Shakespeare's Women

For many years I have enjoyed working with Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals, an expert in theatrical photography and portraiture. Recently we hatched the idea of a photo series based on Shakespeare's women. We were inspired by the work of Cindy Sherman who creates portraits of many different women using her own body as a canvas, and by our love of theatre. In these images, we want to explore how Shakespeare's women relate to the life of women now. I will post them here as we produce them, alongside a bit about the ideas behind each image.

"Shakespeare's Wicked Women"
Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals
Characters like Goneril and Regan, Tamora, and Lady Macbeth are some of Shakespeare's most remarkable creations, so we wanted this image to be arresting. Many of the things that make Shakespeare's women wicked don't seem quite so wicked today. The idea that powerful and sexually liberated women are evil and unnatural is (or should be) well out of date! For that reason this image, entitled Shakespeare's Wicked Women, was intended to have a retro feel to it. The cheap, black halloween wig, and the Wizard of Oz green dress evoke 20th century images of witchcraft, and, we hope, give the image a light-hearted feel. Shakespeare's witches have often been fodder for comedy and satire. There is a serious message to this image too. Our witchy woman has an eyeball thrust into her mouth like a ball-gag. Sometimes the villainous women in Shakespeare sound rather reasonable (why should Goneril and Regan house and feed a hundred badly behaved knights who abuse their servants?) but before we can begin to take these outspoken women seriously, Shakespeare discredits them with by depicting them committing atrocities, like the blinding of an old man. A link is created between eloquent women and evil. As I discuss in my blog post Shakespeare's Nasty Women, even today society attempts to silence women by suggesting that women who shout about their ideas or live outside the rules of society are somehow, like witches, unnatural.

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals
This image was inspired by Twelfth Night’s Olivia. I love Olivia because of her sense of independence, her resistance to being coerced into a marriage she doesn’t want, and her fearless pursuit of her own desires. In her book The Heart and Stomach of a King, Prof Carole Levin likens Olivia to Queen Elizabeth I, who famously resisted extraordinary pressure to marry against her will (p.133-137). I heartily recommend you read this interesting comparison. In a nod to Elizabeth I, we decided to make Olivia a red head. We also chose to draw on Pre-Raphaelite imagery in this shoot. Like the intriguing women in Pre-Raphaelite art, Olivia may appear to be passive, but she in fact exercises a great deal of agency.  Orsino, Olivia’s suitor, claims that women are like roses, in that their bloom, though lovely, is brief. “For women are as roses, whose fair flower / Being once display'd, doth fall that very hour” (II.4). This all adds to the bitter sweet mood of the play that celebrates the transience of youth, life, and love, but Orsino is clearly also a sexist pig, who values a woman only for her appearance in the brief bloom of youth. By comparing women to roses, he depicts them as purely decorative, frail objects, and suggests that their worth lies only in this moment of ripeness. The roses in our image represent the reawakening of Olivia’s passion when she meets Cesario, rather than serving as a symbol of her transient beauty, youth, or fertility. On the left hand side of the picture the roses are wilted and sombre in colour, while on the right they are bright and blooming. This movement reverses the chronological life of a rose, because Olivia is a woman not a flower. She is not a fragile, decorative bloom waiting to be plucked. She’s a sentient being with choices.  Read more in my post Date Like Olivia which looks at how single women today could take a leaf out of Olivia's book.

Thomasin Bailey Portia
Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals
When we discussed Portia from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice we were struck by how she is commodified by the male characters in the play. When Bassanio tells Antonio of his plans to try to marry her he says "In Belmont is a lady richly left; / And she is fair, and, fairer than that word, / Of wondrous virtues". The first thing he mentions is her wealth, and then her beauty, followed her her virtue. When the audience meets Portia, the first thing that strikes us is her wit. How has Bassanio never noticed it? Bassanio can't see past her appearance or her money, and views Portia as a trophy, like the Golden Fleece of Colchis (to which she is compared more than once). Inspired by Marie Antoinette (a woman as rich and as trapped as our heroine) we presented Portia as Bassanio sees her: entirely consumable. When Portia tells Nerissa "my little body is aweary of this great world", Nerissa replies to her "sweet Madam" that "they are as sick that surfeit / With too much as they that starve with nothing." This idea of sweetness and surfeit lead us to the sugary, marshmallow confection of Portia's wig and jewellery. Peter shot the images from above to give a sense of objectification, and the white, highly exposed palette speaks to the rarefied but isolated luxury of her life in Belmont. What is interesting about Portia is that she is not satisfied by the way she is viewed. She is determined to show her husband that she is more than a money bag and pretty face. Shakespeare's heroine was not happy to be trapped by her father's will, nor will she be happy to be trapped by her husband's. Her ring trick is a power play and a fight to be recognised. In this image Portia is biting a marshmallow and showing her teeth. Is it a smile or a snarl? We felt that the image was ambiguous, her expression caught between threat and allure. Read more about Portia's determination in my post The Lead Casket.

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

In As You Like It Rosalind and her cousin Celia are forced to run away, in to the Forest of Arden. Rosalind’s father has been deposed and replaced by her despotic uncle. Rosalind is forced to flee. If she stays she will be executed. She knows her journey will be dangerous, but those dangers are not as certain as the death that awaits her if she stays. In that respect Rosalind is very similar to many modern day refugees. But that is where the similarity ends. When Rosalind and Celia reach the Forest of Arden they proceed to have a pretty nice time. They are safe, they are well fed. They live on a little farm and spend their days flirting with the locals and with fellow exiles. The refugees from places like Syria and South Sudan who reach Europe are not greeted by a similar fate. In far too many cases they are not safe, they are not well fed or well clothed, nor are the locals good them. Even children and vulnerable people are treated with suspicion, aggression, and sometimes with violence. Nothing could be further from the pastoral idyll of the Forest of Arden. Imagine a version of As You Like It in which the Forest of Arden is a dirty camp full of sewage and barbed wire, and Phebe and Silvius are replaced by a police force throwing gas cannisters. Or imagine a version of the play in which Rosalind and Celia don’t reach the Forest of Arden at all, but die trying to get there. Read more about Shakespeare and the refugee crisis in my post Finding the Forest of Arden


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