In “Women of Will,” the actor and director Tina Packer casts an entertaining and informative light on how Shakespeare’s female characters navigate the unequal society into which they are born. In her New York debut, the British-born artist explores and dissects the Bard’s genius as it applies to gender inequality over an epic five-part narrative, ranging from Kate in “Taming of the Shrew” to Rosalind in “As You Like It” to Desdemona in “Othello.” An overview of the entire cycle, now on at the Gym at Judson downtown, will eventually yield to the individual parts — i.e. Part One: “Warrior Women” — and marathon performances through June. Packer, along with co-star Nigel Gore, performs excerpts from the canon, pausing from time to time to offer brief scholarly insights about the scenes. ARTINFO’s Patrick Pacheco spoke with Packer recently to discuss the less-than-maternal instincts of Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare’s puckish use of male disguise, and just what the Bard might have made of the scandal involving Manti Te’o, the University of Notre Dame football player who was the victim of a bizarre Internet hoax. Hint: “He would have loved it!”
In the excerpt on “Macbeth,” you intimate that Lady Macbeth had recently had a child. What happened to it?
I don’t know. We know the Macbeths do not have children. But she also asks the spirits to “take my milk for gall” and she also says that she knows what it is like to have “given suck” and even though she knows that tenderness, she would still, while her babe was smiling, “have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, and dash’d the brains out.” It’s extraordinary really. Dashing its brains out? But she’s working on Macbeth to kill Duncan. He’ll be a man if he does it and won’t be one if he doesn’t.
She actually asks those “murdering ministers” to “unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty.” Do you think this was an early case of what Freud calls “penis envy”?
[Laughs] Well I think that might be the nearest that Shakespeare ever comes to that. And maybe this is just where Freud, who read a great deal of Shakespeare, got this psychological syndrome. In that speech, it’s almost like she’s planning to do the murder herself. But she knows nothing about killing and she unleashes this horror in him and then she can’t stop it. It absolutely destroys her. And far from making their marriage stronger and closer, it goes to the dogs.
Do you think if she actually had a child, that might have mitigated her blood lust?
I think it’s more that Duncan decides to stay at the castle that makes her want to take advantage of the opportunity. I might think that any woman who has children… but then again you hear about soccer moms and some of the extremes they go to when their child is in competition. As an actor, you just have to gather all these pieces of information and then, using your imagination, create back story. It’s always a question of what images resonate with me and finding out what motivates them.
You point out that when women tell the truth, it ends in tragedy. When they tell it disguised as men, all ends happily. Why?
I believe that Shakespeare saw how deeply unfair society was to women and he increasingly wanted to reveal that. I don’t know if he played women’s parts as an actor, but he really got it. Even Queen Elizabeth — and he would have known the queen because of performing at court a lot — she had to maneuver the men all the time to make them do what she wanted them to do. She said in a speech, “I might be a meek and humble woman but I have the blood of my father in me.” She evoked a rather nasty father who killed her mother and stepmother! That’s why Kate in “Taming of the Shrew” is such an angry woman and she has quite a right to be.
How radical was that to an Elizabethan audience?
Deeply radical. After Shakespeare, John Fletcher, the next prominent playwright, would carry on the tradition of asserting women’s rights. He would write a play about Petruchio — Kate having died because of his ill behavior towards her — and his new wife would tame him.
What do you think Shakespeare would have made of the Manti Te’o situation? A young man invents a female persona on the Internet in order “to woo” a Notre Dame linebacker and he’s taken in by it?
Oh, he would have loved it! First of all this idea of having a fantasy figure, a muse, is very powerful, especially among men. Look at Dante who saw Beatrice only once, when he was 9 and she was 7 and then only for a few minutes. Shakespeare had the Dark Lady of the Sonnets but he also didn’t close himself off from the aliveness of male friendship and male love. His male characters have real passion for each other. Sexuality is very powerful in Shakespeare. And it doesn’t matter if its between men and women or men and men. The Count Orsino is ostensibly in love with Olivia but then this young “boy” starts to serve him and something real is happening between them. What’s important is the love and not who is loving who.
Do you think Shakespeare would have treated the young man who created the ruse, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, with sympathy?
I think he would have appreciated the young man’s imagination and whatever triggered him to make up this fantastic story. And that it would then trigger everybody else’s imagination? I don’t think he would think that it was odd at all; he would find it all quite natural. He would have been delighted with the imaginative sweep of it all.