The Book Princess Talks Shakespeare, Guest Post 3: Tragedy and Girl Power

Winter's Tale, Act II, scene III, (engraving a...

Winter’s Tale, Act II, scene III, (engraving after Opie for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the Book Princess talks about women’s power to avert tragedy in Shakespeare’s plays:

In most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the women are usually passive or barely present – it is the men who act, often foolishly and destructively, but acting nonetheless. Women like Desdemona and Ophelia fail to fight injustice towards themselves until it is too late, and even Juliet, who does have some agency, chooses not to fight her parents and her society by making her relationship with Romeo public until it is too late.

When women are active in the tragedies, their power is usually destructive, seducing the men away from the proper course – Lady Macbeth berates her husband for not wanting to betray and kill his king for his own ambition, telling him, “yet do I fear thy nature;/It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness”(Macbeth, 1.5.16-17), convincing him kindness and loyalty is weakness and thus unmanly; Cleopatra convinces Antony to stay with her for love, not to do his duty in Rome, and thus allows the politics of Rome to destroy both of them. Hamlet, berating himself for inaction, compares himself to “a whore [who] unpack[s] my heart with words” (Hamlet, 2.2.585), telling us that he believes that women’s power, if they have any such, only lies in their words, and that he, a man, should be an actor, a doer.

It is almost exclusively in the comedies where women have power – even the part of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is powerful follows comic patterns, until the duel that turned it into tragedy, and Lady Macbeth, after her moment of evil persuasion, goes mad and loses even the power to know her own mind. As we’ve discussed before, it is only in the comedies that women dress as men, freeing them to flout societal norms, to be themselves and shape events for good and happiness. But comic rhythms are different, so one might dismiss the relationship between powerful women and averted tragedy in most of these cases. There is one comedy, However, A Winter’s Tale, in which I think it is fair to say that a woman with power is the primary cause of averted tragedy.

A Winter’s Tale begins with a condensed and slightly modified version of Othello – Leontes becomes convinced his wife Hermione is unfaithful to him with his friend Polixenes and, burning with jealousy, Leontes decides to kill her (though he convinces himself it is just). Unlike Othello and Desdemona, however, Leontes and Hermione have a son, and Hermione is expecting a second child. Hermione, sent to prison for a crime she did not commit – though she argued her innocence eloquently – has a baby girl, and her friend Paulina brings the child to Leontes, hoping he will relent, but he rejects the baby, saying she isn’t his. Paulina does not listen quietly. Though he is the king, though he is ignoring logic, mad with jealousy, and might do anything to her, she tells him exactly what she thinks of what he is doing, saying,

It is a heretic who makes the fire,
Not she who burns in’t. I’ll not call thee tyrant;
but this cruel usage of your queen
(Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hing’d fancy) something savors
Of tyranny, and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world. (AWinter’s Tale, 2.3.115-121)

Leontes forces her out, and, despite her words, sends a man to leave the child to die – then he rejects the oracle’s announcement of Hermione’s innocence and would have sentenced her to death, but for the news that his son had died for fear of his mother’s fate, which sent Hermione into a swoon.

Thus far, tragedy – but again, Paulina steps in. She tells Leontes that Hermione is dead and that it is his fault, not allowing his attendant lords to coddle him – he accepts her rebuke and accepts her counsel. Sixteen years later, the lost child, Perdita, makes her way back to them, and when her identity is revealed, Paulina unveils the living Hermione, whom she had hidden until some forgiveness were possible – when Hermione’s child was restored. While an unusual comedy, it is without a doubt Paulina’s presence that saved this play from tragedy – it is women’s voices that redeem this play.

Sometimes circumstance creates tragedy – sometimes people do. But it is only when individuals, particularly women, stand up against the force of tragedy for what they know to be right, that tragedy has a hope of being overcome.


Last week, I got a surprise package in the mail – an early copy of the hardcover of Zebra Forest. I have several copies of the ARCs (advance reading copies), and so didn’t expect the thrill I got when I opened the package and saw my book in hardback for the first time. But there’s something about the real thing – dust jacket with embossed words, dedication in the front of the book, the whole shebang – that feels different. And the best part was getting to show it to the two people the book is dedicated to – my husband and my mother. People often say that writing is a solitary activity, and for the most part, it is. You need long stretches of silence and time to clear your head and think about things that are not immediate, that don’t relate to the logistics of life, that may end up as nothing more than a daydream. And in order to do that, you do need other people. People who give you the time, the support, and the space to think, to write and to rewrite. I have been blessed to have many people in my life who have helped me. They’ve shaped my thinking, given me thoughtful opinions, encouraged me, supported me. Of all of those, the two who gave me the day-to-day and year-to-year ability to write, and who kept that dream alive for the long time it took to come to fruition, are the two to whom Zebra Forest is dedicated. Getting to see their faces when they opened the book and saw the dedication for the first time was worth the wait.Image

Blog Interview with Blythe Woolston, author of Black Helicopters

black helicopters

Today’s special treat is an interview with Blythe Woolston, author of Black Helicopters, a brilliant new YA novel that tells the story of Valkrie White, an American teenager raised to be at war with the government. The novel, published by Candlewick Press and set for release on March 26th, explores the charged issue of domestic terrorism from the terrorist’s point of view. I had the privilege both of reading the ARC (Advance Reading Copy) and getting to spend some time with Blythe in Seattle. Blythe’s earlier book, The Freak Observer, won the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, which celebrates “impressive new voices in young adult literature.” In Black Helicopters, Blythe puts that impressive voice to good use in creating the character of Valley, whose sense of herself and her mission are crystal clear, if terrifying.

I asked Blythe several questions about Black Helicopters, which aside from having a strong main character and powerful subject matter has an interesting structure – moving from the past to the present to show us what is driving Valley to do what she does.

Q: I loved the way you handled time in the book, bouncing between the past and present. What made you use that structure?

A: I have no idea how to handle backstory gracefully. This structure—with a single day’s events in alternating dialogue with the past—is my clumsy way of revealing what the reader needs to know to understand Valley’s motives  and background. 

Q: Many of the facts in the book are slippery. What Valley thinks she knows, she doesn’t necessarily know, and yet you were able to convey some of the truth in subtle ways. Did that take a lot of strategizing, or did it come naturally?
A: I suppose part of this is a reflection of how I experience and make sense of the world. I am my own unreliable narrator. 

It does bring up an aspect of my writing experience that may be very odd or nearly universal—who knows? I don’t strategize much. I never have an outline or any idea of what will happen in a story when I begin writing it. I just write in scraps, then later I piece them together, like a person making a crazy quilt. Like a person making a quilt, I notice patterns that start to emerge after a while. When that happens, it becomes a more intentional process. 

I don’t want the process to sound effortless. It isn’t. I spend most of my energy at the sentence level worrying over word choice. I let myself have a lot of latency time, and, as a result, I write very slowly. When I read other authors’ posts about word count, I sometimes feel ashamed of my lack of productivity and discipline. But this is just the way I have to work to make the stories I have to tell. 

Q: Your first book, The Freak Observer, is also about a girl in crisis. What draws you to such intense characters?

A: I can’t say that I’m drawn to intense characters, per se, but I do think that writing YA means stripping away the insulation and dealing with the raw current. YA is full of intense characters. It is the nature of the beast. 

Q: What’s next?

A: At this moment, I have another book out with my editor at Candlewick, Liz Bicknell. That book is an experiment—a departure—for me. It began as a short story I wrote while I was at Clarion West last summer. It isn’t a contemporary realistic story; it is historical and unnatural and may be an utter failure. While I’m waiting to hear back on that book, I’m working on a new book and on revising some short stories. 

Even though Black Helicopters is my third book, the whole publishing adventure remains unpredictable. That makes it interesting.

With much thanks to Blythe, I’ll end this post with my favorite thing she said, which is on the subject of talking about books in general.

“Imagine a potter selling a bowl. Once that bowl passes to the hand of the new owner, it could find many uses: It could be used for salad, or keys, or to hold water for a cat. The person who bought it may intend to give it to someone else or they many intend to take it home and smash it with a hammer so they can use the broken pieces to make a mosaic. Only a crazy potter would say, ‘This is how this bowl ought to be used: It should be filled with apricots.’

I feel that way about books. When I read a book, I am contributing my own imagination and brain cells to understanding it. Reading triggers connections and memories and ideas in me that are unique to me. There is no definitive reading.
Books may be made of pages, black and white, but stories worth thinking about are full of ambiguity. This is, I hope, true of Black Helicopters.”

Snow and Metaphor

Frosty Footpath - winter snow

Frosty Footpath – winter snow (Photo credit: blmiers2)

The first snowstorm of the winter came belatedly today to the Washington, D.C. area where I live, and got me thinking about metaphor. I woke up this morning and looked to see if the storm really had come as predicted, found it pouring down outside my window, and thought the sky looked like a sheet of grey paper. In that moment, the snow itself was thin as sawdust, spilling through the tree in my front yard. So I thought – metaphors. Metaphors are a writer’s most vital tool, fueling description and the themes that give stories meaning. I’ve always thought metaphor is humanity’s most vital tool too, because without the ability to compare one thing to the next (and I’m using metaphor in the largest sense of the word, here) we wouldn’t be able to think abstractly. The first user of metaphor was the first human being as we, I think, would recognize one, because metaphor is the source of language. Putting symbols to physical things is a baby step toward metaphor, and the next step is thinking about things we can’t see, and giving names to them. To take an example, if you know about a mother and child relationship, because you’ve experienced it, and you know about families, because you live in one, a more abstract step is to see other human beings you are not related to as part of the family of humanity, and treat them accordingly, creating rules about what you can and can’t do, say, to a traveler you’re welcoming into your home. And that’s the beginning of law and civilization. Without metaphor, we’d all be stuck inside the boundaries of each moment – what we could see, touch, taste, smell and hear. Metaphor flings open the doors to the universe (another metaphor – see?) So that’s my snow day thought. And now, as I write this, the snow has thickened, and my sawdust image has to give way to feathers.