Actresses on Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 2

In Shakespeare's time, only men appeared on stage, with teenage boys playing the women's parts. Today, women play women and sometimes men—and vice-versa.

In this podcast we have gathered some of the best-known actresses in the Folger's hometown, Washington, DC—Naomi Jacobsen, Cam Magee, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Victoria Reinsel, Charlene V. Smith, and Holly Twyford—to talk about their experiences on stage with Shakespeare.

The all-female staging of Richard III was produced for Brave Spirits Theatre, with Jenna Berk as George, Duke of Clarence. First Murderer was Rachel Hynes; Second Murderer was Tina Renay Fulp.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Women Merely Players," was produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul; Garland Scott, associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. The music in the piece was composed and arranged by Lenny Williams. We had help gathering material for Shakespeare Unlimited from Amy Arden. 

Previous: The Robben Island Shakespeare | Next: In Search of the Real Richard III


MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. This podcast is called "Women Merely Players."

In Shakespeare's time, of course, only men appeared on stage, with teenage boys playing the women's parts. Today, women play women, and sometimes men, and vice versa. In this podcast, we've gathered some of the best-known actresses in the Folger's hometown, Washington, DC, to talk about their experiences on stage with Shakespeare.



NAOMI JACOBSEN: Hi, my name is Naomi Jacobsen.

CAM MAGEE: My name is Cam Magee.

FRANCHELLE STEWART DORN: I'm Franchelle Stewart Dorn.

VICTORIA REINSEL: I'm Victoria Reinsel.

CHARLENE V. SMITH: My name is Charlene V. Smith.

HOLLY TWYFORD: My name is Holly Twyford and the Shakespeare women who I have played...

REINSEL: Oh lord, the roles that I've played.

SMITH: It's really funny. I have actually an entire list on my refrigerator at home of all the Shakespeare roles I need to play before I die and one by one, I cross them off, as I get through them.

REINSEL: I've played Julia in Two Gents.

DORN: Queen Elizabeth in Richard III.

MAGEE: Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice.

TWYFORD: Jessica in The Merchant of Venice. Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.

DORN: My acting instructor, when I was in college, said, "You are really going to come into your own when you're 35," and I thought, "that is just the most unkind thing to say to someone who's 20." But in some ways, he was right.

JACOBSEN: Paulina in Winter's Tale. Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII.

REINSEL: Anne Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Marina in Pericles.

JACOBSEN: Calphurnia in Julius Caesar, and then I got to play Widow Capilet in All's Well. You don't hear a lot about her. She's only in, like, the fourth act or something, so... [LAUGH]

DORN: The queen in Cymbeline.

MAGEE: The Abbess in Comedy of Errors.

DORN: And others.

TWYFORD: And I think that's all. God, wouldn't that be terrible if I were missing one? [LAUGH]


TWYFORD: I think the question of which are the juiciest roles in Shakespeare is an interesting one. There are so few women's roles that most of them are juicy.

JACOBSEN: The soul of these women is searing hot with either passion, or love, or rage, or righteousness, or a pursuit of justice, or, you know, whatever you are there to accomplish.

TWYFORD: Jessica in The Merchant of Venice is not a very big role, but you can really sink your teeth into it. She has a fascinating relationship with her father.

JACOBSEN: Paulina, who I think is just one of the most exciting parts in Shakespeare, and I got a chance to do it, so I was happy about that.

SMITH: I've always had a great affinity for Beatrice in Much Ado, and I've gotten to play her once.

MAGEE: I've played Cleopatra. Cleopatra is one of those roles where you can actually feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

[CLIP from Antony and Cleopatra:]

You and I must part, but that's not it;
Sir, you and I have loved, but there's not it;
That you know well. Something it is I would—
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.

MAGEE: She has long thoughts. She has short thoughts. She's smart as a whip. You actually have to think faster when you play her. The great thing about Cleopatra is that her language can actually ignite the audience's imagination.

[CLIP from Antony and Cleopatra:]

                                    I have
Immortal longings in me. Now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip.
Yare, yare, good Iras, quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call. I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act. I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath.

MAGEE: It is a wonderful feeling when you know that an audience is listening to you. There's a specific energy, and you could feel it on stage as an actor, and just when you think you cannot do any more, you really are called upon just to put it all out on the stage. Just to roll the dice and see what happens.

SMITH: Lady Macbeth is extremely fierce and powerful and, despite the strength, you still have the added challenge of having to go through her mental breakdown and downfall through that play.

[CLIP from Macbeth:]

                        Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly
That wouldst thou holily

DORN: She starts off thinking she is in complete control of everything that is happening to her, and she finds that she is not in control. And because she doesn't understand consequences, she's caught up in a story that she can't, and a web she can't, get out of, except by suicide.

SMITH: I think it's one of the roles in Shakespeare canon that you can bring different things to as you age.

TWYFORD: The question of the age of characters is an interesting one, and we are constantly talking about it. "Oh, no, they would never call me in for that because I'm too old," or "they would never call me in for that because I'm too young."

SMITH: It's different to have a 25-year-old Beatrice who is unmarried, and people are saying, you know, "Oh, we think you like Benedick. You should get married," versus a 35-year-old Beatrice, or even a 45-year-old Beatrice, who is still unmarried and has this past with Benedick, and it also affects what that past is, depending on Benedick's age as well.


SMITH: I definitely prefer the bad girls.

DORN: Oh, the bad girls are far more interesting.

TWYFORD: The good girls or the bad girls. I mean, I love them both. They've all got something to offer.

MAGEE: Well, it depends on how well the good girl is written. It's always more fun to play the bad ones. It's really fun to play the sisters in Lear.

[CLIP from King Lear:]

You know the goodness I intend upon you;
Tell me but truly, but then speak the truth,
Do you not love my sister?

MAGEE: Oh, it's really fun to play the witches.

JACOBSEN: I think maybe I'm attracted to rage. I love women who get to just speak it out, no holds barred, to the men in power.

[CLIP from Henry VI, Part 3:]

Was it you that would be England's king?
Was 't you that reveled in our parliament
And made a preachment of your high descent?
Where are your mess of sons to back you now,
The wanton Edward and the lusty George?
And where's that valiant crookback prodigy

MAGEE: It doesn't matter whether they're good or bad. It matters if their language ignites the audience's imagination.


SMITH: One of the things I think is really wonderful and surprising about Shakespeare is the way he writes his women, because we think of the early modern era in which he was living as a very restrictive time for women.

JACOBSEN: Most of the women are on a mission. They're righting an injustice, or they're pursuing true love, or they're getting back at somebody for something they did to them, so they are more than willing to defy convention.

DORN: It does surprise me that he wrote women the way he did. I'm constantly amazed, because there's such a femininity about his female roles, and they are not all the same. And I often ponder, how is it possible for a young boy to get inside the head of Cleopatra?

JACOBSEN: It doesn't surprise me at all that the women in Shakespeare are as strong as they are. People don't change. We’re all the same as we used to be, aren't we?

REINSEL: I think he writes people. I don't think he writes gender.

JACOBSEN: Remember, he was writing for men. It would have been fascinating to see what he would have written if he could have had women performing women, but he didn't. He could let women say things [LAUGH] that really took men to task, and they would have to hear it differently, because a woman was speaking it to them rather than a man.

TWYFORD: But then, that's the only place probably you could discuss a woman having power, because in fact she didn't really have power. So you put it up on stage and it makes it fine and acceptable, and the audience will say, "Well, it was just a play, but she was quite a fun character. Blah, blah, blah." You know?

SMITH: And then we find these plays, particularly by Shakespeare, where they are out-spoken, where they are strong, where they are ambitious, where they are, a great majority of the time, smarter than the men around them.

TWYFORD: I would say that that is true, that most of the women are smarter than the men.

REINSEL: [LAUGH] That's brilliant. Yes, they are. [LAUGH]

TWYFORD: And I think that the women in his audience enjoyed seeing that.

JACOBSEN: They trust their gut and their heart. They know what they know, and they trust what they know. I don't think that the women in Shakespeare are smarter than the men. I think that they're as smart as the men and, in our society, we perceive that as smarter than.

MAGEE: But in terms of love, in terms of love, I think the women are smarter, because they have a bigger concern and their stakes are higher than the men's stakes. Women have to worry about their status. They have to worry about getting pregnant. They have to be worried about, in some ways... they have to figure out if this person really loves them, if he's worth it.

REINSEL: They're always smarter than the guys they're paired up with. I mean Rosalind is brilliant, and Orlando is not the brightest bulb in the box, but she loves him and she takes control of the situation, and I can think of countless examples like that. It's definitely true.

TWYFORD: Portia's ridiculously smart.

SMITH: Lady Macbeth certainly seems to be the brains of the operation in Macbeth.

DORN: Yes, women are often cleverer than their male counterparts.


JACOBSEN: Some of the women who drive me crazy in Shakespeare: Helena in All's Well That Ends Well.

DORN: Helena in All's Well that Ends Well pines after a man who I think is not worthy of her at all.

JACOBSEN: Here's this woman who is smart, but, boy, is she stupid in love. But that's so human. We can't account for who we fall in love with. Sometimes we look at people and think, "That makes no sense."

DORN: Who else?

MAGEE: I know who frustrates me, because I'm a character actress. I've played a lot of them. Nerissa and Celia. Nerissa and Celia do everything Rosalind and Portia do. If Portia gets married, Nerissa has to get married. It's just sort of monkey see, monkey do.

JACOBSEN: Well, I'll tell you who drives me crazy. Lady Anne in Richard III.

[CLIP from Richard III:]

Out of my sight! Thou dost infect mine eyes.

Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.
Those eyes of thine from mine have drawn salt tears,

JACOBSEN: In the course of a wooing scene, which is one of the most brilliant scenes written in Shakespeare, she completely changes her tune.

[CLIP from Richard III:]

Put up your sword.

Say then my peace is made.

That shalt thou know hereafter.

But shall I live in hope?

All men I hope live so.

Vouchsafe to wear this ring.

JACOBSEN: I find her incredibly annoying. [LAUGH]

DORN: I don't have a big problem with Kate in Taming of the Shrew.

[CLIP from The Taming of the Shrew:]

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee

MAGEE: I find Kate fascinating. It's so interesting to me that shrews used to be punished by putting a metal sort of a, like a hand, so that they couldn't talk. If they talked, they'd cut themselves, and so the lesson that she should learn, is to shut up, and so in the middle of the play, Kate shuts up, and at the end of the play she talks and talks and talks.

JACOBSEN: It's not that she isn't her own woman. It's not that she gives anything up. She actually gains spiritual insight about how human beings ought to relate to each other.

[CLIP from The Taming of the Shrew:]

I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.

DORN: Petruchio doesn't maybe start out with altruistic intentions, but actually helps her into a situation where she can deal with other human beings in a rational way and that last speech that everybody pounces on, I think will be received by the audience well, indifferently, or with anger, depending on how Petruchio accepts it.

[CLIP from The Taming of the Shrew:]

My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws

JACOBSEN: In the beginning of the play, Kate gets to have that anger and the rage at the society and the conventions that she doesn't adhere to, and then she comes across another person with, who can match her rage and her anger and gets to see how it affects people, how it affects her. So she comes up against a reflection of herself and has a spiritual awakening. People think, "Oh, she's tamed." I don't think so. I think she's actually grown as a human being.


DORN: I'm also always amazed that if a women puts on a hat and a pair of pants, the man she's madly in love with no longer know who she is, but, you know, that's just the way the plays are written. We'll just enter that world and go along with it.

JACOBSEN: I think women dressing up as men in Shakespearean plays—it certainly gives him more leeway. They can certainly do a lot more. They can be much more active participants in the story, if they're not constrained by the niceties of the time, and what they were allowed and not allowed to do, and then, of course, they can go into the woods. [LAUGH]

REINSEL: There's something potentially freeing about taking on someone else's identity, or a made-up identity, and not having whatever constraints you would have upon yourself. It gives people a license to say things they wouldn't normally say otherwise.

SMITH: The reason we see so many heroines in Shakespeare's plays dress up as men is really just about convenience, I think, probably.

MAGEE: That's why I think he does it, because he has boy actors and for much of the play, Rosalind is dressed as a boy. I think it's a brilliant solution, frankly.

SMITH: I think Shakespeare probably just thought it was funny, too.

REINSEL: It's fun.

DORN: It's interesting. The story is fun. The audience is in on something that the characters in the play are not, so it's enjoyable.


[CLIP of all-female staging of Richard III, Brave Spirits Theatre:]

In God's name, what art thou?

                                                A man, as you are.

SMITH: To me, the most successful performances and actors are the ones that don't so much worry about the gender.

[CLIP of all-female staging of Richard III, Brave Spirits Theatre:]

What shall we do?

                        Relent and save your souls.

Relent? 'Tis cowardly and womanish.

Not to relent is savage, beastly, devilish.

SMITH: Cross-gender casting has been undergoing a sort of renaissance in the Shakespeare industry.

JACOBSEN: I think the reason we see so many cross-gender productions is because it started off as a cross-gender form. It was men playing women, so who's to say women can't play men and men play women?

[CLIP of all-female Richard III, Brave Spirits Theatre:]

A dangerous thing. A man cannot steal, but it accuseth him; he cannot swear but it checks him; he cannot lie with his neighbor's wife but it detects him.

MAGEE: The other thing is that there are more women who have the chops for Shakespeare. You have two generations of women who can really do the material, and do the material so well, that it's a shame not to find roles for women.

[CLIP of all-female Richard III, Brave Spirits Theatre:]

                        ...the great King of kings
Hath in the table of His law commanded
That thou shalt do no murder.

MAGEE: And you also have the benefit of women like Jean Roberts and Ida Prosky in the '70s, who basically stood up as scholars, and said, "Why aren't there more roles for women?" and challenged women like me, to fight for more opportunities for women.

TWYFORD: Ida Prosky, Bob Prosky's wife, wrote a fabulous book saying, I think it was, You Don't Need Four Women to Play Shakespeare. And the point was, that you could go on tour with, you know, three women or four women, and you'd be able to cover the canon, because that's how many women there are, you know, in the plays, and I think maybe some actresses got a little tired of that. The women realized, "These are some great roles, and I want to try this."

REINSEL: I always get a little offended when I go to see a Shakespeare play and the theaters aren't using cross-gender casting, because I think of how many wonderful women deserve to be on that stage, and frankly, I'm going to say this, as a women in this field, but I have seen significantly more talented actresses running around than I have seen talented actors, and [LAUGH] so I think it's great when theaters just put a good person in roles and don't necessarily relegate them to something that corresponds with that person's own gender.

[CLIP of rehearsal for all-female staging of Richard III, Brave Spirits Theatre:]

DIRECTOR: Really get close, so that Jenna is very unsettled by the time she has to get to "Alas! For whose sake did I that ill deed? / For Edward, for my brother, for his sake." Because she's got this three-part repetition.


SMITH: They sort of famously say that once you can play Shakespeare, you can play anything, and I think there's a lot of truth in that, because when you're trained as a Shakespeare actor, so much of that is about text analysis and mining that text, and once you learn how to mine an author's words, you can find magic in lines everywhere.

DORN: He puts into words every thought you could conceive of, when it comes to love or anger or hate or want or need or greed, and being able to say those words is just a gift that I have received throughout my life.

REINSEL: The language is so good.

TWYFORD: There's a reason they call it heightened language, because it is, and it sort of raises you to another place.

JACOBSEN: Every time I do a Shakespeare play, I get a new tongue-twister to add to my warm-up.

TWYFORD: There's something really exciting about that.

JACOBSEN: You have to expand yourself to play Shakespeare. You have to expand into the roles.

DORN: It challenges every part of an actor, all the mechanics of it. The actor's body, the actor's voice. You've got to be able to sustain those three-and-a-half, four hours vocally.

JACOBSEN: Every skill you have as an actor.

MAGEE: It uses every ounce of you.

JACOBSEN: It's very satisfying to play Shakespeare.

MAGEE: If you have the right part, you are never, never bored.

DORN: You feel that you've really accomplished something, and I guess, quite honestly, you have.


WITMORE: You've been hearing the voices of Naomi Jacobsen, Cam Magee, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Victoria Reinsel, Charlene V. Smith, and Holly Twyford, some of Washington DC's best-known female Shakespeare performers. The all-female staging of Richard III was produced for Brave Spirits Theatre, with Jenna Berk as George, Duke of Clarence. The First Murderer was Rachel Hynes; Second Murderer was Tina Renay Fulp.

"Women Merely Players" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. The music in the piece was composed and arranged by Lenny Williams. We had help gathering material for the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series from Amy Arden.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.