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From the Stacks: The untold stories of Shakespeare’s female protagonists

by Missouri River Regional Library | September 17, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
"Enter the Body" by Joy McCullough. MRRL/News Tribune

William Shakespeare is an author one either loves or hates. His plays are still performed worldwide and have been adapted into a multitude of new stories and formats.

However, it can be said the women in his tragedies were not treated kindly. I am one of those people who enjoys Shakespeare in all his varieties and therefore was eager to read "Enter the Body" written by Joy McCullogh. This teen novel in verse could easily be called a ghost story, but it is so much more.

When watching a play, have you ever thought about what happens to the characters when they die? Do their souls hang around the theater waiting for the next performance? Do they gather together and share their experiences or do they just hide in the shadows until called upon to suffer their destinies?

This is the premise behind "Enter the Body." The female protagonists from several of Shakespeare's tragedies all end up in the trap room beneath the stage. Some have been there for eternities, some appear and disappear at random intervals, some hide in darkened corners, while a few finally decide to speak up and be heard.

The main characters in this novel are Lavinia from Titus Andronicus, Juliet of Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia from Hamlet, and finally Cordelia from King Lear. There are many other famous women, but these are the ones driving the story.

These teenagers all suffered unbearable abuse, neglect and tragedy within their plays. Their every move and thought was controlled by fathers, lovers and other men who looked upon them as nothing but pawns.

Well, this is their chance to tell their stories from their points of view and give themselves the endings they would have written. Just think how Romeo and Juliet could have been a love story with a happy ending if Juliet had been given the chance to be honest with her parents before the fight between Romeo and Tybalt. Or what if Ophelia had never come to the castle and met and fallen in love with Hamlet?

This book delves into the psyche of these characters and gives them a chance to air their grievances and defend their actions. It also looks at how much abuse and neglect they faced in the name of being the perfect daughter. It gives them a chance to be strong, to be heard and to maybe heal. It also shows how women with similar backgrounds or experiences can come together and find their voice.

Even though "Enter the Body" is based on the tragic female characters brought to life by William Shakespeare hundreds of years ago, their stories can be viewed with fresh perspectives and applied to life in this century. While many of these actions may seem archaic on the surface, the root of bullying, abuse, neglect and other crimes against females are still present both here in the United States and in countries around the world.

Joy McCullough's words will make you reevaluate how easy it is to accept the story as it is written and not look deeper into the shadows hidden behind the pages.

Donna Loehner is a youth services programming associate at the Missouri River Regional Library.


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