Why is the exploration of gender in Shakespeare such an important triumph and talking point? It could be the fact that Shakespeare never wrote his roles for women in the mind that they would one day be played by a female actor rather than boys in dresses. He simply did not live in a time where that would be possible. It could also be the fact that out of 981 characters that Shakespeare wrote, only 155 are women, which accounts for 16% of all roles.
Harriet Walter’s new book, Brutus and Other Heroines, explores the idea (and some would argue, FACT) that the women in Shakespeare’s plays unfortunately “only matter in as much as they relate to the men.”
Buy at Amazon UK Brutus and Other Heroines - Playing Shakespeare's Roles for Women
Harriet Walter is a renowned film and television actor, but is probably more widely known for her incredibly inspiring stage career. With venues such as The RSC, Royal Court and presently, the Donmar Warehouse lighting up her CV, is it any wonder that she reached out in book form to speak about her many Shakespearean roles?
As she explains within the book, Walter spent her early career playing roles such as Ophelia, Helena, Viola, Portia and Lady Macbeth. She then broadened to play Beatrice and Cleopatra but most recently has conquered the male roles as well! Her Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero can be seen currently in Phyllida Lloyd’s Donmar Warehouse productions. Quite an impressive range, and an even more impressive book.
Brutus and Other Heroines is cleverly divided into chronological chapters, each one entitled with a different character that Walter has played throughout the years. Some of these excerpts are from Harriet’s other books, Other People’s Shoes and Macbeth: Actors on Shakespeare, and some are from other people’s work that Harriet has taken part in. All have been masterfully interwoven to create an insight into how Harriet works to create characters by delving into the language of Shakespeare, and a feminist argument about the difference between the genders in various plays.
In Harriet’s early career, specifically 1987, she went through a whole year of playing female characters who dressed up as men throughout the course of the play. With characters such as Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Viola in Twelfth Night and Imogen in Cymbeline, it was a true learning experience for Walter who found peculiar links to how the male characters would treat their beloved women once they had swapped gender.
When playing Portia, she says that “few acting roles for women let loose this opportunity to command… control the rhythm, timing, thoughts and feelings of the audience” and she’s right. Other than Cleopatra, who has everyone in the palm of her hand, and arguably Lady Macbeth, where are the powerful female roles within Shakespeare’s texts? They only become powerful when pretending to be men, and in disguising themselves, they gain more respect from their intended partners! Harriet says they have displayed their “male attributes of daring action, forthrightness and worldly knowledge. They have shown themselves to be one of the lads.” How extraordinary that Walter has discovered this almost sexist attitude towards these characters and has now had the chance to play some powerful male roles later in her career - almost as if to get her own back!
Something that I really enjoyed was how Walter made no attempts to hide or apologise for the fact that sometimes she didn’t get it right. This is most prominent in the chapter ‘Helena - Heroine or Harpy’ where she goes into detail on the challenges of playing an “unacceptable” character (from the audience’s perspective) in All’s Well That Ends Well. Helena is a hard part to play because, within Shakespeare’s wonderful text, she can be perceived as manipulative and scheming in order to get the man that she wants. Walter says that “It is definitely easier for a woman to be liked if she is pretty, gentle and unassuming than if she is intense, ambitious and complicated like Helena.” She then goes on to explain her feeling of failure due to a critic describing the character as ‘the martyr/bitch’ despite Harriet’s best efforts to make her human and likeable.
I relished the fact that Walter does not always see herself as the wonderful actor that she is - she is affected by reviews and wants to be loyal to the character and the text. That is her job, and creating truth on stage is what matters most to her. In the first chapter, ‘Ophelia - A Case Study,’ Harriet said that her performance “fell far short of my aims, mainly because I was inexperienced and too inhibited to carry out all that I had planned at home...” Whether this was just her being a perfectionist is not the point - the way she describes her flaws as an actor is something to be applauded.
Walter’s biggest triumph within this book is the epilogue in which she writes an open letter to Shakespeare himself. She dares to ask what most women are wondering when watching or performing Shakespeare - “We seem only to be allowed into your stories as the daughters, mothers, wives or widows of the Main Man. Are you just not interested in our lives?” She goes on to quote Shakespeare himself and beat down his own words in a strong, feminist battle for our sex - in the nicest possible way of course!
Harriet goes into detail on how Shakespeare’s plays would not pass the Bechdel Test, at which point I highlighted incessantly and wrote big exclamation marks in the margin! SHE WENT THERE! For anyone who is unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test, it was a system thought up by an American woman and named after the cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In order for any script (be it a play or movie) to pass the Bechdel Test, it must have:
At least two female characters.
Who talk to each other.
About something besides a man.
How genius of Harriet to incorporate this into her open letter to Shakespeare. I’m sure if he was alive to read it and watch some of his plays, he would be doing some rewrites.
So how do the male roles compare to the females in Harriet Walter’s eyes and many years of experience? You will have to read the book to find that out, but one thing I can spoil is that she had a wonderful time!
No book has given me a greater insight into the mind of an actor and I thoroughly enjoyed flicking through the pages to find out about the next character to sink her teeth and magnificent mind into. If I had to give one criticism, it would be that I wish the book had been released after she had the chance to experience Prospero in The Tempest. Although we get a snippet of understanding, I would have loved to hear about the finished product! Bravo, Harriet Walter - encore!
Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy can be seen at The King’s Cross Theatre until 17th December 2016.
(c) 2016 Molly Miller
Author: Harriet Walter
Place: Great Britain
Publisher: Nick Hern Books
Publication Date: 27th October 2016