I literally don’t know how many times someone has said, “Well, you’ve read Tina Packer’s book, of course”…and I hadn’t. Women of Will has been on my TBR list since it was published, and I’ve only just now gotten to it. It was worth the wait.

The book details Packer’s own experiences directing and performing Shakespeare’s women. It all feels like her–I can hear her voice and manner powerfully in her writing. Some of the connections she draws between Shakespeare’s life (what we know or guess of it) and his work feel a little too speculative, but the sweep of her conclusions makes objections to these conjectures feel hollow. This isn’t an academic book, quite. It’s more artistic, more about how the roles feel when you’re wearing them around in the world.

Although she writes about many of Shakespeare’s ladies, the sections that were the most interesting to me were the ones about those plays I’ve directed. I’ve been researching cuts of Richard III recently, and I’m fascinated to learn that many productions cut the women’s bits to ribbons. Some of them even cut Margaret completely. I’ve wondered why–it’s Shakespeare, there aren’t enough roles for women to begin with. Packer discovered why, in a production where she chose not to cut the women, and specifically, not to cut their lamentations:

It was powerful and unbearable. It certainly showed that the women were an opposition to Richard–their efforts were not to be dismissed (as they usually are)–but it was excruciating to listen to. We have no emotional stamina anymore, so it’s hard for us to hear deep grief and not try to stop it.

This was similar to the experience we had with our recent production. That scene was absolutely painful, and I think audience members had a hard time with it. But surely one point of theater is to build or challenge our capacity for empathy.

I kept being surprised by how many times Packer wrote things about Richard III that I literally said in rehearsal. When she talked about the mourning women, she mentioned modern cases of mothers who have come together in their grief to stop conflicts–and she named many of the same examples we discussed in rehearsal. In another passage, she wrote:

And perhaps the only thing women are not so keen on is war, and its fellow traveler “honor,” because this means someone will end up dead, and women know the price of bringing someone into life.

My Richard III cast will recognize this as something I said to them, nearly word for word. Knowing that Tina Packer saw this story in much the same way I did makes me feel less alone.

Packer also does some wonderful work tying Romeo and Juliet to Antony and Cleopatra, both couples a bit over the top, perhaps, but both entrancing. What is it about them that makes their stories so compelling? Packer’s take:

The only guide in this journey is love. And love has its own power. It takes us to unknown places, places where we may never have had the courage to go…It only turns into jealousy…if it forgets its origin, because then it believes love is limited and limiting. It is not: as Juliet says, “The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”

The key is the commitment of the lovers to each other. The result is a spirituality which flows into the whole world, perhaps even after the lovers are dead.

Throughout the book, the theme that comes up over and over is Packer’s belief in art as a form of love. She clearly thinks that it is the only thing that will save us, as individuals, as a species. She thinks Shakespeare created his characters as a guide for those of us who follow in his path, to see the depths of love that are possible, and the powerful effect it has.

I think she’s right.

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