William Shakespeare, via Hamlet, tells us that the purpose of the theater is “to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature.” The theater, like all popular media, is a reflection of our society. Take, for instance, a musical like Hair (1967), which was a representation of American counterculture, so much so that the songs from the musical became radio hits. Yet, the converse is equally true: current social and cultural trends shape the theater.
More than any other theatrical product, the works of Shakespeare are especially prone to adaptation based on contemporary cultural values. Actress Ellen Terry, in her lecture on Shakespeare’s “Triumphant Women,” asserted her belief that all theater professionals could not “avoid bringing what is part and parcel of ourselves, temperament and culture” to their performances.
In the late 19th century, perhaps the most potent social change affecting the culture of both the U.S. and Britain was the push for women’s rights. Shakespeare’s works have always had a reciprocal relationship with contemporary political movements. As such, the stage interpretation of Shakespeare’s women was (and is) directly impacted by gender politics.
Beatrice, from Much Ado about Nothing, was at the heart of this 19th century cultural struggle. Witty and outspoken, fiercely independent yet loving, Beatrice can be seen as an example of an early modern feminist. For many 19th century critics and audiences, Beatrice was problematic. She was a disturbing mixture of “masculine” intellect and “feminine” feeling. Thomas Campbell, in his 1838 edition of Shakespeare, called her an “an odious woman” adding that if she is, indeed, “a natural woman, [she] is not a pleasing representative of the sex.” Theatrical producers, in order to shape Beatrice into a 19th century heroine, tended to focus more on her heart — her compassion for her cousin — rather than her nimble mind.
However, as the woman’s suffrage movement took hold in the latter part of the century, a new icon of femininity emerged: the New Woman. The New Woman was an independent, assertive woman, who explored the public sphere. With this cultural shift, Shakespeare’s Beatrice began to re-emerge.
This lecture will chart theatrical representations of Beatrice throughout the 19th century, demonstrating how changing attitudes about women had a direct impact on interpretations of this beloved character. The talk will show how female stars began to fight against tradition to alter attitudes about Beatrice and the nature of all women.