An actress pauses mid-scene. “I feel like I don’t know how to interact romantically with a female.” The director puts down her pen and emphatically intones “She’s not a female, she’s a man!” Welcome to a typical night at rehearsal for the Princeton Shakespeare Company’s Othello. One running joke is that we’re really putting on Othella, which isn’t true— our characters are not meant to be women, as intended by the director, Allie Kolaski ’13, and as interpreted by the actors, myself included (I play the gullible and pathetic rich boy, Roderigo). Nor is it a production in drag, filled with campy costume gags, lowered voices, and sexist caricatures. As a thematic element introduced to specifically complicate the show, gender is simply “not a thing.”
Which isn’t to say that it isn’t something. Gender does have philosophical implications for the show’s meaning. More superficially, the fact that our cast is all women did make some cuts more obvious— no one wants an actress shouting “Oh bloody period!” to ruin the play’s tragic final moments. And the gender change does superimpose a layer of homoeroticism not only in the couples intended by Shakespeare, but in the interactions of non-romantic characters (Iago and Othello, for example) that would, for some reason, be less overt in a show cast with males and females in male and female roles. It seems that once the play has been made abnormal, it engenders unforeseen nuances simply by grace of being of so.
Historically, as we all know, it would not have been seen as abnormal for actors to play the opposite sex. Men played all female roles until 1662, when King Charles II ordained “Whereas women’s parts in plays have hitherto been acted by men in the habits of women… we do permit and give leave for the time to come that all women’s parts be acted by women.” Even then, it was not “a thing” for boys to be portraying girls. That’s simply how it was. Alexander Cooke, who originated many of the Bard’s tragic female roles, and Richard Sharpe, who started as a boy player in the role of a duchess, were both successful members of Shakespeare’s acting troupe. It is only in the last 350 years that custom has dictated that roles be cast according to sex.
So women really got the short end of the stick. Sure, it was revolutionary at the time that they could be allowed onstage, but the parts women could play were less than thrilling. What is a good female role? It’s probably a man, if you want to do Shakespeare. His women, on average, have only 15% of the lines in any given play, represent 14% of the characters, and have approximately 78% less importance than their male counterparts. I may have invented that last statistic, but the fact remains: female leads have around half as many lines as men, and would represent the bottom third of male leads in Shakespeare by line count. Though there are, of course, proverbially “no small parts, only small actors,” it clearly shows something that Shakespeare’s five female cross-dressing roles (such as Rosalind in As You Like It) speak 80% more than “normal” female characters. Even in plays like The Taming of the Shrew and Antony and Cleopatra, where women are ostensibly central figures, these characters speak less, do less, and, ultimately, mean less than men.
Othello is no different. There are three female characters: Desdemona, Othello’s pure and innocent bride; Emilia, her maidservant and the wife of villainous Iago; and Bianca, a whore. By my account, Othello is relatively forward-thinking in its treatment of marriage— Emilia delivers an exceptional monologue in which she questions the motives behind unfaithfulness— and yet the female characters are little more than types. Undoubtedly, talented actresses can make them into deep, interesting, and crucial players in the story’s development. But the true principal plot, that of Othello being driven into jealous madness by the intricate schemes of his ensign Iago, is inspired almost entirely by the actions of the male characters.
I don’t even think it is “feminist” of me to say that this is disappointing to many actresses. For those who seek to break away from typical, more traditional Shakespearean women, it can take a lot of luck and a creative director. But the director has said that she didn’t necessarily want to make the casting into a statement. And neither do I think it should be.
Why should the fact that I am female keep me from portraying Roderigo well? Is our Iago less evil, less enigmatic, less fully realized simply because she is a she? Can Othello not rage compellingly about his wife’s supposed infidelity if he is personified by a woman? If Shakespeare’s own company found no fault in having the beautiful and virginal Desdemona be played by a man, it seems that there is little reason to think that our production should be treated any differently. One can wonder— would a contemporary all-male production be met with as much skepticism?
Honestly, I don’t know, and I’m not trying to figure out whether our society finds it more shocking for men to play women or vice versa. There’s something to said, though, that our show risks being seen as less authentic only because we don’t have any Y-chromosomes onstage. Every time I mention that I am in an all-female Othello in the dining hall with friends or in passing conversation during class, I am met with snorts of derision and disbelieving questions. Furthermore, the show’s meaning and gravity are degraded by those who are interested in it simply for the reason that we have women kissing and fighting each other onstage. At which point, as an actor, I must ask myself: is gender an integral part of my character? Does Cassio or Brabantio or Ludovico’s masculinity make them Cassio, Brabantio, and Ludovico? Can the role of Montano be depicted as Shakespeare intended if Julia stands in his boots rather than John?
When I am Roderigo, I do not try to “act like a guy.” Rather, I find that the traits I attempt to embody— rash gullibility, of sad longing for Desdemona, of indignation at his manipulation— simply form a part of my portrayal of a male character. Roderigo’s gender informs my performance, but it does not dictate my choices, nor does it make me less capable of playing him because my biological sex is not his.
It is an affront to the skill of the actresses in our production to say that they are anything less than suited for their roles. In the end, we are all doing what any actor does: playing a character. Each actor embodies a character differently. This Othello is not an exception, and it is certainly not somehow “lesser” because the men are played by women. It may be a challenge for some audience members to accept that an actress can be the strong, bold, and yes, manly, Othello. I have confidence, though, that my gender has not prevented me from seeking the true heart of my role or weakened the show’s meaning and themes.
Maybe it’s naive of me to hope that when viewers talk about this show, they won’t call it a great “all-girl” Othello, but simply a great Othello. Maybe a character’s sex is more of an essential part of their identity that I’d like to think. But maybe, just maybe, the time has come for all parts to be regarded wholly as the creative interpretation of the actor, regardless of their gender, and to look past physical sex as determinant of who can be a man onstage.