Brave Spirits begins every rehearsal period with an exploration of the play’s text and verse. Because of the primacy we give to language and meter, re-gendering a character, or an entire play, is much more complicated than simply switching pronouns. Kevin Finkelstein, the director, and I worked through the script before the cast ever saw it, having many discussions about what words meant and how to make changes while maintaining the verse form. Several changes we were able to make before rehearsals began, such as the easy flips between him and her and he and she. Many gendered moments in the script we marked to go over with the cast and dramaturg during tablework.
Beyond simply re-gendering the characters, we also wanted to re-gender the world. By this we mean that we wanted to remove from the script all generic language that was actually coded as male. In both our world and the world of Henry IV, male pronouns and words are treated as the default. Male is the norm. Our world is one in which we constantly hear male versions of words, even though 51% of the population is female. We wanted our audience to be aware of the shifts in language and to notice that we were presenting a world to them where female was treated as default.
We talked about not just the genders of the characters, but the gendered language that refers to concepts like peace, war, the devil, and the sun. We had a lengthy discussion with the cast about religion and the gender of God. In the bible, God is referred to as both a mother and a father, even though God has come to be referred to in male pronouns exclusively. Our dramaturg notes that Rabbinic tradition is very clear that God has no gender because God is perfect, it is just that Hebrew, as an imperfect language, has no gender neutral pronoun so they defaulted to male ones.The Judeo-Christian basis of the script is inescapable, so we still had to create a world in which religion exists, but through our discussions we decided to think of it as a world in which the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary became the dominant event of the religion. As such we kept oaths that referred to “God” or “Jesu” or “by’r lady,” but substituted in any of those in when the script said “By the Lord.”
We also considered the way in which insults were often gendered. Most common is the word “knave.” Though knave originally specifically referred to a male person, we felt our audience today would not read gender into the word and thus we could leave it. Another insult used frequently is that of “whoreson.” Whoreson, or son of a whore, very clearly insults someone by insulting their mother. Our dramaturg, Mara Sherman, discovered the word “byblow” as a replacement. Byblow, much like whoreson or bastard, references an illegitimate child. We liked the word because it removed the female gender, and maybe for some audience members flips the gender insult to the male side, as byblow perhaps conjures up the idea of ejaculate going somewhere it’s not supposed to.
During this entire process, maintaining the verse form was of utmost importance. Of course, in prose sections the number of syllables doesn’t matter in the same way, but we also wanted to make changes consistent across the script regardless of whether the dialogue was in verse or in prose. We got lucky in a couple ways. First of all, Queen is an easy switch for King. Secondly, all the other honorifics became easy to deal with when we realized that almost every instance of a title being used included “of.” So instead of struggling to figure out how to swap in Countess for Earl and Duchess for Duke, we were able to swap in “the Countess Douglass” for “the Earl of Douglass” and maintain the verse form. We had to get creative in a few places, such as changing “uncle” for “good aunt” or “cousin” and “nephew” for “young niece.” We left prince alone because there wasn’t a clean way to insert princess, and the words can conjure up very different images since the second one is often used in a derogatory sense.
And our final bit of creativity involved fudging things a little. Man/woman and gentleman/gentlewoman was the biggest issue when it came to maintaining the verse form. We decided to make these switches but ask the actors to play elision — to treat woman/women as one syllable, i.e., wom’n. We thought we could get away with this for a couple reasons. First, the pronunciation difference in woman and women is mostly in the first syllable, even though it is the second syllable that is spelled differently. Secondly, there is a precedent for eliding words into one syllable that have a -en ending. This often involves removing the middle consonant instead of the vowel. So e’en for even or ta’en for taken. There are examples in early modern playscripts, however, of the e being removed instead, such as sev’n written for seven or heav’n for heaven.
Finally, here are some of my favorite switches that we did. Many of these the cast help create.
HOTSPUR: ‘Zounds, an I were now by this rascal, I could brain him with his lady’s fan.
HOTSPUR: ‘Zounds, an I were now by this rascal, I could brain her with her husband’s slipper.
FALSTAFF: but if I be not Jack Falstaff, then am I a Jack.
FALSTAFF: but if I be not Jill Falstaff, then am I false.
DOLL TEARSHEET: thou art as valorous as Hector of Troy, worth five of Agamemnon…
DICK TEARSHEET: thou art as honorable as Antigone, worth five of Helen…
And since the director wanted to create a world in which matriarchy had always been the dominate mode, we even re-gendered Caesar, so that Falstaff “may justly say, with the hook-nosed woman of Rome, ‘I came, saw, and overcame.’”