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The New York Public Library Celebrates Shakespeare: Reading (Between) the Lines: Shakespeare’s Old Ladies


April 14, 2011

The typology of women characters in Shakespeare‘s plays is most commonly described in four parts: Maid, Wife, Mother, Crone. The last of these terms is persistently understood as pejorative, assigning to women beyond child-bearing age not only ugliness and uselessness but also, regularly, demonism. The First Tetralogy’s Queen Margaret leads this group; so do Macbeth’s Weird Sisters. At best (e.g., Juliet’s Nurse), they are seen as ludicrous.  Somewhere between mother and crone we have King John’s Queen Elinor, Richard II’s Duchess of York, The Comedy of Errors' Abbess, All’s Well’s Countess of Rossillion, and of course Cleopatra, “wrinkled deep in time”? Professor Liebler proposes that Shakespeare offers his old ladies the same degrees of dignity and indignity as he offers (Lear, Gaunt, Prospero) and denies (Polonius, Gloucester, Falstaff) his old men. He attended carefully to female narratives of age and aging, and gave them a remarkably even-handed treatment, inviting us to read the lines on their faces equally as documents of respect and of dismissal.

During the lecture, Estelle Parsons, star of screen and stage, will "personate" several of Shakespeare's old ladies, including Richard III's Queen Margaret.

A Writer in Residence in the Library's Wertheim Study, Naomi Conn Liebler is Professor of English and University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University. She is the author of Shakespeare’s Festive Tragedy: the Ritual Foundations of Genre (Routledge, 1995); co-editor of Tragedy, a Theory Reader (Longmans, 1998), editor of The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama (Palgrave, 2002), and of Early Modern Prose Fiction: the Cultural Politics of Reading (Routledge, 2007), and has published widely on Shakespeare and other Renaissance and modern dramatists. Her current research focuses on “Shakespeare’s Geezers,” his negotiations of old age throughout his dramatic and poetic genres.

To see the other lectures in this Series, click here.