All-Woman Shakespeare: A Dying Tradition?


Lisa Wolpe as Hamlet, photo by Kevin Sprague

Sarah Siddons did it. Charlotte Cushman did it with pants on. Sarah Bernhardt did it in prose. Eva Le Gallienne did it with Uta Hagen. As long as it’s been legal for women to appear on stage, they’ve been playing Hamlet. Next week the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company will become a part of women’s history when they celebrate their 20th year of staging all-women productions with their own Hamlet.

In her 20 years running the company, director and actor Lisa Wolpe has played Romeo, Iago and Shylock, to name just a few of the Bard’s most famous male characters. She travels around the world advising artistic directors on creating diversity in their theaters. She directs and acts at the most prestigious Shakespeare festivals in the country. But when Wolpe approached foundations for support for her all-female Hamlet, she was told, “That sounds like a gimmick.” On a break from rehearsals, she vented to Ms.:

It’s not a gimmick, it’s a time-honored tradition. Every great actress has played Hamlet. It’s not a new thing. I think it’s sad that we have to keep reinventing this. It’s not a gimmick; you just don’t want to fund women.

Attachment-1Despite a dearth of resources, Wolpe is forging ahead with the show, which runs from August 30 to October 27 at The Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles. All of the roles will be played by women, from the domineering King Claudius to the meddling Polonius to the melancholy Dane himself, who will be played by Wolpe.

Asked whether her work has a social purpose, she has three answers: A. Yes, I’m providing opportunities for women; B. Yes, there are things about Shakespeare’s plays you don’t realize until you have an all-woman cast; and C. Stop asking me that.

Undoubtedly, women rarely get to play the best roles in the Western canon—with the exception of a few standouts such as Clytemnestra, Hecuba and Cleopatra—because the roles are mostly for men. Compared to New York City, which has two all-women classical theater companies (the Judith Shakespeare Company and The Queen’s Company) and countless other theaters that experiment with non-traditional casting, LAWSC is the only company of its kind in L.A.

resolver-1In many ways, Shakespeare was very much writing about gender. In his plays, women are constantly disguising themselves as men, men fall in love with other men and every play examines the power imbalance in male-female relationships. In most productions, these issues are rendered invisible by casting and staging that reinforces contemporary gender norms, whereas all-female productions can keep gender and sex in the front of an audience’s mind.

In this production, Rosencrantz—a friend of Hamlet’s employed by the King to lead Hamlet to his death—has been cast to actually be a woman. Wolpe explained her reasoning:

I think that the way men use women as sexual pawns is fascinating, and so I asked Claudius to just undress [Rosencrantz] with his eyes and use her for further bait to draw Hamlet on, which I think she’d be expected to do. And the reward she gets is death. I think that’s how a woman would be utilized then, and maybe it makes you think about her for a heartbeat longer than if she was a guy who was a spy and then was put to death.

Though Rosencrantz is the only character Wolpe has flipped (the rest of the male roles are filled by women playing men), it’s not hard to imagine further ways in which the gender issues in Hamlet might be foregrounded by the sex of the actors. After all, Shakespeare’s Hamlet coined some of Western civilization’s most famous misogynist phrases. Hamlet famously complains of his mother, “Frailty, they name is woman!” (1.2.6). He rails against himself for acting like a “whore” for talking too much: “Why, what an ass am I! … That I … Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words” (2.2.58). And he tells his girlfriend to become a nun rather than marry because women always make fools of their husbands: “Get thee to a nunnery, go” (3.1.11). These words will undoubtedly resonate differently when spoken by a woman, even one in convincing drag.

256px-Cushman_in_Hamlet_posterSo is there a social purpose to what the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company does? Don’t forget Wolpe’s third answer: c. Stop asking me that. In our interview, her frustration with being treated differently from male actor/directors, despite 20 years of experience and recognized expertise, was palpable:

People always talk to me like, ‘So, could this be applicable in the third grade? Maybe we could strengthen the girls in the Christmas pageant.’ Stop infantilizing me because I’m female. Ian McKellan and I have sat and talked about our Richard III. I know as much as anyone. It’s not different. We are doing exactly the same thing as Kevin Spacey, who runs a theater company and played Richard III, but nobody asks Spacey if he’s thought about doing it with high-school students. It’s just that you expect me to be different, like someone who doesn’t want all that.

Having met Wolpe and sat in on rehearsal, I can testify that she wants all that and is capable of handling all of it, too. Nevertheless, she says a lack of funding may make this LAWSC’s last production.

Wolpe’s muse, the Victorian actor Charlotte Cushman, was famous for playing men—”breeches roles,” in the parlance of her time. Cushman described herself on her own Hamlet poster as “a lady universally acknowledged as the greatest living tragic actress.” In true superstar style, Cushman announced her retirement from the stage many times before she was really done. Hopefully Wolpe is only following in Cushman’s footsteps when she threatens the end of her company, but you never know. Catch her while you can by buying tickets here. Even if you’re not in L.A., you can still defy the patriarchy by supporting what is clearly not a gimmick.

Photos of Bernhardt and Cushman poster from Wikimedia Commons

DSC_0045Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend or on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.


  1. I’m a feminist and a Shakespearean, and I have to make the argument that “That I…Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words” is not necessarily a misogynist line.

    Don’t get me wrong…Shakespeare frequently IS a misogynist. I make no excuses for him, and none because “it was his times.” I’m not the Harold Bloom sort, worshiping Shakespeare as some kind of god. Critics do much too much excusing of the inexcusable in Shakespeare. In fact, my favorite Shakespeare teacher was one who said, “I love to hate Shakespeare,” and mostly that was because of his race and gender issues. If you want an early modern writer who really does come close to proto-feminism, check out the wonderful and recently rediscovered Thomas Middleton.

    That said, to me the line is about the powerlessness of–not women in general, but specifically women sex workers. If a whore is raped, what can she do? Curse about it. If she is beaten or stiffed or threatened or harassed, what can she do? Curse about it. What she _cannot_ do is take action. What she cannot do is expect anyone else to take action on her behalf. Hamlet is all about talking too much, yes, but it’s also about powerlessness and the ability (and lack thereof) to take decisive action.

    • I interpret the whore line as Hamlet saying, “It’s womanly of me to need to talk about things rather than just taking action,” and, as in the nunnery line, being a woman is equated with being a whore. It’s one example of Hamlet hating the feminine in himself, which he does throughout the play.

      I, too, love Shakespeare. I direct, and I find that cross-sex casting and gender flipping roles is a great way to point out the gender politics of the plays without having to deconstruct them. I haven’t done Shakespeare in a while, and writing this piece as well as sitting in on rehearsal reminded me how great it is to deal with that language and those characters. It’s good stuff.

  2. William Lane says:

    If Shakespeare was able to do “Twelfth Night” with all men, I certainly think that the reverse can be done for his other plays.

    (Not that I really care who plays what character.)

  3. Something I am genuinely curious about is the costuming for these productions, especially the make-up facial hair. Ms. Wolpe is pictured here with a distinct 5 o’clock shadow, and I’ve seen a production by the Queen’s Company in NYC as well where many of the actresses were featured with drawn on mustaches or goatees, etc. I run a theatre company that performs quite a lot of Shakespeare, and while we do not produce all-one-gender productions, we do a great deal of cross-gender casting with women playing male roles. We have only once or twice perhaps had an actress who wished to wear make up suggesting a mustache, but in general I have found it to look over the top and even distracting. I’m curious what others think of this — do you find it to be helpful to the storytelling, an interesting bit of costuming and nothing more, or a distraction from the performance? Something in between?

  4. I had the absolute pleasure of playing Hamlet as a woman (Hamlet and Rosencranz were the only sex-switched characters in our production) at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival a while back; Ms. Wolpe is absolutely correct; there are layers to Shakespeare you see anew when women are cast in traditional men’s roles. I hope this does not spell the demise of her company. You should also check out Taffety Punk Theatre Company in Washington, DC, who produces an annual Riot Grrls all-female production of Shakespeare – they’re about to take on Titus Andronicus.

  5. This is a great article. We’ve just got back from performing an all-female Titus Andronicus at the Edinburgh fringe with our London-based all-female Shakespeare troupe, Smooth Faced Gentlemen, and were amazed at the reaction to the work. Lots of people were almost confused by the concept – but after seeing it, most people were amazed by both how little it mattered and (paradoxically) how much it unlocked.
    Totally agree with Wolpe on point c – it’s frustrating how much it baffles people compared to an all-male production. Particularly here in the UK, where it’s considerably rarer, and where there are no other companies that do it – it’s only ever done as a one-off.
    Question of facial hair is a tough one too… but I’ve rambled long enough for now!

  6. Sarah Rasmussen says:

    I’m directing an all-female Two Gentleman of Verona for Oregon Shakespeare Festival next season. Like Wolpe, what intrigues me most is allowing female actors to be given the freedom and opportunity to access a spectrum of roles. As women, we see examples of this range in our everyday lives. Why then is it so rare on stage?
    I’m interested in what happens when a female actor is allowed to play character first – the bawdy clown, the domineering parent, the young lover who stumbles – where gender is just another quality that can be artistically interpreted. So actors are free to access their masculine side in varying degrees for our storytelling.
    I’m also really excited for the conversation with an audience. When will they be aware of gender? When will gender fall away, allowing character to take center stage?

  7. Alexandra says:

    As a 23 year old feminist theatre artist who has dreamed of playing Hamlet for the past 5 years, thank you. This is wonderful and inspiring.

  8. Never thought a women would want to play the role of Shakespeare. It is a great thought, would be cool to have a movie come out and have a women play the role.

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