International Women’s Day: Favorite female characters from Shakespeare

On Twitter today, Shakespeare’s Globe (@The_Globe) asked users to name their favorite women from Shakespeare’s plays. I answered there (follow me at @MidLifeLit), but wanted to expand on my answers a bit.

The first fictional woman that really whacked me over the head was Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, in a college class on Medieval Literature. Mercenary, earthy, domineering except with husbands she truly loved, the Wife of Bath – and The Canterbury Tales, and Dr. Urania C. Petalas – really fired up my interest in literature.

When I read Chaucer now, and it’s a struggle, I can still see Dr. Petalas leaning an elbow on a battered podium, answering wide-eyed inquiries about Middle English. In response to a young woman’s question about whether “queynte” meant “quaint,” as in old-fashioned, she leaned forward, looked her student full in the face, and enunciated: “It’s. Her. Genitalia.” By the way, it also means “clever,” so, as Benedick says, there’s a double meaning in that.

Anyways, that class, that book, and that character were my first clues that human relationships weren’t so different 600 years ago, my first hint that there was altogether more to literature than what junior high and high school teachers were prepared to go into.

Moving on to Shakespeare, the history plays hold one of my all-time favorite fictional women: Margaret, in Henry VI, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Richard III. I think of this set as the Margaret Tetralogy, in which we see her grow from a frightened, virginal prisoner-of-war to a fierce warrior and political player in her own right. She’s savvy, far-sighted, independent, and absolutely determined. I’m strongly influenced by Julia Foster’s astonishing portrayal in the BBC TV Shakespeare series, which, to me, still stands alone amid a sea of extraordinary portrayals.

In the tragedies my favorite (so far) is Cordelia from King Lear. She’s uncompromising: a young, female version of Lear, but with more heart. And that heart makes her a much stronger person than Lear, or his other daughters. When the need arises, she’s also a warrior queen and a good leader. She dies at the end, yes – it’s a tragedy after all – but she triumphs over everyone, including Lear and her sisters.

From the comedies, I especially like Anne Page from The Merry Wives of Windsor. She’s independent-minded but truly gracious (a rare quality in Shakespeare’s characters), even conversing pleasantly with the absurd Slender. Despite interference from just about every character in the play except Falstaff (an exception I find funny in itself), she firmly holds her own and outmaneuvers everyone to get what she wants. It’s commonly played that Mistresses Ford and Page are the big protagonists/winners, but Anne tops them all.

Do you have a favorite female character from Shakespeare? There are certainly plenty to choose from!

Upgrading editions

Books: Julius Caesar and Macbeth
I replaced my copies of Julius Caesar and Macbeth with editions I like better.

When I went to the San Diego Shakespeare Society’s open reading of King Lear at the Central Library last Sunday, I stopped, as usual, at the Friends of the Library book sale. Thanks to its volunteers, the Central Library’s book sale is open daily, unlike my local branch, which holds a big FotL book sale once a month.

I’m always on the hunt for my preferred editions of Shakespeare’s plays. This outing, I bagged two Signet Classics: Macbeth and Julius Caesar.

As you can see, my old copy of Julius Caesar is coming apart, which happens with paperbacks. It’s Caesar Unbound. I can’t complain, though; it was in pieces when I scooped it off the free books shelves at my local branch library.

I paid $1 each for my new-to-me books. They’re in nearly perfect condition, and might look unread but that the Caesar has one page dog-eared, Portia’s plea to Brutus in Act 2, Scene 1. Why there, I wonder: did it have a special meaning to the former owner or was it merely where he or she stopped reading? That’s the great thing about buying used books, you get your own journey plus someone else’s.

My old copy of Julius Caesar might not be in good enough condition to donate, even though I was quite happy to give it a home as-is. My old copy of Macbeth poses a bigger problem, because it has my penciled notes from different times in my life, plus notes from at least one owner before me. I’m not attached to the book, but I want those notes.

So, I dove back into Macbeth to transcribe them into the new copy, and it was like opening time capsules.

My first set of underlining and notes, from when I was a 20-year-old in school, relate mostly to the play’s themes and are probably received insights; the prior owner noted similar things, which in some cases I merely circled. My later highlights and notes tend to relate either to business or to characters’ emotional states, and mostly reflect my own thoughts at various times. I also found myself capturing three or four Folger footnotes related to Elizabethan practices and folio variations.

So my new copy of Macbeth isn’t just an edition I like better; it’s an edition I’ve made my own.

My favorite editions of Shakespeare’s plays

Different editions of Shakespeare's plays
My motley assortment of editions of Shakespeare’s plays

A video by BooksandQuestions on YouTube started me thinking about the editions of individual Shakespeare plays I like the most. I have a motley assortment of editions, but over the years I’ve developed distinct preferences.

I still own and refer to the big Riverside Shakespeare (sixth printing, 1974) I bought and used in college. I like it because it has all the plays and poems, interesting and scholarly play introductions, and explanatory footnotes. Plus, it has my own course annotations and scribbled scraps for various papers. My Riverside has more room along the outside edges for marginalia than other one-volume collections I’ve seen. But it’s an unhandy thing to carry around, and impossible to read while lying in bed at night, which is when I have the most time to read.

I also have two Complete Works editions on my Kindle. An e-reader is terrific for carrying around and reading in bed. One is from Latus ePublishing, the other is an Oakshot Press e-edition. Both normally carry a nominal cost but are frequently available free. Both contain all the attributed plays and poems, except The Two Noble Kinsmen. Unlike the Riverside, both use full names for characters, a major aid to readability. Both have hot-linked tables of content for the entire volume and within each play, so they’re fairly easy to navigate. Neither has line numbering or explanatory footnotes within the works.

The Latus e-version has a short general introduction to Shakespeare and his works.

The Oakshot e-version has extensive biographical information, illustrations from the Folger library, and a slew of terrific essays, including Tolstoy’s, plus Samuel Johnson’s notes on the plays and Hazlitt’s notes on characters. The biographical and critical contents have click-to footnotes. The only annoying thing about the Oakshot e-edition, and it’s very minor, is that every time you navigate to a new section, it pops up an ad for Oakshot Press.

Of the two, I use either for the plays themselves, but lately I’ve been enjoying exploring the additional content in the Oakshot. I’ve also found it handy to have two versions so that I can have two plays open at the same time and toggle back and forth between them.

My most-preferred format is the individual play paperback. It’s small enough to carry, light enough to read lying down, spacious enough to annotate, and, when bought used, cheap enough to beat up in use. Most editions have character names written out in full. And, I can easily flip back and forth between several plays.

My favorite editions are from the Bantam Classic series edited by David Bevington. They’re coat-pocket-sized paperbacks, with concise explanatory footnotes. The introductory sections include biographical and cultural boilerplate, plus a solid section about the play in performance, covering notable stage and screen adaptations.

But the main draw, for me, is that each Bantam Classic Shakespeare play also contains the play’s source text or a close approximation. So you get the history plays, but you also get the relevant chunks from Holinshed; you get Othello, but you also get a bespoke translation of the story from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi; you get Hamlet, but you also get an overview of Amlethus from Saxo Grammaticus’ Historia Danica, a mention of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and a comprehensive excerpt from an Elizabethan-era English translation of Belleforest’s The History of Hamlet, which was in large part Grammaticus translated into French.

For me, the Bantam Classics are the ideal combination of annotations, source texts, performance notes, readability, spacious formatting, price, and portability, and I hope they don’t become wildly popular because so far I’ve been able to pick them up for pocket change at used book stores.

I also hunt for unstiffened copies of the older Signet Classic editions edited by Sylvan Barnet. Like the Bantams, they’re pocket-sized paperbacks, and contain source texts and a history of stage and screen performances. The appendices include Hazlitt’s notes on characters and occasionally scrappy essays by eminent students of Shakespeare. It’s worth noting that Isaac Asimov credited the Signet Classic series with inspiring Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare.

I have a Signet Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III that I treasure for its thick compactness and extensive introductory materials to each play, and a ragged Signet Henry V that I would keep if only for Diana E. Henderson’s fiery defense of Queen Isabel as an essential character. Like the Bantams, Signet’s footnotes are concise: they define and explain, but don’t exactly invite further study.

For that, I like the Arden paperbacks. I have a few from the third (current) edition. They contain source texts and truly extensive explanatory footnotes, which sometimes divert me completely from the play text. However, they abbreviate character names. They are larger than the Bantams and Signets. And, the added sections focus on contemporary literary criticism and commentary. These, too, are things to geek out over, but I like having more performance notes. Even used, Ardens tend to be priced a level or two above the Bantams and Signets, but they also look and feel nicer.

The RSC editions focus, as you’d expect, on the play in performance, with an insider’s review of past productions and interviews with notable Shakespearean actors and directors. Like most editions, they contain introductory information about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan/Jacobean theater. However, they lack much information about Shakespeare’s source material. Like the Arden books, RSC books are slightly oversized, so they don’t slip easily into a jacket pocket, and tend to be priced a level or two up from the Bantams at used book stores.

Given budget and shelf space I could easily see myself owning both Arden and RSC editions of the same play, but the Bantam Classics and Signet Classics are, for me, more-portable and provide enough of the benefits of the other two combined to keep me happy.

Now we’re into a second tier of preferences, which in one case may be put down to unfamiliarity. My sole Oxford edition (Pericles) has terrific footnotes and introductory content. However, although it discusses the Greek source text at some length it doesn’t reproduce it, instead reprinting an unmodernized First Quarto collation. Like the Ardens and RSC editions, Oxford editions use an oversized format.

Folger Library editions are respected scholarly works, with very good footnotes,  literary analyses, and sometimes quite opinionated essays. But I prefer editions with historical sources and performance notes. The Folger editions I have abbreviate the character names. (And I just noticed that, although I have at least six Folger paperbacks, none made it into the photo.)

Near the bottom of the bookshelf are the very inexpensive Dover Thrift editions, but even they have benefits that may suit some people. Their introductory overviews range from two paragraphs to two pages, so they lack contextual or analytical depth. And, they abbreviate character names. They do, however, have good footnotes, updated and expanded from the Caxton Shakespeare. And, because they are oversized and contain little more than the play itself, they are very thin: think of them as well-annotated scripts. The Dover Thrift editions are notable for their cheapness and simplicity.

I find the Pelican editions lacking in content beyond a general introduction to Shakespeare and the play. That said, they are pocketable, character names are written in full, and the relatively skimpy footnotes may be less distracting to some readers.

I am slowly replacing my lesser-liked editions with ones I prefer, based solely on what I find at used book stores. However, my bookshelf’s former occupants haven’t left my life entirely. I tend to move the supplanted editions to my car, where they live on as a sort of traveling library and provide me with ample reading material while waiting for the kids to get out of school.

What editions do you favor and why? Let me (and others) know in the comments section!

A collection of old posts on a few of Shakespeare’s plays

To get things started, here are links to some of my thoughts on several of Shakespeare’s plays, as they relate to advertising and marketing. They are posted on my Ad Blog.

Hamlet and pre-positioning

Othello and persuasion

Macbeth and equivocation

The Merchant of Venice and delusional economics

Henry V and creating the theater of the mind

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the dangers of overanalysis (uh oh)

The Merry Wives of Windsor and messaging

Shakespeare and making a living as a writer