Monday Muse: Shakespeare and Gender

Greetings, everyone, and welcome to the third edition of August’s Shakespeare Muses! Today, I’m going to dive right into my topic: gender. I know, I typically dance around for a bit typing everything that comes to mind, but I am not doing that today. And for a very good reason: I already wrote the blog I should have saved for today.

You see, the final play we’re seeing while up in Stratford is Taming of the Shrew, a play, along with The Merchant of Venice, that I have always had a hard time loving. Well, just about a month ago, I finally had a breakthrough. I was led to the promised land by God himself, who explained to me that I was allowed to be uncomfortable with the abuse and that Shakespeare would have been uncomfortable with it, too. (Morgan Freeman, guys. I’m not claiming to speak to God, though I can only imagine how pissed He must be at everyone who DOES make that claim.) You know what? Here’s that post. I said it much better in the haze of my discovery.

The Word of God (I couldn’t resist, guys.)

But since I’ve already said everything I wanted to say about Taming of the Shrew, and I’ll be “reviewing” it (it’s all about the alcohol on Fridays and you know it) later this week, what am I supposed to put here? Should I share with you my personal opinion of Shakespeare’s comedies (that they aren’t actually that funny, really, except the Rude Mechanicals, who are hilarious)? Do I think Shakespeare expected his incredibly talented bunch of actors to MAKE it funny? Absolutely. Do I agree with the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s take, as shared during last week’s Monday Muse? Beyond yes. As they said, “we find the tragedies to be much funnier than the comedies.”

What should I write about? I sat in front of the screen for at least an hour earlier, thinking, “Dammit, Muse, today is not the day to abandon me! I need to write about the Bard!” And then…lo, like a gift from Morgan Freeman’s lips, nay, from the Bard’s pen itself, came this article from my good friend.

I try not to let my politics infuse this blog, so please…let’s not make this about the political debate going on about transgender rights. If you read between the lines of pretty much every entry on this blog, you’ll know where A and I stand on pretty much all political issues, and we are not interested in a debate vis a vis…anything. This is about Shakespeare.

Now, if you recall, all of Shakespeare’s parts were played by dudes. All of them. It wasn’t until the Restoration (you know, when Charles II came to the throne after WAY TOO LONG letting the Puritans run things) that women playing women became the norm in England (France and Italy had been doing it for much longer). Imagine, a lady playing Juliet! What novelty! On top of that, Shakespeare was probably part of some weird Elizabethan mob…and a pot smoker. If the man were alive today, he’d probably be hash-tagging #feelthebern.

I actually don’t think there’s anything particularly political in the exploration of Shakespeare through a trans lens. Why? Because his roles are, ultimately, human. Is there anything in the role of Romeo that is intrinsically male? I could make a joke and say his idiotic need to engage Tybalt in the fight that gets Mercutio killed, but really, is the hot-headed and ill-considered need to answer insult with insult (or violence) truly male? Ever heard of a ‘cat fight’? And what about Cordelia’s devotion to her father is inherently female? Is there no way for a male to find filial love–true, pure love such that there will be no lying or groveling to spare Lear’s feelings–within him?

Now, I’m not saying that Shakespeare escaped gender roles. He was not so radical as all that. But, really, what makes Romeo special is not that he is a male, and Juliet’s tragedy is not being female, but being young. Yes, Juliet is special because she is in control of her relationship with Romeo and this was remarkable for Shakespeare’s time, but such things are not ‘womanly’. Females do not own them. If males can play these parts, these ‘paragons of woman-dom’, why can’t that be reversed? What about Macbeth or even Mark Antony is restricted to genetic males? Females can be brought low by ambition and bad advice, and they can similarly be stirred to rage and vengeance on behalf of a loved one brought low. What might we learn about ourselves and these parts if we divorced their sex and gender from the sex and gender of those playing them?

See, as I’ve said before, Shakespeare is great not because he writes great parts for men and great parts for women, but because he writes great parts. I mentioned before that acting Hamlet is like baring one’s naked soul before an audience; it invites the actor–nay, it FORCES the actor–to explore everything within him- or herself and let it all out. Hamlet is Hamlet because Hamlet is human, not because he is a man. And the human, universal nature of Shakespeare’s plays extends to most of his characters, too. (Some characters are better than others, right Titus Andronicus? You killed your own daughter for getting raped, you asshat!) The very fact that TranShakespeare can exist and be so eye-opening for the people involved is a demonstration of Shakespeare’s universality. There is no limit to the way we can perform and enjoy his works. There isn’t even a reason to suggest that Romeo and Juliet must be binary. As the article says: We need to take a risk. Like we did here, we wondered if it would be interesting to throw a bunch of people into a pot and ask, “In how many ways can this work? Oh, in every single way, it works. Every person works.” 

So, I exhort all of you out there to write some Shakespeare. A and I are saving Mercutio’s life because we want to, and because he’s our favorite; changing that one thing meant essentially changing everything else, and learning how far we could go and still recognize these characters. The friend who shared the article with me is playing with As You Like It by using Ganymede not as a disguise, but a revelatory truth of identity for Rosalind. What I took away from this article is not that we should have men play women and women play men, but that we should have everyone play everything. We should push the boundaries of what it means to be these characters and to explore these stories. And not even just gender, but ethnicity, national identity, religion, whatever lens is available for exploration. Shakespeare invites us to be all things because we are all humans; we are all already the thing. Just like the play.

My goodness, I seem to have churned out one of my extra special rambles! Go me! From nothing to something. I love you, Shakespeare! (“And I love thee, random citizen!”)

Tune in on Friday for my recommendation of what to drink with Taming of the Shrew.



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