¶ On the boards this last night of the Blackfriars Conference was “Much Ado About Nothing.” Going in I had to remind myself that I had “Much Ado” saturation. It happened a few years ago with “Hamlet,” too. You see so many versions of the same play in a short period of time—on campus in March, multiple OPS Fest performances in July, in Montreal and in London as recently as August—that it is hard to both not get a bit bored and a bit critical. And yet.
¶ Sometimes simple is best. A brilliant view helps.
¶ One of the things I am finding very powerful in this weekend’s set of performances by OPS Fest is the fluidity of the gendered pronoun. By this I mean, the capability we have to adjust to a new pronoun when we are motivated. In my last post, I discussed briefly the basic theory of gender in the early modern period: we are all one gender. Women were simply under-baked men. We didn’t stay in the oven long enough, so we were moist, soft, and hadn’t developed the extra member. This is to say that hetero- and homo-sexuality weren’t concepts people used to label themselves. Thus, when someone asks me whether or not I think William Shakespeare was gay (an idea popularized by an anti-theatreical reading of the sonnets), I’m not sure where to begin. Beside the fact that I don’t know what that would have to do with plays, “gay” as we understand it was not a way in which identity was understood. This is of course not to say that there weren’t same-sex and a variety of other kinds of relationships had by Elizabethans.
¶ A decade into the millennia we are struggling with gender and gender-neutral pronouns in our families, in our workplaces, and in our media. Being sensitive to a variety of pronouns has fundamentally changed my teaching, especially the ways in which I lead class discussion, in just the last three years. (You, too? Check out this handy pronoun handout!) Considering the struggle it is to get colleagues to speak of and to others as they would wish, I find it striking and illuminating that OPS Fest so easily and so often switches a character’s gender. The pronouns are understood as a thing easy to shift, and, what’s more, in performance they hold one another accountable to that notion. While some actors hiccuped Claudio/Claudia well past intermission, in this weekend’s “Much Adoe About Nothing,” they never gave up on the attempt. In this way, the spirit of the original practice (that the parts were designed knowing they would be played by someone identifying as another gender) collides and helps us grapple with a present-day concerns.