Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Shakespeare's Sisters

"As a contemporary woman in New York City, it's hard to empathize with a girl who is as compliant, dainty and well-behaved as Hero. I've had this issue when watching other actors perform her as well—here you a have a modern woman, Beatrice, essentially behaving as a man in a man's world—and there's Hero next to her: she's quiet, obedient, and for most women today, absolutely infuriating."

Hero (Ismenia Mendes, center) is always chaperoned when she's near a window
(photo: Joan Marcus)
That’s Ismenia Mendes, who I interviewed for New York Theater Review. Mendes plays Hero to Lily Rabe’s Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing this month in Central Park. Shakespeare’s other show in the Park is yet another King Lear, to star John Lithgow. But I’m more curious to see Annette Bening and Jessica Hecht as his bad daughters, Goneril and Regan.

Shakespeare wrote several plays with great sister dynamics. In tragedy, the sorority is usually a triad: Lear’s three daughters, the trio of Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca, and (of course) those Weird Sisters. In comedy, the relationship is a binary one, and it’s one of his earliest relationships, starting with Kate the Shrew and her devious sister, and continuing through to Rosalind and her faithful Celia. You could even look at Twelfth Night’s relationship between Viola and her mistress as Shakespeare’s final, kinky word on the subject.

The girls are usually sisters or cousins, both lacking a mother (in Love’s Labor’s, they’re a courtly quartet, a real sorority). Early in Shakespeare’s career, the girls are sometimes inadvertent rivals (Two Gentlemen, Midsummer), a complication that tests their love for each other. In other variations, one girl is modest and the other is saucy (Taming, Love’s Labor’s), a conflict of personalities that allows Shakespeare to contrast methods of wooing. Much Ado drops the first conflict to focus on the second, and I think it’s the acme of this sister dynamic.

Like Mendes points out, Hero can come across as bland on her own. She’s a medieval figure, the Virtuous Maiden, passive and obedient, a girl who exists solely as a unit in marital brokerage. She’s idealized by the men, who describe her as as “gentle,” “modest”, and (repeatedly) “fair”—a generic set of epithets. Even in 1597, Beatrice was more modern and more interesting. But Hero isn’t merely a docile foil for her tart cousin.
Hero (Ismenia Mendes) finds her main defender in Beatrice (Lily Rabe).
Are you going to argue with her?
(photo: Joan Marcus)
What’s great about Hero and Beatrice is that they have such different personalities yet they’re so deeply fond of each other. Beatrice teases Hero about marriage, and Hero, maybe acting out of sentiment or maybe in retaliation, gulls Beatrice into a romance. And no matter how roughly an actress plays Beatrice, it’s tempered by her love for Hero. In one of Shakespeare’s best scenes ever, her sisterly love inspires Benedick to challenge his best friend to a duel of honor. Hero may lack Beatrice’s vivacity but she has Beatrice’s trust. There’s even a bit of Beatrice in Hero, when she flirts nimbly with Don Pedro at the masque. We might wish she was more like her cousin, but I think she’s more vivid a character than she’s given credit for.

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