To a young Australian postgraduate student arriving in London in the late 1960s, the theatrical experiences on offer were, as we used to say, mind-blowing. There wasn’t much Shakespeare on in Sydney or Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s: in particular, I had never seen a Shakespearean comedy—I had never laughed at a Shakespearean joke, nor been moved by a Renaissance image of young lovers rejoicing in their future.
What astonished me—and still does today—was the power of performance to make alive and infinitely varied those over-studied texts. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, and we all became caught up in the social revolution instigated by the new wave of feminism, I became more and more fascinated by the performances of women in Shakespeare—especially in the comedies, which (with few exceptions) centre on female characters, and give them a great deal more to say than do either the tragedies or the histories (the Cleopatra play always excepted). Yet it was these latter two categories which were considered by my teachers—both at school and at university—as important, serious, dealing as they did with weighty matters of politics, government, and religion, and offering us poetic meditations on ‘life’. That this was a male-imposed cultural perspective, which elevated men’s experience and interests and devalued women’s as secondary and inferior, only became evident as feminist literary theory developed in the late 1970s.
Feminist theorising about theatre and performance has come even later on the scene, and is still in its early days. I hope that this analysis of five Shakespearean comedies in performance may make some contribution to it, as a set of case studies of the way gender (and other) divisions in British society of the past fifty years are reproduced, or challenged, by their embodiment in actresses and