One morning this month, Tina Packer was rushing across Harvard’s campus to professor Marjorie Garber’s 11 a.m. class on Shakespeare’s early plays when she learned a secret: The class, which she was guest-teaching, typically didn’t really get going till 11:07. She stopped short on the sidewalk. “Tricked! Tricked! Tricked!” she cried.
For a mere seven-minute reprieve, it was a Shakespearean level of drama. But despite a whirlwind of activities concerning the playwright, Packer, who at 76 stands as one of the country’s most notable interpreters of Shakespeare’s work, seems to seize every minute as an opportunity for more.
On top of her usual tasks — performing, directing, teaching — the founding artistic director of Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company is currently traveling to promote a new book, “Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays.” In it, she makes a provocative argument: Shakespeare’s female characters matured as he did, and everything changed when, early in his career, he fell in love with the mysterious woman known as the Dark Lady.
“I suddenly got this realization about the women characters in Shakespeare, and that there was a progression to them,” Packer said later in the day, over a lunch in Harvard Square peppered with phone calls and run-ins with colleagues. (The class, she said, had been a success, with Packer acting out bits of the plays and pushing students toward buried meanings. “She’s a hero,” Garber, a friend, said beforehand.) “There’s only two or three women in every play,” Packer went on. “They’re always on the outside. They’re always looking at power, or they’re being projected upon.”
Packer, who performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England before coming to the United States, dates that realization to a 1991 production she directed of “The Tempest” in which the maiden Miranda and the spirit Ariel, both headed for independent lives beyond the control of Miranda’s father, Prospero, looked each other in the eye. “If I hadn’t had been a woman, and a creative woman, and gone on this journey from England to America, I don’t know that it would have ever come up. It was a major moment for me,” Packer said. Struck, she began to map out how Shakespeare wrote about women over the course of his life.
Though the exact dates are hazy, scholars believe William Shakespeare wrote the 38 plays credited to him between 1590 and 1613. From the start, the young actor created female characters as intriguing as the fierce Margaret of Anjou, who figured in all three parts of “Henry VI” and “Richard III” — “the first woman in the canon I ever passionately wanted to play,” Packer said. (She is directing an Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of “Henry VI, Part 2,” opening in Boston on May 13.) But ultimately the women of the earliest plays, which include “The Taming of the Shrew,” are “either ferocious, overbearingly assertive, or they are idealized virgins-on-the-pedestal,” Packer writes.
Then, something happened, she believes: Shakespeare, who was already married, fell in love. Many who try to connect the scanty facts of the author’s life to his plays — who on earth was this Renaissance man to give us the most enduring body of literary work in English? — have been fascinated by a character who enters his sonnets in the 1590s: a dark-skinned female musician whose “eyes are nothing like the sun,” yet who enchants the narrator.
Packer, following certain scholars, has a theory about who this Dark Lady was: Aemilia Bassano (also known as Emilia Lanyer or Lanier), a talented poet from a Venetian family of Christianized Jewish court musicians. “When he falls in love, it’s not with a conventional person,” Packer said. “She’s not suitable. She’s a musician who stands up for herself.” Shakespeare also performed at court, which means he and the Bassanos would almost certainly have met.
From this point, starting with “Romeo and Juliet,” Packer argues, Shakespeare conceived women as full human beings with agendas and souls of their own. That’s not to say these characters are free of 16th-century social constraints: “It’s a man’s world,” she said, “and it’s about what the role of women is in that.” Juliet risks her father disowning her, or worse, for her forbidden love. But Shakespeare gives Juliet equal billing — and, Packer said, “writes her just as deeply if not more deeply than Romeo. He follows the vicissitudes of her internal life. He gives her just as much courage.”
Packer sees a middle stage in which Shakespeare’s women may command their own destiny by dressing as men, like Rosalind in “As You Like It,” or die for their commitment to truth, like Cordelia in “King Lear.” She traces a dark period in which women’s will to power — like that of Volumnia in “Coriolanus,” “the most horrendous portrait of a mother you could have” — plunge the world into despair. Finally, she says, he produced plays in which women, or the men who stand by them, redeem terrible sins of the past. “There are the young women like in the early things, but they’re feisty now,” Packer said. There also older women like Paulina in “The Winter’s Tale,” who restores the queen Hermione to a husband tortured by the belief that his jealousy had caused her death.
Amid millions of analyses of Shakespeare, Packer’s stands out for one reason: She has played a huge number of his female characters herself, sometimes in just one week. In 2009, she left Shakespeare & Company to create a theatrical version of “Women of Will.” (She is still on the company’s board and was frank in her frustration over the “absolute chaos” it saw this year with the hiring and abrupt departure of executive director Rick Dildine.) Working with director Eric Tucker and opposite actor Nigel Gore, Packer developed the show as a lecture-play exploring the women’s roles, from early to late, in either one “overview” or a bravura five-part series. The shows have traveled widely.
To Tucker, that gives Packer a rare perspective. “The plays are obviously written for actors, by an actor,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s like you’re trying to look at a house . . . You can walk around and get a pretty good view of what’s in the house. But it’s not the same as walking in the house. That to me is the difference, when you’re an actor taking on the role. There’s nothing like being on the inside.” He watched Packer uncover insights about these characters over years of rehearsal and interaction with audiences. “You find something new every single performance,” he said. “That’s an experience only the actor can have.”
Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, whose speculative Shakespeare biography “Will in the World” was a bestseller, readily agreed. Actors have a special insight, he said by phone, “because they live the characters, if they’re any good at this game.” Though he cautioned that any biographical consideration of Shakespeare occupies “a very misty and difficult world,” he found Packer’s guesses plausible. Was Bassano the Dark Lady? “It doesn’t seem to me unreasonable to imagine,” he said. Above all, he added, “The large general principle that Shakespeare’s life is in his work, even though it’s to some extent an academic heresy, seems to me deeply true.”
Packer, whose own book overflows with anecdotes and comparisons to current events, defended that biographical perspective as well. “I know if I’m writing something, it’s always reflecting what was happening in my life,” she said.
But she insists that her vision of Shakespeare’s journey is about more than her own 21st-century politics. “I do believe it’s a universal truth, that men and women are equal,” she said. “And we suffer if one tries to dominate the other.”
“That,” she added, in the plummy tones of a woman used to commanding a stage, “has been true from the day we started emerging out of the primordial slime.”