Gender and Performance in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies
Composed at a critical moment in English history, Shakespeare's Òproblem playsÓ dramatize a crisis in the sex-gender system. They register a male dread of emasculation and engulfment, a fear of female authority and sexuality. In these plays males identify desire for a female as dangerous and unmanly, females contend and confound traditional femininity. Male authority, even male ideas of the heroic, suffer in the face of a female's disruptive sexual power. Of course, the main problem with these plays is their deviation from Shakespearean comic precedent: by resisting comic closure, they leave uncontained the subversions of gender that comedies mostly contain. They stage impersonations of man and woman that underscore the theatricality of gender, its status as a cultural construct. By failing to substantiate it, the characters in these plays disclose gender's inadequacy as a marker.
David McCandless follows the drama of gender enacted in these plays. His approach weds a theoretically engaged textual analysis to the dynamics of performance. McCandless thinks through these plays as performance, citing or envisioning performance choices to integrate text and performance in a reciprocally enriching interplay, rather than merely to corroborate or ornament a textual argument. He adopts the perspective, not of expert spectator, but of practitioner, bringing directorial modes of inquiry to his analysis. While he frequently draws upon the performance histories of the problem comedies, he more regularly exploits his own experience as a director in dramatizing and theorizing the enactment of gender. His book is a unique and invigorating example of performance criticism that illuminates these difficult, sometimes-overlooked tragicomedies. It is an original and timely contribution to Shakespearean theater scholarship.
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