It wouldn’t beat­ragedy if Shy­lock wa­sawoman


IF MAU­REEN Lip­man was se­ri­ous when she told this news­pa­per a few months ago that she would like to play Shy­lock, she might find a will­ing home for such a pro­duc­tion at Shake­speare’s Globe. The theatre’s in­com­ing artis­tic di­rec­tor Emma Rice has ar­gued for an age — and a stage —of gen­der equal­ity. In other words, women will be el­i­gi­ble not only for the 155 fe­male roles in the Shake­speare canon but the 826 male ones, too.

Cast­ing a Shake­spearean role with a dif­fer­ent gen­der than the one en­vis­aged by the Bard is noth­ing new. Leav­ing aside the more ob­vi­ous ex­am­ples of boys play­ing fe­male roles when the plays were first staged, ever since Sarah Bern­hardt’s Ham­let women ac­tors have taken on Shake­speare’s best known male roles. Among the most au­da­cious of th­ese was seen re­cently at the Don­mar Ware­house when Ash­ley McGuire un­for­get­tably played Fal­staff in an all-fe­male ver­sion of the Henry IV plays.

If any­body had doubts that Shake­speare’s char­ac­ters should be avail­able to women, then that per­for­mance proved that it is as ridicu­lous to as­sume that only men can play men as it is that only Jews can play Jews. Or, put an­other way, that only white peo­ple can play his­tor­i­cal white char­ac­ters, which is why any­one who com­plained of say, Adrian Lester’s ter- rific Henry V would have looked like an id­iot, es­pe­cially as Ni­cholas Hyt­ner’s pro­duc­tion was up­dated to the present day.

Women, the record seems to sug­gest, tend to go for the more al­pha male of Shake­speare’s men. Richards II and III have been played by Fiona Shaw and Kathryn Hunter re­spec­tively, Janet McTeer took on the role of arch-chau­vin­ist Petru­chio in The Tam­ing of the Shrew, Vanessa Red­grave was a mem­o­rable Pros­pero and Lear has also been played by a woman — Hunter again. Off the top of my head I can’t re­mem­ber if Lady Mac­beth’s hus­band has been played by a woman, but there must be many a fe­male ac­tor out there who would like to take it on. But Shy­lock? Ap­par­ently not. At least not in a high-pro­file pro­duc­tion. Is it fair to sug­gest that Shake­speare’s Jew is less of an at­trac­tion to women ac­tors than the other ma­jor (non Jewish) male Shake­spearean roles? And if it is, why might that be so?

There is an ob­vi­ous risk of at­tribut­ing mo­tives to women, es­pe­cially if you’re a man. If one wanted to play devil’s ad­vo­cate, how­ever, you could, I sup­pose, con­struct an ar­gu­ment along the lines that women

MARTY FELD­MAN was a born an­ar­chist, but even an­ar­chists need rules to break and, for Marty, from a very early age, those rules were dic­tated by his faith. Born to de­vout Rus­sian em­i­grants in the Can­ning Town of the mid-1930s, young Marty would du­ti­fully at­tend syn­a­gogue on Satur­days, and cheder on Sun­days.

Then came com­edy, and the av­enue he needed. The re­lease valve for his angst and anti-au­thor­ity at­ti­tude. He was ex­pelled from more schools A re­cent Globe pro­duc­tion, above, and Dustin Hoff­man as

Shy­lock might feel less in­clined to play an­other vic­tim of big­otry given their own marginalised sta­tus within theatre and vic­timised sta­tus out­side it.

But there’s also a nag­ging thought that Shy­lock has been, and per­haps still will be, de­nied the range of artis­tic rein­ter­pre­ta­tion af­forded to his Shake­spearean peers. Could that be be­cause Jewish­ness is such a dom­i­nant fea­ture in the minds of non-Jews, and there­fore non-Jewish fe­male ac­tors, too, that to bring gen­der pol­i­tics to the ta­ble feels like fid­dling around the edges? It’s as if Shy­lock isn’t con­sid­ered as wor­thy of be­ing played by a woman be­cause the per­cep­tion of him as a char­ac­ter is so lim­ited to his Jewish­ness. A man such as Bru­tus, in many ways a very mas­cu­line char­ac­ter, might be quite a fruit­ful role for a woman to play, such as Har­riet Wal­ter did in Phyl­l­ida Lloyd’s all fe­male pro­duc­tion of Julius Cae­sar. But Shy­lock is Jew first and man se­cond.

Of course, women don’t pri­mar­ily play male char­ac­ters be­cause they want to de­con­struct or in­ter­ro­gate ideas of mas­culin­ity. Most of the time it’s be­cause male char­ac­ters, Jewish or oth­er­wise, of­fer them a spec­trum of ex­pe­ri­ence, ex­pres­sion and ex­plo­ration that fe­male roles rarely have.

Hav­ing a woman play Shy­lock cer­tainly opens up whole new ar­eas of in­ter­pre­ta­tive pos­si­bil­ity. It is pos­si­ble, for ex­am­ple, to imag­ine new light be­ing thrown upon the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Shy­lock and his treach­er­ous daugh­ter Jes­sica. And the Jew-hat­ing bru­tal­ity meted out by An­to­nio and his chums could be all the more shock­ing if the vic­tim were played by a woman — the kind of shock you should feel when the man be­ing abused is played by a man, but don’t.

And if Shy­lock were played by a woman, how would that in­form the mo­ment the Jew’s knife nears the Chris­tian mer­chant’s bare flesh? Might it feel more like re­venge for the meta­phoric, and some­times ac­tual, rape of a peo­ple than the un­just pay­back of an ob­sessed man? Might the knife stray down the ab­domen, and be­yond? Af­ter all, the pound of flesh has been linked to the me­dieval fear of the Jew as a cas­trater. Which in turn begs an­other ques­tion: if An­to­nio were a woman, how would that ef­fect Shy­lock’s sin­gle-minded de­ter­mi­na­tion to kill?

Then there is the gen­der-bend­ing el­e­ment al­ready within Mer­chant. With a Shy­lock played by a woman, it might be tempt­ing to play off one woman dressed as a man with an­other — the other be­ing Por­tia, who dis­guises her­self as a man. A di­rec­tor could have fun with that. Es­pe­cially one as good as Mau­reen Lip­man.



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