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Girls' jobs going to the boys
My belief that The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play remains unshaken by a reader’s assertion in our letters column last week that I am wrong. No one need take my word for it. Here is the opening sentence of an essay on the play by a man often referred to as “the greatest living critic”: “One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognise that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.”
In case you're wondering how speechlessness could affect one’s judgment of a work of literature, I should state that ‘dumb’ is presumably being used in the American sense of stupid, since the writer, Harold Bloom, is an American. He is also Jewish, with the right this confers to be listened to in the matter of what is and what is not anti-Semitic.
Similarly, I would contend, women’s views deserve precedence over those of men in another dispute involving the works of William Shakespeare. This concerns the way they are being staged, increasingly often, with men taking the female parts.
The practice seemed an engaging novelty in 1997 when director Edward Hall ushered in an era of such work with Propeller, his all-male ensemble based at the Watermill Theatre , in Newbury. In the years since, to much acclaim and sell-out success, Hall and his team have stuck to their original vision.
Meanwhile, other companies have got in on the act. Among them is Shakespeare’s Globe where a new production of Richard III has just opened without women. Its star, Mark Rylance, is soon to reprise his role there as Olivia in Twelfth Night.
Until last week, to be honest, it had never crossed my mind to question the practice of excluding women in this way. At the press night for Richard III last week, though, I found myself discussing the subject with the distinguished Oxford Shakespearian scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones, who was reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement. This was, she told me, the fourth Shakespeare production in a row she had seen with an all-male cast.
She said: “Overall, when there are plenty of talented, versatile and well trained young female performers available — as well as many mature ones — it’s grossly unfair to deny them roles in Early Modern plays, in which, at the best of times, female parts are generally fewer and shorter than male ones.
“I’m sure Shakespeare would have happily used female performers if he had been allowed to. Noblewomen flocked to take part in Jacobean masques, often heavily made-up — and as soon as women were permitted to perform on public stages, they did so in great numbers and with evident success — for example Nell Gwyn.”
The full reasons for her objection to the practice will be given in her TLS review, which appears next week. Such is her eminence in her field that her criticism seems certain to enliven a debate already under way on the issue.
Jo Caird at Whatsonstage.com said: “Given the chronic under-representation of women on the British stage, I don’t really see how [it] can be justified.” Jenni Tomlin said on the Social Justice First website that it “serves to highlight our deep history of sexism and inequality”. Playwright Stella Duffy was only half joking when she called for women to boycott all-male productions.
Having now thought about the issue, which I am cross with myself for never having done before, it is clear to me that all these women are right. Shakespeare used males, for sure, but these were boys, not tall, fully grown men. Garbed for their roles these actors do not look like women, as is quite apparent from the pictures on this page. They look, to put it bluntly, like pantomime dames or Lord Fancourt Babberley dressed up as Charley’s Aunt. That idea, once lodged, is hard to dislodge, which could, I think, spell the end to this nonsense.
I notice, incidentally, that there is nothing in the Globe’s Richard III programme to explain why we have the men. Propeller says of itself on its website, boldly splitting an infinite as it does: “Propeller is an all-male Shakespeare company which seeks to find a more engaging way of expressing Shakespeare and to more completely explore the relationship between text and performance.”
There is no clue here about why success in these areas should be predicated peculiarly on the presence in the cast only of men.