Discovering Shakespeare’s Forgotten Women

When I think of Shakespeare I don’t necessarily think of women. I think of kings, murderers, and fools, but women? Not so much. Lady Macbeth, sure. Ophelia and Juliet? You bet. But I think of the guys mostly: Hamlet, Brutus, Prospero, Henry the IV, and Lear. Even the minor male characters are memorable: Edgar and Kent, Hotspur, Sir Toby Belch, and my personal favorite, Caliban.

But what if Shakespeare wrote more for women? Who would those women be, and what would they say to us? Those are the questions that Scott Kaiser’s play Shakespeare’s Other Women (playing through January 28, 2018) explores. it’s an ambitious exciting project. It’s also a fun one as Kaiser has thrown a little Samuel Beckett into the mix along with Shakespeare. There are in fact two men in the play along with the 36 forgotten or misunderstood heroines; these two guys ostensibly worked on the First Folio – the published work of Shakespeare’s plays – and they are enthusiastic but somewhat clueless. Like the friends in Waiting for Godot, who sit around and wait for someone who never comes, these two while away their time before heading to a tavern by looking through a box of earlier drafts and plays in progress – Shakespeare’s marginalia, as it were.

In that box they find the speeches of Shakespeare’s other women.

What do they tell us?

A lot, actually. We hear from a dizzying array of female characters: prostitutes and cooks as well as queens, goddesses, mothers, daughters, and wives.

Most exciting to me are women I either had never heard of or who are so completely in the background of their famous husbands, that I didn’t even think to notice them.

Here are two historical figures.

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Helena Bonham Carter as Lady Jane Grey.
courtesy: https://www.cineplex.com/Movie/lady-jane/Photos 

Lady Jane Grey was queen of England for 9 days, according to Wikipedia.  This brief reign came after the death of Henry the VIII, as his son, Edward VI lay dying at the age of 15. Edward wanted to protect the Reformation from the hands of his half-sister Catholic Mary Tudor, and so he named Lady Jane – his first cousin once removed — Queen. Obviously, this didn’t last long. Both Lady Jane and her husband Guildford Dudley were executed by the irate Mary the First, otherwise known as Bloody Mary (after which the cocktail is named). Lady Jane’s speech seems to clearly echo the determined, highly individualized faith that characterized the Protestant Reformation.

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Isis Phoenix as Lady Jane Grey, ISF, Shakespeare’s Other Women, 2018, Photo by Michael Stadler

“Before my God, and all of you assembled/I pray you bear witness that today/I die a true and faithful Christian woman/And that I look this morning to be saved/By no means other than the mercy of my God”

The above quote from the monologue is based on words Jane apparently really said – making this speech all the more powerful. Through drama, we glimpse a real, forgotten woman (so forgotten there is no portrait of her) and we witness (Jane’s word) her restoration as a glittering, important and — at this moment at least — heroic public figure.

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Greer Garson as Calpurnia from http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/archives/byId.html?id=248356%7C291232

 

The other big surprise was to hear at last the point of view of Julius Caesar’s wife Calpurnia. In Kaiser’s play, she speaks to us before the dreaded assassination and tells her husband  in no uncertain terms, not to accept the crown that would make him emperor.

“Yea, put it by, with fair humility/And let the Roman people clearly see/You do not seek the yoke of sovereignty/But rather, hope to be a faithful servant/To the Republic as great Pompey was”

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Kathryn Lynn Morgen as Calpurnia and G. Kent Taylor as Caesar, ISF, Shakespeare’s Other Women, 2018, photo by Michael Stadler

Reading Calpurnia, I am reminded of the power-hungry men of the present, who if they are lucky enough to have a sensible spouse, would do well to heed their warning against ambition and ego. In Calpurnia, we hear a woman skilled at rhetoric and state-craft, who — if she had not lived under patriarchy — would have been herself a powerful political leader. Calpurnia’s warning – to approach the reins of power with caution and modesty – rings truer now than ever.

Other surprises await you should you venture out to see Shakespeare’s Other Women and it’s a thrill to learn of these female characters, and to learn to know them better.  Tickets available here!

Stephanie Barbe HammerStephanie Barbé Hammer is a comp lit scholar, poet, and fiction writer who went to her first live performance at 4 (the music man). She has been going to the theater ever since. Stephanie was born in New York City and now lives in Coupeville where she spends her non-writing hours walking and searching for a dry cleaner, a department store, and someone to “tawk” to amongst the trees.

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