Should Shakespeare’s characters be cast gender-blind?

Today I read an article from The Stage which spoke about how playwright Ronald Harwood has recently said that casting Shakespeare roles gender-blind is “stupid”. As Shakespeare and equal-gender casting are of particular interest to me, I thought I’d put my two cents into this discussion.

Let’s start at the beginning and try and work chronologically, though I have quite a lot of strands of thoughts floating around in my head so this may include quite a bit of back and forth.
As we all know, only 16% of Shakespeare’s characters and female, and this is for a variety of reasons. One third of the Bard’ plays are based on history, and so many of the characters who are royalty or close to the court are male. For his other plays, though, most of the roles are male because of the fact women were not allowed on stage, and so young boys would play the female roles. Finding young boy actors to play such large roles as Juliet or Olivia was pretty difficult, so I guess Shakespeare wanted to make it easy to find his cast, so purposely wrote to suit who he already had in his company.

Of course, over the years (and because the ban of women on stage was lifted in 1660), theatre companies and directors have been reinventing Shakespeare’s works and including more women. This has been through having contemporary all-female productions to rival the all-male Elizabethan productions, introducing females as the smaller, non-gendered roles such as messengers, and finally, having actresses portray the large roles which are supposedly written for men.

Maxine Peake as Hamlet, 2014

There are two ways in which we seem to cast females in originally male roles. The first way, is that we have females playing the role in either a “dressing as a male”, or a non-gendered way. Examples of this have recently included Maxine Peake as Hamlet, and Dawn French as Bottom. This is the way most people appear to feel comfortable with, and has happened to myself and my female-heavy drama class in the past. Any male roles played by girls would be played as if we were male. Audience members appear to feel comfortable with this because it appears “normal” and as it “should be” according to the way it was originally written – us British audiences really don’t like change, do we?

The second way females are being cast in traditionally male roles is, in the words of actor Geena Davis, “change a bunch of character’s first names to women’s names”. We’ve seen this recently with Helen Mirren portraying ‘Prospera’ in The Tempest, and it has also been announced that Tamsin Greig will play ‘Malvolia’ in the National Theatre’s spring 2017 production of Twelfth Night. Changing the name does not necessarily change the character’s qualities, and them being female does not make them any less than they would be if played by a man. The only difference is their name, and in my opinion this is only done to let the choice sit comfortably in some audience’s minds.


But why the issue? Many naturally argue that because Shakespeare didn’t write Hamlet or King Lear to be female then they shouldn’t be so, and that we should respect the text as it is written. But I argue that texts should be able to be interpreted as we like – otherwise every show of it we watched would be the same and that would be boring, and perhaps make writers like Shakespeare and Marlowe less accessible for some audiences. Maybe in some cases it will work better than others, but that’s the whole fun of experimenting with theatre.

Maybe the issue lies in what we determine as “male” and “female”. Of course, this could spiral off a whole other topic on gender norms, but for now I am going to push away these thoughts just to keep this post from turning into a dissertation. Harwood notes that “It’s [King Lear] written for a man. It’s a very tough part. It demands huge energy and masculine strength, and that’s how it was written. He’d have called it Queen Lear if he wanted a woman to play it”. That as may be, but within this thought lies the idea that a feminine strength will not uphold as well on stage for this role compared to a male one. This mystifies me, as I feel that many of Shakespeare’s leading ladies have strength to them – Lady Macbeth, Beatrice, and Katherina to name just three – so why can’t we transfer that strength to a traditionally male role instead?

Shakespeare has always had an interesting stance on gender just from a traditional reading. Many of the female characters cross-dress as men, and due to the actor’s being boys, this adds yet another layer to what is commonly called “gender-fuckery”. Additionally, Shakespeare portrays many of his female characters as strong (see above), and some of his male characters as effeminate and slaves to love (see: Romeo, Orlando, and Orsino, among others). Shakespeare plays around with gender in his works as it is, so why shouldn’t we play around even more?

And, hey, it’s not just male roles being played by females, but it’s also happening the other way around. Emma Rice’s 2016 production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ included a male Helena – Helenus (Ankur Bahl), which has gone down an absolute storm with audiences (you can ready my review here). If we are so accepting of males playing female roles (as males!), surely we should just say “okay cool”, in response to learning that a female will be playing Macbeth, Oberon, or even Richard II.

Ankur Bahl as Helenus (R), and Ncuti Gatwa as Demetrius, 2016

In my opinion, I think we should be open to any gender playing a role, providing the actor in question can do the role justice with their talents, and they’re not picked purely to “balance the genders in the production”.
But, as we can see, there’s a lot more in terms of gender politics, treating a text as set, and storytelling that needs to be discussed to come to a bigger decision.

What do you think? Are you a fan of gender-swapped Shakespeare, or do you prefer your Bard classic? Let me know in the comments below, and check out the links I’ve dotted all over this article for more thoughts. 


3 thoughts

  1. This was SUCH an interesting read – I don’t know much about Shakespeare but I loved reading this post. I agree with what you said, gender swapping keeps it fun and interesting. Sometimes it’s nice to see a different gender play the more well known characters, adds a little something different!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s