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Adapting Shakespeare for Women Today

Updated: Apr 23, 2018

By Gillian Armstrong

One of the dullest things about Shakespeare is less than 16% of his characters are women. Those characters were also not written to be performed by women. And yes – absolutely there is a case for some of the dialogue of women being incredible and progressive despite being written for a male performer. But the root of all evil resides in Shakespeare writing these plays years and years ago as a white male with patriarchal values engrained in the circumstances of these female characters.

Unfortunately, even plays today have the same problem though. They also don’t have the excuse of being written in the 16th century.

As women in contemporary culture, how do we continue to produce Shakespeare, without perpetuating patriarchal ideals that don't make room for us? My answer is always adaptation. Adaptation can take many forms from textual edits, gender-bent casting, and reimagining the setting. What I really like about adaptation is that it allows us to reframe the perspective of a Shakespeare play. For example, this summer both Driftwood Theatre and Shakespeare in the Ruff are adapting Shakespeare plays so it focuses on a specific female character. In Driftwood’s case, it has renamed As You Like It as “Rosalynde (or, As You Like It).” Ruff’s AD Kaitlyn Riordan had adapted Julius Caesar and titled it “Portia’s Julius Caesar.”

I mean, As You Like It is sort-of already Rosalind’s story. But as soon as you change the title, you are refocusing the audience’s attention and basically saying we are doing something different here so pay attention. Portia, on the other hand, is generally just known as Brutus' wife. She isn’t a Lady M level partner when you think about her. The title change for Ruff is calling attention to Portia and saying look at her – this is her story this time – and it’s not the guy-that-gets-stabbed show anymore. He probably still gets stabbed but you know what I mean. I can gain that much information from just a title change.

I love Shakespeare’s words and stories but people get stuck in the preciousness of Shakespeare’s text. Respect the words and the story but be aware that feminism in Shakespeare sometimes requires some digging. Traditional Shakespeare can be feminist but I need to be able to understand why that choice was being made for a contemporary audience or you lose me.

Women adapting a Shakespeare play allows women to be a part of the creation of the story in a way that simply staging it does not. If I’m just directing Shakespeare, it is still Shakespeare’s play. Creating an adaptation of a Shakespeare play makes it my adaptation. From now on, Riordan’s Portia focused Julius Caesar will be Riordan’s adaptation. It’s also even better when you get to collaborate with other women because then you are problem solving together. You get to break it and then put it back together (lovingly).

Another hiccough to creating Shakespeare as a woman is just not being let into the room. I’ll tell you right now that if your cast isn’t 50% female then you are part of the problem. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the question of what does it mean if I make Romeo a female? Or what does it mean if Shylock is a woman? Just providing opportunities leads to exciting knowledge about the play and the character. Sometimes you don’t have to have an answer and sometimes you do.

For the actor and director, you get to make a lot of interesting choices and learn a lot. Are you a female playing a female (previously male) character? Are you a female playing a male character? Are you changing the pronouns of the character? Why not? Does it affect your relationships in the play? Does it affect your approach as an actor? The discoveries are endless and gender is incredibly complex so there’s room for every version.

Shakespeare is an incredible storyteller. But the women of today who love Shakespeare also have stories to tell. You can love Shakespeare and not have to love everything about his work. Some of the best things to tackle in his plays are the things that completely and utterly frustrate or confuse you. Adaptation doesn’t have to be about blotting out the yucky stuff. However, it does force you to continuously think about today’s audience and why we are still telling these stories. And your answer can’t just be because they are free.

Gillian Armstrong is a Toronto-based theatre practitioner and academic. Gillian recently completed her MA at the University of Toronto focusing on gender-bent Shakespeare performance. As part of her final project, Gillian developed and ran a workshop for female-identifying actors performing male monologues which culminated in a final performance at the Robert Gill Theatre.

Along with her academic pursuits, Gillian most recently directed Stars at Alumnae Theatre's 2018 New Ideas Festival. Selected credits include assistant director on This Will Be Our Last Transmission (Alumnae Theatre), director on The Doorknocker (Drama Studio Series), AD on Much Ado About Nothing (Hart House Theatre), AD on The Seer and No Bombs on Monday (Commonplace Theatre), and associate director on Shakespeare Bash’d’s staged reading of Volpone.