Shakespeare made theatre too ‘white, male and cisgender’, tax-payer funded study finds

The attack on Shakespeare's works has been condemned by many authors - DeAgostini/Getty Images

The “disproportionate representation” of William Shakespeare in the theatre has propagated “white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender male narratives”, according to researchers in an £800,000 taxpayer-funded project.

The claim has prompted critics to accuse the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which has funded the study by academics at the University of Roehampton, of promoting “cultural clickbait”.

The project, devoted to “centring marginalised communities in the contemporary performance of early modern plays”, is due to be completed in two years’ time.

The researchers want to challenge the “normative trend” in “classical theatre” arising from “the disproportionate representation of William Shakespeare in scholarship and performance”.

In response they are mounting a production of a comedy by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Lyly, Galatea, which features characters disguised as the opposite sex. The researchers say the play offers “an unparalleled affirmative and intersectional demographic, exploring feminist, queer, transgender and migrant lives”.

They say the play “has almost no stage history since 1588”, adding that “Diverse Alarums”, the name of the project, “will transform this state of affairs with a unique combination of methods, ranging across early modern studies, practice-as-research, audience studies, qualitative research, trans, queer and disability studies”.

Writing for the website Before Shakespeare, Andy Kesson, the project’s principal investigator, said that “masculinity and nationalism were crucial motivating factors in the rise of Shakespeare as the arbiter of literary greatness” and that “[w]e need to be much, much more suspicious of Shakespeare’s place in contemporary theatre”.

‘His themes are timeless’

Lionel Shriver, the author, told The Telegraph: “In Shakespeare’s day, half the European population was white and male. They didn’t have rainbow flags. Being disabled like Richard III was a matter of character rather than politics, and luckily for them no one had ever coined the linguistic abomination ‘cisgender’.

“Still germane because his themes are timeless, Shakespeare will survive even this dogmatic mangling, and his plays will continue to be enjoyed long after today’s ‘intersectional’ performances have foreshortened into a freakish comical footnote in theatrical history.”

Andrew Doyle, the comedian and author, said: “There’s a very good reason why Shakespeare is performed frequently and John Lyly barely at all. Shakespeare was by far the superior playwright. Yet again, ideologues are reducing great art to mere mechanisms for the promotion of an ideology.

“A production of Galatea would be welcome, but given that those behind it are already using anachronistic pseudo-religious terms such as ‘cisgender’ suggests that it will be a tedious affair. They evidently believe what they are doing is radical, but virtually all theatre companies today are obsessed with identity and gender, and so this is likely to be just more conformist and insipid propaganda.”

Jane Stevenson, the Conservative MP, who sits on the culture, media and sport committee, said: “Theatre does and should entertain, challenge and educate us. I’m all for widening repertoire to bring lesser-known works to audiences, but I’m not sure reducing Galatea to a celebration of all things woke, or knocking Shakespeare for being pale, male and stale is much more than cultural click-bait.

“Shakespeare’s works have been translated into 100 languages and clearly still resonate with people all over the world. Love, hate, ambition, loss, jealousy – all universal emotions we all still identify with.”

An Arts and Humanities Research Council spokesman said: “The Arts and Humanities Research Council invests in a diverse research and innovation portfolio. Decisions to fund the research projects we support are made via a rigorous peer review process by relevant independent experts from across academia and business.”

A spokesman from the University of Roehampton said: “This project was funded by a national organisation following a rigorous review process. We support academic colleagues to seek external funding to pursue high-quality research in their areas of specialism, which in this case involves national theatre heritage.”