Book Review: “Women of Will” by Tina Packer

Women of Will:  Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays by Tina Packer

 Tina Packer is a veteran Shakespearian, one of the founders of Shakespeare & Company, an actor and director, gives us this intriguing meditation on the women in Shakespeare’s plays. This book is part of a larger project in which Packer and colleague Nigel Gore have traveled the world to present a show of selections of Shakespeare’s women. I haven’t seen the show, but the book gives me so many new perspectives on the plays I have to imagine the show is awesome.

This study is particularly interesting because Packer is not only a student of Shakespeare, she is an actor and has run a theater company, which she feels gives her a deep connection to old Will’s mind and life.

Packer follows Will’s development as a playwright and finds that as he matured he learned a lot about women, and incorporated these understandings into the plays in ways that are not always understood. In fact, the women are absolutely critical to the later plays and to Shakespeare’s thinking.

Packer traces hypotheses about Shakespeare’s own life and relations to women. For example, she compares the sketchy and basically juvenile women in early plays with the character of Juliet, and the deep and beautiful relationship between she and Romeo. Packer sees evidence that Will fell deeply in love with a remarkable woman at this time.  She makes a case to show the complexity of that real life relationship and the extraordinary intellectual and interpersonal equality of the two lovers—which is unusual even today.

From this experience, Packer argues, Shakespeare learned much about the dilemmas of actual women’s lives, the consequences of their lack of power, and the methods by which women try to survive. This understanding can be perceived in the various female characters and situations in the plays that follow.

With her experience as an actress and director, she gives us interesting perspectives on the relations of men and women in the plays, and speculates about Shakespeare’s pondering on “masculine”, “feminine”, “honor”, and love. He came to believe that love is not possible unless the lovers, men and women, are completely equal, and several plays illustrate what happens when this is not the case.

She finds many of the women (and men) to represent quite sophisticated and surprisingly contemporary “feminist” concepts. He came to believe that love is not possible unless the lovers, men and women, are completely equal.

I have be more than a little skeptical of such anachronisms, projecting current anxieties and controversies onto Elizabethan show business. However, the status of women hasn’t actually changed much in 450 years, alas, so the position and dilemma of women does carry forward right down to today.

Even if Packer’s interpretations are not wholly accurate (and how could we really know?) they certainly give us an interesting angle on these old plays, one that lets them talk right into some of our deepest places.

I couldn’t possibly say how this work will be received in “academic” realms. Regardless of any pedantic quibbling, this is an interesting document by an eminent practitioner. And I think it is safe to say that Packer will influence productions and acting in the coming decades.


 

  1. Tina Packer, Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

 

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