Edited by Abigail Eardley
Art by Iara Silva: www.instagram.com/iiaraz_
Often, the contemporary eye looks at Shakespeare’s plots and characters with a certain skepticism. No matter how timeless and universal the themes – the joy, the anguish, the love – we cannot help but wonder: how could a mother not recognise her own twins? Do those simple disguises really trick everyone? And perhaps most persistently for me, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, what’s up with all these women? Under the auspices of the patriarchal system in early modern England, female Shakespearean characters are often submissive, with few admirable exceptions: the Princess in Love’s Labours Lost and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing come to mind. Ultimately however, Kate in Taming of the Shrew and others like her, leave modern women shaking their heads.
Any author of fiction – and Shakespeare is no exception – asks an audience to momentarily suspend disbelief. In novels, films, and plays, ghosts walk, witches prophesize, and statues come alive. But still, that final question persists: what is up with all these women? In Nothing of Woman in Me, which debuted in February 2018 at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford Upon Avon, and will be reprised in July at the RSC Dell, director and playwright Juliano Zaffino attempts to answer this question. Zaffino earned his MA in Shakespeare and Theatre from the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford Upon Avon, and will pursue his PhD there next year. As a gay man, he has first-hand experience of belonging to a marginalised group in society. By exploring the psyches of some of Shakespeare’s most complex and thought-provoking female characters, Zaffino hoped to give expression to all silenced populations by “capturing the voice of women throughout history and in our modern day, and unifying these voices through the vehicles of Shakespeare’s voiceless women.” He “brought his experience to the table: my life as a gay man, the women who had raised me and whom I had grown up with, the reading and watching and listening I had done.” The dawning of the #MeToo era has offered a relevant and powerful backdrop for his work, having finally provided the opportunity for many muted female voices to whisper, speak, and shout above decades of oppressive abuse. No longer willing to suffer in silence as if that were the norm, women from professional, political, academic, and personal backgrounds are setting each other free by telling their truths. Women in Shakespeare’s time could not do that: but Zaffino imagines what it might have been like if they could have.
He chose four hugely diverse female characters from the Shakespearean canon: Lady Macbeth, Lavinia from Titus Andronicus (or more specifically, her severed tongue), Jessica from The Merchant of Venice, and Hermione from The Winter’s Tale, delving into their consciousness to see what he could find. In each case, rage predominated. Rage at suffering rape, and the severing of tongues and hands. Rage at being treated as chattel in a patriarchal slave trade. Rage at wanting, but being unable to, assume the throne yourself. Rage at being imprisoned in a tomb of bodily stone.
Rage is more than page, or stage, deep. In “Engine,” a “psychic tether links Lavinia’s tongue back to her mind.” One might expect that Lavinia’s discarded tongue would reserve the most vitriol for its severer, but she is equally as dismayed with the men in her own family. It is blood (what becomes an ironic connection in this play) relatives who put her in the vulnerable position to begin with: “The nerve of an old man to hand me off like that, without ever asking me, without ever thinking of me as anything other than currency, coinage.” The theme of being treated as property – as less than human, or even animal – recurs throughout. She eschews even their empathy: “Get us and quit your weeping all. It’s insulting to see you prone and prostrate, defenestrating yourselves in a goddam pissing contest even now, for whose is biggest, grief, emotional capacity.” Exposing Lavinia’s anger is appropriate and important not only in an academic setting, but in exploring female emotion in contemporary, current society.
While Jessica’s anguish may not be as palpable as Lavinia’s, she nonetheless suffers at the hands of the men in her life. In “Passover,” Jessica of The Merchant of Venice is the rope in a tug of war between two men: her father and her husband. The cord itself immediately suggests livestock, being tethered and submissive. Her preternatural beauty and impossibly perfect figure give her a Barbie Doll, woman-as-plaything aesthetic. She, like all these women, craves freedom from her omnipotent captors, as “They shouldn’t be able to just box me away whenever they want.” Her father, Shylock, himself silent, “wraps her as a gift,” a living doll. Lorenzo, her also mute husband, unwraps her slowly, lasciviously, a twisted gift at the moment of “Passover.” She stands, nearly naked, completely exposed, for their appraisal, like a thoroughbred they’re considering for purchase. It would be interesting to compare such a modern manifestation of Jessica with her early modern counterpart, when teaching the play.
So many of Shakespeare’s women only have identity in relation to men. This is particularly true for Lady Macbeth. In “Are You a Man?”, however, the nameless character known as Lady Macbeth asserts her own identity. While we may not always think of her as silenced – she spurs Macbeth on, some even assign her total blame for his bloody murders – she ultimately serves to support his goals. This piece highlights how we can be silenced even as, and despite the fact, that we express ourselves. Here, she becomes fully herself by bifurcating. Her alter ego is played by a man that we sense she wishes she could be, and they perform an eerie dance to the slow, thrumming chorus of “unsex me here,” and “what’s done can’t be undone.” Is she talking of Duncan’s murder: or does she question the biologically assigned gender that relegates her to accomplice, rather than fully-fledged crown usurper? “I would be King and the mother of every King until the end of time,” she tells us. Yet she has to “Wait to become what I was always meant to be, what I was promised, what I desired. King. I would have no other name than my own.” She laments, “If I were a man I could just get on with it, on- and off-stage, on- and off-set… I could just get on with it.” We begin to question what kills Lady Macbeth: is it guilt, or her suffering as a result of watching what they killed for slip away, as her husband loses control? This representation of Lady Macbeth is integral in reconsidering centuries of dismissive depictions of female characters in the theatre.
Finally, in “Newly Fixed,” Zaffino addresses the concerns of everyone who questions how Hermione could possibly forgive Leontes. Like Lott’s wife, Hermione is turned to an inanimate mineral: for what? Looking back at what might have been? All of Shakespeare’s women could be argued to have been suppressed in some way, but in The Winter’s Tale the deed and its impact are obvious. Hermione spends sixteen years literally statuesque and silent as her daughter grows into a young woman, far away in Bohemia. “Turn, good lady,” she is told repeatedly, even in her imposed stillness. Despite her daily nightmare that “time himself visits me to tighten my restraints… It was the hum of hate that revived me.” Once revived, she is “raving and ravaging… a tornado with no eye.” Her fury is justified after being relegated to stony silence and immobility for a majority of the play’s text.
These women, all from very different times, places, and social statuses, unite and raise their voices with tremendous volume and moving impact. They finally have a captive audience, forced to listen, and it is an emotion-laden privilege to hear them roar.
At the conclusion of the piece, Zaffino gifted the same opportunity to modern, nonfictional women to speak their truths. Before the opening night, he solicited statements from women about what was most important to them, what messages they’d like to share with others, what they have wanted to say but perhaps had not been given the opportunity to. All the actors stood in a circle, facing outward to the audience around them. They read the words (my own included) aloud off cue cards in bold, clear voices. It was reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video, evoking Dylan’s voice of protest and resistance. How overwhelmingly empowering to hear not only the frustrations of Shakespeare’s muted, muffled, tongue-tied fictional women, but to fast-forward over four hundred years and hear those who are still silenced today, given voice as well.
This production not only reveals what these four Shakespearean characters might have been thinking beneath the words that Shakespeare had assigned them. It helps to provoke thought and discussion in studying all of Shakespeare’s female characters. How might they have responded to their circumstances free of societal norms and expectations? This fictional probing naturally leads to addressing those same quandaries in a society which might, at times, seem like it has not made much progress in giving women an acknowledged and respected voice.
Nothing of Woman in Me will run again this summer on July 1 at 12 noon and 3pm at The Dell, Royal Shakespeare Company, Avonbank Gardens, in Stratford Upon Avon.
 All quotes by Zaffino appear in the Nothing of Woman in Me programme
About the Author
Diane Lowman’s essays have appeared in many publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Brain, Child, Brevity Blog, and When Women Waken. She writes a weekly column called My Life on the Post Road for Books, Ink. In addition to essays, she has written a memoir called Nothing But Blue, which will be published in the fall of 2018 by She Writes Press. She’s explored other forms of literary expression in nearly one thousand haiku poems, and many essays about all of Shakespeare’s plays. Diane teaches yoga, provides nutritional counseling, and tutors Spanish. She looks forward to writing the next chapter, which will take place in Stratford-Upon-Avon in England as she pursues an MA in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute.