Shakespeare’s Heroines for the 21st Century

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was this April 23rd; that date is also, according to tradition, his 452nd birthday.  In the spirit of celebrating the noble bard, let’s also celebrate some of his most memorable heroines.  Here, I consider their pros and cons as heroines, and imagine their lives if they were living in the 21st century.

Juliet from Romeo and Juliet

Pros: Juliet is as passionately romantic as Romeo, but a little more level-headed; she’s often the one who points out the practical side of their situation.  She refuses to marry someone she doesn’t love.  And let’s not forget that she’s the one who basically proposes to Romeo.

Cons: Juliet is thirteen.  Thus, Juliet is a little bit hasty and impetuous.

Juliet today: At thirteen, Juliet thought an unreturned text from her boyfriend meant the end of the world.  But ten years later and still very much alive, she and Romeo are still together, having ditched their families. Juliet fronts a rock band with angst-ridden but poetic lyrics, with the three Weird Sisters from Macbeth as her backup singers.  Romeo is her biggest fan.

Ophelia from Hamlet

Pros: Ophelia’s positive qualities are linked to her negative ones; she is affectionate, gentle, and eager to please. 

ophelia2.jpgCons: Ophelia is so submissive that she allows others to manipulate her like a pawn, ultimately at the expense of her own psychological health and even of her life.    

Ophelia today: Ophelia was a troubled adolescent, but years of therapy and journaling have helped her understand the futility of basing her own self-worth on the affection of emotionally distant men.  She is now an acclaimed poet; her latest volume, Sweets to the Sweet, was especially praised.  Now, if any of the mansplaining philosophy majors she dated in college were to tell her to go to a nunnery, or insulted women for wearing make-up and “nicknaming God’s creatures,” she would call them out.

Desdamona from Othello

Pros: Desdamona is a loving, innocent person.  She is admirably immune to the racial prejudices of those around her.

Cons: Desdamona is a little too trusting, and puts up with way more from Othello than she should (though, given the time period, wives didn’t have much alternative).  She is also for a long time surprisingly blind to how her talking about Cassio affects her jealous husband, though that’s obviously no excuse for his murdering her.

Desdamona today: Desi’s that impossibly gorgeous co-worker who is just a magnet for boy drama without even trying.  When you meet for martinis and she’s stressing over the conflicts between the men in her life, make sure you suggest a therapist who can help her recognize red flags of domestic violence that can quickly escalate.  And offer her a safe place to stay if she needs it.  Because she really shouldn’t put up with jealous and potentially homicidal tendencies in a partner.

Cordelia from King Lear

Pros: Cordelia doesn’t say much, but she’s honest to a fault when she speaks.  The catalyst for the play’s action is her refusal to flatter her father the way her sisters do when he is dividing up his kingdom.  Her unswerving loyalty to that father leads to her untimely demise.

Cons: She could possibly learn to be a little more tactful and diplomatic (without sacrificing her admirable integrity).

Cordelia today: Cordelia was that kid in your high school class who stayed silent all semester and then near the end came out with some zinger in the middle of class that was just so on point.  She’s now a family therapist, able to truly listen to her clients but also to tell them the truths they really need to hear.

Beatrice from Much Ado about Nothing

Pros: Beatrice is a witty, sharp-tongued but warm-hearted heroine with a delightfully amusing love-hate (eventually just love) relationship with Benedick.  Some of her insightful comments on gender and marriage show that her humor is rooted in real awareness of herself and her world.

Cons: Beatrice is a little stubborn; she also initially hides behind her humor to some extent, afraid to open herself to love.

Beatrice today: Beatrice and Benedick now have their own talk show, and they’re hilarious sparring with one another on political and social issues.  Beatrice is the show’s producer as well as one of the two stars.  Like the best comics, B & B use their humor to skewer social injustice.  They’re a husband-wife celebrity power couple.

Portia from The Merchant of Venice

Pros: Portia is extremely intelligent and resourceful.  She disguises herself as a man to preside as a judge over a court case, saving someone’s life in the process.

portiaCons:  Portia is unfortunately part of an anti-Semitic culture and doesn’t fully transcend its prejudices.  She also takes a practical joke involving rings just a little too far.

Portia today: Portia was top of her class at Harvard Law School, and has now worked her way up to Supreme Court Justice.  She’s best friends with Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  She has tirelessly advocated for women’s issues, but also refuses to tolerate anti-Semitism or any other kind of bigotry in her courtroom.  Her recent memoir, The Quality of Mercy, is a bestseller.


What is Gender? A Look at “The Danish Girl” and “Macbeth”

Written by I.C.

Two of this winter’s most absorbing movies emphasize the centrality of gender identity in thought-provoking ways.  The topic is more obviously central to The Danish Girl, the story of Lili Elbe (formerly Einar Wegener), the first known person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and her wife, Gerda Wegener.  Both were painters in 1920s Copenhagen.  Oscar buzz for Eddie Redmayne as Lili was a given, due to the challenging nature of the role and his Best Actor win last year for another radical physical transformation in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. And he is indeed up for Best Actor for The Danish Girl.  Einar first tries on women’s clothing in order to help Gerda finish a painting when the model is unavailable.  But the act of donning female attire brings to life something latent within him, and Lili is born. Lili navigates the world at first awkwardly, then with increasing grace and confidence.  Even as those who knew Einar remain baffled, and doctors throw out diagnoses ranging from homosexuality to schizophrenia, Lili becomes increasingly certain that she has found her true identity, and is willing to endure anything to have an exterior that matches who she feels she is.

Image via Twitter @danishgirlmov

As good as Redmayne is in the role, critics have also been at least as impressed by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as Gerda.  2015 was Vikander’s year.  I loved her performances in the 2012 Danish film A Royal Affair and in a small part in that year’s Anna Karenina; in 2015 she gave me chills with her haunting performance as a conscious robot in Ex Machina and broke my heart as WWI-era pacifist and feminist Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth.  In The Danish Girl her radiant performance, for which she has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, turns the movie into not only the story of Lili but the story of an extraordinary marriage.  Gerda begins as a free-thinking, somewhat bohemian painter, married to a fellow painter whose work gets more acclaim.  As Einar becomes Lili, Gerda loses a husband but gains a muse: her paintings of Lili become hits in the art world.  Her simultaneous confusion, frustration, and devotion to the person she loves are beautifully portrayed.  When Einar tells a doctor that he believes he is a woman inside, and Gerda says, “And I believe it too,” it’s a powerful moment of alliance.

The film also subtly suggests that the Wegener’s love was never confined by conventional gender roles in any case: while Einar was sexually attracted to Gerda, Gerda was always the bold one, and when they first met she took the romantic initiative with the shy Einar. In portraying their relationship, the film carefully balances a recognition of sexual fluidity and the constructed or performative nature of gender with an emphasis on the individual right to claim what one feels to be one’s essential gender identity.


On the surface, The Danish Girl, a tasteful biopic, would seem to have little in common with a visually arresting and brutal Shakespeare adaptation.  Yet they address similar issues.  In the first scene in which Lady Macbeth appears in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, she is praying to the powers of darkness for exactly the thing that causes Lili so much pain: a disjunction in gender between her body and spirit.  She wishes for a man’s spirit in her woman’s body, as her battle-hardened culture has led her to equate masculinity with the ruthlessness she deems necessary to achieve her ambitions:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse….

Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! (Act I, scene v).


She is soon taunting her husband with lack of manliness for his qualms about murdering King Duncan; at this point, he has a much more morally grounded view of masculinity, saying: “I dare do all that may become a man; /Who dares do more is none” (Act I, scene vii).  In other words, to do something so evil as murdering his king would be “unbecoming” to a man, and in fact make him less of one.  He recognizes a masculine ideal in Banquo, who “hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour/ To act in safety” (Act III scene i).

But his wife continues to insist that manliness involves hard-heartedness and violence without remorse; she says:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. …
(Act I, scene vii).

She is unprepared, however, for how fully her husband will ultimately embrace this toxic view of masculinity. As Macbeth’s mind crumbles under the effects of post-traumatic stress, his moral sense also crumbles, and he takes his wife’s idea of the conflation of masculinity with violence further than she ever did.  If before King Duncan’s murder she fears her husband is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” (Act I, scene v) to perform the deed, in later scenes she is dismayed by his ruthlessness. As Michael O’Sullivan’s review in the Washington Post points out, this film’s Macbeth is “far madder than his wife… whose descent into derangement is one of the most tired tropes of the theater.”  Michael Fassbender brilliantly portrays Macbeth’s unraveling, as his moral uncertainty gives way to anguish, and then to ferocity.

As for Lady Macbeth’s own mental deterioration, some might argue that it is due to her inability to shed her womanliness as she had hoped to do. With a silent but crucial opening scene, the movie finds a way to reconcile the text’s emphasis on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s childlessness with Lady Macbeth’s statement that “I have given suck, and know/How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” (Act I, scene vii), and in another pivotal scene, she takes the death of another woman’s children very hard.  It seems to me, however, that it is her humanity rather than her womanhood that she’s unable to shed, and that she is increasingly distressed at her husband’s loss of his.

Image via Twitter @macbeth_movie

The emphasis on Macbeth’s increasing inhumanity also makes this film feel more nuanced in its portrayal of his wife, who in this film is no mere scheming temptress.  Marion Cotillard’s subtle performance also helps; I have yet to see this actress in anything in which she is less than sublime, and her work here is no exception.  Her rendition of the “Out, damned spot” speech is spellbinding.  There’s no wringing of her hands in that scene—the camera focuses on her face, and she is seated, quite still, with her hands kept deliberately out of the frame.  Her eyes are fixed on something the viewer only sees as she finishes speaking.  This scene erases any doubt that she is as tragic a figure as her husband, and her tragedy is in large part her embrace of traditionally “masculine” values that have ultimately proved dehumanizing.

Both of these films grapple with questions of gender and identity in a way that feels new and significant.  More generally, they deal with what it means to be an authentic, integrated human being, at home in one’s body (as Lili seeks to be) and in one’s mind (as the Macbeths, after their initial crime, can never be again).

Weekly Link Roundup!

Gender-Bending on Stage: The Power of Play

 By now, Judith Butler’s idea of  “gender performativity” is well established in feminist parlance and the idea that gender is constructed by repetitive acting–as opposed to being predetermined by biological sex–seems almost intuitive. But we are far from ending the conversation about how various kinds of performance can operate, and feminist and queer theorists and activists continually strive to find language to better express the diversity of gender identities that we claim.


These conversations about gender performativity have long found a home in the theatre, which functions as a literal stage for exploring aspects of gender performance. Sometimes, these issues are taken head-on, like in the rousing revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Trask/Mitchell) that won the Tony for Best Musical Revival in 2014. On stage, the audience watches and listens as Hedwig tells her life story (including her love affair with a soldier, her botched sex change operation, and her killer rock band). They also meet her husband, Yitzhak, a Jewish drag queen who is also Hedwig’s much-abused assistant and back-up singer. To further reiterate the theme of gender performativity, Yitzhak is always played by a female actor.


Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch

So a woman plays a man, who then plays a woman? If you read that and thought “that sounds oddly Shakespearean,” give yourself a point.


Shakespearean drama has been especially amenable to gender play, in part because cross-playing is often written into the scripts themselves: Twelfth Night and As You Like it both have cross-dressing protagonists, and many of the Bard’s plays take up questions about performing masculinity and kingship. Furthermore, historical staging practices added an extra level of gender-bending to the mix. As any introduction to Shakespeare’s stage will note, all of the female roles were originally played by young boys because women did not appear on stage in Elizabethan England. Over the next couple hundred years it became acceptable (and more common) for women to be seen on stage and some fiesty lady actors began to take on some of Shakespeare’s most famous–and most stereotypically masculine– roles. For example, observe Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in the late 1800s:


Sarah Bernhardt staring down a skull, like a boss: #ladymafia original
Sarah Bernhardt staring down a skull, like a boss: #ladymafia original


Today, cross-gender casting remains a huge component of Shakespeare in performance. There are many explanations for why this may be. Perhaps the fact that Shakespeare is open-source and free to perform licenses gender-playfulness–no one is holding directors and actors accountable to performing the play exactly as Shakespeare wrote it (as is the case with modern plays that you must purchase rights to perform). Furthermore, historical distance has not dulled the performative content of the plays. Whatever the reason, recent productions of Shakespearean drama provide a window into how gender-bending functions on stage, and what kind of work it can perform.


Gender-bending usually happens in one of two ways: 1. a role that has been labeled “male” or “female” is changed to suit the gender of the actor that is cast or 2. An actor plays the opposite gender. Both choices have potential strengths and contributions to the discourse surrounding gender performativity.


The first way—changing a character’s gender to match that of the casted actor—relies on the fact that women can hold power in modern governmental and societal institutions as justification for having female actors play roles typically designated as “male.” Female actors can believably play the various Scottish lords in Macbeth, Hamlet’s compatriots Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the various grumpy dukes and wayward sons scattered throughout the Shakespearean canon. Casting women in roles traditionally written for men can redistribute authority in the world of the play and work towards normalizing a vision of society that includes women as powerful agents of political action.


A recent example of this kind of gender-play occurs in the lively film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing by Joss Whedon that features Riki Lindholme as the typically male role “Conrade”, one of Don John’s cronies. In this instance, Whedon does not ask Lindholme to cross-play; instead he reimagines the character as a woman without changing her words or motivations.


Riki Lindholme as Conrade and Sean Maher as Don Juan
Riki Lindholme as Conrade and Sean Maher as Don Juan


When practitioners like Whedon change a character’s gender without also changing his/her intentions or language, they contend that there is no essential difference between the genders.


The second way—when the actors are asked to cross-play a different gender—is a fairly common practice across the board in theatre because often you don’t have corresponding numbers of male and female actors and male and female roles. One fascinating iteration of this kind of gender play is the occasional return to the Elizabethan practice of the all-male production, where men play both the male and female roles in a given play.


Though all-male productions, much less all-male companies, are still relatively rare, the few that do exist are touted as paragons of Shakespearean virtue. For example, Mark Rylance (of Royal Shakespeare Company fame) recently earned huge critical acclaim for his all-male productions of Twelfth Night (where he played Olivia) and Richard III (where he played the title role). Of  Rylance and company, theatre critic Ben Brantely writes that “This is how Shakespeare was meant to be done.” Most likely, his compliment was intended to simply applaud the performances of Rylance and company. However, putting his praise in those terms opens the possibility of reading Brantley’s comment as a suggestion Shakespeare is ideally performed without female actors.


Stephen Frye and Mark Rylance in the RSC's Twelfth Night
Stephen Frye and Mark Rylance in the RSC’s Twelfth Night


Propeller, an all-male company based in England, has gotten a lot of attention for its well- reviewed productions of Shakespeare; however, the way director Edward Hall describes his artistic decision to cast only men is worrisome. In an interview by Mark Ravenhill (“Surely this is a bit poofy?’) Hall claims his interest in all male casting “started because I directed a production of Othello with a mixed cast and I couldn’t help them to get to the level of metaphor that a poetic play like that demanded. So when the opportunity came to direct Henry V, I was looking around for some new way of really being true to the text, but also giving it our contemporary response. The all-male cast unlocked that for me.”


Thus, for Hall, excluding women from the cast apparently allowed him to unlock some kind of deeper hermeneutic level of the play. The poetry of Shakespeare is better left to men—according to him, that’s being “true to the text”. From my vantage point as a director, I would diagnose “Not being able to get them to the level of of metaphor” as a problem with the director’s ability to communicate with his actors rather than a problem rooted in those actors’ genders. Thus to me, the reasons behind Hall’s all-male methodology read as a cop out, meant to hide his weaknesses as a director under the blanket of textual fidelity.


On the other hand, all-female productions of Shakespeare have not been given the same critical acclaim as their male counterparts.One recent attempt was a production of Julius Caesar staged directed by Phyllida Lloyd who reimagined the play as taking place in a women’s prison. In one of the more heinous reviews in the Telegraph , Charles Spencer described the production like this:


“This is an all female production of Julius Caesar, one of the most masculine of Shakespeare’s plays, with just two small parts for women. I was rather hoping that the wives of Brutus and Caesar would be played by men in drag but this is a feminist closed shop and chaps aren’t allowed…This is a production that is resolutely determined to be as edgy and uncomfortable as possible, including noisy outbreaks of live punk rock that are evidently meant to remind us of Russia’s Pussy Riot….Having given so much uncomplicated pleasure with her production of Mamma Mia! Lloyd now appears hell-bent on making the audience suffer for their art.”


Photo from the NYT (Helen Maybanks)
Photo from the NYT (Helen Maybanks)


The tone of Spencer’s critique suggests that he finds art which does not strive to be beautiful as stuck in a sophomoric paradigm of the avant-garde, raging against the hegemonic machine, so completely caught up its own desire to be edgy that it makes itself completely unpalatable to any sensible audience. Though, I would bet that a reviewer who above all admires “uncomplicated pleasure” was doomed to dislike an all-female, punk rock rendition of a canonical tragedy from the start. Also, just to be clear: any comparison to Pussy Riot is a compliment in my book.


However, even the most troubling voices cited here cannot deny the powerful way that cross-gender casting accentuates the way that the gender of a particular character in a certain script doesn’t have to matter. Edward Hall goes on to say that  “on the whole, it’s amazing how little the gender of these characters matter. You just play them as people.” Even though he concludes that the all-female Julius Caesar suffered from “crass, attention-seeking staging,” that makes one begin “to feel that its not just Caesar who has been murdered but the play itself” Spencer admits that “Watching this pair [of female actors]  at their best, you genuinely forget their gender and simply admire their acting, and the truth of their response to Shakespeare’s richly drawn characters”. So hidden within otherwise troubling reviews, we can find evidence of  what I find to be the most important quality of cross-gender casting: it reminds us that playing a gender, is really playing a role.


“So wait, I get to play a woman, but my name is still Malcolm”, uttered one of my female actors, mostly in relief, upon learning that though we weren’t changing her character’s name in our production of Macbeth, we saw no need for her to pretend to be male. This moment is emblematic of my experience directing Shakespeare at a small, self-funded college theater group.


For us,  cross-gender or gender-blind casting wasn’t a luxurious artistic choice meant to foreground issues of gender performativity; it was the best way to address the sheer fact that we just had more women than men who wanted to be on stage. This speaks to perhaps the most important hidden power of cross-gender casting: we can use it to reclaim rich, diverse roles for female actors.


As a company, we (and I say we, because these discoveries resulted from the communion of director, designer, actor and audience) found that so many of our most beloved plays are written by and about white, heterosexual males and that if we were to give women a place to play on stage, we had to find a way around that. I refused to not cast talented female actors  just because the role in question was technically a male one. In order to work around the lack of female roles in the we made choices about whether or not the women playing “male” roles were going to play men (and thus cross-dress) or whether or not we were going to be willfully blind to the intended gender of the character, and just let the actor play the character however s/he wished.

These practices leads to whole host of complications: How do we costume cross-played characters in a way that makes them believable, not farcical?  How do we protect homosocial or homosexual dynamics within the text when we cast the play? When is it necessary to cast certain characters as the script dictates?


Though I have some ideas on how to address these important questions, I prefer to keep them open and unresolved because the discussion of gender performativity in general is still very much alive. That theatrical practice intersects with discussions of gender and sexuality in meaningful ways proves that the stage is still a relevant site for transgression and experimentation. I have learned to never underestimate the power of (a) play.


In the spirit of playfulness, here is picture that is very dear to me. In the center we have Danielle Hillanbrand bringing down the house as the Player King in our production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in mascara and a goatee.
In the spirit of playfulness, here is picture that is very dear to me. In the center we have Danielle Hillanbrand bringing down the house as the Player King in our production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in mascara and a goatee.
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