When women assume power in government, the world will become a kindler, gentler place. Says who? Well, Frank Capra for one. In his 1948 movie “State of the Union,” Spencer Tracy plays wealthy industrialist Grant Mathews who is running for president. As he waits to be shaved, his Italian barber speaking in broken English offers some advice: “My wife says to me all men and all of the governments in all the world should be put in jail.” Tracy frowns but says nothing. The barber continues: “I say, ‘Maria, what for you talk like a communist?’ She’s like, ‘Shut up! Do you know why we got no peace? Because we got no woman in the government.’ She said, ‘Put two roosters together. What happens? Roosters got no brains, they fight. Put fifteen roosters together, what happens? Fifteen fights. But, put fifteen hens together what do you got? Fifteen eggs. Fight in the Congress,’ she say. ‘Fight in London, fight in France, fight here, fight there, why? No hens in government.’”
William Shakespeare implied as much in his plays, a point underscored in a recent book entitled, “Women of Will,” by Tina Packer. Shakespeare didn’t begin writing great parts for women until midway through his career as London’s foremost playwright. Why the change? According to Packer it was due to the influence of Aemilia Bassano, whom the author believes was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. “She would be an extraordinary woman in any age,” writes Packer, “but for a woman in the Elizabethan age she is without parallel.” Shakespeare fell madly, passionately head-over-heels in love with Aemilia Bassano. She in turn changed his thinking about how he wrote about women, beginning with his poem, “The Rape of Lucrece.” Not a great poem, says Packer, but it was a breakthrough for Shakespeare and for literature. “It is a pivotal poem because it was the first time Shakespeare took on a woman’s voice to articulate what it felt like to be at the mercy of a man who violently pushed aside a woman’s selfhood and used her body to his own desires.” Shakespeare realized that in order for the world to find its healthy balance, all women’s voices needed to be heard. Beginning with “Romeo and Juliet” the Bard began doing just that in his plays, giving to women voices that belonged to women, and, according to Packer, Shakespeare learned this from his time with Aemilia.
If you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s plays you know there is never true happiness between a man and a woman unless there is equality. In Shakespeare’s plays, the world becomes out of joint when a woman takes on the qualities of a man, or when a man runs roughshod over women, and always with tragic consequences. True harmony requires a balance between feminine and masculine qualities, Shakespeare is saying. And not just in relationships but in how the world is governed. Men are prone to fighting and protecting their honor, while women are more inclined to listen, talk things out, and negotiate in good faith. It’s the central theme running throughout Shakespeare’s mature plays. But it’s the man who must change. In a number of the comedies, the man does not get the woman he desires until he has been thoroughly chastened; in other words, when he stops acting like a chauvinist and begins acting as a mature, fully developed, sensitive and caring human being.
Tina Packer has decades of experience directing and acting in Shakespeare’s plays. In 1978, the English-born actress founded Shakespeare & Company, in Lennox, Mass., which organizes one of the largest Shakespeare festivals in the country. In other words, she has studied and pondered the Shakespeare canon for 35 years. She also has read all or most of the books written about his life and times. The result is not just an insider’s analysis and insight into the Bard’s plays, but a book where the main character—William Shakespeare, gentleman, actor and playwright—is fleshed out as a fully three-dimensional character—and decided feminist.