Queering Shakespeare

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In 2007 Neil Bartlett directed a production of Twelfth Night at the RSC in which Viola was played by a man, Chris New, and Sir Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian were played by women; Marjorie Yates, Annabel Leventon and Joanne Howarth respectively. The production divided critics and audiences, Michael Billington in The Guardian thought it was odd and arbitraryand Charles Spencer in The Telegraph dismissed it as self-indulgent and self-regarding while The Stage thought it was ‘fabulous and The Independent said it was joyous… fantastically fresh [and] a wonderful evening’.

So what was Bartlett doing and why did he do it? In two words, he was queering Shakespeare. Queer Theory began as a challenge to a cultural hegemony which validates a heterosexual norm and marginalises other sexual identities. From there it widened to challenge the concept of divisive social norms altogether, as Michael Warner said in the introduction to his book, Fear Of A Queer Planet ‘Queer gets a critical edge by defining itself against the normal rather than the heterosexual… We might even say that queer politics opposes society itself.’

Alexander Doty defined queer as a flexible space for the expression of all aspects of non-straight cultural production and reception’.  In theatre terms this kind of flexible space can mean embracing marginalised, low status art forms such as drag or burlesque with their exaggerated, parodic sexualised performances or subverting, or queering, established, high status forms, and you don’t get much more established or high status than Shakespeare.

A key concept in queer theory is performativity. The philosopher and sociologist, Judith Butler, said, ‘gender reality is created through sustained social performances… it is real only to the extent that it is performed.’ If gender is performative, i.e. it’s a thing you do, not what you are, then Shakespeare, with his boys who play girls who dress up as boys to seduce men, is a theatrical goldmine.

The academic, Madhavi Menon, said, I think a lot of queer theory derives from Shakespeare and Neil Bartlett described Twelfth Night as one of the queerest, most outrageous plays ever written. In an interview in The Times he said, if a theatre company announced that Shakespeare’s Antony was going to be played by a woman, everyone would want to know why. It was written for a man, they’d say, by one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived. But if Cleopatra is played by a woman, nobody thinks to say, but that role was written for a man, by one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived. Yet those are the facts. So we shouldn’t ask ‘Why cross cast?’; what we should really be asking is ‘Why not?’

With Hayley Carmichael and Eileen Walsh about to play Horatio and Rosencrantz to Michael Sheen’s Hamlet at The Young Vic in October, why not indeed?

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Author:Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England
  • Rebecca

    I’ve just made some early notes on “Queering Shakespeare” for a conference session I’d like to run and I originally thought that I am far too newly out to pull it off. Purely drawing on my university background on Shakespeare in Renaissance performance and a very broad read around feminist and Queer Theory while I was a student at the University of Southampton.

    When we ask ourselves raw questions pre-research: “How does one ‘queer’ Shakespeare, ‘CAN one ‘queer’ Shakespeare?’ and ‘How far?’ it feels limited. But once you start looking at plays like Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Anthony and Cleopatra (with its references to boy-players) the ‘mock marriage of Rosalind as the supposed boy ‘Ganymede’ and the love struck Orlando is suddenly placed in a very modern seeming context of ‘gay marriage’. ‘Performativity’ drops into place whenever one watches these plays negotiate sexuality and gender roles in plots even if one was unaware of the term. If “udith Butler, said, ‘gender reality is created through sustained social performances… real only to the extent that it is performed.’ If gender is performative, i.e. it’s a thing you do, not what you are, then these are prehaps some of the play’s most positive lines and not equivocal at all.

    “…The tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy
    mind is a very opal. I would have men of such constancy
    put to sea, that their business might be everything
    and their intent everywhere, for that’s it that
    always makes a good voyage of nothing. (Twelfth Night; 2.4)

    Taffeta silk is as well as being highly desirable and sumptous and an element of high _fashion_ a fabric which “shifts with changing perspectives,” and an opal changes color when seen from various angles or in different lights.” (David Bevington, The Necessary Shakespeare)
    Bevington and many annotators of Shakespeare note Feste’s remarks as suggesting the fickleness and changeability of of Orsino, often comparing him to items that change in _appearance_ depending on the light of day (or night) or the way someone is looking at them.* However this is not merely a note as to character as much as it is to self-fashioning and performativity – and queerness! What happens if we read orsino as queer, as non binary, as bisexual, actively not choosing and not fixing his ‘fancy’ on any gender but with distinct preferences nonetheless, instead of reading through Feste’s cynical, offbeat but ultimately heteronormative gaze? This is the essence of performativity. The sea, -where nothing is constant – surrounds Illyria and is referenced many times in this way, serving to make Illyria a deliberately fluid space where anything goes or “What you Will”. The subtitle to the play suggests: Will reigns here and it is worth noting the common references to “Will” with their homosocial and queer overtones and readings in the Sonnets can apply equally to Twelfth Night. There’s no escaping the clothes that ‘self-fashion’ men and women (Greenblatt) are performative in the extreme, one reason for the Puritan dialogues of disapproval against theatre.
    “Nothing” is a highly sexual pun in Shakespeare’s usage usually the female pudenda but here perhaps a ‘good voyage of nothing’ might be a reflection of the often quoted futility of non-procreative sexual encounters in heterosexual viewpoints and polemic.

  • Thanks Janna, I just found your website and it looks like you’ve got a thriving and exciting theatre company going there in Michigan! http://www.pcshakespeare.com/

    I agree, the longevity of Shakespeare has a lot to do with how open his plays are to reinterpretation. You can track the significant social changes of the 20th century through the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays have been staged, whether that’s black civil rights and Othello, feminism and The Taming Of The Shrew or the role of the state and Hamlet. I’m not sure if gender identity has entered mainstream thought yet, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was published in 1990 so it might still be considered a fringe concern for academics and activists, but there is no shortage of Shakespeare plays available to explore the issues. I love the fact that Neil Bartlett, who, in the Positive Nation interview I quoted above, said he used to be known as: ‘that Neil Bartlett, who did the naked show wearing high heels and waving his willy around’  quietly planted the question of gender roles in the middle of what presented itself otherwise as a perfectly ‘normal’ RSC production.

  • Thanks for such a detailed and thoughtful response, Wayne. Stanley Wells has also written about sexuality in Shakespeare in his book Shakespeare, Sex and Love which the actor Simon Callow reviewed last year here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/24/shakespeare-sex-love-stanley-wells

    I agree that the comedies, and particularly Twelfth Night, have been played as rather Chekhovian in the past but I think they are in the process of being reappraised and rediscovered. Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller company toured Twelfth Night in 2007, the same year as Neil Bartlett’s production at the RSC, and I think they are helping to engage audiences with different approaches to Shakespeare’s comedy and his sexuality: http://propeller.org.uk/archive/twelfth-night-2007

    By the way, your book looks very interesting and I’m happy to help plug it here! http://www.amazon.com/Book-Twelfth-Night-What-Will/dp/1604944129

  • I completely agree with Neil Bartlett’s description of “Twelfth Night” as ‘one of the queerest, most outrageous plays ever written.’” But one doesn’t have to cross-cast the play’s roles to emphasize that the play, at its core, is a deeply sexual one all about “doubleness”–including human sexuality. Arguably, it is the play that most (along with “Troilus and Cressida” and “Othello”) reveals the discomfiting truths about the nature of our sexuality. It is the gateway play to Shakespeare’s sexually-darkest plays, but unfortunately many directors look back to early two-dimensional Shakespeares such as “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “The Comedy of Errors” when staging the play, rather than looking at the sexual plays that surround it–“Hamlet,” the sexually-graphic “Troilus and Cressida,” with its centerpiece plot of an uncle facilitating the hooking up of his niece with Troilus (and also featuring Helen of Troy written as a “plackett” or whore), “Othello,” “King Lear,” with its sensuous Regan-Edmund-Goneril love triangle, and “Measure for Measure,” depicting a thriving, venereal disease-riddled sex trade in Vienna. Shakespeare does again use the separated identical twins device in “Twelfth Night,” but the difference is that it is used deviously. A young woman disguises herself as a man, and in that guise soon becomes enamored of both a countess and a duke. Shakespeare’s evil genius is that whenever the beset young woman acts on her passions as a female, she is seen as doing so by everyone else as a man. The ending is titillation in the extreme. The future happiness of the couples may very well depend on what sexual accommodations and compromises they are willing to make. While I believe the idea of “Twelfth Night” as “Chekhovian” probably had its fullest expression with John Barton’s 1969 RSC production, I think the first real “Twelfth Night” (that is, one staged by a director who fully grasped that the play is an extremely erotic one) opened on Aug. 22, 1974–Peter Gill’s RSC production. “Twelfth Night” can now have its fullest sexual expression in the 21st Century, but too many directors persist in seeing it as a “Comedy of Errors”-like farce comedy to be filled with pointless gags. –Wayne Myers, author of “The Book of Twelfth Night, or What You Will: Musings on Shakespeare’s Most Wonderful (and Erotic) Play.”

  • Janna Rosenkranz

    Interesting thought, and I can see the connection of Queer lit theory coming from Shakespeare. After all, Shakespeare is the ultimate adaptable material which each culture can and will make fit its own zietgiest. I just finished a run of an all female Henry IV, I. And while ours wasn’t a Queer statement persay, it was still a statement on masculinity, war and fatherhood that was welcomed by our audiences. The company (Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company) had just produced an all male Cymbaline, which, with its fairy tale like feel worked extremely well and again, didn’t shout Queer theory. The beauty of Shakespeare is, as long as its in the text, one can justify any choice.

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