Under the umbrella of “feminist criticism” there is a wide range of critical practices and approaches to Shakespeare's works, and each of these approaches has its own supporters and detractors. Due to the diverse array of feminist studies, many feminist critics hesitate to posit a general description of what, exactly, feminist criticism is. It has been observed, however, that feminist criticism reflects the assorted theoretical positions of the feminist movement. Common topics of feminist studies of Shakespeare include examinations of patriarchy, gender and sex roles, and the relationship between gender and power in Shakespeare's plays. It is generally agreed that feminist criticism of Shakespeare as a “movement” began in the mid-1970s. Richard Levin (1988) cites Juliet Dusinberre's publication of Shakespeare and the Nature of Women in 1975 and the Modern Language Association's special session of feminist criticism in 1976 as the genesis of the feminist criticism movement in Shakespeare studies.
Feminist critics of Shakespeare's works are often the subject of critiques—this is due in part to the tension that exists between feminist critics and critics of other branches of criticism. Jonathan Dollimore (1990) critiques various feminist approaches to Shakespearean studies. He explains and defends the approach of cultural materialism as a method of Shakespearean criticism, and responds to feminist critics of this approach. Lynda E. Boose (1987) traces the evolution of feminist criticism, particularly in regard to the treatment of marriage, sex, and family. Boose also discusses feminist debate over Shakespeare's own attitude toward patriarchy and the subordination of women. Feminist criticism is also the subject of Peter Erickson's 1997 essay. Erickson outlines the development of feminist criticism in America, and argues that there is a stark contrast between what he views as prefeminist criticism, before 1980, and feminist criticism after 1980. The year marks a shift, Erickson asserts, toward an emphasis in feminist criticism on culture and ideology. Erickson concludes by reviewing a new wave of feminist criticism which provides an expanded framework for viewing “otherness” in such characters as Shylock and Othello.
Character studies often form the focus of feminist analyses of Shakespeare's works. Feminist critics such as Janet Adelman (1985) examine the way in which various characters are portrayed and perceived. Adelman studies the portrayal of Cressida in Troilus and Cressida and maintains that the play enacts the fantasy of Cressida's inconstancy. At the moment when Cressida is separated from Troilus, Adelman explains, Cressida becomes “radically unknowable, irreducibly other,” and due to the inconsistent way Cressida is portrayed, the other characters in the play, as well as the audience, are forced to view Cressida in the same way. Like Adelman, Sharon M. Harris (1990) studies the portrayal of Cressida. Harris reviews six traditional critical responses to her character: she is ignored, viewed as a whore, thought to possess an inherent limitation or frailty, thought to behave in accordance with a particular theatrical convention, viewed as synonymous with society's disorder, and thought to behave in the only way possible given her circumstances and environment. Harris identifies the way feminist critics have responded to each of the categorizations of Cressida and notes that feminist critics have found new ways in which to analyze her character. Similarly, Sharon Ouditt (1996) outlines the various methods by which feminist critics examine Shakespeare's characters. Ouditt selects three feminist critics who have studied Hamlet's Gertrude, and uses these studies to elucidate different feminist perspectives. Ouditt then identifies the problems inherent with these approaches.
The way feminist critics analyze Shakespeare's plays has been reviewed by a number of critics. Kathleen McLuskie (1985) identifies several feminist avenues of approach and highlights the shortcomings of each. She notes that the mimetic and essentialist modes of feminist theory fail to allow for the “full complexity of the nature of women” in Shakespeare's time or modern times. McLuskie examines the way sex and sexual roles in Measure for Measure and King Lear are discussed by feminist critics, and reviews the problems with these types of analyses. She notes that feminist readings often “reorder” the terms of the text and shift the critical attention from judgement of the action to focusing on the process by which the action may be judged. Similarly, Richard Levin (1988) investigates the problems with a feminist thematic approach to Shakespeare's tragedies. Levin contends that the central theme of the tragedies is often viewed by feminist thematic critics as the role of gender within the individual and society, and that these same critics identify the cause of the plays' tragic outcomes as masculinity or patriarchy. Levin stresses the illogic of this approach, and also observes that there are problems inherent in the thematic approach in general, not just the feminist thematic approach to Shakespeare's tragedies.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “The Family in Shakespeare Studies; or—Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans; or—The Politics of Politics,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter 1987, pp. 707-42.
[In the following essay, Boose traces the evolution of feminist criticism in Shakespeare studies from the mid-1970s to the present, particularly regarding the treatment of marriage, sex, and family. Boose also discusses the feminist debate over Shakespeare's own attitude toward patriarchy and the subordination of women.]
Within the conventions of Renaissance drama and within the protocol of the Tudor court, being a messenger was hazardous duty. Inevitably, it fell to the messenger to hazard the wrath of the powerful by delivering precisely the information that no one really wanted to hear. However, since I could find no way to survey the trends in Shakespearean scholarship on the family without stumbling right into the politics concurrently going on in the “family” of Shakespearean scholars, my analysis of Renaissance literary research on the family, marriage, and sex commits me, I fear, to the hazards of playing the messenger. My title beribbons itself with the de rigueur deconstructive chiasmus and that most trendy of opening entitlements, “The Politics of. …” It finally arrives, however, at what serves for both the title's ultimate deconstruction and the paper's ultimate subject:...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare, Cultural Materialism, Feminism and Marxist Humanism,” New Literary History, Vol. 21, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp. 471-93.
[In the following essay, Dollimore explains and defends the approach of cultural materialism as a method of Shakespearean criticism, responds to feminist critics of this approach, and critiques feminist approaches to Shakespearean studies.]
Back in 1982 Alan Sinfield and I thought that, despite obvious differences, there was sufficient convergence between British cultural materialism and American new historicism to bring the two together in a collection of essays. Things were different then, and we envisaged something like a progressive alliance between the two in a field that badly needed both. The result, Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, appeared in 1985.1
Recent articles by American critics sympathetic to the British materialist critical project—including Carolyn Porter, Louis Montrose, Don Wayne, Walter Cohen, and Karen Newman—persuade me that something like an alliance has indeed occurred, even though some of these critics have rightly remarked the differences between the two movements.2
Further, the backlash against both movements persuades me that they do indeed overlap: in the United States political struggles, of a kind American academics once told me were...
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SOURCE: “On the Origins of American Feminist Shakespeare Criticism,” Women's Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1997, pp. 1-26.
[In the following essay, Erickson surveys the history of feminist criticism of Shakespeare, discussing in particular the shift from pre-feminist studies to feminist criticism.]
My goal in this essay is to contribute to the overall effort to construct a history of feminist Shakespeare criticism in the United States. However, I want to anticipate two objections that can be raised against this endeavor. The first objection concerns the question, why does the story of early feminist Shakespeare criticism need to be told at all? The implication is that, since we have already moved on, this particular past has been superseded by newer work and is therefore no longer relevant. My response is that it is important to have an accurate account of the past not only for its own sake, but also because it bears on the present. There is a correlation between early and more recent feminist work; the more we can clarify this connection, the greater the chance that the past can serve as a resource for the present.
What needs emphasis is that feminist Shakespeare criticism now has a history and that this history demonstrates a positive capacity for change. I return to the origins of feminist Shakespeare criticism not in a defensive attempt to preserve the past, but rather to maximize...
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Criticism: Trends In Feminist Criticism Of Shakespeare's Characters
SOURCE: “‘This Is and Is Not Cressid’: The Characterization of Cressida,” in The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether, Cornell University Press, 1985, pp. 119-41.
[In the essay that follows, Adelman studies the portrayal of Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, arguing that the play encourages the fantasy that Cressida somehow becomes “radically unknowable” when she is separated from Troilus, and that when this shift occurs the audience is forced to view Cressida in the same way the other characters do.]
When Troilus responds to the sight of Diomed's Cressida with the words that I have taken for the title of this essay, we feel, as so often in this play of divisions, a divided duty. On the one hand, we are bound to respond responsibly to Troilus' attempt to preserve his illusions at any cost as mad, a near-psychotic denial of an obvious reality. On the other hand, Troilus' words trouble us partly because they respond to something that we have found troubling about Cressida; and insofar as they echo our dim sense that this is not Cressida, we find ourselves caught up in his psychosis.1 I shall argue that we are at this moment divided against ourselves because, at the deepest level, Troilus and Cressida enacts Troilus' fantasies, hence ensnaring us in them even as...
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SOURCE: “Feminism and Shakespeare's Cressida: ‘If I Be False …’,” Women's Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1990, pp. 65-82.
[In the essay below, Harris analyzes the ways in which Cressida has been reviewed by modern criticism. Harris underscores the way feminist critics have countered each of these views of Cressida, and adds that feminist critics have found new ways of studying this character.]
In the late 1960s, Jeanne T. Newlin posited the modernity of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida in terms of its adaptability to twentieth-century issues. One aspect of particular interest in Newlin's study is the seemingly disparate ways in which Cressida has been portrayed on the stage. In William Poel's 1912 production, Cressida was obviously older and more experienced than Troilus, and she became the shaping force of the tragi-comedy genre to which Poel assigned the play: Cressida's “frivolity led to the comedy of the early scenes, but the earnestness of her betrayal blended with the tragic finality” (Newlin 360). Ten years later when the Marlowe Society of Cambridge University staged the play, its tone was reflective of the weariness Europeans were feeling in the aftermath of war. But the implications of Cressida's portrayal captured more than just war-weariness, as a reviewer in The Observer noted at the time: “I doubt whether there is a young man in these islands to whom it is...
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SOURCE: “Explaining Woman's Frailty: Feminist Readings of Gertrude,” in Hamlet, edited by Peter J. Smith and Nigel Wood, Open University Press, 1996, pp. 83-107.
[In the following essay, Ouditt examines three feminist studies of Gertrude (from Shakespeare's Hamlet) in order to demonstrate the various types of concerns which serve as the focus of feminist criticism, and to highlight the shortcomings of these approaches.]
What might feminism offer to Shakespeare studies? Or, to reorder the proposition slightly, what might Shakespeare offer to feminist studies? What kind of relationships exist between the archetypal symbol of English literary heritage and the textual wing of a political movement bent on stripping bare and eradicating the structural inequalities between the sexes?
In fact, the intersections are many and fruitful, and one might detect a gradual evolution in feminist approaches. Lisa Jardine describes her ‘growing tide of personal irritation’ at the ‘reverence’ of early feminist critics for Shakespearian ‘realism’ (Jardine 1989: 1); Lynda E. Boose, on the other hand, is unhappy with Marxist critic Kate McLuskie's argument that the only viable position open to feminist readers of Shakespeare is radical resistance. McLuskie's line is that to imagine Shakespeare as an advocate for feminism is merely a sentimental...
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Criticism: Trends In Feminist Criticism Of Shakespeare's Plays
SOURCE: “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, Manchester University Press, 1985, pp. 88-108.
[In the following essay, McLuskie reviews several feminist approaches to Shakespeare's plays, highlighting in particular the problems with the mimetic and essentialist models of feminist criticism. The critic then applies her critique of such feminist approaches to King Lear and Measure for Measure.]
Every feminist critic has encountered the archly disingenous question ‘What exactly is feminist criticism?’ The only effective response is ‘I’ll send you a booklist’, for feminist criticism can only be defined by the multiplicity of critical practices engaged in by feminists. Owing its origins to a popular political movement, it reproduces the varied theoretical positions of that movement. Sociologists and theorists of culture have, for example, investigated the processes by which representations of women in advertising and film reproduce and reinforce dominant definitions of sexuality and sexual relations so as to perpetuate their ideological power.1 Within English departments critical activity has been divided among those who revived and privileged the work of women writers and...
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SOURCE: “Feminist Thematics and Shakespearean Tragedy,” PMLA, Vol. 103, No. 2, March 1988, pp. 125-38.
[In the essay below, Levin examines the problems with the thematic approach to Shakespeare's tragedies in general, and the feminist thematic approach to the tragedies in particular. Levin observes that the central theme of Shakespeare's tragedies, as seen by feminist thematics, is the role of gender within society and the individual, and that according to feminist thematics critics, the tragic outcome of the plays is a result of masculinity or patriarchy.]
Feminist criticism of Shakespeare appeared on the scene as an identifiable “movement” a little over ten years ago, with the publication of Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women in 1975 and the first Modern Language Association special session on the subject in 1976. In this brief period it has enlisted a number of intelligent and dedicated critics and has produced a substantial body of publications. Its remarkable growth can be measured, moreover, not only in these statistics but also in the steady enlargement of its range from the first tentative efforts, aimed primarily at rectifying sexist misinterpretations of Shakespeare's female characters, to much more confident and ambitious studies of many other aspects of the canon.1 Today it may surely be said to have come of age and to have taken its place as one...
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Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan, 1975, 329 p.
Studies Shakespeare's treatment of chastity, gender equality, idolatry, and issues of femininity and masculinity from a feminist perspective.
Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983, 202 p.
Analyzes the treatment of Elizabethan women in society, drama, and literature from a feminist perspective.
Levine, Laura. “Rape, Repetition, and the Politics of Closure in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects, edited by Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan, pp. 210-28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Argues that Shakespeare's Theseus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, uses theater as a means of transforming sexual violence in order to demonstrate that theater actually fails in such a transformation.
McEachern, Claire. “Fathering Herself: A Source Study of Shakespeare's Feminism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, No. 3 (Fall 1988): 269-90.
Attempts to better understand Shakespeare's attitude toward patriarchy by studying Shakespeare's sources and the relationships between fathers and daughters that...
(The entire section is 332 words.)