About the author:
Nobody knows more about Shakespeare than Tina Packer, who has directed every play the Bard ever wrote and acted in plenty of them, too, beginning at the Royal Shakespeare Company in her native country and later as artistic director at Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires. She has written books for MBAs (Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership & Management) and kids (Tales from Shakespeare) and worked with a who’s who of American actors. Now, this 74-year-old dynamo is bringing her expertise to life in Women of Will, a tour-de-force six-part exploration of Shakespeare’s female characters. Broadway.com asked Packer to expound on three heroines—all of them half of a celebrated couple—that she wishes audiences understood better.
In Women of Will, I have the pleasure of giving audiences a fresh look at Shakespeare’s heroines, many of whom I see as quite different than people conventionally think of them. I’d like to spotlight three in particular that I feel are misunderstood.
Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
Everyone thinks of Juliet as a sweet teenager in love, but I would point out how ferocious and brave she is. Once Romeo jumps over the wall and stands under her balcony, he’s perfectly happy looking up at the stars and fantasizing about Juliet’s eyes. She’s the one who says no, no, no, you’ve got to give up your name; I’ve got to give up my name. She proposes marriage and says, “What time tomorrow shall I send for thee?” Juliet is totally practical and organized and is perfectly willing to oppose her family. She is smart and feisty and sees through all the stuff her elders are doing. She is even brave in declaring that love is more important than death.
In my mature years, I love playing Juliet. I feel like I can play her in a way that I might not have been able to at 20. I understand her more deeply now, and I have a technical ability to play her that I don’t think I did then. She is complex in her thoughts—joking one minute, weeping the next, raging the next. Our Will Shakespeare liked women who turned on a dime!
Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew
The modern view of Kate and Petruchio is kind of tongue-in-cheek. Everybody thinks that Kate just acquiesces and they come to an understanding in the end. But I actually think she’s one of those characters who gets done in by her situation more than anybody wants to admit. In the beginning, she says, “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break.” By the end, she does have to use Petruchio’s language, and I think the feisty woman we love loses some of herself in that.
In Women of Will, I portray Kate three ways. The first is manic and wound up tight; the second is a Marilyn Monroe-type baby doll who avoids conflict; and the last is clinically depressed. During my term as artistic director at Shakespeare & Company, the most popular version of the play was the one in which Kate and Petruchio seem to be playing a conventional game against everyone else. But I prefer my version, when she was going slightly loony at the end.
Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra
I must mention Cleopatra, because everybody thinks of her as the great temptress, a tawny gypsy slut who drove soldiers insane. It’s just not true. Antony has a reputation as a good Roman soldier who lost his heart to this promiscuous Egyptian woman, but he’s the one who goes off and marries someone else in the middle of the play. She’s not the least bit promiscuous. She’s mercurial and sexy and strong, but she is always faithful to Antony. That male interpretation of the character as a whore has been changing in recent years because more women are directing the play.
Antony and Cleopatra isn’t performed that often because it’s a difficult, sophisticated play. If you don’t get an Antony and a Cleopatra who really lust after each other, it doesn’t work. Even though the characters are middle-aged, they’ve got to be sexy. When I directed the play, I had a fantastic Cleopatra, Michele Shay, but her Antony wasn’t up to her. In the end, these two people give up their empires in order to be with each other, and that’s extremely difficult to pull off.