Reading and Writing about Shakespeare – Elizabeth Sylvia

The group of poems featured in Deep Overstock’s Shakespeare issue are part of a collection that developed as I read through the full catalogue of Shakespeare’s plays. The experience was a frustrating sensory thrill. I didn’t set out to focus on Shakespeare’s female characters; my favorite play is Coriolanus, in which an aging general faces a world evolving from military to diplomatic power, and anyway, I had always been told that Shakespeare was remarkable for conceiving dynamic female characters.  He is; they are fantastic, but as I read I felt these women had a lot more to say than they were given lines to speak.  Shakespeare’s mouthiest female character, Cleopatra, has just 200 lines, while Hamlet, that depressive loner, has 304. Cleopatra’s problems are a lot more serious than his, considering that an entire battalion is headed to dethrone her and she thinks she’s lost the love of her life. “The Understudy” and “Ringed” reflect how, especially in the early plays, women are plot devices more than individuals. In play after play, young women who marry without their parents’ permission either die or cause their parents to; Ann Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor is the first to receive her parents blessing for making her own choice, and that was Shakespeare’s eighteenth play. They are up against a lot, I’m saying.  Language carries them through it. Again and again, I was inspired by their riot of words and the trouble they caused, sometimes very subtly, by refusing to conform to male expectation. I began writing to them, about them, as them, casting them as agents not accessories. The poems I wrote touch on the plays themselves, on my own life as a woman, and on women’s continuing struggle to take the stage in contemporary life. When I finished reading all of the plays, I started again, and my feelings about Shakespeare’s women have come full circle too as “Palinode” explores. They have, as a group, a remarkable ability to persevere through outright trauma and emerge with their whole selves intact. They are buoyant, and so satisfying to bring center stage.

Elizabeth Sylvia (she/her) is a writer of poems and other lists who lives with her family in Massachusetts, where she teaches high school English and coaches debate. Elizabeth’s work is upcoming or has recently appeared in Salamander, Pleiades, Soundings East, J Journal, RHINO, Main Street Rag and a bunch of other wonderful journals. She is currently working on a verse investigation of the writer Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard.

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