By Jennifer Thorup Birkett
“Alas, Poor Yorick. We Knew Him”
Hamlet is nothing if not iconic. Behind “to be or not to be,” perhaps the most recognized (and most misquoted) line from Hamlet is the prince’s lament to the skull in the graveyard: “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio.” However, in Vanessa Morosco and Peter Simon Hilton’s new 2023 adaptation, Hamlet 50/50, the infamous line now reads: “Alas, poor Yorick. We knew him, Cousin.” Representative of Morosco and Hilton’s lofty goal to improve gender equity in the workplace of Shakespeare practitioners, the memory of Yorick and the subsequent philosophizing on the meaning of life and death is now a shared venture between Hamlet and his female cousin, Horatio.
As long-time theater practitioners and professional trainers in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Morosco and Hilton have spent significant time considering the mutual responsibilities of Shakespeare’s characters. When playing Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, for example, the two noticed that although Beatrice is one of Shakespeare’s most vibrant and feisty female characters, Benedick still has more lines, drives all the conversations, actively leads the action, and has greater access to the audience via soliloquies and asides. Morosco and Hilton acknowledge that this inequality stems from a historic precedent, specifically the teacher / apprentice role model established during Shakespeare’s time, where younger boy actors played the female roles and the older, more senior ranking, male actors played the male roles. But, both Morosco and Hilton fervently believe that if Shakespeare had been writing with female actresses in mind, things might have been different.
As an actor himself, Shakespeare wrote his plays with his actors and theatre patrons in mind. Lines were written with cues to help players know when to enter and exit; words and actions were cut or altered based on actors’ performances and audience reactions. Similarly, Morosco and Hilton’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s work brings the needs of modern theatre practitioners and audiences to the forefront.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 8.5% of all the lines are spoken by female characters and 91.5% spoken by male characters. Morosco and Hilton’s adaptation asks the question: “what would happen if that ratio was 50/50?”
Other Shakespeare companies, and productions, have asked similar questions and pushed similar boundaries. The famous Globe Theater in London, for example, has implemented a gender-blind casting policy which promises a 1:1 ratio of male-presenting actors and female-presenting actresses on stage at each performance. Famous productions, such as the 2017-2018 Donmar Warehouse’s trilogy present all-female casts. Of course, many modern theater companies have responded to gender inequality in Shakespeare’s plays by simply not performing them at all. However, Hamlet 50/50 delivers new ideas and new solutions. Instead of just putting more female-presenting bodies on the stage by cross-dressing male roles or swapping a character’s sex from male to female, Morosco and Hilton’s adaptation looks to actually expand the roles of the female characters already present in Shakespeare’s text.
Yes, the traditionally male scholar, Horatio, is now Hamlet’s noble female cousin, and the officers of the watch are now the house maids of the palace, but the roles of Gertrude and Ophelia are also significantly enhanced. Gertrude is no longer simply wife to the King, but the Queen Regent, tasked with running the country and comforting her son. Ophelia delivers the “To be or not to be” speech as she contemplates her decision to take her own life.
As Morosco and Hilton have emphasized, their goal is not to change Shakespeare, but to partner with Shakespeare in bringing 16th and 17th century plays into the modern world, making it easier for theater companies to put on Shakespeare productions, and redistributing the labor of performance.
By Jennifer Thorup Birkett