A terrific series explores the women of Shakespeare
Scholars have said many thoughtful things about Shakespeare's women, but Tina Packer, who helmed the highly respected Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts for three decades, may be the best guide: She not only has the required analytic ability and the passion, but she has also inhabited these women, exploring their minds and souls as both actor and director. Now Packer has created a five-part theatrical piece called Women of Will, all parts of which are being presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival this summer on separate evenings.
There are amazing women in the later Shakespeare: Viola, Rosalind, Portia — all of them strong, smart and enterprising, quick with a quip and also capable of expressing deep truths about love and human nature in the most sublime poetry. As for tragic characters, who but Shakespeare could have invented a Lady Macbeth?
Packer's theory is that Shakespeare's changing approach to women over the years illustrates his own ever-evolving complexity of thought and understanding. Women in his time, she points out, were necessarily shrewd observers, analysts of the power structure and their own place within it.
In the first of the Women of Will series, Warrior Women, From Violence to Negotiation, Packer deals with the early plays. These female characters tend to be less multi-dimensional than those who come later, and more influenced by the stereotypes of Shakespeare's age. In the comedies, Packer points out, women were either virgins to be placed on pedestals or shrieking harpies requiring taming by virile males. But Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew — the most famous of the harpies — balances between caricature and something a little deeper. The woman is repellent, half-crazed with rage, but we're also given a glimpse of the smothering family and society that made her so, and now and then she shows a flicker of kindness, a moment of genuine yearning.
It's with Katherina that Packer begins, giving the speech in which she insists to her father that she will speak her mind: "My tongue will tell the anger of my heart/ Or else my heart concealing it will break/ And rather than it shall, I will be free/ Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words." In opening with this, Packer's intention is clear: to give Shakespeare's women their voice. But her delivery also illustrates the many ways in which words can be interpreted — and how they're influenced by circumstances and the actions of others. Her interpretation of Katherina changes according to whether Petruchio — who's played, like all the other roles in this two-hander, by Packer's acting partner, Nigel Gore — is solicitous, amused or threatening. Approaching the big closing speech in which, at her new husband's insistence, Katherina castigates the other wives for their disobedience — one of the hardest speeches for contemporary actors and directors to deal with — Packer simply comments, "I can't say this." But then she does, alternately speeding through, simpering or raging, and opening new worlds of possibility with each change.
If in the early comedies women are viragoes or virgins, in the histories they're often fighters — and God help those who oppose them. Joan of Arc is a magnificent creature when she first appears in Henry VI, Part One, Packer points out, but as the play progresses, she shrinks in moral stature — not surprising, given England's feelings toward the French. Then comes Margaret of Anjou, transformed by grief into a monster, taunting and ultimately murdering the Duke of York in a scene from Henry VI, Part Three. Straddling her victim, Packer is bigger than life, incandescent in her evil, as chock-full of direst cruelty as Lady Macbeth could ever wish to be.
This is neither a full-out performance nor an illustrated lecture, but something in between. The approach is disarmingly informal, with Gore and Packer commenting on the words they've just said and the proceedings frequently punctuated by Packer's full-throated, wicked laugh. It's a pleasure to see Shakespeare performed by actors as at home with the work as these two, and when they invite us into Part Two (The Sexual Merges With the Spiritual: New Knowledge) with a reading of the gentle, heartfelt sonnet that marks the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet, we're very inclined to accept.
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