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Feminist Criticism

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.

Lynda E. Boose (essay date 1987)

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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: “The Politics of Politics.”

While an enormous amount of important work has clearly taken place in Renaissance literary fields outside Shakespeare and while the political trends I will be pointing to may even be applicable elsewhere, I have restricted my focus to this one single author because, quite simply, no author or text so unequivocally locates the site of preeminent value for English speaking cultures as does Shakespeare. Given the elevated place that Shakespeare occupies in American academia, the status of particular social issues within the field and scholarly disputes over them are never “merely academic” in scope, but inescapably political. In English Departments, the Shakespeare privilege is clearly spelled out: not only does Shakespeare virtually define the literary canon and the literature major, but “Shakespeareans” stand apart from such departmental categories as “Medievalists,” “Romanticists,” “Nineteenth-Century Americanists” (etc.); “Shakespeareans” are hired and entitled under the authoritative name of this one author inside an exclusive territory where the discipline's otherwise governing assumptions about historical location or literary milieu suddenly seem to evaporate. And yet, as those of us who parade under this entitlement also know, the sheer potency of the name that privileges us likewise precludes us from enjoying sole claim to it. Shakespeare's purported universality works somewhat like a universal legitimation—a kind of open market that makes everyone feel not just entitled but almost professionally compelled to lay claim to it. Of late, witness even Geoffrey Hartman, the dean of literary theory, entering the arena to pronounce the definitive Questions of Theory in Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is a site of such competitive jostling because Shakespeare is a site of enormous cultural power. As such, he is not only a universally available but likewise a dangerously charged locale, where maneuvers for appropriation, displacement, erasure, and the institutionalization of both cultural and academic privileges are invested with a particular energy that makes the politics within this field the more recognizable and, simultaneously, perhaps the more crucial to recognize.

In looking at any emerging scholarly trend, probably all critics in all disciplines need to be frequently reminded of the point that Terence Hawkes' witty narrations of Shakespeare and the academy unerringly bring home. And that is, that in what each generation of scholars writes, it is actually writing itself. Given Shakespeare's special status, Shakespearean scholarship effectively constitutes the equivalent of a cultural Rorschach inscribing the issues, the ideologies, the tensions, and the terms of debate that define the preoccupying investments for any given historical moment, including our own. That late nineteenth and early- to mid-twentieth century critics—who were themselves either fathered within the elite bastions of British academia or anxious to prove their heritage within that tradition—should have located the “meaning of Shakespeare” within all the orthodoxies of “right reason” and “natural” hierarchy that affirmed their own threatened sense of social control is perhaps no more random a fact than is the intense interest our own era has suddenly taken in the family and the sex roles developed within it—subjects that, to earlier critics, seemed so apparently unproblematic as not to require much attention, let alone examination. But in both the contemporary Renaissance literary scholarship that privileges the Shakespeare text and in that which gives priority to non-literary, historically-specific ones external to it, the dominant interest these days is in deconstructing, demystifying, and, I would also have to argue, through maneuvers which may even imagine themselves as “disinterested,” perhaps tacitly re-constructing and re-mystifying both the structure and the internal mechanisms of the hierarchical paradigm that we in the twentieth century inherited from the Renaissance: the patriarchal nuclear family.

In North America, this newly urgent academic discourse on family and sex is taking place within the political context of two external, social phenomena with which it is inextricably bound: the American Women's Movement and its struggle for national legitimation, and, simultaneously, the emergence of a politically neo-conservative, at times nearly hysterical national propaganda that disguises protecting the status quo under “Saving The Family” and stakes the nation's survival on essentializing traditional family arrangements as the final bulwark of universal morality. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the new wave of Marxist scholars who come not from Oxford and Cambridge but from Sussex University have launched an influential British front to redefine and denounce Shakespeare as the chief cultural patriarch of Britain's imperialist heritage; and the investments of these new wave Brits in promulgating a class conscious cultural materialism—a Marxism updated via the influence of Raymond Williams—seem as historically specific and as distinctively “British” as do the less consciously ideological agendas of their distinctively “American” counterparts.

Although marriage, sex, and family have emerged as a topic of special interest not just in literature but in all Renaissance disciplines, the investigation in literature has been both significantly complicated and likewise energized by the fact that, concurrently, established modes for the whole discipline of literary theory have been undergoing upheaval and radical reshaping in response to the recent arrival of new, European methodologies. In literary studies, what was challenged by this new body of post-structuralist theory was the overtly apolitical, though inherently (if blandly) conservative, practice of “New Criticism”—the formalist model of discovering “meaning” by close textual reading that still largely dictates how literature is taught in American academia. Although the poststructuralist theories were relatively late in penetrating the phalanx of deification surrounding Shakespeare, they have, of late, begun to assert their claims.1 Furthermore, it might be argued that this methodological contestation is being waged in English Renaissance studies as a much more insistently politicized debate than in other literary fields where it is likewise going on—a trend I would attribute both to the weightier claims at stake in possession of Shakespeare and the greater investment of British critics in this field. From a look at the most recently emerging trends, it is my feeling that the debate over methodology—and, by direct implication, ideology—is shaping up to take place precisely within the terrain which this year's RSA plenary session decided to survey: sex, family, and marriage. Perhaps all subject matter, no matter how historically remote, is inherently “political” to the age that exhumes it; certainly for these three interrelated subjects, each dimension of the contemporary scholarly debate—what subjects it includes, the terms in which it is waged, the investments of its participants, and what status the debate is given within the institution—is unavoidably so. So while the stakes in Shakespearean scholarship have always been high, it seems accurate to say that over no terrain have the stakes been higher and at no time have they been as self conscious of themselves as being claims for participation in—or exclusive retention of—this all important, powerfully political site called William Shakespeare.


To say that one does “research on the family in Shakespeare” sounds innocuously domestic. To appreciate the actually radical nature of what this scholarship has produced during the past ten years, it helps to measure the work against the traditions it has challenged and the implicit sinecures it has threatened. I therefore begin by thumbing back to the category for family that most of us remember as the transmitted wisdom of graduate school. Until roughly ten years ago, “the family” was still contained by the definition of its proper place that critics like E. M. W. Tillyard had, years earlier, extrapolated unquestioned from the hierarchical discourses of the Elizabethan state and promulgated as truths that were unproblematic because still firmly in evidence, hence “natural.” As the subsumed lesser term of the old “Macrocosm-Microcosm” paradigm, the family was seldom placed into analytical focus and never approached as a construction to be queried. Perhaps because the process of mystification depends upon a certain kind of cultural amblyopia that is oblivious to its own partial sightedness, so long as the chief beneficiaries of any social institution remain the only eyes within it they will automatically imagine its mechanisms as organic, not political. When processes are seen as organic, there are no processes to deconstruct. And thus, although other of Tillyard's suppositions about the operation of Elizabethan order in the macrocosm (which was presumed to be the only political sphere) had been subjected to skeptical revision years before, those about marriage and the family (presumedly non-political) remained pristinely intact, implicitly protected by yet unquestioned assumptions that marriage, family, and sex were “natural” features of society, be it Shakespeare's or our own, not social institutions that had been culturally constructed and culturally reproduced along the ideological fault lines of arbitrary political privilege—privilege that was itself based upon what I shall now call “gender” rather than “sex.”

Until recently, the men who defined the scholarly establishment we were all trained within never imagined that terms of discourse were needed to separate cultural ideas about sexual identity (“gender”) from the register of biological differentiation (“sex”). But until such a discourse had emerged as a conceptual tool, until language had given us the concept of a “sex/gender system” (articulated in 1975 by anthropologist Gayle Rubin), marriage, family, and “sex” remained unquestioned givens, mystified and perpetuated into that status by the absence of a language for laying bare their construction. No scholar of the late twentieth century would probably have rationalized the hierarchical gendering of family roles by reference to the Renaissance argument about divinely ordained, “natural” male superiority. Nonetheless, the same system was still firmly in place some four hundred years later. The ideology of the father-headed, father-named nuclear family that had emerged in the 1500s as the discourse defining the family unit had changed but little because its distributions of power remained intact. The hierarchy that had earlier been justified by reference to Genesis was merely rationalized in a post-Darwinian world by a scientifically “natural” functionalism that preordained women—as Angelo states in Measure for Measure—to “put on the destined livery” and become mothers—mothers who acquired social acceptability for themselves and the legal entitlement of “legitimacy” for their children only by literally donning the “livery” of a husband/lord's name and becoming servants to the production of the patrilineal family.2 Thus, until the implications of “biology as destiny” were examined in light of social gendering, Shakespeare's women characters and the family units that contained them dutifully played out their roles in Shakespearean criticism, the family constructions a given and the women's roles unquestioned, indeed elevated into dispute only when characters like Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra stepped outside their definitions by disrupting the proper macro-functioning of the political sphere of men.

It wasn’t that scholars of the “old historicist” school of textual appraisal failed to notice the misogyny that so indelibly marks both the literary and non-literary texts of the English Renaissance. It was that within the benignly Anglican bias of Shakespearean scholarship, such treatises, howsoever numerous, were regarded as a distasteful historical embarrassment, a disgrace to male chivalry, and best viewed as either the unfortunate residues of earlier patristic dogma or the aberrations of Puritan fanatics. As Linda Woodbridge's survey of the 1540-1620 literature on the nature of women points out, the “vast storehouse of Renaissance misogyny” was usually handled by Victorian and post-Victorian scholars either by scrupulous avoidance or relegation to footnotes and, until its resuscitation by feminist scholars, “prompted no more response from modern commentators than the raising of an eyebrow.”3 So long as misogyny was thus contained in the outer margins or dismissed into the footnotes of the Elizabethan cultural text and not imagined as a central discourse which itself constructed the sacrosanct enclosures of marriage and family, Shakespearean scholarship functioned as a tacit apologist and reproductive instrument for these social institutions, Elizabethan or contemporary. Marxist critics may have challenged the social organization of class and thus exposed the self-interested bias of much of the criticism that preceded them. But until quite recently, in Shakespearean scholarship the social organization of gender—and thus the constitution of the inherited family model—went unchallenged. All was well that ended well—and marriage and family so quintessentially defined scholars' own culturally constructed assumptions about social and personal happiness that, until as late as the 1970s, criticism seemed incapable of even noticing questions about those institutions—questions that post-’70s scholarship subsequently came to see as being themselves raised within such plays as Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well. Shakespearean criticism thus continued to operate exactly as the Elizabethan apologists for family order would have wanted it to until the mid 1970s, when suddenly its own order was disrupted. Noting the sudden phenomenon of an emerging trend for family research in sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century historical studies, Christopher Hill comments on the shift in historical criticism that was actually occurring throughout Renaissance scholarship. Hill's observations, however, are couched in language so offhandedly dismissive in tone as nearly to undermine their own relevance. Reviewing Lawrence Stone's 1977 book on The Family, Sex, and Marriage, Hill remarks: “… the family as an institution rather suddenly became fashionable, perhaps as a by-product of the women's liberation movement.”4

To be more precise, the three related categories in focus today virtually invaded the Shakespeare institution and other Renaissance fields concurrently with the emergence of feminist criticism and feminist academicians. The two investigations—the one, feminist, and the other focused on marriage, family, and gender—announced themselves simultaneously as such “newly fashionable” fields through Shakespeare sessions at the 1976 Modern Language Association. Until recently, the two inquiries remained tied together, the work on marriage and family not only co-implicit with the feminist concern about gender but catapulted into the Shakespeare fortress by it and launched as a legitimate field of inquiry by the emergence of a vigorous first generation of feminist Shakespeareans. The North American pioneers in this field include scholars like Janet Adelman, Shirley Garner (who had previously published under the name “S. N. Garner,” thus doing what I, too, was advised in graduate school to do), Gayle Greene, Coppélia Kahn, Carol Thomas Neely, Marianne Novy, Clara Claiborne Park, Phyllis Rackin, Meredith Skura, Madelon Sprengnether [Gohlke], Carolyn Swift [Lenz], and Linda Woodbridge [Fitz].

The methodology that most of these feminist scholars brought with them was psychoanalytic,5 a perspective that American feminists revised by shifting focus away from Freud's phallocentric paradigm toward an inclusion of the maternal issues of gender formation enunciated by theorists like Melanie Klein, D. W. Winnicott, Nancy Chodorow, and Dorothy Dinnerstein. It was, in fact, precisely these new perspectives that revitalized psychoanalytic criticism and moved it from its disrepute of the early 1970s into the au courant status it came to enjoy in Shakespeare studies by the early 1980s. But by the mid-1980s, in the wake of the post-deconstructionist privilege accorded to historicity—to historical conditions governing the production of individuals, social units, and texts that is primary in Marxist and Foucaultian theory—it was this very reliance on the psychoanalytical approach that was faulted for grounding feminist analyses inside the text, inside of increasingly questioned notions about the construction of subjects and subjectivity, and inside of a criticism which, though it did incorporate historical discourse and was certainly not “ahistorical” (as has of late been charged), was nonetheless focused on relations within a family model that was implicitly based on—or tacitly accepted—Freud's essentialist presumption of the transhistorical nature of both the family unit and subject members within it. Since, as Judith Kegan Gardiner points out, “psychoanalysis purports to tell us what gender means—that is, how persons become psychologically ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine,’”6 feminism turned to psychoanalysis as a means of investigating the induction of gender; and psychoanalysis, in turn, led the inquiry back to the family. In Shakespeare studies, psychoanalytically-theorized feminism never really acquired the Lacanian perspective that has so strongly influenced contemporary French feminism, British film studies, and the work of important American scholars like Jane Gallop. Once having refurbished psychoanalytic usage with its missing maternal pole, the feminist scholars in Shakespeare were perhaps disinclined to return to “the Law of the Father” (Lacan). In Shakespeare studies, the fusion of feminist concerns and psychoanalytic work on the family was itself enabled by a supportive father-figure, the late C. L. Barber, whose influential body of work reached its final statement with Richard Wheeler's 1986 completion of their jointly authored book, The Whole Journey.

From the very beginning, Shakespearean feminism found itself forced to juggle the paradoxes of its own liminality. Feminism within American English Departments is, logically enough, centered in nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies where it has built its power base and insured its place in the literary institution by the focus it has brought to the works of women writers. If you think about it, even the term “Shakespearean feminism” is a kind of oxymoron. As fledgling feminist literary criticism began to try to theorize itself, it initially enunciated a shift toward a progressively gynocritical stance that denounced further use of feminist energies for even revisionist readings of the literary masters.7 But for feminist literary scholars whose intellectual interests, graduate degrees, and hardwon appointments were already invested in historical fields like the English Renaissance—periods which left few enough records of women's existence and even fewer in words that women themselves had written—the effect of such a stance was obviously isolating. And while scholars like Margaret Hannay, Mary Lamb, Margaret Ferguson, Ann Rosalind Jones, Josephine Roberts, Mary Beth Rose, and Nancy Vickers are at work recuperating the muted histories and forgotten texts of real women writers,8 representations of Elizabethan and Jacobean women's voices are, for the most part, to be found within male-authored fictions, especially the drama, and particularly Shakespeare's. For political as well as personal reasons, Renaissance feminist scholars felt it would be self-annihilating for feminist criticism to restrict itself to women writers and thereby relinquish claim to the predefined (and thus, by definition, male) literary canon. Where feminist Shakespeareans made good their tenacity is through the widely influential revisionist readings they initiated—modes of interpretation that made an immediate impact on Shakespeare teaching by asserting a co-gendered perspective at last appropriate to the co-educational classroom. Using the formalist mode of close reading, feminist interpretations saw new questions to ask and liberated new psycho-social significances from the Shakespeare texts.

Because the initially most compelling project for Renaissance feminist scholarship was to understand/account for the male misogyny that earlier critics had pushed to the background, feminist family studies such as Coppélia Kahn's and Janet Adelman's focused as much or more on the construction of masculine as feminine identity, particularly on the role played by the mother—either present or absent—in that formation. The strength of the feminist critique lay in the focus that it gave for the first time to the social production of gender, which it located inside the family. By enunciating what amounted to a new subject, these new voices in Shakespeare effectively opened up what we might call a new, scholarly mother-lode, on which site the first generation critics staked out the feminist claims for participation in literature's most treasured field. As the ensuing gold rush got underway and many wagons headed west, feminist assumptions might be defined by the idea of “self-interested generosity”: feminism politically wanted, welcomed, and actively encouraged the involvement of male scholars in this inquiry, for the assumption that the family was primarily a woman's territory was precisely the assumption that feminism as a political movement was fighting to change. Furthermore, since the bedrock of family construction was inseparable from its asymmetrical distribution of gender privilege, further family scholarship would, it was thought, logically produce greater awareness of these skewed distributions, which, once acknowledged, would implicitly compel materialist critics to reconsider the notion of social class and at last recognize gender as being itself a major class distinction hidden beneath but actually transecting the restrictedly masculine categories proposed by Marxist theory.9 Such, at least, were the optimistically imagined trajectories.

And indeed, amidst the near euphoria that surrounded Shakespearean research on gender, marriage, and family in the late 70s and early 80s, the inquiry seemed to promise not only the belated exhumation of Renaissance Woman into a contemporary dialogue that would at last include her, but a newly enfranchised space for latter day Renaissance Man—a space in which he might get beyond being merely soldier, scholar, and poet and dare to explore his entitlements as son, brother, father, and husband. Interest in the field burgeoned to such an extent that the research on these interrelated topics came rapidly to dominate the Shakespeare scholarly output. From a purely scholarly perspective, it might even be said that the subjects became too popular, for commercial and academic presses alike began publishing with less discrimination than enthusiasm, leaving an output as occasionally mixed in quality as it is extensive in quantity. As the subject gained preeminence, the feminists who had initiated it and whose names remain most prominently associated with it worked, I would say, to foster a context of non-competitive, cooperative sharing inside the discipline—a point that may reflect, in a fascinating way, a great deal not only about the social construction of gender but about the way such constructions implicitly affect the politics that derive from them.

Existing within a discipline that increasingly valorizes theory and scorns the idea of literary criticism as a pluralistic community of interpretive acts, feminist literary criticism—which is frequently defined as something more like an “approach” than a coherent and definable “theory”—repeatedly goes at buffets with itself over this issue. There are those who see defining an adequately theorized position as both essential for survival and a mark of maturity within the discipline. There are others, however, who view “theory” as aridly male and see the most fundamental definition of feminist criticism as radically inseparable from pluralistic interpretation and resistance to self-theorizing.10 In all these internal debates, what liberal American feminism has seemed most uneasy about is the totalizing tendency of theory—the impulse that necessitates contestation and turns the literary profession into a shoot ’em out at the You’re-Not-O.K. Corral. That the contestation model of scholarship is increasingly assumed, however, is implicit in the fact that at the Central Renaissance conference in St. Louis (March, 1987), Shakespearean feminists were attacked from the podium for, among other things, their failure to attack each other. But that American feminist criticism has remained reluctant to embrace the dialectical model of a perpetually competitive struggle for power and dominance is not only a resistance that is thoroughly consistent with the gendering process of socialization. It is equally a political assertion of difference meant to affirm those particular behaviors that culture has marked out as “female.” In Shakespeare studies, the feminist inspired scholarship on the family seemed, if anything, to operate like a growing family of shared interests. In the chain of MLA sessions it generated, equal numbers of newcomers and equal distributions of male and female scholars were scrupulously invited. In many of the texts it produced—such as the 1980 Lenz, Greene, Neely collection, The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, the 1982 Schwartz and Kahn volume, Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, and the 1985 Mary Beth Rose anthology, Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—the emphasis was on collaboration rather than single voice authority. It seems accurate to say that the work on family construction was itself born inside an atmosphere which was, in psychoanalytic terms, distinctly nurturing, distinctly maternal. One might also say that the ambience in which it developed was thus, ironically, tied back into the inherited model of gender and family that the feminist exploration was, at one and the same time, holding up for critique.

Shakespearean feminism and Shakespeare studies in marriage, family, and gender were twinned together, have developed in tandem, and during their approximate twelve years of kinship have come to be locked together in a fierce embrace, ever more aware of the dangerous slippage between bonds and bondage. When the first book to explore the position of women in the Renaissance came out with British scholar Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, Dusinberre read the Protestant and Puritan conceptions of and new emphasis on marriage as a positive, liberating trend in the history of women. She thus read Shakespeare's apparent affirmation of that institution and woman's role as stabilizer of it as indicative of Shakespeare's own laudably proto-feminist sympathies. Subsequent feminist work strove to avoid the enthusiastic excesses which had made Dusinberre's book vulnerable. But, with a few exceptions, the general direction of the work was similar in its affirming perspective, a perspective that it maintained by perhaps unconsciously avoiding direct engagement with what it was not quite ready to confront. When feminist critiques looked at the marriage structures evoked at the end of comedy, for instance, they tended to focus on the subversively liberating actions that had led up to the conclusion rather than on the hierarchical subordination and the silencing of the comic heroine that often accompany the reimposition of institutions at the end of those same comedies. It took a few more years before feminism would feel impelled to go beyond analyzing character relations within family representations and scrutinize the construction of the family itself.

With a certain irony, it can be said that psychoanalytic theory—which assumes the transhistorical nature of the family unit—had seemed to feminist explorers so strikingly appropriate a compass for remapping Shakespearean drama precisely because the Shakespearean family seemed to resemble our own modern one so closely. Even the Christian marriage ceremony has changed but negligibly from the ritual alluded to in Shakespeare's plays.11 And that apparent familiarity initially provided the feminist critic with the one truly indispensible reward of the scholarly profession—the private reinforcement of intellectual delight that accompanies recognition. But when feminism moved outside the text to the critique of systems rather than the analysis of relationships within them, that same familiarity felt more like a manacle testifying to the bondage of women's history. For feminist critics, not even the most obviously historical models of marriage and family can be purely (and merely) historical. And they cannot because, as topics, they carry with them the still unresolved, deeply ambivalent history of women's oppression. Consequently, the more the research they pioneered made feminist critics aware of the resolutely patriarchal nature of these institutions, the more such awareness problematized the liberal feminist dream of resolving the conflict between personal and political desire—of reaching the imagined space where that conflict no longer existed. To reject rather than extend the history of their own oppression meant taking a stance against the inherited forms of marriage and family. And to do this meant nothing short of taking a stance against the very model of female fulfillment that feminist scholars were themselves raised to value. In calling for a more political feminism in Shakespeare studies, British critic Kathleen McLuskie at least recognizes the particular conflict that characterizes this issue. For as feminist scholars research the Renaissance family organization, what is finally at issue is, as she says, our own “socialisation within the family and, perhaps more importantly, our psychological development as gendered subjects [that] make these changes no simple matter. They involve deconstructing the sustaining comforts of love and family as the only haven in a heartless world.”12

If race, ethnicity, and religion have already mapped a differential investment for blacks onto Othello and Jews onto The Merchant of Venice, gender construction has always already dictated a disproportionate feminist investment in a number of issues which span the canon. In the most recent one to emerge into debate, investment runs so high that the issue itself threatens to become some sort of oath of allegiance upon which feminist critics are compelled to swear their integrity. The troublesome new question concerns Shakespeare's own attitude toward patriarchy and its institutional subordination of women—or at least the attitude espoused by his textual representation and reproduction of that institution. The problem with the question may be not the question per se, but the assumption it generates that the breadth and variety of the Shakespeare canon will yield up a coherent answer. As long as the plays were read as being unproblematically mimetic and characters were imagined as psychological subjects, a systematic pattern was inferred. Ironically, it is just when criticism is moving away from its mimetic model and toward a more complex understanding of theatricality that it suddenly becomes compelling to answer a question that perhaps can no longer be answered. For Shakespearean feminism, this question reaches into areas that are significant in the widest personal, political, and pedagogical ways. By putting at risk the perception of Shakespeare's authorization of women that became widely accepted as a result of the past twelve years of feminist scholarship, the question may also inadvertently put at risk the ground upon which Shakespearean feminism established whatever entitlement it has carved out within American university teaching.

From Dusinberre's 1975 ebullient appropriation of Shakespeare for the feminist cause, the direction of scholarship addressing this issue has moved with a slow but increasing momentum toward seeing the frequent patterns of gender reversal and female power in Shakespeare's plays as actually serving only to consolidate the status quo of male hierarchy. The directions in which the inquiry has led American and British feminism have been similar. The positions it has reached, however, differ significantly enough as to illustrate some fundamental and important distinctions about the mainline politics that energize the otherwise common interests of each of these two, decidedly national versions of Shakespearean feminism.

Although names like Madelon Sprengnether, Louis Montrose, and Clara Claiborne Park should at least be mentioned in connection with the movement away from seeing Shakespeare as a latter-day feminist, the most extensive such American treatment of Shakespeare's sexual politics is Peter Erickson's feminist exploration, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama. Erickson constructs a Shakespeare who repeatedly undermines tyrannical patriarchy, but just as repeatedly affirms its benevolent version. According to Erickson, Shakespeare does grant his female characters that unusual strength that critics have vested in them; but women's roles are also invariably qualified by Shakespeare's overriding conviction that social harmony requires male control. If we imagine an ideological agenda (conscious or unconscious) behind any critic's particular view, the following lines excerpted from Erickson's conclusion seem to me to sum up several important things about the deployments that are bound up in the mainline politics of American Shakespearean feminism:

It is important to question and to qualify the notions of linearity and maturity in Shakespeare's development. From my perspective, The Winter's Tale does have a crucial value in the total picture. … Against the background of the destructive antagonism between men and women in the tragedies, the recovery of the possibility for harmonious relations enacted by Leontes and Hermione is miraculous. Nevertheless, … the legitimate need to celebrate the positive aspects of The Winter's Tale should not be permitted … to obscure the negative elements. I would do justice both to Shakespeare's growth and to his limitations, and I cherish the limitations as a valid, precious part of the cultural tradition we critically transmit. A complex picture of the fluctuations in the course of Shakespeare's development involves the recognition of loss as well as gain.13

What governs these lines is a recurring rhetorical balance that insists on the “both-and” perspective, tacitly refusing to extend its argument about Shakespearean patriarchalism into exclusive definition. On the one hand, that very commitment may lead the rhetoric into an accidental—and problematic—affirmation when, in order to acknowledge Shakespeare's growth, the logic is led into the position of equally “cherishing” his (patriarchal) limitations as a “valid, precious part of the cultural tradition” we transmit. On the other hand, by simultaneously insisting upon the complexities that “question and qualify” any single position, the argument implicitly rejects the totalizing impulse to control its readers. It is a criticism that is everywhere marked with signs of its origins in democratic liberalism, and, like most American political positions, is not overtly conscious of itself as reflecting any particular ideology. It is, however, shrewdly aware of the practical exigencies of the American academic scene it tacitly addresses. Its political interests are most apparent in the fact that while Erickson is concerned to expose Shakespearean patriarchalism, he is also concerned not to participate in it by excluding women himself. He therefore stops short of defining the canon as a males-only playground and leaves the pleasures of the text and the power of Shakespearean authorization still more or less universally available. What might be read as caution in Erickson's position is, ultimately, a practical political awareness of having reached a point beyond which there is potentially as much to be lost as to be gained.

British feminist Kate McLuskie is likewise concerned to expose Shakespeare's patriarchalism. Her conclusions differ dramatically from Erickson's, however, because McLuskie's is an overtly political feminism tactically committed to the Marxist schematics of “either-or” and to the mode of argument that allows no space outside itself. McLuskie's strategy—which begins by reproving the liberal perspective of her American counterparts—is bluntly to sever the female reader from the notion of subjective identity with Shakespeare's attitudes or from any figurative inclusion within the dramaturgical maneuvers of his plays. For McLuskie, Shakespeare's plays locate the audience in so totally masculinized a perspective that the only possible position open to feminist readers is radical resistance: to imagine Shakespeare as an advocate is merely a sentimental attempt to co-opt his authority by trying to ignore the often misogynistic perspective supported within and elicited by his plays. Therefore, “Feminist criticism of [the/any] play is restricted to exposing its own exclusion from the text. It has no point of entry into it, for the dilemmas of the narrative and the sexuality under discussion are constructed in completely male terms.”

Given the standard organization of American (albeit not British) English departments where faculty are hired specifically to teach in one particular area, short of a massive restructuring of curricula and teaching arrangements it is hard to imagine the translation of this position into pedagogical terms that would not finally raise the question why feminists would even want to teach in a field where, term after term, they would be “restricted to exposing their own exclusion from the text.” To be a feminist in McLuskie's terms is to renounce completely one's pleasure in Shakespeare and embrace instead the rigorous comforts of ideological correctness. Since “when a feminist accepts the narrative, theatrical and intellectual pleasures” offered by Shakespearean drama “she does so in male terms and not as a part of the locus of feminist critical activity,” feminism is exhorted to abstain from such seductions and abstemiously invest its energies in asserting “the power of resistance, subverting rather than co-opting the domination of the patriarchal bard.”14 If Shakespeare can be accused of participating in the reification of patriarchy by his reproduction of it, then surely McLuskie has here likewise participated in the reproduction of—if not the production of—the feminist exclusion upon which she insists. But then, her call for an adversarial feminist response to Shakespeare depends upon totalizing women's exclusion so as to leave feminists with no ground to occupy other than subversive resistance. It is clear from McLuskie's argument that one cannot serve feminism and Shakespeare, too. What has never been clear to American liberal feminism, however, is how one can serve feminism and Marxism too without practicing the same co-option and the same contradictions that Shakespeare's feminist sympathizers are here accused of glossing over or wishing away.

McLuskie's is a tough, articulate, uncompromising, and identifiably British argument. By the very extent of its determination to denounce Shakespeare, it is everywhere marked as belonging to the larger concerns of the newly energized Marxist political criticism, a criticism in which—if the sheer weight of the recent British output on Shakespeare is any measure15—deposing the English Bard and the imperialistic heritage of British Bardolatry is clearly a first priority. If Erickson's rhetoric bumps into problems in the commitment to balance that arises from its implicit politics, McLuskie's does so in its politically inspired commitment to polarization. The argument which places feminism in rhetorical opposition to “pleasure” comes originally from Laura Mulvey's widely recognized analysis of the film medium as being visually constructed around male pleasure, the male spectator, and the female object. But in its use of the Mulvey opposition, McLuskie's argument provides no explanation (other than apparent masochism) for the pleasure women readers and audiences have taken and do take in Shakespeare.16 And whereas Mulvey—a feminist film maker—is writing not so much to tell us to cease enjoying, in this case, film, but to open up a positive way for considering how feminist film makers can re-vision and reconstitute film dynamics to create an aesthetics of female pleasure that will transform women into subjects, McLuskie can only warn us away from Shakespeare in terms that warn us away from pleasure. And logically, Shakespeare must be only the beginning: if one is to renounce Shakespeare for his patriarchalism, then surely one must also renounce the enjoyment of most of Western drama (Mamet; Shepherd; Stoppard; Rabe—??) and, for that matter, most of western literature. By setting up a linguistic opposition between feminism and pleasure with no access possible to such alternatives as Mulvey can provide, McLuskie's polarities reinvoke the perhaps unintended spectre of a feminist politics reallied with the puritanical, eventuating in a definition of women's pleasure that begins in restriction and finally leaves authorizable feminist “pleasure” available only through embracing the all too familiar ideal of renunciation. Yet, by setting this debate into such an extremity of choices and by her willingness to identify the personal issues here at stake as being nothing short of one's own socialization within the idealized myth of family, McLuskie's unblinkered honesty contributes a newly tough political awareness to the discourse of family in Shakespeare studies. It also challenges that discourse to a comparably unflinching awareness of its own contemporary implications.

In surveying the atmosphere of the present moment, it seems accurate to say that feminist scholarship right now stands at a cross-roads that is as much political as intellectual. In terms of the outward marks of political achievement, what initially began as a feminist inquiry spearheaded by a group of scholars (most out of academic jobs at the time) worked within a mere twelve years to effect substantial changes in the shape and classroom content of American English Departments. What gets foregrounded in contemporary classroom discussion of the plays and the orthodoxies about “meaning” in Shakespeare has shifted so substantially that even the composition—and thus, implicitly, the message—of the academy itself has been threatened: for, once the issue of gender became a major consideration within the classroom, the lopsided representation of that issue within the Shakespeare faculty began to become an implicit comment by—and on—the academy itself. In consequence, many departments even began … at least contemplating … the potential relevance of … perhaps considering … or at least thinking about … maybe hiring … at least … one woman in the Shakespeare cadre. This consideration has not, by contrast, really entered the hiring debate in other literary fields that likewise lack canonical women writers. But it has in Shakespeare. And to the extent that the impetus became a fait accompli, what the decision authorized was something quite radical in the history of education and the history of gender. For while some of Cambridge and Oxford's most prestigious colleges were still debating letting women onto the faculty at all, American academia was feeling impelled at least to imagine women as authoritative transmitters of the generational wisdom of the language's most sacred, most canonical text. Unquestionably, such wisdom had been substantially altered by an energetic generation of research into an area that had hitherto been dismissed as apolitical—that “microcosm” of domestic concerns—the world that, in the wake of the scholarship of those years, could probably no longer unblushingly be called “the little world of man.”

What feminist scholars did not want to happen, however, is exactly what there is by now reason to fear is subtly happening: that the putative “microcosm” of marriage, family and gender relations, having once been brought into the center of scholarship and made equal with the supposed “macrocosmic” subjects, be tacitly turned into an academic ghetto, a “little world of woman” where feminist issues could be progressively contained and re-marginalized while male scholarship returned under the name of new methodologies to its old study of power and court politics and effectively reconstructed a 1980s version of the Elizabethan World Picture that Renaissance scholars had, but a few years earlier, set out to deconstruct. Such a micro-macro segregation and such a return to the old, gender-based asymmetries of power was, however, what was proleptically dramatized before the audience of the 1982 Shakespeare Association in Boston. On one side of the steel curtain that separated the convention's central and simultaneous seminars, several of the major feminist psychoanalytic critics had been invited to confess their shortcomings in a forum entitled “The Limitations of Psychoanalytic Criticism.” On the other side of the barrier—where several of the major new historicist critics held forth in an authoritative show called “The Implications of The New Historicism”—Coppélia Kahn, speaking from her anomolous position on the second panel, pointed out the disturbing division that the seminar organization seemed to dramatize. In doing so, Kahn seems to have been the first to comment publicly on the incipient schism and the first to call for a consciousness that might prevent it.

When new historicism (or rather, “The” new historicism, as it calls itself) emerged in Renaissance literary criticism with the 1980 publication of Stephen Greenblatt's justifiably influential book, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, in the shared excitement of this event feminist critics assumed—perhaps naively—that the theoretical framework of new historicism and its British counterpart, cultural materialism, would lead to a natural alliance. To paraphrase Carol Thomas Neely's points about what these three criticisms have in common, although the materialist critics go further than most American liberal feminists in denying all subjectivity, interiority, and identity which is continuous across time and not purely the construct of patriarchal ideology, these critiques, like the feminist one, view gender roles as culturally and linguistically constructed and, like feminism, are centrally concerned with distributions of authority in literary representation and critical response.17 For that matter, the materialist manifestos actually repeat many of the axioms that feminism had enunciated early in the 1970s. But rather than an alliance with feminism, what seems instead to have happened is more like a progressive eradication of even the subject of women, accomplished by means of several (though, I would emphasize, not necessarily conscious) critical displacements.

When American Marxist critic Walter Cohen addressed a seminar on “Political Criticism in Shakespeare” at the 1985 World Shakespeare Congress in West Berlin—where the growing political tensions amongst Shakespearean critics apparently began to take on almost the character of the divided city itself18—Cohen did something unusual. Instead of comparing only American new historicism and British cultural materialism, he included feminism. In doing so, and in pointing out the prevailing “shared indifference to feminism or even gender” that characterizes both American and British Marxism and the invariable subordination of gender to power that occurs whenever new historicists take up the subject,19 Cohen implicitly recognized the growing schism that Kahn had pointed to three years earlier but that had become, until Berlin, the explosive subject that everyone remained resolutely silent about. When gender is not being simply ignored in the materialist critiques, it repeatedly ends up getting displaced into some other issue—usually race or class—and women are silently eradicated from the text, leaving only one gender for consideration. This kind of displacement and erasure—which is, in effect, a modern day re-silencing taking place even as Renaissance strategies of silencing are being discussed—is something that materialist/historicist Peter Stallybrass, like Cohen, seems acutely aware of. In his essay on how social relations get mapped onto the body, Stallybrass observes that although in the Renaissance “bodily definitions were as important in the mapping out of gender as of class,” in current scholarship on the politics of the body, the issue of gender has a way of vanishing. What happens is that even scholars like Bakhtin and Elias become “silent on this issue, assuming an ‘ungendered’ or implicitly single gendered—male body.”20

The desire to confirm and empiricize the sole existence of this “ungendered” or explicitly single gendered (and hence male) body has a fascinating history in the learned tradition of the West that begins in Genesis, surfaces into Renaissance medical lore through Aristotle and Galen, and re-emerges periodically in authoritative texts from medieval to modern times as a tellingly defensive fantasy that was produced and reproduced by a deeply misogynistic tradition. To see women's reproductive organs as being inverted and hidden, thus inferior versions of the male's, as does Galen, or to see their external genitalia as incomplete, thus castrated remnants of the masculine, as does Freud, tells us, if anything, a great deal about a psychic history that on the one hand produces gender difference in order to demonstrate male superiority and yet also attempts to erase biological sex difference in order to prove the same thing. But the Renaissance discourse of sexuality is fascinating precisely because it is really a mélange of multiple discourses—some medical, some folkloric, some theological in origin. It has no universal, monolithic, single vision, nor is there any way of knowing to what extent the learned theories were disseminated throughout the society enough to constitute anything like a normative belief in popular culture. If the discourse of the learned tradition should be accorded any special privilege, it lies primarily in its ability to textually and professionally reproduce itself and thus transmit its particular ideological biases about gynecology to later ears. By thus constituting a powerful stencil by which the wider cultural discourse of female erasure was for century after century reproduced, the medical treatises are inescapably political. They therefore seem even more problematic when our own culture's most authoritative voices invoke and reuse them, unqueried and unassessed politically, as though they were transparencies for reading literary discourse.

Shakespearean feminists had long hoped that Stephen Greenblatt would extend his incisive analysis beyond the patterns of powerful men and begin to look at Renaissance women and the production of gender. But when at last he does in “Fiction and Friction” (1986), gender disappears beneath the category of biological sex differentiation, then sex difference becomes elided beneath the relevance of medical treatises to a 1601 account of a hermaphrodite in Rouen, France, and then—through an associational leap much wider than new historicism will usually venture—all of this becomes the contextual stencil through which Greenblatt, in three pages, reads the cross-dressing of comic heroines, the convention of boy actors, the sexual discourse of Twelfth Night, the sexual discourse for all Shakespeare's plays, and, by implication, for all English Renaissance drama.

Shakespearean women are … the representation of Shakespearean men, the projected mirror images of masculine self-differentiation … the theater reveals, in the presence of the man's (or boy's) body beneath the woman's clothes, the ultimate sexual reality. Since on stage there is in fact but a single gender, the open secret of identity, that beneath or within differentiated individuals is a single structure, identifiably male, is quite literally presented—presented, but not represented, for the play (plots, characters, and the pleasure they confer) cannot continue without the fictive existence of two distinct genders and the friction between them.21

Suddenly, there is only one gender and there are no more women in Shakespeare's plays. According to Greenblatt, from the basis of this gynecology we can inferentially conclude that English Renaissance plays present only maleness; and, as Walter Cohen observes, “women thus cease to be historical actors or subjects.” They may indeed exist on stage as discursive representations, but even that existence is wholly in service of the male plots which they help enable and from which, as male presentations themselves whether on stage or off, they have no separate identity anyway.

Not only the issue of women tends to disappear in new historicism; what also gets erased is the terrain of the domestic microcosm. When new historicism locates itself upon the site of family, sex, and marriage, the literal arena of domestic space has a way of losing its local habitation through its name and turning into its descriptive other. In a critical practice that comes perilously close to duplicating the Renaissance political strategies it anatomizes, historicist criticism has of late taken up the “family” as a topic, only to then redefine it as the locus upon which the political state built its power through strategic appropriation, marginalization, and transformation of the family into an instrument of state authority. “The family” of the Elizabethan-Jacobean era has thus been repositioned as a metaphor for the Elizabethan-Jacobean state, and scholarly focus consequently shifted away from literal families and their reproduction back onto the patriarchal state and its self-generating modes. Once again, gender is erased, women are erased, and the historicist critic is busily back at work reconstructing and reproducing an academic microcosm of the absolutist court and its strategies of male power. And, we might add, “the family” has once again been pressed into the service of the ruling elite.

Given what Walter Cohen calls new historicism's “fascination with the absolutist court” and given the historical centrality that Elizabeth's forty-five year reign so clearly occupies in this period, the most interesting avenues that court politics would seem to hold open for historicists would be ones that took up rather than dislodged or detoured around the relationship between gender and power. Since an operation that is central to new historicist practice is the juxtaposing of a given literary text to another cultural text (which is usually, though not inevitably, non-literary), followed by the demonstration of how the literary work derives from and is produced by the cultural one to which it has been juxtaposed, exactly what cultural texts get chosen for juxtaposition is obviously crucial. For while the new historicist manifesto insists in theory on granting equal status to both the literary and the social text, as Edward Pechter notes, in practice the literary work is inevitably seen as fully determined and produced by its ideological and historical situation.22 And, since new historicism frequently chooses to read the times through discourses which are distinctively liminal and focus on the strange and unusual, the increasing number of laboriously recovered but now available women's texts would seem to offer a rich new mine of anomolous voices. But the cultural texts that new historicists invariably select to privilege over the literary one are distressingly all of a kind: even though they may focus on subjects that are in some way culturally anomolous, the texts of choice are always and predictably male-authored—hierarchical—patriarchal. By the contextualization of Shakespearean drama inside of such a selective vision of “history,” even the voices that Shakespeare gave women are silenced. Women slip once again into mute invisibility, weighted down once more with that which has been singled out to serve as the authoritative narrative for (at least someone's) “history.”

However—lest one imagine (as feminist critics have been wont to do) that women's silence in Shakespearean drama should be read as a sign of their disempowerment, speaking authoritatively from within the section on feminist criticism in Questions of Theory in Shakespeare Jonathan Goldberg at last takes up the topic of gender distinction in order to condemn such feminist interpretation and insist that since silence for characters like Iago and Henry V is a strategy of empowerment, silence can likewise signal power for women. Although examples of any comparably authoritative female muteness are admittedly hard to find, even for Goldberg, perhaps those problematically different meanings that gender has mapped onto voice and silence could just neatly be eradicated by turning to Greenblatt's notion that Shakespeare's stages contain no women anyway but only the undifferentiated wholeness of the single male gender. Goldberg's essay—entitled, interestingly enough, “Shakespearean Inscriptions: the Voicing of Power”—goes much further than merely displacing or erasing gender issues inside the text and feminist issues outside it. Selecting one feminist critic as whipping girl and elevating her into the unwarranted status of emblematic Shakespearean feminist, he castigates Linda Bamber for seeing Shakespeare's culture as patriarchal and for imagining that Shakespeare replicated that attitude in his plays (an argument for which Erickson or McLuskie or Montrose, as the most vociferous spokespersons, should really stand accused—not Bamber). Assuring us that he is not attacking feminism but only all those (unnamed) feminist critics who are like the one he is lambasting, Goldberg begins his essay by denying the category of oppressive gender distinctions that feminism has placed into focus, asserting that the whole notion of gender polarity “must be seen through and must be read beyond for a genuine feminist discourse to arise.” For a conclusion he suggests that “the reason we cannot find Shakespeare reflecting his culture's supposed patriarchalism and sexism is that the culture represented on stage is the culture off-stage.”23 Oppressive gender distinction and patriarchy—on stage and in Shakespeare's culture, as well—have not only disappeared; they have been named as the subjects which Shakespearean feminism must cease discussing if it is ever to receive the imprimatur of being “a genuine feminist discourse.” And since one cannot help but observe that Goldberg's voice has actually been placed within the feminist section of an anthology of Shakespearean criticism that includes not one critic whose primary work has been in Shakespearean (or English Renaissance) feminism, the effect is that of a silencing that has been textually framed, as it were, by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman's quite noticeable editorial exclusions. The Voicing Of Power—and—the Power of Voicing, indeed!

In the last several years, the work of American Shakespearean feminists has become the focus of attacks that are at once puzzling and yet also somehow numbingly familiar. The most accessible of the charges accuses feminist scholarship of employing an approach deemed ‘ahistorical’ for its failure to recognize the historical specificity of psychic and social structures that produce gender and family. If de-contextualized, the charge has an acknowledged validity. Its validity, however, can never be considered wholly in isolation from the distinct irony occasioned by materialist/historicist criticism unblushingly admonishing feminism for oversight and omission. The accusation furthermore compels the legitimate question as to what, precisely, the posited ideal of “historical” is here assumed to cover—whether, for instance, it is the methodological procedure or the name alone that automatically presumes “historicist” criticism is consonant with what a historian might define as “historical.” Finally, it also compels a deeper questioning of the apparently automatic privileging of history that the charge subsumes.

In choosing what textual dimensions to foreground, feminist readings never wholly ignored the historical context but neither did they valorize nor privilege it over the literary text, as is characteristic of new historicist and cultural materialist readings. Though the feminist privilege of the literary work never assumes that the text is a free agent nor wholly divorced from its historical moment, by its ability to survive massive social changes and still fascinate a modern reader a historical text is seen as fully approachable through contemporary ideas—nor are those ideas assumed to be projections backward from the present. Even though a social idea may not have been articulated during the historical moment in which the text was produced, such ideas are imagined as being potentially fully present, latent within earlier times, but, like the late discovered planets, awaiting the invention of a telescope, a discourse, that could articulate them. Essentially, the relative weight accorded to literary text or history represents two ways of philosophically imagining the human being—as a being who inscribes at least something universal that transcends history, or as an entity completely produced by its historical culture. But in addition to this definition, the different preferences for history or text suggest a less tangible sense of an experiential relationship to “history” that is divided along the axis of gender. While it is true that feminist work in Shakespeare never invested its critique in history, that choice seems less the basis for opprobrium and the assertion of methodological primacy than the ground for speculation about the relationship between women and history. If materialist critics valorize history as an omnipotent producer and are skeptical about the notion of subjectivity except as a product of history, the feminist investment in history—or at least in what has been recorded and traditionally considered as history—is not only minimal, but is itself committed to a skepticism extending to the production, the definition, and indeed the valorization of “history.”

Since Western history is essentially a transmitted record of upper class white males, the various elided social groups probably do not—historically should not—automatically trust recourse to the authority of “history.” The banner of “history” has its own long history of being a rallying point for the consolidation of status quo power. Before marginalized groups are likely to feel unambiguously positive about the validity of 1066 and all that, “history” needs be rewritten to include them. And while it is arguable that new historicism is, in effect, doing just that—rewriting history by re-presenting it, whether this most recent turn to “history” has extended the social privilege any farther than its traditional donneé is, like Falstaff's “question not to be asked,” precisely the question to be asked. Out of the new historicist work, that which Louis A. Montrose has done inevitably merits being singled out for its attention to the issues of gender and for its apparent awareness of what, in fact, an indifference to those issues really signifies. In contrast to new historicism, the Marxist theories of history are conscientiously premised on a demand to extend privilege. But, with a few feminist exceptions like British Marxist Catherine Belsey, Marxism has disappointingly been as unresponsive to theorizing a history that includes women as has new historicism. So while recent arguments in Shakespeare studies have discounted the past decade of feminist analysis of family, sex, and marriage for not being “historical” and for instead being psychoanalytically based and textually rooted, given what I would call the subtext of this debate—given feminism's very different historical relationship to “history,” it seems thoroughly consistent with the feminist goal of liberating women from their history that the mainstream feminist interpretations of Shakespeare did indeed marginalize the historical and concentrate instead on the literary text. The text, at least, contained representations of women and could thus be used as a mirror in which modern women and men could recognize—and begin to change—the reflected image of a history of oppressive sexual and familial relations.

Currently, feminism in Shakespeare is in what could be called its second phase in the academy and shows signs of beginning to move in a number of potentially new directions. Already, a number of key Shakespearean feminists have begun reformulating their psychoanalytic approach to gender and family so as to balance text and historical context in ways that would dissociate feminism from the essentialized notion of gender embedded in Freudian determinism and allow for deconstructing—rather than unwittingly reproducing—the subjugating past.24 But perhaps the more interesting observation one might make about the imputation of feminism's “ahistorical tendencies” is the way the accusation actually ignores its own authenticity. It unwittingly assumes the same essentialized perspective of social development that it criticizes in feminism. And it does so by tacitly assuming that American feminism is free from its own history and from the historically specific coercions of time, place, and gender in which it developed. The perspective needed is, in fact, the historicized one that is the genuine contribution new historicism has made both to Shakespearean criticism and to literary methodology in general. Without contextualizing American feminism, there would be no way either to locate it politically or recognize, for instance, what sets it apart from the literal politics and literary methodologies favored by its British or French counterparts.

When feminism first entered the American Shakespeare bastion, its psychoanalytic approach to family, marriage, and gender may have seemed the most appropriate tool for the kind of textual analysis it wished to do. But in its implied resistance to location within more overtly ideological methodologies, feminism inside the academy also seems to me to have been half-consciously engaged in, or at least cooperating with, another agenda taking place on the national political level. If the psychoanalytical approach adopted within the academy kept feminist investigations focused on given relationships within patriarchal family structure rather than on stepping outside and demanding an overturning of the structure itself, then perhaps the very limitations of the approach served to keep feminists in the academy within the tacitly understood boundaries of the national women's movement with which American academic feminism was coimplicit. And these were strategies that, whether rightly or wrongly, nonetheless conscientiously tried during the years of the E.R.A. debate to appear as non-radical and socially non-threatening as possible.

Because the political stakes for American feminism have been not just theoretical but very real and because the most practical way to achieve them was, during the referendum years, perceived as being through a politics of persuasion rather than confrontation, feminism within the academy has always been a Janus-like presence, unlike other modes of criticism, because never separate from the practicalities of applied politics outside it. And by virtue (or vice) of gender inflection, those politics by definition differ from and cannot really be evaluated in terms of the only model of social change that history's monological narrative of male-male conflict has given us to imagine. Even academic feminism of the 1970s and 80s must needs be understood as circumscribed by both the literal and mythological legislation of “America,” and as being, throughout those years, engaged in selling the Equal Rights Amendment to a voting public conditioned by the peculiarly American bias against “isms” in general and any “ism” in specific that is labelled an “ideology.” The Equal Rights Amendment—which in the early ’70s had seemed unproblematic to voters—was defeated in the ’80s not so much by the un-truths, but by the truths that were publicized about it. Inside the academy, feminist faculty research and teaching was centered on marriage, gender, and family. Outside it, these same topics increasingly became the ideological battle zone upon which the E.R.A. was defeated—and defeated it was, once the equations were exposed that identified the women's movement with “feminism,” feminism with “ideology,” and the ideology defined as an “ism” that was subversively “politicizing marriage” and “trying to destroy the traditional American family.”

But perhaps both liberal feminism and new historicism—the two distinctly American contributions to contemporary academic methodology—need to be historicized in order to propose at least some perspective on the gap between them and on new historicism's progressive reassertion of the priority of the public and political over the private and domestic. Of the two methodologies, feminism is the child not born to the manor of literary fathers but outside it, without academic foremothers, but thus perhaps endowed with that peculiar liminality of daughters that leaves it oddly free to constitute itself. New historicism is, by contrast, the legitimate son, the heir that developed not only inside the academy but specifically inside Renaissance studies, appearing shortly after feminism and preceding Marxism into the field, and yet an heir that seems philosophically to feel less free, more constituted, and always already doomed by some futile but inescapable obligation to repeat the oppressive struggle for power that it habitually reads as history's only heritage.

In looking at feminist and historicist perspectives in relation to one another, I would like to turn to an observation that Leah Marcus seems to have been the first to make but that Jean Howard and Walter Cohen have also singled out as being somehow amorphously implicit in the shaping of the newly ideological dimensions of American Shakespearean criticisms. And that is—that the generation of scholars now emerging into prominence is the same generation who were college students during the turbulent challenges to establishment ideology that defined the 1960s. It is a generation whose experience may be both unique in and unique to American history. Furthermore, it is a generation that came into its own academic power during the conservative reaction of the Ronald Reagan years. For Jean Howard, the significance of this background lies in the way it led contemporary scholars to embrace overtly political methodologies: the recognition of how untheorized had been the political activism of the ’60s resulted in a sense of the inadequacy of the old American common sense approach to politics and a movement toward more theorized models of social change. Likewise for Cohen, “political activism of the 1960s lies behind the political criticism of the 1980s”; and in Cohen's mind, the tenor of this criticism intangibly derives from the disillusionment of a generation defined by all that is subsumed under the name “Vietnam.”

In reflecting on both the social construction of this, my own generation of scholars, and on the widening gap between two methodologies that emerged out of its seemingly common experience, I offer a speculation. The years of social activism are always retrospectively imagined as years when student activists, women and men, worked together. But perhaps, just perhaps, those years had very different psychological and moral effects on women and men, marked them separately and taught them very different lessons that eventually became transmuted into two positions in literary theory. Thus, while the two share their origin in the committed rebellion of that era, they may well have come away from those years having unconsciously acquired fundamentally different convictions about the relationships between subversion and dominance, resistance and power.

My speculation is that women came out of the activist ’60s empowered with new possibilities, a new sense of self liberation and commitment, and an optimistic social idealism. Awakening to a second life during the anti-war and civil rights protests of the ’60s, American feminism might be described as a street urchin, born during a peace march to the strains of “We Shall Overcome.” Its optimism is its fundamental and perhaps only resource; it is what keeps it dynamic even in the face of political setbacks and what it cannot afford to lose. American feminism—which in academia in general and certainly in Shakespeare studies has remained committed to liberal rather than radical or Marxist politics—by definition must believe that resistance to and subversion of the ruling discourse can, must, and shall overcome. Since it cannot posit its future by assuming a violent revolution as the means to claim it, it furthermore must believe that dominant institutions are capable of change and that motives do exist—if not benevolence then at least rational self-interest—beyond the will to absolute and undistributed power. Whether the defeat of the E.R.A. will precipitate the loss of such faith and a turning away from political liberalism is yet to be seen.

When critics try to describe the spirit of new historicism, the terms evoked are substantially different, substantially more pessimistic. In the new historicist view of history, whatever is subversive in culture or challenges the ruling order suffers inevitable defeat, for power is the final and only currency. In Walter Cohen's description, “New historicism ends up if not with something like a totalitarian model, then at least with a sense of the almost inevitable defeat of the poor, the innocent, and the oppressed. … [lower class] aspirations must either be crushed or be shown to serve the interests of the state. … The point is that unless one is an aristocrat there is nothing to be done.” For Cohen, such totalitarian/aristocratic proclivities are ultimately best explained as a form of leftist disillusionment. Meanwhile, what strikes Edward Pechter about new historicist writings is how compulsively they seem to need to control the subversive power of the Shakespeare text by detaching themselves from it and subordinating it to some authoritarian cultural script—and yet, at the same time, how frequently these writings themselves communicate an aura of depotentiation and entrapment, a sense of “being surrounded by a hostile otherness, enmeshed in a complex matrix of forces all of which threaten their freedom.”25 Unlike feminism, new historicism is not, meanwhile, an activist politics of social change; unlike Marxism, it theorizes no model that even imagines it. And yet, when new historicism insists that resistance is inevitably crushed, that resistance is implicitly futile because always co-opted, or that the will to power is all, what I suggest impels the apparent reactionism of such a thesis and simultaneously gives it its powerfully contemporary American appeal is the way it recuperates an unsatisfactory narrative, a Bildungsroman, from the history of twenty years ago. Its disillusionment resonates with the same bitter lesson that a generation of college males—resisting America's war in Vietnam on the grounds of a moral idealism that was implicitly undermined by the recognition that they were excused from combat through deferments based on class and racial privilege—discovered about the co-option of resistance by authority. By definition, the Vietnam war and the bitterly self-defeating “choices” that it forced on America's draft-age males indelibly marked the political experience of the protest era with distinctively gendered meanings that may well construct not only the seen but the unseen agendas underlying the tenor of the two criticisms that emerged from that generation.

If the feminist critic may well be accused of reading Shakespeare through potentially contradictory notions of psychological essentialism and transhistorical subjectivity that create an unconscious framework to explain past suppression and yet leave open the way for a subjectively female/self determined future, then the new historicist critic is equally capable of unconsciously formulating a way to read Shakespeare through the central cultural trauma and its residue of needs that define his experience. Given the particular investment in history that grows out of the untenable space where “Vietnam” left the best educated class of American males of the 60s generation, new historicism's inevitable privileging of authority and what otherwise seems to be its arbitrary selection of dominant cultural discourses to be juxtaposed to/privileged over the given literary text seem no longer arbitrary, but cohere within the inscription of a contemporary history trying to rewrite the moral defeats of its past. When considered in this light, the new historicist tenets do accomplish the requisite two maneuvers necessary for successful recuperation of an unaccommodatable past: they narrate an account of resistance, co-option, and defeat while simultaneously undoing that defeat by aligning themselves with institutional power and thus appropriating the oppressor's dominance for the critic/self. By reading Shakespeare as being himself a co-opted servant of state orthodoxies, the historicist critic contextualizes perhaps not so much Shakespeare in history as his own history in Shakespeare; by thus disempowering Shakespeare, the literary critic recuperates cultural power for himself by exerting it over the culture's most potent literary authority. And the son proves his right to the all-powerful father's heritage by dethroning him and assuming the patriarchal position himself. Perhaps it is even appropriate that recuperation should enact itself upon the symbolic site of struggle and defeat, and that not only Stephen Greenblatt—new historicism's chief architect and founder—but most of the board members of the new historicist journal, Representations, should be located at Berkeley.

Yet if political defeat is thus undone, perhaps not so easily is spiritual disillusionment. If there is a price for acquiring such dominance, it may lie in the disconcerting sense of embittered idealism that often seeps through into new historicist practice. But for feminism—confronting this increasingly dominant methodology inside the academy, observing new historicism's preoccupation with institutional forms of absolute male power, and watching itself become progressively the subject under erasure and the object under attack—it becomes progressively more difficult to see the new historicist premises about power as politically disinterested or restrict them to purely a Renaissance application, especially since both these sibling criticisms insist on recognizing the ideological nature of criticism itself. Since feminism is, by definition, a subversive site of resistance to the dominant discourse, what is to be made out of new historicism's (Foucaultian) premise that any site of subversive resistance is inevitably defeated or co-opted by the dominant institution? What to be made from the idea that such rebellions against authority are often, in fact, culturally produced and covertly promoted only so they may be co-opted? When—as happened at a recent Renaissance conference—the two male scholars on a panel present investigations of the plays that are both carefully modelled after the new historicist discourse and that both also eradicate any mention of the women characters (thus ignoring even the supportive relevance that those figures could actually have contributed to their own arguments), to what cultural messages are these writers responding? And why is this kind of elision—that appears to be quite unconscious—suddenly occurring more and more frequently? When both of these two scholars then individually rationalize their omissions by saying that, since feminism had already “won” its battle, they had logically concluded that there was no longer any need to have to include its representative concerns—where does this leave the future? For if scholarship ever reaches the place where anyone presumes that feminist concerns have made their mark and therefore no longer need be addressed, then feminism has marked nothing: as a political movement, as a critical scholarship, and as an ethics within and beyond the American academy, feminism will then never have happened.

In 1982, just when the developing schism in Renaissance literary perspectives was becoming felt, feminist scholars Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers tried to bring what had been assumed as common interests back together through a major conference held at Yale. They tried, we could say, to create and name a new genesis: thus “Renaissance Woman, Renaissance Man,” created they them. The collected papers from this conference finally appeared in 1986 in a newly titled book, Rewriting the Renaissance. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the schism was already evident in the conference papers, the book title states very clearly, very openly, and very optimistically, just what the political aims of Renaissance feminist scholars are. This title furthermore stubbornly continues to assume that in the 1980s, all scholars would clearly want to rewrite the Renaissance so as to include the woman/women left sitting mutely in the margins by historians in the Renaissance and by academic historiographers that followed. The question I suppose I would therefore raise in closing is simply this: as we scholars of the Renaissance—who now include men and women—become the new historiographers of the Renaissance, do we have a shared idea about who and what gets written into our texts—or mutually exclusive ones? Are we setting out to deconstruct and demystify patriarchy—or reconstitute it by repeating the same old patriarchal erasure? Did we, in fact, come to rewrite the Renaissance, or just repeat it? In short—did we come to bury Caesar or to praise him?


  1. See the Drakakis “Introduction” to Alternative Shakespeare.

  2. In keeping with the concomitantly emerging ideology of the closed nuclear family, English literature begins to feature a new kind of villain in the Renaissance—the bastard, who is almost always male and whose “illegitimacy” is coded as a threat not only to the boundaries of family but to the sanctity of the state. When the legal concept of branding a bastard child as “illegitimate” emerges—a terminology which apparently enters the language around the end of the fifteenth or beginning of the sixteenth century—it creates a positive and negative verbal coding which, by segregating children born outside the patriarchal family unit from those “legitimate” within it, serves to protect the self-reproducing capacity of patriarchy. The most famous disquisition on this system of verbal stigmatization to protect social privilege through its “Fine word, ‘legitimate!’” is, of course, the one spoken directly to the audience in the opening lines of King Lear's second scene by Edmund, the play's bastard son/tragic villain. See also Phyllis Rackin's essay, “Anti-Historians,” for commentary on Shakespeare's history plays and the relationship of wifehood, motherhood, and bastardy to the construction of patriarchy.

  3. Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance, p. 2. Woodbridge's point that “the relationship between literature and life is a very slippery subject,” and that there may well be “cases where the very prominence of a theme in literature argues against its being a representation of real life” (3), leads her ultimately to posit a more debatable thesis. Working with a vast amount of material from the Renaissance debate over the nature of women, Woodbridge concludes that the misogynistic tirades of Renaissance literature belong to a literary convention, not to real life, and they therefore cannot finally be seen as representing either the author's or the culture's attitudes toward women.

  4. Hill, “Sex, Marriage, and the Family,” p. 450.

  5. My apologies for any names that have been overlooked in listing this group that I have defined as the first generation of American feminist Shakespeareans. While it is an accurate generalization to say that the majority were psychoanalytic critics, there are, of course, exceptions—notably, Phyllis Rackin and Linda Woodbridge (Fitz).

  6. Gardiner, “Mind Mother,” p. 114.

  7. In opposition to Annette Kolodny's belief that a “playful pluralism” was “the only critical stance consistent with the current status of the larger women's movement,” Elaine Showalter first coined and proclaimed the “gynocritical” position as the direction in which feminism should theorize itself (“Feminist Criticism,” p. 112ff.). Feminist criticism has since moved back more toward a balance that includes an androcentric pole of male writers, as well.

  8. In addition to recent collections edited by Mary Beth Rose and Margaret Hannay, for recent scholarship on women writers see English Literary Renaissance, 14 (Autumn, 1984) for a special issue on Women in the Renaissance. The issue includes Elizabeth H. Hageman and Josephine A. Roberts' bibliography of recent studies in the field.

  9. British Marxist-feminist (or perhaps, feminist-Marxist) Catherine Belsey's work in Renaissance drama, however, does seem implicitly to compel this kind of reconsideration of traditional Marxist categories; likewise, Jacqueline Rose's work in drama and film should be mentioned. Of all the various British academic disciplines, film studies seems to be the one area where there is a consistent focus on revising Marxism to make it accommodate rather than continue to ignore feminist concerns.

  10. Under continual external pressure from the methodological push going on throughout the literary discipline, advocacy within feminism for an articulated methodology seems of late to have gained support. There is also, however, a well articulated opposition from highly respected voices such as Annette Kolodny's (see Showalter, pp. 10-14). For a broader look at the issues that particularly effect Shakespearean feminism, see Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Shakespearean scholars Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn. See especially Greene and Kahn on the social construction of woman; Adrienne Munich on locating a relationship not already foreclosed between a male author and feminist readers; Cora Kaplan on subjectivity, class, and Marxist/Socialist politics; Ann Rosalind Jones on the new French feminism; and Judith Kegan Gardiner on psychoanalysis and feminism.

  11. On Renaissance marriage ritual, see Boose, “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare.”

  12. McLuskie, p. 106.

  13. Erickson, p. 171.

  14. McLuskie, pp. 97, 98, 106.

  15. Two important collections, Alternative Shakespeares (ed. Drakakis) and Political Shakespeare (eds. Dollimore and Sinfield) have come from British Marxist scholars in the past two years, and Political Shakespeare II is apparently underway. What defines the organizing principle underlying these British collections is what differentiates them from the typical American anthology; the organizational distinction itself recapitulates that of the mainline political allegiances of literary scholars within the two academic institutions. The liberal politics of American academia tend to result in generally pluralistic collections in which the essays share the topic under consideration but not necessarily any conscious, coherent, or identifiably political viewpoint on it. What marks these new British Shakespeare collections is the reader's awareness of the shared political perspective from which the essays all speak.

  16. Because the (widely accepted) dynamics articulated by Mulvey's 1975 essay would leave no explanation for female pleasure other than masochism, her work has inspired an intense and continuing effort in film studies to theorize the female spectator, including a number of Mulvey's subsequent thoughts in interviews and other commentaries. The theories that this topic has elicited are richly various and too numerous to catalogue. See, however, the British film journal Screen for a number of such responses and further references, plus see also the work of American film scholars E. Ann Kaplan and Mary Ann Doane. All of this work in film does have a particular relevance to considerations of gender and stage representation, as McLuskie is perceptively aware. Given the different media considerations, however, the applicability of transferred ideas seems to me to be less direct.

  17. From a paper delivered by Neely at a CUNY Graduate Center conference on “Shakespeare and the New Politics” (March 28, 1987). In her critique of new historicism, Neely likewise notes the point I later make concerning the patriarchal, authoritarian nature of the invariably male discourses that new historicists recurrently select as the definitive lens through which to read Shakespeare.

  18. The selected and edited papers from this Berlin seminar will appear in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited by seminar organizers Jean E. Howard and Marion O’Connor, forthcoming at Methuen. It was not, however, only (or perhaps primarily) during the Howard seminar on Shakespeare and ideology that conflict between feminism and new historicism emerged as the explosive subject in Berlin; apparently such conflict became almost the sub-topic of participant exchanges at the seminar on “Gender and Power in Shakespeare” that was co-chaired by Carol Thomas Neely and Lisa Jardine.

  19. Cohen's paper will appear in the forthcoming Howard and O’Connor volume.

  20. Stallybrass “Patriarchal Territories,” p. 125.

  21. Greenblatt, “Fiction and Friction,” p. 52.

  22. Edward Pechter's analysis of “New Historicism and its Discontents” likewise notes that although a central premise of new historicism is to grant literary and cultural knowledge an equal and interanimating status, the practice is “a long way from the mutually generative interpretation of culture and text … the text is said to be produced by its ideological and historical situation; it is unambiguously dependent, while the culture is unambiguously determining” (p. 293). Pechter's assessment of the premises, strategies, and contradictions of new historicism is generally quite incisive. In analyzing new historicist politics, however, he is led by his own conservative perspective to render more unto Marx than Marx is probably owed. When he is led for the same reasons to assume some kind of implicit alliance among all methodologies within the general category of the “left-liberal academic community, for whom … feminism [is] an article of faith” (299), his assumptions prevent him from noting the actual distance that new historicism has been stepping off in moves that seem like an attempt to define itself away from feminism.

  23. Goldberg, “Shakespearean Inscriptions” pp. 118, 134.

  24. In the Introduction to Shakespeare Reproduced (forthcoming), Jean E. Howard defines this movement away from the psychoanalytical and toward the historical as responding to “the necessity to historicize gender constructions if one wishes to escape the oppressive notion of a universal human nature, or, worse, of an eternal feminine.” David Scott Kastan, in his Introduction to the Shakespeare Association of America seminar, “Shakespeare and the New Feminisms” (March, 1987), similarly sees the move as a means by which feminism can “deny that gender distinctions are fixed outside of human construction and control, and … [as] a means of imagining alternatives to our own structures of social relations.” At the CUNY conference on “Shakespeare and the New Politics,” however, Carol Thomas Neely suggests that completely abandoning the claim of subjectivity in exchange for a model in which gender is construed to be entirely an ideological product of a historically specific culture may create as many problems for feminist methodology as it resolves. Noting American liberal feminism's reluctance to deny all subjectivity or identity that is not the construct of ideology, she explains: “feminists have assumed some area of femaleness not strictly biological but not utterly inscribed by patriarchal ideology which makes possible female discourse, a women's literary history, a feminist critique which can do more than lament its own inevitable suppression.”

  25. Pechter, p. 301.

Jonathan Dollimore (essay date 1990)

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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 specific to the United Kingdom, are developing around, and for, the humanities. Rightly or wrongly, new historicism has been identified as a development which has politicized the humanities. So long as historicists do not lose their political nerve, there may be an even closer convergence in the future.

However, it is ironic that those most aware of this alliance are also most sensitive to the differences, whereas those who have most closely linked the two movements have usually been hostile to both, and ill-informed, especially about cultural materialism. Because of these factors—the development of an alliance concurrent with an ignorance of the British work among those who dislike and misrepresent both—it would be appropriate for me to comment now on some of the differences. That would involve me in a critique of some, though by no means all, new historicist work. There are several reasons why I decline to make that critique here and now, and they include a strong dislike of the way new historicists have been attacked in recent essays. As Howard Horowitz puts it: “In their prompt politicization of empirical differences, these polemical essays risk becoming, frankly, a new moralism, in that disputes about evidence and its interpretation are subordinated to the rush to judgment and recast as sanction or censure.” One essay in particular, he says, “at times achieves an inquisitorial tone.”3

If I decline to criticize new historicism it is not because I think there are no important differences between it and cultural materialism—there are. I refrain first as a protest against the punitive moralism of which Horowitz speaks; second because new historicists can look after themselves; third and most important because I want to rearticulate and develop some of the objectives of a materialist criticism, and to respond to some recent critics of it: Carol Neely and Lynda Boose, both of whom write from an explicitly feminist position, and Kiernan Ryan, who might be characterized as Marxist humanist.4

I’ll argue that Neely, Ryan, and Boose misrepresent materialist work. Neely does so in part by appending it to new historicism.5 Indeed, she finds sufficient similarity between the two to conflate new historicism and cultural materialism with the term “cult-historicists.” Revealingly if unintentionally, her neologism reduces the British work to a fashionable modifier of its more substantial American manifestation. She might thereby be accused of perpetuating the imperialism of the American academy which, in its sexist form, so angers her. Certainly she is ignorant of, or uninterested in, precisely that which for others has constituted a main difference between British and American work: both movements, she says, represent the Renaissance as “a world which is hierarchical, authoritarian, hegemonic, unsubvertable,” and in doing so reproduce our world in the same terms (12; my emphasis). In fact, the two movements have differed over just this: it is new historicism which has been accused of finding too much containment, while cultural materialism has been accused of finding too much subversion.


A preliminary word about the cumbersome subheading to this section. Its categories, as well as my pluralizing of each, are meant to indicate not distinct areas of inquiry, but ones which overlap and intersect. I truly believe that some of the most illuminating discussions of gender and sexuality are at the points of connection and controversy between these areas. For instance, analysis from feminist, lesbian, gay, and materialist perspectives will typically interrelate. Also, to believe in cultural politics as a praxis and not just a position is to recognize the need for alliances between positions which are not identical. At the same time there may be important areas of dispute or, at the very least, different histories and diverse objectives which it is important to recognize; for instance, not only are there different feminist perspectives, but not all analyses of gender and sexuality can or should be described as feminist. By the same token we should not talk of sexuality in the singular, nor, for that matter, should gender and sexuality be confused. The very concept of gender itself requires critique since it is usually used in ways which take little or no account of nonheterosexual orientations, and sometimes used in ways which ignore what inextricably relates to it. Hence, “sexualities and gender critique.” Other important differences may separate these perspectives, including what is often proposed as the essentialist versus constructionist debate. Essentialists tend to see human identity (including gender) as something relatively stable and wholly or in part presocial, while constructionists concentrate on the extent to which it is socially formed and so changes across time within a culture and also differs between cultures. This is an all too brief characterization of an enduring yet shifting and complex debate, but it will serve here if we approach the distinction as a question of emphasis rather than either/or exclusiveness, and as something which itself needs to be analyzed as well as invoked in the service of analysis.

The widespread tendency by recent critics to see identity as socially constituted rather than essentially given may well be the most important single factor leading both Boose and Neely to accuse those critics of silencing or marginalizing women.6 For example, Boose contends that in materialist critiques, gender “ends up getting displaced into some other issue—usually race or class—and women are silently eradicated from the text” (729).7 Let’s consider the context of the disagreement. Lisa Jardine and Kathleen McLuskie have made important contributions to a materialist perspective on gender in Renaissance studies.8 Jardine contests the essentialism of some first-generation Shakespearean feminists, whereby the bard's female characters are seen to “reflect accurately the whole range of specifically female qualities … supposed to be fixed and immutable from Shakespeare's own day down to our own” (2), and goes on to argue that the strong interest in women shown on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage does not reflect an increasing liberty for women at that time, but “is related to the patriarchy's unexpressed worry about the great social changes which characterize the period” (6). Jardine shows how such fears were focused in terms of the “disorderly” women on and off the stage. Similarly, McLuskie dissents from what she calls the “liberal feminism” which would co-opt Shakespeare: “Feminist criticism need not restrict itself to privileging the woman's part or to special pleading on behalf of female characters. It can be equally well served by making a text reveal the conditions in which a particular ideology of femininity functions and by both revealing and subverting the hold which such an ideology has for readers both female and male” (106). Her study of King Lear exemplifies an important trend in feminist criticism, one which connects with other kinds of gender analysis: “The misogyny of King Lear … is constructed out of an ascetic tradition which presents women as the source of the primal sin of lust, combining with concerns about the threat to the family posed by female insubordination. However, the text also dramatises the material conditions which lie behind assertions of power within the family, even as it expresses deep anxieties about the chaos which can ensue when the balance of power is altered” (106). McLuskie's article is singled out for criticism by both Neely and Boose, along with other articles which I’ll briefly summarize before replying to the criticisms.

In a study of Hamlet and Measure for Measure, Jacqueline Rose shows how sexuality is implicated in issues of aesthetic form. Drawing on a psychoanalytic perspective, she shows how in these plays, and in criticism of them, the woman is made a focus “for a set of ills which the drama shows as exceeding the woman at the same time as it makes of her their cause.”9 In “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare, I offer a similar approach, showing how social crisis is displaced onto the prostitutes of the play.10 They are made (in the words of Barbara Babcock) “symbolically central” even while remaining utterly marginal: everything in the play presupposes them, yet they have no voice or presence.11 Those who speak on their behalf do so as exploitatively as those who want to destroy them. The prostitutes are precisely “spoken for.” The condition of their being made central is that they are actually marginal, and of their demonizing that they be powerless. For different reasons and with differing emphases, these three essays share a belief that gender is implicated in the entire social domain. Carol Neely accuses them (among many others) of treating gender in a way that blocks, displaces, or defers it, or turns it into something else, or makes it cease to matter (9-11). McLuskie especially is criticized for not demonstrating how a feminist perspective might practice what she advocates, namely explore the conditions of texts' production and reproduction and problematize its ideology. But this is exactly what McLuskie does. Neely not only overrides McLuskie's argument, but misrepresents it by eliding it with Stephen Greenblatt's different approach in “Fiction and Friction.”12

McLuskie is also criticized by Boose, for reasons similar to Neely's, but for others also, including the charge that she (McLuskie) expresses a “puritanical” (726) insistence that to be a feminist “is to renounce completely one’s pleasure in Shakespeare, and embrace instead the rigorous comforts of ideological correctness” (724). This has the consequence, says Boose, that “McLuskie can only warn us away from Shakespeare in terms that warn us away from pleasure” (724). But McLuskie does not say, or advocate, this. She actually argues for a reading of Shakespeare in which “feminist criticism must also assert the power of resistance, subverting rather than co-opting” him (106). I would have thought the pleasure of subversion to be rather greater than the pleasure of co-option. But what is at issue is not pleasure versus puritanism but different kinds of pleasure, different kinds of historical inquiry, and different kinds of politics.13 And even were we to leave aside the pleasure of subversion, it does not follow that McLuskie is toeing some grim, politically correct line; this really is a very tired caricature of the materialist. McLuskie is, in the first instance, seeking to practice the responsibilities of the historian as well as the commitment of the feminist, and seeking to show that they are not incompatible. But pleasure is indeed important, especially now, when politically motivated critics are becoming self-conscious about the solemn, punitive, not to say boring tone of much of what we write. I’ll return to this, only noting here that the most famous pleasure of the text—I mean Roland Barthes's book of that name—is organized around the perversity of pleasure, something which is not addressed in this dispute, and which rarely figures in gender criticism at all.14


In the essay on Measure for Measure I remarked the silence of the prostitutes. Although everything in the play presupposes them, not one of the prostitutes speaks. My point is that this absence, this silence, is one of the most revealing indications of the extent of their powerlessness and exploitation. Yet Neely interprets this as my having “silenced … the issues of women, sexuality and prostitution” (10). But the silence identified in this text is not a critical invention. In her detailed study of the regulations governing brothels in Southwark, Ruth Karras concludes by remarking that they “provide frustratingly little information on the prostitutes themselves and how the brothels and brothel keepers shaped their experience. There is no evidence as to whether the prostitutes of the stews felt any group identity in contrast with illicit prostitutes or other women. … The restrictions under which they operated have left traces, but the prostitutes themselves have not.”15

Even so, we know enough to state what official discourse leaves out, and it may be worth reiterating: “the life of most prostitutes … was abject … poverty drove them to the brothels and after a relatively short stay in which they had to run the hazards of disease, violence and contempt, most were driven back to [poverty].”16

This is not merely an issue of one critic misinterpreting another. Fundamental issues are at stake: issues of representation, the status of history, literature's relation to it; the possibility of recovering the history of the excluded; different ways of understanding gender, and so on—issues which involve us all. McLuskie, Rose, and I do indeed attend to the complex ways in which women are marginalized and silenced. We attend also to the way diverse social anxieties are displaced onto or into sexuality, and to the interconnections between women's subordination and other kinds of subordination. But it does not follow, as Neely suggests, that by describing these processes we are complicit with them.

It is precisely because most prostitutes, to the utmost degree, were victims of a heterosexual economy, that we should not rely exclusively on the gendered vision of that economy to represent them. That is one reason why I discuss them in the context of other demonized groups—the vagrant, the rogue, the “homosexual.” Neely appears to object to this. But such groups were aligned in the discourses of that period.

Neely insists that feminist criticism “needs to over-read, to read to excess, the possibility of human (especially female) gendered subjectivity, identity, and agency, the possibility of women's resistance or even subversion” (15). OK, but how exactly might one do that in the case of prostitutes? Certainly there are various ways in which the brothel and prostitution can be romanticized: the whore with a heart of gold; the brothel as the place of an irrepressible, carnivalesque low life. Raymond Williams hardly wrote severely of anyone, but some of his harshest words are reserved for Brecht's representation of low life in The Threepenny Opera. “Nothing,” writes Williams, “is more predictable, in a falsely respectable society, than the conscious enjoyment of a controlled and distanced low life. All such work reveals itself, finally, as a protection of conventional moral attitudes. The thieves and the whores are the licensed types, on to whom a repressed immorality can very easily be projected, and through whom a repressed conscience can be safely controlled. There is no real shock, when respectable playgoers confront them, because they are seen, precisely, as a special class, a district.”17

Against the romanticizing of the prostitute in early modern England we might cite the equally fictional yet rather more truthful representation in Love's Cure (1624?), where the prospects of a woman pursuing independence are described thus:

                                        thou wouldst be
A bawd e’re twenty, and within a moneth
A barefoot, lowzie, and diseased whore,
And shift thy lodgings oftner than a rogue
That’s whipt from post to post.(18)

Here too whore and rogue are aligned.

In other plays of this period we can witness the process whereby those who are powerless, subordinate, and marginal become the focus for a crude scapegoating which should not really be described as such because it is in fact a process of complex displacement, disavowal, and splitting. Iago, at a crucial moment in his manipulation of the violent crisis he has precipitated, seeks to displace blame onto Bianca, vulnerable to the charge because a strumpet: “O notable strumpet! … / Gentlemen all, I do suspect this trash / To be a party in this injury.”19 Like the sodomite and the masterless, the whore is, in times of crisis, construed as one who betrays those who in fact are betraying or victimizing her. The strategy is simple enough, but the cultural “unconscious” it exploits is complex. Both Emilia and Desdemona are accused by their husbands of being whores, and female prostitution in Measure for Measure is made symptomatic of far more than sexual infidelity:

Duke: [to Mariana] Why, you
are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?
Lucio: My lord, she may be a punk;
for many of them are neither maid, widow, nor wife.


Respectable women are maids, widows, or wives; otherwise they are punks, imagined to be subverting the patriarchal order even as they are the victims of its displacements. But of course the opposition wife/whore is itself a notoriously unstable one, especially within hetero/sexual difference. As we see in Othello, the chaste wife is as susceptible to the massive displacements of patriarchy by “virtue” of her inclusion within it as is the subtle whore in terms of her exclusion from it.


To a greater or lesser degree the articles by McLuskie, Rose, and myself deploy a constructionist view of gender and sexuality. I think there are problems with this view, but not of the kind identified by Neely. One problem with it is the risk of erasing or downplaying the actual histories of subordinate groups; of seeing their history only as one of victimization. And a further problem (usually gendered) arises in the form of critics who represent or rehearse the victimization with an unnerving—sometimes almost salacious—empathy with the process rather than its victims.

There’s a third problem, one which I’ll identify in an admittedly abrupt transition from the Renaissance to contemporary gay politics where the problem of the constructionist view has been starkly apparent for some time. Try telling a couple of fascists that, strictly speaking, the homosexual they are kicking to death is only a discursive construct produced sometime in the nineteenth century, or just possibly at the end of the eighteenth. … In the totally impossible event that they believed you, picked him up, and dusted him down, it might only be to take him off for aversion/conversion “therapy.” After all, anyone who has been “made” that way can be unmade. This is a real and pressing issue: there is nothing to stop homophobia, terrifyingly intensified by AIDS, from appropriating the constructionist view. Even so, it is naive to believe that if we can somehow show that homosexuality is essentially or biologically given, it will be accepted. On the contrary, that might be when the fascists start murdering—as they did before when faced with what Richard Plant, in his study of the Nazi murder of homosexuals, calls “contragenics.”20 And even if they don’t shoot you they sure as hell won’t opt for the liberal line—yeah, well you’re not exactly man or woman, but you’re still human. Nor should we forget that nothing attracts some in the medical profession like the prospect of a bit of genetic engineering or biological interventionism.

Certainly there are political problems with the constructionist view, but for the gay person, and, I’d argue, for other subordinated groups, the appeal to nature or essence is no guarantee of protection at all. And if we’re tired of the critical play whereby representation is recast as re-hyphen-presentation, let’s try to distinguish the crucial point from its fashionable deployment; I take that point to be the recognition of the terrible power and often the violence of representation; the recognition that it is never merely a reflection of the pregiven, but something which helps both to control and constitute what is given and what is thought.


On the first page of his “new reading” of Shakespeare Kiernan Ryan announces his intention to read the bard in a way which will “activate the revolutionary imaginative vision” of the plays. Ryan contends that this period witnessed the emergence of a new sense of a common humanity: “what starts to evolve is the understanding that every individual is at the same time a human being, whose faculties, needs, experiences and aspirations are actually shared, or potentially shareable, with the rest of the species” (29-30). Shakespeare articulates this sense of a common humanity so radically, supremely, and mutinously, that it has required a “massive investment of conservative cultural energy over the centuries in trying to keep his work muzzled” (30). In the greatest of Shakespeare's plays Ryan finds a “structural identification … with the common interests of humanity as a whole rather than with the interests of one section of society at the expense of the rest” (38). Ryan has to rely a great deal on the idea of this radical vision as potentiality rather than actuality. The tragedies show “the brutal destruction of the potential by the actual”; while the comedies “dramatise the surrender of the prevailing to the possible” (74).

Where does the sense of a shared humanity and potentiality come from? This isn’t clear; while Ryan sees it as emerging in the Renaissance (and so historically contingent), the implication sometimes is that it was always inherent in human nature. Othello and Desdemona for example “instinctively act according to principles of racial equality and sexual freedom” and are punished by society, “the play's subversive potential” residing in its capacity “to dramatise the possibility of truly emancipated relations between men and women, beyond the institutionalized inequalities of past and present societies alike” (51).

Among other things, Marxist humanism has affirmed a faith in Man, the individual, and the progressive liberatory potential of high culture. As an aspect of this tradition the notion of a “progressive Shakespeare” is important and commendable. But not in Ryan's version. The most persuasive part of his argument is indebted to others (including feminists, new historicists, and cultural materialists). Like them, for example, he sees Shakespeare's vision as growing from the historical upheavals of that period. He also shares the view of some materialists and some feminists that Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was subversive and demystifying, representing the divisions between people as “socially constructed and arbitrary rather than god-given or natural” (29).

But although he’s apparently learned from these critics, Ryan usually fails to acknowledge, or actually misrepresents, them. When he finds Stephen Greenblatt saying something which flatly contradicts his (Ryan's) representation of him, he interprets this as Greenblatt contradicting himself (25-26), rather than, as he should, as Greenblatt's position being more responsive to the complexities of history and representation than Ryan allows. Cultural materialism is not discussed, and those of its adherents who do get a mention are categorized as new historicist. McLuskie's reluctance to co-opt Shakespeare for feminism, and my argument that prostitutes are shown in Measure to be demonized and made the subject of displacement, are read by Ryan as conclusive proof that we subscribe to a “vision of the inexorably enveloping power of the dominant ideology to turn even Shakespeare's protean imagination to its own account,” so that we are left with “merely negative or cynical reasons for bothering to study such a contaminated Shakespeare at all” (8)—a ridiculously crude version of the new historicist position, let alone the materialist one.

What he does with Shakespeare isn’t much more successful. His apparently intense concentration on the bard turns out, on further reading, to be the sightless gaze of the always-already convinced. His rhetoric of potentiality may well be a result of conviction, but while initially it strikes the reader as liberating, it soon starts to read like consoling rhetoric. Shakespeare's plays become pegs on which to hang aspirations commendable in themselves but which here echo the clichés of the party hack. Thus the desperate, despairing ending of King Learleaves us no choice but to identify the problem as the indefensible subjection of men and women to the injustices of a stratified society, and to seek the implied solution in the egalitarian standpoint created and vindicated by the play as a whole” (72; my emphasis). Macbeth bears witness to “our historically evolved capacity to create … forms of community able to accommodate the claims of self and the needs of others” (65), while Shakespeare's comedies “encapsulate the benevolent course of collective human development which they anticipate” (80).

Ryan's failure is the more regrettable because we need a spirited reiteration of Marxist humanism. Others have addressed it better, both those who belong to that tradition as well as those sympathetic to it: one thinks of Lukács, Marcuse, Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, and Agnes Heller (Ryan acknowledges a debt to Heller), and, in the more specific field of Renaissance and Shakespeare studies, J. W. Lever, Robert Weimann, and Margot Heinemann, to name but some.

Such writers have faced the challenges to humanist optimism from an alternative, more pessimistic Marxist tradition of cultural critique.21 It is a tradition which has recognized the complexity and indirect effectiveness of domination, along with the fact that human potentialities have not only been savagely repressed, but also abandoned and repudiated by their former adherents and those who have most to gain from them. Some of the most powerful Marxist cultural critique this century, to which cultural materialist as well as some feminist and some new historicist work is indebted, has attended to the reasons for the failure of potential to be realized. It has asked why, for example, after the First World War, when conditions seemed right for the development of socialism, fascism developed instead.

And what is the role of high culture in all this? There is a stereotype of the Marxist critic as one who analyzes such culture as a mere superstructural reflection of the economic base—art as simply either for or against the revolution. In fact Marxian cultural critique has produced a far more searching analysis, and has been much preoccupied with what Martin Jay, alluding to Marx on religion, calls “the inherently ambiguous nature of high-culture, at once a false consolation for real suffering, and an embattled refuge of the utopian hopes for overcoming that very misery.”22

Moreover, far from opting for the facile optimism dictated by dogma, writers as diverse as Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Louis Althusser, have felt it necessary to describe the complexity, the flexible resilience of power structures, and their internalization within the individual. These writers have been without illusion—even pessimistic—about the short- or medium-term possibilities of progressive change, and it’s not surprising that today materialists, historicists, feminists, and others find a continuing relevance in their work. But their pessimism was distinct from fatalism; for them it was a contingent historical reality that prevents development towards a radically better society, and not fate, human nature, or any other kind of absolute which makes such development always and forever impossible. Some such distinction animates Gramsci's famous maxim, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

Finally the questioning of high culture is not exclusively Marxist. George Steiner once offered a notorious rebuttal to the easy faith in the humanizing influence of high culture: “To read Aeschylus or Shakespeare—let alone to ‘teach’ them—as if … the authority of the texts in our own lives were immune from recent history, is subtle but corrosive illiteracy. … We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding, or that his ear is gross, is cant.”23 Often lapsing into such cant, Ryan does not even begin to face the challenge of Steiner's now twenty-year-old argument, let alone its even more searching articulation in the European materialist tradition.


But what kind of resistance, if any, does a materialist criticism discover in Renaissance tragedy? I argued in Radical Tragedy that we find in this theater not so much a vision of political freedom as a knowledge of political domination.24 But we simply cannot slide between the two, or assume that the second easily produces the first. This knowledge was challenging: it subverted, interrogated, and undermined the ruling ideologies and helped precipitate them into crisis. But history tells us time and again that from such crisis there may emerge not freedom but brutal repression. And such repression emerges not because the subversive was always contained, subversion being a ruse of power to consolidate itself, but because the challenge really was unsettling.

Further, that knowledge is often produced at a great cost. Richard Wilson has described Radical Tragedy as a “new historicist primer” presenting Shakespearean drama as “the cutting edge of liberation.”25 In fact, the book argued at some length that, in the plays of Shakespeare and many others, subversive knowledge emerges under pressure of contradictions in the dominant ideology which also fissure subjectivity; the subjects who discover or convey this knowledge are often thereby stretched across social and psychic contradictions that destroy them. “Liberation” is not the word for this.

Nevertheless a challenge did occur, and gender hierarchy and sexual difference were targets of this dangerous knowledge.26 In this respect perhaps the greater challenge in the literature of this period came not from “positive” representations of women within a patriarchal order (Neely), nor from some equally unproblematic, unrealized potential for “truly emancipated relations between men and women” (Ryan), but from representations of disreputable women who disrupted the scheme of (hetero)sexual difference. A case in point is cross-dressing in the drama and in Jacobean England, the subject of a spate of recent articles, and one of the most interesting and important aspects of gender currently being reconsidered. Orthodoxy at that time insisted that differences in dress were not merely conventional, but a reflection of one of God's most fundamental principles of order in the world: sexual difference. Cross-dressing spelled “confusion” in the far-reaching, devastating, religious sense of the word. Intense anxieties about social change and its unsettling of gender and class hierarchies were punitively displaced, in dramatic as well as nondramatic literature, onto the issue of dress violation, especially women dressing in men's clothes. Conversely, in some plays and tracts, cross-dressing is used to challenge traditional evaluations of women's inferior nature and status. In these texts cross-dressing is a specific and fascinating instance of something which occurs in the drama more generally: metaphysical legitimations of the social order are interrogated and displaced by the recognition that it is custom, not nature or divine law, that arranges things as they are; and that the laws of custom may also be the laws of privilege and domination.

Cross-dressing epitomizes the strategy of transgressive reinscription, whereby, rather than seeking to transcend the dominant structures responsible for oppression and exclusion, the subject or subculture turns back upon them, inverting and perverting them. Thus when the Hic Mulier figure in the Haec-Vir pamphlet of 1620 proclaims the equality of women—“We are as free born as men, have as free election, and as free spirits; we are compounded of like parts, and may with like liberty make benefit of our creations”—she makes this affirmation cross-dressed.27 How are we to read this? As a classic instance of self-oppression—the woman can only conceive her equality by taking on masculine guise—or as a claim to equality made possible by a gender inversion which is simultaneously a demystification of sexual difference itself? Certainly the challenge works through the disclosure that gender difference is a social construct. So the very emphasis on the constructedness of gender which, according to Neely, leads to the silencing of women in modern gender theory, in early modern England was the basis of a real challenge. And not only that: it might now suggest to us a creative perversity in desire itself.

Of course the theater had a particular investment in dress violation—not only because female parts were played by boys, but because actors playing the parts of those from superior classes also violated the dress codes of class. So the very devices of theater itself—artifice, cross-dressing, disguise, role-playing—not only facilitated exploration of the cultural construction of gender, its contradictions and injustices, but also enabled a disclosure of the connections between gender and class.

There recurs also in the numerous tracts attacking the theater, its dress and gender transgressions, a fear that men dressing as women will lead to an erosion of masculinity itself. Laura Levine in an informative article on this subject shows that these tracts, even as they confidently sermonize on the fixed nature of identity, especially gender identity as prescribed by God and signified through dress difference, display a deep anxiety that identity is not fixed, that, underneath, the self is really nothing at all.28 Further, they feared that “doing” what a woman does (on the stage and in women's clothes) leads to “being” what a woman is; the most troubling anxiety is that there is no essentially masculine self (136), and cross-dressing in women's clothes can lead to a man “turning into” a woman. Once again—though now it is a fear rather than an affirmation—the constructed nature of gender was a perception of the period and not an anachronistic retrospective invention of criticism.

The frequent charge that the theater encouraged sodomy enters the discourse of the antitheatricalists as a focus for this very fear that gender difference is ever under threat of breakdown, and more generally, for the fear that “under the costume there is really nothing there or, alternatively, that what is there is something foreign, something terrifying and essentially other” (135). My own analysis differs from Levine's, but her argument shows clearly how the preoccupation with sodomy is inseparable from the preoccupation with gender and, through gender, with human identity and the ordering of society. For these reasons we need to think about it.


Finally let me bring the foregoing together in an imagined production of Antony and Cleopatra, taking up the three issues of pleasure, cross-dressing, and the interrogation of sexual difference. This imagined production has a history: first, it has learned from those like Charles Marowitz who think Shakespeare needs rewriting;29 second, it seeks to celebrate some of the more liberating insights of gender politics; third, it agrees with Boose on the importance of pleasure in whatever it is that we do; fourth, it agrees with Ryan on the importance of liberating potential; fifth, it would like to escape the often deadening discourse we use to talk of sexuality; sixth, it risks provoking those (a) who frown in political correctness at the idea of the Hic Mulier figure declaiming the freedom of women in drag; (b) who can only proceed by clarifying the ambiguities like the one just uttered; (c) who appeal to sexual difference as a way of disavowing desires different to theirs, even as they fetishize the concept of difference; and (d) who thereby resist some of their own most challenging insights—who, in short, deploy a discourse shot through with the oppressiveness, not to say banality,30 of gender.

Two of the issues dramatized in Antony and Cleopatra are sexual love and political struggle. In different words, desire and power. Provisionally and crudely, we can identify two recurring responses to the play: the romantic and the moralistic. Romantics have seen the play as being about a transcendent and noble love tragically destroyed in and by the treacherous, mundane world of power politics. Conversely, moralists have regarded that same love affair as dissipated and an abdication of moral and social responsibility. What is behind the romantic view is a relatively modern notion of sexual desire as potentially, if destructively, redemptive. Behind the moralist view is a secular version of a much older notion of desire as dangerous: in it human frailty is manifested.

In our own time the romantic view predominates over the moralistic. I’m tempted to risk a brief speculation on some of the reasons why this might be so. In our own time the realm of the aesthetic is often distinguished from the realm of the political. This was not so in the seventeenth century; literary and artistic culture was integrated with other kinds of knowledge and with civic and social life.31 If for us the aesthetic is split from the political, so too is the world of love, especially love as romantic and/or tragic. Conventionally, love is supposed to be contained within marriage and the family, that haven from a heartless world. More significantly, the same public/private distinction marks even romantic, radical, or transgressive visions of sexual desire. One need think only of the profoundly redemptive power of transgressive desire in the writing of D. H. Lawrence, and how it was this aspect of his work which made him so famous in the 1950s and 1960s. Redemptive: sexual love, almost like art, can redeem us from the inadequacy of contemporary social realities so often epitomized in the destructive world of power and politics.

So the realm of the aesthetic shares with sexual love a detachment from the world of politics, and both have the potential to transcend that world and to redeem us within it. Such is the perspective from which Antony and Cleopatra has so often been read, from Dryden's adaptation onwards: the world well lost. It’s a powerful conjunction: universal Shakespeare, redemptive love, transcendent aesthetics.

Today, when we are learning again what the Renaissance always knew about the inseparability of sexuality and power, art and politics, that perspective is losing credibility. We are becoming acutely aware that sexual desire is not that which transcends politics and power, but the vehicle of politics and power. Such is the case in Antony and Cleopatra. In Radical Tragedy I argued that in this play the language of desire, far from transcending the power relations which structure the world of the lovers, is wholly in-formed by those relations; that Antony's masculinity and sexuality are informed by the contradictions of the very history which is rendering him obsolete. What follows now is a brief recapitulation, and then a development of this reading.

When Cleopatra recalls the night she cross-dressed with Antony and took his sword (2.5.22-23), sexuality is seen to be rooted in a fantasy transference of power from the public to the private sphere. It is a creatively perverse transference—that is, one in which knowledge, transgression, and pleasure interweave. It is known for instance that Antony's sexuality is marked by insecurity. He is aging; he wants to prove that he is still the great warrior he once was. He is in homosocial competition with Caesar, whose youthfulness he several times remarks. When he wins a battle he sees his victory as a recovery of sexual prowess: “I will appear in blood” (3.13.174); “there’s sap in’t yet” (3.13.191); and, to Cleopatra:

                                                            leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triumphing.


It’s not difficult to see in all this the psychology of masculine sexual jealousy along with fantasies of sexual potency and anxieties of sexual impotence, and to be led to the conclusion that these three things, if not identical, are nevertheless inseparable. But perhaps more pertinent is that in Jacobean England the warrior or martial ideal was in decline. The military leader identified by honor and courage was being disempowered, becoming obsolete as the state took over his powers, rather as the new political reality embodied in Caesar is displacing Antony. This “man of men” (5.1.72), this “lord of lords” (4.8.16), this “greatest prince o’ th’ world, / The noblest” (4.15.54-55), is becoming obsolete; the myth of martial omnipotence has served its day.

In other words a whole history informs Antony's sexuality. We can see its effects in Cleopatra's dream: “His legs bestrid the ocean: his reared arm / Crested the world” (5.2.82-83). Some critics have seen in this speech the transformation of human love into something almost divine. Others like Carol Neely find that it “enlarges and reconciles [Antony's] sexuality and heroism.” She also says of this dream that it “completes” Enobarbus's famous “Age cannot wither her” vision of Cleopatra, and, “In the two visions, female and male sexuality are seen as reciprocal opposites: infinite variety and eternal bounty, magnetic power and hyperbolic fruitfulness, stasis and motion, art and nature.”32 Kiernan Ryan includes Antony in his list of great Shakespearean protagonists “born before their time, citizens of an anticipated era … pointing us towards more desirable versions of human existence” (50). I respond in Antony to almost the opposite of what Neely and Ryan celebrate. Especially in Cleopatra's dream: in death Antony becomes at last what he always wanted to be, larger than life. But in the valediction there is also invoked the commemorative statue, literally larger than life: his legs bestrid the ocean. Antony becomes statuesque in a way which recalls that the statue is a literal, material embodiment of a respect for its subject which is inseparable from the obsolescence of that subject. And isn’t this the apparent destiny of Antony in the play, one with which he colludes, self-sacrifically and pleasurably?

If a whole history does indeed inform Antony's sexuality, it’s also true that he lives that history as a contradiction: his sexuality is structured by those very power relations which he is prepared to sacrifice for his sexual freedom—Rome for Egypt. Correspondingly, the omnipotence he wants to reaffirm in and through Cleopatra is almost entirely a function of the power structure which he is prepared to sacrifice for her. It’s a no-win scenario. But how to convey this in production?

Reading Margaret Lamb's 1980 stage history of the play, we learn that in modern times the romantic view has predominated, at least in the theater, with the consequence that the production history of this play has been unusually conservative.33 But there was a very different and rather notorious production of the play in London at the Bankside Globe in 1973, directed by Tony Richardson. It was experimental and intended as a comment on international power politics. According to Lamb, Caesar was made “at once a fascist blackshirt and a raging psychopath” (170) and delivered some of his lines like a “salivating necrophiliac” (171). Cleopatra though, played by Vanessa Redgrave, became “a decadent imperialist in a red wig, orange sunglasses and white pants suit [who] reeled drunkenly on three-inch heels [and] threw coke bottles at flunkies” (170). Antony, played by Julian Glover, “was a dandyish, cigar-smoking subaltern in khakis,” so effetely narcissistic that when in distress he was given to falling over (170).

I am sorry not to have seen this production. But, envious as I am of those three-inch heels, and sure as I am that this is the one performance of Antony which could have stirred me to empathy, it is not quite what I had in mind. In England people do not understand decadence; they always moralize it, even or especially the radicals. The fact is, such “political” interpretations of the play are only fashionable versions of the moralistic view. As such they do not even begin to do justice to Cleopatra. She is, to be sure, both problematic and perverse. Notoriously though, critics, directors, and actors have resolved the problem in ways misogynist and racist.34 She is not so much decadent as camp. I want to argue that the key to a modern production of this play has to be camp, but a camp far removed from its ineffectual stereotype in the theater and Englit.

In the mundane (royal) sense of the word, Cleopatra is only one of many queens; in the derogatory (sexual) sense, she is (in the eyes of those who would use it, though not in mine) maligned. In the most interesting, camp sense of the word, Cleopatra is the first great queen of the English stage, camping it up outrageously, histrionic from beginning to end. She’s over the top, she wears her desire on her sleeve; she knows the profound truth of camp, the “deep” truth of the superficial: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.

I find Cleopatra's performance utterly winning. When the messenger comes to her in act 2 scene 5 she throws money at him in order to get him to say what she wants him to say. Actually it’s even better than that: she throws money at history, trying to bribe it into a change of mind, treating it with the contempt it deserves. And of course she is right to beat the messenger. If he hasn’t yet learned that it’s his job to bring good news, he deserves to be beaten. Others of Cleopatra's attendants are much wiser. Alexas camps it up with her, nicely implicating Antony as well:

Last thing he did, dear Queen,
He kissed—the last of many doubled kisses—
This orient pearl. His speech sticks in my heart.


Between them they truly make a scene. Here as so often, camp revels in a desire it simultaneously deconstructs, becoming a form of theatrical excess which both celebrates and undermines what it mimics. Thus Cleopatra with exalted love.

For desire to be seen as redemptive it has to be seen to work in terms of our deepest inner being—what Antony calls his “full heart” (1.3.43). It is this full heart which desire both flows from and redeems. It is also this full heart which camp subverts through parody. In short, camp hollows out sentiments even as it exaggerates and intensifies them: “Eternity was in our lips and eyes, / Bliss in our brows bent” (1.3.35-36). This is not the voice of transcendent love, but the inflated rhetoric of camp: an extravagance which parades and delights in its own hollowness, and which satisfies our desire for the sentimental but by reveling in rather than disavowing its shallowness. Once we have learned to delight in the charade of the sentimental, we can never again be genuinely, which is to say tediously, sentimental. Camp is one further means whereby the artifice of the theater is turned back upon what it represents; the natural is shown to be a pose without style—a deeply inadequate condition indeed.

Camp also thrives on bathos. Antony, dying, asks Cleopatra to descend the monument for the last of “many thousand kisses” (4.15.20). “I dare not, dear,” she retorts, “lest I be taken” (4.15.21-23). It’s not death she fears but being forced to participate in Caesar's victory parade. Of course she’s right: appearances matter. Cleopatra knows that it is only the shallow who do not judge by appearances. “I am dying” cries Antony, “let me speak a little” (4.15.41-42). “No,” retorts Cleopatra, “let me speak” (4.15.43); and she does, splendidly: she will, she says, rail so high, “That the false huswife Fortune [will] break her wheel, / Provoked by my offence” (4.15.44-45). She puts on her robe and crown to die; in so doing she not only lives, but dies according to that wonderful observation of Oscar Wilde, “in all important matters, style not sincerity is the vital thing.”35

But how to get this across, how to displace all that tedious earnestness which so often dominates our discussion and production of this play? Well, I’m told that Leslie Fiedler once made a brilliant suggestion; he said there was only one actress who was really adequate to the part of Cleopatra, and that was Mick Jagger. It’s a nice thought. But he would be too expensive. Even so, we could foreground the camp by going back to Jacobean theatrical practice and have a boy play the part, though more sympathetically than Cleopatra envisages: “I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’th’ posture of a whore.” (5.2.219-21). My own candidate for the part would be either Peter Stallybrass of the University of Pennsylvania or, if he’s tied up—and he often is—then Gary Taylor, editor of the Oxford Shakespeare.

I can see only one objection to this: there would be one less part for a woman. No matter: in my production Antony would be played by a woman—ideally Marjorie Garber of Harvard. In fact all male roles would be played by women. Of course there would have to be other changes: the last four scenes would be rewritten so that Cleopatra would have a same-sex but cross-class affair with one of her women attendants, while there would be much more (sympathetic) attention to Antony's masochism and the obsolescence of his particular brand of masculinity, as a result of which he would become paranoid, convinced that he was being pursued by a sodomitic Caesar. So what others have seen as a limitation of this theater (the boy-actress), I would in this case recover as a strength: the woman playing Antony and the boy playing Cleopatra would subvert the very idea of sexual difference and sexual identity upon which the romantic, the moralistic, the sexist, the racist, and the decadent interpretations all at some stage rely. If anyone would like to hire my services as director, let me encourage them with the immodest assurance that in this as all else, I’m both versatile and cheap.


  1. See Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore (Manchester, 1985).

  2. Carolyn Porter, “Are We Being Historical Yet?” The South Atlantic Quarterly, 87 (1988), 743-86; Louis Montrose, “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture,” in The New Historicism, ed. H. A. Veeser (New York, 1989), pp. 15-36; Don Wayne, “Power, Politics, and the Shakespearean Text: Recent Criticism in England and the United States,” and Walter Cohen, “Political Criticism of Shakespeare,” both in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion O’Connor (London, 1987), pp. 47-67 and 18-46, respectively; and Karen Newman, “Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew,English Literary Renaissance, 16 (1986), 86-100.

  3. Howard Horowitz, “‘I Can’t Remember’: Skepticism, Synthetic Histories, Critical Action,” The South Atlantic Quarterly, 87 (1988), 787-820, 803. Horowitz is making specific reference to Marguerite Waller's “Academic Tootsie: The Denial of Difference and the Difference it Makes,” Diacritics, 17 (1987), 2-20.

  4. See Lynda E. Boose, “The Family in Shakespeare Studies; or—Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans; or—the Politics of Politics,” Renaissance Quarterly, 40 (1987), 707-42; Carol Thomas Neely, “Constructing the Subject: Feminist Practice and the New Renaissance Discourses,” English Literary Renaissance, 18 (1988), 5-18; Kiernan Ryan, Shakespeare (Hempstead, 1989); hereafter cited in text.

  5. As does Ryan … but not Boose; since I’ll be concentrating in what follows on my disagreement with Boose, I want to acknowledge a debt to this politically sensitive and intellectually challenging article. Boose's account of the importance within the United States academy of what she calls the first generation feminists is an exemplary instance of cultural history. Having learned from Boose more about the historical conditions in which that feminist work emerged and which helped form its political objectives, I’m persuaded that subsequent criticism of this work underestimated its importance in the United States academy at that time.

  6. Neely's article is a wide ranging attack on most current forms of “theory,” including deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis. That all theory is not necessarily antifeminist is self-evident. The tensions as well as the enabling connections between feminism and various kinds of theory are helpfully explored in a recent issue of Feminist Studies, 14, No. 1 (1988).

  7. See p. 728. Actually in recent work on the Renaissance, materialist and otherwise, I see rather little attention to class and even less to race. Rather than simply invoking the inseparable triad—I’m told that in some quarters “race class and gender” is articulated as one word—I want to acknowledge Ania Loomba's Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester, 1989), one of the few studies I know which does address the interrelationship between race and gender in the Renaissance. That Loomba takes a play like Othello as her starting point indicates precisely the extent to which race has been ignored, including by feminists.

  8. See Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton, 1983); and Kathleen McLuskie, “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,” in Sinfield and Dollimore; hereafter cited in text.

  9. Jacqueline Rose, “Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London, 1985), pp. 95-118.

  10. See Jonathan Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” in Sinfield and Dollimore, pp. 72-87.

  11. Barbara Babcock, The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society (Ithaca, 1978), p. 32.

  12. Neely, p. 10. See Stephen Greenblatt, “Fiction and Friction,” in his Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford, 1988), pp. 66-93.

  13. Other critics, following an apparently emerging consensus fed by its own momentum rather than by attention to the work being criticized, have similarly misrepresented the essay in Political Shakespeare. I point out two, chosen because they relate directly to this discussion of gender, but also because in virtually every other respect I can recommend them as two of the best articles yet published on the controversies raised by new historicism and cultural materialism. The first is Walter Cohen's “Political Criticism of Shakespeare” (see above, n. 2), the second Judith Newton's “History as Usual?: Feminism and the ‘New Historicism,’” Cultural Critique, 9 (1988), 87-121. Cohen includes the introduction to Political Shakespeare in a body of work which he describes as “treating feminism obliquely or not at all” (p. 22); Newton says of the same piece that it subsumes feminism to cultural materialism (p. 106). In fact the introduction describes cultural materialism as growing out of other movements, including “some of the major developments in feminism” (pp. 2-3). In a discussion of feminist criticism of the period, specifically McLuskie's contribution to the book, the introduction also observes: “a materialist feminism, rather than simply coopting or writing off Shakespeare, follows the unstable construction of, for example, gender and patriarchy back to the contradictions of their historical moment” (p. 11). More significantly, Newton here ignores the very article in Political Shakespeare (McLuskie's) most relevant to her subject—viz. the relations between materialism and feminism. Other essays from Political Shakespeare which are concerned with gender are also ignored. In short—and this is my reason for raising the issue here—there seems to be a rather exclusive notion at work as to what counts as gender critique.

  14. See Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, tr. Richard Miller (New York, 1975).

  15. Ruth Karras, “The Regulation of Brothels in Later Medieval England,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 14 (1989), 426.

  16. Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” p. 85.

  17. Raymond Williams, Modern Tragedy, 2nd ed. (London, 1979), p. 192. The criticisms which Williams makes of Brecht might also be directed at E. J. Burford's three studies of prostitution in the Renaissance: Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels (London, 1976); The Orrible Synne: A Look at London Lechery from Roman to Cromwellian Times (London, 1973); and Queen of the Bawds (London, 1974). The literature on prostitution is growing and varied. In addition to the already mentioned article by Ruth Karras, I’ve space to recommend two others, both by Lyndal Roper: “Discipline and Respectability: Prostitution and the Reformation in Augsburg,” History Workshop Journal, 19 (1985), 3-28, and “Will and Honor: Sex, Words and Power in Augsburg Criminal Trials,” Radical History Review, 43 (1989), 45-71.

  18. Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Love's Cure, in The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, ed. Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, 1976), III, 4.2.50-54.

  19. William Shakespeare, Othello, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974), 5.1.78, 85-86; all subsequent references to Shakespeare will be to this volume, hereafter cited in text.

  20. See Richard Plant, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (Edinburgh, 1987).

  21. It is described in Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London, 1976).

  22. Martin Jay, “Hierarchy and the Humanities: The Radical Implications of a Conservative Idea,” Telos, 62 (Winter 1984-85), 131-44.

  23. George Steiner, Language and Silence (New York, 1967), p. ix.

  24. See Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Chicago, 1984).

  25. Richard Wilson, “Beyond the Pale: Renaissance Writing and the New Historicism,” rev. of Radical Tragedy, by Jonathan Dollimore, Literature and History, 14 (1988), 213.

  26. The new introduction to the second edition of Radical Tragedy (Brighton, 1989) gives a fuller account of this work.

  27. Haec-Vir, reproduced in facsimile in Hic Mulier: Or, the Man-Woman and Haec-Vir: Or, The Womanish-Man (London, 1620; rpt. Exeter, 1973), Sig. B3.

  28. See Laura Levine, “Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization from 1579-1642,” Criticism, 28 (1986), 126, 128; hereafter cited in text.

  29. On this see Alan Sinfield, “Making Space: Appropriation and Confrontation in Recent British Plays,” in The Shakespeare Myth, ed. Graham Holderness (Manchester, 1988), pp. 128-44.

  30. See Simon Watney's cogent attack on the banality of gender in an essay of that name in Oxford Literary Review, 8 (1986), 13-21.

  31. See Kevin Sharpe and Stephen Zwicker, Politics of Discourse (Berkeley, 1987), pp. 4-5.

  32. Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven, 1985), pp. 159, 160.

  33. Margaret Lamb, Antony and Cleopatra on the English Stage (London, 1980), p. 172; hereafter cited in text.

  34. See Linda Woodbridge [L. T. Fitz], “Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 28 (1977), 297-316.

  35. Oscar Wilde, Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young (1894), in The Works of Oscar Wilde, ed. G. F. Maine (New York, 1954), p. 1113.

Peter Erickson (essay date 1997)

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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 the possibilities for revision as an active, ongoing principle. Such transformative power is especially evident in the present moment when feminist criticism is again in the process of revising itself. In this intensive transitional phase, we should keep clearly in mind both where we are going and where we are coming from.

The second objection involves the question of how I tell the story. Do I, as a participant in the history which I propose to examine, employ an inappropriately personal approach? My answer is that the history of criticism cannot be told solely as a history of ideas. We need also to consider the ways in which the organizational features of scholarly production shape intellectual practice. Institutional arrangements such as networking and structures of intimacy are not less influential for being relatively informal. From the perspective of institutional context, the personal and the professional cannot be completely separated; in this sense, one could say the personal is the professional.


My procedure is to use the example of the comedies to illustrate larger conceptual frameworks. I shall situate these frameworks in an institutional history of Shakespeare criticism in the post-World War II period, which I divide initially into two phases using 1980 as the symbolic marker between prefeminist and feminist criticism. The three most prominent figures in the first phase are Northrop Frye (1912-1991), C. L. Barber (1913-1980), and Anne Barton (1933-). Despite the differences between Frye's approach in “The Argument of Comedy” (1948) and A Natural Perspective (1965) and Barber's approach in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959), there is sufficient overlap between their respective concepts of green world and festive release to make it possible to speak, on another level, of shared assumptions about comedy. The work of Anne Barton shows the transmission of a general model of comedy to the next generation. In Barton's “As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending” (1972), the influences of Frye and Barber are combined:

C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye in particular have argued for the essential unity of Shakespearean comedy. … It has become possible to agree that the comedies, from The Two Gentleman of Verona and The Comedy of Errors to Twelfth Night, are plays concerned primarily with transformation, with the clarification and renewal attained, paradoxically, through a submission to some kind of disorder, whether festive or not. We have learned to notice as typically Shakespearean the way characters move between two contrasted locales—one of them heightened and more spacious than the other—and we regard that ‘new society’ which makes its way back to the normal world as a subtler and more consequential achievement than older critics did. (161)

The significance of Barton's summary account of the comic model derived from Barber and Frye is that it suggests the process of consolidation, institutionalization, and dissemination through which a critical consensus about comedy emerged. Institutionalization is demonstrated by the subsequent elaboration of Barton's essay in her superb, authoritative introductions to the comedies in the Riverside Shakespeare (1974). Dissemination is shown by the wide geographical range of the three critics: Frye in Canada, Barber in the United States, Barton in England. Of the three, Barton is perhaps closest to current feminist work. Her introductions in the Riverside edition consistently pay attention to patterns of same-sex bonds and to conflicts in the relations between men and women. Nevertheless, Barton presents her observations as extensions of the pioneering work of Frye and Barber and hence she remains within the framework of their basic model of comic action. More recently, in Shakespeare's Festive Worlds (1991), the French critic François Laroque maintains this continuity (192-97).

The critical divide between this model and feminist work can be heard in Jean Howard's argument of comedy: “… the work of Barber and Frye differs in many ways … ; nevertheless, it does seem to me that they both share an inherently conservative and relatively unproblematic view of the comedies. For both, these plays are primarily vehicles for testing and confirming social order and sexual difference by a purely temporary confounding of both” (“The Difficulties of Closure,” 113). Like Barton, Howard takes as her starting point the convergence between Frye and Barber on the function of comedy. But, unlike Barton, Howard opposes their influence. The issue I wish to pursue here is: how widespread and how significant is the critical reassessment exemplified by Howard's essay? What are the differences between the earlier work of Frye, Barber, and Barton and later feminist work, and do these differences amount to a fundamental change? Are we justified in using the term “break” to describe the shift, or is “continuity” more accurate?

The development of feminist criticism in England and in the United States is not precisely parallel. Founding work for British feminist criticism includes writing by Lisa Jardine (1983), Kathleen McLuskie (1985), and Catherine Belsey (1985). Juliet Dusinberre's book (1975), though earlier, is an anomaly because its unreserved optimism was insufficiently critical to serve as a promising basis for further feminist analysis.1 In the United States, the orginating texts of feminist Shakespeare criticism are the collection The Woman's Part (Lenz, 1980) and Coppélia Kahn's Man's Estate (1981), followed by the extension of The Woman's Part in the two special issues of Women's Studies (Greene, 1981-82). Books by Marianne Novy (1984), Peter Erickson (1985), and Carol Thomas Neely (1985) were already implicit in their contributions to this early effort.

In the context of American feminist Shakespeare criticism, two obstacles make it hard to gauge the degree of departure from previous criticism, and both obstacles are functions of what can be called the Barber connection. The first concerns the special status of Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. No subsequent book-length study of comedy has had an equivalent impact and stature. The classical status of Shakespeare's Festive Comedy is therefore deserved and ongoing. R. L. Smallwood, for example, observes as recently as 1990 that the book “remains, thirty years after its first appearance, entirely current” (“The Middle Comedies,” 112). Yet this reputation for currency is problematic because feminist criticism has produced a series of effective challenges to individual chapters of Shakespeare's Festive Comedy that, when taken together, add up to a complete rewriting of Barber's study. But this feminist work has not fully registered as a wholly different view of comedy partly because it has been expressed in a collective and piecemeal fashion rather than in the directly comparable form of a concentrated single book.

A further obstacle to clear differentiation between Barber's readings of comedy and those of feminist critics is that many in the original core group of American feminist Shakespeareans had personal ties with Barber.2 The professional manifestations of this network of affiliations can be seen in Barber's role as sponsoring reader of the first two substantial feminist publications, The Woman's Part and Coppélia Kahn's Man's Estate, both of which strongly acknowledge his support. To this circumstance must be added the further complicating factor that the emergence of American feminist criticism of Shakespeare coincides with Barber's death in 1980. Mourning for Barber took the specific form of a memorial Festschrift whose participants included four principal feminist critics and which therefore reinforced Barber's connection to feminist criticism. The fortuitous timing of Barber's death produced a sudden compression in which the relations between Barber and feminist critics were drastically foreshortened, with the result that latent tensions and potential conflicts were temporarily forestalled or muted and not fully expressed and worked through.

In retrospect, Shakespeare's “Rough Magic” may offer too convenient a handle for tracking critical trends. Given the circumstances of Barber's death, the Festschrift provides a remarkable degree of critical perspective on Barber's work; the Festschrift is not simply a manifestation and celebration but also an exploration of Barber's institutional authority. Nevertheless, the symbolic nature of the occasion tends to prove irresistible: it is too easy to credit only the deep, abiding affection and to ignore the intellectual differences. The tone of genuine grief and piety in the Festschrift makes it difficult to represent the actual critical history clearly and accurately. I certainly would not withdraw the tribute, but I believe that further clarification is important now for the ongoing development of feminist criticism. For a psychoanalytic standpoint, my insistence on the opposition between feminist and psychoanalytic approaches can be read as a predictable rebellion that merely confirms the psychoanalytic account of internal family conflict. In my own case, for example, I readily acknowledge that my intellectual disagreements with C. L. Barber carry overtones of father-son conflict.3 However, I think it is a mistake to treat the psychoanalytic aspect as a total explanation that makes it unnecessary to give full attention to the specific content of the intellectual issues involved.

Oversimplification of the connection between Barber and feminist criticism falsely elides the two by emphasizing continuity at the expense of disagreement. In the worst case, Barber is uncritically portrayed as the father of feminist criticism. To counteract this misrepresentation, we must reinstate the gaps that are glossed over by simple elision. Even the perception that early American feminist criticism of Shakespeare is based on a feminist psychoanalytic approach largely inherited from Barber as the best psychoanalytic critic in Renaissance studies of his generation needs qualification.4 First, Barber's own practice is psychoanalytic, not feminist. Second, the feminist critics associated with him vary among themselves in the relative emphases given to feminist and psychoanalytic elements; for most, the feminist dimension has priority, so that feminism shapes the psychoanalytic concerns rather than the reverse. From the perspective of the 1990s, feminist psychoanalytic criticism is no longer the single leading force in feminist Shakespeare criticism that it was in 1980. Events have rapidly overtaken this particular critical formation. It is nevertheless important how this early history gets constructed. We have not simply left this history behind us; it still has a bearing on present work, as, for example, in the question of how we understand comedy.

Changing approaches to comedy illustrate the point that the continuity of feminist criticism with Barber's work has been overstated and the very substantial breaks neglected or underestimated. In order to maintain the image of continuity, one would have to ignore the feminist reformulation of comic theory in explicit opposition to Barber. In her clearsighted critique of Shakespeare's Festive Comedy presented to a seminar in 1981, Coppélia Kahn remarked that “Barber tends to stress the inclusive sense of community which holiday and comedy generate … at the expense of the social and psychological divisions between the sexes they affirm” (1). At the same seminar Louis Adrian Montrose offered a cogent analysis of Northrop Frye's Natural Perspective. Without denying the differences Montrose sees between Frye and Barber, I would argue that Montrose's statement that “Frye's model of Shakespearean comic action … emphasizes generational conflict almost to the exclusion of gender conflict and class conflict” (9-10) applies also to Barber and that therefore Montrose's paper dovetails with Kahn's.5

It is not so much that Barber lacks the concept of gender but that his conception of male and female genders is a traditional one. By contrast, a feminist approach to gender creates a shift in perspective that leads to reinterpretations of the comedies. As a result, Kahn notes in her introduction to the Barber Festschrift, “A new model of Shakespearean comic form emerges from this double focus on gender and genre …” (16) This critical engagement with Barber's idea of comedy is a consistent motif in early feminist work. In 1981 Shirley Nelson Garner's study of A Midsummer Night's Dream cites Barber in order to go on to show that “the social and sexual implications of the return of the green world have gone unnoticed” (47). Madelon Sprengnether in 1982 describes Twelfth Night as “a play which for many people still qualifies as festive” by way of indicating that she herself rejects Barber's key term (“‘All that is spoke,’” 169). In Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama, I explicitly note my “departure from Barber's use of festive comic form” (177-78). More recently, Carol Thomas Neely's review of The Whole Journey makes an extraordinarily forthright objection to Barber's conceptual framework on grounds both of gender and genre:

I have reservations about The Whole Journey unexplicated and unproblematized notions of manhood, maturity, “major tragedies,” and artistic development, and about the book's underlying assumption that these correlate straight forwardly—that psychological maturity generates artistic maturity, which produces the mature genre of tragedy with protagonists who embody (inadequately) heroic manhood. I am likewise disturbed by the prescriptive cast which (unwittingly) attaches itself to these assumptions, especially since the book's Oedipal model of identity and maturation is not one that is applicable to women and since male maturity depends too simply on female stereotypes: on identification with the idealized maternal, on the reunions with chaste daughters, and on the recovery of desexualized wives. (353)

The feminist response to Barber's work can usefully be placed in the wider context of the vigorous revaluation of F.O. Matthiessen's The American Renaissance (1941) exemplified by Jonathan Arac (1983). A complete factual history of Barber's intellectual relations with Matthiessen, his mentor at Harvard, is unavailable and probably unrecoverable. Nevertheless, it is instructive to speculate about the extent to which Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959) enacts a tacit retreat from Matthiessen's explicit statement of political commitment eighteen years earlier in The American Renaissance. On two occasions in the mid-1970s, Barber offered retrospective commentary on Matthiessen, and in both instances Barber's reflections occur in a highly charged political context. The first is Barber's presentation at a symposium on “Political Activism and the Academic Conscience: The Harvard Experience, 1936-1941”—an experience that Barber shared with Matthiessen; the second is a review of Richard Ohmann's English in America and Giles Gunn's F. O. Matthiessen in which Barber uses Matthiessen's politics to oppose Ohmann's.

Barber's remarks are striking both because of what he says and what he avoids. On the one hand, Barber makes a very forceful statement of his own political conviction. On the other hand, his strong political stand is pitched almost exclusively at an abstract, generalized level. He hints at failures of political perception—“My group were dupes in some areas”—and at political disagreements with Matthiessen—“The reason he animated so many of us, even while we took different stands on particular issues, was that his radicalism was the response of a whole human being” (Statement, 66). But these failures and differences are not further specified; the absence of specificity leaves a blank that makes it all but impossible to evaluate Barber's political position. Moreover, Barber's emphasis on the political value of literary study remains entirely general: “Ohmann never considers whether this large group [the majority of the Modern Language Association membership] came out decisively against the [Vietnam] war, in a time when few were doing so, because their sensibilities were shaped by literary studies” (“Is There Hope,” 30). While plausible, this claim is not based on examples showing how the specific analysis of the particular content of individual works leads to political insight. Instead, Barber simply assumes the connection between literary sensibility and political liberalism. But how do we proceed from one to the other? The question of how the former produces the latter is unanswered.

To put the problem in terms of Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, I find it difficult to correlate this book with Barber's political commentary from the 1970s. Not only is the transition between the two not automatic, but also Shakespeare's Festive Comedy actively resists a neat, close fit between them. Far from suggesting a liberal stance, Barber's book is more often shaped by a conservative temperament. The issue here is not the conservatism of comic form, but the critic's implied relation to it. Thus the problem is not that Barber's view that Shakespeare's comedy supports social hierarchy is incorrect, but that Barber's own relation to this social construct seems one of identification and endorsement. Remarking on Barber's specific identification with a traditional conception of heterosexual masculinity, Alan Sinfield calls attention to this quality of endorsement: “My complaint is not that Barber is wrong about Twelfth Night, but that he is pleased about it” (Faultlines, 71).

F. O. Matthiessen begins with the idea of a democratic society. However imperfect his actual demonstration of this formulation, Matthiessen sees the works of the American authors he considers as “literature for our democracy” (1941, xv; cited by Barber, “Is There Hope,” 31). Barber, who is dealing with an earlier historical period, cannot have the same starting point. It would be anachronistic to read the royal absolutism and the aristocratic court of Elizabethan England in terms of democratic ideals. The comparative historical remoteness of his materials means that Barber does not have the direct connection to democracy on which Matthiessen insists. Nevertheless, this justification becomes a license when Barber can be seen as taking refuge in the remoteness of the period as though it granted a kind of political immunity: one can have via the past what one can no longer have in the present. As I noted in the Barber Festschrift (315), the chapter on The Merchant of Venice, with its romantic view of wealth and its too comfortable defense of the exclusions on which the final sense of community is based, is the most conspicuous example of this indulgent tendency, but the tendency is present throughout the book.

If we ask what image of society is communicated by Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, I think we must recognize that society has a double meaning that refers both to Renaissance England and to the mid-twentieth century America in which Barber was writing. His venture cannot be construed as a purely historical focus on Elizabethan culture, completely without implications for the present. Instead, Barber writes with the expectation that the “clarification” that he sees as the achievement of Shakespeare's comic form is a clarification for us as contemporary American spectators or readers as well as for the original Elizabethan audience. We are implicitly encouraged to imagine the versions of community he constructs for the comedies as applying to our own society. However, this doubling effect is largely unacknowledged; the two meanings of society are blurred rather than distinguished. The result, despite Barber's enormously sophisticated and perceptive criticism, is an overall conservative cast.

This conservative spin is produced by Barber's reliance on two mutually reinforcing principles—the organic work of art and the Elizabethan period's presumed organic community, especially in its festive aspect. The combined notions of aesthetic coherence and social coherence allow Barber to construct a comic vision that is both idealized and escapist. In Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, the critic's role crosses the line between analysis and participation. If the element of participation gives the book its special vitality, it also points to the book's limitation. For this participation is marked by forcing or overstating the argument on behalf of a conservative conclusion. We can feel the strain when we return to Barber's review of the book on Matthiessen: “Literary study can be, indeed I think usually is, a source of energy for politics which aims, whatever the tactical situation, at ‘fellowship in living’” (32). The political energy released by Shakespeare's Festive Comedy appears from a feminist standpoint as predominantly conservative.

The difference between Barber and subsequent feminist critics can be put in the form of two opposing definitions of comedy. In each case, the comic action is interpreted according to a different structural principle, which leads to a different view of the cultural function of comedy. In the first model, comedy is seen as a festive structure that culminates in a clarification that implies social renewal and harmony. In the second model, which sees comedy structured by sexual politics, the action involves unresolved gender conflict. Shakespeare's comedy displays but cannot resolve the problematic use of gender as an organizing category by which social order is secured. In Barber's version of “through release to clarification,” clarification entails social transformation and resolution. The feminist view concerns a very different clarification of the underlying costs of the final surface harmony; this view focuses on the unresolved issues as central rather than merely marginal or incidental to the comic conclusion.

Two further questions are whether comic effects must be regarded as consciously intended or not and whether they are subversive or not; these are two distinct issues because a given play can be subversive without being deliberately so. Barber and feminist critics tend to use a different set of criteria to pursue these questions. In Barber's case, the success of festive comedy is not guaranteed, but his concept of festive failure is formulated in artistic and psychological terms. If the festive process is not fully convincing, then Barber judges the play to be an artistic failure which is in turn explained as the individual artist's insufficient exploration and mastery of unconscious motives. One response to Barber's negative interpretation of lack of artistic control is to see such lack as only apparent and to portray comic irresolution as part of Shakespeare's calculated artistic design. However, this countermove is too limited because it only reverses the assessment while remaining within Barber's critical framework. The plays do indeed give expression to social turmoil and conflict over which the author does not exercise full control. But we can better attain a productive engagement with such conflict by shifting from Barber's virtually exclusive preoccupation with a psychological account of unconscious factors to a wider cultural and political view grounded in the concept of ideology.

It makes a difference whether one sees unconscious elements as purely psychological or primarily ideological. The latter puts analysis on a new basis by moving away from the image of the isolated artist wrestling with his interior psyche. This is not to say that psychology is irrelevant but rather to insist on its connection to larger, external social forces. Nor is it necessary to deny altogether the significance of the individual author: if the culture speaks the author, it is also still true that the individual author speaks a particular version of the culture. But the relative shift toward a cultural and ideological emphasis results in two major gains for a feminist theory of comedy.

First, when the interpretation of the dramatist's activity is reoriented toward a cultural approach, the author's work is now conceived as being ideologically implicated in the society's intractable tensions and ambivalences, and this complex investment is fluctuating, torn, and partly unconscious. Such a conception avoids the loaded expectations of aesthetic perfection and the artist's ultimate psychological maturity; it takes the pressure off Shakespeare's good or bad intentions as the sole determining factor in deciding whether a play is subversive.

Second, the cultural approach makes possible a more complicated understanding of popular culture. Just as Shakespeare's plays unavoidably express mixed emotions, so the festive institutions on which he draws are also mixed. Particularly telling is the way Peter Stallybrass uses the concept of “displaced abjection” to disrupt the easy equation of popular with the benevolently communal or with the progressive and protodemocratic: “in the inversions of carnival, abuse is often directed against weaker, not stronger, social groups—against women, ethnic and religious minorities …” (“The World Turned Upside Down,” 211; also Stallybrass and White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, 19, 53). As a consequence, popular festive culture cannot usefully be viewed in an all-or-nothing manner as either pure subversion or pure containment or, in Barber's method, as a smooth synthesis of the two in which subversive release is neatly followed by the renewal of social order. Transgressive effects are not guaranteed, but neither can they automatically be ruled out (Kastan and Stallybrass, Staging the Renaissance 5-7).

Stallybrass' outline of four distinct models of festivity—exemplified, respectively, by Max Gluckman, Mikhail Bakhtin, some versions of new historicism, and Antonio Gramsci—emphasizes the historical shifts involved in the critical development of the concept (“The World Turned Upside Down,” 216-17). Barber's view corresponds to Gluckman's notion of “temporary license” and is hence located in the fifties, where Gluckman's book precedes Barber's by three years. Thus to stress the differences between Barber's festive comedy and a feminist theory of comedy is in part to stress their historical difference. Barber's approach can be traced to his essays of 1942 and 1951 and thus to the context of World War II and the postwar period; feminist Shakespeare criticism originates in the very different situation of the 1970s and 1980s. The pressure of this historical gap prevents any neat meshing of the two.

Finally, Stallybrass' work contrasts sharply with Shakespeare's Festive Comedy because Stallybrass names the commitment that is missing in Barber, the engagement with “our own pressing political concerns: the question of how to articulate political struggles over class, gender and sexuality, ethnicity and race without subsuming one struggle under another” (“The World Turned Upside Down,” 201). Within the comic model presented in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, this question cannot be asked.


The reason The Merchant of Venice is a problem is that, of all the comedies, it most sharply raises the issues of ethnicity and ethnocentrism. C. L. Barber's chapter on the play—“The Merchants and the Jew of Venice: Wealth's Communion and an Intruder”—demonstrates the inability of his concept of festivity to address the issue of ethnicity.6 Barber raises the question of anti-Semitism (168) only to marshall all his critical powers to argue against its relevance to the play's ritual action. The creation of Christian “social solidarity” (186), which Barber's interpretation validates, makes the scapegoating of Shylock fully justifiable. Although Barber acknowledges that Shylock's presence “complicates the movement through release to clarification” (168), this complication is confined to Shylock's role as an individual character and does not, according to Barber, affect “the play's whole design” (191).

But Barber underestimates what is unusual in the play's design, which does not conform to the pastoral pattern of withdrawal into a green world followed by a clearly indicated return from it. Here the return is not to the real world but rather to the green world represented by Belmont, whose setting is decisively emphasized as the location for the long final scene. Because of this reversal, the normal sequence from release to clarification is disrupted. The pressure for release associated with Belmont occurs at the end and hence the forces of clarification, placed under enormous strain, are muted and blocked. For example, Portia's pious remark—“How far that little candle throws his beams! / So shines a good deed in a naughty world” (5.1.90-91)—seems less clarification than complacent sentimentality. Barber does his best to explain the conclusion as a legitimate happy ending, but the result in my view is that he constructs a literary critical fantasy that duplicates the play's escapism. His invocation of Christian wealth as “sharing in the grace of life” (186) is unconvincing because he refuses to admit the way in which Portia's use of mercy is itself a mechanism rather than a communal suspension of social machinery, a mechanism that Harry Berger's coinage “mercifixion” rightly exposes (“Marriage and Mercifixion”).

Part of the reason that Barber's response to the play is conspicuously inadequate is Barber's honesty in expressing his difficulties so openly. Despite his celebration of the ending, he acknowledges that the play leaves an “aftertaste” (190). He tries to explain this away by making a clear-cut distinction between watching or reading and thinking (189). But the distinction does not hold up; one does think as one views or reads. By separating out thinking Barber too transparently attempts to discredit his doubts by keeping them outside the bounds of the play. “Comedy, in one way or another, is always asking for amnesty” (186), says Barber, and this definition speaks to the emotional quality of his attachment to the play, as though his indulgently positive reading is the critical equivalent of getting “something-for-nothing” (186) and special pleading is needed to request amnesty on his own behalf. Yet Barber's doubts are relevant to the feeling of the play. When Norman Rabkin directly addresses the limitations of Barber's reading, he creates a more balanced interpretive framework by readmitting and incorporating the doubts recorded in Barber's suppressed asides.

More recently, Alan Sinfield's discussion of the play reinstates the issue of cultural differences as a key to interpretation (Faultlines, 299-302, also 292). Like C. L. Barber, though from a different perspective, Sinfield objects to the use of Shylock's “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech as a means of humanist recuperation of the play. For Barber, “humanitarian renderings that open all the stops” are “unhistorical” (182, 178). However, it does not follow that the only way to be historical is to support the play as Barber does. Sinfield's concept of “dissident reading” (301) suggests an alternative to Barber's historicism: Sinfield's dissidence transfers agency from the author to the reader, thereby empowering him or her to work against The Merchant of Venice's anti-Semitism.7

My reason for concentrating on The Merchant of Venice, however, is that this play is a problem not only for Barber but also for early feminist criticism. Reunderstanding the plays as dramatic enactments of a system of gendered power relations, feminist Shakespeare critics paid particular attention to the relative distribution of power between male and female characters. This focus led to a central concern with the tension in women's exercise of power between circumscription by, or circumvention of, forms of male authority. Two directions, both important, emerged from this concern: a new recognition of women characters' lack of power in ostensibly benevolent comic situations and a corresponding interest in cases where women elude the cooption of male taming and remain in possession of substantial power. Portia satisfies the need to find instances of powerful women. In her spectacular exhibition of female strength, she breaks the hold of her dead father, overcomes Antonio's claim on Bassanio, and brings both under her control. The ultimate demonstration of her power is the defeat of Shylock; therein lies the problem.

An unapologetic, intensive concentration on gender—the necessary starting point for feminist Shakespeare criticism—eventually risks becoming a narrow, exclusive focus on gender to the neglect of other forms of otherness. For example, to celebrate without reservation Portia's triumph over Shylock places the critic in the position of participating in anti-Semitic scapegoating. The danger is the selective reading that reproduces Barber's uncritical celebratory view of Portia. Rewriting Barber's Festive Comedy cannot focus only on the single strand of gender but must deal comprehensively with the whole mixture of gender and anti-Semitism. For discussions of the latter, one had in general to turn outside to critics not principally identified as feminist such as Greenblatt (1978), Cohen (1982), Mullaney (1985), and Stallybrass and White (1986, 53-56). However, the solution to this temporary limitation in feminist interpretation is not to abandon feminist criticism but rather to develop a feminist critique of Portia. What is required is a change in feminist criticism from a narrowly focused, single-issue gender approach to an expanded feminist framework based on a wider, more inclusive political vision.

In Part I of this essay I presented a sharp contrast between C.L. Barber's Festive Comedy and feminist interpretation. I now want to refine that distinction with a more complex three-part historical sequence by dividing feminist criticism itself into two waves. The first stage of feminist Shakespeare criticism occupies the decade from 1976 to 1985, 1976 being the date of the first MLA special session on feminist criticism of Shakespeare as noted in the Preface to The Woman's Part (Lenz, ix). This initial stage, characterized by a single-minded focus on gender, gave way to a second stage whose beginning can be traced to 1986, the moment of feminist criticism's encounter with new historicism and cultural materialism.8 A second factor at work in the modification of feminist Shakespeare criticism was the impact of new developments in feminism outside Renaissance studies, especially the emphasis on cultural differences among women in reaction against an earlier tendency to use woman as a monolithic category. This change can be seen, for example, in Adrienne Rich's second volume of essays, Blood, Bread, and Poetry. In place of a unified notion of woman as all women, Rich here stresses the complexity of identity coordinates—including sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, national location—that create significant differences among women, despite their common gender. In this connection, Rich specifically repudiates her identification with Portia:

I am the only Jewish girl in the class, and I am playing Portia. … I was encouraged to pretend to be a non-Jewish child acting a non-Jewish character who has to speak the word “Jew” emphatically. … And who would not dissociate from Shylock in order to identify with Portia? As a Jewish child who was also a female, I loved Portia—and, like every other Shakespearean heroine, she proved a treacherous role model. (104-5)

The principal feature of second-wave feminist Shakespeare criticism is a new interest in seeing gender in the larger context of multiple cultural variables. The distinction between the two stages of feminist criticism is not absolutely clear-cut; elements of the second are present in the first. Nevertheless, there is a definite shift of emphasis. Such a contrast between two successive versions of feminist criticism helps to suggest why the distance from Shakespeare's Festive Comedy is not the product of a single leap but rather an ongoing, increasing process. The goal of the present study is to further this process by contributing to the second wave of feminist Shakespeare criticism.

One way to think about the reorientation of feminist criticism in its second stage is to imagine an expanded framework capable of including Shylock and Othello. This combined image signifies feminist criticism's transgeneric commitment to reassess tragedy as well as comedy, while also emphasizing the need to encompass race and ethnicity in addition to gender. I therefore turn briefly to the issue of Othello's racism in order to test generic considerations. Is it the case that Shylock's cultural difference is not dissolved by universal humanity because he inhabits the narrow confines of comedy rather than the more capacious, noble-spirited realm of tragedy? If Shylock's specificity as a Jew cannot be transcended, then perhaps Othello's particular identity as a black man is, and for reasons of genre. Shylock and Othello present two different versions of the outsider; where Shylock is shown to be unredeemable, Othello is assimilable. Despite the theoretical possiblity of Shylock's conversion, he is permanently excluded from the Christian community. Othello, by contrast, has from the start of the play already been redeemed by his service to the Christian state. Shylock loses his daughter to Christian society, while Othello crosses the color line to win the daughter of a Venetian noble. Yet the difference between the social standings of Shylock and Othello is less significant than it first appears, for it turns out that Othello is not redeemable after all. Othello himself testifies to the self-contradiction at the heart of his assimilated identity when his suicide dramatizes his sense of splitting apart: “I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog / And smote him thus” (5, 2, 355-56).9

Or if Othello can be redeemed, it is not through his own actions but rather through the convention of tragic pity. Tragedy is seen as a privileged genre because tragic compassion is conceived as one of the most valuable points of access to the universally human. The premise is that at the height of his tragic crisis we feel with and through Othello because he might be any one of us—Othello is potentially not just any black man or even any man, but any human being. However, this universalizing progression is precisely what feminist criticism questions, even in the context of Shakespearean tragedy.

Tragedy does endow Othello with a complexity of language and depth of characterization lacking in Shylock. Othello's situation is excruciatingly painful and heartrending. But this is not to escape the particularity of his identity as a black man by rendering it transcendent and thereby transferable without regard to cultural difference. Nor does it mean that the stereotypical force of that particularity is entirely concealed. As Rosalie Colie pointed out, Shakespeare begins Othello by breaking the stereotype of the black man, but he ends by fulfilling it. The concept of universal humanity embodied in tragic pity assumes that convincing depth of character and stereotyping are, by definition, mutually exclusive; but this assumption too easily equates sympathy with the translation into universality.

A feminist critique asks what implicit cultural work is conducted under the name of tragic pity. In traditional genre criticism tragic pity is a mechanism for getting around the problem of Othello's blackness by means of denial. What the concept of tragic compassion does as the vehicle for shaping our relations with Othello is enable a shift from the quite specific anxiety aroused by black male violence in a sexual context to the more comfortable, consoling exercise of our capacity for pity. But the shift which is felt to ennoble both Othello and us is made at the expense of Othello's specific identity. For the pity that establishes our universal bond with Othello depends on our forgetting or erasing his blackness. Feminist criticism proposes to intervene in the transaction of tragic pity prior to the point where such universalism is reached, before racial specificity has been set aside and bypassed.

The ultimate institutional form of community in the Renaissance is emergent nationalism, as we can hear in the following defensive repetition of the word nation: “Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal—what ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?” This quotation comes of course from a history play, the genre where we expect to find English national self-assertion and self-definition. The reason that this utterance is made to sound comical is that the nation in question is not England but Ireland, which from an English standpoint is not a genuinely independent and civilized country but rather a subordinate entity in an overaching vision of British imperial unity. I would apply this quotation across genres because I believe we need to consider the comedies and tragedies as sites where, regardless of setting, images of English nationhood are created.

The expanded critical vocabulary of the second wave of feminist Shakespeare criticism considers sexuality, ethnicity, and class along with gender as multiple components that contribute to the structuring not only of individual identity but also of national identity. Shakespearean conceptions of nation have an application beyond their immediate British origins, as the current debates over the role of Shakespeare in the American curriculum attest.


The most dramatic sign to date of a second wave of feminist criticism is the publication of Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker's groundbreaking collection, Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period. Fourteen years after The Woman's Part placed gender on the critical map, Women, “Race,” and Writing now establishes the topic of race as a major issue in Renaissance studies. One of the striking features of this new volume is the relative absence of the founders of first-wave feminist Shakespeare criticism. With the exception of Lynda Boose, the contributors represented in this collection were not participants in the initial feminist effort of the late seventies. In fact, the collection is explicit in its criticism of feminist predecessors. The lead essay by Ania Loomba eloquently spells out its critical disagreements with work by Carol Neely and Lynda Boose.10

While acknowledging the validity of Loomba's criticism, I want to suggest that the relations between earlier and later feminist critics can be figured in another way as well. Consider the substantial overlap between Women, “Race,” and Writing and Marianne Novy's collection, Cross-Cultural Performances, published less than six months before. Novy's two-volume project on women's revisions of Shakespeare has included six of the ten original feminist critics (Greene, Neely, Novy, Sprengnether, Swift, and myself) and can therefore be taken as one current extension of first-wave feminism.11 In particular, Cross-Cultural Performances, Novy's second collection, not only focuses on race but includes three principal contributors to Women, “Race,” and Writing (Callaghan, Ferguson and Loomba). Thus external developments are matched by internal changes within the first-wave feminist group. My point about the symbolic intersection of Cross-Cultural Performances and Women, “Race,” and Writing is not that the two collections are synchronized in perfect harmony but rather that their conjunction marks an area of enormous productive possibility. The introduction of race both enlarges and reconstitutes the field of feminist interpretation in the Renaissance. Only when the two collections are taken together can we feel the full force of this critical expansion and reformulation.

Beyond the general emphasis on race as a legitimate and crucial topic in the early modern period, I want to note two specific points of contact between the two collections. First, the concern with representations of Shakespeare in twentieth-century literature demonstrated in the essay by Jyotsna Singh that concludes Women, “Race,” and Writing has a clear affinity with the case studies of revision in the Novy collections. Second, Singh's startling redirection of the very word “historicize”—“African revisions historicize Othello's wrenching psychic conflicts within the violence of colonial/postcolonial history” (291-92)—bespeaks a sense of history that is shared across the boundaries of different modes of feminist Shakespeare criticism. This note is sounded elsewhere in Women, “Race,” and Writing.

The focus in the present volume on the period from the early sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries similarly allows interconnections frequently obscured by a periodization that limits itself to a particular century. …

The volume, finally, seeks … to build bridges with contemporary work on “race,” postcoloniality, and difference, in the hope that scholars separated by disciplinary, chronological, cultural and linguistic boundaries can begin to see the historical interconnectedness of their labors. … (3-4)

I have argued for this approach, however, not in the interests of “accuracy,” but rather in the hope of pressuring our assumptions about the relations between current political concerns and the texts of the past and how we go about reading them. For as postcolonial theorists so eloquently and forcefully insist, the past must address its present. (177)

The historicist objection against anachronism can be useful if it helps us avoid simplistic conflations, but the objection should not prevent us from seeking evidence pertaining to the types of systematic social inequities. … To stop the search for significant traces of such inequities is to accept an academic argument for hermeneutic “purity” that is arguably an ideological defense against seeing continuities between systematic injustices in past societies … and in our own. The effort of interrogating modern notions of race, class, and gender by comparing them (as it were) to earlier historical versions of these notions—and vice versa—seems to me crucial to the intellectual work of US feminism in the 1990s. (212)

Such aspirations to “historical interconnectedness” are also present in Cross-Cultural Performances. This stance cannot be dismissed as “unhistorical.” Rather, it expresses a different conception of history based on wider cross-period spans, a conception, now being refined, that has arguably been a strength of feminist criticism from the beginning.


  1. In her essay “‘The Warrant of Womanhood,’” Ann Thompson provides an account of feminist criticism that emphasizes British developments.

  2. The original core group of feminist Shakespeare critics is here defined as comprising ten critics: Janet Adelman, Lynda Boose, Shirley Nelson Garner, Gayle Greene, Coppélia Kahn, Carol Thomas Neely, Marianne Novy, Madelon [Gohlke] Sprengnether, Carolyn Ruth Swift [Lenz], and myself. The format of a list, however, should not be taken as suggesting a unified entity. There are important variations and conflicts within this grouping; these individuals are united only in their commitment to feminist criticism. Moreover, after the initial feminist breakthrough, the careers of these critics move in quite different directions.

  3. Further details are available in the concluding essay of the Festschrift, “In Memory of C. L. Barber.” I also discuss Barber in my Introduction to Harry Berger's Making Trifles of Terrors. Psychoanalytic skepticism suggests, for example, that if I am working out of the tradition of Barber's Festive Comedy, as I do, then by definition I cannot work my way out of that tradition, as I claim. Yet we inherit multiple traditions: where one holds us back, another enables us to move forward. The notion of alternate resources helps to explain how it becomes possible to break the hold of the circular logic that psychoanalytic thinking tends to impose.

  4. The confusion is compounded because Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays and The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare were published in the same year and seem closely associated in spirit. Yet the one essay by Madelon [Gohlke] Sprengnether that appeared in both volumes begins to show the tensions between feminist and psychoanalytic approaches that prevent their simple fusion.

  5. Though copies of Kahn's and Montrose's papers were distributed to seminar participants, neither paper has been published. Both, however, are significant early indications of a critical response to received ideas of comic action.

  6. I give detailed commentary on the racial dimension of The Merchant of Venice in “Representations of Blacks and Blackness,” 520-21.

  7. See also Ania Loomba's related differentiation between the agency of characters and authors, on the one hand, and the agency of readers, on the other: “The ideological positions contained within a text—even if we could agree what these are—are not binding on its readers/spectators/critics” (“The Color of Patriarchy,” 25).

  8. My Afterword to Cross-Cultural Performances, edited by Marianne Novy, provides a summary overview.

  9. My discussion of Othello in Patriarchal Structures (80-103), which includes this analysis of Othello's final speech (100), corresponds at many points with Jyotsna Singh's “Othello's Identity.” Yet a crucial segment of my argument concerning race is relegated to a footnote (188-89 n10) and this difficulty illustrates the distinction I am making between first-wave and second-wave feminist criticism. Race is not completely absent, but its presence is uneasily tangential. It is as though, writing in the second half of the seventies, I could not yet focus centrally and simultaneously on both gender and race. Also pertinent is Alan Sinfield's candid notation with respect to Othello: “I am not happy that race and sexuality tend to feature in distinct parts of this chapter …” (Faultlines, 310 n31). Such a dilemma signals the need for the critical reformulation made possible by what I am calling the second wave. In my own development, two subsequent steps address the issue of race directly: the chapter on Gloria Naylor in Rewriting Shakespeare and the essay on “Representations of Blacks and Blackness.”

  10. With regard to Carol Neely's work, two points must be noted. First, Neely has acknowledged Ania Loomba's criticism of her inattention to Othello's race (“Loss and Recovery,” 186, 192 n10). Second, Neely's retrospective Preface to the paperback edition of Broken Nuptials exemplifies her transition from first-wave to second-wave feminist interpretation; in particular, the title of her final section indicates the shift of critical attention to “Ethnicity, Race, and Class.”

  11. Novy's project is by no means the only example. Another significant and related strand is the two volumes co-edited by Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn: Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism (1985) and Changing Subjects: The Making of Feminist Literary Criticism (1993).

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Barber, C. L. “Is There Hope for English?” New York Review of Books (May 27, 1976): 29-32.

———. “The Saturnalian Pattern in Shakespeare's Comedy.” Sewanee Review 59 (1951): 593-611.

———. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959.

———. [Statement.] A Symposium on Political Activism and the Academic Conscience: The Harvard Experience, 1936-1941. Geneva, N.Y.: Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 1975. 63-66.

———. “The Use of Comedy in As You Like It.” Philological Quarterly 21 (1942): 353-67.

Barton, Anne. “As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending.” Shakespearean Comedy. Ed. Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer. New York: Crane, Russak, 1972. 160-80.

Belsey, Catherine. “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies.” Alternative Shakespeares. Ed. John Drakakis. London: Methuen, 1985. 166-90.

Berger, Harry, Jr. “Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 156-62.

Cohen, Walter. “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism.” ELH 49 (1982): 765-89.

Colie, Rosalie. “Othello and the Problematics of Love.” Shakespeare's Living Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974. 135-67.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Erickson, Peter. “Afterwood: ‘Trying Not to Forget.’” Cross-Cultural Performances: Differences in Women's Re-Visions of Shakespeare. Ed. Marianne Novy. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993. 251-64.

———. “In Memory of C. L. Barber: ‘The man working in his works.”’ Shakespeare's “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber. Ed. Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1985. 303-22.

———. Introduction. Harry Berger, Jr. Making Trifles of Terrors: Redistributing Complicities in Shakespeare. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997. xxv-xxxviii.

———. Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

———. “Representations of Blacks and Blackness in the Renaissance.” Criticism 35 (1993): 499-526.

———. Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

Erickson, Peter and Coppélia Kahn, eds. Shakespeare's “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1985.

Frye, Northrop. “The Argument of Comedy.” English Institute Essays, 1948. Ed. D. A. Robertson. New York: Columbia UP, 1949. 58-73.

———. A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. New York: Columbia UP, 1965.

Garner, Shirley Nelson. “A Midsummer Night's Dream: ‘Jack shall have Jill; / Nought shall go ill.’” Women's Studies 9, 1 (1981): 47-63.

Gohlke [Sprengnether], Madelon. “‘All that is spoke is marred’: Language and Consciousness in Othello.” Women's Studies 9, 2 (1982): 157-76.

Greenblatt, Stephen J. “Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism.” Critical Inquiry 5 (1978): 291-307.

Greene, Gayle and Coppélia Kahn, eds. Changing Subjects: The Making of Feminist Literary Criticism. London: Routledge, 1993.

———. Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Greene, Gayle and Carolyn Ruth Swift, eds. Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Women's Studies 9, 1 (1981) and 9, 2 (1982).

Hendricks, Margo and Patricia Parker, eds. Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period. London: Routledge, 1994.

Howard, Jean E. “The Difficulties of Closure: An Approach to the Problematic in Shakespearean Comedy.” Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan: Change and Continuity in the English and European Dramatic Tradition. Ed. A. R. Braunmuller and J. C. Bulman. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1986. 113-28.

Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Brighton: Harvester P, 1983.

Kahn, Coppélia. “‘Jack shall have Jill’: Gender and Genre in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy.” Paper presented to the seminar on “Gender and Genre” at the World Shakespeare Congress, Stratford-on-Avon, 1981.

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Kastan, David Scott and Peter Stallybrass, eds. Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Laroque, François. Shakespeare's Festive Worlds: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Lenz, Carolyn Ruth Swift, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely, eds. The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Loomba, Ania. “The Color of Patriarchy: Critical Difference, Cultural Difference, and Renaissance Drama.” Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period. Ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker. London: Routledge, 1994. 17-34.

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Montrose, Louis Adrian. “A ‘Natural’ Perspective?: Northrop Frye and the Ideology of Shakespearean Comedy.” Paper presented to the seminar on “Gender and Genre” at the World Shakespeare Congress, Stratford-on-Avon, 1981.

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———. Review of C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler, The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development. Renaissance Quarterly 42 (1989): 351-54.

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Sinfield, Alan. Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.

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Stallybrass, Peter. “The World Turned Upside Down: Inversion, Gender and the State,” The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed. Valerie Wayne. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991. 201-20.

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Further Reading

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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 Shakespeare portrays in King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing.

Richmond, Hugh M. “The Feminism of Shakespeare's Henry VIII.Essays in Literature 6, No. 1 (Spring 1979): 11-20.

Maintains that Henry VIII offers a more positive portrait of strong women—with Anne, Katherine, and Elizabeth—than the earlier history plays do.

Waller, Marguerite. “Usurpation, Seduction, and the Problematics of the Proper: A ‘Deconstructive,’ ‘Feminist’ Rereading of the Seductions of Richard and Anne in Shakespeare's Richard III.” In Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, pp. 159-75. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Argues, using a deconstructive approach, that both the tradition of critical commentary on Richard III,and the history of its performance reproduce Richard III's silencing of female characters.

Wayne, Valerie, ed. The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, 277 p.

A collection of essays by materialist feminists that focus on such topics as gender issues, patriarchy, and misogyny in Shakespeare's plays and in English Renaissance culture.

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