I feel as if this article requires a bit of a disclaimer: I am not any kind of expert on Shakespeare, nor can I pretend I usually enjoy his work in my free time. By Second Year LANS student Charlotte Joiner.
I did what I had to in school, but I had to read each play three times, discuss it in class, and watch whatever filmed version there was to understand what was going on. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated it as good literature, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around the language and the plotlines, and the humour only made sense to me when a teacher spelled it out. With these memories of confusion in mind, I was a little worried about seeing Troilus and Cressida in theatre, live, with no experts or texts on hand as an aid - I believed that, in the throng of avid elder theatre-goers, serious academics, and bright young literature students, I would stick out like a sore thumb.
I know that a lot of people are in the same boat as I was. All I can ask is that you leave your concerns at the door and go in with an open mind. Despite having lots of friends tell me how wonderful the Royal Shakespeare Company really was, nothing could have prepared me for this performance.
Of all the many aspects of this production I feel are worth celebrating, the one that stood out to me the most was the powerful, political costuming; this is not a side of theatre I have ever paid particular attention to, but the way in which clothes were used to enrich the story was so subtly brilliant that it ended up being my main takeaway. Before elaborating on what makes the treatment of clothing and gender in Troilus so important, however, we must first look at the ways in which these two are entwined in other popular entertainment, both Shakespearean and modern. There were, apparently, a great many rules for clothing in the first Elizabethan era, many of them absurd; no-one below the rank of knight was permitted to wear long stockings or velvet outer garments, for example, though a knight’s eldest son could wear velvet doublets if he so chose (his younger siblings wouldn’t be allowed this same privilege). More generally, women were expected to wear long skirts and very fitted bodices, entirely covering the lower halves of their bodies whilst displaying the rest, and men’s clothing really did regularly feature those puffed-out pantaloons and odd, gigantic shoulders that disguised their natural body shape entirely. Though many of these rules were broken (especially the more specific ones surrounding a person’s social status), it is likely this rule-breaking would only have been shown on stage to illustrate the deviant character’s role in the play. For plays such as Troilus – set as it was in Ancient Greece – actors would simply have worn togas over their normal clothes.
The rules around clothing have obviously changed in the modern world, with far more lines being blurred or erased entirely, but there is one constant that seems to have permeated through every magazine, TV show and even, I’m sure, a great number of theatre productions: the sexualisation of women. This is so normalised that, despite having been aware of this worrying cultural phenomenon from a very young age, I couldn’t quite acknowledge how deeply it had rooted itself in our media until I was presented with the absence of it. As I said, the subversion was subtle – there were no men in dresses or women trying to disguise their figures entirely – but this made it seem all the more plausible, as if a world in which this was possible was well within our reach.
In Troilus, women’s clothes neither accentuated nor disguised their figures but sat as ordinarily as a man’s would; leather jackets were tailored to their waists and extended from their necks to their thighs, close-fitted so as to look smart but not skin-tight as they may have been on television. Shoes were sensible for the terrain, with not a heel in sight. One woman was hairless; another had hair sticking up in every direction imaginable; and none of it mattered, because they were discussing battle strategy and they had a war to win. Even Helen of Troy (famed for being the most beautiful woman in all of Greece) lived up to her reputation without once giving the impression that her beauty was for the benefit of men. There are a whole range of female personalities and experiences represented, which – as with all of the elements of this play that I appreciated the most – should not be unusual, but it was notable that, had the director not chosen to change the genders of traditionally male characters, the range of the female experience portrayed would have been pitifully slim.
In this production it is the women that occupy the roles of trusted generals – if there was a character that needed to be cunning and clever and sensible, you can be sure that a woman was playing her. It didn’t matter to the RSC that they were written to be men – they are called “she” throughout, though to avoid any of the connotations of the title “Lady” or “Princess” they were still “Lord” and “Prince.” They weren’t “female commanders” – they were simply commanders, as much the default as any man would have been, and they were dressed like it, too. Many directors of heroines have them either overtly sexualised, so that they can use this sexuality as a weapon, or as masculine as possible, to compensate for the ‘weaknesses’ associated with femininity; not here. For once I was watching a story play out before me in which the women’s appearances had no bearing on the central narrative, and, conversely, this is what made me take such note of them.
The men’s outfits served a similar purpose. The costume department demonstrated flawlessly what popular media would look like if men were objectified to the same degree that women are; cropped leather jerkins served more as decoration than functional clothing, showing off abdomens and accentuating their chests. The male characters were also far more likely to be seen wearing jewellery than the others. Their “peacocking” ties in rather well with the Greek mythology that was key to the story, perhaps in ways more true to the original stories than Shakespeare’s own interpretation – whilst Athena was the female goddess of battle strategy, always calm, composed, and sure to win, Ares was the headstrong, foolish war god driven by his bloodlust. For men throughout history, battle has been advertised as something glamourous, a way to earn themselves glory. For the men in Troilus and Cressida, it was an attractive costume to wear. These men were not portrayed as being nearly as rational or strategic as their women counterparts and often served as decoration in the scene rather than proving to be of some kind of tactical use; somehow the director managed to simultaneously and seamlessly flip a deeply embedded cultural tradition of objectification on its head, and use it to highlight a performative masculinity that ties together the classical literature, the Elizabethan play and the modern day.
There were many other aspects of Troilus that were noteworthy, from the homoerotic subplot conducted almost entirely without dialogue to the post-apocalyptic staging that set the tone for the entire piece. It was the costuming, however, that made me realise how much I had been underestimating the power of Shakespeare in the modern world. Without changing the text, the director (Gregory Doran) and the costume department have worked together to create something entirely new and impactful for a 21st-century audience. Though the meaning this audience takes from each performance may change thanks to bold adaptations such as this, it is a testament to the potency of the stories he told that Shakespeare’s work is still being adapted in socially and politically significant ways over 400 years after his death; whatever your views on the original texts and their reception, I would recommend going to see one of the RSC’s performances if the opportunity presents itself. You may just be pleasantly surprised.
(Since first starting work on this article, I was also able to see a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor – though a very different style of play, I can confirm that the RSC continue to do amazing work to make Shakespearean characters relatable to the modern audience. I can now recommend them with more authority than ever. Please go if you can!)
Image credits: Helen Maybanks © RSC