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...

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