Women need freedom to shape narratives for a new century

Frank Neufeld // Western News

English and Writing Studies professor Kim Solga teaches in the Theatre Studies program.

William Shakespeare wrote for a repertory company made up exclusively of men – men played all the roles, both male and female. The most senior and respected actors in the company played the major male roles; apprentice boys played the female roles. This structure was the norm in the early 1590s when Shakespeare got his start; women were not legally permitted on the public stage in England until after the Civil War that spanned the middle decades of the 17th century.

It’s no surprise, then, that the plays Shakespeare wrote tend to include a lot of complex men, and far fewer women overall (as well as far fewer complex female roles). This reflects the material reality of his context: Shakespeare’s England was structurally patriarchal, and for a good portion of his life was led by a female ruler, Elizabeth I, who took no husband and enacted the role of the ‘Virgin Queen’ in part to shore up her authority as a woman in a man’s job. This does not mean, of course, that Shakespeare’s canon does not include compelling women and complicated issues of sex and gender, but it does mean that his context was very different from ours, and that the historical differences between his world and ours need to be respected, and reflected carefully upon, when we approach the plays today.

I’ve spent a lot of my career reflecting on this issue. What does it mean when we, in the early 21st century, call Shakespeare “our contemporary”? How do we reconcile the general lack of female characters in the plays, and the stereotypical nature of a lot of those characters, with modern cultural contexts in which women are presumed to be equal citizens and subjects of power? (I say “presumed to be” because, of course, there’s a difference between the theory of women’s equality, in which most of us believe and invest, and the reality of women’s lives in what is still a pretty unequal world.)

Most urgent of all, for me, is this question: what do we do about those plays that revolve around plots driven by violence against women and girls – plays like Othello, in which Desdemona is murdered by her husband after he is duped by Iago into believing his wife unfaithful, or Titus Andronicus, in which the daughter of the titular character is brutally raped and maimed in the second act, then left traumatized for the remainder of the play?

Contemporary theatre practitioners take a host of different approaches to this fundamental problem with the plays and our love for them. The first is to take seriously the fact of Shakespeare’s historical and cultural difference from us. This often involves setting the plays in Shakespeare’s time, or in a time equally historically distant, and then paying precise attention to the kinds of details that demonstrate to an audience the differences that separate us from the plays and their worlds. This logic partly lies behind the recent interest in ‘original practices,’ a style of mounting Shakespeare that attempts to recreate the conditions under which Shakespeare’s actors lived and worked. (Original practices are not without its own challenges, however; it runs into the fundamental problem that there were no women on stage in Shakespeare’s day, nor any actors of colour. Excluding women and non-white performers from the stage under any circumstances today is, of course, both ethically wrong and politically inappropriate, making ‘authentic’ original practice work very hard to achieve.)

Other directors and producers imagine historical settings for the plays, but find ways to build modern understandings of their most difficult elements, like violence against women, into the representations they fashion. This was one of the most remarkable features of British director Deborah Warner’s 1988 production of Titus Andronicus for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Warner’s Lavinia (the character who is raped) was played by Sonia Ritter as a woman suffering visibly from post-traumatic stress disorder, something that threw into comic but also critical relief the ways in which she is ignored or misunderstood by her male relatives throughout the third act.

Canadian director Peter Hinton took a parallel approach with his 2008 production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Stratford Festival, setting that play in the late Elizabethan period (it was written in the early 1590s) but creating a fresh, feminist framework for it that allowed audiences to see for themselves how ‘shrew-taming’ devices like the ‘ducking stool’ worked to traumatize and silence outspoken women in Shakespeare’s time.

To my mind, however, the most effective way to approach the challenges posed by Shakespeare’s gender imbalance is simply this: to give more of the plays to women to direct, especially at the most prominent Shakespeare venues around the world.

Throughout the 20th century women have had far too few opportunities to direct Shakespeare’s major plays, but thankfully this trend is changing:

  • Last year, Emma Rice, an experimental physical theatre artist and former artistic director of the Kneehigh theatre company, was named the new head of Shakespeare’s Globe, the most visibly important venue for his works in the Anglophone world and a theatre with a very strong educational mandate as well as a populist sensibility;
  • Flipping Shakespeare’s gender imbalance on its head, Phyllida Lloyd recently directed two all-female productions (of Julius Caesar in 2012 and Henry IV in 2014) at the Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End. Both were runaway hits, made possible in no small part by the support of another prominent woman in the theatre business, Donmar Artistic Director Josie Rourke;
  • In summer 2014 Erica Whyman, the Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), staged a season of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (artists like Thomas Middleton, John Webster and Thomas Dekker) that all featured powerful female mains. Titled Roaring Girls, the season was held in the RSC’s smaller Swan theatre venue, but nevertheless made a huge impact on reviewers and audiences alike; and
  • Closer to home, Jillian Keiley, who heads the National Arts Centre’s English company (and who visited London, Ont., in March as part of our Public Humanities initiative), is directing a Newfoundland-inspired As You Like It on the Stratford Festival’s main stage this summer.

Shakespeare’s female roles can of course be incredibly empowering for female actors even in the most conventional productions: Portia shapes the climactic scene of The Merchant of Venice; Lady Macbeth is the original Claire Underwood; even Lavinia gets to take control of her own body and narrative in the fourth act of Titus Andronicus when she uses a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to explain what happened to her, and a stick held between her forearms to spell out the names of her attackers.

But just as we learned a couple of weeks ago at the end of the Jian Ghomeshi trial, it’s often not enough for women to be given ‘a voice’ on a public stage. For true gender equality to obtain, women need to be given equal access to the means of theatrical production, and the freedom properly to help shape Shakespeare’s narratives for our new century.

English and Writing Studies professor Kim Solga teaches in the Theatre Studies program at Western. Her first book, Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance, focused on many of the issues she discusses in this article. In a new book chapter for the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare in Performance, she traces the history of women directors of Shakespeare in the U.K.