It’s one thing to see dozens of actors performing Shakespeare’s plays onstage. But when only a few actors double, triple, and sometimes quadruple roles to tell Shakespeare’s epic tales, it’s quite a different thing — it’s a uniquely theatrical event.
Double-casting is a theater technique (as opposed to a literary one) that creates a meta-narrative, transforming a large-cast play into a present-tense adventure. Actors swapping costumes and changing roles (and sometimes genders) become part of the thrilling ride, and theater’s fundamental artifice becomes its strength. Theater’s very artificiality becomes a feature, not a bug.
A handful of actors playing multiple roles emphasizes theater’s signature power, which is: People Playing Pretend. Be they kids in a school play or serious award-winning thespians interpreting the world’s greatest theatrical literature, a single actor assuming more than one role creates unspoken connections between frequently disparate characters. Servants become warriors. Nobles become fools. Fairies become rude mechanicals.
Shakespeare utilized this trick to both amplify subtext and heighten the drama. There’s a tradition that suggests the same actor originally doubled as both Cordelia and the Fool in King Lear. Casting one actor in both roles creates a line of connection between them, underscoring the fact they’re two of the few characters who tell the truth to the king to his face, and highlighting their mutual love for him. When the Fool exits for the last time in the middle of the play, he doesn’t really disappear because we see the same actor again playing Cordelia. And when Lear holds the dead Cordelia in his arms and cries out, “And my poor fool is hanged,” it’s not the non-sequitur it might be when two separate actors play each role. We feel the pain of Lear’s loss doubly; he’s mourning two characters in the body of one actor.
Shakespeare did it for laughs, too. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon and Titania are frequently played by the same actors who play Theseus and Hippolyta, showing complementary depictions of marital struggles and power, both mortal and magical. It’s also possible for the actors playing the four servant fairies (Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, Mustardseed) to double as the four mechanicals (Flute, Snout, Snug, Starveling), emphasizing their respective servile relationships and doubling the delight. In such instances, when Bottom complains that his fellows are making fun of him — “Why, this is to make an ass of me!” — he’s underlining the truth in the pun: They literally will make fun of him when they return in their alternate guises as fairies — and he literally is now an ass.
In Hamlet, it’s possible for the same actor to play both Hamlet’s uncle Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This raises the stakes significantly for Hamlet by making his task that much more difficult: How can he possibly kill his hated uncle when he looks so much like his beloved father? And if the same actor who plays Polonius suddenly pops out of Ophelia’s grave as the First Gravedigger, it’s startling, funny (always to be desired, especially in a tragedy), and wonderfully reassuring. Of course, we know it was the character of Polonius who was slain, not the actor playing him — but still, it’s a relief.
A small band of players assuming multiple roles is also a celebration of ensemble, a way to give agency to actors to dazzle audiences with multiple performances. Actors hate being defined by any one aspect of themselves, and part of the huge fun of theater is watching them take on multiple roles that show off their incredible range and diversity.
Theater audiences know they’re not watching realism but performance, and even if performed naturalistically, anything that heightens the live and potentially dangerous aspect of the event becomes even more desirable. Will this actor make that costume change in time? How will the actors cover if an entrance is late or a wig or mustache comes askew? What rumbling undercurrents are exposed when a character’s enemy is played by the same actor who plays her lover? Putting on a play is in its own way a suspense-filled high-wire act, and showing the seams in performance (with the understanding that at any moment the house of cards a play’s presentation is at its heart could collapse) gives a wonderful tension to every performance. Or it should.
And the wonderful variety of a small cast delivering epic performances gives audiences an extra and wonderful investment in the theatrical experience.