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The Women of Will Shakespeare

Tina Packer in "Women of Will" (Credit: Shakespeare & Company)

There may be more men in the plays of Shakespeare. Many more. But the Bard’s women pack a punch.

Tina Packer — founder of Shakespeare & Company, the renowned theater group in Lenox, Mass., and now one of America’s premier Shakespeareans — has been playing and directing Shakespeare’s women for 40 years.

She’s learned them from the inside out — Kate and Cleopatra, Rosalind and Desdemona, Lady Macbeth and Juliet, Cordelia and Marina, and much more – and put Shakespeare’s feminine side on stage.

Now she’s brought the female roles together in her work “Women of Will.” It’s powerful.

-Tom Ashbrook

**Note: This show was first broadcast June 1, 2010.


Tina Packer, Shakespearean actor, director and scholar who founded Shakespeare & Company. Her play “Women of Will” reinterprets and examines the roles of Shakespeare’s female characters.

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  • Gary

    Shakespeare stinks. Give me Stephen King any day.

  • Lin

    Could you have picked a more unengaging topic for today?

  • http://notyet Charles A. Bowsher

    Don’t judge a book by its cover, or a Shakespearean with a gnat’s view.

  • Kevin

    Tina Packer is just fabulous on the radio. Love to hear her upbeat, articulate, informed conversation on such a nuanced topic.

    Great hearing you both.


  • Beth from Nashville

    I recently read an article that postulated that William Shakespeare was a woman, in fact a Jewish woman. What do think about this theory?

  • Liz

    I love this show. Tina Packard makes Shakespeare compelling and accessible to all–never mind relevant. I’m so happy I tuned in!

  • Gary

    Beth: William Shakespeare, man or woman, was a hack.

  • http://www.tuftsgloballeadership.org/programs/irp Astier

    Does Tina Packer like to comment on the question of William Shakespeare plagiarizing/appropriating women’s writing as his own? I first read him in Tigrinya (translated by a disabled writer/translator) and am looking at my Tigrinya copy of Macbeth (first edition in Tigrinya, published in Asmara in 1972 when I was a school girl). Unfortunately, the numbers you gave do not really let listeners/callers connect.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    I see this show as Chapter Two of yesterday’s about family histories.
    (Charles, are you a relation of mine? That name Clarke you gave yesterday? My mother actually typed out long ago The Great Book, which supposedly reveals some of this. Maybe I’ll dig it out. Someone else posted yesterday with a family name that would have been attached to my family story yesterday if I had wanted to. Hmm. This may be reunion central.)
    I was punished for my family focus yesterday when I spent till 4:00 AM dealing with Trojan SecurityTool derived from my seeking out a royal history on the net that I thought was a Family History par excellence, a Family History that links an entire nation (empire?), that of the British Royal Family. How divided can you be if you share one figurehead? Instead, we have the turkey, who does not get guilletined but gets pardoned. Okay. (Watch out on Camilla Parker-Bowles, whose “style” I was seeking to compare to Kate Middleton’s. You get Trojan-plastered.)
    British continuity, Labor and Tories notwithstanding, has more to hold it together than a flag; it has a royal family with all its shared twists. I think any family would do. Their “role” should be redefined yet again. But.
    But I see Family Histories as often becoming straitjackets, mythic, almost biblical/religious, and yet being crucial to continuity and definition, even if a bed of Procrustes for many. People are stretched or shrunk to fit the best story.
    It’s taken me a lot of historical reading to get a focus on the 16th century and 15th century which escapes the warp of Shakespearean drama.

  • Gary

    Want to know why our kids don’t like to read? Blame Shakespeare.

  • http://mtcwc.com Carol Springer

    Thank you, Tina, for noting that acts of war and violence – those committed and those received -require a separation of “mind and body” and that healing requires approaches that help people re-embody.
    I am a massage therapist specializing in body-centered trauma care and I have been longing to hear that on the public air-waves. Along with making PTSD more visible, I hope that NPR will highlight the various body-centered – re-embodying – approaches, such as sensorimotor psychotherapy and trauma touch therapy.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Trauma care specialists wouldn’t focus on it, but there is also psychological violence that can fracture the wiring, physically scramble the preconscious levels of our functioning.
    You can see someone capturing the moment of willing this on herself in Lady MacBeth’s “Unsex me here!” (which Tina Packer actually presented, in part, on the show). Unlike with physical violence, there is not an “objective correlative” to the mal-wiring, and nobody to convict of an all-too-visible piece of behavior. As MacBeth points out to his wife, there are results (what I’ll call preconscious mal-wiring), aside from any violence Lady MacBeth intends to be perpetrated, “Bring forth male children only!” he tells her. (Perhaps better yet, bring forth neither.)

  • http://notyet Charles A. Bowsher

    Ellen– My Clarkes (always with an “e” I was reminded frequently) hailed from county Roscommon in the mid 1800′s. Great great grandaddy Clarke married a Madden (Scottish origin {tut, tut}). Their sons are the emigrees(sp?) that established the Clarke’s here.
    Another Uncle Gus story was, being thoroughly Irish he allowed his daughter to die his bright white hair green one year for St. Patty’s day. Joke was on him as she used a dye that left a noticeable green tint to his hair for months! He still laughed about it decades later.

    Carol- I second your idea about PTSD and bodywork forms as a great ONPoint topic..

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Charles, our family name has Clarke with an E also, and I’ll have to read up more. We were told we were from Scotland, various black sheep, and from the early English settlements. But I think that probably ignores great swaths of family tree, takes one branch. I think the Greater Family resolved to Get Serious in Good Times, and it happens the ones with great sense of humor were the mothers who died on each side when their sons were age 5 (my mother’s father’s mom and my father’s mom). Oh, Freudian Oedipal formula for tragedy, even transgenerational.
    (The dog who rescued the children back in the 19th century on Nantucket, coming home in the dark escorted by horse and driver, probably an early K-9 equivalent, was named Pomp, for Pomp and Circumstance, and apparently took all the credit. The story, such as it is, goes that one says to him, “Down, Pomp!” But I have no idea why. Aargh! Where’s my typed record.)

  • http://notyet Charles A. Bowsher

    Ellen- Newspapers of the day gathering dust in some historical societies archives…?

  • Brett

    On this day, appropriately named ‘Black Friday,’ I have decided to cloister myself from the world and simply indulge in my own company for the day. I missed this broadcast when it first came around but am delighted to have heard it today. As I was listening I kept thinking about the many great productions of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve seen in my life. About twenty years ago, I went regularly to the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. and saw many great productions.

    There was one that still sticks in my mind, which wasn’t one of Shakespeare’s at all; it was ‘St. Joan’ by George Bernard Shaw…I see The Maid of Orleans as crazy, mentally ill, someone who, as a woman, served no proper purpose, i.e., wasn’t suited for cooking, cleaning, bearing/raising children, or generally managing a household. In the patriarchal world of her time, she was only able to escape with her existence as long as she did because she was a remarkable soldier, better than many men her age or even of the ones who were older and better trained. She was able to lead the French army to several major victories not to mention was invaluable in helping Charles VII ascend the throne. If he hadn’t been so desperate to figure out how to handle the English so as to gain power, and she hadn’t (either deliberately or inadvertently) played on some of his superstitions, as well as lead some of those victories early on (Kings can tolerate the mentally ill if they can produce winning results), then St. Joan would have been disposed of early on. Only the love of a good man from a decent family toward a woman from a decent family can help a woman overcome her hysteria/melanchonia, or whatever they called Joan’s condition back then. Joan certainly was not the loving kind…

    Back to Shakespeare…His perspective, although insightful, is still inescapably his own. He is still the product of his environment. The qualities of dimension and strength he gave some of his female characters seemed to evolve as he aged. The way he wrote female characters can be attributable to many things: his gender, his age, his artistic development, his social position, his psychological makeup, etc.

    I always found Hamlet’s Gertrude interesting. Shakespeare could have modeled her after some relationship he had had himself, or he could have been playing with his desire to interpret a variation of the ancient Oedipus theme, or both…who can know? Hamlet only suspected his mother of having machinations; and, whatever suspicions he had had eroded when she died and appeared ignorant of anything ‘rotten in Denmark’ (my interpretation); it’s heard to tell, with the principals being dead and all.

    Ophelia, to me, serves as a comparison/contrast to Gertrude, in terms of female characters, but she also serves as a comparison/contrast to Hamlet himself. She was mad, crazy, not right, as it were. Hamlet’s madness was seen as a malfunction of his intellect; Ophelia’s was seen as a malfunction of her biology/emotional state (again, sort of my own interpretation). Was her melancholy the result of a heart being broken? Betrayal? Grief for a dead father? A weak constitution because of gender with no real “stomach” for being a comfort to a madman? What?

    In any respect, Shakespeare’s women are still seen/created/processed through the same paternal lens as in any male’s view from the Elizabethan days, albeit perhaps a sensitive male.

    Shakespeare’s characters have evolved through the years, through the re-interpretation of them. Ophelia is one of those to whom history will be kind, I feel. I see her as simply being young and unable to fully see what was around her/misinterpreting it. She hadn’t developed enough to have an Edith Piaf perspective of the world (having no regrets). She ingested the herb rue, after all…I also see whatever memories of Gertrude as softening since her introduction to the world. She was a mature lady, able to see many levels of life and to see compromises necessary in life, yet I feel she retained enough goodness and perhaps naivete born out of a belief that good will triumph over evil (as any good mother and wife would believe) to have been truly a woman of greatness.

  • kdw

    How sad,
    Stephen King > Shakespeare? This is the reason kids don’t read? A hack?

  • Margot

    Thank you, Tom Ashbrook and Tina Packer, for this WONDERFUL program. Especially insightful, women’s relationship to male (‘odysseus-esque’) journeys, in literature and life. And thank you Brett, for sharing your thoughts. It is a good way to spend this day.

  • http://www.beccar.wordpress.com Eugenia Renskoff, Brooklyn, NY

    Hi, Tom, Your guest talking about Shakespeare and a spiritual and sexual connection with another person brought back to me how I felt when I fell in love years ago. It was my first grown up love and I had never had such an experience. I will never forget it. I will never cease to be grateful to know that such things do exist. They would not be written about in plays by someone by Shakespeare if real life people didn’t feel them. For me it was magic.Eugenia Renskoff

  • http://mstultzorstultzm Marie Stultz

    I have taught kids to recite Shakespeare for years. They often read it before they start their voice lesson. Shakespeare has a music all of its own. Only listen to various roles of his great characterizations done by Richard Burton in the movie Player of Players to know the power of this great writer. I have many major lines memorized that often haunt my mind. May he influence writers for centuries to come just as the great writers of 1200 BC in India have influenced thoughtful thinking and honest behavior in the Rig-Veda. Just as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms will not go away or Mozart, so will not go the writings of Shakespeare. Thank God he was born and had the courage and skill to write with such brilliance, creating such imaginative personalities and brilliant synopsis. To speak his words with clarity while training children to sing can never be matched. Marie Stultz, author, composer, conductor and educator


  • Sara

    It was by chance I heard (most of) this radio show and I found Tina Packer enlightening. Thank you to the both of you.

  • Millan

    I enjoyed the show (and most others on NPR) — though it was more politics than playwriting. Coming from Stratford, UK I know the value of the Bard and was yet disappointed by the lack of push-back from the host when the agenda of the guest diverged towards an excessively liberal and feminist focus. Hosts are there not to placate but to be challenging (see James Naughtie BBC Radio 4). NPR is the nearest thing we have to the BBC: please maintain the objectivity (left, right, conservative, liberal) that is the epitome of the BBC.Best wishes.



  • listener

    It looks americans have different view towards shakspear from the english. I cannot see how reading shakespear will stop young people from reading more. On the contrary I believe shakespear, history, classical study is beneficial to development of a person. If you tune to bbc4, you will be delighted to find the wide range of drama, history, literature program they offer.

  • http://notyet Charles A. Bowsher

    Marie @ 19;29 on 11/27

  • Jon Luke

    I just recieved my MFA in Acting from Columbia University in NY, a program grounded in Shakespeare led by the AMAZING Kristin Linklater,(co-founder of Shakespeare & Company), and I must say this interview as well as Shakespeare IS ESSENTIAL and relevant. Why else since 1559 are we STILL studying and performing his works?

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