From Roman Britain to the Twenty-First Century United States

The Construction of White Masculinity in the Cymbelines of William Shakespeare and Michael Almereyda


  • Katherine Gillen Texas A&M University--San Antonio


Cymbeline, Michael Almereyda, Race, Whiteness, Maculinity, Appropriation


Michael Almereyda sets his Cymbeline (2014) in the post-Great Recession United States, using his Shakespearean source material to explore questions of white grievance in a multicultural society. Whereas Shakespeare’s play draws on the Roman past to conceptualize an emerging imperial identity for Britain, Almereyda’s film examines a United States in decline in which white men feel embattled. Echoing themes in Kurt Sutter’s television show Sons of Anarchy, the film pits a predominantly white, drug-trafficking motorcycle club called the Britons against the corrupt multicultural state, represented by the Roman police force. Like Sons of Anarchy, Almereyda’s film sensationalizes white masculine rebellion against a liberal, multicultural state, even as it exposes white grievance as toxic. Despite this critique, though, the film suggests that white masculinity can be remediated—and recuperated—by incorporating a more progressive, inclusive sensibility. As such, Almereyda’s Cymbeline ultimately recenters white masculinity, and it stops short of exposing systems of racial and gendered oppression that are endemic to American society. Even more perniciously, the film’s amalgamation of color-blind and color-conscious casting associates Black people with corrupt state power, thus misrepresenting the nature of white supremacy in the United States. Ultimately, despite its diverse, countercultural aesthetic, Almereyda’s Cymbeline illuminates the potential of Shakespeare appropriation to validate racist and misogynist ideas—a potential, as I argue in my conclusion, that is more fully realized in white nationalist Stephen Bannon’s “rap opera” appropriation of Coriolanus.

Author Biography

Katherine Gillen, Texas A&M University--San Antonio

Katherine Gillen is Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University–San Antonio. She is the author of Chaste Value: Economic Crisis, Female Chastity, and the Production of Social Difference on Shakespeare's Stage (Edinburgh University Press, 2017) and of several journal articles and essays. Her current work focuses on race and gender in early modern drama and on Shakespeare appropriation, and her monograph in progress explores the ways early modern dramatists used classical sources in their articulation of English whiteness.