Women Take on Traditionally Masculine Roles in Shakespeare


Although there is a treasure trove of female roles in Shakespeare, many of his plays are hyper-masculine histories with few parts for women. The Donmar Warehouse of London’s West End is turning this tradition on its head by staging some of Shakespeare’s history plays with an all-female, diverse cast that makes traditionally masculine roles truly their own.

On November 9, Dr. Jacob Hughes’ Will’s World class went to St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO to see The Donmar Warehouse’s production of William Shakespeare’s  Henry IV, which Dr. Hughes’ class had just finished reading. Henry IV is a play about, as Ben Brantley of The New York Times says,  “whoremongering and warmongering.” This production is set in a modern women’s prison and the audience is seated in “cell blocks” with prison guards patrolling all around — not exactly the setting and atmosphere that many students had originally imagined for this play.  

The students got to see Henry IV in a whole new light with the cast being entirely portrayed by women. Gemma Siegler ‘18 said, “It wasn’t my favorite play of Shakespeare’s that I’ve read because, although it was interesting, it wasn’t super relatable to our class… I think that seeing it on stage with an all-female cast adds a new layer of emotion that I hadn’t really imagined when I read it.” The cast was filled with Shakespearean legends, like Dame Harriet Walter, who played the title role, but also with many unknowns who were equally brilliant, such as Jade Anouka (Hotspur) and Clare Dunne (Prince Hal). They fought, they schemed, and they clawed their way to power as convincingly as any man.

“It works really well to actually unearth the different gender dynamics at play in the drama,” said Dr. Hughes. “When we read the play [Henry IV Part I] it seems that the characters are completely masculine figures, while in this production you could see how they have many different stereotypically masculine and feminine sides to them. So many great Shakespearean characters have masculine and feminine sides to them — from the searingly masculine Lady Macbeth of Macbeth to the gender-bending Rosalind of As You Like It.

In Shakespeare’s time, the roles of both men and women in his plays, whether comedies, histories, or tragedies, were always played by white men and boys. Phyllida Lloyd, the director of Henry IV, says during a BBC Radio 4 interview that by giving her cast these roles she believes that she is, “liberating them from the romantic and domestic roles in theater and allow them step into a political arena of drama.” The Donmar production challenges not only the gender and racial norms of Tudor England and today, but shows that men — and all women — still have to fight bitterly for what they love and believe in, and suffer both loss and pain as well.

This is the second Shakespearean historical play in which Director Phyllida Lloyd has used an all-female cast and a prison setting. Phyllida Lloyd said during a BBC Radio 4 interview about her use of a woman’s prison setting: “Well I think that in prison where you’ve lost all of your relationships, new families are made and I think people take on those roles of baby, father, granny and in some way it felt very natural for us to explore these dysfunctional families and put them in the context of Shakespeare.” The first time she used this setting was in Julius Caesar, which won rave reviews both here and across the pond in 2012. There will be a third play, still unnamed, that will form a Shakespearean women’s prison trilogy. As Ben Jonson, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, wrote, He [Shakespeare] was not of an age, but for all time.”

Additional Information:
Run: November 6–December 6
Running time: Two hours and fifteen minutes with no intermission
Price: Tickets start at $38.
Where: St. Ann’s Warehouse
45 Water Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201