How Shakespeare’s Heroines Evolved From One-Dimensional to Feminist

It’s the Bard’s birthday! Some celebrate the day by inserting “thee”s and “forsooth”s into their speech, and others by gathering Shakespeare’s quips and aphorisms. But there’s another way to honor his legacy, and that is to take a look at his treatment of women, which might be very instructive to some of our more boorish and misogynist culture creators today. Shakespeare was once just like them, but he evolved into something far greater.

Earlier this month, Tina Packer, the founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Co — the famous summer stock Shakespeare company in Lenox, Massachusetts — published Women of Will. It’s a book version of her play about how Shakespeare pioneered three-dimensional portraits of women, and how the evolution of his work is reflected in his heroines. To make her point, Packer draws parallels to Shakespeare’s personal life and the politics of England, illustrating how both might have influenced his impressive growth as a writer and thinker about women. She also speaks about the effect of performing and directing these characters on her and her colleagues.

Packer argues that from Shakespeare’s early comedies, where women were crude objects of violence and ridicule, through his later masterpieces in which women suffer and die at the hands of the patriarchy, to the final romances in which magic and the art of the playwright help women transcend those strictures, we see the evolution of a feminist. The turning point in his attitude towards women? Juliet.

Here are Packer’s thoughts on five heroines, showing Shakespeare’s evolution from cheap chauvinist to insightful feminist, all while bringing his craft to higher levels.

Kate from The Taming of the Shrew:

At the end of the play, the shrew is tamed, and the sweet young thing has got her way. All good fun. Under the guise of comedy, the most horrible acts are perpetrated on a woman. It’s a nightmare because the sexism is so completely accepted — it is simply “the way it is…”

….What we can say about the young Shakespeare is that he was a terrific comedy writer, high-spirited and unapologetic. And he knew hardly anything about women. There’s a glimpse of his treating them like real human beings here and there, but that didn’t particularly interest him. He was more interested in jokes and verbal game sand violence, whether men hitting women, or masters hitting slaves.

Juliet from Romeo and Juliet:

Shakespeare wrote about Juliet with as much insight, nuance and detail as that which he wrote about Romeo. Nowhere in Shakespeare’s psyche is Juliet “less than” Romeo; nor is she “more than” Romeo. They are equal, in both the form and the content of the play; the actions of both are given equal attention. In many ways, Juliet’s position is more difficult than Romeo’s — because she’s a woman and thus will have no independence in the  social structure of her family or in society at large… this was a great breakthrough for Shakespeare, in his writing and his thinking.

Lady Macbeth from Macbeth:

Lady Macbeth personifies the desire for power in this world. The moment she hears about the witches’ prophecy she knows her course. She will use all her feminine power to call her man to greatness; she will hold him, through his most basic desires, to achieve the kingship. She knows he is too spiritual to do what she decides is necessary to get the top prize…

She will suppress her own natural instincts in order to give a man what he wants… she gives up who she is in order to have this relationship. And in doing so, she loses touch with who she is.

Emilia and Desdemona from Othello:

[Emilia] does her best to get Desdemona to understand what men are like, what the men’s world they live in is like, that infidelity and violence are the norm, that the idealized picture of love and goodness Desdemona holds is false, and that she, to will want revenge for wrongs done to her. Desdemona wants to hear none of it and sends Emilia away — thereby ensuring her own death…. the women in Othello are never able to escape the institutional structures they live under.

Hermione from The Winter’s Tale:

She is the mother and the lover, the epitome of womanhood, what every man supposedly says or thinks he wants. She is spiritually advanced… generous, obedient to her husband under most circumstances, tactful, but no pushover — she can stand up for herself — and she is still very beautiful and sexy, even though she’s nine months pregnant. None of this saves her from the wrath of the King [Leontes] or the rules of the patriarchal structure, which allows him almost total power.

The end of Winter’s Tale, as Hermione changes from stone to life, is the most magical moment Shakespeare ever wrote… it creates the indefinable, effervescent space in which Leontes can truly be forgiven.