The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.532  Monday, 9 November 2015


From:        Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         Monday, November 9, 2015

Subject:    SBReview_23: Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays




Tina Packer, Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. xvii + 336 pp. US$13.99. (ISBN-13: 978-0307700391)


Lori Leigh Victoria University of Wellington


Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays is the result of a stage production of the same title and of Tina Packer’s long and impressive career as an actor, teacher, and founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, a performance and training center in Lenox, Massachusetts. Packer’s book undertakes to trace a trajectory of female characters in Shakespeare’s writing. This is often done through attempts to draw parallels from Shakespeare’s life experiences and the kinds of female characters or feminine themes/threads he created at any given time—from the start of his young adult career through to his last plays written in “retirement” in Stratford. The end result is a kind of map of Shakespeare’s changing attitudes toward women with plot points from his life inserted along the way. Of course, Packer is also drawing heavily on her years of experience as an artist performing these works—a wealth of indispensible knowledge.


To this end, Women of Will is structured like a play: in five acts—complete with a prologue and epilogue.  In Act 1—the earliest plays—women are either viragos to be tamed or virgins to be won. In Act 2, women shift from being mere objects of manipulation to sharing equal status as lovers in sexual/spiritual partnerships with men. By the third act, women take on even more agency: “all endeavor to tell the truth about what they see and hear. They are courageous” (5).  When we move into the fourth act “all hell breaks loose” (6). Women “are not interested in truth; they are interested in power” (6). It is a dark world where both men and women risk being annihilated by selfishness and hunger for status. In Packer’s fifth and final act, Shakespeare tells a different tale all together. The women—primarily the daughters—redeem the mistakes of the male protagonists.  The act-by-act chronological order, beginning with the earliest plays and closing with the late plays, is a useful structure for telling the story of Shakespeare’s developing relationship with his female characters.


In ‘Act 1: The Warrior Women: Violence to Negotiation’, which focuses very briefly on the early comedies but primarily investigates women of the history plays, Packer demonstrates, despite the predominant motifs of male-dominated politics and wars, how “Each woman shifts the balance of power—and breaks up the monotony of the way men fight” (48).  The section on Margaret is particularly insightful as Packer shows the evolution of her character through all four plays— from a young French woman running around on the battlefield to an English queen running the kingdom much more so than her husband, and finally to a widow living on the fringes of the palace in Richard III teaching the other women how to lament and curse.  It is fitting that Packer’s audition piece for the Royal Shakespeare was Margaret’s “molehill” speech, as she seems to have a deep understanding of the character that could only come from years of intimacy with the role. 


‘Act 2: The Sexual Merges with the Spiritual: New Knowledge’ links the plays that feature lovers’—and therefore heroines’—names in titles: Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, and Antony and Cleopatra.  For the first time, men and women are equal partners. This is also the first time Women of Will begins to heavily romanticize Shakespeare’s life to hypothesize about the writer’s treatment of women in the plays.  As a practice-led researcher, I am interested in Women of Will when Packer’s theatrical experience is used as evidence to support claims and less engaged when the book draws heavily upon theories of Shakespeare’s personal life.  To this end, it’s a shame that a feminist book such as this relegates Anne Hathaway (once again) to the older woman, the wife Shakespeare got pregnant, and whom he couldn’t possibly passionately love as he did the Dark Lady.  


‘Act 3: Living Underground or Dying to Tell the Truth’ focuses on the women in the cross-dressing comedies, the women in the tragedies (Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia), as well as the women in the two problem plays: Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well.  


‘Act 4: Chaos is Come Again: The Lion Eats the Wolf’ discusses the other women in King Lear (Goneril and Regan) and ties them to Volumnia and Lady Macbeth. Oddly, Timon of Athens is also included in this section. There is no discussion here of female characters as Timon only has two bit parts for women in it, but the play is used for Packer to continue her connection of Shakespeare’s life to his plays and argue that Timon conveys Shakespeare’s disenchantment with London life and denotes a breaking point. 


Finally, Imogen (Innogen), Hermione, Paulina, Perdita, Marina, and Miranda—the women of the late romances—are explored in ‘Act 5: The Maiden Phoenix: The Daughter Redeems the Father’. Whereas Shakespeare was drawn to the idea of the hero in the earlier plays, here Packer contends Shakespeare is aligning himself with the artist and the restorative powers of creativity. Daughters are phoenixes, artists who offer a possibility of redemption and resurrection, new life—usually atoning for the sins of their fathers. I agree with Packer that The Winter’s Tale “holds Shakespeare’s deepest effort to understand how women understand the world” (280); further, it’s a formidable argument to suggest the collaboration of the three women in the play—and their ancient archetypes of “the mother, the witch, and the virgin”—bring about the catharsis of the play. 


What is disappointing about the final chapter of the book is Packer’s dismissal of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a play that scholarly consensus now confirms is a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher. This seems particularly unusual as she includes Henry VIII.  Since The Two Noble Kinsmen contains more roles for women than any Shakespeare play since Richard III and offers two very interesting female characters in Emilia and the Jailer’s Daughter it is unsatisfying to omit this play which certainly could have assisted Packer’s overall thesis:  Shakespeare’s increasing aptitude for depicting multidimensional women on stage. 


But this omission undermines what is excellent about Women of Will. The breadth of a work that covers the entire canon of Shakespeare is commendable. Packer has written about (almost, see above) every work and therefore unpacked (pun intended) a wealth of information on Shakespeare’s female characters. It’s astounding really, and I cannot think of another work that accomplishes this feat.  Women of Will is an enjoyable read and a welcome addition to works about Shakespeare’s women. 




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