by Philippa Kelly
The prohibition on women on the Renaissance English stage undoubtedly affected the way Shakespeare wrote his female roles: since it was a stretch for young boys to play older female parts, many of his mothers seem purposefully scripted as cold and narrow (think Lady Capulet), aggressive and embittered (think Tamara in Titus Andronicus), apt to be conveniently buried for as long as 16 years (think Hermione in A Winter’s Tale or Thaisa in Pericles); or, far more commonly, absent altogether, presumed dead in childbirth (think Mrs. Lear, Mrs. Prospero, Mrs. Mother Rosalind, Mrs. Mother Viola, just to name a few). The young boy actors at Shakespeare’s disposal would have found it far easier to play girls of their own age or thereabouts—Juliet, Rosalind, Celia, Viola, Cordelia. And who knows? Had Shakespeare had access to a Helen Mirren, or a Glen Close, or a Judy Dench, he may have written many female roles with the uncommon heft and complexity suggested by Lady Macbeth, or by Volumnia in Coriolanus.
It’s also possible that the prohibition of females on stage influenced Shakespeare’s choice to have several of his heroines disguise themselves as boys—that, in other words, by using the theme of disguise he found a way for boy actors to spend the majority of the play “performing” their own gender. While this is a compelling suggestion, there are actually only five times in 38 plays when he does have female characters disguise themselves as young men, and, except in Cymbeline, in each of these plays the boy playing a woman disguised as a boy is paired with a boy playing a woman who doesn’t change her gender. Go figure.
I love to speculate about Shakespeare’s stagecraft in this way—and often find myself changing my mind. No matter which way the argument goes, however, one thing is clear: Shakespeare always, where possible wrote for the actors he treasured. (Just as we at Cal Shakes love to do in casting. We have a wonderful casting treat in store for you next season.) So, for instance, Shakespeare proportioned roles to suit the ratio of men-to-boy actors in his company. Almost all of his numerically larger roles (except Rosalind in As You Like It) are male; and all of them (even Prince Hal, who transforms to Henry V) are appropriate for mature male actors. His famous female pairs (Rosalind/Celia, Viola/Olivia) were likely written for two special boys uniquely able to play female roles well beyond puberty.
Shakespeare’s history plays with their wartime and action scenes are typically categorized as “masculine” (as is the case today—think We Were Soldiers, The Hurt Locker, Black Hawk Down). And yet the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy we’ll be staging next year has a remarkable and exciting difference. Written before Shakespeare turned 30, this tetralogy features a female part of singular duration and importance. Margaret of Anjou first appears in Henry VI, Part I as an immigrant sold by her father without a dowry to the Lord of Suffolk (“She’s beautiful, and therefore to be wooed,/A woman, and therefore to be won”), with the purpose of passing her off to young King Henry VI sight-unseen. In the course of the tetralogy Margaret becomes a queen who gets the husband she is sold to; a powerfully sexual woman who gets the lover she chooses; a mother; a preeminent political force in the War of the Roses; and eventually, in grief and loss, a “raging crone” who refuses to be silenced. This was the first journey Shakespeare gave to a female character in the course of an extended play-sequence; and it would be the only journey of such length and character-evolution in the whole of his oeuvre. Welcome, Queen Margaret—proceed apace!