This semester I took a class called ‘Acting Shakespeare,’ a class that I was incredibly intimidated by. The thought of memorizing Shakespeare weekly for an entire semester was very daunting, but once the class started I realized that the scariest thing about the class was not memorizing the words or understanding what the heck they meant; the biggest challenge was doing justice to the characters created by William Shakespeare. And I realized that Shakespeare knew women. Really, really knew them.
This was a surprise to me. Through my experience with Shakespeare before the class, I knew that many of his female characters had great lines. But after studying and scanning and getting up and speaking some of those lines, I found myself connecting on a whole new level with the women whose lines I was saying. It was while I was weeping before the class as Hermione, having felt something pull at me in her lines:
How will this grieve you
When you shall come to clearer knowledge that
You thus have publish’d me. Gentle my lord,
You scarce can right me throughly then, to say
You did mistake
that I was really sold on Shakespeare. Really, really sold. This guy has something to say to every situation.
And he understood women. He understood them because he understood humans, probably, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. Most of his female characters were smart as whips—many smarter than their male love-interests. And because Shakespeare had this understanding of women, he did what he could with them, and then when he needed a little more freedom he put a pair of pants on them and they paraded around the stage speaking as women in disguise.
It’s their wit that makes them impressive, but it’s their struggles and their hearts that make them unforgettable. Shakespeare’s characters are so much more than the intellectual, hard-to-understand thees and thous people commonly think of. Even Juliet, the archetypal girlish lover is so much more than her swooning stigma. How beautiful are her words—spoken from an incredibly agile mind—when she says to Romeo,
They are but beggars that can count their worth
But my true love is grown to such excess
I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth.
I guess it’s that blend of strength and beauty that made me first fall in love with Shakespeare’s women, but there’s more. The situations he puts his characters in are so insightful. How did he know to write about Phoebe from As You Like It, and the more likable Olivia from Twelfth Night who are both proud and bored—how did he know that what they really want is just to be seen for who they truly are? Play Olivia as a woman who is beautiful and just wants to be praised, and she’s flat. Play her as a woman who is beautiful and has known only praise, and then is faced with a man who tells her that he’s not in love with her and calls her out for her pride—play her as that startled, intrigued woman and she breathes with life. Even if it means being told to their faces that they are “too proud,” women want to be seen. Shakespeare knew that.
How did he know to write about Helena, the lover from A Midsummer Night’s Dream who is beautiful, and smart, and in love with a man who doesn’t love her? How did he know to give her a part where she knows she’s too good to be chasing after Demetrius, and yet does it anyway? How did he know to write about Rosalind, the brilliant leading lady of As You Like It who gets in over her head and then tortures the man she loves with her playmaking because she’s dressed as a man and can’t stand the pain their interactions cause? How did Shakespeare know that it never works out well to pretend to be something you’re not, and how did he bring his female leads to that beautiful conclusion in so many of his plays?
There is poetry in Shakespeare’s plays, along with the wit. But it’s not the beauty of the words that makes Shakespeare’s work enduring. It’s the fact that he knew humans. He knew what they needed, and how they acted, and what they said and what they should have said. I’m convinced that my acting teacher is right—Shakespeare is not for English majors. It’s for actors. His work is worth reading and studying, but it was meant first to be seen on a stage. Of course an actor has to do the work of scanning and looking up words and figuring out what she’s saying. But if an actor truly knows her character, I’m convinced that Shakespeare’s plays will make more sense to the audience just by hearing her speak than if the audience spent hours studying the meaning of the text.
I worked a lot on Hermione, the wronged queen from The Winter’s Tale. After reading the play, I still don’t know why she comes back to life, and whether there is some deeper meaning in the text. But from working on her as an actor, I have learned about her forgiveness, and her grief, and her constant dignity. Those things—and the things that I still can’t articulate about her but can feel within me—are the things I think Shakespeare meant us to remember about her. Those are the things that made him a brilliant playwright, and a frighteningly accurate observer of human behavior.
So go watch some Shakespeare. Better yet, pull out a play, do the work of understanding the text, and then speak it out loud. Embody it. Figure out why the lines that are supposed to be iambic pentameter have an extra couple syllables. Shakespeare didn’t just make mistakes—he always had a reason. His women—and his men too—can tell you something about those reasons.
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard