Stereotype or Essence

In the texts...

Three Sisters

King Leir's three daughters.

Compared to the complex roles written for women in later Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the Queen's Men's women are relatively straightforward. King Leir's three daughters resemble characters from a fairy tale like Cinderella. Goneril and Ragan are the wicked sisters and the play characterizes them as lustful, greedy, deceitful, manipulative and ultimately murderous; Cordella in contrast is mild, patient, loving and chaste, selfless and forgiving.

The striking contrast between the sisters reflects the dichotomized attitude towards women present in the patriarchal society of the day. Women were simultaneously seen as a source of evil and temptation, and were thought to offer potential redemption for man through their greater capacity for love and forgiveness. In King Leir Cordella could be said to be a representation of the patriarchal ideal woman, whereas Goneril and Ragan are characters that confirm the patriarchy's worst fears.

In performance...

During one of our talkback sessions following a performance, a member of the audience said that watching our boys perform helped him understand arguments made by Japanese Noh theatre practitioners. He informed us that Noh theatre artists believe that men can play women’s roles because only men can understand the essence of femininity, and he felt that our boys had captured something of that essence.

The convention of using male actors for female roles in Noh theatre is far more likely to be a consequence of patriarchal prejudices as it was in Elizabethan England - the same rationale did not lead to women playing the men's roles. But while this audience member’s response was far from my experience of watching the performances I think it is a fascinating idea. To me the performances always remained to a certain extent stereotypical: a performance of a male idea of what it means to be a woman.

What preconceptions led me to view the performances in this way and for another male member of the audience to see them as capturing essential qualities of womanhood?

In theory...

The ideas of the stereotype and the essence both involve a sense of distillation or reduction. The difference would seem to be in the way in which we see that distillation. If it agrees with our world view in a general sense then it is an essence, if it fits a certain aspect of that view, or with particular attitudes or prejudices, then it is a stereotype. I saw the characters as representations of Elizabethan patriarchal attitudes towards women and my response to the actors' performances was colored by my knowledge of the culture that produced the plays. The female characters were types that represented a patriarchal perspective on women and my awareness of the characters as types prevented me from fully engaging with the characters as individuals or from seeing them as in any way essential. The audience member that saw them in this way either did not share my knowledge of the background, or his own world view was not wildly out of tune with the patriarchal attitudes behind the play.