Synopsis: In this book, Tina Packer unpacks the women of Shakespeare’s most well-known and lesser-known plays. She discusses women’s will, religion, sexuality, daughterhood, fatherhood, creativity, and of course: Shakespeare’s relationship to women with respect to his plays and his real life.
Review: This was probably one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read. In fact, I read her chapter on Measure for Measure a couple years back before I even got my hands on this book. I recently graduated from college, and right now I’m currently in a gap year before I go get my masters. I decided that this year, I was only going to read fun books that were already on my shelves, because next year, I’d be thrown back into a world of syllabi and required reading. Last year, I wrote two major theses on a variety of books, so once I was done with those, I think it was safe to say that I didn’t want to read anything non-fiction for a long, long time.
And then I saw this book. I mean, look at that title: Women of Will? Sign me up. I figured, well, it looks good, and I like feminism, women, and Shakespeare, so I may as well give it a whirl. I’m glad I did.
Reading this book makes you feel like you’re getting a cup of coffee with Packer. While she does talk a lot about Shakespeare and her thoughts on his female characters, she also offers positionality: she founded Shakespeare and Company, she’s directed and acted many of his plays, and she works closely with a man named Nigel, who frequently plays the foil to her female roles. While these anecdotes can be a little distracting, I find that they are necessary when reading her analysis.
However, I do feel the need to pause and say that in terms of literary analysis like this, where it’s discussing an author’s work more frequently than the author’s life, it’s important to remember that the thesis or main points of the analysis are literally just headcanons. For those unfamiliar with this term, a headcanon is an idea or belief about a character that is not directly supported by the text. And so, with literary analyses like this one, it’s safe to say that Packer is simply offering evidence for her Shakespeare headcanons–so, that being said, I still find that her book is still worth reading even if you don’t agree with what she’s saying. After all, Shakespeare only gives us part of the story: it’s up to the actors and readers to interpret it.
Back to the book. Another one of my favorite things about this book is how explanatory Packer is. There’s no need to worry if you haven’t read everything in Shakespeare’s canon, or don’t know all the characters. Of course, my favorite parts were when Packer discussed the plays that I already knew, but she made it easy to understand the plays that I didn’t. That way, her analysis wasn’t lost on me.
Ultimately, the only reason that this book gets a 4.5 star rating is because Packer hardly mentions Lavinia from Titus and Andronicus. Granted, Titus is a difficult play, filled to the brim with horrors, and therefore probably one of the hardest plays to understand, but I still felt that Lavinia should have earned at least a page or two. There’s a lot going on with her and her relationship to love, sexuality, and daughterhood. But, the fact still remains that Packer’s book is insightful and thought-provoking.