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'Women of Will' argues that to know Shakespeare, you must know his women

Tina Packer delves into the psychological and social roles Shakespeare's female characters play and their impact on others.

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    Women of Will:
    Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays
    By Tina Packer
    Knopf Doubleday
    336 pp.

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Tina Packer does not need to be told to “lean in.”  At 76, she has founded one of the largest Shakespeare festivals in the country (Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts), directed most of Shakespeare’s plays, and written and starred in the one-woman-show "Women of Will," which she travels around the country performing. 

Now she has translated that performance into the book, Women of Will: The Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays, which delves into the psychological and social roles his women characters play and their impact on others.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of women is not just one aspect of his work for Packer, but key to understanding the development of his world view, shedding light on his perception of the church, imperial expansion, the concept of honor, how we grieve, and our relationship to speech and language.  To look at Shakespeare’s women is to see the whole of the man and his world.

"Women of Will" covers a lot of terrain, spanning from early comedies to later “romances,” and Packer emphasizes that Shakespeare’s perception of women evolved immensely during that time.  The youth who penned "The Taming of the Shrew" and "The Comedy of Errors" was not the same who created adventurous and vocal heroines like Viola of "Twelfth Night" or Rosalind of "As You Like It." 

I’m no Renaissance scholar, but I’ve seen my share of Shakespeare – growing up near the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey with a father who was a Shakespeare aficionado meant I got to see Elizabeth McGovern and Edward Herrmann in "Twelfth Night" – and frankly, I found it liberating to be told that, yes, "The Taming of the Shrew" is as soul-crushingly misogynistic as it always seems on stage and no, Shakespeare didn’t intend it as a social commentary.  He was just young.

Yet Packer also identifies certain ideals in the relationships between men and women, and this is the crux of her book.  Love is both a spiritual and sexual union for Shakespeare; the two are not at odds as the Puritans (or some contemporary religions) might see it.  Shakespeare’s vision of love exists as an antidote to war, she suggests – and not just to war, but the root of war, which is the drive men feel for “honor.”

Love must also be reflected in parity. Packer observes that women’s voices function as a kind of litmus test in the plays, not just for the male characters, but for the world they inhabit. The repression or disregard of women’s voices signals a sick society. "Othello," she claims provocatively, is more about gender than race. When Benedick listens to Beatrice’s defense of Hero in "Much Ado About Nothing," we know he’s alright.

Packer’s approach is at once humanistic and grounded in the historical context of Elizabethan England, where the question of whether women had souls was still being debated. Her critiques of contemporary cultural may be predictable, but they are still astute and useful in opening up the plays. Analyzing "Antony & Cleopatra," Packer highlights what Alexandria stood for as a center of multiracialism, learning, and trade – all lost in its defeat by Rome. This multicultural, cosmopolitan society is what Cleopatra embodied, she suggests, rather than a stereotypical femme fatale who seduced Antony into surrender, as Cleopatra has so often been cast. Like the Roman empire, America will collapse, too, Packer asserts, but just as the structures and culture of Rome remain, so, too, will our “church” – the corporation, the altar at which we worship.

Of "Measure for Measure," she writes – thinking, perhaps, of fundamentalism – “Shakespeare really understood the relationship between repressed desire and physical violence – whether it was embedded in the law of the land or stood outside the law.”

Packer’s book falters slightly only in her reliance on the concept of “feminine” from Carol Gilligan’s 1982 book "In a Different Voice." Using this term to bundle certain qualities implies that women are a biologically determined monolith – we are all innately gentler, more nurturing, etc. That’s clearly not Packer’s intent, but it’s a minor weakness, making some sections feel dated.

The strengths of the book far outweigh this quibble, however.  For in Shakespeare’s elevation of love above power or ambition, Packer shows the radical departure he took from the dominant values espoused by men of his day and the way certain ideas transcend time and geography. I found myself reminded of the exiled Iraqi poet, Dunya Mikhail, who has spoken of love as a response to a war-torn world – an aesthetic, a value, and a practice.  Shakespeare would have enjoyed her poetry.

Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and a regular Monitor contributor.

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