The Problem, and the Impact
During Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616) women were not allowed to appear onstage. Female characters were played by boys, usually young teenagers. Eighty-four percent of Shakespeare’s characters are male, likely because of his own cultural biases and the practical difficulty of finding young boys skilled enough to take on the roles of adult women.
Shakespeare is so widely produced today that the lack of female characters skews data on the availability of roles for women in American and British theatre. It also continues to normalize the lack of representation of women on stage and in film and television today: men received twice the screen time and twice the lines of women in the top-grossing films of 2014 and 2015.
“Unsex Me Here:” A Lack Of Good Roles
Women have appeared in Shakespeare’s plays since 1660, when an unnamed actress played Desdemona in a production of Othello in London. While Shakespeare’s heroines are sought-after roles, even the best female characters don’t offer the depth or challenge of his male protagonists. Rosalind in As You Like It speaks the most lines of any woman in Shakespeare, around 700. Hamlet varies slightly depending on the version of the text being used, but he generally has close to 1500 lines.
It’s easy to see the appeal of Hamlet for an actress of Sarah Bernhardt’s age and temperament. Bernhardt’s reasoning for taking on the role turned Elizabethan logic, which demanded that boys play women, inside out. As Rebeck’s Sarah argues, “a boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet.” He “does not look the boy, nor has he the ready adaptability of the woman, who can combine the light carriage of youth with…mature thought.” Bernhardt’s critics disagreed, arguing that women were incapable of understanding a man’s thoughts and actions. On June 17, 1899, the Athenaeum declared: “A woman is positively no more capable of beating out the music of Hamlet than is a man of expressing the plaintive and half-accomplished surrender of Ophelia.”
Twenty-First Century Interpretations
Shakespeare’s characters, like all Elizabethan men and women, are bound to fulfill the roles assigned to them by gender and class. But gender is an ongoing discussion in his plays: what does it mean to be masculine? To be feminine? To challenge stereotypes? To disguise yourself as a boy? Many scholars believe that, even during Shakespeare’s time, seeing male actors play women heightened these questions for Elizabethan audiences. Contemporary directors are now pointedly using cross-gender casting to provoke questions of power within and around the plays.
British director Phyllida Lloyd recently helmed four all-female productions of Shakespeare plays: The Taming of the Shrew (with Janet McTeer as Petruchio), Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest. Lloyd described her initial impulse in an interview, “It really began as jobs for the girls, unashamedly.” She continued, “I did not want my niece going to see any more classical plays thinking, ‘Oh, I'm the one in the corner, sort of mooning over the leading man.’ I wanted to feel that she could go to the theater and think, ‘My god, I could be in charge.’"
2018-2019 Season, Bernhardt/Hamlet