Although he wrote one of the greatest romances of all time, William Shakespeare isn’t generally known as a sexy playwright. But a Shakespeare expert plans to explore that side of him in Kansas City this week.
“I’m going to talk on sex. I think it promises to be fun,” says Tina Packer, who speaks of his work in a way that leaves little doubt she’d crown him “most sensual writer to have ever lived” if given the chance.
Since the 1970s, Packer has directed all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays (excluding a few she is certain he did not write).
Having trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic arts in England, and worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Packer moved to the United States in 1974 and, a few years later, founded Shakespeare and Company to produce his plays in Lenox, Mass.
Through her involvement in the Shakespeare Theater Association, Packer came to know members of Kansas City’s Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and staffers at the Kansas City Public Library. She was glad to accept their invitation for her to speak at one of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s 25th anniversary events.
“I thought, 'We’ll do 25 sex acts for 25 years,'” she says.
With his entire canon of work under her belt, Packer is able to consider Shakespeare from a unique perspective. It wasn’t until she’d directed all of the plays — and taught them at more than 30 universities — that she was able to see both how many kinds of sexuality he explores and how “incredibly original” that exploration is, she says.
“We’re always saying Shakespeare does everything incredibly well, but (compared to) Ben Johnson, or any of the other writers of the age, they’re in kindergarten and stay in kindergarten," Packer says. "Shakespeare is the most sophisticated writer about sex you can think about.”
He "explores just about every kind of sexuality there is,” she explains. “He goes from people being in love, to people being raped, to people raping, to arranged marriages, to arranged marriages that shift into love marriages, (and) same-sex loves.”
Sensuality in Shakespeare is the topic of her next book, the second in what will be a three-part series. The first, Women of Will, explored the evolution of Shakespeare’s female characters over the course of his career; the third will likely be about creativity in Shakespeare. Each takes the whole of his works into account.
Writing Women of Will, Packer says, led her to conclude that "Romeo and Juliet" was the first of Shakespeare’s plays to include a well-rounded woman, just as multi-dimensional and just as sexual as any of the male characters — who happened to still be a child.
“Juliet is 14 and can say things like, ‘My bounty is as boundless as a sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee the more I have, for both are infinite,’” Packer explains. “That’s a real Buddhist saying and it usually takes people 50 years to get to that.”
Besides "Romeo and Juliet," the sexiest of the other plays, she says, is "Antony and Cleopatra."
That play, which came much later in Shakespeare’s life, is about a love that is tried again and again but holds true, she says. Antony married someone else, but still returned to Cleopatra in spite of knowing the great price he would pay for doing so. And so much more than love is at stake.
In fact, Packer says, we’re still dealing with the tragic end of their relationship, and with the legacy of Egypt and Greece falling to the Romans. Packer notes that in the Egyptian-Hellenistic society, women were considered equal with men and could sign contracts and be traders and negotiators.
“We all inherited the Roman world,” she says, and with it, the hierarchy of power the West has had in militaries, churches, businesses, and families ever since.
“My thought about Shakespeare is that it’s an ongoing conversation that we’ve been having for 400 years. It’s a conversation that goes on around the world because Shakespeare is done all over the world.”
So bad-boy Bill stays relevant through the centuries and gives us tools and lenses to think about and discuss human behavior, sexual or otherwise.
“The fact that people are reinterpreting and reinterpreting," Packer says, "is one of the ways we all can see different ideas and cultures getting filtered through the same work of art.”
Shakespeare and Sensuality with Tina Packer, Wednesday, November 8. Reception: 6 p.m., Program: 6:30 p.m., Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, 4801 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64112; 816-701-3481.