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The 2011 Stratford festival: Richard III and Shakespeare' s Will.

When we think about Shakespeare's women, our thoughts most often turn to his female characters: the viragos (including Lady Macbeth and Volumnia), the plucky heroines (like Imogene and Beatrix), and the love interests (such as Juliet and Desdemona). This year, however, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada has brought to the stage some of Shakespeare's more overlooked women: his wife Anne Hathaway, and ... Richard III? In the 2011 season, Seana McKenna, a longtime Stratford actor who has portrayed Shakespearean women from Cordelia to Titania to Lady Macbeth, reprised her role as Anne Hathaway in Vern Thiessen's Shakespeare's Will and also commanded the stage as Richard III. (1) McKenna's leading roles this season invited the audience members to evaluate McKenna's acting abilities, particularly in relation to the performance of gender in both plays.

McKenna is the first woman to perform Richard III outside of all-female casts. (2) "It's really not any kind of a gender statement," McKenna explains--and she has a point. (3) Audience members can suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the spirit of the play without focusing on McKenna's female body. Without once mentioning McKenna's representation of Richard, Jane Freeman concludes in her program write-up that the play "draws our attention to issues of representation"; director Miles Potter (McKenna's real-life husband) similarly elides the issue of cross-gender casting in his program note, "The Triumph of Evil."

As McKenna puts it, "If the audience wants to see me as a male or an odd male, or a transgendered male, or a woman pretending to be a man, that's fine with me." (4) McKenna raises the key questions faced by audience members: what should they make of her performance? And what type of character does she give us? While at times I was pulled out of the play's action to see a female actor portraying a male character (including, unfortunately, giggles from a group of highschoolers in the audience when Richard kissed Queen Elizabeth), generally McKenna's Richard seemed to fall under her category of "odd male."

I argue that McKenna's Richard can best be understood in its relation to the early modern Galenic one-sex model. For Galen, and for later Renaissance physicians who adopted his views, women were deficient men: for them, a vagina was simply an inverted penis, and it was a lack of heat in utero that caused the phallus not to turn out. (5) Like a woman, Richard is a deficient man because of his physical deformity, which Shakespeare characterizes in relation to his mother's womb when Queen Margaret hurls insults at him:
   Thou elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!
   Thou that wast seal'd in thy nativity
   The slave of nature and the son of hell!
   Thou slander of thy mother's heavy womb! (1.3.227-30) (6)

Later, Margaret addresses the Duchess of York (Richard's mother) directly: "From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept / A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death" (4.4.47-48). Richard's own mother laments, "O my accursed womb, the bed of death!" (4.1.53) (7) and later wishes that she had "strangl[ed] [him] in her accursed womb" (4.4.138).


If McKenna's Richard is at times slightly feminine, it primarily serves to underscore Richard's unmanliness. In the Galenic one-sex model, a person can only be identified as a man or a "less-perfect" man. (8) The latter category included women and boys and has been used to explain the believable portrayal of women by boy actors on the Renaissance stage. While I do not argue that the Galenic one-sex model was hegemonic in the early modern period, (9) I do suggest that just as the one-sex model helps explain early modern crossdressing onstage, it can also help us understand McKenna's crossdressing on the contemporary stage. Mc-Kenna's Richard was unmanly because of his deformity: like a woman, the hunchbacked Richard is a poorly formed man. While the program cover showed a picture of McKenna as Richard with shoulder-length straight reddish hair, smirking, with no visible hunchback, the Richard that McKenna actually portrayed onstage had a marked limp, a small but visible hump, and long, stringy grey-brown hair--this was a Richard whose appearance at times verged on the grotesque. McKenna transformed her rich, low, and womanly voice into a reedy, nasal, male voice. McKenna's occasionally effeminate Richard is not due to McKenna's inability to portray masculinity but rather arises from her (and Potter's) interpretation. When Richard arranges for Buckingham to present him to the people of London, Buckingham paints Richard's unmanliness as a selling point: "As well we know your tenderness of heart / And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse" (3.7.210-11). McKenna's Richard seemed the most feminine when he was losing his calm, such as the morning of the Battle of Bosworth Field when Richard is upset that the sun will not shine on the battle.

McKenna's/Richard's status as a man/non-man was most clearly reflected in his pursuit of the two women: first, Lady Anne, and later, Princess Elizabeth through the proxy of her mother, Queen Elizabeth. Potter's directorial choices emphasized the corporeal in this scene: King Henry's dead body, wounds visible, remained onstage, and Anne (played by Bethany Jillard) spat on Richard's face over his corpse. Richard used his limp to get sympathy from Anne. Furthermore, McKenna physicalized Richard's deformity by not using her left hand: Richard took his ring off with his mouth to give to Anne. If she was not deterred by the fact that her husband's murderer was trying to seduce her literally over her husband's dead body, his spittle-covered ring further emphasized the heinousness of Richard's aims. Even so, the audience liked Richard in the wooing scene: after he offered Anne the sword to kill him and bared his chest to her, the audience laughed at his exhortation to "pause not." (10)

The costumes, designed by Peter Hartwell, played subtly on the gender questions raised by the play's casting. Richard's hump was not overly large, but it was emphasized by the cut of his long coat; both the men and most of the women wore long coats that flowed down to their ankles. Clarence (played by Michael Spencer-Davis) seemed more effeminate than McKenna's Richard. Clarence's well-coiffed shoulder-length bob was accented by a fur-trimmed long coat whose flow and length suggested a skirt. When in jail, Clarence looked almost cleric-like in his plain black frock and a white collar.

In a journal issue about Shakespeare's female icons, it would be remiss to overlook the other Shakespearean women who contributed to this production of Richard III. As Queen Margaret, Martha Henry continued her record of stellar Stratford performances. Henry's portrayal of Margaret as a combination of weak and powerful was utterly compelling. Her low voice expressed perfectly pitched bitterness that contrasted with her nun-like creamy white costume and headdress. As the Duchess of York, Roberta Maxwell wore a similar nun-like headdress and emanated a powerful acrimony. (11) Only Jillard's Lady Anne lacked stage presence: though Shakespeare's Anne does eventually capitulate to Richard, Jillard was too easily dwarfed opposite McKenna. (12)

By casting McKenna as Richard and reviving her role as Anne Hathaway in the same season, the Stratford Festival's artistic director Des McAnuff showcased McKenna's abilities as an actor. (13) It was particularly startling to see how different McKenna looked, moved, and sounded in both roles. The only visual similarity between the roles was McKenna's twinkling blue eyes: as Richard, her eyes sparkled with treachery and in Shakespeare's Will, her eyes glistened with tears--in both roles, at times, her eyes gleamed with loneliness and pain. Within each play, McKenna's ability to transform herself delighted the audiences. As Richard, McKenna's tone changed the instant he was left alone onstage: instantly, the friendly Richard speaking to Clarence or the misunderstood Richard entreating Anne became a plotting, self-serving man. As McKenna herself recognized and successfully projected, Richard is an actor who plays many roles to many people, while letting the audience in on his secrets. (14) McKenna's portrayal of Anne Hathaway presented Shakespeare's wife as an equally consummate actor who could effectively mimic and parody others. McKenna-as-Anne's impersonation of Hathaway's father was particularly colorful: when he heard that she was to marry a tutor, a Catholic, and (even worse) a Shakespeare, Anne's imitation of his "Jesus Christ in Heaven!?" (11, related in an almost maritime Canadian accent) had the audience in stitches. (15)


As Anne, McKenna held the audience of the Studio Theatre rapt for ninety minutes, an especially challenging task for a one-person show. Potter, who directed both Shakespeare's Will and Richard III, chose to open the scene with the sounds of waves and a lute. McKenna's voice was a rich, sultry alto that seemed especially appropriate for her opening words, "I long for the sea," and her wry first mention of her husband, "The sea was a far better lover than you, Bill. / When it had me / I was wet and warm" (3). Thiessen set his play in the evening following Shakespeare's funeral, from which Anne has just returned. Shakespeare's widow has yet to read his will, even though his sister Joan insists she ought. "Joan is a bitch," declares Anne, whose acerbic imitation presents Joan as a shrewish nag (31). Thiessen's Anne expresses her feelings frankly, perhaps even more honestly that she would on any other day because she is still processing her often absent husband's death.

Thiessen built his play from historical facts and existing archival evidence, though he fictionalized some material and used his imagination to fill in the gaps--as he puts it, he "played 'fast and loose' with the will and its meaning" and did not attempt to offer a totally accurate historical recreation. (16) The Stratford audience enjoyed many of the references to historical people and events, as well as some of Thiessen's creative additions. Anne's discussion of Shakespeare's friends (including Hamnet Sadler, John Heminge, Henry Condell, and Richard Burbage) brought the historical characters to life, but it was her mention of "Francis bloody Bacon / (Lord but he is a tedious man!)" that drew a laugh from the audience (61). The languageplay between early modern and contemporary vocabulary also amused the audience: Anne relates her husband's words, "I will be back anon," and then asks, "Does that mean soon?" (26). Some of the play's humor relies on the audience's knowledge of Shakespeare's reputation: when Anne first meets Bill, she asks him a series of questions, to which he responds monosyllabically, leading her to muse, "A man of few words, I think. / I like that" (9).

Just as Thiessen was not strictly faithful to his historical sources, the Stratford production might not have been faithful to Thiessen's artistic vision. Thiessen's note on style explains that "Although the language is poetic in structure--and the play somewhat based on historical incidents--it should be played without sentimentality, reverence, softness, or overt attempts at historical accuracy. Rather, theatricality, humour, brashness, and non-realism in acting, lighting, set, costume, movement, and music/sound design is encouraged" (2). Although the set (designed by Hartwell and changed from his original 2007 Stratford design) was spartan, the few props made it clear that Anne was in her cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon--the set mimicked the Renaissance neutral platform stage that invited the audience to imagine the locales both portrayed and remembered. Even though her physical location never changed, Kevin Fraser's emotive lighting design reflected the setting of Anne's nuanced and changing thoughts and reminiscences. Thiessen's play presents a not-quite-realistic situation (the recently widowed Anne returns home and talks to herself coherently for hours, while hitting on all the major points of her marriage) but Potter's and McKenna's choices led the audience to willingly suspend their disbelief. I, for one, was able to thoroughly enjoy an Anne with "modern sensibilities" and a wry sense of humor. (17)

The relationship between Anne and Bill presented by Thiessen (and as interpreted by McKenna and Potter) is bittersweet. Thiessen suggests that Shakespeare enjoyed the company of men, sexually and socially, but that Anne was not upset by it, though she did feel neglected by his attention to his male companion in London. At the start of their relationship, when Anne tells Bill she is pregnant, they vow to wed, "but to live / [their] own lives" (12). When Bill asks to leave for London to pursue an acting career, Anne is reluctant, but agrees. Her plea for him to not forget her is one of the most poignant moments in the play, heightened because many audience members know that he spent much of the rest of his life in London. In Thiessen's fiction, it is not Shakespeare's recent death that has separated him from Anne, but his earlier choices.

While the tension underlying Shakespeare's Will is Shakespeare's marital relationship and home life, Thiessen also weaves in other dramatic moments, such as a graphic description of the birth of their firstborn, Susanna, and Anne's flight from the plague with her three children. Most heartrendingly, Anne recounts the drowning of their son, Harry (Hamnet), after they had escaped the plague. McKenna's portrayal of Anne expressed her grief at her son's death as well as her irrational belief that her husband's behavior afterward was meant to punish her. In Thiessen's play, Anne may be seen as one of Shakespeare's women because of her enduring love (and longing) for him. Ultimately, however, McKenna's Anne is her own woman who has faced a lifetime of trials and triumphs. (18)

As I suggested at the start of this review, the 2011 Stratford Festival has reminded audiences of a different kind of Shakespearean woman, a woman beyond Shakespeare's characters or even the historical women in his life. Seana McKenna exemplifies this other Shakespearean woman: the female actors who, since 1660, have continued to bring new life to his works. Although they are often overlooked by scholars, a consideration of today's consummate female actors (like McKenna, Maxwell, and Henry) can lead to fruitful discussions of the interpretation, representation, and reception of Shakespeare's plays.



(1.) McKenna first performed the role of Anne Hathaway in Shakespeare's Will in 2007 at Stratford. Vern Thiessen's play premiered in 2005 at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

(2.) Kathryn Hunter was the first woman to play Richard in a major production in the Globe Theatre's 2003 all-female production. Richard Ouzounian, "Stratford Festival: Now is the summer of Seana McKenna's great content," The Star, May 27, 2011,

(3.) Quoted in Ouzounian.

(4.) Interview with Victoria Ahearn, "Seana McKenna fulfills dream of playing Richard III at Stratford Festival," CTV News, May 31, 2011, seana-mckenna-stratford-shakespeare-festival-110531/.

(5.) For a detailed explanation of the one-sex model, see Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), esp. chapters two and three. For a discussion of how the one-sex model relates to Shakespeare and theatrical crossdressing, see Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), esp. ch. 3.

(6.) All line numbers from Richard III are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), unless otherwise noted.

(7.) This line is found in Q1 but not F1. This line number is taken from Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine's edition of Richard III (New York: Washington Square Press, 1996).

(8.) Laqueur, 26.

(9.) For arguments against the predominance of the one-sex model in the early modern period, see Janet Adelman, "Making Defect Perfection: Shakespeare and the One-Sex Model" in Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage, ed. Viviana Comensoli and Anne Russell (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 23-52, and Winfried Schleiner, "Early Modern Controversies about the One-Sex Model," Renaissance Quarterly 53 (2000): 180-91.

(10.) This was how McKenna delivered Richard's line, "do not pause: for I did kill King Henry" (1.2.179), in the production that I attended.

(11.) Henry and Maxwell, like McKenna, are also Shakespearean women, who have both played Lady Anne in Stratford productions of Richard III (Maxwell in 1967; Henry in 1977). Maxwell played the role of Queen Margaret in the 2007 Classic Stage production of Richard III (Richard III, ed. James R. Siemon [London: Methuen, 2009], 120). Henry directed the Festival's 2002 production in which McKenna played Elizabeth. See the Stratford Festival 2011 Study Guide, http://www.stratfordfestival.caluploadedFilesIStratford/Watch_and_Listen/Publications/Study_ Guides/1l_RIII_Study_Guides.pdf.

(12.) Anne is an integral character in the play and should not be played passively. Gordon Thomas goes so far as to suggest that Lady Anne has "made [Richard] what he is by her masterful manipulation of his words, his thoughts, and his self-image" (101) in "Is Frailty the name of Woman? A Reconsideration of Richard III 1.2," Encyclia 64 (1987): 95 - 101.

(13.) McKenna and Potter pitched the idea of a female Richard to McAnuff (Ahearn; Ouzounian).

(14.) See McKenna's comments to Ted Shaw, "All Eyes on King Richard: Stratford Festival Offers Twist on its New Season," The Windsor Star, May 21, 2011,

(15.) Page references to this play are from Thiessen, Shakespeare's Will (Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2005).

(16.) Thiessen, "Post Script," in Shakespeare's Will, 73.

(17.) Colin Thomas, review of Shakespeare's Will (2005 Gateway Theatre Production, Richmond BC, starring Jan Alexandra Smith), February 9, 2006, For further criticism of Thiessen's writing, see also John Coulbourn, "'Shakespeare's Will' hard to believe," Jam! Showbiz (reprint from Toronto Sun), August 15, 2007, Theatre/Reviews/S/Shakespeares_Will/2007/08/15/4419256-sun.html.

(18.) As Potter noted in the program of the 2007 Stratford production, Shakespeare's Will "could be about any woman whose husband is away working" (quoted in Coulbourn).

Laura Estill, University of Victoria
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Author:Estill, Laura
Publication:The Upstart Crow
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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