- Cross-Gender Shakespeare and English National Identity: Wearing the Codpiece
Elizabeth Klett's Cross-Gender Shakespeare and English National Identity considers the impact of women performing central male roles in Shakespearean productions across a recent decade (1995-2004) of English theatre. This trim package of six chapters includes an appendix of production details, and taken together, it provides teaching faculty or students of theatre with an introduction to recent concerns relating to cross-gender casting and performance. It will supplement contemporary assessments of gender, nationality, class, and race on stage. Klett's insights about cross-cast performance are sensitive first to the power dynamics of characterizing women as powerful and motivated men, and second to news media and scholarly reactions to these English experiments in gendered representation.
Klett's argument expands on her discussion of all-female productions at the Globe in James Bulman's 2008 edited volume, Shakespeare Re-dressed (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press), which situates cross-dressed and cross-gendered casting variously across contemporary performance and political categories. While the current volume remains in conversation with Bulman's collection, [End Page 485] the extended treatment Klett offers in Cross-Gender Shakespeare exchanges the breadth of Bulman's volume for a critique focused on what Klett sees as the "androgynous" double-gendering of cross-cast female bodies. This book extracts an iconoclastic reading of body politics from conservative male performance and scholarly traditions: that is, by casting women in central male roles, Klett maintains, these performances challenge an understanding of Shakespearean works that associates them with male hegemony, and moreover, disrupts a narrow vision of the avenues open for theatrical innovation on the English stage. Her project is at its best in describing and reviewing the stage productions it studies; unfortunately, the monograph at times lacks the nuance to convincingly develop its twinned central claim that cross-gender casting disrupts the assumption of a continuous English national identity, and, in addition, questions the canonical authority of Shakespearean performance in English stage traditions.
The six chapters in Cross-Gender Shakespeare treat each of Shakespeare's dramatic genres: after an introduction, four individual chapters are devoted to discussions of, respectively, Fiona Shaw's title role in Richard II, Kathryn Hunter's in King Lear, Vanessa Redgrave's Prospero in The Tempest, and Dawn French's Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream; the volume concludes with a combined discussion of all-female casting in the Globe Theatre's Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, and Richard III. The analysis, like the chapter structure, situates these performances within the discrete theatrical contexts provided first by gender switching in the central role, and second, by the scholarly traditions associated with interpreting and performing those characters. One wonders why Cross-Gender Shakespeare, given its substantial investment in the politics and ontology of visual representation, lacks production or promotional images from these recent productions as they could supply readers with visual points of descriptive and analytical reference. In addition, when Klett broaches the provocative thesis that recent Shakespearean theatre reflects a fragmented and postcolonial moment in the construction of British national identity, she falls short of establishing a broader historical or social context for her claims about the contemporary implications of Shakespearean productions. The book is nevertheless buoyed up by insightful discussions of cross-casting, including topics such as cross-dressing, androgyny, textual and performative citation, and homoerotic desire.
Klett's introductory chapter explores the implications of "wearing the codpiece" (2) as the literal and figural practice of female-to-male cross-gender casting. Cross-Gender Shakespeare finds its theoretical points of reference initially in Judith Butler's conception of gender performativity, and secondarily in Benedict Anderson's articulation of national identity as an imagined community. Klett's strongest assertion uses androgyny to link cross-casting to the "the simultaneous presence of both [male and female] gender identities" rather than to "the lack of sexed characteristics" (11). At times, Klett's formulation remains unclear about the distinction between physical androgyny and a conceptual androgyny represented...