Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

The 2011 Stratford Festival: Richard III and Shakespeare' S Will

Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

The 2011 Stratford Festival: Richard III and Shakespeare' S Will

Article excerpt

When we think about Shakespeare's women, our thoughts most often turn to his female characters: the viragos (including Lady Macbeth and Volumnia), the plucky heroines (like Imogene and Beatrix), and the love interests (such as Juliet and Desdemona). This year, however, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada has brought to the stage some of Shakespeare's more overlooked women: his wife Anne Hathaway, and ... Richard III? In the 2011 season, Seana McKenna, a longtime Stratford actor who has portrayed Shakespearean women from Cordelia to Titania to Lady Macbeth, reprised her role as Anne Hathaway in Vern Thiessen's Shakespeare's Will and also commanded the stage as Richard III. (1) McKenna's leading roles this season invited the audience members to evaluate McKenna's acting abilities, particularly in relation to the performance of gender in both plays.

McKenna is the first woman to perform Richard III outside of all-female casts. (2) "It's really not any kind of a gender statement," McKenna explains--and she has a point. (3) Audience members can suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the spirit of the play without focusing on McKenna's female body. Without once mentioning McKenna's representation of Richard, Jane Freeman concludes in her program write-up that the play "draws our attention to issues of representation"; director Miles Potter (McKenna's real-life husband) similarly elides the issue of cross-gender casting in his program note, "The Triumph of Evil."

As McKenna puts it, "If the audience wants to see me as a male or an odd male, or a transgendered male, or a woman pretending to be a man, that's fine with me." (4) McKenna raises the key questions faced by audience members: what should they make of her performance? And what type of character does she give us? While at times I was pulled out of the play's action to see a female actor portraying a male character (including, unfortunately, giggles from a group of highschoolers in the audience when Richard kissed Queen Elizabeth), generally McKenna's Richard seemed to fall under her category of "odd male."

I argue that McKenna's Richard can best be understood in its relation to the early modern Galenic one-sex model. For Galen, and for later Renaissance physicians who adopted his views, women were deficient men: for them, a vagina was simply an inverted penis, and it was a lack of heat in utero that caused the phallus not to turn out. (5) Like a woman, Richard is a deficient man because of his physical deformity, which Shakespeare characterizes in relation to his mother's womb when Queen Margaret hurls insults at him:

   Thou elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!
   Thou that wast seal'd in thy nativity
   The slave of nature and the son of hell!
   Thou slander of thy mother's heavy womb! (1.3.227-30) (6)

Later, Margaret addresses the Duchess of York (Richard's mother) directly: "From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept / A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death" (4.4.47-48). Richard's own mother laments, "O my accursed womb, the bed of death!" (4.1.53) (7) and later wishes that she had "strangl[ed] [him] in her accursed womb" (4.4.138).


If McKenna's Richard is at times slightly feminine, it primarily serves to underscore Richard's unmanliness. In the Galenic one-sex model, a person can only be identified as a man or a "less-perfect" man. (8) The latter category included women and boys and has been used to explain the believable portrayal of women by boy actors on the Renaissance stage. While I do not argue that the Galenic one-sex model was hegemonic in the early modern period, (9) I do suggest that just as the one-sex model helps explain early modern crossdressing onstage, it can also help us understand McKenna's crossdressing on the contemporary stage. Mc-Kenna's Richard was unmanly because of his deformity: like a woman, the hunchbacked Richard is a poorly formed man. …

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