I’m thinking, perhaps history’s greatest writer of dialogue for women, who gave them voice with the greatest dignity, was a man. William Shakespeare.
Read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a silly Rom-Com with magic faeries and a man with the head of an ass — a literal ass. Not exactly highbrow. But right off the bat, we see a young woman who must marry a man she loves not, forsaking him she loves, because the custom of the day and the law itself makes her chattel. Her only alternative is death, or consignment to solitude for life. Her frail body has no power to resist, her status moves no one, she has no protector, not even her father. But she has the will, the heart, to declare that so shall she live, so shall she die, she will not give herself up to the yoke of an unwanted master.
Or how about that same young woman, when promising to meet in secret her true love, swearing “by all the vows that men have ever broke, in number more than women ever spoke.” True dat.
Read Romeo and Juliet, as deep a love story as ever flowed from the pen of humankind. In small scenes, Juliet’s mother tries to prepare her for upcoming marriage, noting that by Juliet’s age (14) she had already given birth. The time has come. But if you listen closely … you can feel a sense of how hard it was to marry and bear children at such a young age, for Lady Capulet herself. You can feel her empathy for what her own daughter is about to go through, with a subtle message to Juliet that she knows, and it is but the difficult beginning of a new life.
I could go on and on and on. Portia. Viola. Even plain Kate, bonnie Kate. Where are there women of such strength? Where are there characters with as much heart and mind and soul? Who else faces such odds, with so little help and so little strength, only to reveal what strength really means? Even the 17th-century “basic bro” out for a party night at the globe theatre, could not help but be moved by such nobility, courage, and fortitude as he could only hope to equal.
Where are those women? They are all around you.
How is it that a man came to know these things? A man of the 16th-17th centuries, when women as chattel was the social norm and the legal standard? My theory: he was listening, and he remembered.
When Lady Capulet prepares her daughter for marriage so young, Shakespeare was remembering that time he overheard a mother and daughter talking. He was listening. Part of his great wisdom was that he knew true courage and true love when he saw it in real life. Part of his genius was setting the stage so that we can see and feel its depth in drama.
When Hermia declares she will take death or solitude before submission, or any of his women characters show the most noble face of defiance, was Shakespeare thinking of Elizabeth herself, the one woman no law or custom in England dared call chattel, announcing to the world that she may have the frail body of a woman, but she has the heart and the stomach of a King. Those who doubted … learned their error the hard way.
As for the heroic females all around us today, some are even well-known. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Katharine Hayhoe, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, I could go on and on and on. If Shakespeare’s women characters are the best in drama. it’s because he got so much of his dialogue from listening to women. Maybe we should too.
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