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Upstaged! Eunice Hanger and Shakespeare in Australia

by Sophie Scott-Brown

Early one April evening in 1950, in All Saints Hall, Brisbane where we lay our scene, the Twelfth Night amateur theatre company put on its debut performance of Upstage, an original play by the company’s dramatist, Eunice Hanger (1911-1972), a Queensland-born teacher, playwright and Shakespeare enthusiast. As the curtain lifted and the audience settled back into an expectant hush, a drawing room scene was revealed as a single female actor stood as still as a statue on the stage. What followed was an evening of Shakespearian drama—with a twist. The cast was comprised entirely of the bard’s best loved female characters who, in a spirit of fun, were gathered together to elect a ‘Miss Shakespeare’. But whilst literary jokes abounded, the play carried a more serious commentary concerning the position of women as actors in both the little (amateur) theatre movement and in Australian cultural life generally.

This paper looks at how Eunice Hanger read, or rather re-read, the works of William Shakespeare. Through this, it examines the nature of reading as a simultaneously social and individualistic activity and reflects on the implications of this for understanding the histories of reading English writers in Australia more broadly.

Recent historiography on the reading of English writers by Australian readers has been largely preoccupied with the complex colonial context in which this took place.[1] Throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Australia was the biggest market for British book exports, hampering the development of an independent Australian industry.[2] As John McLaren argued, ‘no part of society maintained the imperial pattern more consistently than publishers and booksellers who exploited an Australian market held captive by its distance from the sources of capital.’[3]

This went beyond the direct, physical presence of the texts, extending into an entire socio-cultural apparatus encompassing everything from what was reviewed, promoted, and disparaged in popular newspapers and literary magazines, to what was stocked in libraries or taught in schools or universities and how. Engagement with an English literary canon was an inherently politicised activity, one means by which English values and systems of meaning were assimilated and reproduced within an emerging Australian sense of national identity and cultural superstructure.

Perhaps the central figure in such a canon, the presence of Shakespeare within colonial contexts was particularly politicised. Drawing impetus from post-colonial theory, much attention has focused on Shakespearean texts and their broader socio-cultural apparatus (popular editions, textbooks, examination syllabi, official institutions and so on) as the visible traces of an insidious and ongoing British cultural imperialism.[4] As the New Zealand Shakespearean scholar Michael Neill commented:

The decentering of Shakespeare has generally been more rhetorical than real. [T]he long and complicated history of Shakespeare’s entanglement with Empire has ensured that (for better or worse) his work has become deeply constitutive of all of us for whom the world is (to a greater or lesser degree) shaped by the English language.[5]

Whilst the cultural politics underpinning and infusing these texts undoubtedly provide a crucial optic through which to view the ideological nature of reading, this view can assume too uniform and stable a response to text from readers. As the Harvard literary scholar Leah Price observed, it risks overlooking significant tensions between the implied reader and the empirical audience.[6] Furthermore, it does little to illuminate reading as an activity, to examine how readers read which, as Tim Dolin argued, is a localised practice characterised by trans-subjectivity.[7]

This is the position taken by Kate Flaherty in her innovative study Ours as We Play It (2011), in which she argued:

[T]o conflate Shakespeare as a static icon of cultural imperialism with what the Shakespeare play has meant, can mean and will mean in performance is too broad a stroke of criticism to be of any real use.

She continued: ‘[I]t is feasible to see Shakespeare’s plays operating in Australian culture not as an occupier of space but as a space of play.’ [8] As her study further explored, Shakespeare’s plays were also a site of potential cultural resistance.

This paper follows Flaherty in seeing the reading of Shakespeare in twentieth century Australia as a complex and negotiated activity, both reinforcing and challenging the wider social order in which it took place. It further contends that a biographical approach can offer a means of bridging macro and micro perspectives on the histories of reading by considering the individual reader as a point of intersection for converging, contending, and co-existing contexts in which their reading took place. The uniqueness of the experience was derived from the specific configuration of social factors which framed it.[9] By using Eunice Hanger as a lens, this paper approaches the reading of Shakespeare as an idiographic experience and one firmly embedded within the larger socio-cultural ecology in which she was situated.   

The paper first considers the position of William Shakespeare as a cultural figure in Australia. It then discusses how Eunice’s reading habits were shaped by her early life and education, before examining the creative re-appropriation of Shakespeare in her one-act play Upstage. It argues that Eunice’s re-reading of Shakespeare suggests a dualist relationship, one cast and oscillating between personal identification and socially critical subversion.

Act 1: William Shakespeare in Australia
It is important to distinguish between Shakespeare the sixteenth century playwright, and ‘Shakespeare’, the figure which literary critic Terry Eagleton described as:

Less an author than an apparatus – his name is merely metonymic for an entire politico-cultural formation and thus more akin to ‘Disney’ or ‘Rockefella’ than ‘Jane Smith’... The apparatus has long achieved autonomy of whatever individual gave rise to it in the first place [...][10]

Both are equally ‘real’ in that they had, and continue to have, significant impact on global cultural history, but in all likelihood the man himself had little conscious intention or even ambition to become such a politicised symbol. Shakespeare was born in 1564. After several years as an actor, his career as the in-house playwright for the Globe Theatre took off in 1594. Like many of his contemporaries in the theatre, during his lifetime he lived mostly in obscurity, generally working collaboratively with actors and other writers, drawing inspiration from folk legends and historical epics which he transformed in pieces of theatre.[11]

The transition from man to myth began shortly after his death in 1616. In 1623, his plays were collected and published in the first folio at a time when the paper trade was in its infancy and a mass printing industry unimaginable. Such a collection was, therefore, rare and quickly became a prized object (a copy cost around £1– or over £95 in contemporary value). Recording the plays also ensured their continual performance and, as Gary Taylor noted, after actors came publishers, after publishers came critics.[12] Shortly after the first folio appeared, a body of literary appreciation began to be published. For example, Ben Jonson wrote the eulogy to the first folio and John Milton’s An Epitaph on the Dramaticke Poet W. Shakespeare (1630) later appeared as the frontispiece to the 1632 edition of the folio.[13]

This alone might have been enough to ensure his reputation as a historically significant writer, but Shakespeare’s fusion with English (often used inter-changeably with British) national identity and political agendas further assured his prominence in English culture. Taylor further contends that Shakespeare’s fortunes were closely aligned with the fall and rise of the English monarchy. On reclaiming the throne and reinstating the monarchy Charles II not only re-opened the theatres, which had been closed for the duration of the Civil War and interregnum, but promoted the playing of Shakespeare, a favourite of his executed father Charles I.[14]

The stage was set for Shakespeare’s transformation into national treasure and by the mid-eighteenth century crowds were flocking to Stratford to glimpse the birthplace of the bard. In 1769 David Garrick, an actor and theatre manager, staged a Shakespeare jubilee attracting thousands. In the nineteenth century the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was formed to oversee and regulate a flourishing Shakespeare industry. By the twentieth century enthusiasm for Shakespeare and all his qualities remained unabated. In 1970 the Globe Theatre was reconstructed to include a tourist centre.[15] In 1999, Shakespeare was voted the English ‘person of the millennium’.[16] Richard Foulkes, reflecting on Shakespeare in the age of empire, argued that the performance of Shakespeare’s plays created a sense of British nationhood both at home and overseas in the colonies, owing in part to the numbers of British actors that travelled to the far reaches of empire.[17] Arguably, however, the picture is even more complex.

Turning to Shakespeare’s fortunes in Australia, one way of discerning something of his presence in Australian culture is to run his name through the search engine of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). The ADB offers a useful research tool, albeit with limitations. As a national dictionary entrants are chosen because they are judged to have made a notable contribution to Australian history. They are not, therefore, straightforwardly representative of the population as a whole. On the other hand, searching for references to ‘William Shakespeare’ within the entries is more than simply an exercise in cliometrics (counting the number of returns this yields); it offers an opportunity to situate readers within a thicker contextual background: age, location, occupation, and the nature of engagement with the text.[18] So, whilst the dictionary cannot be used in isolation to infer a nation-wide pattern, it can indicate some avenues for further inquiry.[19]

Shakespeare’s name appears 197 times in the ADB corpus, including in the following entries:

Table 1: A selection of results returned after entering ‘Shakespeare’ into ADB search engine (listed in order of birth)[20]




Context of Reference

William Gore Elliston

1798-1872 Hobart, Tasmania

Schoolmaster and Editor

Gave public readings of Shakespeare

Barnett Levey

1798-1837 Sydney, NSW

Merchant and Theatre Director

Performed in and directed Shakespearean plays

Sir Alfred Stephen

1802-1894 Sydney, New South Wales (NSW)

Chief justice and legislator

Regular diner at the Shakespeare Club, NSW.

George Matcham Pitt

1814-1896, Richmond, NSW

Stockman and Station Agent

Shakespeare was favourite author.

John Howard Clark

1830-1878 Adelaide, South Australia

Newspaper Proprietor

Shakespeare was favourite author.

Mary Fanny Cathcart

1833-1880 Melbourne, Victoria (Vic)


Performed in Shakespearean plays

George Hawkins Ievers

1845-1921 Melbourne, Vic

Estate Agent

Member of a Shakespeare Society

Marian Fleming Harwood

1846-1934 Sydney, NSW


Wrote a book: The Cult of Shakespeare in Sixteenth Century Germany to the Present

Alexander Leeper

1848-1934 Melbourne, Vic


Organiser of a Shakespeare Society

Zina Beatrice Selwyn Cumbrae-Stewart

1868-1956 Brisbane, Queensland

Community Worker

Member of the  Queensland Shakespeare Society

Thomas Henry Bath

1875-1956 Perth, Western Australia

Miner, politician, farmer, co-operator

Founded a Shakespeare Club

Gertrude Amy Roseby

1872-1971 Sydney, NSW

School Headmistress

Inspiring teacher of Shakespeare

Enid Derham

1882-1941 Melbourne, Vic

University Lecturer and Poet

Won the ‘Shakespeare’ Scholarship, University of Melbourne

Beatrice Mile

1902-1973 Sydney, NSW

Bohemian Rebel

Recited Shakespeare in the street (for money).

James Crawford

1908-1973 Brisbane, Queensland


Lectured on Shakespeare to fellow unemployed.


These results suggest a mixed picture. Shakespeare was irrefutably a figure of high culture, the height of dramatic achievement for actors and theatre directors such as Barnett Levey and Mary Fanny Cathcart, a potent symbol of intellectual achievement for both scholars and students (Enid Derham, for example, or Marian Flemming Harwood) and a leisure pursuit for the well-to-do (a conversation topic between courses for Sir Alfred Stephen for example). Yet, when read closely, it is striking how his appeal crossed social, economic, and cultural borders as he was beloved of bohemian rebel, stockman, and educationalist alike. Also significant is how much of Shakespeare’s cultural presence in Australia was mediated through unofficial means: the formation of Shakespearean societies, part of the life-stories of individual actors or stage entrepreneurs, the favoured private reading of individuals.

Richard Waterhouse has argued that, with regard to Shakespeare in Australia, the institutions of high culture were missing. There was, for example, no corollary of The Globe, or a national Shakespearean theatre company. Instead there was an aesthetic of high-culture present in cultural discourse.[21] The distinction is important. A discursive aesthetic is inherently more fluid than an institution which, from the bricks and mortar of its building to the rules and regulations of its administration, is defined by solidity. Shakespeare in Australia, then, was a malleable entity.

Situating this historically, Waterhouse argued that Shakespeare was initially far from being an elite or scholarly figure. In early nineteenth century Australia theatre-going was a distinctly popular activity with the middle and upper classes staying away in disdain, finding both the audience, and actors, offensively crude. Furthermore, in early colonial popular culture there was a strong taste for melodrama which Shakespearean plays well satisfied.[22] Waterhouse suggested that it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that Shakespeare was subject to sacralisation, part of a wider process of distinguishing between high and low culture unfolding across the British Empire. Like Foulkes, he acknowledged the contribution of British actors and touring theatre companies who travelled to Australia seeking fame and recognition, not always forthcoming at home, in effecting this change. He notes that the growth of an urban popular culture, including sports and a wider range of theatrical entertainment, not only gave people greater choice of leisure activity but increasingly removed Shakespearean drama, or more accurately Shakespearean language, from everyday life. Shakespeare, once disdained as popular, was effectively claimed by the colonial upper-classes as a symbol of a refined and educated taste.[23]

In the early twentieth century, the transformation of Shakespeare from popular to elite culture intensified. Here again actors and theatre managers aided this process. Allen Wilkie, a British-born Shakespearean actor-manager, was, on his arrival in Melbourne in 1916, astonished to find that very little Shakespeare had been performed in Australia for several generations.[24] Moved to address such an omission, he set up a theatre company specialising in Shakespeare, going on to tour the country in 1920 and enjoying moderate, but not overwhelming, success. For all his efforts and ambition, Shakespeare remained without an institutional base, and with little funding available to support productions. As Penny Gay observed, the big Shakespearian productions of the early twentieth century were still put on by touring British companies, the most iconic of which was the 1948 Old Vic tour which starred theatrical heavyweights (and the then-married couple) Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.[25] Importantly, Gay noted, Shakespeare did enjoy more domestic success in the little theatre movement which, from the 1930s, staged regular performances of his plays, suggesting a sufficient base of home-grown interest and talent. This prompted John Alden, the actor and theatre manager, to found the Australian National Professional Theatre Company in 1948, which embarked on a Jubilee Shakespeare tour in 1952.

Outside the theatre though, Shakespeare had a strong presence in Australian educational spheres. The late nineteenth century saw a mushrooming of Shakespeare societies, often publishing their own dedicated journals. He was also a regular subject of public lectures and a firm fixture in scholarly culture and educational practice. Yet much of this was discretionary. As Linzy Brady observed, in both the British and Australian schools of the early nineteenth century, Shakespeare was not initially a compulsory requirement but what she termed a form of ‘domestic didacticism.’[26] Adaptations of Shakespearean plays such as Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807) were designed as attractive inducements for young readers rather than as texts to be formally studied. It was only following the introduction in Britain of public examinations in 1858 and the Education Act 1870 that a shift occurred towards a more standardised model of educational provision which included Shakespeare on curricula and examination syllabuses. Even then, she argued, there remained a critical tension between the austere Shakespeare of the examinations and the more creative Shakespeare often taught in the classroom.[27]

Shakespeare in Australia was a man of many parts. By the mid twentieth century he remained an icon of a high English culture, a mark of a cultural refinement and a thorough English-language education. Yet the comparative lack of an institutionalised national presence meant that he also retained a degree of flexibility, having an equally, if not more, dynamic existence amongst independent readers, societies and amateur theatre groups.

Act 2: Eunice Hanger and William Shakespeare
Shakespeare was, then, an iconic cultural figure in Australia no less than in England. But how did our heroine, Eunice, encounter him? Eunice Hanger was born in Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1911, the third child of Thomas and Mfanwy Hanger both of whom were school teachers.[28] In his youth, Thomas, the son of a Rockhampton wheelwright, had been a bright student but his family’s poverty had forced him to discontinue his studies and train as a pupil-teacher. He went on to a successful educational career culminating in his becoming headmaster of Gympie High School. These early restrictions fostered in him a deep value for education, in particular in literature and the arts, which he passed on to his five children, of whom Eunice and her brother Mostyn (later Sir Mostyn Hanger, a prominent Australian judge)[29] both won scholarships to study at university.

Eunice received a BA at the University of Queensland in 1932, later adding an MA (1940), both in the liberal arts. She joined the staff at Gympie High School in 1933, transferred to Rockhampton High School in 1940, and Brisbane High School in 1948. As a teacher Eunice was popular, and even acclaimed as outstanding. Whilst at Brisbane High she joined a local theatre group, Twelfth Night, which began to stage some of her first plays along with adaptations of a number of authors including Shakespeare. As a director she was renowned for favouring the ‘walk and talk’ school of practice and for concentrating on the correct use of language in performances. Her first major success as a playwright in the little theatre movement came when Upstage was first performed in 1950. In this one-act comedy, Eunice protested against a lack of strong female roles in Australian amateur theatre, deliberately writing for an all-female cast and bringing together a collection of Shakespeare’s best loved heroines ostensibly to elect a ‘Miss Shakespeare’. In 1958 Eunice was appointed lecturer in drama at the University of Queensland where she revitalised the University Staff Players and was the first to make production a compulsory component of senior undergraduate renaissance theatre studies. In later life Eunice became known as a critic of the three-act realist drama, which she saw as dominating Australian theatre, and as a champion of Australian-born playwrights whose work she collected to the end of her life in 1972 (her collection is stored in the University of Queensland library).

What can this tell us about the kind of reader Eunice was? She was brought up in an environment which valued literature, the bright daughter of school teachers, a scholarship-winning student who studied for two degrees in the arts, and a teacher who then deciphered and disseminated her own learning to her students. She would, therefore, have had her initial reading of Shakespeare guided by teachers and lecturers, and her appreciation of his works assessed through the medium of examinations and essays. An early example of her work as a cultivated student of Shakespeare is her prizewinning essay ‘The Charm of Shakespeare’, published in a local newspaper when she was seventeen while still a student at Gympie High School. The praise for her subject flowed, uncritical in its acceptance of his importance: Shakespeare is a ‘great man’, his melody is ‘faultless’, his verse ‘full of beauties’.[30] As a teacher she was responsible for conveying and framing the appreciation of Shakespeare, instructing, guiding and assessing her students’ literary appreciation of his works. As an actor-director heavily involved in amateur theatre she was renowned for enforcing the correct use of Shakespearian language and stagecraft.

So far, Eunice appears as a well-educated, middle-class woman, successfully inducted into an anglicised intellectual literary and artistic culture which, in her professional roles, she contributed towards reproducing and consolidating. At the same time, Eunice’s background was more complex than simply that of the diligent student turned able teacher. Her adult life (1911-1972) spanned a period of dramatic national change, throughout which Australia was renegotiating its relationship with Britain and its position as an independent nation in the world. The breakdown of the Empire and the decline of Britain’s position on the world stage had further cultural ramifications. Compared with the vibrancy and novelty offered by a youthful America and the glamour of Hollywood, traditional English culture appeared weary and outdated. Furthermore, for Western European and English-speaking nations, the mid-twentieth century was a period when seemingly-settled social conventions on class, ethnicity, and gender were subject to question. The burgeoning women’s movement was a major strand of this challenge in its focus on making women visible and in terms of the larger social critique advanced by some of its components. The creative arts offered important, more accessible, spaces for the expression and development of new ideas.   

In Eunice’s specific family background, an important crucible in forming her attitudes—her father Thomas Hanger—was a key figure. Thomas had had his intellectual ambitions denied by poverty, giving him first-hand experience of, and a critical perspective on, social inequity, something he was determined to address in his professional life. The social mobility he had achieved, from pupil-teacher to headmaster, had come through his own efforts. When he did read for a Bachelor of Arts at age forty (1914, University of Queensland), he did so by correspondence, completing his assignments without direct supervision. As a thinker, Thomas was accustomed to being self-directed and driven. Despite enjoying a more consistent education than her father, Eunice also had direct encounters with inequality. While she and her brother were scholarship-winners, Mostyn’s achievements facilitated a high profile career in the law, culminating in his appointment as a high court judge. In her chosen professions, education and the dramatic arts, Eunice did not advance to leading roles, instead enjoying more modest successes. This might have been simply the result of their different ambitions and aptitudes but, undeniably, it would have been harder for Eunice as a woman to advance in quite the same way as her brother.

Nevertheless, it seems that she had acquired the family streak of independence in her thinking and reading habits. Returning to her youthful essay, ‘The Charm of Shakespeare’, alongside the enthusiasm of a high achieving school girl for a literary icon, Eunice gave a more substantial hint of why Shakespeare was important to her: ‘He gets exactly the right word from his abundant vocabulary and puts his idea just as he wants to put it’. She went on to conclude: ‘his power is infinite and infinitely valued, and probably to each reader means a different thing.’[31] Eunice’s bard was neither static nor exclusive; the root of his power lay in his use of language as a tool to vividly create and convey ideas. Social and family contexts were not alone in framing Eunice’s perspectives—her Queensland location was also significant. Unlike the more populous cities of Sydney and Melbourne, both of which boasted established arts and theatre infrastructure, 1950s Brisbane did not have as extensive a theatrical culture. This would suggest that it was comparatively less accustomed and thus less hospitable to more experimental forms of drama which tend to develop in response to dominant forms. The city was visited by the Old Vic 1948 tour, but on a truncated programme. Alden’s jubilee Shakespeare tour (1952) also briefly ventured north with Alden, prior to the visit, feeling it necessary to make a personal appeal to prospective Queensland audiences emphasising the populist elements of Shakespeare, presumably pre-empting some cynicism or even hostility to Shakespeare as ‘high culture’ amongst the northerners.[32]

Eunice shared something of this preference for Shakespeare as the people’s playwright of his times. Her long-standing appreciation of Shakespearian language made her sceptical about the realist re-interpretations increasingly attractive to British companies during this time. In 1935 Laurence Olivier, one of the foremost actors of his generation, appeared in a performance of Romeo and Juliet[33], initially playing Romeo, before swapping with director and fellow actor John Gielgud to play Mercutio in the second half of the run. Critical responses to the two performances were mixed. Olivier was seen as the more passionate and virile Romeo, but Gielgud considered the more competent with Shakespeare’s verse. Despite the reservations, Olivier continued to ‘sell realism in Shakespeare’[34], and once again his Hamlet (1936) was deemed ‘magnetic’ and ‘full of vitality’ but lacking the linguistic grasp of the role’s previous incumbent, Gielgud.[35] Undeterred, he agreed to play Iago simmering with unexpressed sexual desire in Othello (1938) much to the discomfort of Ralph Richardson who kept his depiction of the Moor more orthodox.[36] Turning what may have started as a professional weakness into a theatrical style, Olivier opened the door to a new approach to Shakespearian acting: ‘un-patrician, muscular and anti-romantic’, simmering with underlying class tensions.[37]

During the Old Vic tour, Australian audiences had the chance to witness this first-hand, with Oliver taking the lead in Richard III. As in Britain, the performance prompted a mixed response, some critics lamenting the ‘naturalistic’ style and calling for a straightforward ‘Australian’ approach to Shakespeare performance.[38] In this case, ‘Australian’ style did not mean translating fair Verona into an outback setting and Romeo into a bushranger, but having Shakespeare as they liked him, back to basics, with linguistic proficiency favoured over the dramatic licence. As Waterhouse noted, the lack of an Australian national Shakespearian theatre company reinforced the dependency on touring British companies or reliance on localised amateur productions, unable to command the sort of prestige or financial support of a national body.[39] Eunice was amongst those sceptics. On the one hand, this can be read as a conservative response from someone taught to understand and hold ‘Shakespeare’ in an elevated cultural position. In the twentieth century, Shakespearian language presented the major barrier to popular receptivity of his plays.[40] On the other hand, as she’d written when still a teenager, Eunice saw language as integral to the conveyance of ideas, and responding to them was the personal prerogative of the reader. Whilst playing Shakespeare always involved an act of interpretation, it was the actor’s responsibility to restrict their interpretations to the perimeters set by language. The realist renditions offered by the likes of Oliver added an extra interpretive layer that could strain the textual content too far and even diminish its importance. This put the individual actor, and not the language and the ideas to the fore of the performance. The audience, then, were being asked to respond to a Shakespearian play as well as a British actor’s personal reading. For the forthright actor-director, performing Shakespeare demanded a faithfulness to the text—it was not the time for theatrical egotism. The impact of these convergent contexts for Eunice was a combined enthusiasm for education, literature, and the arts but at the same time an independent mind and confidence in her capacity to challenge them. As an individual reader she harboured an appreciative but not uncritical mind. So, how were these formative experiences and learning environments brought to bear on her adult reading of Shakespeare?

Act 3: Upstage
One way of further gauging how Eunice interpreted Shakespeare is to consider how she used Shakespeare, appropriating and transforming the texts she had read into a different form. Her short comedy Upstage provides such an insight.[41] The play was first performed by the Twelfth Night theatre group in Brisbane in April 1950 when Eunice, aged around 39, was firmly established in her teaching career and had a number of acting and directing credits to her name. It was written, in part, as a protest against the lack of substantial female parts in the little theatre movement which, ironically, was heavily weighted in favour of women who typically made up 80% of group membership.[42] The young Eunice had written effusively of her favourite Shakespearian heroines as ‘charming, loveable women – the two Portias, Desdemona, Cordelia, Olivia, Viola and Juliet’[43], and she revisited many of them in Upstage with a cast including: Juliet (Romeo and Juliet, 1594), Desdemona (Othello, 1604), Ophelia (Hamlet, 1600), Cressida (Troilus and Cressida, 1601), Portia 1 (Julius Caesar, 1599), Rosalind (As You Like It, 1599), Viola (Twelfth Night, 1599), Imogen (Cymbeline, 1609) and Portia 2 (The Merchant of Venice, 1596).[44] The women were to be dressed in contemporary clothing, while the language moved between Shakespearian English, taken directly from the plays, and 1950s vernacular.

The play is set in the ‘other world drawing room’ of William Shakespeare where the women, summoned by the bard himself, gossip and bicker amongst themselves. It is later revealed that they are to be contestants in the first round of a ‘Miss Shakespeare’ competition with further rounds, featuring other heroines, to be held later. This made a reference to the popularity of the 1950s beauty pageant, one stage on which women were allowed a presence, if not a voice or much of a personality. Upstage is defined by subversiveness. Eunice could have written a play with an all-female cast without reference to Shakespeare, but by drawing upon the iconic figure in English literature, she made her critique from within the same theatrical and literary culture that contributed to the restriction of women’s participation in amateur dramatics in the first place. Although working from the inside, however, she chose to use Shakespeare’s characters in a discrete form rather than attempt a feminist re-interpretation of a Shakespearean play.  Eunice reinforced her point by extracting and making use of a tension contained within Shakespeare’s own portrayals of women. She juxtaposed Shakespeare’s clever, cross-dressing heroines Viola, Rosalind, Portia 2 and Imogen who, as she directed in the notes preceding and introducing the characters’ entries, were to appear dressed in slacks, with his classic tragic heroines including Juliet, Ophelia, Portia 1 and Desdemona directed to wear evening gowns. The play took up what one character referred to as ‘the prehistoric argument of women’s rights’[45] as the women debated the advantages and disadvantages of the two modes of femininity represented:

Viola: The boyish figure is the only thing nowadays.

Rosalind: And the outlook that goes with it, frank, outspoken – the sporting type.

Juliet: And glamour? [...] There was a wave of this flat-chested, outspokenness you mention, it was merely a passing fashion, and nowadays it’s glamour you want.

Desdemona: And the outlook that goes with that.

Portia 1: Men really like you to admire them you know.[46]

In resuming ‘the prehistoric argument of women’s rights’, Eunice placed Shakespearean drama in direct dialogue with contending representations of femininity in early 1950s cinematic culture which were also constructed and expressed through clothing and persona. The superstar female icons of the 1940s and 1950s showed a range of contrasting, but in many respects equally idealised, modes of femininity and female power. Stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, and Grace Kelly projected images of beauty and goodness or, alternatively, glamour and smouldering sensuality. On film they were cast as either objects of male adoration and desire, or as temptresses distracting the hero from his true love or proper calling. Off-screen, their lives were no less romantic and dramatic. In 1949 Hayworth caused controversy by marrying a prince and Kelly would also later become the Princess of Monaco. Monroe too, despite studying for a degree in literature and art appreciation, was better known for her bombshell looks, tangled love life and tragic end.

There was, however, an alternative mode of female heroism on offer, best represented by the feisty, savvy Katharine Hepburn, who was regularly seen playing strong, articulate female characters, often dressed in trousers. In 1949 she appeared with Spencer Tracy (her real-life partner) in Adam’s Rib, a story of two married lawyers opposing each other in court, prompting a battle of wits in a bid to win the case. In 1950, she appeared as Rosalind in a production of As You Like It, staged in New York’s Cort Theatre, playing to full audiences for 148 consecutive shows.[47] Hepburn, the daughter of progressive parents, was herself an athletic and outspoken modern woman, risking her career with her public condemnation of the anti-communist movement. She lived much of her life independently, refusing to conform to the demands of the Hollywood publicity machine.[48] The cinematic culture of the early 1950s, then, offered two distinctive visions of femininity, one seemingly hyper-feminised, the other drawing upon qualities more traditionally associated with men. The effect of the latter was, arguably, not to transform women into men, but to create an ambiguous or transient space. In many respects, the androgynous qualities displayed by a figure like Hepburn anticipated, albeit tentatively, a key aesthetic in the subsequent 1960s counter-cultural revolution and in strands of the emerging feminist movement.

Shakespeare too had written in a context where notions of gender were a prominent feature in the collective consciousness. He was, after all, the quintessential Elizabethan writer with all of his major works appearing in the decades following the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) and Queen Elizabeth I’s dramatic transformation into a female war leader. This was also a period where bodily issues (or lack of) were prominent for other reasons. By the 1590s, there was no hope that Elizabeth, then in her sixties, would produce an heir, leaving uncertain the fate of England after her death. Despite, or perhaps because of, this uncertainty, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were a fertile period in literature and the arts, with much of what is commonly associated with Elizabethan culture produced during this time.[49] To this extent, both the 1590s and the 1950s can be seen as compressing into their cultural forms some consciousness of, and response to, challenges and impending changes to existing social and political structures.

In terms of how this was manifested in Shakespeare’s plays, whilst characters like Puck (Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1595) showed a playfulness with gendered characteristics as a fairy or sprite, even a boy one, he is rarely manly in a conventional sense. Merchant of Venice (1596) was the first to make this device central to the plot and to focus it on a human woman rather than a supernatural being. Portia’s cleverness as Balthazar, the young man of the law, provides the play’s climax which, despite being described as a comedy, contained intensely dramatic moments, not least in Portia’s famous speech concerning ‘the quality of mercy.’ As You Like It (1599) and Twelfth Night (1599) followed shortly after and, here again, disguise permitted the women to perform important roles and to address male characters on an equitable footing, something not as evident amongst Shakespeare’s other female characters.[50] In Cymbeline (1609), written and performed six years after the Queen’s death and James I’s coronation in 1603, Imogen’s disguise as Fidele does not have the same narrative significance, nor she the same dramatic presence, of the earlier examples.

Eunice’s preferred mode of femininity is made clear. Upstage gives an explicit advantage to the slacks-wearers. For example Imogen, referred to as an ‘accidental’ slacks-wearer, remarks, ‘Girls in slacks are strong-minded, they take their futures into their own hands,’ implying that women in this mode (and this apparel) could carry, even command, a story alongside their male counterparts. The play also has the slacks-wearers, led by Portia 2, the first and most audacious of the slacks-wearers, doing the most to disrupt protocol, interrupting speeches, refusing formalities and, as the stage directions firmly instruct, laughing frequently, even mockingly, at the use of Shakespearian language. By contrast, the girls in gowns see their futures as inextricably interwoven with their corresponding males, often resulting in a tragic demise, as Desdemona sighs dismally: ‘Yes, it’s a man’s world and when your man doesn’t want you anymore, or when he’s dead, you might as well be dead.’[51] Without a man, then, female presence on the stage was not only unnecessary, it was not possible. Reinforcing this, the gown wearers chastise the slacks-wearers for their disrespectful behaviour. Here it is Juliet—perhaps Shakespeare’s most iconic tragic-romantic heroine and supposedly the epitome of childlike innocence and femininity—who takes the role as instigator. The somewhat cynical depiction of Juliet in the play further reveals something of Eunice’s position. Far from innocent, she is presented as acutely conscious of the sexual power contained within her form of femininity and wields this as a tool to achieve what she wants (see Juliet quote above). In this sense, the debate is more about the most effective form of femininity for the manipulation of men than it is about the mode most empowering for women.

The action comes to a climax when Portia 2 and Juliet go head-to-head over Romeo who, it is revealed, has been secretly courting Portia 2 on the side. Portia 2 argues that instead of coquetry and misery, she has offered him ‘frank honest friendship as well as love.’[52] This time, however, the clever noblewoman is not triumphant. Juliet reveals that she knows that in The Merchant of Venice Portia 2 deliberately selected the song which played in the background as Bassanio, her would-be lover, was forced to choose a bride by casket lottery. Her shrewd choice of song (‘Tell me, where is fancy bred’) stirred memories that prompted him to correctly pick out the casket that bore her name. This is the secret that Juliet threatens to reveal to ‘Will’ (Shakespeare) who, we are told, thought the song ‘a happy accident’ (in the actual play the episode is indeed left ambiguous[53]) and did not suspect Portia’s sleight of hand.  That Portia 2 is horrified by Juliet’s threat and gives up Romeo to her rival to protect her secret makes two suggestions: that the playwright himself would not be happy to learn that such female cleverness and subterfuge had been used against him but also that, for Eunice, subversion could go only so far. It could not amount to total defiance.  

This was not the only jibe to be levelled at the great bard, and more particularly his elevated position in literary culture. Not only is his name consistently shortened to the informal and familiar ‘Will’, there are numerous innuendos to his own lack of fidelity to his wife Anne Hathaway, his slovenly habits as a writer and his tendency to waste his money at The Mermaid tavern.[54] The characters also discuss the trajectory of his career knowingly, for example:

Juliet: Did it work out alright?

Imogen: Perfectly Juliet. I had a happy ending. I belong to the last period.

Portia 2: I don’t. I had a happy ending but we middle period girls worked for it. I consider I earned my happiness.[55]

This discussion develops into literary critique. Portia 1 (the loyal wife of Brutus in Julius Caesar), a gown wearer, argues that the cleverness, comedy and happy endings of the slack-wearer’s plays are ‘common place’, ‘potboilers’, and a product of Shakespeare’s later period when he was past his best.[56] It is, she continues (perhaps to articulate the views of a dominant literary establishment), the tragedies that really matter. This the slack-wearers reject in a storm of animated protest with Viola claiming to have the best poetry, Rosalind the best prose and Portia 2 the best laughs, all significant advances on the heavy-handedness of the tragedies. As Imogen says: ‘There’s quite as much thinking in comedy as in tragedy you know’, to which Portia 2 adds (one suspects with pointed meaning): ‘And more social criticism.’[57]

 The most telling critique of all comes at the very end of the play when the imminent arrival of the man himself is announced, although he is never actually seen. This is done through the full quotation of Milton’s Epitaph on Shakespeare (1630) which begins with the lines:

What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones?

The labour of an age in piled stones?

Or that his hallowed relics be hid

Under a starry pyramid.[58]

In this poem Milton, writing in the first half of the seventeenth century, was concerned to honour Shakespeare and elevate him to the position of literary deity beyond mere ‘mortal monuments.’ But, albeit unwittingly, the epitaph also offers an alternative reading, one that appears to anticipate and critique something of the ‘bardolatry’ that was to follow. The poem goes on: ‘Then that our fancy of itself bereaving, does make us marble with too much conceiving.’ This line addresses the dangers of idolisation which risked paralysing, or turning to marble, the receptivity of what Shakespeare did best—writing and staging plays. The closing lines further reinforce this: ‘That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.’ A king who prefers death and an elegant monument rather than life and action is not a good leader of people. The choice of Milton’s epitaph is a powerful and revealing conclusion to the play. Given that Eunice was an experienced teacher of the liberal arts it is unlikely that it can be seen as anything other than a deliberate, expressive choice.

Whilst subversion was the play’s dominant mode, like Portia 2 it stopped short of total defiance. The humour depended largely on caricature which required an in-depth knowledge of a character’s essential dramatic traits, playfully parodied but fundamentally respected. In the play Ophelia is frequently made to exclaim ‘oh yes I’m dying to hear it’ or ‘I’d have gone simply mad.[59] Lady MacBeth is suitably bloodthirsty, Imogen artless, Portia 2 quick-witted, all captured with precision according to type, enhanced by a skilful interweaving of direct lines and speeches from the plays into the otherwise 1950s vernacular dialogue. This obvious expertise applied not only to the plays but extended to the biographical-historical context of Shakespeare the man, to subsequent scholarly critique of Shakespeare-the-myth and to Shakespeare’s presence in contemporary theatre and cinematic culture, such as Oliver’s film version of Hamlet, released in 1948. Through these layers of inter-textual reference, Upstage demonstrated a thorough knowledge not only of Shakespeare but of the whole discursive and performative apparatus surrounding him.

The most important aspect of Upstage, however, was that it retained a comedic outlook and did not tip over into satire. As a literary strategy, comedy may play with and subvert norms; it may, as Imogen and Portia 2 acknowledge, be critical, suggesting the need to look at a situation and laugh at its silliness or irrationality. But the general mood is redemptive rather than the bitter, cynical humour of satire. The reader or viewer can laugh along with the hapless protagonists, knowing that with each disaster they will pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and, hopefully, learn a lesson. They may even triumph in the end. Whilst Upstage teased at the reverence placed upon the bard, it did so affectionately, never dismissing him out of hand. Arguably, the purpose here was to act as a corrective to the re-reading of Milton’s epigraph, the warning that idolisation obscured what Shakespeare really was: the player’s playwright, who wrote robust stories for a wide audience. For Eunice, with her passion for his rich language-use, in which was encoded all manner of human experiences, this was the Shakespeare she wished to reclaim for women actors.

What can be drawn from Eunice’s re-reading of William Shakespeare? From a young age her disposition as a reader was shaped by two combining and contending modes: receptive and critical. She brought these to bear on her reading of Shakespeare, encountering him both as a rich intellectual resource and also as part of a dominant literary and theatrical culture that provided women limited opportunities to participate. In her re-reading of Shakespeare, she utilised his literary status but also subverted it to make her point. At the same time, as a playwright and actor, she demonstrated a deep knowledge of and appreciation for his work. In this way, Shakespeare was at once a teacher-mentor and a point of critical departure for Eunice and the young women of the Twelfth Night amateur drama group.

Eunice Hanger was one individual and it is not wise to extrapolate her experiences to all Australian readers of Shakespeare from her story. What she does demonstrate is the complexity experienced by Australians encountering English writers and the extent to which reading was a continually negotiated and localised activity. These writers and their works were inscribed with loaded messages of power relations but they were also sources of intellectual and emotional stimulus, addressing large and abiding human questions. Reading could be both, and almost simultaneously, a restrictive and emancipatory activity, shaped by and struggling between multiple, overlapping socio-cultural, political and personal contexts. In Eunice’s case, the struggle had a relatively happy ending. Moving deftly between inspiration, appreciation and critique, she used Shakespeare as a platform to forge a space for her own voice, contributing, as she did so, to a wider process of cultural challenge and social change.

Citation details

Sophie Scott-Brown, 'Upstaged! Eunice Hanger and Shakespeare in Australia', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, originally published 1 April 2016, accessed 24 October 2018.

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