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Parity, Thy Name is Shakespeare!

Equity in the Arts
Donmar Warehouse Production of Julius Ceasar
Production of Julius Ceasar at Donmar Warehouse (photo via donmarwarehouse.com)

In honor of International Women's Day, The Lark is taking a look at female parity in the realm of Shakespeare. It's an exciting time for women taking on the Bard's world; a new Artistic Director has been chosen for London's Globe Theatre, and she's determined to bring women to the stage; all-female troupes are performing classics, like Julius Caesar at Donmar Warehouse, and embracing dynamic roles formerly reserved for men. Read more about some of the the gender bending productions we look forward to before the Ides of March!


“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” says Shakespeare’s Jaques from As You Like It, and that’s exactly what Emma Rice, new artistic director of The Globe Theatre, is striving for: gender parity in her inaugural season. In an article in The Guardian, she says “There is no reason why Gloucester can’t be a woman,” and “If anybody bended gender it was Shakespeare, so I think it just takes a change of mindset.” This is a familiar concept, as plenty of all-women troupes have performed the Bard’s work. The cast of Taming of the Shrew at The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park this summer, will  become the latest to join the ranks.

But what does changing the gender do to the story? What can we learn from adapting these classic tales to fit into our modern lexicon?

Lisa McNulty, Producing Artistic Director of Women’s Project Theater, is thrilled by the idea, having worked on the 2002 production of The Tempest at the McCarter Theater with Blair Brown as “Prospera.” She describes the benefit of seeing traditional all-male companies and believes the new all-female productions will be just as educational and entertaining. "I have loved watching Propeller's all-male Shakespeare, and saw the Globe Theatre's Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance on Broadway twice," she said. "I have always loved how these productions have forced me to think in new ways about gender, the way we enact gender onstage, and about the way Shakespeare was originally performed.  I'm equally excited by the prospect of seeing the flip side of those traditional all male productions, and for actresses to finally get a chance to sink their teeth into all of those incredible roles!  I want a female Falstaff, Lear, Coriolanus and every last King Henry!  I'd love to see all those bloodthirsty military plays populated by ladies. Wouldn't that be amazing?”

It looks like we won’t have to wait much longer for these productions. This fall, Glenda Jackson is taking on the title role of a lifetime in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear. This is hardly the first gender-bent Lear, among them director Megan Finlay's Queen Lere, where she said the blinding of Gloucester is much different when it’s men attacking an elderly woman. Megan went on to discuss how directing the story in this way opened her eyes to her own biases. When reviewing a scene between Lear's daughters Goneril and Regan, portrayed by men in her production, she noted feeling intrigued by the ordinary scene, and wondered why she had never been struck by it before.  "I realized it was because I was basically so conditioned to think the men carry the story, that this moment in my production of Queen Lere, where two guys were alone onstage talking in really quite a vague way about the future just felt like this really important moment in the piece," she said.  "That was kind of disturbing and interesting." Another bias Megan's production forced her to confront was that she was more emotionally invested in a female Lear. "That whole journey was so much easier for me to emotionally relate to when it was a woman going through it. And I just think Shakespeare’s characters, compared to the tiny little box that men are socialized to stay in, they’re huge! I mean, they are hysterical, they do cry. There’s that fabulous moment when Lear says he’s crying and he’s ashamed to be crying about this situation. It was an eye opener for me."

Examining Lear's extreme emotions and holding them up against the ways our current society expects men and women to act, demonstrates the disparity of our contemporary gendered views, and reveals to us that all humans are capable of achieving tremendous highs and lows.  Our views of characters may develop and change as we attach the lens of gender to them. By showcasing these infamous roles with talented actresses, we can only gain a deeper insight into the classic stories, as well as ourselves. Megan also said the production revealed to her the lack of lengthy roles for women compared to men. She brought up casting Albany, Goneril's husband, as a woman, and having fascinating conversations with the actress about the role and thinking “if Albany was a female role, it would be one of the biggest roles Shakespeare had ever written for a woman.” She's very close as Albany (who has 159 lines), a mid-sized role in King Lear, has just about as many lines as Ophelia (171) and is not terribly far from Lady Macbeth (259).  While lines might not make everything, it's interesting to note the Shakespearean characters with the most to say (Hamlet-1506, Iago-1088), shape their stories and have a whole lot more agency than their quieter counterparts. 

This recent surge of female helmed productions shows the world is ready for and demanding to see female representation, but it’s important to remember that women have been working on and developing Shakespeare for years. The actresses and directors are there, as they’ve always been, we just need to give them the opportunities to work.

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