It’s a classic high school drama teacher problem: The time has come to cast the school play—and once again, far more girls than boys have auditioned. Last year, it was Harry the Horse, Big Jule, and Lieutenant Brannigan; this year, Benvolio, Paris, and the Prince will all be played by girls.

Even these adjustments aren’t sufficient to make casting truly meritocratic, though. The boy you cast as Romeo, sad to say, has all the romantic appeal of an overcooked noodle. But Juliet’s love is Romeo, not Ramona. And so you limp along one more year, hoping the talented girls don’t notice how thoroughly the deck is stacked against them by a canon written without them centrally in mind.

The challenge is to mount Shakespeare’s plays in such a way that you can introduce a new audience to his work—but using casts that reflect the talent pool that exists in our day rather than the one that existed in his.

Well, the girls have grown up, and they’ve long since noticed. What in Sarah Bernhardt’s day was afforded only to the greatest actress of her generation (her legendary performance as Hamlet is the subject of a new play by Theresa Rebeck, currently on Broadway) is now a call for wholesale redress. Women who have put decades of their lives into learning how to breathe iambic pentameter are demanding the opportunity to play roles commensurate with their talents—and there are only so many Cleopatras, Rosalinds, and Gonerils to go around. The future of classical theater—quite possibly the very near future—is something approaching gender parity. Which means we’ll be seeing a lot more female Hamlets, Lears, and even Romeos in the years to come.

How will that change our understanding of the plays, our relationship to our theatrical tradition—even our understanding of what theater, fundamentally, is? That’s what remains to be seen.

At first glance, it might seem that there’s nothing much to see. Cross-gender casting was, after all, a feature of theater from its beginnings in ancient Greece, when female roles like Antigone would have been played by male actors. The same convention obtained in Shakespeare’s England. But what did audiences see when they saw these men claiming to be women? Did they suspend disbelief and see women? Or were they perpetually conscious of theatrical artifice?

The answer is probably not entirely one or the other. The fact that boys with slighter builds and higher-pitched voices played the roles of young women suggests the goal was to assist the audience in its suspension of disbelief, just as, in our day, women are hired to play the roles of young boys like Cherubino, Peter Pan, and Bart Simpson. Certain roles—like the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet—undeniably lend themselves to camp comedy, but it’s hard to believe that Shakespeare intended Ophelia or Desdemona or Imogen to be played as caricatures of femininity rather than with an honest attempt at signification.

On the other hand, Shakespeare made a potent meta-theatrical virtue of the necessity of cross-casting. He repeatedly put his boys-playing-women into plots that required them to don breeches again and disguise themselves as boys, thereby drawing attention to the artifice of performance and giving future generations of scholars ammunition to debate the performative nature of gender itself. And just as he made frequent reference to the theater in his plays, he was wont to draw attention to the artifice of cross-casting, even in tragic roles. When his Cleopatra complains of actors in the future who will “boy my greatness,” I have to believe the aim was less a knowing laugh than a double-take, by an audience so caught up in the poetry and emotion of the moment that it had forgotten this was a play and Cleopatra just a boy.

Ironically, camp became a larger factor after the Restoration, when French custom came back with the royal court and women were permitted for the first time to perform on the English stage. Far from becoming obsolete, those woman-dresses-as-a-boy roles became only more popular once they were played by women; according to scholar Elizabeth Howe, fully one-quarter of the plays performed in Restoration-era London contained one or more roles for actresses in men’s clothes. The reason, though, was less subversive than prurient; men’s clothes were far more form-fitting than women’s, and the moment of revelation of a character’s true gender provided ready excuse for the actress to bare her breasts.

That’s certainly not what today’s classical actresses are aiming for; for that sort of thing, you go to HBO, not the RSC. But it’s a frequently voiced concern with cross-gender casting in our era: that, in the absence of a socially agreed theatrical convention, the casting may usurp the play and turn it into camp.

One solution is to reverse Elizabethan conventions themselves and have women play all the parts. All-female productions of Shakespeare have achieved considerable artistic and commercial success, as Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy vividly demonstrates. But her productions—of Julius Caesar; Henry IV, Part 1; and The Tempest—relied on a meta-theatrical concept to ground their casting choices. The actresses in her productions play inmates in a women’s prison, and it is these inmates who are supposed to be putting on (and to some extent commenting on) the Shakespeare. The audience, then, is not asked to accept that these women are these men, merely that they are playing them. And a great deal of the meaning of the plays lives in the interplay between the roles the actors are playing—the women in the prison—and the roles those prisoner characters are playing within Shakespeare’s drama. By interposing that additional layer of performance, they implicitly acknowledge the chasm between a contemporary audience’s expectations of theatrical realism and the effects of cross-gender casting on a large scale. They are not simply doing the play.

That, though, is the challenge: to mount these plays in such a way that you can simply do the play, and introduce a new audience to the work thereby, but using casts that reflect the talent pool that exists in our day rather than the one that existed in Shakespeare’s.

As it happens, this year Ontario’s Stratford Festival, the largest classical repertory company in North America, is offering a season that grapples directly with this very question. Three of the Shakespeare plays it is staging—a late romance, an early comedy, and a Roman tragedy—were deliberately cross-gender cast, but in three distinct ways, reflecting three different ideas about how to make such casting work. The contrasts among them suggest some of the opportunities—and some of the pitfalls—directors will increasingly face as cross-gender casting ceases to be a novelty and becomes the norm.

The Tempest is perhaps the trickiest of Shakespeare’s most frequently produced plays. Though it is far from the only play in which one of Shakespeare’s characters decides to play director—Rosalind does it, Hamlet does it, and the Duke in Measure for Measure does almost nothing else—those characters remain fully embedded in their worlds and their dramas. Prospero largely stands above his, manipulating the other characters by magical means—and thereby drains their stories of nearly all their narrative weight. The only important decision in the play is Prospero’s own late turn toward forgiveness and renunciation.

As a consequence, more than any other play of Shakespeare’s, The Tempest is a pure star vehicle, an opportunity for a great actor at the top of his game—or nearing the end of his career—to speak some extraordinary valedictory speeches and demonstrate how a well-trained human voice can inspire more wonder than all the spectacle that costume designers and pyrotechnicians can conjure. In this case, the actor is an actress.

Artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s answer in his production to the problem of how to get more women into classical roles is the one most consonant with the conventions of realism we inherited from the 19th century: He changed the gender of the character. As Julie Taymor did in her film starring Helen Mirren, Cimolino makes Prospero a woman (though he doesn’t change her name to Prospera), played by veteran Stratford actress Martha Henry, who began her career on the same stage more than half a century ago playing Prospero’s daughter, Miranda.

The potent symmetry of Henry’s career, coupled with making the central relationship one of mother to daughter, inevitably conjures an aura of torch-passing. Prospero’s art is readily analogized to that of the theater itself, so when this female Prospero, who was once a Miranda, shows off just how much magic she’s learned to her daughter, played by her successor as classical ingenue, it feels like a lesson, a master class.

The only problem is: The play doesn’t support this conceit. Prospero’s goal for her daughter is not mastery but matrimony. And in the end, Prospero will not hand down her book but drown it.

Does the meaning of this renunciation have to change when Prospero becomes a woman? Perhaps not—but I’m not the only audience member who was moved to puzzle over this question, moved to read a mother’s concern for her daughter as different in kind from what we might expect from a father. One critic read Martha Henry’s performance as centering on the tension so many women artists feel between the demands of their art and the demands of motherhood, as though her magical matchmaking is an attempt to make up for lost time. But, again, the text won’t cooperate. Prospero has been exiled with her daughter, not from her. And if the magic is art, why drown it just when her daughter has outgrown the need for mothering?

Martha Henry as Prospero in the Stratford Festival’s production of ‘The Tempest.’
Martha Henry as Prospero in the Stratford Festival’s production of ‘The Tempest.’ David Hou / Stratford Festival

I found myself groping for a meaning to the change that the production does not fully provide. Perhaps, I thought, this female Prospero’s exile should be read as a kind of secluded domesticity, in which a distinctly feminine magic blooms—necessary for survival in those straitened circumstances but to be set aside upon reentry to the traditionally masculine world of power. In his director’s notes, Cimolino himself suggests that Prospero’s usurpation and exile—always triggered by an inattentiveness to matters of state and a preference for books that was seen as unmanly—were in this case driven by assumptions about the unfitness of her gender, and recalls English pamphlets from 1601 (a decade before The Tempest was written) that called for an end to “old woman’s government.”

Even without any such overarching conceit, surely some things will change in meaning with a change in gender, and change in a fundamental way. Prospero’s early confrontation with Caliban, the slave who tried to rape her daughter, cannot really read the same as a male Prospero’s would, because her relationship with his would-be victim is different: She surely feels some level of identity with another vulnerable woman. And her acknowledgment of Caliban, that “thing of darkness,” as her own—in our #MeToo era, that is not a declaration from a woman that can be taken casually.

And yet, it mostly is. Notwithstanding his written notes, Cimolino doesn’t particularly lean into the gender change; his is in every other way a very conventional production, aiming to keep as much familiar as possible. That is probably to be regretted. Shakespeare has a mythic register, which dominates in his tragedies and his late romances in particular, and if you don’t choose to ironize that aspect, a crucial change in gender will lead you down a different set of mythic paths, which might well be more fruitful to follow than avoid. Make Hamlet a princess and she becomes Elektra; make Macbeth a queen and she becomes Clytemnestra. Change one word of the spell and it weaves a different magic.

But what if you set out to prove that gender doesn’t matter? That there truly is no meaningful difference between men, women, and those who reject the gender binary—to the point where nobody can tell them apart? That would seem to be the point of director Keira Loughran’s production of The Comedy of Errors, one of the few Shakespeare comedies that doesn’t itself involve cross-dressing but that does involve plenty of identity confusion.

We begin with two pairs of identical twins, one pair well-born, the other pair servants to the former, separated, along with their parents, during a shipwreck; it’s a frame story not unlike that of a romance like The Tempest. Egeon of Syracuse has been searching for his son, Antipholus, who in turn had gone off to search for his long-lost twin brother, but when he arrives in Ephesus, Egeon is immediately condemned to death (as all hated Syracusans are). But from then until the tearful reconciliation scene at the end that reunites all the lost relatives and sets Egeon free, we’re in the realm of farce. The bulk of the story involves the hijinks that ensue when the Syracusan son arrives in Ephesus with his servant and is immediately mistaken for his Ephesian twin—by his wife, his servants, his business associates, and so forth.

So what happens if, as in this production, the twins are not identical, but fraternal boy-girl pairs? Can they still both have the same name—Antipholus for the well-born, Dromio for the low-born? They do. Can they still be routinely mistaken for each other? They are. Will the female Dromio still be pursued by the male Dromio’s lusty kitchen wench (played by an older man in deliberately unconvincing drag)? She will. Will the female Antipholus still pledge her affection to her brother’s wife’s sister? She will. And will that sister, when she learns this Antipholus is neither already married to her sister nor, in fact, a man, respond joyfully to a proposal? Reader: She’ll marry her.

Beryl Bain (left) as Dromio of Syracuse and Jessica B. Hill as Antipholus of Syracuse in the Stratford Festival’s production of ‘The Comedy of Errors.’
Beryl Bain (left) as Dromio of Syracuse and Jessica B. Hill as Antipholus of Syracuse in the Stratford Festival’s production of ‘The Comedy of Errors.’ Cylla von Tiedemann / Stratford Festival

Gender is bent in a handful of other ways in the production: The Duke of Ephesus is played by a man in a dress, for example, and the courtesan at the Porpentine is played by a man in a corset who I believe is intended to be portraying a transgender woman, though I’m not totally sure. The conceit seems to be that in Ephesus, gender is supremely fluid, to the point where no one notices the difference between the male and female twins, not even their own father.

Does any of this matter? Perhaps it shouldn’t. Shakespeare’s identical-twin plot, borrowed from Plautus, is a patently absurd contrivance to begin with. Why not up the crazy ante further? Moreover, we accept, as a matter of modern colorblind casting convention, that Lear may be black but have three white daughters. In this production, in fact, the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio are not only female, they also appear to be biracial while their siblings are not. Why should gender be different?

But there is a difference between suspensions of disbelief we undertake for the sake of the story and changes made within the story. We put aside our awareness that the actors don’t actually look alike—may even have different racial backgrounds—because putting that aside lets us enjoy the play, within the world of which they look identical. Besides, the two Antipholuses have very different personalities from one another, as do the two Dromios, so part of the humor has always been our laughing at their wives and associates for not being able to tell them apart when they are so obviously different. That’s one reason why, though the comedy works even when you cast a single actor to play both twins, it works better when the difference is readily discernible to the audience.

It doesn’t work so well when you set out to change the world within the play for the sake of ends that are not related to the drama. The multiplicity of ways that gender is manipulated in this production never even lets us settle on a language of theatrical signification. That man in a dress seems to be just a man in a dress. But that man in a dress is an actor playing a character who’s a woman—and playing it campily, so we’re aware that he’s really a man. And that man in a dress is playing a character who may be biologically male but whose chosen pronouns are female and is playing it, as it were, straight.

The confusion is undoubtedly deliberate, to make the point to the audience not to trust its own prejudices and preconceptions. But the confusion works against the comedy, rather than in its service: They are supposed to be confused; we are supposed to be laughing. Moreover, the comedy itself makes assumptions about gender roles that are pretty thoroughly retrograde and that the actors have no choice but to play out, which jars badly when it cannot be squared with the gender-related changes swirling around it. Finally, absent a clear language within which to understand the games being played, the actors are left unable even to use ready opportunities for humor. For example, Dromio of Syracuse cannot play off the fact that the kitchen wench pursuing her is obviously a man when she anatomizes the countries of the wench’s body, and the mistress of the Porpentine can’t play up her sexual allure for fear of having to reveal (or further confuse) what the nature of that allure might be.

Theater is all about make-believe, playing at alternative identities. But it is a collaborative medium, and the essential collaboration is between the actor and the audience. The actor uses language to lead the audience to imagine the vasty fields of France, horses printing their proud hoofs in the receiving earth, and the warlike Harry himself, who in truth may be just some guy from Sudbury. For that collaboration to work, the language must be shared. It is not enough to tear down the old language, saying—as in this instance—that gender doesn’t signify anything of consequence. It is necessary to build up a new one. A theater that abjures signification as such abjures meaning, and even so slight a comedy as this early farce must mean something if we are to laugh at it.

Julius Caesar is, next to Timon of Athens, arguably the most masculine of all of Shakespeare’s plays. There are only two female roles of note, both wives (Brutus’s Portia and Caesar’s Calpurnia), each of whom exists primarily to be ignored by her husband. That makes it an interesting choice for cross-gender casting—more interesting, in fact, than for an all-female cast, since the play itself is already nearly entirely single-gender.

Director Scott Wentworth’s production comes close to leaning over into all-female territory. Three of the top four roles—Caesar, Cassius, and Antony—are played by women, as are ancillary roles like Octavius, Cicero, and Lucius. But all of them play their roles as men; the characters are unchanged. And one key role is played by a male actor: that of Brutus, whom Antony eulogizes as the noblest Roman of them all.

The design of the play lets us know from the outset that the conventions of realism will not be working precisely as we are used to. The actors are costumed in Elizabethan garb, garnished with touches of Rome: a toga draped over a doublet, a short sword instead of broad, a laurel wreath instead of a coronet. The aim isn’t an “original practices” replication of an Elizabethan theatrical experience. Rather, it tells the audience visually that the world they are entering is Shakespeare’s, not Caesar’s.

Seana McKenna (left) as Julius Caesar and Michelle Giroux as Mark Antony with members of the company in the Stratford Festival’s 2018 production of ‘Julius Caesar.’
Seana McKenna (left) as Julius Caesar and Michelle Giroux as Mark Antony with members of the company in the Stratford Festival’s 2018 production of ‘Julius Caesar.’ David Hou / Stratford Festival

That choice has a variety of consequences, some of which mute the impact of the play—most particularly in terms of its politics. Julius Caesar is an explicitly political play, with characters who make frequent reference to republican ideals, and it is very hard to read the play as not being about these matters. But the Elizabethan setting manages to shake loose of any political concerns, leaving us with a drama largely of people—and of men. And that drama winds up being shaped in very interesting ways by the cross-gender casting.

Seana McKenna—who has previously played Richard III as a man and King Lear as a woman—plays Caesar as utterly sure of his authority. Too sure, as it fatally turns out. But he comes off as neither too trusting in the mode of Duncan, nor petulantly entitled like Richard II. So why does he fall? From where I sat, his fall was fated not by his ambition but by the nature of his primacy. This Caesar comes off as a legitimate diva, a supremely talented and confident leading actress, the kind fully capable of cowing any director into submission. It’s a kind of authority that commands respect—but not infrequently sparks resentment. That effect, of a manifest personal authority that is nonetheless resented, is one that, I think, would be much harder to achieve with a male actor, and it throws a usefully harsh light on the jealousy of Cassius and the other conspirators to bring him (her) down.

The man who takes up Caesar’s cause, Mark Antony, is nearly always played as a natural populist and good-time guy. And there’s ample basis in the text for that characterization; he’s teased by Caesar for loving the theater, mistrusted by Cassius as an orator, and mocked before combat as a reveler. So it is startling to see him played, by Michelle Giroux, as a complete aristocrat, with the highest-turned nose and most precise diction of them all. It’s an almost unthinkable choice for a male actor to make—and it has the effect of completely dissipating the contrast between Antony’s funeral oration and Brutus’s self-justifying speech of introduction. That in turn reminds the audience that the coming battle over Caesar’s corpse is fought between wealthy patricians, that Brutus’s republican principle and Antony’s Caesarian populism are alike feats of formal rhetoric and that the people’s true stake in the battle’s outcome is negligible.

For theater’s essential collaboration between the actor and the audience to work, the language must be shared. It is not enough to tear down the old language, simply asserting that gender is insignificant; it is necessary to build up a new one.

The real revelation of the production, though, is Irene Poole’s Cassius. Cassius seems pretty easy to read at the outset: envious, small-minded, and power-hungry, a man who sees how Brutus can be manipulated and has no scruples about doing so. But there’s a deeper current flowing beneath that doesn’t fully surface until the tent scene, where Brutus and Cassius begin by arguing about Cassius’s bribe-taking and end with the determination to go into battle when, as Brutus puts it, they are on full sea. Brutus’s argument is not a very good one—his metaphor doesn’t even work in his own description, since by his own reckoning the tide of their support is already going out. But Brutus’s arguments have never been very good. What they have been, always, is sincere—but why should sincere foolishness carry the day, with so much on the line?

What we see on Cassius’s face in the moment he agrees to Brutus’s plan answers that question: It is, simply, love. At the outset, perhaps, he merely envied the regard in which the other senators and the people held Brutus, but by now it’s something warmer, not a desire to have Brutus’s qualities, but a desire to be near him, even if that means to die with him. It’s a crucial moment for the human drama that dominates this play, and I cannot doubt that Poole was better able to find that love, and so readily display it, in part because of her gender. I don’t doubt either that it was helpful for Brutus, the only man among the four principals whose audience is internal and whose nobility consists in seeming never to be other than himself, to be the only one played by a man.

In Theresa Rebeck’s play Bernhardt/Hamlet, the divine Sarah declares that only a woman can play Hamlet, because the men who are young enough can’t master his depths and the men who have the experience can’t muster his youth. One may debate both points while still agreeing that she was on the right track in suggesting that cross-casting is, ultimately, casting. It means seeing who the character, your version of the character, is, and why only this actor can bring that character to life. So if we are entering a world where directors will be routinely expected to consider women to play male characters, that means first and foremost that directors will need to be more attuned to what a woman could distinctly bring to those roles—or, better, more open to discovering what those things might be in collaboration with the women actors they cast. Because it probably won’t be what either of them expects at the outset.

Meanwhile, a flood of female Hamlets could, ironically, help in combating our age’s obsession with treating art as about representation. Yes, it is meaningful, even vital, to see characters like oneself on stage. But the real promise of the theater is the discovery of other selves within oneself. A girl in the audience might see a female Hamlet and say: I could play the lead—on stage and in my own life—and that’s wonderful (and it’s wonderful for her brother to see that, too). But anyone in the audience might see a female Hamlet and say: There are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy, for I see a side I didn’t see before, of him and of myself. And that to me is even more wonderful.

Stanley Cavell, in his seminal book Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare, comments on Hamlet’s advice to the players as follows:

Why assume just that Hamlet’s picture urges us players to imitate, that is, copy or reproduce, (human) nature? His concern over those who “imitated humanity so abominably” is not alone that we not imitate human beings badly, but that we not become imitation members of the human species, abominations; as if to imitate, or represent—that is, to participate in—the species well is a condition of being human. Such is Shakespearean theater’s stake in the acting, or playing, of humans.

“Then,” Cavell audaciously concludes, “Hamlet’s picture of the mirror held up to nature asks us to see if the mirror as it were clouds, to determine whether nature is breathing (still, again)—asks us to be things affected by the question.”

And that is the question. Changing the gender of a character inevitably changes the play, and that is as perfectly fine a choice as changing the setting or translating the text, so long as it is intentional and driven by a deep contest with the material. But regardless of the goal—even if the goal is to be able just to do the play—acting cannot be mere imitation. A woman can play Hamlet because there is a woman in Hamlet, because the feminine is present in every man. And there is a Hamlet in every woman of sufficient depth of talent to assay him. If we do not imitate humanity abominably, then we can trust the audience to respond as they did in Shakespeare’s day and see not an actor boying Cleopatra’s greatness, nor a woman seeming to be Hamlet, but that within which passeth show, that is to say: Cleopatra, Hamlet.