Interview: Tina Packer, Author Of 'Women Of Will' In her new book Women of Will, Tina Packer traces Shakespeare's maturation — and, she argues, the corresponding transformation of his female characters from caricatures to fully-realized humans.
NPR logo

From Harpies To Heroines: How Shakespeare's Women Evolved

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/398571514/399210589" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
From Harpies To Heroines: How Shakespeare's Women Evolved

From Harpies To Heroines: How Shakespeare's Women Evolved

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/398571514/399210589" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • 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.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.