On PBS's "Shakespeare Uncovered" episode one, actress Joely Richardson dissects William Shakespeare's heroines, characters found in the comedies, and praises them for their bravery and wit.
Joely Richardson is Vanessa Redgrave's daughter. She's also a familiar face with pop audiences who watched FX's "Nip Tuck" --Joely played Julia, a lesbian lover in the series. Today, PBS airs "Shakespeare Uncovered" again and Richardson's examination of the comedies probes his heroines, Rosalind and Viola, two women who began an adventure, one on sea (Viola) and the other in the forest (Rosalind). Both characters undergo their journeys disguised as men.
And as men, the women characters are able to express themselves in ways that weren't conventionally possible had they encountered their situations as women. Joely's visit uncovers Shakespeare's personal story. Shakespeare married an older women when he was 18. Before Shakespeare was 21, he and Anne Hathaway had three children and one set of twins. The twins, a boy and a girl, are believed to be Shakespeare's inspiration for the many twins featured in his works. the Comedy of Errors, a comedic farce of events has two sets of twins.
"Twelfth Night" has one set of fraternal twins, Viola and her brother Sebastian. Critics and scholars believe the death of Shakespeare's fraternal twin at age 11, is the source of for the "Twelfth Night" story. "Twelfth Night" is a romantic comedy, but it's also the story of reunited twins.
Richardson's episode of "Shakespeare Uncovered" also tackles disguise and mistaken identity. Women disguised as men, actresses and scholars argue, allows Shakespeare's women characters to be outspoken, passionate, and comical heroines in an era where roles for women were especially limited. Even today, actresses are grateful to Shakespeare for creating complex women characters who demonstrates strength and character.
Joely's episode doesn't probe thoroughly Shakesepeare's work as an innovator. Helen Mirren points out that the poet's comedies introduce marriage for love at a time when marriage for love was rather peculiar. Another historian and scholar offers that it's a mistake to ignore the comedies in favor of the tragedies because William Shakespeare's comedies are where the true human stories about love and family reside.
The episode ends with Viola's reunion with her brother Sebastian. Different versions are shared: the actors at the London Theater, and several cinematic productions as well. Though scholars do not consider Shakespeare's writings on twins as autobiographical, they do connect his personal life and his personal story with his own twins who were back in Statford while he worked in London. They marvel at the reconciliation and resolution at the end of "Twelfth Night" and how it must have resonated with him as he underwent the loss of his son, the twin.
Further complicating the study of Shakespeare's women in disguise on stage is the conversation on cross dressing. Women weren't allowed on stage until some 60 years after Shakespeare's death. Hence the idea of a boy on stage, disguised as a woman who is disguised as a man, allowed for twice the comedic effect.
In all, there is no doubt by the actors and scholars who've examined the comedies for the PBS series that Shakespeare loved women. Students of Shakespeare who doubt the fact would be better served to look at Shakespeare's comedies, rather than the tragedies or historical plays, to appreciate the strong characters. And if there is any doubt that the women are strong characters, even though they were in disguise, then it should be remembered that these are women who pursue their love interests, rather than allowing a patriarchal society to dictate their love lives for them.
Richardson's episode is airing now, 4pm EST on PBS.
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