Will’s female roles were originally written for men. So what does his writing for women tell us about the man?

For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and Romeo. Four hundred years since the death of the world’s greatest playwright, the final lines of his arguably most popular play, uttered by a prince, have recently rung out on stages in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in a Bell Shakespeare production, starring Kelly Paterniti as Juliet and Alex Williams as Romeo. 

For Peter Evans, Bell’s Artistic Director, the final line’s reversal of the names in the title is significant. “The play becomes Juliet’s play,” he says, “she becomes the lead. She becomes the one voice talking to the audience, and she takes over. I believe that Shakespeare got more and more interested in her.” Perth-born Paterniti, 28, agrees: “Juliet’s a pretty strong young woman.” 

This continued resonance with audiences is largely due to wily Will, who wrote the play circa 1594, as he approached 30, becoming a trailblazer on behalf of women, and adapting his version of archetypal young lovers as a tale of male and female equality. 

A new book by UK-born director and actor Tina Packer postulates Shakespeare was now writing, “as if he were a woman. Embodying them. Giving them full agency”. Romeo and Juliet represented Shakespeare hitting his stride, his training as an actor now viscerally clear, writes Packer in Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays. A parity of souls emerges in the play, argues Packer, countering Bible teaching that Eve was made from Adam’s rib as a helpmate, the basis of centuries of belief that women lack souls. “Shakespeare writes about Juliet with as much insight, nuance, detail as he writes about Romeo,” says Packer, who founded the theatre troupe Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts in 1978.

Maggie Smith as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1977

Kelly Paterniti notes that Shakespeare took the story from Arthur Brook’s poem, “which is sort of a warning to teenagers to obey and not to forsake their fathers. Shakespeare does the opposite, and roots for the kids. It could have been written as a female leading a male astray, but he chooses not to write it that way”. 

“For once a woman is truly put front and centre without being a ‘shrew’,” says playwright and actor Kate Mulvany. “A vibrancy and complexity takes over with Juliet. I’ve always been intrigued as to how and why. Was it that the (male) actors playing the female parts got in William’s ear and said, ‘Can you give me more, please, mate?’ Was it that Shakespeare had a woman in his life – [his wife] Anne Hathaway or someone else – that was a living, breathing example to him of what it really is to be a woman and so this infiltrated his work?” 

Some other woman, it is likely. In his earliest playwriting, particularly the comedies The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, women lack agency. Packer explains that Shakespeare hardly understood women then: his sexual drive had led him to become a husband at 18 to Anne at 26, giving him three children before he knew himself. Shakespeare then left his family in Stratford, possibly in 1587, setting out on the road with a theatre troupe – probably on foot, with a couple of horses between them – and exposing himself to the “poetic, political, spiritual thinking of the age”. In this expanded state of mind, he fell in love.

While the plague years of the early 1590s closed the London theatres for two years, these circumstances aided Shakespeare’s artistic development, forcing him to turn his pen to more prestigious commissions of sonnets and verse poems. Analysing the sonnets, Packer points to riffs on “will”, in Elizabethan times a nudge to penis or vagina. Shakespeare had begun to deeply connect creativity and sexuality. His verse poem Venus and Adonis from around this time would prove an important marker of Will’s development in writing women, says Packer: “For the first time Shakespeare allows his imagination to explore feminine desire.”

Women, of course, were not allowed to write or perform on the stage in Elizabethan England

Women, of course, were not allowed to write or perform on the stage in Elizabethan England. At best, they could play muse to men with quills. So who was Will’s muse who blew open his mind and fired his loins? Packer speculates that the Dark Lady of the sonnets was Aemilia Bassano, a feminist poet and harpsichordist, the daughter of Baptiste Bassano, one of a band of musician brothers brought from Venice to England by Henry VIII in 1538. 

Shakespeare had for several years been writing a strong female character in Margaret of Anjou, who appears in all of his first four history works – the three Henry VI plays and then, around 1592, in Richard III – detailing Margaret’s loves, ferocity, and her capacity for violence by beheading York in the famous molehill scene. The Margaret of his imagination had begun to train Shakespeare about women, argues Packer, and by Richard III the women were beginning to find common ground and, together at least, to search for alternatives to men’s endless cycle of violence. Mulvany concurs that Richard III is an “incredibly female play”.

Aemilia Bassano’s contemporaneous influence might have been much more profound in the long run, however. Around 1592-3, Shakespeare penned The Rape of Lucrece, taking on a woman’s voice to articulate being at the mercy of a man who violently steals her selfhood. The “quick-witted, outspoken, sexually adventurous woman” became Shakespeare’s “ideal of womanhood” in Romeo and Juliet, then Troilus and Cressida, and eventually the “unparalleled sexual and spiritual merging” of Antony and Cleopatra.

Meanwhile, in her own long 1611 poem Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail to God, King of the Jews), Bassano defended the biblical Eve’s picking of the apple, and demanded women stop being punished for Eve’s “sin”. “When you look at Shakespeare’s plays and you look at Aemilia’s life,” says Packer, “you can see connections and resonances… stretching across the next 20 years.” 

Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry in Twelfth Night

The great actor Richard Burbage was probably then more famous than the playwright, entwined as he was with the great roles such as Romeo, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello and King Lear. Boys and young men, aged roughly 13 to 20, whom history has forgotten, were thought to have taken the women’s roles. The fact that boys played these parts, says Packer, meant Shakespeare was free to imagine the female characters: “He might not have known who the boy was that would play the part.” Shakespeare “inherited the right to write about women”, Packer writes, “… he took it on so deeply, it would be difficult to know it was a man writing the women’s roles.”

Griffin Theatre Artistic Director Lee Lewis, previously a Bell Shakespeare director, has a very different take on why Juliet’s part was strong. “I don’t think it was about young boys,” she says. “I think the complexity was such that there was a male actor who stayed good at it, even as he got older… You wouldn’t give all of that verse to a young and inexperienced male actor. So Shakespeare had someone who could perform [Juliet], and who he trusted to hold the heart of the play.”

In 1596, Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, died. That year, he wrote King John, in which another young son dies: Arthur, aged around 11, the same age as Hamnet. “The grief expressed by Constance, Arthur’s mother is extreme,” writes Packer. “The articulation of her loss, the depth of her pain, must be a reflection of Shakespeare’s own state. Perhaps he could say through Constance what would be ‘unmanly’ for him to say in life.” 

Kate Mulvany, who played Lady Macbeth for Bell in 2012, says it “seems apt” that Shakespeare’s female characters take on a richer form after Hamnet’s death. “Maybe William responded to Anne’s grief, and his own, by exploring the intricacies of womanhood in his work?” she says. “And none are more intricate than Lady Macbeth, written a few years after Hamnet’s death and so with a profound knowledge of the maternal grieving process: I have given suck, and know / How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me… She is brimming with sex, ambition, and deep, deep grief for the child she has lost.”

Kate Mulvany and Dan Spielman in Bell Shakespeare’s Macbeth, 2012

Packer argues that Hamlet, also written around the turn of the 17th century, “opens the door to hell” explored in characters like Macbeth, with “no symbolic feminine spirit to guide the way out”. Feminine qualities include “tenderness, nurturance”. If the development of Shakespeare’s women is considered as a five-act structure like his plays, Packer says the women in Shakespeare’s middle act – including Ophelia in Hamlet, and Desdemona in Othello – are courageous, speaking the truth, though they are usually killed or kill themselves. This middle period is like the third act of a play, with plot development and fleshing out of themes: “It is Shakespeare’s greatness that he saw men and women had to be absolutely equal… to know each other deeply and truly.”

Yet if Shakespeare had previously set on a course of writing “as if he were a woman”, with an abiding interest in equality, how then to explain several terrifying women to come – Lady Macbeth; Goneril and Regan in King Lear; Volumnia in Coriolanus – who, in Packer’s words, “further promote the masculine institutions of war [and] aggressive superiority in government”? The fourth act of Shakespeare’s development of women, Packer explains, explores the darkness of women grabbing for themselves like the men, before his final run of plays will pull back from the world’s destruction. It’s the cliffhanger, like the fourth act of a play.

There are, predictably, sinkholes in the idea that Shakespeare championed gender equality. Shakespeare’s own daughters saw little of him growing up, Packer concedes, and although he made his eldest daughter Susannah the executor of his will, “the language of the will shows how strongly he wants a male line to inherit his now considerable fortune. And now, like Lear, he fails”. Packer’s own figures show that there were 1,000 men in his canon, but only 160 women and girls. 

Don’t underestimate pragmatism in what Shakespeare was writing, either. Lee Lewis says that, right from his early history plays, he treaded carefully when choosing characters in which to invest power for fear of offending Queen Elizabeth (or, from 1603, King James): “He was smart enough not to alienate the powers that be, and to flatter subtly, in an age of respect for the power of older women.” Shakespeare was writing with opinions about what should change, says Lewis. “And also, he was not writing with the weight that we attribute to his writing now. The plays were written quickly. I always look at him like a Lena Dunham [creator of TV series Girls]: as she gets older, her concerns are shifting in her work. She’s crafting her words, but she’s writing reactively. Shakespeare was writing at that rate: a TV rate.”

In his final works, the spirit of Juliet and equality returns, however. Shakespeare writes in parable, myth and fable, notes Packer: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest. Daughters redeem fathers. Shakespeare “illuminates the artistic process itself”, writes Packer: it is “women and the feminine spirit, the soul, who are the artists, the revealer as well as the creator of the art form, the mistress who has the power and the knowledge to halt the cycle of violence”.

Erin Jean Norvill and Geoffrey Rush in Sydney Theatre Company’s King Lear, 2015

By the time he wrote The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare had been back home at Stratford with Anne and one of his daughters for three years, his other daughter living down the street with her husband and his granddaughter, Elizabeth. In The Winter’s Tale, an abandoned baby, Perdita, grows to be “open and vulnerable to the world and to love”, and her mother, Hermione, is brought back to life from stone, “the most magical moment Shakespeare ever wrote”.

In The Tempest, “the pure feminine spirit, of creativity and imagination are both served”. When the magician Prospero’s daughter Miranda wordlessly acknowledges the creative spirit Ariel – sometimes cast as a boy or a girl, says Packer, who calls Ariel “she” – Shakespeare “made it all come right through women”. Ariel and Miranda “are vulnerability and the desire to take on the world. They are the manifestation of Shakespeare’s reason for living”. Of course, some might spot the flaw in this conclusion, believing that Shakespeare wrote Ariel as male.

“Instinctively Shakespeare knew the world will not be able to break the perpetual cycle of violence without a redistribution of power,” says Packer nonetheless, arguing that the Bard’s fusion of creativity and the feminine in his last plays was redressing centuries of cultural bias. “Feminine and masculine need to balance each other and in that delicate moment of active equality, creativity is born.”

Bell Shakespeare’s Othello tours to 27 venues all over Australia from July to October. Sydney’s Belvoir presents Twelfth Night from July 23-September 4. Decca will release an anniversary box set of the complete works on 100 CDs in July

Bell Shakespeare