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Shakespeare et les arts dramatiques

“Like a Rouged Corpse? Recycled, Revised, and Reused:The Selling of the Female Body on the Shakespearean Stage”

Ellen B. Anthony


Les adaptations de Shakespeare ont suscité historiquement l’horreur et le mépris chez les historiens du théâtre. George C. D. Odell, auteur de Shakespeare, de Betterton à Irving, a décrit les adaptations de la Restauration et du XVIIIe siècle comme des « cadavres maquillés ». Hazelton Spencer, dans Shakespeare Amélioré, a soutenu que, depuis l’accession des femmes au droit de se produire sur la scène professionnelle, l’œuvre de Shakespeare se faisait recycler, réviser, réutiliser, au point de mettre en danger sa réputation. Quelle déception ce serait pour Spencer s’il savait que les adaptations de Shakespeare – et l’attribution de premiers rôles masculins à des femmes – sont très répandues de nos jours. Parmi les exemples contemporains, on citera Helen Mirren qui a joué le rôle de Prospero dans le film La Tempête (2010) et Glenda Jackson qui a créé la controverse en jouant sur Broadway le roi Lear (2019). La tendance à donner les rôles masculins à des femmes dans les grandes tragédies shakespeariennes peut sembler naître du climat politique actuel, une sorte d’expression culturelle du mouvement #MeToo. Pourtant, la pièce Bernhardt/Hamlet de Teresa Rebeck (2018) nous rappelle avec éloquence que c’est bien une pratique qui date. Le présent article explore la manière dont l’influence des actrices, et surtout les vedettes qui ont choisi des rôles définis comme masculins par la tradition, impacte notre réception et notre expérience de Shakespeare et du genre sur la scène et à l’écran du XXIe siècle. Comment la culture des célébrités, les mouvements politiques, et nos visions contemporaines du genre influencent-ils la rencontre du public avec le dramaturge le plus notoire de la Renaissance : William Shakespeare?

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  • 1 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael (...)

1In Act 5, scene 2, of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Anthony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra, anguishing about her future at the hand of the Romans, exclaims, “Anthony / Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see / Some Squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’ th’ posture of a whore.”1

  • 2 George C. D. Odell Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, Dover Publ., 1966.

2What is remarkable about this famous moment of crisis for Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is her abhorrence of being “performed” before a gazing, drunken crowd who she imagines will see her mocked and reduced to nothing but a “squeaking” boy. She is repulsed by two specific things: the idea of a “squeaking” voice, and of her sexuality being misrepresented by someone “boying” her persona in the public square; what is also striking in this passage is the use of “boy” as a verb. The idea of a boy’s performance implies she is who the Romans claim she is: whore-like, foolish, defeated. This passage also hints that gender and performance might have been a source of anxiety on the early modern British stage, even though in this instance, it is Cleopatra’s imagined anxiety about what an empowered Queen, known for her regality, intelligence, and wealth, might feel in turning her image over to a boy actor. Surprisingly, however, sometimes famous roles have been most successfully played by the opposite gender, from Edward Kynaston’s Restoration Desdemona to Mark Rylance’s twenty-first century Olivia. That said, the practice of adapting Shakespeare’s works for cross-gender casting – especially for actresses to play travesti roles – is something that theatre historians have often viewed with horror and contempt. Hazelton Spencer’s 1927 book, Shakespeare Improved, suggests that Shakespeare’s very reputation as a writer was in jeopardy because of the ways in which his plays have been altered, revised, and adapted now that women were allowed to perform in professional theatres. He blames the advent of celebrity actresses and greedy box offices, eager for profit. George C. D. Odell, author of several books on Shakespeare’s work, including his well-known 1920 book on actors, Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, goes so far as to describe many adapted, revised, or re-configured plays by Shakespeare as “rouged corpses.”2 Unfortunately, Odell did not consider the ways in which cross gender casting might enhance, expand or renew an audience’s understanding of a play’s core ideas – he only imagined adapted, revised, or recycled version as “corpses” – rouged corpses, implying that these adapted versions were artificially enlivened by a painted face in order to seem beautiful or vital. In this paper, I assert the opposite: adaptation and cross-gender casting was and is, in fact, a way of keeping Shakespeare alive, of experimenting with the incredible versatility of Shakespeare’s characters; recycling, revising, and reusing the extraordinary words Shakespeare wrote for early modern audiences has allowed actors, writers, and directors to explore his body of work in unique and compelling ways. Rather than causing the death of Shakespeare’s work, adaptation, and the addition of actresses in male roles has, historically, been an exciting and provoking chapter of theatre history that contemporary scholarship has almost overlooked. Although there is no doubt that Shakespeare is indeed alive and a vital part of our contemporary, theatrical world because the plays themselves are extraordinary, there is also no doubt that the long line of incredible actresses who either dared to tackle iconic male roles, or to perform in experimental, or otherwise adapted versions of the plays, have contributed to this history. This trend, women playing male roles in adapted versions of the plays, may seem like a product of the current political climate, a kind of cultural outgrowth of #MeToo movement. In actuality, this is not the case. There is a long history of successful, artistically compelling, adapted Shakespearian texts that have delighted, challenged, and entertained audiences for centuries.

3On December 8th, 1660, the first woman performed in a professional theatre on the London Stage; Thomas Killigrew, one of the original two patentees awarded by Charles II, formed the King’s Company at the Vere Street theatre. Some have posited that having an actress play Desdemona in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello would enhance the authenticity of the performance. There was a specific prologue written just for this occasion to introduce the actress. It subtly claims that by replacing male/boy actors, the stage will not only undergo a kind of sexual reformation and purification but that the realism of the theatre will be heightened, and a new experience of the play will be borne.3

  • 4 Pierre Danchin, ed., The Prologues and Epilogues of the Restoration, 1660-1700, 4 parts, Nancy, Pub (...)

I come, unknown to any of the rest
To tell you news: I saw the Lady drest;
The Woman playes today, mistake me not,
No man in gown, or Page in Petty-Coat;
A Woman to my knowledge, yet I can’t
(If I should dye) make Affadavit on’t.4

  • 5 Elizabeth Howe, The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700, Cambridge, Cambridge Unive (...)

4These lines seem to imply that he has seen her body. For Restoration audiences, this was certainly a familiar play on words. The speaker implies he can assure us the performer is a woman, because he has seen her, and he has known her. The actress is set up as a sexual object to be viewed and enjoyed. Restoration and eighteenth-century scholars have stressed the public nature of the actresses’ sexuality and pointed to the heightened practice of using women performers as a way to build audiences and sell tickets; competition between theatres was fierce, and box office revenue was a primary concern for theatre managers. The actress was a new commodity, one that could be used to advantage by theatre managers and playwrights alike, to enhance their own prestige and profits. Elizabeth Howe explains in her book The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700, the emergence of “couch scenes" – in which “female characters were directed to lie at a distance asleep on a couch, bed or grassy bank where, attractively defenseless […] their beauty unwittingly aroused burning passion in the hero or villain who stumbled upon it.”5 The frontispiece engravings to Othello, Cymbeline, and Antony and Cleopatra in Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare (reproduced in Howe’s book on pages 38, 40, and 112) depict actresses languishing on a bed, breasts enticingly displayed, lying vulnerably as a male character advances. Though an early example of this couch scene can be found in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, it becomes a more frequent element of performances once women are allowed on the stage. This is also the case for rape sequences. Though not uncommon in Shakespeare’s plays – Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first tragedy, has one of the most brutal rape sequences ever written for the stage – the frequency of such scenes in Restoration drama increased. In Nahum Tate’s King Lear (1680), in which Cordelia is raped by men sent by the villainous Edmund, was one of the most successful adaptations of the period. Nearly all theatre historians credit Elizabeth Barry, who perfected the vulnerable, noble, and sexually enticing victim “line” for the Restoration stage.

  • 6 Idem, p. 56.
  • 7 Thomas Davies, Dramatic Micellanies [sic]: Consisting of Critical Observations of the Several Plays (...)

5Although these two methods of exploiting the sexuality of the actress were commonplace after the Restoration, another form became even more ubiquitous: cross-dressing. Initially, actresses were encouraged to wear men’s clothes and to play male roles not to increase the number of highly complex characters in their repertoire, but rather to provide an opportunity to dress them in tight fitting, knee length pants (breeches) that exposed their hips and legs. Breeches roles were “designed to show off the female body – there was no question of the actress truly impersonating a man.”6 The 1667 version of The Tempest, adapted by Davenant and Dryden for Jane Long to play Hippolito, drew attention to her body as she spoke the prologue: “Or if your fancy will be farther led / To find her Woman, it must be abed” (Dryden and Davenant 1997, Prologue, l. 37-38). It was not just in comedy, however, that breeches roles were utilized: The Misery of Civil War, a 1680 adaptation of Henry VI, Parts II and III, adds an entire character – Lady Elinor Butler – who pursues Edward while dressed “in man’s habit” (Crowne 1680, 63-64). As late as 1784, actresses were still be described as “ornaments” of the stage, as is evidenced by Davies’s well-known work, Dramatic Miscellanies. The book describes the advent of the first actresses as “giving lustre” to the English theatre. Charles II put an end to the custom of men acting women’s parts. A number of beautiful actresses soon gave a new lustre to the English theatre.”7 While the sexual allure of the actress was still clearly important, there is an admission here, also, that actresses played an enormous role in making Shakespeare appealing and engaging for audiences. Performing Shakespeare’s female roles – even in heavily adapted versions of the originals – provided prominent actresses of the period a way to gain economic and artistic power; after all, a celebrity actress made a lot of money for the all-male-chronically-cash-strapped theatre managers of the day. Although David Garrick is often credited with re-establishing the popularity of Shakespeare on the stage, it is obvious that the actresses who were popular with Restoration and eighteenth-century audiences deserve more recognition and attention for their enormous contribution to the history of Shakespeare on the stage. Shakespeare provided a significant instrument through which actresses could assert their skill and theatrical worth, allowing them to contribute to a growing movement to engage in new ways about gender, sexuality, and performance.

6By the nineteenth-century, a reverence for the “original” text was in vogue. Odell describes this shift in the practice of adapting Shakespeare in his chapter entitled “The Plays: The Restoration of Shakespeare,” and implies a kind of emancipation:

  • 8 Odell, op. cit., p. 191.

At last we begin to arrive at the goal toward which were leading the ages already discussed, from the time of Betterton till the freedom of the theatres. The very years that witnessed the successful struggle for this freedom witnessed, also, the freedom of Shakespeare, who, like Ariel, was released from the magic of the evil spirits – in this case the adapters.8

  • 9 James Shapiro, 2020. Shakespeare in a Divided America, London, Faber and Faber, 2020, p. 57.

7Nineteenth century actresses wanted – for obvious reasons – to play some of Shakespeare’s most complex roles and, as James Shapiro writes in Shakespeare in a Divided America, changing notions of masculinity in both the United States and in London seemed to open the door for women to perform two roles in particular: Hamlet and Romeo.9 These two characters present contradictory notions of masculinity for nineteenth-century audiences. Shapiro and others rightly point out that the leading American and English tragedians of the early nineteenth century – John Philip Kemble, Samuel Phelps, Charles Kean, and William McCready – were eager to play Romeo, but all struggled to strike the right tone with the role. Shapiro writes:

  • 10 Idem, p. 57.

Competing versions of manliness collided at this time in America. A restrained masculinity that embraced moderation, virtue, domesticity, and sobriety was changing into a kind of martial manhood, characterized by a greater tolerance for excess, alcohol, physicality, and domination. The model had a special appeal for the working classes and as these norms of manhood changed, male actors found the roles of Romeo and Hamlet were hard to interpret.10

  • 11 Odell, op. cit., p. 272.
  • 12 Idem, p. 272.
  • 13 Idem, p. 276.

8What Shapiro describes as the overly polite, courtly Romeos were falling flat as new norms of manhood began to emerge in the 1830s and 40s, a claim that anyone familiar with the Astor Place riots of 1843 can imagine; in short, male actors found that the playing of many of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes required a new perspective and several roles, especially Hamlets and Romeos, were increasingly unplayable. It is not surprising, then, that this time in theatre history saw a rise in actresses’ access to playing parts that once seemed unimaginable. A particular performance at the Haymarket Theatre in December of 1845 launched a particularly revolutionary moment in history, for the part of Romeo was to be performed by a woman, Charlotte Cushman, and that of Juliet, by her younger sister, Susan Cushman. The Cushman sisters promised to restore Romeo and Juliet to popularity in the 19th century and they did just that. Cushman’s Romeo was an immediate sensation. The London Times review states: “It is enough to say that the Romeo of Miss Cushman is far superior to any Romeo that has been seen for years. The distinction is not of degree, it is one of a kind. For a long time, Romeo has been a convention. Miss Cushman’s Romeo is a creative, a living, breathing, animated, ardent, human being.” Odell admires Miss Cushman, in large part because he detests adaptations and she is credited with restoring the text and performing it in the original; but it is also significant that he does not view her cross dressing to play the male tragic role as a form of adaptation, and this is perhaps for good reason. Cushman’s very embodiment of Romeo on stage implicitly insists that gender categories are unimportant, that a woman can play the role of Romeo just as well as a man. Odell praises Cushman’s version of the tragedy for what it restores to the text, but he ignores her actual performance: “The restoration is accredited to Charlotte Cushman, who insisted on discarding the Garrick flummery”.11 He goes on to list the original scenes the Cushman sisters added back into the script: the part of Lady Montague is brought back, the business of the first act, with references to Rosaline, is included, Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is in its “proper place,” and Juliet’s iconic “banished” monologue is added. He even concedes that Cushman might have “given too much of Shakespeare.”12 Cushman was not the first woman to play Romeo, however. Ellen Tree played the role in London in 1832, with Fanny Kemble as her Juliet, as well as: Caroline Rankley, Felicita Vestvali, Fanning Vinning, Margaret Leighton, and Seme Beringer. Even before Tree, American women had begun playing the part; in NYC, Mrs. Barry played Romeo in 1827, followed by Lydia Kelly in 1829, Mrs. Hamblin in 1832, Mrs. Barnes in 1833, and Mrs. Lewis in 1836. Records of nineteenth-century performances are spotty at best, and even fewer cast lists survive, but Odell identified an additional fourteen other women who took to the stage as Romeo after Cushman’s debut.13

  • 14 Tony Howard, Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction, Cambridg (...)
  • 15 Idem, p. 140.
  • 16 Ibid., p. 140.

9Asta Nielsen, a Danish actress from the early 20th century, was one of the first women to play Hamlet on film. Likely inspired by Sarah Bernhardt’s 1900 debut as the first female Hamlet ever recorded on film, Nielsen employed an entirely new strategy of interpreting Hamlet – she performed the role, but in a heavily adapted version of the play entitled, Hamlet: the Drama of Vengeance. It was based on an 1881 book entitled The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem by American writer Edward P. Vining, who argues that Prince Hamlet is a fundamentally feminine character and best conceived as being secretly a woman. His re-writing of the play changes the plot considerably – in his version of the script, Hamlet is actually a woman brought up as a boy to preserve the family’s hold on the Danish succession. Despite the fact that these changes sound absurd, the film is considered an enormous contribution to the early history of Shakespeare on film. Nielsen, one of the earliest and most famous luminaries of the silent screen, made approximately seventy silent movies in Germany during her life, often portraying strong-willed or passionate women trapped by tragic circumstances, a “line” or “stock type,” that can be traced back to the early eighteenth-century she-tragedies of Thomas Otway or Thomas Southern. She has been described as one who can, “test the limits of masculinity and femininity and play unprecedented tragi-comic variations on Shakespeare […] bringing audiences visually and emotionally closer to Hamlet than any other performer in the play’s history.”14 In fact, many credit her with transforming film performance from a theatrical style to something more subtle and natural. The rhetoric about Neilson’s performance was that of praise: “Nielsen’s maverick Hamlet succeeded both as an historical film (it influenced Fritz Lang’s epic Niebelung cycle, for example) and is an ironic essay on gender in the twenties.”15 The director of the film, Svend Gade, writes about her, saying: “She is an artist of genius, a fascinating and remarkable personality.”16 Nielsen was fascinated by Vining’s theory that Hamlet was secretly a woman and was eager to explore this idea in her performance.

10Theatre has always been an essential space in which to experiment, speculate, and question gender norms. Cross-dressing on the Elizabethan stage was born out of necessity, as a way of coping with a problem presented by the repressive conventions of the time, but it has become an essential form of artistic innovation and expression that actually extends and expands notions of gender on stage. Perhaps the fascination with cross-dressing in the theatre rested, at least in part, not on the cross-gender costumes per se, but on the opportunity it presented for actresses to grow and deepen their own lives as artists, and to engage in the generating of other equally conceivable interpretations of gender; Shakespeare’s early modern Cleopatra bemoans the boy actor’s potential for mockery, but others in subsequent generations find liberation via cross gender casting. Two notable, recent examples, Helen Mirren in a film adaptation of The Tempest (2010), directed by Julie Taymor, and Glenda Jackson in an avant-garde, reinterpretation of The Tragedy of King Lear (2019), directed for the stage by Sam Gold, demonstrate the richness of revising, reusing, and recycling Shakespeare’s plays in performance.

  • 17 Sehgal, Parul. “At 82, Glenda Jackson Commands the Most Powerful Role in Theatre.” The New York Tim (...)
  • 18 Carson, Susannah. “Shakespeare’s Prospero Becomes Prospera.” 25 December 2010. https://www.latimes. (...)
  • 19 David Tennant, interview with Cush Jumbo, podcast audio, 15 September 2015. (...)

11Glenda Jackson’s performance was consistently praised for the emotional truthfulness she brought to the role. The New York Times reports that when watching her, “gender [does not] enter your mind.” After a career of playing numerous roles, perhaps one of the most interesting things Jackson says about Shakespeare’s work is that he is “the most contemporary writer there is […] he only ever really asks three questions: Who are we? Why are we? What are we? And no one has ever come up with the comprehensive answer to any of those questions.”17 An actor like Jackson, who has served both as one of the greatest living Shakespearean performers, as well as a long-serving member of the British parliament, is uniquely positioned to bring an invaluable, twenty-first century perspective to King Lear, a play about primarily about corruption, the loss of political authority, and madness. This is also true of Helen Mirren’s performance in Julie Taymor’s film adaptation of The Tempest. The Los Angeles Times writes: “When Mirren takes up Prospero’s books, she is not making a statement; she is simply speaking the lines of The Tempest. Similarly, when she takes up his staff, she is stepping into a role that it now makes sense for her to fill. She is giving us — all of us, but especially women — just a little bit more of Shakespeare than we had before.”18 As Prospera, Mirren achieves a greatness that does not depend on “unsexing” herself, but instead embraces Prospero’s/Prospera’s experiences as a mother. Actors such as Cushman, Neilsen, Mirren, and Jackson, among others, have renewed, expanded, and deepened audiences’ experiences of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies. Adaptation and cross-gender casting continues to be the most exciting and dynamic way to reimagine Shakespeare’s work; now, more than ever, as people renegotiate the terms of gender and performance in everyday life, Shakespeare’s works and, indeed, those of the early modern period in England, are the perfect vehicles for actors to imagine, to experiment, and to question because gendered verisimilitude has never been part of the contract between player and audience. In 2019, British actor Cush Jumbo was cast to play Hamlet at the Old Vic Theatre in London. The pandemic forced the theatre to put the season on hold; recent interviews with Jumbo, however, speak to why experimentation with gender in performance is so important to the future of Shakespeare on stage and screen. In a September 2020 interview with The Irish Times, Jumbo states that the play makes her, “think about what we’ve been going through in the last ten years with these big, important conversations about gender and identity and […] what masculinity actually means.” She goes on to say that: “I no longer know what that word means. I don’t think anybody else does either. I want to try to find the new man of now.”19

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1 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles, Folger Shakespeare Library, Accessed on September 16, 2021, Washington, DC, Folger Shakespeare.

2 George C. D. Odell Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, Dover Publ., 1966.

3 Fiona Ritchie, “Shakespeare and the Eighteenth-Century Actress,” Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation, 2, 2006.

4 Pierre Danchin, ed., The Prologues and Epilogues of the Restoration, 1660-1700, 4 parts, Nancy, Publications de l’Université de Nancy, 1981-1985.

5 Elizabeth Howe, The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 39-41.

6 Idem, p. 56.

7 Thomas Davies, Dramatic Micellanies [sic]: Consisting of Critical Observations of the Several Plays of Shakespeare: With a Review of his Principal Characters, and Those of Various Eminent Writers, as Represented by Mr. Garrick, and Other Celebrated Comedians. With Anecdotes of Dramatic Poets, Actors, &c., 3 vol., London, 1784.

8 Odell, op. cit., p. 191.

9 James Shapiro, 2020. Shakespeare in a Divided America, London, Faber and Faber, 2020, p. 57.

10 Idem, p. 57.

11 Odell, op. cit., p. 272.

12 Idem, p. 272.

13 Idem, p. 276.

14 Tony Howard, Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 140.

15 Idem, p. 140.

16 Ibid., p. 140.

17 Sehgal, Parul. “At 82, Glenda Jackson Commands the Most Powerful Role in Theatre.” The New York Times.

18 Carson, Susannah. “Shakespeare’s Prospero Becomes Prospera.” 25 December 2010.

19 David Tennant, interview with Cush Jumbo, podcast audio, 15 September 2015.

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Ellen B. Anthony, « “Like a Rouged Corpse? Recycled, Revised, and Reused:The Selling of the Female Body on the Shakespearean Stage” »Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare [En ligne], 40 | 2022, mis en ligne le 13 juin 2022, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Ellen B. Anthony

Marymount Manhattan College

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