What You Didn't Know About Shakespeare's Women

by Shaun Fitzpatrick

In part because I think having a social life is way overrated, I spend a lot of time thinking about Shakespeare — particularly Shakespeare's women. (I was the girl who ranked 25 Shakespeare characters based on dateability, after all. You're welcome.) I've read many of his plays, taken classes on his works in college, and have trudged through more than my fair share of academic articles on him.

Any current or former English major knows that this isn't uncommon. Anyone with a passionate love for the written word eventually finds herself camped out in the Shakespeare aisle of the library, poring over plays and articles to get a glimpse into the mind of the man who continues to inspire so many of our favorite writers.

In addition to being a book-lover, I'm also a pretty outspoken feminist (spoiler alert!) Although I typically tried to mix up the lenses through which I look at a text when writing academically, so I don't ;seem like a one-trick pony, I always find myself drawn to a work's female characters. I can't help it! It's hard not to get caught up in the struggles of Shakespeare's ladies. And boy, do they tend to struggle. The ratio of men to women in Shakespeare's plays heavily skews male, and yet the ladies seem to see more than their fair share of suffering. They're always been married off against their will, killed, or pushed aside in favor of the hero. Not cool, Will.

Tina Packer, a co-founder of the Shakespeare & Company theatre company, doesn't see Shakespeare's characters as victims, though. In fact, despite their relatively minor role in most of his plays, she believes that Shakespeare was highly focused on his female characters, and that you can watch his evolution as a writer by looking at how he treats his women. She was so passionate about this idea that she wrote a book and a play based on it, both titled Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare's Plays. In it, Packer walks us through Shakespeare's canon (she's read A LOT) and looks at how his women change over the course of his writing career, maturing as he does. She argues that the complexity of his female characters shows that Shakespeare was trying to show that not only were women equal to men, but that this equality had to be recognized to create a better world. Packer believes that Shakespeare was one of the first to openly empathize with and write sympathetic female characters.

Here are some her main points she about Shakespeare's women in Women of Will:

Watching the Evolution of Shakespeare's Women Shows How He Matures As a Writer

The earlier the play, the less developed Shakespeare's women were. In the beginning, his women were either idealized virgins or terrible shrews, neither of which he bothered to develop. As Shakespeare matured as a writer, however, his women became more complex. He began treating them as people every bit as nuanced as his male characters, and Packer credits him as being one of the first to really empathize with and write about the struggles of being a woman.

Women Are Always "Skilled Observers" of Power, Because They Usually Can't Hold It Themselves

Elizabeth might have been queen, but in Shakespeare's day women typically weren't holding a ton of power. Instead, they were always watching shifts in power, usually to see how it would ultimately affect their lives. They could do their best to influence those with power, and maybe get a bit of their own in return, but often they were frustrated by their inability to act. Think of Beautrice, unable to stand up for poor shamed Hero and forced to appeal to Benedick to go to bat for her.

When Shakespeare's Women Start Acting Like His Men, Sh*t Tends To Hit the Fan

While I don't entirely agree with this point (I tense up when someone suggests that there are certain characteristics that are intrinsically or universally feminine), Packer believes that the truly deplorable women in Shakespeare become the way they are by copying the actions of the men around them. She points to King Lear's daughters and Lady MacBeth in particular, both of whom conform to the masculine political systems in place around them (usually involving killing a lot of people). When they give up their femininity in favor of masculine power, this lack of feminine power tips the scales and throws everything into chaos.

In His Great Lovers, Shakespeare Strove to Show How Beautiful Equality Between Men and Women Could Be

Looking at Romeo and Juliet and Anthony and Cleopatra, Packer calls their relationships "groundbreaking," noting that in these pairings there is no weaker partner. Shakespeare makes Juliet and Cleopatra every bit as complex and developed as Romeo and Anthony, acknowledging them as equally powerful forces. They are not just objects that are loved, but love just as fiercely as their men and fight for this love. In writing about couples that were equal in character (particularly in reference to Anthony and Cleopatra) Packer writes, "It's Shakespeare's most committed attempt to see what the possibility for the world could be if we had real equality between men and women, if both had power in the social and political world, and if their highest spiritual calling was their sexual passion for each other."

Sometimes Women Have to Go "Underground" to Learn About Themselves and Make Changes...

Packer points to Viola and Rosalind as women who are only able to come into their own and change the course of their lives by dressing up as men. Even though they do eventually reveal themselves, it's typically after the action has taken place. Because of their lack of access to power as women, they have to adopt another identity to actually get sh*t done.

...Because Women Who Dare to Tell the Truth As Themselves Don't Usually Fair Too Well

Think of Ophelia, or poor Desdemona. Both try to hold on to their identity as a woman and speak the truth, and both end up dead. Unlike those comedic heroines who dress as men and only later reveal themselves to be women, women who try to make changes as women tend to meet a sticky end. As Packer writes, "They stay in their frocks; they align their perceptions as women not with coquetry or docility but with words that challenge the reality of those in power, and they die for it."

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