Margot Robbie is taking on Shakespeare—but trust, these stories are going to be a bit different than what you learned in high school English.
The Oscar-nominated actress is working on a 10-episode television series for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation based around the Bard’s works, but updated to modern times and told from a female POV. Oh, and Robbie has also said that the creative team will be mostly female.
“I’m taking a lot of meetings with the lesser-known talent at the moment, the indie film-makers, first- and second-time filmmakers, mainly women,” Robbie told the Australian Associated Press. “I’m in a lovely position where I can actually help get things greenlit so I want to work with people who we haven’t seen yet.”
Let’s just have a moment of appreciation here for women helping women because this is legit making my heart warm.
OK, moving on.
The idea of flipping classics to be more female-focussed may be new to some franchises in Hollywood, but it turns out that Robbie is following in a well-tread path of fierce women who have used Shakespeare’s Elizabethan era work to reflect what is going on in modern times. Since, full disclosure, I remember very little from English class, I reached out to some Shakespearean experts and what they told me made me even more stoked for Robbie’s latest project.
Women taking on men’s roles in Shakespeare is awesome, but it’s not a new idea
The practise actually has a pretty badass history, according to Andrew Bretz, an assistant professor at Queen’s University who teaches and researches Shakespeare.
“As far back as the mid-1700s, women were performing Hamlet. Sarah Siddons, one of the most famous actresses of her day (and of all time) was made fun of in the press because she wanted to perform Hamlet. Nevertheless, she persisted,” says Bretz. He explain that in the years that followed, more actresses who took on men’s Shakespeare roles, a reversal that aligned with the fight for women’s suffrage in the 1800s. And in the past few decades, women have once again stepped into Shakespeare’s spotlight.
According to Holger Syme, the associate chair of English and drama at the University of Toronto, the growing presence of women in prominent Shakespearean roles is obviously reflective of the growing push for gender equality.
“Given how dominant Shakespeare’s works remain on stages all over the world, and especially in the West, it’s only to be expected that, as the theatre, like all workplaces, finally gets closer to gender equity, women are no longer content with playing secondary or tertiary leads (at best),” says Syme. “The exciting thing—and this is a relatively recent development—is that we are now seeing women play characters written for men as women: they’re no longer pretending to be men when they play Hamlet or Othello or Prospero. I think that’s a good thing, and a sign of a promising transfer of power back to the actor—which is where the power lay when Shakespeare wrote his plays.”
Seana McKenna is one such actor. The Stratford, Ontario resident remembers all-female productions of Shakespeare productions dating back to the 1980s as well as some that played with gender swapping, with women playing prominent characters. She herself recently played King Lear in a Toronto production. “It’s not new, but it’s not been prevalent,” she says.
More jobs for women? Huzzah!
Given that Shakespeare’s productions were originally entirely male, I asked McKenna what opportunities these types of all-female productions present—and she got straight to the point.
“More jobs for women!” she says, laughing. McKenna notes that part of the reason she took on male roles is because, as an older actor that was a way for her to get more substantial parts. To put it bluntly: “Men talk more,” she says.
All-female productions shift that power.
“It allows women’s voices to be amplified and multiplied,” she says. “Hearing a multitude of female voices on the stage is important. We are so used to simultaneous translation, like when a man says “honest mankind,” we know, Oh that means me too. Or “Oh, what a piece of work is man,” we say that means womankind too. That means me too. And I think even hearing these lines out of the mouths of women will make us feel included a little more.”
This isn’t the first time Robbie has used her celeb power to help women feel included on -screen. LuckyChap Entertainment, the production company which she founded in 2014 and the company behind I, Tonya, actively works to support female-driven storytelling.
“We are thrilled about this Australian partnership as an opportunity to showcase unique, distinctly female voices in writing, and to demonstrate the high quality of the Australian film and television industry,” LuckyChap Entertainment said, as reported by The Guardian.“The project will share diverse points of view, from writers representing the different cultures and areas within Australia, which many would not readily associate with works of Shakespeare.”
A change could breathe new life into these classics
Reimagining these classic stories in new, modern ways—fitting of a time when gender is increasingly being seen as a spectrum, not a binary—is essential, according to Shakespeare experts.
“These stories are the backbone of our culture,” says Bretz. “They may have been told originally from a masculine perspective, but today we are interrogating what it means to be a man and a woman in ways more open and probing than ever before.”
McKenna agrees and says that freeing these characters from their traditional gender roles is yet another way for art to imitate real life. “It’s smudging those boundaries that we’ve put on ourselves and the boundaries that are becoming smudged in society, whether you are male or female or trans or bisexual, or whether you are a he or a she or a they—those boxes that we like to put people in are becoming less solid.”
By modernizing these classics in new and relevant ways, Syme says that new audiences may start to see themselves in the works of Shakespeare—possibly in ways that they hadn’t thought of before.
“I think a more inclusive approach to casting, especially where gender is concerned, is one way of allowing these great works of dramatic literature to continue to live on stage—and yes, attract audiences who aren’t especially interested in seeing one male tragic hero or comic lead after another,” says Syme. “It’s also worth remembering—or noticing—that there isn’t anything especially “male” about any of Shakespeare’s characters; a charismatic, powerful female performer can easily reinvent most of them as women, even without changing the text much.”