Callum Kenny discusses how successfully Shakespeare’s male protagonists can be portrayed by women, inspired by Maxine Peake’s controversial performances as Hamlet in the recent Royal Exchange: Manchester production.
Cross-gendering and cross-dressing are an integral part of Shakespeare’s dramatic vision, and the history of his plays. In contemporary Jacobean theatre, there would have been a young man strutting across the stage in the image of the most iconic and sexualised woman in history, Cleopatra; in her words “I shall see/ Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/ I’th’ posture of a whore.”
Equally, in As You Like it, the ambiguity of gendered casting is brought to the forefront of the drama through the absurdity of men playing women playing men. Gender can often be described as fluid, and the movement between genders suggests that it is not a binding or definitive aspect of character, a feature which typifies many of the bard’s works.
It seems that Shakespeare himself, therefore, would hardly have argued that a woman could not do his momentous male protagonists justice, a suggestion raised by the critics of Maxine Peake’s performance of Hamlet, currently running at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
Cross- gendered casting provides female actresses with an opportunity to really explore those nuances and subtleties of character with which Shakespeare does not always provide his female parts. With notable exceptions, such as Porche, Cleopatra and arguably Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare’s women are often denied the stage-time, depth and emotional range of their male counterparts. The iconic parts: Othello, Henry V, Richard III and, of course, Hamlet, are reserved for men. This injustice has therefore prompted a revival of all-female companies tackling Shakespeare, such as Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV, or even, closer to home, Thrust Stage’s all-female Henry V here in Durham, with the phenomenally talented Georgie Franklin taking on the eponymous role. There are very few truly career-defining parts for women in the theatre generally, and as such, it is understandable that cross-gender casting has gained popularity.
However, many of Peake’s detractors, who criticise her performance on the grounds of her gender, appear blithely unaware of the rich tradition of gender-swapping in the theatre.
Hamlet has been played numerous times by women, from Frances de la Tour in 1979 to Sarah Bernhardt in 1900. It is an obvious choice for female performers in many ways, as Shakespeare never asserts a stereotypically masculine character. Hamlet is a thoughtful intellectual and he operates on a cognitive level; consequently he is much more of a gender neutral or “genderless” figure. He spurns romantic and familial ties and as such, the question of sexuality, though by no means absent, can be carefully negotiated and de-eroticised if required. The most impressive and problematic soliloquies, such as “to be or not to be,” or “what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” are not gender proscriptive, but require versatility and flexibility between contemplative melancholy and anguished rage, which can be achieved by man or woman.
If women do not do these classic speeches justice, then traditionally, neither have men. Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s plays are revered by the masses and have been exalted to stand on a pedestal. They have been approached from a multitude of angles and played by everyone who is anyone in the big wide world of theatre. Every reader of the play has their own vision of their perfect Hamlet, and if Peake did not hit the mark for some people, then this is unsurprising, because it is impossible to measure up to the expectation and hype generated by this most famous of parts.
Only last year, Jonathan Slinger was slated for his interpretation of the Danish Prince, accused by the Telegraph of having “a reductive view of the character that becomes decidedly wearing.” This is just one example of someone who has taken on the role and been defeated in the process, a story that is not uncommon.
We need only look at the quality of female actors to know that women have just as good a chance of giving outstanding performances as Shakespeare’s male protagonists, and vice versa. We must not forget, for example, the critically acclaimed all-male production of Twelfth Night at The Globe in 2012, with Mark Rylance playing Olivia opposite Stephen Fry’s Malvolio. This interpretation looked back at contemporary Jacobean strategies of making cross-dressing believable as opposed to farcical or grotesque. As such, Rylance relied upon Olivia’s wit and intelligence as opposed to physicality or appearance, to general approval, and there was more emphasis placed upon Shakespeare’s wonderful script and the textual intention than is commonly the case. Perhaps this is the real joy of cross-gendered casting; it provides an opportunity to look at Shakespeare’s most famous works in a new, fresh light, giving a new significance to the written word and offering new interpretations.
Ultimately, to argue whether women can play the role of Shakespeare’s iconic creations is to argue a moot point. It might be more astute to ask whether any actor, regardless of gender, can fully realise the beauty, subtlety and nuance of what is on the page. Many have tried, many have failed and some have succeeded, but perhaps it is clear that regardless of the outcome, each fresh attempt lends something new and exciting to our understanding of our national literature.
Photograph: Jonathen Keenen
Illustration: Lara Salam