When Romeo Was a Woman

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Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 13

"I will assume thy part in some disguise
And tell fair Hero I am Claudio"
Much Ado About Nothing (1.1.316)

The actress Charlotte Cushman was a theatrical icon in 19th century America, known to the press by her first name, like Beyonce today. Her fame was not, however, for conventionally Victorian feminine portrayals.

Cushman specialized in playing male roles, principally Romeo and Hamlet, competing on equal terms with leading actors like Edwin Forrest and Edwin Booth. She was not the only actress of her time to attempt these parts, but Cushman’s style was uniquely assertive and athletic. When Queen Victoria saw Cushman as Romeo, she said she couldn’t believe it was a woman playing the part.

Rebecca Sheir, host of the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series, interviews Lisa Merrill, professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Hofstra University and author of When Romeo Was a Woman, about Cushman’s professional and personal life, including her off-stage romantic partnerships with women and her changing public image after death. 

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © October 22, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved.

Written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is associate producer. Edited by Esther Ferington and Gail Kern Paster.

With help from Larry Josephson and Robert Auld.

 

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Want more? Browse our full list of Shakespeare Unlimited episodes. Listen on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, and NPR One.