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Playing Shakespeare’s Monarchs and Madmen

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Edited By Louis Fantasia

Playing Shakespeare’s Monarchs and Madmen is the third volume in the Peter Lang series, Playing Shakespeare’s Characters. As in the previous volumes, a broad range of contributors (actors, directors, scholars, educators, etc.) analyze the concepts of monarchy, leadership, melancholy and madness with not only references to Elizabethan and Jacobean studies, but also to Trump, Brexit, cross-gender and multi-cultural casting. What does it mean to “play the king” in the 21st century? What is the role of an “all-licensed” Fool in the age of spin? Who gets to represent the power dynamics in Shakespeare’s plays? This volume looks at the Henrys, Richards, Hamlets, Lears and various other dukes and monarchs and explores the ways in which men—and women—approach these portrayals of power and the lessons they hold for us today.

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4. Once More into the ‘Breeches’: Female Portrayals of Shakespeare’s Monarchs (Terri Power)

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Terri Power

Since Siddons there have been more than fifty female Hamlets, many women Romeos and Shylocks, and Iagos and Richards. In fact, with the exception of Macbeth, Brutus, and Coriolanus, nearly every Shakespearean male character has been essayed by some actress.

The New York Times (1911)

Influenced by the acceptance of women performing in familial commedia troupes across Europe, and in reaction to the growing distaste for the homoerotic lure evoked in the boy players’ performances, by the 17th Century women took to the stages throughout Europe in breeches. This convention “allowed women a freedom of action that could not be permitted to women” (Senelick 162) and established a theatrical tradition wherein women could inhabit male roles, power, and privilege publically on stage despite not being able to do so in their private lives.

Known professionally as ‘actresses’, several of these women desired to escape the trappings of sex and gender aroused in the portrayal of breeches parts, electing to step into leading male roles in Shakespeare’s plays, rather than play one of the 89 breeches roles written in the period between 1660 and 1700. Women began to reject the stigma attached to these roles as breeches parts and the costumes associated with them which “enhanced the actress’ charms, and advertised her availability” (Senelick 212), as well as emphasized her “most womanly attributes: her breasts, hips, thighs, and calves” (212).

The proliferation of female cross-gender performances of...

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