From Harpies To Heroines: How Shakespeare's Women Evolved

From Harpies To Heroines: How Shakespeare's Women Evolved

6:43pm Apr 12, 2015
Women of Will jacket
  • Women of Will jacket

  • Tina Packer is the founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.

    Tina Packer is the founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.

    Kevin Sprague / Courtesy of Knopf

Tina Packer has spent a lifetime researching Shakespeare and his plays, both as an actress and as a director. And as she focused on the role that women play in his works, she noticed a progression.

Consider Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, one of his earliest plays, which centers on a man breaking a defiant woman's spirit. Strong-willed Kate is a harridan; her compliant sister, meanwhile, says things like, "Sir, to your pleasure humbly I subscribe."

And contrast it to the bard's late play Coriolanus, which features Volumnia, the only person strong enough to stand up to the angry general when he decides to wage war on Rome. She's a heroine, saving the day as she tells her son, "Thou shalt no sooner march to assault thy country than to tread — trust to't, thou shalt not — on thy mother's womb."

Packer, the founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., argues that as Shakespeare matured, his female characters did as well. She's traced the change in her new book, Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare's Plays.

Packer tells NPR's Arun Rath that Shakespeare started out with very simple caricatures of women, but he eventually began to make them more complex.

"I think because he was a great artist, he was deeply in touch with his own feminine side," she says — but it took time for him to realize what women were truly like.


Interview Highlights

On the initial portrayal of women in Shakespeare

Right in the very beginning when Shakespeare starts writing about women — and I'm putting this crudely — but he's projecting on them. He's a 17-year-old, maybe a 20-year-old projecting on them. He's either terrified of them — they're viragoes who have to be shut up and tamed and shrews that have to be silent and do what their husbands say — or they're sweet little things. "Oh, I'm so obedient, I'm so sweet and I wouldn't say boo to a goose anywhere!"

They're kind of male fantasies of the kewpie doll. I'm talking Taming of the Shrew, Comedy of Errors and the early history plays, the Henry VI plays going into Richard III — although we're getting much more sophisticated by then.

On the character Bianca in Taming of the Shrew

She does have a mind, but she's outwardly, at any rate, very obedient. She does what her daddy wants her to do,; everybody courts her and she reacts suitably. And in fact she runs off with a man she wants to marry, but it's all a projection ... Shakespeare doesn't even know women properly.

There were lots of pamphlets at the time saying "Can you beat your wife? Is it alright to beat your wife?" And the answer was, "Yes, it's alright to beat your wife, but don't kill them."

On the play with a more sophisticated female character

It's really quite astounding because — Romeo and Juliet. There's a huge break between those early plays where the women are more one dimensional or perhaps two-[dimensional]. Suddenly, in one huge leap, not only does [Juliet] have equal billing in the title, but ... we follow the insight to her character, how she feels, how she thinks. She's just as courageous as Romeo. [Shakespeare] doesn't turn away from how difficult it is for women, but as far as her courage is concerned, it's equal to Romeo's.

And he never goes back from that ... from there after. Whether the women are disguised as men or whether they're in their women's dresses, or whether they're women creating love in the world or whether they're women creating pain and suffering in the world, he never steps back from their full humanity as human beings.

On why she thinks Shakespeare's understanding of women changed

I think he was a great artist. And he was a great artist who wrote about human beings all the time. You can have a great artist like Wagner who writes great emotions, but is a horrible human being, but for Shakespeare he was writing about what does it mean to be a human being.

And I think because he was a great artist, he was deeply in touch with his own feminine side. And as he did that he began to see more and more, not just the bind the women had been in, but how those attributes, the creative attributes, and the way in which women saw the world, could be the way we could stop all of this violence.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to find some good Shakespeare movies that were streaming online. In case it wasn't already clear, I'm a nerd, OK? I came across this great version of "Coriolanus." Ray Fiennes plays the victorious Roman general. He returns to an ungrateful Rome that banishes him. And Vanessa Redgrave plays one of Shakespeare's most fascinating women, Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus. When the rejected Coriolanus decides to wage war against Rome, Volumnia is the only one strong enough to stand up to the angry general.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CORIOLANUS")

VANESSA REDGRAVE: (As Volumnia) I purpose not to wait on fortune 'til these wars determine. If I cannot persuade thee rather to show a noble grace to both parts, than seek the end of one, thou shalt no sooner march to assault thy country than to tread on thy mother's womb that brought thee to this world.

TINA PACKER: That play was written the year Shakespeare's own mother died, so I don't know what that says.

RATH: That's Tina Packer, who spent a lifetime directing and acting in Shakespeare's plays. In her new book, "Women Of Will," she traces the evolution of Shakespeare's women. And Shakespeare did not start off writing sophisticated women like Volumnia.

PACKER: Right in the very beginning when Shakespeare starts writing about women - and I'm putting this crudely - but he's projecting on them. He's a 17-year-old, maybe a 20-year-old projecting on them. You know, he's either terrified of them - they're viragoes who have to be shut up and tamed and, you know, shrews that got to be silent and do what their husbands say - or they're sweet little things, you know? Oh, I'm so obedient. I'm so sweet and I wouldn't say boo to a goose anywhere!

And, you know, they're kind of male fantasies of the kewpie doll. I'm talking "Taming Of The Shrew," "Comedy of Errors" and the early history plays, the "Henry VI" plays going into "Richard III," although we're getting much more sophisticated by then.

RATH: And in the "Taming Of The Shrew," there, of course - there's Kate, the so-called shrew in question, and then her sister is sort of like you've described the perfect kind of everything's OK feminine...

PACKER: Yeah. Yes. I mean, she does have a mind, but she's outwardly - at any rate, she's very obedient. She does what her daddy wants her to do. She does what, you know - everybody courts her and she reacts to them suitably. And in fact, then she runs off with a man that she wants to marry, you know? But it's all a projection, Arun. It's all a projection. Shakespeare doesn't even know women properly. I mean, there were lots of pamphlets at the time saying - can you beat your wife? Is it alright to beat your wife? And the answer was, yes, it was alright to beat your wife, but don't kill them.

RATH: So Tina, which roles do you see a more sophisticated idea of gender taking hold in Shakespeare?

PACKER: Well, it's really quite astounding, because "Romeo And Juliet" - there's a huge break between those early plays where the women are more one dimensional or perhaps two. Suddenly, in one huge leap, not only does she have equal billing in the title, but Juliet -we follow the insight to her character, how she feels, how she thinks. She's just as courageous as Romeo.

I mean, he doesn't turn away from how difficult it is for women, but as far as her courage is concerned, it's equal to Romeo's. And he never goes back from that. He never goes back from that from thereafter. Whether the women are disguised as men or whether they're in their women's dresses, or whether they're women creating love in the world or whether they're women creating pain and suffering in the world, he never steps back from their full humanity as human beings.

RATH: In assessing Shakespeare, well, you talked about how early on in the plays he's sort of like a typical young man in his view of women.

PACKER: Yeah.

RATH: And this view evolves and becomes more sophisticated. So would you say overall he was a man of his time or was he kind of a progressive proto-feminist?

PACKER: Oh, I think he started off as a man of his time. And then, I think, he became a deeply progressive feminist. I think he was a great artist. And he was a great artist who wrote about human beings all the time. You can have a great artist like Wagner who writes great emotions, but is a horrible human being. But for Shakespeare, he was writing about what does it mean to be a human being.

And I think because he was a great artist, he was deeply in touch with his own feminine side. And as he did that, he began to see more and more, not just what a bind the women had been put in, but how those attributes, the creative attributes, and the way in which women saw the world, could be the way we could stop all of this violence, which is one reason why this effort now that everybody's on to educate women. So women have equal opportunities with men is one of the things that's going to right the balance in the world.

RATH: Tina Packer is an actress and she's also the founder of Shakespeare and Company, the Berkshire's Theatre Company in Massachusetts. Her new book is called "Women Of Will: Following The Feminine In Shakespeare's Plays." Tina, that was a pleasure. Thank you.

PACKER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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