Shakespeare's Division of Experience

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1432

As a reading of William Shakespeare’s works and as an exposition of certain themes in Western culture, this work raises a whole host of questions which can best be gotten at, perhaps, in the context of Marilyn French’s work to date. The author of a highly-praised work on James Joyce’s ...

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As a reading of William Shakespeare’s works and as an exposition of certain themes in Western culture, this work raises a whole host of questions which can best be gotten at, perhaps, in the context of Marilyn French’s work to date. The author of a highly-praised work on James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), The Book as World (1976), French is best-known for her two novels of emerging female awareness, The Women’s Room (1977) and The Bleeding Heart (1980). French did her Ph.D. work at Harvard University in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; her first novel The Women’s Room draws on that experience. In that novel, the central character, a female graduate student at Harvard, comes to a profound new sense of personal awareness and maturity through renouncing her inherited stereotypes of what is appropriate behavior for a woman in favor of a strong affirmation of herself as a capable adult able to make responsible choices and to take charge of her own life.

What makes The Women’s Room so powerful is its evocation of the conditions in which young women came of age and entered into adulthood in the United States in the 1950’s. Those conditions are characterized by bondage and failure—the ties to home and husband and family and suburbia which could fulfill few and which destroyed many. Against that background, French contrasts the sense of post-divorce 1960’s freedom, in this case the freedom to return to graduate school, to take charge of one’s life, to start anew with a sense of self that is substantially healthier and more responsible than any the 1950’s world could offer.

The Bleeding Heart takes the story of the professional academic woman a few years further. In this novel, the central character, now a member of the academic profession, gets a grant that takes her to England and an English university for a year of intensive research. While there, she has a tumultuous affair with a man whom she alternately clings to and struggles against as she tries to consolidate her gains in terms of self-worth and self-assurance.

What these works have in common, against the background of the women’s movement, is a sense of the profound struggle necessary to overcome the crippling self-image women in America derived from their culture’s expectations of them in their formative years, especially the 1950’s. Clearly, women who grew up in postwar America were sold a horrible and dehumanizing bill of goods; they were told that if they essentially remained children and did not enter the adult work-world, but instead mothered their husbands and their children, they would be well taken care of. Considering much of the rhetoric of the women’s movement, that is a very seductive self-image, one that is frighteningly difficult to overcome, even if the alternatives are madness or despair.

One of the ways in which women have had to fight to make room for themselves as adults in professional circles and to claim their right to a positive image of themselves is to read the condition of their formative existence backwards in time and to universalize it by making it a fundamental condition of Western society. This is not to say that former ages were not sexist, at least in our sense of the term. It is to say that the kind of criticism that French writes in Shakespeare’s Division of Experience is understandable more in terms of what is needed now for women to lay claim to their own share of the Western cultural tradition than it is as a straightforward discussion of Shakespeare.

For what French offers in this book is, in effect, a laying-claim to a place for Shakespeare in the canon of writers helpful for women to read who are struggling to overcome their own inherited and culturally acquired self-image, substituting for it a more positive and self-affirming one. To do this, she first posits definitions of masculine and feminine “principles” as understood in Western culture. In her terms, the masculine principle is based on the ability to kill, while the feminine is based on the ability to give birth. The masculine is characterized by the desire for power and control, the need to impose order, to fix, to make permanent. It is individualistic, action-oriented, thinking, linear. The feminine, on the other hand, is characterized by a concern for feeling, for sensation, for pleasure, for the quality of life, for the cyclic permanence of nature.

French further posits that the Christian Church split the feminine gender principle into two aspects, the good and the bad. Under the good were placed benevolence, compassion, mercy, subordination, humility; under the bad were placed sexuality and the pleasure of being. The cost of this division was an identification of woman as a threat to order, to structure, to permanence, and the deprivation of the “good” image of woman of her fundamental sources of energy and power.

In effect, the male principle became the definition of what it was to be human, while women were seen as threatening unless they placed themselves under masculine domination. Women become either superhuman or subhuman, but never merely human.

French proceeds to examine Shakespeare’s plays in terms of the ways in which his characters act out these principles. She sees at least two of his works as transcending the dichotomies of the principles—King Lear (1605) and Antony and Cleopatra (1606-1607)—but, for the most part, she sees him affirming the need for male control of women. Indeed, she finds in Shakespeare a “terrified loathing” of feminine sexuality, and a continued equation between male and human. His value is in his affirmation for a need to combine, at least on occasion, the two gender principles, although she argues he never could imagine a world without male-dominated power and control in which women needed to restrict their sexuality.

Such an approach to Shakespeare is so blatantly reductionistic and so much in violation of traditions of reading and thinking about his work formed by both male and female scholars that it is hard to accept. The legions of Shakespearean characters who do not act according to “gender principles” leap readily to mind; French knows this, but her response is that in such cases characters combine parts of the two principles. In spite of how well or how badly her approach deals with the reality of Shakespeare’s work, however, its reading of Western culture simply will not bear the weight of historical investigation. Certainly, women have gotten a raw deal; certainly, writers of the past reflected the prevailing world-view of their age. Nevertheless, the past is always much more complicated than any reductionistic scheme, and one does violence to the past when one forces it into any scheme that denies its complexity. In this case, one denies the humanity and the validity of all the women of the past who have lived humanly and heroically in spite of whatever constrictions were placed upon them.

That is why this book needs to be seen as not really about Shakespeare at all, but about how one can function as a woman in an academic world when one must constantly struggle with one’s own past. The narrator of this book is, in effect, the central character of French’s novels who must constantly reassert, to herself and those around her, her right to be a woman, a human being, and a scholar. Something of that struggle involves making room in the world of scholarship for one’s own ideas, one’s own responses, in the terms of one’s own experiences. What is more important about this book than what it says about Shakespeare is the fact that it has appeared, that it exists, that it comes from a major press with all the academic trappings of footnotes and favorable comments on the dust jacket from Harvard faculty members.

In this book, the central figure of French’s novels has completed one phase of her quest. She has moved through graduate school, through apprenticeship, and now has a book with all the trappings of a major scholarly effort behind her. The novels record the cost of this progress in terms of human suffering. The question that remains is whether or not the full range of human experience of literature can be brought into the academic mainstream. Certainly, this book suggests that the struggle has had its costs in terms of breadth of response as well as its successes. Only the future can tell how much growth in a sense of common humanity will also result.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43

Best Sellers. XLI, May, 1981, p. 207.

Book World. XI, March 8, 1981, p. 1.

Choice. XVII, June, 1981, p. 1416.

Library Journal. CVI, June 1, 1981, p. 1223.

The New Republic. CLXXXIV, April 11, 1981, p. 38.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, June 11, 1981, p. 20.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, March 22, 1981, p. 11.

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