Shakespeare actors should be taught sexual ethics, says academic

Two actors playing Titania and Bottom in a stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Nigel Norrington/Camera Press

The words of Henry V and Richard III as imagined by William Shakespeare have beguiled audiences for centuries.

But their failure to ask for consent is problematic, an academic has warned, and stars playing these roles should be schooled in sexual ethics.

Henry V woos Princess Katherine and Richard III marries Lady Anne, but it has been argued that neither king receives a “yes” from the female characters, and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is simply too drugged to consent to sex with Bottom.

Re-staging these non-consensual acts in Shakespeare could have a “triggering” effect on audiences and the actresses playing coerced female characters, University of Roehampton researcher Hailey Bachrach has claimed.

She has launched the Shakespeare and Consent project, backed by the Leverhulme Trust, to identify these troubling moments in the Bard's plays, with a view to working with performers on how best to highlight the issue of consent on stage.

Ms Bachrach told The Sunday Telegraph: “If Shakespeare is being more regressive and less careful about consent than other writers, that is very interesting to know. It can make Shakespeare problematic.

“No matter what Shakespare intended, it is experienced by modern actors and modern audiences. It could potentially be triggering.

Emma Thompson plays Princess Katherine opposite Kenneth Branagh‘s Henry V in a 1989 film version of the play – Alamy Stock Photo

“It’s important to bring attention to these moments, rather than just gloss over them.

“It’s about not being coerced by the script, and finding an interpretation you’re comfortable with.”

She added: “This is very much a labour issue. Because female parts are often smaller in Shakespeare, they are often played by younger actors, so these performers are doubly disempowered.”

Ms Bachrach believes that Shakespeare does not dwell on scenes where sexual or marital consent would usually be given or refused, unlike contemporaries such as Thomas Middleton and John Ford, who used rape and coercion as key plot points in works including Hengist, King of Kent and The Broken Heart.

Ms Bachrach said of Shakespeare’s history plays: “Women in those plays basically never actually got to consent to sex or marriage, it just happened, despite the fact that often they'd repeatedly said no.”

A 3 year project begun by Ms Bachrach ultimately aims to develop a workshop which collaborates with performers, such as those at the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Globe, on how best to explicitly highlight rather than ignore moments where consent is not given.

These include the final scene in Henry V, often staged as a flirtatious encounter between the English king and the French Princess Katherine, but a scene in which it is claimed “Princess Katherine says everything but an actual yes”.

In Measure for Measure, Isabella – a nun – is offered marriage, but isn't given the chance to respond before the play ends, Ms Bachrach has said.

Andrea Riseborough (Isabella) is grabbed harshly by Richard Dormer (Angelo) in a 2006 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Measure for Measure – Tristram Kenton/Bridgeman Images

She added that in A Midsummer Night's Dream: “Titania has sex with Bottom under the influence of mind-altering fairy drugs and is openly appalled at that fact when she comes back to herself.”

Other Shakespeare works like The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Titus Andronicus feature rape and attempted rape.

Ms Bachrach has said while Shakespeare’s seemingly deliberate ignorance of the issue of consent may make for difficult viewing, it may also make the Bard unique among his peers for showing in a sophisticated way the lack of power contemporary women held.

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