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CFP: Annual Congress of the French Shakespeare Society “Shakespeare and Gender”

March 17-19, 2022 Fondation Deutsch de la Meurthe, Cité Internationale, Paris 14e

The French Shakespeare Society was founded in 1975, the same year Juliet Dusinberre published her groundbreaking Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. In its wake, critics began to interrogate the notion of gender in the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, highlighting its poetic, discursive, political, and performative aspects, all of which contribute to the continued relevance of Shakespeare, our contemporary. Today, following the #MeToo scandals and its French counterpart, #BalanceTonPorc, in a world in which politicians and commentators speak gravely about the alleged danger posed by gender studies and have even considered introducing legislation to ban such studies, it is more important than ever to re-examine the question of gender in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, many of whom explored sensitive topics such as domination, sexual violence, and gender wars. If the notion of gender is political and cultural, the works of Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights are equally so. 

Shakespeare’s works never cease to question this complex and shifting notion. The stage is both a locus for confronting different models and representations of gender carried by characters, and a stage, par excellence, to play with and reinvent gender(s). Through the use of cross-dressing (Twelfth Night, As You Like It), misogynistic discourse (Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello), or ‘maternal’ tragedies (King Lear, Macbeth, The Winter's Tale), Shakespeare has shown the permeability of gendered differences and examined their role in the construction of identity on stage, anticipating the notion of gender “performativity” as defined by Judith Butler. The practice of Elizabethan theatre itself invited spectators to conceive of this performativity, since female roles were performed by men or boys — an awareness made explicit through the host of bawdy puns found in many plays showing how early modern playwrights often tapped into the latent homoeroticism present in their plot material.

The lability of gender is also present in Shakespeare's poems: the Sonnets appear to address at times a man, at times a woman, with a reversibility and/or a confusion between what seems to correspond culturally to the masculine or the feminine; in Venus and Adonis, the poet depicts a conquering, aggressive female desire. In the poems as well as in certain plays, Shakespeare also resorts to using hermaphrodite or androgynous figures (such as Ganymede in As You Like It), echoing a widespread literary phenomenon found elsewhere in Europe at the time. Shakespeare's work thus seems to frequently question heteronormativity, and even to anticipate the notion of “queer”. 

In many ways, Shakespeare's play with the question of gender became illegible a few decades later for Restoration audiences then heavily influenced by Continental aesthetics. After 1660, the British monarchy ruled that female actors should play female roles, promoting the adoption of a neo-classical aesthetic and morality which was supposed to guarantee propriety by clearly distinguishing between the masculine and the feminine (both of which were then beginning to be essentialized).

The confusion of genders in the form of a topsy-turvy world, evoked by the reference to Hercules and Omphale in Antony and Cleopatra, is also the source of a redefinition of gender, especially of masculinity. In Henry V and in Coriolanus, where war can take on homoerotic connotations, the male hero is sometimes undermined when confronted by women. More generally, many characters struggle to conform to the expectations of wives and husbands, fathers and mothers who convey a certain idea of identity and thus hinder its appropriation by the main characters (Henry V, Coriolanus, but also Juliet, Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, the Katherine the “shrew”, Lady Macbeth goading her husband by claiming he “is not a man at all”…). If Shakespeare blurs the boundaries between genders, he also depicts many forms of masculinity and femininity, virility and effeminacy, with changes which can be ascribed to age as well as sex, suggesting that gender identities can change over time or over the course of one’s lifetime.

Some authors have felt that Shakespeare and his contemporaries, who only worked with male performers, could nonetheless write for women, or that their plays could “speak” to the “weaker sex”, stirring their emotions. These stereotypes have been challenged, however. In France, for instance, the issue of gender attracted attention, inviting women to appropriate Shakespeare’s work, especially after Sarah Bernhardt successfully performed the role of Hamlet at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1980s, a director like Ariane Mnouchkine similarly experimented with gender in her famed Shakespeare series (Richard II, Twelfth Night, Henry IV ...), notably using oriental aesthetics in which cross-dressing plays a key role.

In the UK, theatrical companies and theaters producing Shakespeare's works have also taken up the issue of gender, with the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Globe Theatre, among others, adopting gender-blind casting practices in many recent productions. Thus, there has been a proliferation of Romeos played by women and Juliets by men, not only reviving aspects of Elizabethan practice, but also echoing other traditions, notably the many operatic adaptations of Shakespeare, such as in Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830), in which the role of Romeo is played by a crossed-dressed mezzo-soprano, replacing the banned castrati of the eighteenth century.

Of course, Shakespeare is not the only author interested in the question of gender in early modern literature. Many of his contemporaries staged the dialogue and conflict between the sexes, such as John Ford in ’Tis Pity She's a Whore, John Webster in The Duchess of Malfi or The White Devil; Elizabeth Cary in The Tragedy of Mariam; or Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton in The Roaring Girl, among many others. These works resonate and illuminate each other, as in the intertextual play between Mary Sidney's Antonius and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. More generally, these works extend and comment on the querelle des femmes, while highlighting the particular context of the British Isles, where several queens ascended the thrones of Scotland and England in the middle of the sixteenth century, provoking the ire of misogynist pamphleteers such as John Knox, founding father of the Scottish Kirk, who famously published a scathing indictment of female rule in 1558.

Thus, this conference will look at how Shakespeare and other early modern authors contributed to our thinking about gender, and how their works, as well as their various stagings and adaptations through the ages, continue to inform our research and understanding today. The aim is not only to study gender in Shakespeare's world, but also what Shakespeare and his contemporaries can teach us about gender today.

While Shakespeare may be seen as the embodiment of the canon and a “male” authority, his work has also given rise to numerous feminist appropriations that have challenged the binary opposition between “masculine” and “feminine,” such as in Emilia, a play about Aemilia Lanyer written in 2018 by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, and premiered by an all-female cast at the Globe Theatre that year. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has also featured proto-feminist plays from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, most notably in 2013 in a series called "Roaring Girls" curated by Erica Whyman, RSC's associate director, with plays by Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, and an anonymous work, Arden of Faversham. More recently, the RSC has offered contemporary creations highlighting women's inventiveness in theatre, such as in the musical Miss Littlewood (2018) written by Sam Kenyon.

Proposals on Shakespeare and gender may address, among other topics:

The Shakespearean stage as the locus of performances, enactments, and redefinitions of gender(s) or discourses on gender

The role of gender studies in Shakespearean studies, and the role of Elizabethan theatre in gender studies

The political and aesthetic issues around gender in early modern England

The characterization of gender through language, dramatic and dramaturgical writing

Gendered conceptions of poetic and dramatic writing in Shakespeare's time

Adaptations and interpretations of the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that interrogate or stage the question of gender from the sixteenth century to the present

Non-binarity in Shakespeare's theatre and its reappropriations over the centuries; figures such as the castrato, the hermaphrodite, the androgynous, "queer" Shakespeare…

Please send your paper proposal (paper title, keywords and a 300-word abstract) by 1 September 2021, together with a short bio-bibliographical note, to the following address []

Answers will be given on 30 September 2021.

Papers will be 20 minutes long.

Organizing Committee: Board of the Société Française Shakespeare

Scientific Committee:

Gilles Bertheau (Université de Tours)

Yan Brailowsky (Paris Nanterre)

Line Cottegnies (Paris Sorbonne)

Armel Dubois-Nayt (Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin)

Louise Fang (Université Sorbonne-Paris Nord)

Claire Guéron (Université de Bourgogne)

Florence March (Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier)

Gordon McMullan (King’s College, London)

Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise (Sorbonne Nouvelle)

Phyllis Rackin (University of Pennsylvania)

Catherine Richardson (University of Kent)

Christine Sukic (Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne)



Aughterson, Kate, et Ferguson, Ailsa Grant. 2020. Shakesoeare and Gender: Sex and Sexuality in Shakespeare’s Drama. Londres: Bloomsbury.

Bates, Catherine. 2007. Masculinity, Gender and Identity in the English Renaissance Lyric. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Breitenberg, Mark. 1996. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Bulman, James C. (ed.). 2008. Cross-Gender Casting in Contemporary Performance. Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Callaghan, Dympna. 1989. Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy: A Study of King Lear, Othello, The Duchess of Malfi, and The White Devil. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International.

Callaghan, Dympna. 2002. Shakespeare Without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage. Londres, New York: Routledge.

Drouin, Jennifer. 2020. Shakespeare/ Sex: Contemporary Readings in Gender and Sexuality. Londres: Bloomsbury.

Duncan, Sophie. 2016. Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dusinberre, Juliet. [1975] 1996. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Findlay, Alison. 1999. A Feminist Perspective on Renaissance Drama. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Howard, Jean E. 2005. ‘Cross-Dressing, the Theater, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England’. In Crossing the Stage: Controversies on Cross-Dressing, edited by Lesley Ferris, 19–50. New York: Routledge.

Howard, Jean Elizabeth, and Phyllis Rackin. 1997. Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare’s English Histories. London and New York: Routledge.

Marty, Eric, Le Sexe des Modernes. Pensée du Neutre et théorie du genre, Paris, Seuil, « Fiction & Cie, 2021.

Menon, Madhavi (ed.). 2011. ShakesQueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Durham (NC) et Londres: Duke University Press.

McMullan, Gordon, Orlin, Lena Cowen et Vaughan, Virginia Mason (ed.). 2014. Women Making Shakespeare: Text, Reception and Performance. Londres: Bloomsbury.

Orgel, Stephen. 1996. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Power, Terri. 2016.  Shakespeare and Gender in Practice, London: Macmillan.

Rackin, Phyllis. 2005. Shakespeare and Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sanchez, Melissa. 2019. Shakespeare and Queer Theory. Londres: Bloomsbury.

Shapiro, Michael. 1996. Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Girl Pages. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Stanivukovic, Goran (ed.). 2017. Queer Shakespeare: Desire and Sexuality. Londres: Bloomsbury.

Stone, James W. 2010. Crossing Gender in Shakespeare: Feminist Psychoanalysis and the Difference Within. Abingdon: Routledge.

Traub, Valerie (ed.). 2016. The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, Race, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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