To her, Bard looks like a lady

In 'Women of Will,' Tina Packer uses Shakespeare's words to trace his increasing understanding of females.

03/14/2011 8:00 PM

03/15/2011 8:21 AM

There's a reason William Shakespeare wrote so many complicated roles for women, especially toward the end of his career: He was one.

Not literally, of course. Tina Packer, founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., wouldn't try to sell you on the idea that Elizabeth I wrote the plays, as some people assert. But internally.

As he became a husband and a father to a daughter, writing during the reign of the most powerful female monarch in history - and, perhaps, as he fell in love with a lady he could never call his own - he began to understand women thoroughly. The shrews and symbols of his early plays were transformed into wives and lovers, then into philosophers and healers.

That's the arc Packer and Nigel Gore will trace in the two-person "Women of Will," which gets a Charlotte premiere this week, from Collaborative Arts Theatre.

This sponsorship makes sense: Collaborative puts on two of the Bard's plays each summer, and co-founder Elise Wilkinson trained at Packer's company in 1998. She models her approach on its teaching methods and has imported its actors to teach over the past three years. (Packer and Gore will tutor local actors, too.)

"Women of Will" begins, as the Bard did, with early history plays and crude comedies: "The Taming of the Shrew" or "The Comedy of Errors."

"In the early comedies, women divide into viragos - such as Kate in 'Shrew' - or sweet young things on pedestals," says Packer, her native British accent audible after 34 years of work in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts.

"In the history plays, you get Joan of Arc taking up arms like a man and Elizabeth (Woodville) using sexuality to snare Edward IV. Shakespeare is projecting his ideas onto women when he writes about them. But by the time he gets to Juliet, he writes as if he is Juliet, the way he writes about Romeo. He never goes back to projecting upon women."

From that point, she feels, Shakespeare began to write about men and women who connect as equals. Both genders have spiritual and sexual needs and "meet at the full," as Antony and Cleopatra do.

Soon his women became "truth-tellers" in plays such as "Hamlet," "Twelfth Night" and "As You Like It." Says Packer, "If they stay in frocks, they end up dead or mad. But if they change themselves or dress as men, they maneuver the play, so it turns out right."

As Shakespeare passed through a despairing phase, women took on masculine aspects in "Coriolanus," "Macbeth" and "King Lear" - Lady Macbeth asks to be "unsexed" as she plots Duncan's murder - or became irrelevant, as in "Timon of Athens." (The two women in that misanthropic play are whores.)

But the Bard had one more twist left in his quill. In his late plays, written as he went back from London to Stratford to live quietly, he deals in myths and folk tales where daughters redeem parents' mistakes. There are two feminine spirits of rebirth in "The Tempest," while "Henry VIII" ends with Elizabeth I proclaimed the "maiden phoenix" from whom all Englishmen will claim blessings.

Go back to that sex thing!

But wait a minute: Who was that unattainable love that turned his ideas around?

"My gut tells me it was Emelia Bassano Lanier, a born-again Christian of Jewish descent," says Packer. "She was a poet and musician in Elizabeth's court. Her parents were Christianized Jews that Henry VIII made the core of his orchestra, when he wanted to be seen as a civilized Renaissance monarch. Her father came from Venice, and Shakespeare set two plays in Venice about (outsiders), a Jew and a north African (in "The Merchant of Venice" and "Othello").

"Emilia was the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, who was also the patron of Shakespeare's company. This was happening about the time he was writing the sonnets, and around sonnet 25, he started writing about a 'Dark Lady' sleeping with his patron."

Of course, Shakespeare wrote for an all-male company in which young actors played women's roles. None had known mature womanly feelings, so their range of expression was always limited.

"By the time he got to Cleopatra, I don't think he cared," says Packer. "When he started to write about women in real depth, you started to see society through women's eyes. You saw what the (male-run) social and political structures are doing; how women had no voice in this structure even though... they might be the ones, like Calpurnia and Portia in 'Julius Caesar,' who are right about what's going on."

More than drama queens

"Women of Will" is part of a scheme in progress. Packer wants to create guides for gender studies, sociopolitical studies, Shakespearean studies and general theater studies. Knopf has agreed to publish a book about it (a series of essays), and she'd like to run the play in New York and London. "I left London 35 years ago, and it would be good to give it a bit of a run."

Though Packer and Gore have done the piece before, usually as a fundraiser, Charlotte will see the first extended run of the complete show.

"It does have a beginning, middle and end, and the longest sequence - one from 'Macbeth' - runs 25 minutes," Packer says. "It's a great piece for anyone who wants to play 26 female characters. Or 26 male characters, because that's what Nigel does.

"I know what I'm going to say and what scenes I'm going to do. Nigel presents a man's point of view, sometimes challenging what I have to say, and I sometimes turn to the audience to ask 'What do you think?' So it's a slightly different experience every time."

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