of their union– feeling, in some ways, like a long-awaited culmination after the two disrupted romances of Peter and the Starcatcher and Love’s Labour’s Lost— seemed inevitable and natural.

Blackfriars Diary: Day Three

The Panels

Today’s theme for me was hearing from some scholars who have really figured out how to usefully leverage contemporary performance in service of historical principles. So often, using a modern-day performance in an attempt to excavate historical ideas can feel like false objectivity: just because something seems obvious to us doesn’t mean it would have been obvious or logical then. Or it can just come off seeming a bit “so what?”– highlighting that an individual performer/production made a given choice can feel more like anecdote than analysis.

The staging session led by Farah Karim-Cooper and Beth Burns of the Hidden Room Theater Company transcended all of these issues with its emphasis on experimentation. Karim-Cooper recently published a book about early modern gesture onstage, and has done work with Burns’ company to illustrate some of her theories and findings in performance. No one claimed to offering truth, only possibilities– and the possibilities they presented were very interesting. Pairing Shakespeare’s heightened language with heightened gesture felt so fitting and natural, a forceful reminder that Shakespeare is not naturalism, and works best when it isn’t trying to be. I was startled when their very sincere rendition of Q1 Hamlet‘s dumb show had much of the room in gales of laughter, as the exaggerated, expressive movements really weren’t funny– they were just unfamiliar. But they were also very evocative and very beautiful, and Karim-Cooper’s connection between the gestures of rejection and capitulation of the Player Queen and her wooer in the Hamlet dumb show and the “perverse wooing scene” between Gloucester and Lady Anne in Richard III was very fascinating, and I think indicates a really important and useful avenue of exploration, one that reminded me of Janette Dillon’s work on scenic “units” in Shakespeare and the Staging of English History. What might be found by attending more closely to gestural echoes across the plays?

Katheryn McPherson’s paper operated similarly, experimenting with space in public vs court performances, letting the actors traverse different ranges of the playing space and to incorporate (or not) the presence of a theoretical monarch.

Richard Priess’s exploration of an apparently impossible stage direction in The Devil is An Ass– one that seems to require an actor to be in two places at once– was so firmly rooted in text and so masterfully argued that his use of actors actually felt more like illustration than exploration. But in that, it provided another useful example of how to take advantage of the performance options this conference offers.

James Keegan brought an actor’s take (though he’s also a professor) to the difficulties of hoisting the dying Antony’s body aloft in 4.15 of Antony and Cleopatra, but applied a sufficiently thoughtful and scholarly lens to take his conclusions beyond mere anecdote.

This is a question I continue to grapple with, especially being partly based at an institution that is rooted in experimenting with reproductions of early modern spaces. It was so useful to see some great examples of how performance as research can feel really effective.

The Play: Love’s Labour’s Lost 

I forget that lots of people aren’t fans of Love’s Labour’s Lost because to me it seems so self-evidently great. As I was saying to someone today, I think that if people could move past their panic about the density of the language, they’d realize that the extremely contemporary-feeling characters and situations would (I think, anyway) prove sufficiently accessible to audiences to make up for the linguistic soup.

This production was delightful, though the day’s panels inspired some interesting thoughts about the play’s much-discussed inconclusive ending. As Burns and Karim-Cooper’s panel in particular remind us, “original practices” is not just an aesthetic– not just a 17th century playhouse and costumes and fast entrances and live music. There is an acting and storytelling style that needs to be retrieved as well, and the ending of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a place where contemporary expectations crash particularly jarringly against what the text suggests.

It was in evidence in this production as well: the Princess of France performed the entire end of the play tearfully– which makes naturalistic sense. She’s just learned of her father’s death, after all. But her actual text bespeaks calm. The language is measured and complex, devoid of exclamations or lamentations. Like the end of so many comedies, the end of LLL lifts above any pretense at naturalism, into the heightened realm where improbable conclusions become possible. Hero is both revealed and reborn. Proteus is forgiven. The Princess is now a Queen (as has often been pointed out, her speech prefix changes instantly) and presents the King with a fairy-tale like quest to restore his wounded honor.

The incorporation of contemporary songs at certain moments in the play suggest they weren’t necessarily seeking to fully achieve an OP aesthetic, and the injection of extra emotion into the ending sequence certainly didn’t disrupt the splendid production– but I admit I was most moved when they finally did eschew naturalism to end the play with a dance.

Blackfriars Diary: Day 2

The Panels 

My definite favorite paper of the day was presented by Lindsey Snyder, a scholar and ASL interpreter who discussed the possibilities contemporary gestural languages like ASL can present for attempting to revive early modern gestural vocabulary. The part of the paper that really blew my mind was her translation of several speeches by Juliet, to illustrate the dramaturgical power of ASL’s embodied notions of time– the way that time, past, and present are located upon and in relation to the speaker’s body. Not only was this a fascinating intellectual point, her translations of Shakespeare (and her wonderful performances of them!) were immensely moving. I have an ongoing fascination with ASL in general, and translations of Shakespeare in particular, and I loved getting to see the topic approached from such a rigorously scholarly point of view.

There is definitely a propensity for highly theatrical papers– not just those that use actors to demonstrate points, but speakers, like Matthew Kozusko’s discussion of the rhetoric of Coriolanus, who structure the papers themselves in a self-aware and performative way.

An exciting paper on a more practical note was Megan Brown’s presentation on the Folger’s new Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama, a resource that sounds very exciting and that I hadn’t previously known about.

The Play: Peter and the Starcatcher 

Okay, it’s not Shakespeare. But I absolutely adore this play, and saw it more times than I should probably admit during its Broadway and off-Broadway runs (don’t judge me, it was always for free).

Unsurprisingly, the play’s DIY, Nicholas Nickleby-inspired aesthetic works extremely well with the Blackfriars’ shared lighting and lack of sets. The actors were obviously having a huge amount of fun, and so the audience was, too. It was interesting to see how differently and more flexibly this show used the space. Where The Fall of King Henry only had one entrance from the house, here the actors were all over the place, moving through rows, clambering over audience members, and jumping off the stage. There was more use of the trap door and upper gallery, too.

I felt extremely aware of the elaborate language, and the delight the play takes in its own kind of poetry. There really is something so Shakespearean about such awareness of the musicality of words and taking such pleasure in building delightful sounds out of them. I’m not sure if it was the actors’ Shakespearean training that made them handle the language in a Shakespearean fashion, thus raising my awareness of the dialog’s complexity and pleasingness, or if it was the simple fact of the setting that drew my attention. But in either case, it seemed a highly fitting choice for this company.

Blackfriars Diary: Day 1

I’m in Staunton, Virginia for the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Conference! Terrifyingly, I’ll be giving a paper on Saturday morning, but before that there’s three days of panels, papers, and performances that I’m going to try to write about.

So, day one…

The Panels 

Blackfriars strictly enforces a quite short paper limit of ten minutes, and perhaps because of this brevity, the most compelling papers for me were ones that took a specific, concrete, and sometimes extremely narrow (like, one word level narrow) focus. Lena Cowen Orwin’s keynote address, while obviously longer than the other panel papers, set the tone in this respect with her investigation of the origins of Shakespeare’s monument in Stratford, and suggesting evidence that Shakespeare himself had likely designed it. She also made the brief but fascinating point that the evidence suggests that, unlike, say, Edward Alleyn who seems to have been colloquially known as Ned, Shakespeare was known to his friends and colleagues (and maybe even his family) as Shakespeare.

Other highlights for me:

  • Tiffany Stern’s exploration of the use of the word “playhouse.” Cuthbert Burbage’s court testimony of the 1630s describes both the Theatre and the Globe as being known as “the House,” and while we have taken that word to be a general term– and it has become one– she queries whether it may not have been specific to those buildings.
  • Paul Menzer’s reflection on his loathing of the word “nuncle” and how Shakespeare has become a lens through which we refract our concepts of good and poor taste.
  • Tim Fitzpatrick’s excellent explanation of the methods by which they derived the measurements for New Zealand’s Pop-Up Globe. His comparisons between Wenceslas Hollar’s sketches for his famous engraving and a very well-explained theory of ex quadrata geometry make a very compelling argument for a second Globe that was distinctly smaller than the dimensions chosen for the Globe reconstruction in London (which was based off its own well-founded theories).
  • James Marino’s study of the effects of revision on cues in the two editions of Doctor Faustus. His originating question was to ask how much revision to cues were actors willing to tolerate. And the answer seems to be “a fair amount.”
  • Claire Bourne’s illumination of the use of  “printer’s lace” divisions as more than just a way to take up space/make up for half of Q1 Romeo and Juliet being printed in the wrong text size, and not just simple scenic divisions (which really didn’t exist as such at that point) but as indicators of thematic divisions.

The necessity of matching form to content– the form in this case mostly being defined by time constraint, but also by the fact hearing a paper is much less kind to wandering or vague connections than reading one is– has been a useful reminder that while conferences are often framed as a “state of the field” check-in, they’re really kindest to very specific kinds of work.

The Play: The Fall of King Henry (3 Henry VI

I’ve never seen any Henry VI play live before, and diving into part three, arguably the strongest one, seemed like a fair enough way to begin. The ASC has been putting together the first tetralogy, retitling the Henry VI plays as The Tragedy of Joan of Arc, The Rise of Queen Margaret, and now The Fall of King Henry. Like my beloved Oregon Shakespeare Festival, such multi-year cycles are enabled by their resident acting company, many of whom (as their bios attest) have been working for the ASC for years.

This was my first show in the Blackfriars, a replica of the indoor playhouse used by the King’s Men. I’ve been in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s version of an indoor, 17th century playhouse, but it’s much smaller than the Blackfriars. I had some hopes that this would ameliorate the major sightline issues that one encounters in the SWP when sitting anywhere along the sides… but it didn’t. The sight-lines are just as bad (and the seats are just as uncomfortable). In the SWP, I happened to see a series of Jacobean tragedies, so I ran into a new problem seeing a sprawling history play:  3 Henry VI introduces a bunch of new characters in the second half, who are naturally doubled by actors whose characters died in the first half. But because I frequently couldn’t see new characters’ faces when their names were first mentioned, for most of the second half, I had no idea who any of the secondary characters were. Unless we assume that the average playgoer was extremely well-versed in heraldry and every character just wore their coat of arms– which I strongly doubt– this seems like a problematic staging issue that must have had a better solution in the 17th century than the directors managed to find here.

There was a detour at one point earlier today into the classic question of whether early modern audiences went to “hear” a play rather than “see” a play, and thus didn’t care about the apparently crappy sight-lines in these indoors spaces. I am unconvinced by this, particularly because we know for certain that companies spent most of their money on costumes. That would certainly be a waste of money if audiences didn’t care about seeing– or couldn’t see.

But the sight-lines aside, this production was a great reminder that the Henry VIs are really much more engaging and performable than they get credit for being. The early (probably collaborative) verse, while sometimes a bit clunky, is also simple and easy to follow. The extremely heightened action is actually really compelling, even if, in this instance, the production couldn’t resist making jokes out of some of the more ridiculous moments. Then again, maybe they were meant to be jokes in the first place.

The Blackfriars’ irreverent spirit is definitely well suited to a messy, extreme show like 3 Henry VI. I’m looking forward to seeing how some straightforward comedies play… and maybe if I’ll be able to get a better view.

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.