As you may have noticed Bad Quarto Productions has released the casting of Taming of a Shrew, and one thing that you may have noticed in this production and others in this company is the casting of various women actors as male characters. When producing Shakespeare’s plays today there is a lot of flexibility in how to portray the genders of the various characters.
Shakespeare’s male characters massively outnumber his female characters, and modern directors often cast women actors in some of the male roles in Shakespeare’s plays. The fact that all the roles would have originally been played by men and boys gives gender a history as part of the performance of Shakespeare, not just a current anomaly.
Theaters such as The Globe often performs All Male productions, such as the recent Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance as Olivia. These productions aim to recreate the past, and are often produced in period costume and makeup, often with period music to accompany. Most of them have adult men playing the women rather than prepubescent boys, so the historic recreation is faulty at best, but it is an interesting exploration of at least part of historical traditions of casting.
Some theaters perform all female productions, such as Phyllida Lloyd’s lauded production of Julius Caesar. These productions go nicely in conversation with the all male productions. They are often more politically charged, often make casting more women actors as a specific reason for these directing choices.
Many more cross cast some roles and not others. This can look very different depending on the production. Sometimes that means the gender of the character and the text of the play is changed to accommodate the sex of the actor. Polonius becomes Polonia, and Laertes and Ophelia's mother. Usually this sort of choice is on the sidelines of a production, (such as in Joss Whedon's Much Ado) but sometimes the main character is changed in productions like Julie Taymor’s Tempest.Other times the text is left as it is, and the actors simply play a character with a different gender from their own. This is the route Bad Quarto is taking, a fascinating one in its own right. Particularly interesting in a show such as Shrew where there is so many questions of gender roles and theatrical roles (the play is itself a play within a play). When are the characters playing parts? When are the actors? What does it mean to be male or female? These are all questions to wrestle with when thinking about performance.