Writing about our Women of Will programme today feels somewhat different to a year ago when we launched it, when my colleagues and I were troubled by the apparent inability of current Western society to inspire our girls with strong female role models. It seemed then that the achievements and voices of the very many deeply admirable and impressive women leading in a whole range of fields were being lost in the noise of social media, where frivolous, superficial, media-driven women loom all too large. Reflecting on this in discussion with the RSC, and given the anniversary focus on Shakespeare in 2016, we felt that there was a rich mine of interesting, challenging, bold and forthright women who might fill this role model vacuum in a pastoral programme for Year 8s and 9s. Thus, Women of Will was conceived.
Deputy Head Pastoral and fellow English teacher Fionnuala Kennedy explains more, “Shakespeare may be one of the ‘dead white guys’ often characterised as too canonical to have had anything to say about women and their roles in society, and on stage those female roles were of course played by men. It is, however, significant that the playwright was choosing to place at the centre of his plays women who did not adhere to stereotypical notions of femininity: Will’s Women are dangerous and flawed, seductive and weak, witty and foolish. Crucially, they can often be all of these women, all at once. It’s a great message to give teenagers, who are wrestling with their identity (including gender identity), bringing together seemingly disparate and unwieldy components of their self.”
The pastoral element in the work we’ve been doing has encompassed issues of control, power, courage, suppression, leadership, betrayal and more. We were joined by students and staff from a local school in Stratford for the first of our workshops. The win-win is inspiring girls with a delight in Shakespeare’s work and encouraging open and energetic discussion and debate.
‘Much Ado About Nothing’
Much Ado has always been problematic to those looking to categorise it. It is ‘as full of darkness as of sunlight, as much about repressed desire as about openly declared love’1; its playfulness is thwarted by glimpses of horror. No text could be more appropriate for analysis by teenagers, who would commonly categorise their own experiences as equal in joy and despair, and who will often resist categorisation themselves; and no heroine could be more appropriate than Beatrice, the ideal tragi-comical heroine who is far from perfect.
Add to that the recurrent themes within the play of the misinterpretation of other people’s words and signals, often related to misreporting (essentially, gossiping) and the judgements of the sexual behaviour of others, and the text is rife for exploring themes which preoccupy young people.
As Fionnuala elaborates, “Beatrice, when we meet her, is witty and bold. She is waging a ‘merry war’ with Benedick, whilst of course harbouring hurt from his previous treatment of her and a secret hope that they might reunite. She is admired for the speed of her tongue and indeed she even makes sexual jokes alongside the men – something for which she was lambasted by 18th- and 19th-century critics who found her ‘gratuitous impertinence and unseemly forwardness²’ problematic. She is a character who uses her voice for different purposes: to entertain, to mock, to defend – both herself and her female compatriots – to hide from her true feelings, to hurt and to avenge. She displays conflicting characteristics, amongst others: wit and vulnerability, bitterness and hope, fear and courage but more than anything else, Beatrice is able to be fully serious whilst holding herself lightly. Life is bound to be filled with both tears and laughter; the key is to look to the latter when confronting the former.”
The project has been enormous fun and the responses of the girls have been pleasing. And it’s important to note that whilst we are piloting this programme at a Girls’ Day School Trust school, and therefore targeting it most specifically at girls, there is no reason at all why it couldn’t be easily applicable to boys, too, in considering gender issues. Our Women of Wimbledon feminist club would be the first to say that boys need these messages about the role of young women in our society. As I alluded to in my introduction, a year on from the project launch, the international picture for girls is paradoxically both more depressing and more positive. The Weinstein revelations and a growing calling out of misogyny has spurred young women across the country – and certainly students in our school – to claim feminism as their own. They are choosing their role models and finding their voices. If the Women of Will have a part in that, however small, then I am delighted.