I’ve come to be wary of staged readings of Shakespeare. By and large, I think that this forum works better for the tragedies (the comedies often rely upon too much physical humor/movement to make land in a staged reading, and the histories are already confusing enough without mixing in the complications of double-casting and no costumes). For that, this was an enjoyable and low-key evening of theatre.
One thing that really got me thinking was the casting of a lady Leonato. I’ve seen this trend developing lately (Actor’s Shakespeare Project cast a lady Duke of Milan in their Two Gents earlier this year). We’ve seen in recent years (and I will blame this majorly on Julie Taymor) many female Prosperos, but to see this trend of making Shakespeare’s august noble characters in positions of power who are volleying politics by marrying off their daughters turned into women begs some complications that have to be re-examined.
Let me start off by saying that this has nothing to do with the quality of the acting. So far, every august Lady I’ve seen in these roles has been fantastic. But there are a few innate gender issues that you simply can’t escape when you have a woman playing a man’s role in this way.
I will limit my discussion here to Leonato because expanding it would get us into too-long-to-blog territory.
Even when we modernize Much Ado, was have to deal with a few dramaturgical truths. Any “modernized” production of Shakespeare still needs to face the text because, well, you can’t ignore it. If you ignore the text, why are you doing Shakespeare?
Dramaturgical truth the first: We’re in a world that has defined gender relationships. This is made true by Beatrice’s show-stopping speech in Act Four. She laments that she is powerless in her situation due to her gender. As such, even if we drag the show into
“modern” or semi-modern times, we must still be in a universe with distinct gender boundaries.
Dramaturgical truth the second: We’re in a world where marrying someone is a play for political power. We know this because of Leonato coaching Hero before the dance (“Daughter, remember what I told you: if the prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer”). For that matter, we’re in a world with a very defined social hierarchy dealing with characters who have title and standing (A Prince, the Count Claudio, etc.). Leonato is a part of this world; as a wealthy landowner he can host the Prince and his entourage and even seems to have some standing amongst them. However, he is not blind to the opportunities which may present themselves while the Prince is a guest in his household. Marrying his daughter to the Prince would do wonders for Leonato’s social standing and, while he’s not a cut-throat social climber like (for instance) Lord Capulet, he does have an awareness of society around him.
Dramaturgical truth the third: Gender relations and transgresses upon them make up a large portion of this play’s plot. While we are dealing with wedding and wooing, the play’s major conflict also consists of Hero’s supposed trespass against her duties as a good daughter. It is a very different scene when she and Beatrice are the only women onstage attacked and defended by the men around them than it is if Leonato becomes Leonata. In the first case, we clearly see the gender divide that Beatrice laments in the scene to follow. In the second, we wonder why it is that Beatrice can’t fight the gender roles just as Leonata did and assert her own authority. In this way, giving Leonato a sex change very clearly negates Shakespeare’s text. It gives us a world that no longer makes sense, a world that fights the text itself. Unless a director can find some way to extratextually justify Beatrice’s speech, an audience is left wondering what the big deal is. And, honestly, any play which needs to make extratextual additions or clarifications is edging into shooting Horatio territory.
Dramaturgical truth the fourth: By making Leonato a woman, we are left with a few historical heritage questions. Though it’s true that a woman who had become a widower would have been allowed to keep her husband’s estate and have some power over running it, pretty much any man who came along could have found some way to run rampant over her power there and disenfranchise her. In Much Ado, we have several examples of power hungry men who have everything to gain from Leonata’s estate (the most ready example is Don John the Bastard who could just as easily have ruined everyone’s plans by semi-force-wedding Leonata as he did with his elaborate bed-trick scheme… also: the wedding would have been more permanent). By making Leonato a woman, it leaves unnecessary loose ends. Does Leonata end up with Don Pedro at the end (it’s the easiest solution to Benedick’s closing suggestion of “get thee a wife”)? This director made that particular choice, but that particular choice has its own complications. What does that mean to the government of Messina? What does that mean to Leonato’s estate? Has Claudio then, thereby, inadvertently become much more than he deserves by wedding Hero? Does this mean that Don John is going to now target Leonato’s line in the obviously ensuing war since Leonato, Hero, and Claudio now stand between himself and his brother’s kingdom?
I think, at this juncture, I’ve sufficiently proven my point. Cross-gendered casting is not something to be taken lightly (even if you have an awesome cast!). In the event that you would like to proceed with something like this, make sure you also have an awesome dramaturge to help you think through these issues before you give some poor theatre scholar a headache. If you don’t have an awesome dramaturge, I happen to know one (hint: it’s me).
This is only the first in a series of readings that Hub is putting on this summer at Trident. They’re calling the series Beer+bard and despite my over-thinky nit-picks, I do highly recommend that you check them out. The next is going to be Henry IV i on June 17th at 7PM; come hungry for food and Shakespeare!