Our latest season of plays sees many traditionally male roles played by women.

In Stratford and London this winter you can see a female Mercutio, Agamemnon and Timon. Women actors have often felt excluded by the lack of female roles in Shakespeare's plays, but there are women playing traditionally male roles in all six of the Shakespeare plays currently performing on our stages in Stratford, London and on tour. 

A woman looking smug as a man laughs in the background.
Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet
Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC Browse and license our images

Romeo and Juliet, directed by our Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman and currently playing at the Barbican, London, features Beth Cordingly playing Escalus – usually Prince Escalus, and Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row recently, Erica explained why she made the choice to cast women in the two roles.

She said: “It is about two things needing to come together. I do care very much about representation of women on stage. I don’t want our audiences to feel like all our greatest plays are about men, because that genuinely is alienating.

"But you can’t do representation well until you understand how it meets the play. For Escalus, it sat very beautifully the idea of casting a women in the role of somebody who is trying to create a new justice system, a new police system – none of this exists in Verona. She calls for constables there aren’t any, she asks these men to stop fighting… You hear it in a different way in a woman’s mouth.”

A woman extends one hand into the air.
Suzanne Bertish as Agamemnon in Troilus and Cressida
Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC Browse and license our images

In our recent Troilus and Cressida the roles of Thersites, Agamemnon, Ulysses, Aeneas and Calchas were all played by women, making it our first 50-50 gender split company for a Shakespeare production.

Meanwhile at the Barbican, London, Donna Banya is taking the usually-male role of Donalbain in Macbeth, and in The Merry Wives of Windsor Katy Brittain is playing the Hostess of the Garter (normally the Host) and Charlotte Josephine plays Bardolph.

In our First Encounters with Shakespeare The Comedy of Errors for young people, which is currently touring UK theatres and schools, the role of Egeon becomes the mother rather than the father of the lost twins, played by Jessica Dyas.

Jessica Dyas as Egeon in First Encounters The Comedy of Errors

Timon of Athens Director Simon Godwin talked about casting Kathryn Hunter as Timon of Athens. He said: “There is a challenge, which we are all confronting right now, of the lack of parts for women in the canon as they grow older. 

“The solution to this lies in offering parts that are traditionally played by men to women. By doing that you, in fact, discover that Shakespeare was really interested in what’s humane, what’s universal, than what’s gender specific. “

Kathryn plays Timon as a woman. “It works much better that way – it’s more transparently universal. It just jars if someone who is a woman keeps being called a man. It will be Lady Timon and not Lord Timon.”

Does Simon feel that people will see Timon differently, when the role is played by a woman? "In my experience (for example, when I directed Tamsin Greig as Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the National), people do notice it. Then you realise that Shakespeare has bigger fish to fry, and you stop noticing. I don’t want re-gendering to have any additional significance. I just want it to be seen as natural and normal."