Was Shakespeare a feminist?

Renowned English director Tina Packer discusses her now book, “Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays”

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Tina Packer has devoted most of her life to Shakespeare. The English actress has directed most of his plays, acted in many and taught them all. Nearly 50 years ago, she founded Shakespeare & Company, a Massachusetts-based theater company dedicated to performing and promoting his works. And this week, the theater veteran released her first book, Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays.

Incorporating scholarship as well as insights gleaned from her own experience of Shakespeare, Packer traces the evolution of the Bard’s writing on women–from the female caricatures he invented as a young poet to the complex and even scheming women he began to portray as he aged–and relates these developments to events in his own life. The new book grew out of a play of the same name, which Packer and actor Nigel Gore have been touring around the world since 2010.

“This was an inner journey as well as an outer journey,” Packer told Women in the World. “I identify with most of the women characters, from the young innocent things that I used to play, to the women who are always scheming and wanting power, to the women who want to heal everything.”

Women in the World spoke to Packer about how Shakespeare’s views on women changed, what prompted those developments, and why it matters.

Women in the World: How did this project come about?

Tina Packer: I’d done about 20, 25 plays when I started to see a pattern in the development of Shakespeare’s writing about women.

WITW: What was that pattern?

TP: I perceived five major shifts. When he was a young playwright, he didn’t really inhabit women. He just projected onto them, like many teenage boys. They’re enthralled by women, and put them on a pedestal and worship them from afar, or else they see them either as slags or viragos. It’s all projection.

Then suddenly, there’s a huge leap. He goes to actually inhabiting women and understanding them. The sexual knowledge merges with the new spiritual knowledge. This begins with Romeo and Juliet. She gets equal billing in the title, and he writes on the inside of her, not from the outside of her. Although they’re not equal in the outside world–because women could never be equal in the outside world then–they are equal in Shakespeare’s imagination. Much Ado About Nothing is another example.

In that period he also fell in love himself, very deeply. He was married at 18 to Anne Hathaway who was eight years older than he was. They had two children, and he left very shortly after the twins were born.

Then in the third level of development, women endeavor to tell the truth more and more about what the social and political situations around them. If they disguise themselves as men, they’re fine and everybody listens to them. They can alter things and make things happen. But if they stay in their frock and tell the truth, they’re killed, or they run mad and kill themselves, like Ophelia in Hamlet.

Then in the fourth section, women really want as much as men. They’re ambitious. They want influence. They dominate the plays–the eldest daughters in King Lear, Volumnia in Coriolanus–but it ends up disastrously, because they no longer are in touch with the feminine sensibility of relationships, the feeling for other people that women are good at.

The last shift is when Shakespeare himself leaves London and goes back to Stratford. He starts writing as a kind of fairy tale or myth. Some horrible thing happens at the top of the play, and it’s not put right in one generation. It’s put right in two. The daughters find a way to redeem the sins of the fathers. They use their creative energy to make things right. The idea of creativity is aligned with feminine qualities.

WITW: How come you decided to adapt the play Women of Will as a book?

TP: Because I’m an actor and a director, my natural instinct is to go toward a theatrical performance, but I was making notes and I realized fairly soon in the creative process that it would eventually become a book, too. It took me a long time to get there. I took time off and got a Guggenheim fellowship to develop it.

WITW: Was the process of writing a book very different from creating a play?

TP: I was able to go off and explore things and do much more scholarship and reading around what I’d been creating as a theatrical piece. I was able to spend hours in the libraries, reading books by scholars to see if a thought of mine concurred with one of theirs or if it was a totally new thought.

WITW: What do Shakespeare’s female characters tell us about his world view, his work as a whole?

TP: Here’s a man who’s performed all over the world. For some reason, he touches a nerve in every country. If you look at what he wrote about women, you see in the end he’s saying: Somehow we have to stop the unending violence. He tried to ask himself the question, “How do you get out of the violence?” And the answer is, through women and creativity. Men must be allowed to have their deeply feminine attributes too, and those deeply feminine attributes must come to the fore.​

This interview has been edited and condensed.




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