All this is a shame, because the Twitter-storm kicked up by her essay obscures a powerful insight at the heart of it, one that motivated Winkler’s account in the first place: a sea change in how we understand Shakespeare’s depiction of women, especially “all the remarkable female friendships.” But it doesn’t follow that because Shakespeare wrote insightfully about women he was one, any more than it does that because Shakespeare saw so penetratingly into the minds of homicides like Macbeth and Claudius he was a murderer, too.
So I hope that Winkler abandons her authorship fantasies and focuses her attention instead on those heroines whose words resonate powerfully for her, because she is clearly onto something important in drawing our renewed attention to “Beatrice and Hero’s allegiance” in Much Ado About Nothing and “Emilia’s devotion to her mistress” in Othello. Driven by a half century of feminist scholarship and further propelled by the #MeToo movement, her essay helps us see the depth of female friendship and of women’s refusal to kowtow to men in Shakespeare’s plays. What Winkler argues for here is also shaping how the next generation of playgoers is experiencing these works.
I’ve seen these changes up close in my role as “Shakespeare scholar in residence” at the Public Theater, in New York, where I get to observe rehearsals in which directors and actors are breaking through encrusted traditions, foregrounding a dynamic in the plays that has been downplayed for too long. This was brought home powerfully for me last summer, watching Heather Lind and Alison Wright in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s production of Othello at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The heartbreaking intimacy of Lind’s Desdemona and Wright’s Emilia—which transcended their differences in class, privilege, and wealth—put the relationship of these doomed women at the center of the tragedy.
I thought that might have been a one-off, but the three Public Theater productions I have worked on since then have all put female friendships front and center. Jenny Koons made the bond between Carolyn Kettig’s Hermia and Rosanny Zayas’s Helena a key feature of her Midsummer Night’s Dream. Laurie Woolery went even further in The Tempest, turning the central friendship in the play into one between women, regendering the roles and casting Myra Lucretia Taylor as Prospero and Nancy Rodriguez as Gonzalo.
And for the past month I have watched as the extraordinary solidarity of Danielle Brooks’s Beatrice and Margaret Odette’s Hero has gotten deeper and deeper in rehearsals of Kenny Leon’s production of Much Ado, moving the familiar play in a powerful new direction; audiences will understand in fresh ways why Beatrice weeps for Hero and demands that Benedick kill Claudio for humiliating her cousin. By late May that show will be in previews at the Delacorte, and I’m happy to invite Elizabeth Winkler to see it.
* We have corrected the relevant sentences in Elizabeth Winkler’s piece to state that theories positing others as the true author of the work attributed to Shakespeare emerged in the mid-19th century.