“Faith, let me not play a woman” or What is “Queering” Shakespeare

Jun 21, 2023 at 4:13 pm
Theater Francis Flute by Bill Brymer
Theater Francis Flute by Bill Brymer

If you hang around me long, you’ll inevitably hear me talk about “queering” various works of art. You’ll probably specifically hear me talk about “queering” Shakespeare’s canon. (Deadpan stare…. Moving on.) “What’s Queering?” you might query. Well- It can mean a lot of things but basically, it means finding a way to make a creative work Queer, but interestingly to me, it means recovering parts of a work that were Queer to start with. (COUGH, COUGH Patrocalus and Achilles COUGH).  Shakespeare specifically has often been stripped of

Queerness, often neutered in general, in order for it to be respectable. Fuuuuuck that. I want theatre to be Queerer, Blacker, more neurodiverse, less ableist, less fatphobic (and I want seats in theatres to be less fatphobic). I want the Queerness (and the dick jokes, and the sexual tension) all up in the places its original creators intended it to be. It’s a guiding artist principle at the core of my world view. I’m always thinking about this at least a little. But a specific moment stuck out to me in Kentucky Shakespeare’s current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, leading specifically to this Pride Month column. It’s a big moment of Queering, via a little textual trim:

FLUTE: What is Thisbe, a wandering knight?

QUINCE: It is the lady that Pyramus must love.

FLUTE: Nay, faith, let me not play a woman. I have a beard coming.

Mic drop. BOOM. That’s it. If you know you know. But for the rest of us, how is that Queering?  Well, let’s go back to what is Queering Shakespeare? I think of it in three main ways. First: Leave it alone and let it be Queer. Let Antonio and Sebasian be Queer. Let Coriolanus and Auphidius be gay AF. Let homoerotic tension flow freely in Twelfth Night, and As You Like It. Really, all of Willy’s canon has a little naughty queer subtext. Way 1.5 is to cast a nonbinary or gender expansive artist whose assigned gender at birth matches the gender of the character in the script, and allow them to bring some big Queer energy. (Cough cough. Mollie Murk as Lady M.) 

The second option is to gender swap characters, or allow gender exploration within the body of a text. See what that does to the play. You don’t change the text, other than possibly flipping a pronoun or two. What happens if you cast a trans woman as Desdemona? A cis woman as Petruchio? A WOMAN AS HAMLET DAMMIT. (#Obsessed). 

The third, and most bemoaned by the Hetero-Shakesupremacists: Creating Queerness, desecrating the holiest of holies by changing the text. For our purposes here, I’m including cutting the text for the specific purpose of creating Queerness. Which brings me to Ky Shakes. Snipping out “Faith, let me not play a woman, I have a beard coming,” is exactly that sort of Queering. Albeit a small one. (But tho the cut be little, it is fierce). I should note that this essay is a reading of the performance, informed by familiarity with the text, some light study of Queer theory, and attention closely paid during a second viewing of the show. It’s not based on interviews with the actor (the Divine Neil Robertson) or the Director or Dramaturg.

For the non- Shakespearienced: In Act 1, Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are introduced to a group of inept but highly enthusiastic actors, the “rude mechanicals,” at the start of their very first rehearsal of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. The rehearsal includes the assigning of roles. Bottom the weaver is assigned the role of Pyramus, “a lover who kills himself most gallant for love.” Francis Flute is assigned the role of Thisbe. Flute as seen above, is not happy about it. At. all. And the director, Peter Quince, gives zero fucks. There’s a lot you can do with this comedicaly, but sometimes it’s pretty transphobic, reifying the idea that all assigned male at birth persons are men, and they all look silly wearing dresses. But in this production- well let’s see that dialogue again, with a description of this production’s staging:

FLUTE: What is Thisbe, a wandering knight?

QUINCE: It is the lady that Pyramus must love.

FLUTE: Nay, faith, let me not play a woman. I have a beard coming. 

(FLUTE claps hands in joy, ready to embrace the part). 

Flute, instead of being upset by playing a woman, is very excited. Why? To call Flute “trans” is a huge oversimplification, so instead, let’s say  Flute is gender expansive.  It’s a quick moment, but there it is. And I think it also sets up a Queer reading of the character in the rest of the play. The Rude Mechanicals all very much suck at acting, which is hilarious. Flute is also struggling, but they aren’t hamming it up in classic transphobe-drag style. They are doing their best to play Thisbe, including struggling to accurately embody a very feminine woman. Their best just isn’t very good. UNTIL. 

In Act V, Scene 1, the Rude Mechanicals finally perform their tragic play. (In front of the Duke!) Pyrmus thinks Thisbe is dead, so he kills himself. Thisbe finds Pyramus’s dead body, and kills herself. It’s hilarious. However, in Robertson’s performance of Flute’s performance of Thisbe’s last monologue, as she is overcome with grief, and prepares to end her life, Flute’s acting gets really good all of a sudden. Robertson of course has the chops to pull this hairpin turn tone change. But again, the question is why? And this moment- Well it’s hard to explain how I saw it. Each person’s experience of being trans is different. The emotional highs and lows, the dysphoria, dysmorphia, euphoria, imposter syndrome: they’re damned intense.  So here’s what I saw in Robertson’s performance: Whatever the combination of feelings and experiences Flute was having as they embodied a feminine presentation must have been huge. In that moment, when Flute is playing Thisbe’s grief, I think Flute’s feelings all came flooding out. Thisbe isn’t mourning Pyramus. Flute is mourning a life spent trapped by a gender presentation that felt wrong. And it was beautiful.

Maybe I’m stretching what I saw to become something I needed to see right now. But I assure you, if I saw that, other trans and gender expansive audience members saw it too, including some trans and Queer kids. People find representations of themselves on stage and screen. They need to find it, on a deep level, and It’s always important, but right now, when there is such a direct and vicious assault on trans people, especially trans kids and teens, including emotional, medical, physical and legislative acts of violence and hate, it feels so much more urgent.  

As an advocate for equity and social justice on our stages, it’s tough to know when to shake your fist and yell for change, and when to hold up examples of change and praise them. Tomorrow I’ll shake my fist and yell for more change. 

Today I’m praising the Queered Francis Flute.