Saturday, 23 April 2016

Romeo and Charlotte

It’s one of those quirky synchronistic facts that would be difficult to believe if it appeared in a work of fiction, but today we celebrate both the birthday and death of William Shakespeare. What makes it even more quirky is that he was born (as far as we can determine) and died on the national saint’s day of the country in which he lived, the feast day of St. George of England (the UK is still the only country in the world that doesn’t celebrate it’s national day with a public holiday).

On several occasions I’ve written about Shakespeare, particularly here where I explain why I don’t believe any theory that he might have been lgbt. Here I looked at the coat of arms of one of his lgbt namesakes and possible relatives. Today we look at a Shakespearean character and actor.

Many actors have made their names and reputations playing Shakespearean roles. Such great lgbt actors as Lord Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ian McKellen and Fiona Shaw have all received plaudits for their roles as leading Shakespearean characters. On a little quirky sideline here, the name Hamlet is forever associated with Shakespeare, but it is an actual name. One of my ancestors was called Hamlet Marshall who was 8 years old when Shakespeare died, and there were others in the family called Hamlet.

In my “Around the World in 80 Gays” series I wrote about Shakespeare’s first tragedy “Titus Andronicus” and how it influenced the modern genre of slasher films. While Titus Andronicus is still a relatively unknown character to most people another is very well known, Romeo.

Just like my “80 Gays” series I’m pulling several different elements together to connect “Romeo and Juliet” with Nottingham and an American actress.

Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) was one of the most celebrated actresses of her time. As you can see, this is her bicentenary year. In 1845 Charlotte began appearing in “Romeo and Juliet” in London and later went on a national tour, which included two nights in Nottingham in February 1847. Below is the actual bill that was posted up at the theatre. You may not notice it as first, but look who’s playing Romeo. It’s Charlotte Cushman herself. Playing Juliet was her younger sister Susan.
Women taking the leading male Shakespearean role isn’t new. Some recent female actors have played male leads, most notably Fiona Shaw as King Richard II. But even Charlotte wasn’t doing anything new. Sarah Siddons played Hamlet in the 1770s but it was well received. Charlotte Cushman, however, made a huge step forward by not playing a tragedic character. Audiences were more receptive to a woman in a romantic lead, even though Romeo dies in the end. A love story was more acceptable.

Charlotte’s vocal talents helped her to be convincing. She had a wide vocal range, and her “unfeminine appearance”, as one Shakespearean historian puts it, made her portrayal of Romeo very convincing and it was a smash hit. It is said that she brought the character out of its then portrayal as a young love-besotted sop into a more heroic and tragic young man. In a way Charlotte Cushman made it possible for Leonardo di Caprio to portray Romeo without dragging the character down to the level of a soppy drip of a teenager.

A few years later Charlotte followed Sarah Siddons’ lead and took on the role of Hamlet, and her final role was as Lady Macbeth, the role which made her famous in the 1830s. Throughout her life Charlotte sought female companionship, and her last partner, the sculptor Emma Stebbins, looked after her in her finals years of illness.

With celebrations around the UK to commemorate Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary there seems to be no end to the popularity of England’s premier playwright, and even if most people never read a Shakespeare play his characters remain in our cultural consciousness and will continue to inspire artists, actors and film-makers for generations ahead.

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