The Academe Is an Actress

Does Shakespeare pass the Bechdel test? and other feminist queries

The Academe Is an Actress

How is it possible that the same man who is celebrated for the creation of rich female roles like Juliet and Cleopatra and Beatrice also wrote The Taming of the Shrew?

Tina Packer
Tina Packer (Photo by Kevin Sprague)

I've heard the question often from classmates, fellow actors, and Shakespeare-minded friends. On the one hand: plays where women with ample determination, passion, and wit guide the story and are praised for it. On the other: plays in which women are bartered away and beaten down until they are submissive or irrelevant to the action.

Tina Packer, author of Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare's Plays (Knopf, 336 pp., $27.95) and a performance piece of the same name, would reconcile the seeming incompatibility with the assertion that it wasn't the same man: The playwright who put Katherine's hand under Petruchio's foot wasn't the same one who gave daughters the opportunity to redeem their fathers in the late romances. Women of Will is as much a critical inquiry into the evolving depictions of women in the Bard's plays as a coming-of-age story of a young male playwright learning to respect women, understand their patriarchal predicament, and write about them compassionately and insightfully.

Packer's case is a compelling one, not only because chronology is in her favor – the plays with mostly insubstantial or dominated female characters seem to have been written early in Shakespeare's career – but because of her warm, engaging prose and eagerness to examine the plays not as static texts but as blueprints for performance. Packer, the founding artistic director of Massachusetts' Shakespeare & Company and a lauded professor, tackles issues of the historical record and shares lessons gleaned from her personal theatrical experiences (as actor, audience member, and director) with the same breadth. The result is a book that's remarkably accessible, particularly to artists and casual readers who admire Shakespeare's work but may have shied away from the drier, more somber tomes on his life and legacy. Packer's primary failing may be making the descriptions of the theatrical Women of Will, the Guggenheim grant- and Bunting fellowship-funded piece that she created with Nigel Gore and Eric Tucker, sound too enticing – I hoped the text of the performance might be included, or that, God willing, she might be touring it to Texas sometime soon. No such luck.

What will be playing in Austin this weekend is a feminist experiment Packer would smile upon: Shakespeare at Winedale alums Nell McKeown and Stephanie Donowho are putting the spotlight on two women of Will you may not know. Margaret and Joan (yes, of Arc, though here she is decidedly not a saint) originally appear in the Henry VI trilogy, the rarely staged history cycle preceding Richard III. Women are few and far between in these war plays, often because they're relegated to the private sphere – when all the action is on the battlefield and the women are at home, the result is an overwhelmingly masculine text. But in Tiger's Heart, Woman's Hide, the men play second fiddle to women warriors.

Donowho and McKeown have whittled the three cumbersome plays (Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III) into one slim one; the text is all Shakespeare's, but the storylines unrelated to Margaret and Joan's respective rises and falls are gone. What emerges are parallel tales of women pinned in by patriarchal restraints who, through great intellect, charisma, and grim determination, defy expectations. Donowho plays Joan, the shepherdess-turned-military-commander-turned-witch (424-year-old spoiler!), McKeown takes on Margaret, talented political player and wife of Henry VI, and between them, the pair play all the men that interact with the two women.

Like Packer, Donowho and McKeown see the intersection of scholarly analysis and theatrical performance as vital when it comes to Shakespeare. "We got to that point in the text," says Donowho, "where it was like, in order to understand [Joan and Margaret] further or to have any more ideas about this, we have to look at it in terms of performance choices." The project – a labor of love from Donowho and McKeown, who together scripted, directed, and perform the piece – was born of a broader scholastic inquiry about Shakespeare: whether any of his plays pass the Bechdel test, and if that test is of use in contemporary feminist analysis of the plays. In combing the history plays for female interaction, Donowho and McKeown began seeing trends in what women were and weren't allowed to get away with, and they noted Joan and Margaret as fascinating outliers to the passive wife/mother/tavern wench model. In stripping away extraneous plots to examine the trajectories of Joan and Margaret, they ended up creating Tiger's Heart and an accompanying academic treatise, which they've submitted to the Blackfriars Conference at the American Shakespeare Center.

Both Packer and the Tiger's Heart team seek to shift the cultural conversation about the women of Shakespeare. Packer reframes non-progressive portrayals of women in the early plays as teaching moments for a playwright who will eventually pen more successful female characters. Donowho and McKeown take Joan and Margaret, two forgotten women of the histories, and advocate for their significance in the canon by setting their stories center stage. In Women of Will, Packer suggests that writing Henry VI deeply impacted Shakespeare's understanding of women, and Tiger's Heart, Woman's Hide captures the moment where the playwright begins to grapple with female characters who will fight to speak their minds. It's well worth listening to what they have to say.


Tiger's Heart, Woman's Hide runs May 8-10, Fri.-Sun., 10pm, at the Butterfly Bar at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. The show is free. For more information, visit www.butterflybaraustin.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Shakespeare, Shakespeare at Winedale, Nell McKeown, Stephanie Donowho, Tiger's Heart, Woman's Hide, Women of Will, Tina Packer

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