Gender ’balance’ – proceed with care

Terri Apter on the latest Royal Shakespeare Company approach to Troilus and Cressida.

In an interview shown during the RSC live broadcast of Troilus and Cressida on 14 November, director Gregory Doran announced that, for the first time, the play was given a ‘gender balance’. This was achieved, Doran explained, by having women play the parts of several male characters, including Ulysses and Agamemnon.

The devious, Machiavellian character of Ulysses, he explained, was not distinctively male; equally plausible as either male or female was the general Agamemnon, working hard to maintain control and order in a camp riven by envy, ambition and fear.  We all caught the contemporary references.

There is nothing new, of course, in having characters of one gender played by characters of another gender. This was routine in Shakespeare’s time, and modern versions of plays with all male or all female actors succeed because the audience grasps how easy it is to perform gender, and to buy into the performance, seeing only the female character rather than the male actor. But being played by a woman does not change the gender of the character, and so in itself does nothing to change the gender balance of a play.

Doran’s claim that there is nothing essentially male or female about the characters he transforms into women is something altogether different. It is exciting to hear someone doing psychology on the ground (as the director of a play does) insist that gender is not central to certain characters; it offers a release from the stricture that a man, or woman, is always speaking as a man, or as a woman. However, this personal release is not accessible in many contexts, and in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare portrays a distinct male and a distinct female culture, where gender imbalance drives the tragedy. We can look at it through the lens of Carol Gilligan’s work on two different approaches to moral dilemmas, often but not always (and certainly not necessarily) a male version and a female version, one focused on preserving connection, and one focused on preserving the dignity of rights. James Gilligan’s influential 1997 analysis Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, considering its roots in distorted notions of honour, particularly manly honour, is also relevant.

Cassandra and Andromache and Hecuba speak about preserving life and honouring relationships. Without human connection, Cassandra warns Priam, everything of value will ‘fall all together’. The male characters on the other hand speak about honour, about ‘their dignities’. When Hector’s wife Andromache, pleads with her husband to stay home on what will be the day of his death, he silences her, scoffs at her ‘offensive’ behaviour, and insists he values ‘honour’ more than life. Shutting out the women’s voices results in tragedy not only for the women – Priam, Hector’s father will ‘turn to stone’ when he hears of his son’s death, Achilles loses his beloved friend Patrochlus, and Troilus loses his Cressida who, traded to the Greeks, accepts her role as sexual pawn.  

Parsing what’s gendered and what’s not in human behaviour is hugely complicated. The RSC Troilus reminds us that wherever we are doing psychology, whether in the lab, in the office or on the stage, we need to proceed with care. Forgetting gender is sometimes a release, but it still shapes our imagination.

- Reviewed by Dr Terri Apter, University of Cambridge

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber