“Frailty, thy name is woman!” So swears Hamlet when he thinks of his mother loving his uncle so soon after losing her husband. And Gertrude, like many of Shakespeare’s other heroines before and after, is indeed a flawed character. When it comes to the Bard, women seem to get the short end of the playwright’s pen. Not just in quality, but in quantity; there are only 177 female characters in his plays compared to more than 700 male.

William Shakespeare was both a product of his time and a commercial artist trying to please a royal patroness. Despite a powerful woman on the throne, Elizabethan society expected the weaker sex to behave in a certain way, submit to the laws of fathers and husbands, and to fall into one of several stock categories: virgin, whore, mother, madwoman.

And yet, Shakespeare’s women remain among the most coveted roles for any actress. With only a handful in any given play, they may not provide equal-opportunity casting, but who can resist taking on the role of Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Desdemona?

Not Tina Packer, certainly.

Ms. Packer is the founder, and until recently the artistic director, of Shakespeare & Company, a prolific theatrical commune in Lenox, Massachusetts. Having devoted her life to performing and presenting his work, she is in a unique position to explore Shakespeare’s female characters. Her production, Women of Will (written by Packer and directed by Eric Tucker), is the fruit of a Guggenheim fellowship, as well as many decades of intense study. The entire piece comprises five full-length plays, each devoted to what she sees as a single phase in the evolution of the playwright’s attitude towards women.

I recently attended The Overview, a two-hour-and-forty-five-minute “summary.” So in theory, I experienced only one-fifth of Packer’s work. And I left the theatre absolutely and completely exhausted.

Women of Will is an intense and intimate evening in which Packer and her single co-star Nigel Gore often speak directly to the audience. Using very few set, costume, and prop pieces, the two actors inhabit some dozen different personas throughout the evening, aptly illustrating Packer’s thesis. It is as much lecture as theatre. As an audience member, I felt as though I were back in school with an extraordinary drama professor. At one point in the show, Packer even joked, “You’ll all be tested on this later.”

Her unique take is demonstrated at the very beginning of the piece, with excerpts of Taming of the Shrew. After much verbal sparring with Gore’s Petruchio, Packer begins to deliver Katherine’s final speech, in which she chides two other brides for their lack of obedience. But, she stops herself, saying “I can’t do this.” She explains that as a modern age feminist, this speech has always been problematic for her. By this point in the play, Kate would either be enraged, cloying and manipulative, or deeply depressed. She proceeds to perform the speech shifting between those interpretations. The message is clear: this play will uproot any preconceived ideas we came in with. And we are in the presence of a virtuoso.

According to Packer, Shakespeare’s heroines fall into five categories throughout the course of his writing career. First, he wrote about “women warriors,” most often stage stereotypes or two-dimensional plot devices. Next, he began to explore women’s sexuality. Noting Romeo and Juliet as a turning point, Packer explained how the writer created women characters that held their own. Juliet is as present and as integral to the plot as Romeo. She is also arguably more intelligent and driving more of the action. Despite Packer’s being some five or six decades older than young Miss Capulet, the balcony scene was romantic and naïve and surprisingly believable.

Shakespeare’s third phase, which Packer alludes to as “dying to tell the truth,” is marked by two groups of women: those who dress as men and are able to find their voice, and those who remain women and either die or go mad (or both). Packer and Gore illustrated this theory through a theatrical mash-up of As You Like It’s Rosalind (in drag) tutoring Orlando in the ways of love and Desdemona pledging her love and pleading for her life in Othello. The two scenes (which were intercut back and forth) were disturbing. It was as though Rosalind’s disguised bravado made Desdemona’s hopelessness all the more heartbreaking.

The fourth phase is one of “chaos.” During this period, Shakespeare created women who are too ambitious, desiring more and more power until they destroy themselves as well as those around them. On a nearly dark stage, Packer and Gore worked through several key scenes from Macbeth to demonstrate how a woman’s unnatural quest for power consumes everything. The final phase, entitled “The Maiden Phoenix,” includes mythic plays in which daughters redeem their fathers. After a touching scene from Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Women of Will ends with one of the last passages Shakespeare is believed to have written. It is a blessing for baby Elizabeth in the play Henry VIII.

There is no denying that Packer is a powerhouse onstage. I cannot imagine any other actress with the background and skill (and unending energy) to tackle all of this. Gore is every bit as versatile as Packer, and because he does less of the evening’s lecturing, his roles are sometimes even more affecting. The two actors are clearly fond of each other and completely invested in the material.

An evening at Women of Will is an extraordinary experience. Whether you enjoy it as theatre, are fascinated by it as an academic exercise, or some combination of both, you have to admit that it is a remarkable body of work. But, it is not for everyone.

Introducing Shakespeare to the uninitiated can be a great pleasure. However, Women of Will is not for the theatrical faint of heart. In fact, my companion and I both agreed that we were wise to leave our significant others at home. You really need to know many, if not all the plays to stay on course and to recognize the value of the thinking that is being promoted.

As I joked earlier, watching Women of Will was tiring. Packer has worked hard and she expects the audience to work as well. But I found it greatly rewarding. In the future, I may attempt one or more of the individual “parts” of Women of Will: The Complete Journey. For now, I feel that I need to digest the crash course I just took — and maybe revisit some of my favorite plays. Like any marvelous instructor, Tina Packer left me eager to look at the source material with new eyes.

Women of Will continues at the Nora Theatre Company in Central Square, Cambridge MA, through November 6. Packer is also scheduled to present the overview in Colorado Springs on November 9-13,  and the entire five-part cycle at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder next summer. For more info, check the Women of Will Facebook page.

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  • L Sorensen-Jolink November 22, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    I second Dr. Allen’s idea–I would love to have the privilege of purchasing several such DVD’s! Thank you, Alexandra, for the insightful observations on Ms. Packer’s work on and in “Women of Will.”

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. November 5, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Dear Alexandra,

    Do you think she will do a DVD of this and sell it to “students” in an on-line course? I am SO envious of your experience. (Certain that Shakespeare would be pleased with my feminine response!)