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.

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.

 

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.

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.

Breaking the Chain (of Being)

In London this past July, I had the opportunity to participate in TranShakespeare, a series of workshops on gender in Shakespeare led by Lisa Wolpe. This is a version of an essay originally created in response to those workshops.


 

When my acting teacher introduced me to E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture during my second year of undergrad, I thought I had been handed the secret key to Shakespeare. That slim volume apparently laid out with clarity and detail what Shakespeare and his contemporaries believed about the world. The central concept is that of the chain of being, which proposes that Elizabethans viewed the universe as a precise and incontrovertible hierarchy from God to monarch to men to women to animals, with various detailed gradations within those groups. Everything could be ranked: types of animals, types of plants, types of metals and stones. In espousing it, Tillyard was following in the footsteps of scholar Arthur O. Lovejoy, who wrote The Great Chain of Being. Between them, they articulated one of the most influential concepts in Shakespeare scholarship and performance. But The Elizabethan World Picture was published in 1942, The Great Chain of Being was in 1936. And yet, despite the political, social, scholarly, and theatrical revolutions that have taken place in the past seventy years, the theory of the chain of being is still widely taught as unquestioned fact, especially to performers.

I still understand exactly why, as an aspiring actor getting a grip on Shakespeare for the first time, I found Tillyard so appealing. Faced with the daunting task of somehow bringing this epically long, extremely dense, hugely famous poetry into my own voice and body, Tillyard’s implicit promise of a set of clear rules to follow was immensely comforting. Read this book, understand where Shakespeare was coming from. Understand where Shakespeare was coming from, automatically know how to live in his roles. Easy! Or at least, easier. But such easy answers are always oversimplifications. One particularly pertinent example of this is the question of gender, a hot topic in Shakespeare studies and performance at the moment. As theatre artists question and challenge the boundaries of gender in our own social and theatrical culture, we must also be prepared to embrace the full complexity of the time period in which the plays we grapple with were written.

The place of gender within the chain of being is clear: women are inferior to men. Men are closer to God, women are closer to animals. It fits in perfectly with the general sense of historical misogyny, and seems to mesh in turn with some of the more sexist displays in Shakespeare’s plays. The only problem is that it’s just not true. Whenever the idea of the chain of being gets brought into a workshop or rehearsal room, I reflexively cringe: I can feel the stereotype that scholarship is rigid and uncreative being reinforced once again. But dismantling the chain of being is, in contrast, another excellent example of how recent Shakespearean and early modern scholarship can act not as rigid rules to bind in creativity, but creative forces in themselves.

No one culture can be compressed into a single set of guiding principles. Plenty of Elizabethans likely believed the basic ideas behind the chain of being … but many almost certainly did not, and those people were not simply lone, subversive voices. Like any time period, there was a multiplicity of perspectives, and this cultural foment of contradictions is reflected even within individual plays and poems.

Critic Phyllis Rackin has repeatedly written that many scholarly assumptions about the early modern period, particularly those regarding the role of women, seem much more invested in upholding contemporary gender roles rather than actually reflecting the realities of a society in which women ran businesses, were guild members, performed in non-professional drama, and of course, were the reigning heads of countries. This is not to suggest that sexism did not exist, because of course there were essential and powerful strains of misogyny at the heart of fifteenth and sixteenth century law and culture, but Tillyard and Lovejoy’s hierarchy suggests a frankly unrealistic rigidity that even Shakespeare’s own plays do not uphold.

When I consider this question, I often think about a pair of plays whose exact relationship is admittedly contested, but which highlight not only the multiplicity of opinions that characterized the period, but also remind us that times, tastes, and authorial interests change. These plays are Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed, a sort-of sequel to Shakespeare’s play in which Petrucchio’s second wife, Maria, embarks on a scheme to ‘tame’ her unruly husband. While hardly a rousing call for feminism by modern standards, it is a fascinating reflection of how Shakespeare’s own contemporary, and future protégé, contested Shakespeare’s early perspective on marriage and sexual hierarchy. (It also raises the question of what we are losing by so completely focusing gendered explorations of classical theatre on Shakespeare. Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Fletcher and his collaborators, but also Ben Jonson and former boy player Nathan Field, played much more radically with the possibilities of cross-dressing on an all-male stage, and produced works that could be much more explicitly reinterpreted from a modern perspective as reflections on the potential fluidity of gendered identities.)

Shaking up the chain of being is just one step in freeing scholarship from its undeserved reputation for stodginess. I hope artists can move instead to exploring how bringing a scholar and dramaturg’s understanding of the period and its writers into the room can, in fact, open up creative possibilities far broader than the strict, stiff ‘rules’ about the place and identity of men and women that early twentieth-century historians have handed down to us.