by Kevin Finkelstein
Director, Henri IV
This fall, an idea that I had 15 years ago will finally come to light. Of course, the fact that this idea is still germane 15 years later is part of the problem.
This fall, Brave Spirits Theatre will present The Re-gendered Henry IV repertory. For this production, virtually all of Shakespeare’s characters will be re-gendered. By this, we don’t mean women will be playing men, and vice-versa. We are literally changing the gender of these characters. Queen Henri IV. Princess Hallie. Jill Falstaff. You get the idea.
The question you may be asking yourself is why: why is there a need for this?
I recently had a conversation with a male actor who asked the same question:
HIM: So, if you’re re-gendering the entire show, how many roles will there be for men?
ME: One male will be cast. Maybe two. There will be 10-11 women cast.
HIM: That doesn’t seem fair.
ME: Doesn’t it?
When we think about Henry IV, we think about a play that was written in the late 1500s, depicting England in 1402-1403. We don’t need a depth of research to understand that England, at both times, was both a patriarchal and a patrilineal society.
What exactly is a patriarchal society? The sociologist Tony Bilton once wrote that a patriarchy is “a term used by feminists to refer to an overarching system of male dominance, often involving the dominance of senior men over junior men as well as over women.”
Tying this to history, then, it should be no surprise that the vast majority of characters in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays are male. After all, the vast majority of Henry’s court was populated by males. Males were (and in many ways, still are) the dominant gender.
It wasn’t always this way, however. The vast majority of societies from the Paleolithic era through roughly 3000 BCE were matriarchal societies. While there is no definitive reason for these societal changes into patriarchal societies, most notions center around the following, summarized by Religious Studies Professor Cynthia Eller:
In a time before written records, society was centered around women. Women were revered for their mysterious life-giving powers, honored as incarnations and priestesses of the great goddess. They reared their children to carry on their line, created both art and technology, and made important decisions for their communities. Then a great transformation occurred—whether through a sudden cataclysm or a long, drawn-out sea change—and society was thereafter dominated by men. This is the culture and the mindset that we know as “patriarchy,” and in which we live today.
The iconic feminist Gloria Steinem told a group of people in 1972:
“Once upon a time, the many cultures of this world were all part of the gynocratic age. Paternity had not yet been discovered, and it was thought … that women bore fruit like trees—when they were ripe. Childbirth was mysterious. It was vital. And it was envied. Women were worshipped because of it, were considered superior because of it…. Men were on the periphery—an interchangeable body of workers for, and worshippers of, the female center, the principle of life. The discovery of paternity, of sexual cause and childbirth effect, was as cataclysmic for society as, say, the discovery of fire or the shattering of the atom. Gradually, the idea of male ownership of children took hold…women gradually lost their freedom, mystery, and superior position. For five thousand years or more, the gynocratic age had flowered in peace and productivity. Slowly, in varying stages and in different parts of the world, the social order was painfully reversed. Women became the underclass, marked by their visible differences.
To be sure, matriarchal societies exist today. The Mosuo in China, the Akan in Ghana, the Minangkabau in Indonesia. These societies have one thing in common: they are each fairly secluded. When it comes to larger societies, patriarchy is the current driving force, even in societies where females hold positions of power!
Matriarchal societies also exist in the animal kingdom. Bees, hyenas, lemurs and orcas all have societies dominated by the acts of the female.
So we know that matriarchal societies used to exist in abundance and still exist in more limited ways. Let’s circle back to the original question: why is there a need for this production?
In progressive societies, the general population recognizes that the males and females that make up that society are equal (that is to say, society does not codify a different set of standards for each gender). Limits to aspirations are not based on gender, but on an individual’s abilities. Men and women alike can hold positions of power, raise children, travel.
These equalities, however, exist in a vacuum. As men have traditionally held dominance and sway over the population, women constantly find themselves both being subjected to the backwards thinking of men in patriarchal societies, as well as being victimized by the consequences of a historical patriarchal society.
As an example, watch the following segment from a Lou Dobbs show in 2013:
Here we have four men who are being paid to discuss women in America. We hear that there’s a problem in America when women are the “primary breadwinners.” We hear that “the male is typically the dominant role” in the natural world. Then it gets weird.
“…having moms as the primary breadwinner is bad for kids and bad for marriage.”
It’s easy to dismiss Erickson as a backwards voice in an otherwise progressive society. Sadly, he’s not the only person who believes this.
There’s a societal notion that, in order for one to understand a society, one must understand the myths and religions produced by that society. England in the 1400s was a product of Christianity and the Bible, two things that the public generally looks upon as having unequal treatment of the sexes (which isn’t true!).
Our goal for this production is to build a true matriarchal society. To do that, we’ll have to go back in time and look at what traits within the English system are male-centered, and which are human-centered. The result will be a production that shows us two things:
-Allows us to examine the story and relationships of Henry IV through new eyes
-Challenges preconceived notions on gender and gender relations
For audiences seeing this production, we want them to walk out thinking about the world, the society they live in. Recognize how some things are taken for granted and recognize the challenges others face. Understand how language has so traditionally be male-focused. Is the urge to go to war a male trait, or a human trait? Can a strained mother-daughter relationship be as believable as the father-son? How do personal outlooks change when personal safety isn’t as much of a concern?
We hope you’ll join us this fall for Henri IV: The Re-gendered Henry IV Repertory.
- CategoryFrom the Artists and Dramaturgs