Cross gender casting in Shakespeare’s plays: Does it solve the problem of gender inequality?

Cecelia (Year 12) investigates the modern and historical practice of cross gender casting in Shakespeare’s plays.

From Tamsin Grieg’s Malvolia to Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, cross gendered casting is becoming increasingly popular in British theatre, never more so than in Shakespeare’s plays. New adaptations wanting to put a spin on the 400-year-old productions now look to casting female actresses in the typically male roles of Lear, Macbeth and Othello. Whilst this allows the play to be seen through a different feminine perspective and offers a completely new interpretation of the character, cross gendered casting gives women the opportunities to embody some of theatre’s most complex and popular roles.

However, this seemingly ‘modern’ twist on Shakespeare’s work is not as revolutionary as we may think. When Shakespeare wrote the majority of his work, women were not allowed to perform on stage and so his female characters were always played by young boys or men. As much as gender blind casting can provide a wider range of roles for female actresses, is it always effective and when should the line be drawn?

It is no wonder that Shakespeare’s work is constantly being revisited and adapted, his original text is so complex and diverse that something new can be gleaned from it with every new actor. Hamlet is the most frequently adapted Shakespearian play and has one of the longest histories of women playing the title role. The character of Hamlet is uncertain, passive and lacks resolve – qualities that are typically seen as feminine. Hamlet’s effeminate side has led to the character often being portrayed by women, with some believing that they can inhabit the role with more ease as they are able to fully connect with the feminine side to his personality.

Some of the most famous Victorian Hamlets were women, Sarah Bernhardt and Alice Marriot’s Hamlets were highly regarded by most critics with the part said to have benefitted from their “injection of femininity” (Catherine Belsey). Despite this, some critics argued that it was impossible for an actress to truly comprehend and identify with the thoughts and emotions of a man – a line of argument that is still present today. With this in mind some productions choose to play the character of Hamlet as a woman as demonstrated in Asta Nielsen’s portrayal of Princess Hamlet in the 1920 silent film. Nielsen played Hamlet as a woman masquerading as a man, possessing all the masculine skills and lacking only the instinct to kill. But regardless of the past success of actresses playing the Dane, there is still a public reluctance to accept this change; a 2014 YouGov poll found that 48% of Britons were not happy with the idea of a female Hamlet.

Many argue that by changing the gender of the actor, the gender of the character is effectively altered as well; as such, must the text itself be adjusted and if so, to what extent?

Whilst Vanessa Redgrave played the male role of Prospero, Helen Mirren’s Prospera was a female rewrite of the original. For most of Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest, the change to Prospera worked but because her daughter, Miranda, stayed female, the relationship between the magician and the child became complicated. The dynamics between a father and a daughter are vastly different to that of a mother and a daughter, and the Tempest is inherently a complex dissection of the fraught bond between a father and his daughter. The removal of this crucial theme dramatically altered the message of the entire piece and as such did not sit well with many audience members.

Whilst cross gender casting did occur in the 18th and 19th century, it has gained huge popularity in the last 20 years. As gender is beginning to be seen less as a biological definition and more as a social construct, the idea of a woman playing a man or vice versa has become far more acceptable. Our intrinsic understanding of male and female characteristics have changed, along with the ways in which we wish to see them portrayed on stage.

Of course, the opportunity for great female actresses to play great Shakespearian roles is positive. As well as giving women the chance to play classic and multifaceted roles, it allows for directors to create something new out of a play that has been around for hundreds of years.

Despite this, as we move forward, the dramatic community must place more of an emphasis on the creation of original female roles which share the same complexity and breadth of emotion as that of their male counterparts. Juliet Stevenson summarised the debate neatly with her statement on the red carpet that she “want[s] great parts for women, not women playing great parts for men”.

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