Love him or hate him, you have to admit William Shakespeare wrote some of literature’s most iconic women. Queens such as Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and Titania; tragic heroines like Cordelia, Juliet, and Ophelia; the outspoken self-advocates Beatrice, Katherina and Paulina. While only some of Shakespeare’s women wield legitimate, authoritative power, all of them are powerful figures on stage: women of devastating conviction, integrity, and passion At a time in history where women had few legal rights—and couldn’t legally appear on a stage—Shakespeare’s women stood as monuments to women’s potential and women’s reality.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Will, TNT’s ten-episode period drama, does its women a disservice. This is not to say that Will’s women are bad characters. On the contrary, Alice Burbage, Anne Hathaway/Shakespeare, Emilia Bassano and Apelina are powerful, bringing some of the most poignant emotional experiences to the show. Unfortunately, those performances don’t happen for the sake of their own characters’ individual growth. Frustratingly, Will’s women instead end up as tried-and-true tools shaping men’s destinies.
As Will’s love interest, Alice Burbage is the woman most affected by Will’s underlying misogyny (although she’s not the most insidious example). From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing,” when she leans out of her window, breasts just short of dropping out of her bodice, Alice is set up as a sexual object for Will’s attention. But it is her brilliance and dedication to the theater that draw Will to her as a lover and intellectual soulmate.
Alice is an “educated woman,” her learning much more advanced than the supposed average early modern daughter or housewife (who actually had to have a decent bit of learning in order to maintain the household, but suspension of disbelief and all that). She can read and write well enough to provide clean copies of scripts for the actors of her father’s theater, and has enough business savvy to help her family with the theater business.
Alice’s intelligence doesn’t exist for herself, though. Rather, it exists for Will. A blossoming-playwright with no experience, Will is a really terrible addition to the Theatre. He has talent with words but little else; he barely understands how theaters and theater-going works. For Will, there is only “the art,” which finally bites him in episode 3, “The Two Gentlemen.” No one will buy Will’s newest play, a complicated piece of poetry with nothing to appeal to an audience. Once he admits Alice is right and he needs her help, though, Alice gives Will access to all the plays in her father’s repertoire and then helps him hit upon the then-not-so-novel idea of stealing the overarching idea.
Once that’s in hand—with Alice guiding him in the selection and the theft—Alice helps him write.
“To him she must be like day, like night, like light. Like light.”
Even when Alice is asleep, her presence is the thing that spurs Will to continue to write, his eyes fixated on her as he writes passionate speeches for Sylvia. When James discovers them in the morning, it’s Alice’s fury and insistent on its quality—quality she oversaw—that gets it performed.
Alice does the same for Henry VI pt 2. After encouraging Will to write the histories out of order, she gives Will the title for the play:
“Henry VI: The Rise of the Dauphin Menace. When I was reading the histories, I discovered the Dauphin, Charles II, joined forces with Joan of Arc.” (Episode 6)
The pair of them function like this for most of the season: Will comes to Alice with the seeds of a play, the words that are his signature, and Alice provides the necessary structure to see the play succeed and Will’s star rise. She coins the term“prequel” for Henry VI pt 2, decides on the overall plot of that same play, and, perhaps most importantly, suggests Will humanize Richard in Richard III, making his actions more horrific by highlighting the humanity still lurking in the monster. Without that crucial character change, the endgame against Topcliffe would have failed.
Alice, however, never receives recognition for her significant, life-altering contributions. Will, of course, praises her genius and recognizes that without her, his writing stagnates. But he makes no effort to inform her father, mother, brother or any of the company about her crucial contributions to the plays that have made them and him, so popular. Instead, he sits proud and preening over the work she improved, enjoying her labors and her love until he is forced to end their relationship.
This is perhaps why Alice switches intellectual loyalties—Father Southwell gives her credit. The more entwined Alice becomes in his Catholic plot, the more Southwell praises her devotion and willingness to endanger herself. Southwell, however, is no better than Will, using Alice’s brilliance, grief, and determination to further his cause. As his newest convert, Alice is best suited for smuggling messages since she is thus far unknown to any of Topcliffe’s informants; moreover, her connections to the theater, frequented by one of the Queen’s advisers, give Southwell noble connections he needs to deliver his manifesto to the Queen. Alice, then, is Southwell’s newest and best instrument in his Catholic war. She’s also the one he loses most quickly.
In the end, everyone loses Alice; her destiny finally to leave the world she loved and desired in the hands of a man she can’t stop loving. Her suffering at Topcliffe’s hands encourages the company to perform Richard III (thus altering the torturer’s destiny) and cements Will’s undying love for her—none of which she can share. Instead, Alice must go, freeing herself and Shakespeare from a love she now knows could never be and no longer wants. It is only through that pain, apparently, that Will can go on to right the greatest love story: Romeo and Juliet, where his “bright angel” will shine again.
Alice is just one woman robbed of a life or dream for men’s sake. Another, set up against Alice, is Anne Hathaway. Never one to get a fair treatment in adaptations, Anne is everything Alice isn’t: an obstacle to his art and an intellectual inferior. From her opening line, Anne is portrayed as shrewish and incapable of seeing Will’s greatness: “Who will want a play by William Shakespeare?” (“The Play’s the Thing”). Anne is incapable of seeing Will’s art, and clouds his genius with mundane concerns like the survival of his family.
Is the sarcasm evident?
Anne’s demotion to a tool of Will’s destiny is briefer than Alice’s but just as unfair because she deserves better, from both Will and Will. However, her dire situation is never taken seriously. When Anne brings Will’s children to London to visit him, and learns about his affair with Alice, her hurt is shown as unjustified. Alice understands Will in a way Anne simply can’t; how dare Anne reject Will for something as simple as a connection with an intellectual equal?
Moreover, when Anne finally admits to Will her situation in Stratford, he cannot fully recognize or accept her pain or the fear that fuels her inability to believe in him. Living as a servant to his parents, with the threat of homelessness and beggardom, Anne physically can’t believe in his dream because a dream can’t help them now. It can’t provide them food or shelter. It can’t give them a livelihood and future. The money Will makes as a writer isn’t enough to ensure her and her children’s safety if they are forced out by his family and his father’s poor business practices. But Will sees her insistence that he take responsibility for them, that he look after them as he promised to, as manipulative and cruel.
All of this is heartbreaking because Anne loves, or at least loved, Will, and at some point, Will loved her. At the tavern, after she’s accepted by the company even after her fumbles, Anne and Will dance, smile and laugh. As they walk home and speak of the early days of their relationship, there is genuine warmth and affection in the shared memories. But domesticity chafes Will. It suffocates him in a way Anne is able to—and has to—endure, and he can no longer return the love she still extends to him. At his distress over Topcliffe’s threats against his family and Southwell’s inability to understand his situation, Anne reaches out to him,
“Yet you do not talk of your struggles with me. I am here to listen and to ease your burdens, as a wife should. If you would share with me.”
For her pains—for her labor, emotional and physical—all she gets in return is Will insistence he can’t, and won’t, share with her.
“I cannot speak of what’s inside of me. That is why I write.”
But Anne can’t read. Will’s writing—his plays, his dreams—is an impassable barrier between them, one which Will doesn’t bother to pull down and which Anne eventually accepts.
That’s Anne’s destiny: acceptance of being not even second best. “It’s not about the girl,” Anne tells him in episode 6, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” as she piles their children in a carriage bound for Stratford. Anne is Alice’s inferior, but more than that, Anne is not theater. She is not the escape, the support and the adoration Will craves and now enjoys in the London theater. Anne is just the mother of his children, a burden to his art. Although it clearly pains her to realize it, she has to step aside; her only purpose left in his life is, as she says, “to leave you free to be who you wish to be” and fade quietly into a lonely life, awaiting money and the occasional letter.
Anne’s grieved blessing and disappearance are required. No longer a figure in Will’s life or thoughts—she’s referenced not even a handful of times after her departure and is never seen again—Anne no longer obstructs his art or his destiny. With this freedom, Will is able to put his pen and his talent to bringing the Theatre up and tearing Topcliffe down with one of his most powerful plays. He can take the first steps into the fame that will follow him for centuries.
Alice and Anne’s roles as destiny-tools are specific: they shape Will, and to a lesser extent Topcliffe and Southwell, into who they are meant to be. Emilia Bassano and Apelina don’t operate in quite the same way. Although they also, indirectly, affect Will’s destiny, their characters exist as more generalized comments on the role of women in Will’s narrative world.
At her first appearance in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Emilia Bassano seems to be a noble woman. Alice, however, breaks that illusion. She reveals that Emilia is Lord Hunsdon’s newest mistress—replacing the one from episode one—and although she was once nobility, she’s fallen on hard times. The daughter of a Venetian musician and “impoverished Moroccan royalty,” Emilia has taken up residence with Lord Hunsdon as a companion skilled in conversation and poetry.
She has absolutely no illusions about her purpose and position. “Thou art sorely misguided,” she tells Will in episode seven, “What Dreams May Come,” “None of this is mine. It belongs to Lord Hunsdon, just as I do.” Emilia is property, dressed up in the finest the Queen’s advisor and cousin can offer but with the knowledge that she is no longer her own. Emilia is a thing now, a thing as pretty as her dresses and jewelry, but expected to perform certain duties and services or suffer unspoken consequences.
Her status as high-class property affords Emilia some freedom, but nearly all of it is used to serve others, most often as facilitator. She puts Will in touch with Lord Fortuscue, whose commission for A Midsummer Night’s Dream saves the Theatre from closing. She overhears Lord Hunsdon’s conversations and then shares important details about Topcliffe’s promotion and Alice’s increasing role in Southwell’s plot with Will. But Emilia also provides what she can, especially when Will rescues Alice from Topcliffe’s clutches. She opens Lord Hunsdon’s house to them and gives them access to her own personal physician, even knowing the danger it puts her in.
As Emilia said, nothing she owns is hers. If Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen cousin and–until the last episode–Topcliffe supporter, learns of her aiding and harboring Catholics plotting against him, her life could be in danger. But no one ever addresses or acknowledges this. Emilia is not important enough for fear. Convenient when she is needed, shelved when she is not, the precariousness of her situation—a situation Will brings her into with a well-written sonnet—is never given serious consideration by anyone.
Nor is Apelina’s, although she is confronted with the danger of her choices almost daily. Her situation, in many ways, mimics Emilia’s: they’re both owned, although by different classes of people. Emilia is a nobleman’s mistress, Apelina a peasant sex worker. Apelina has a nearby brother to consider while Emilia is separated from apparently all she’s ever known (but never seems bothered by that fact). However, the most important difference between these two women is that Apelina is given no identity within the narrative.
From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing” to her death in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Apelina has no personal identity or discernible history apart from “motherless whore,” “dirt-some punk,” and Presto’s sister. Her name is never even mentioned in the show; it only ever appears in the ending credits, a brief half-second flash near the end of the cast list. Without an identity, Apelina occupies the lowest space for women in Will: a complete and total object, to be used, cast aside, and then briefly mourned, if she’s lucky.
She is somewhat “lucky,” in that regard. Her brother Presto is clearly devoted to her, or at least to the idea of her being free. He takes up thieving to pay for her freedom and tortures himself with every day she suffers under Doll’s thumb. Apelina shares that love, and fully verbalizes it when Doll tries to sell Presto to Topcliffe. She helps him escape and undergoes torture to keep him safe. When Presto is caught and agrees to prostitution, she tries to make it as easy as she can for him, giving him alcohol to ease the pain and offering him a compartmentalization technique that has always helped her.
None of this, though, is for her.
Everything Apelina does is as Presto’s sister; everything she does, and says, and is, is for Presto’s growth. Presto needs to suffer, needs to steal from the Theatre and then feel the intense grief and pain to move him into position for Will’s final endgame. But unlike Alice’s case, it is a private grief. No one apart from Presto and Will ever know about Apelina and her role, and even they speak of it only in passing.
In a way, it makes sense that the women in this period drama are so suppressed. Will focuses on the downside of pursuing dreams: the things lost when dreams become obsessions and are followed without any sort of consideration for the lives affected. Yet, Will never took the opportunity to explore the women’s dreams. Alice could have been shown learning that she would never inherit the Theatre and then working to change that reality. Anne could have turned her attention to a different destiny than the happy, stable marriage she once desired. Emilia could have looked for ways to restore her status, or to bring unmentioned family to her side. We could have seen Apelina dreaming of a life of freedom, a home for herself and her brother.
But Will doesn’t care about women’s dreams and women’s destinies; there are dozens of women in Will, named and unnamed alike, and none of them exceed Alice’s crucial instrumentality or Apelina’s limited use. Even Queen Elizabeth I is only referenced, never seen. Will’s world is a man’s world, and male destinies, desires, and hopes are the only ones that matter. Women—their needs, their livelihood, their lives, their bodies—are considered only so far as they work to further or hinder men’s destinies. They are tools, sharpened for use and discarded when no longer needed.
Instead of characters, they are caricatures.