Tina Packer, the Shakespearean director, has pulled together five works and one overview, which I saw, on the patterns of development of Shakespeare as a man and as a writer, read through his attitudes toward women. She alternates speaking somewhat extemporaneously on the resulting themes with acting out scenes with Nigel Gore. The result is Women of Will.
By clumping plays into themes, I had some interesting insights. For example, they did the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet immediately after the history plays of Henry VI. Those Henry and Richard III plays deal with the War of the Roses, fought between the houses of York and Lancaster. That civil war only ended once a woman, Elizabeth, married her daughter and the opposing house’s son, giving rise to the Tudor Rose. Packer points out that Shakespeare was writing for that couple’s granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth.
Then Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet and their competing houses, well I couldn’t help connect them to the Yorks and Lancasters. The English teacher next to me didn’t see it that way, remarking that the split in the play had historical roots. I know, but the analogy to English history seems like a possibility, too–the play with the deeply tragic ending, resulting from senseless prejudice, acts as confirmation of the majestic right of the current queen–Elizabeth as the glorious expression of ending that civil war violence.
Packer also intersperses dialogue between plays to draw out a point, most interestingly with poor Desdemona from Othello and sparkly Rosamund from As You Like It. Huh?, you’re thinking. I know! But Packer’s idea is that Shakespeare advances to the point where he uses women to tell the truth in this stage of plays. But those dressed in a skirt either died or went mad, or both. Those who disguised themselves in pants and lived as a man, well they could go on to self-discovery and happiness. A good reason to wear trousers, yes?
I left with a really interesting idea about walls. Women were walled off in private gardens in the medieval and early Renaissance period, ostensibly for safety, but also to keep them in their place. Monks and nuns crossed over walls into inner sanctums for a life of devotion. The families of girls paid steep dowries for their daughters to marry Christ. All this I know from my study of art.
But Romeo leaps a wall to reach Juliet’s balcony. Packer says that leap over the wall equates to the leap to the monastery, a leap to enlightenment. Juliet is the east (the mystery), the sun (alchemy), in other words, the mysterious source of Romeo’s transformation toward knowledge. Packer calls this the sexual merging with the spiritual, as evidenced in the text of the scene. Beautiful.
Now I’m thinking about walls. How to leap over walls? And which walls to leap over for enlightenment? Hmmm.