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Shakespeare's Women: Claiming Center Stage

Evening Program

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1M2030
“Ellen Terry” as Lady Macbeth, 1889, by John Singer Sargent (Tate Britain)

Their names are familiar: Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Viola, Desdemona, and Ophelia. They’re featured in all of Shakespeare’s plays, as wives and mothers, as daughters and sisters, as cousins and friends. They represent the full scope of English society: servants, prostitutes, nuns, noblewomen, royals. The plays would be meaningless without them.

But they are also limited in word and action: Fewer than 20 percent of Shakespeare’s characters are women, and even in large roles speak far less than the men. We don’t always like their stories today, cringing at Kate’s final speech in The Taming of the Shrew, sputtering objections as Desdemona takes responsibility for Othello killing her, and crying foul when Lavinia is killed because as a victim of rape she is no longer attractive on the marriage market.

How do Shakespeare’s women move us, when his plays offer us a world run by and centered on men? The women make every play more interesting and more important. His female characters charm and amaze as they navigate the complicated and difficult world they inhabit. We laugh along with Beatrice as she wages a merry war with Benedick, marvel at Juliet’s determination to control her life, and admire the way Rosalind orchestrates happy endings all around. We cheer as Isabella bravely stands up to the powerful Angelo, even as he taunts her with a line that seems frighteningly modern: “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” There are many times Shakespeare’s women succeed against all odds, finding their own paths to happiness, worth, or dignity.    

Tudor and Renaissance scholar Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger, former manager of visitor education at the Folger Shakespeare Library, explores the scope of the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays, examining the ways in which their author reinforced and challenged Elizabethan society’s norms and those in which his female characters continue to shape our perceptions today.

S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)