“the lion’s part”: Midsommer, Solstice, and Shakespeare Gender Parity

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about identity parity in Shakespeare performance. This is in part because of recent articles critiquing Hollywood whitewashing, which in actuality negatively affects box office numbers. (For recent coverage, see the Los Angeles Times and Business Insider.) This is in part because I have been seeing a great deal of theatre interested in the range of implications available when you might choose to play a character against their biological-gender identification. For example, when Hotspur is female-identifying in the Henry IV plays, as in the case at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer, the competing reports of her death at the start of part two resonates with a very different parental agony and pathos. Or, when Aeneas is played by and as a woman, such as is the case of Portland Actors Ensemble’s Troilus and Cressida, that rape is a necessary war strategy becomes newly apparent. But is this kind of parity necessarily true across the industry?

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The first rule of Shakespeare Club

I feel very lucky to be living in a moment when regional and community theatres, in part spurred by the recent 400th anniversary, are feeling compelled and excited to perform the less famous plays from William Shakespeare’s oeuvre. I know it won’t last long. If I could have my dream, it would be that these companies would turn to doing other plays from this period in rep with those attributed to Shakespeare. Doing the less-popular works is interesting to me in two ways especially. First, as a Shakespearean, I get a refresher on a text I likely teach very rarely if at all, and get a chance to think about it in a performance context as compared to other plays I can mumble along to in my sleep. Second, negotiations of artistic authority—such as the questions of who has done the research, what is the role of the reviewer—rear their ugly head and remind us of the ways in which canonical literature can so be used to disenfranchise the audiences for whom it was intended.

A view of the Lone Fir Cemetery at dusk.

Last night’s performance of “Troilus and Cressida,” the twilight tragedy being performed in Portland Actors Ensemble‘s 48th season this July, provides an interesting case to explore the tension of authority brought to bear when staging the periphery of Shakespeare’s canon.

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