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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.
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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?
See the Drakakis “Introduction” to Alternative Shakespeare.
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.
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.
Hill, “Sex, Marriage, and the Family,” p. 450.
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).
Gardiner, “Mind Mother,” p. 114.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Renaissance marriage ritual, see Boose, “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare.”
McLuskie, p. 106.
Erickson, p. 171.
McLuskie, pp. 97, 98, 106.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cohen's paper will appear in the forthcoming Howard and O’Connor volume.
Stallybrass “Patriarchal Territories,” p. 125.
Greenblatt, “Fiction and Friction,” p. 52.
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.
Goldberg, “Shakespearean Inscriptions” pp. 118, 134.
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.”
Pechter, p. 301.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9565
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.
FEMINISMS, SEXUALITIES, AND GENDER CRITIQUE
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.
THE “NEW” HUMANISM?
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 Lear “leaves 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.
DANGEROUS KNOWLEDGE: THE INSTANCE OF CROSS-DRESSING
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.
GENDER CRITIQUE, CROSS-DRESSING, AND ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
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.
See Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore (Manchester, 1985).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Jacqueline Rose, “Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London, 1985), pp. 95-118.
See Jonathan Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” in Sinfield and Dollimore, pp. 72-87.
Barbara Babcock, The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society (Ithaca, 1978), p. 32.
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.
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.
See Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, tr. Richard Miller (New York, 1975).
Ruth Karras, “The Regulation of Brothels in Later Medieval England,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 14 (1989), 426.
Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” p. 85.
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.
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.
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.
See Richard Plant, The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (Edinburgh, 1987).
It is described in Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London, 1976).
Martin Jay, “Hierarchy and the Humanities: The Radical Implications of a Conservative Idea,” Telos, 62 (Winter 1984-85), 131-44.
George Steiner, Language and Silence (New York, 1967), p. ix.
See Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Chicago, 1984).
Richard Wilson, “Beyond the Pale: Renaissance Writing and the New Historicism,” rev. of Radical Tragedy, by Jonathan Dollimore, Literature and History, 14 (1988), 213.
The new introduction to the second edition of Radical Tragedy (Brighton, 1989) gives a fuller account of this work.
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.
See Laura Levine, “Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization from 1579-1642,” Criticism, 28 (1986), 126, 128; hereafter cited in text.
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.
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.
See Kevin Sharpe and Stephen Zwicker, Politics of Discourse (Berkeley, 1987), pp. 4-5.
Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven, 1985), pp. 159, 160.
Margaret Lamb, Antony and Cleopatra on the English Stage (London, 1980), p. 172; hereafter cited in text.
See Linda Woodbridge [L. T. Fitz], “Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 28 (1977), 297-316.
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9091
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.
I. FESTIVE VERSUS FEMINIST
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.
II. THE MERCHANT OF VENICE AND THE PROBLEM OF FEMINIST SHAKESPEARE CRITICISM
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.
III. RACE AND THE RECONSTITUTION OF THE FEMINIST FIELD
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.
In her essay “‘The Warrant of Womanhood,’” Ann Thompson provides an account of feminist criticism that emphasizes British developments.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I give detailed commentary on the racial dimension of The Merchant of Venice in “Representations of Blacks and Blackness,” 520-21.
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).
My Afterword to Cross-Cultural Performances, edited by Marianne Novy, provides a summary overview.
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.”
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.”
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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———. “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.
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———. “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.
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———. A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. New York: Columbia UP, 1965.
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Greenblatt, Stephen J. “Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism.” Critical Inquiry 5 (1978): 291-307.
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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.
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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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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10216
SOURCE: “‘This Is and Is Not Cressid’: The Characterization of Cressida,” in The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether, Cornell University Press, 1985, pp. 119-41.
[In the essay that follows, Adelman studies the portrayal of Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, arguing that the play encourages the fantasy that Cressida somehow becomes “radically unknowable” when she is separated from Troilus, and that when this shift occurs the audience is forced to view Cressida in the same way the other characters do.]
When Troilus responds to the sight of Diomed's Cressida with the words that I have taken for the title of this essay, we feel, as so often in this play of divisions, a divided duty. On the one hand, we are bound to respond responsibly to Troilus' attempt to preserve his illusions at any cost as mad, a near-psychotic denial of an obvious reality. On the other hand, Troilus' words trouble us partly because they respond to something that we have found troubling about Cressida; and insofar as they echo our dim sense that this is not Cressida, we find ourselves caught up in his psychosis.1 I shall argue that we are at this moment divided against ourselves because, at the deepest level, Troilus and Cressida enacts Troilus' fantasies, hence ensnaring us in them even as it encourages our distance from him: as Cressida becomes Diomed's, in an important sense she ceases to be her own creature; as she becomes Diomed's, she becomes oddly the creature of Troilus' needs. In fact, the shift in her status that Troilus articulates here is earlier registered in a change not so much in her character as in the means by which she is characterized and hence in the relationship that we as well as Troilus have toward her. For Cressida's inconstancy is accompanied by a radical inconsistency of characterization; and both occur at once because both are reflections of the same fantasy.
Critics frequently dismiss Cressida as “the wanton of tradition,”2 but when we first meet her, we feel her presence not as a stereotype but as a whole character. Throughout 1.2 we are encouraged to speculate about her motives; and by the end of the scene we seem to have established a privileged relationship with her. After our discomfort with Troilus' self-indulgent romanticizing and poeticizing (1.1.57-61, 102-8) we are likely to find Cressida's literalizing and deflating wit refreshing; she at least is not wallowing in imaginary lily beds.3 And in the process of engaging us by her wit, Cressida calls attention to its psychic function and hence to her status as a whole character whose psychic processes may legitimately concern us: she relies, she tells Pandarus, on her wit to defend her wiles (1.2.273). In taking up Pandarus' metaphor of defense, she suggests the defensive function of her wit as a means of warding off serious emotion with all its threats, perhaps especially the threat of sexual vulnerability implicit in her image of pregnancy (1.2.270-82). On the other hand, we may notice that she seems to regard sexuality itself as a defense when she tells us that she will lie on her back to defend her belly; given our knowledge of the story, we may even begin to speculate that her view of sexuality as a defense will play a role in her defection to Diomed. Even while she keeps Pandarus at bay, that is, she teases us to question her. And just as we are speculating about her motives, she suddenly reveals herself, and to us alone. Her soliloquy confirms our sense that her chief concern is with her vulnerability and her means of defense against it: her entire strategy is directed toward gaining control over Troilus, her entire assumption that he will no longer love her once he has possessed her. In a declaration of passion filled with calculation, a statement of love from which Troilus himself is notably absent, replaced by abstract dicta about the typical behavior of men, in couplets so constricted that they suggest a fundamental niggardliness of the self, Cressida reveals the way in which her awareness of the crippling malaise of this world, the gap between expectation and performance, colors her own expectations about Troilus and hence her behavior:4 she is coy because “men prize the thing ungained more than it is” (1.2.301). It is an understatement to say that she has no sense of her own intrinsic worth. She seems to have internalized the principle of valuation that rules this society, the principle implied by Troilus' question “What’s aught but as ’tis valued?” (2.2.52). Echoing the commercial language that so infects human relationships throughout the play, she identifies herself as a thing, in fact seems to identify herself with her “thing,” and tells us that this thing gains its value not through any intrinsic merit but through its market value, determined by its scarcity. Beneath the deflating tendencies of her wit, then, the soliloquy reveals her vulnerability, her dependence on the love of men to establish her value even for herself, and her sense that her best defense lies in holding off, concealing her own desires.5 And whatever we may feel about the self thus revealed, we feel that it is a self: the very structure of the scene establishes in us a keen sense both of Cressida's inwardness and of our own privileged position as the recipient of her revelations.
By the end of this scene, then, we have established not only some sense of Cressida but also the expectation that we will be allowed to know her as a full character, that she will maintain her relationship with us. And the scenes in Troy do not, for the most part, disappoint us. Although they contain no private revelations like that which concluded 1.2, they continually focus our attention on Cressida's inwardness by making us question her motives, even by making Cressida herself question her motives. When next we see her in 3.2 she amplifies our sense that fear, especially fear of betrayal, defines her relationship not only to Troilus but to herself (ll. 68-74); throughout 3.2 she seems terribly divided between impulses toward a self-protective and manipulative coyness and impulses toward a self-revelation that she feels as dangerous, even as self-betrayal. Given her vision of a world in which “things won are done” (1.2.299), in which her coy refusal seems the necessary basis for Troilus' faith (and indeed for Troilus' vision of himself as suffering lover), she cannot simply make herself known. She can be true to herself only by hiding herself; in revealing herself, she fears that she has committed a self-betrayal that will be the model for Troilus' betrayal of her: “Why have I blabbed? Who shall be true to us / When we are so unsecret to ourselves?” (3.2.126-27). But even as she chides herself for her apparent loss of self-control, she ends with a plea (“Stop my mouth”) that both Troilus and Pandarus seem to take as the coquette's coy request for a kiss. As though in response to Troilus' suspicion, her reply to his kiss stresses the authenticity of her loss of control: “’Twas not my purpose thus to beg a kiss. / I am ashamed. O heavens, what have I done? / For this time will I take my leave, my lord” (3.2.139-41). In her fear of self-betrayal, Cressida tries to leave Troilus in order to leave her unreliable, “unkind” self, the self that has betrayed her to become Troilus' fool:
Troilus. What offends you, lady? Cressida. Sir, mine own company. Troilus. You cannot shun yourself. Cressida. Let me go and try. I have a kind of self resides with you; But an unkind self, that itself will leave To be another's fool. I would be gone. Where is my wit? I know not what I speak.
She can see love only as foolish self-abandonment; and the loss of her defensive wit seems to leave her utterly vulnerable.6 Troilus' reply to this extraordinary revelation of her fear is devastating: “Well know they what they speak that speak so wisely” (l. 153). He cannot believe in—almost cannot hear—Cressida's perilous revelation of self. And in the face of his continued assumption that she is in control, that her self-revelation, like her request that her mouth be stopped, is part of the coquette's craft, she herself is brought to challenge the authenticity of her loss of control, hence of her unkind, loving self: “Perchance, my lord, I show more craft than love, / And fell so roundly to a large confession / To angle for your thoughts” (ll. 154-56). For Cressida at this moment, as for Troilus, there are only two choices: she is either a loving fool or a crafty coquette. And in the context created both by her own fears and by Troilus' expectations, there is no true choice. She reestablishes her dignity both for herself and for Troilus by retreating from self-revelation and from love: regaining her wit, she suggests that even her loss of self may be self-controlled, simultaneously fulfilling Troilus' expectation that she will be a stereotypical coquette and defending herself against her own fears of self-betrayal. Her retreat from her unkind self here may strike us as oddly prophetic of her later defection from Troilus; in the vow at the end of the scene, Cressida strikingly imagines herself as stereotypically false rather than true. Cressida's unkind self does not emerge again in 3.2.7 In fact, the whole scene moves toward the increasing distance and contrivance reflected in the final vows, in which each of the triad threatens to become no more than his or her name: threatens, that is, to lose depth of character, to become merely stereotypical. That is, if we see Cressida as a stereotypical coquette in 3.2, we also see her taking on this role in response to specific psychological pressures; we are never allowed to see her merely as an uncomplicated type character.
Whether or not we feel that we understand Cressida in 3.2, and whatever the terms of our understanding, the scene clearly focuses on her inner state. Our most intense engagement is with her: throughout the scene, Troilus does indeed seem “simpler than the infancy of truth” (l. 171) compared to her. Her next appearance, in 4.2, continues this intense engagement. In abandoning the caution of her 1.2 soliloquy, Cressida has shown more love than craft; and with the consummation of their union, she feels herself defenseless, as though her betrayal of herself threatens to turn at any moment into Troilus' betrayal of her. As Troilus attempts to leave her to preserve the secrecy of their union, she asks poignantly, “Are you aweary of me?” (4.2.7). Then, as though she wishes magically to prolong their sexual relationship by undoing it, she adds, “O foolish Cressid! I might have still held off, / And then you would have tarried” (ll. 17-18). This scene is in the normal pattern of Shakespearean morning-after scenes, in which the woman typically wishes to hold the man with her while the man asserts the necessities of the outside world. But both Romeo and Antony seem to have more pressing reasons for leaving than Troilus; and neither Juliet nor Cleopatra responds to the parting with the sense of betrayal, and of the reasons for betrayal, that Cressida expresses here.8 Immediately after the consummation, that is, the lovers seem already separate. And the rest of the scene—indeed, the rest of the plot—in some sense constitutes an objective correlative to that separateness.9 The entrance of Pandarus underscores the separation. Cressida knows that her “naughty mocking uncle” (l. 25) will mock her. But by the end of their exchange, she feels Troilus' smile as mockery too: “You smile and mock me, as if I meant naughtily” (l. 37). The repetition of “mock” and “naughty” suggests a fusion of the two men in her mind; and Troilus' laugh (l. 38) may imply that the fusion is not simply in Cressida's mind. As the lovers leave the stage, Troilus indeed seems more allied with Pandarus than with Cressida.10 And at this point the plot makes the separation between them literal. Aeneas brings the news of the political trade-off that will shape their final separation, and that separation is reflected immediately in dramatic terms: the lovers respond to this news not as a united pair but separately; we do not see them together again in this scene. Moreover, as each of the lovers responds to the news of separation, the tensions of the opening of the scene are clarified. Troilus responds rather easily to the news of the exchange. He accepts it as a fait accompli (“Is it so concluded?” [l. 66]), philosophizes upon it as though Cressida were merely one of his “achievements” (“How my achievements mock me!” [l. 69]), and makes arrangements to meet this new necessity and preserve his honor (ll. 70-71), all without any show of overwhelming emotion.11 In the context of Troilus' ready acceptance of the news, Cressida's response to it is doubly impressive: the extremity of her grief, her assertion that nothing but Troilus matters to her, and her refusal to accept the separation (“I will not go from Troy” [l. 111]) make her response not only the most powerful assertion of her love for Troilus but also one of the most emotionally charged moments in the play.
When the lovers are reunited after this brief separation, the tone of passionate expostulation has passed from Cressida to Troilus: he makes the speeches, while she replies with a numb repeated questioning of the necessity of separation (4.4.28, 30, 31, 32, 54), concluding finally by asking, “When shall we see again?” (l. 57). During the opening movement of the scene, that is, she seems painfully resistant to the bare fact of separation, while he embellishes it rhetorically, acquiescing. The emotional focus of the scene then moves from the acknowledgment of separation to Troilus' fears about Cressida's fidelity and her pained and puzzled responses to those fears. She responds first with surprise and indignation (ll. 59, 74), then with the fear that he does not love her (l. 82), and finally with a question that reflects not only her shaken faith in Troilus but also her shaken faith in herself: “Do you think I will?” (l. 92). The last words that we hear her speak to Troilus recall her own fear of being betrayed: “My lord, will you be true?” (l. 101). And these two questions—“Do you think I will?”; “My lord, will you be true?”—are the last we hear from Troilus' Cressida. We have been engaged throughout with Cressida's fears and her defenses against them; but suddenly, at the moment she is about to part from Troilus, she recedes from us. As Troilus and Diomed quarrel over her, she stands silent, as though she has become merely the object of their desire (and their competition), as though she has no voice of her own.
This sudden move into opacity remains constant for the rest of the play. In the next scene (4.5), when she kisses the Greek camp generally, she speaks her first words only after she has been kissed by Agamemnon, Nestor, Achilles, and Patroclus; her banter then seems both a response to Greek expectations about her and a return to the earlier mode of 1.2, that is, to a sexual wit that serves an essentially defensive function. But we are given no reassuring soliloquy to enable us to support this understanding; she simply exits, distressingly, with Diomed. She seems suddenly to have passed beyond us as she has passed from Troilus to Diomed. Ulysses assessment of her as merely a daughter of the game (4.5.63) is disquieting partly because it offers us an explanation for her behavior just when we are feeling the need for one, in the absence of one by Cressida herself. Ulysses' commentary asks us to see someone that we have seen as a whole character, someone whose inwardness we alone have been privy to, as a mere character type, a person with no conflict or inwardness at all; and Shakespeare does nothing to qualify Ulysses' appraisal. The Cressida with whom we have been engaged simply does not allow us to understand her, here or later in the play. We may speculate that she leaves Troilus because his suspicion of her and his relatively easy acquiescence in the separation make her feel unknown and unloved. We may speculate that she leaves him because she fears that he will leave her, in order to ensure that she will be actively in control of her fate rather than the passive victim of his will. We may note her entire vulnerability in this society and her reliance on the opinion of men to determine her value even for herself and hence speculate that she adopts Troilus' view of her capacity for fidelity to prove his expectations right. We may locate the basis for her actions in her own pleasure in the excitement of the chase, her use of sexuality as a defense, even her genetic predisposition to treason, inherited from her father—and probably an actress will have to attempt some such construction in order to play the part at all. But after 4.4, the play gives us no place to ground our speculation: at exactly the moment at which we most need to understand what Cressida is doing, we not only are given no enlightenment but are forced to acknowledge our distance from Cressida by the structure of the scene itself. In 5.3 we are allowed to see Cressida only through the intervening commentary of Troilus, Ulysses, and Thersites. Instead of being especially privy to her thoughts, we become merely one more spectator to her new status as devalued object; indeed, we take our places as the furthest removed of the spectators as we watch Thersites watching Ulysses watching Troilus watching Cressida. That is, Cressida seems to betray us at the same time that she betrays Troilus; our relationship with her is broken off as sharply as hers with Troilus.
This abrupt shift in the mode of characterization, and hence in the distance between character and audience, seems to me to override any argument about Cressida's consistency or inconsistency as her allegiance shifts from Troilus to Diomedes: we know so little about her at this moment that we can no longer judge her as a whole character. But the timing of the shift may give us a way of understanding it, even if we can’t understand her. The play seems to enact the fantasy that Cressida becomes radically unknowable, irreducibly other, at the moment of her separation from Troilus. And since Troilus can make no sense of the Cressida he sees in the Greek camp except by assuming that she is somehow split in two, the shift in the mode of characterization forces us to participate in his fantasy about her; even Cressida seems to participate in this fantasy when she offers as her only explanation for her actions her own helpless sense that she is split (“Troilus, farewell. One eye yet looks on thee, / But with my heart the other eye doth see” [5.2.104-5]). In order to begin to understand the change in the characterization of Cressida, then, I think we have to explore the bases for Troilus' fantasy of her as split.
Troilus is forced to imagine the existence of two Cressidas, his and Diomed's, in order to maintain his sense of Cressida's identity and hence to preserve his union with her:
This she? No, this is Diomed's Cressida. If beauty have a soul, this is not she; If souls guide vows, if vows be sanctimonies, If sanctimony be the gods' delight, If there be rule in unity itself, This was not she.
The movement of this speech makes it clear that wholeness of every kind depends for Troilus on the maintenance of his union with Cressida. So essential is that union that he will sacrifice even the “rule in unity”—the rule that guarantees that a thing must be itself and not something else—to it: to preserve his union with Cressida, he divides “a thing inseparate … more wider than the sky and earth” (5.2.145-46), splitting Cressida in two, separating his own Cressida from Diomed's. As reason revolts against itself to proclaim her not herself (5.2.141), Troilus' language becomes dense in its struggle to affirm and deny separation simultaneously:
This is, and is not, Cressid. Within my soul there doth conduce a fight Of this strange nature that a thing inseparate Divides more wider than the sky and earth; And yet the spacious breadth of this division Admits no orifex for a point as subtle As Ariachne's broken woof to enter.
There is division in a thing inseparate, but it is a division that is no division, in which there is no orifex. Both Cressida herself and his union with her are this separated thing inseparable. The assertion and denial of separation are fused here because Troilus asserts one separation to deny another: only by insisting on the division of Cressida in two can he preserve the wholeness of her identity for him and hence preserve their union.
For Troilus, the idea of union must override any sense of Cressida as a person separate from himself; Cressida becomes simply that with whom one is united and hence ceases to be herself at the moment the union dissolves.12 We can begin to understand the force of this union for Troilus and hence the pressures behind his act of splitting as we watch his initial response to Cressida's betrayal:
Troilus. Was Cressid here? Ulysses. I cannot conjure, Troyan. Troilus. She was not, sure. Ulysses. Most sure she was. Troilus. Why, my negation hath no taste of madness. Ulysses. Nor mine, my lord. Cressid was here but now. Troilus. Let it not be believed for womanhood! Think we had mothers; do not give advantage To stubborn critics, apt, without a theme, For depravation, to square the general sex By Cressid's rule. Rather think this not Cressid. Ulysses. What hath she done, prince, that can soil our mothers? Troilus. Nothing at all, unless that this were she.
The preservation of the union with Cressida is bound up with the preservation of Troilus' ideal image of his mother; like Posthumus (Cymbeline, 2.5), Troilus associates the infidelity of his beloved with the infidelity of his mother. Ulysses' puzzled question emphasizes this association and clarifies the fantasy that shapes it: for Troilus, Cressida has the power to soil a mother figure so universal that she becomes “the general sex,” all “our mothers.” For from the first, Troilus' desire for Cressida is invested with the power of a nostalgic longing for union with an overpoweringly maternal figure; from the first, he associates his love with his own infantilization. When we first meet Troilus, he seems to be luxuriating in the sense of his own weakness, a weakness described in terms that suggest the loss of his adult masculinity through love:
… I am weaker than a woman's tear, Tamer than sleep, fonder than ignorance, Less valiant than the virgin in the night, And skilless as unpracticed infancy.
For Troilus, love is associated with the powerlessness and the innocent—or ignorant—trust of the infant; even in the act of telling Cressida that he does not believe that women can be constant, he claims that he is naive, “as true as truth's simplicity, / And simpler than the infancy of truth” (3.2.170-71).13 And his imagination of the sexual act is given shape by images that suggest a return to the blissful and dangerous fusion of infancy. The sexual act is imagined as feeding on an exquisitely purified nectar; its consummation simultaneously promises and threatens a delicious death in which distinction itself—both the capacity to distinguish and the separate identity distinguished—will be lost, and boundaries will dissolve:
I am giddy; expectation whirls me round. Th’imaginary relish is so sweet That it enchants my sense. What will it be When that the wat’ry palates taste indeed Love's thrice-repurèd nectar? Death, I fear me, Sounding destruction, or some joy too fine, Too subtle, potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness For the capacity of my ruder powers. I fear it much; and I do fear besides That I shall lose distinction in my joys, As doth a battle, when they charge on heaps The enemy flying.
Troilus' speech suggests both the desire for and the fear of a fusion in which individual identity will be lost with an intensity unequaled in Shakespeare's works: here love is death, a joy too sharp in sweetness, a battle, a swooning destruction in which one's powers are lost. That this fusion is imagined as the consequence of tasting love's nectar suggests the extent to which it is desired as a recapturing of the infant's first union with a nurturing maternal figure, the union out of which the adult self must be painfully differentiated, distinguished.14
Insofar as his union with Cressida is an attempt to recapture the infantile fusion with a maternal figure, the rupture of the union threatens to soil the idea of the mother herself. And insofar as the mother is the source both of wholeness and of nourishment, her soilure threatens to dissolve a universe felt as coherent into fragmented bits of spoiled food.
Instance, O instance, strong as Pluto's gates; Cressid is mine, tied with the bonds of heaven. Instance, O instance, strong as heaven itself; The bonds of heaven are slipped, dissolved, and loosed, And with another knot, five-finger-tied, The fractions of her faith, orts of her love, The fragments, scraps, the bits, and greasy relics Of her o’ereaten faith, are given to Diomed.
“Fractions,” “orts,” “fragments,” “scraps,” and “bits”: all diagnostically proclaim the breaking of wholeness into pieces as they proclaim the spoiling of food. That is, the failure of Cressida to live out Troilus' fantasy of union with an ideally nurturing figure simultaneously turns her to a greasy relic and shatters the sense of wholeness for Troilus because the sense of wholeness itself derives from fantasies of union with such an ideally nurturing figure.15 These are the transformations that the splitting of Cressida is designed to undo; by its means, Troilus will attempt to “repure” the nectar and regain the shattered unity, denying that the betraying Cressida and the Cressida with whom he is united are one.16
Ulysses asks what Cressida has done that can soil our mothers. We might answer that she has betrayed the fantasies that were the basis of Troilus' desire for union with her. Her betrayal becomes in effect the assertion of her status as a separate person, not simply the creature of Troilus' fantasy.17 But we might also answer that Cressida has done nothing—that the agent of soilure is in fact Troilus himself. For ultimately, I think, it is not the rupture of the union but the consummation of the union that soils the idea of the mother for Troilus. Troilus begins to reveal the ways in which he finds sexuality itself soiling as he argues that the Trojans must keep Helen to maintain their honor:
I take today a wife, and my election Is led on in the conduct of my will— My will enkindled by mine eyes and ears, Two traded pilots ’twixt the dangerous shores Of will and judgment. How may I avoid, Although my will distaste what it elected, The wife I chose? There can be no evasion To blench from this and to stand firm by honor. We turn not back the silks upon the merchant When we have soiled them, nor the remainder viands We do not throw in unrespective sieve Because we are now full.
This is an extraordinary analogy, not least because Troilus himself seems unaware of its relevance to his approaching union with Cressida.18 On the verge of that union, he imagines a marriage from which he will wish to “blench” or retreat; he expects to “distaste” his choice. In this fantasy, sexual satiety leads to indifference or even disgust very much as Cressida has predicted; and the terms of the disgust are precisely those in which Troilus will later respond to Cressida's betrayal of him: the distasted wife is associated with soiled silks and leftover food no longer desirable because we are now full. The imagery here insists that it is not Cressida's betrayal but Troilus' own appetite—his feeding on Cressida—that has made her into “remainder viands”: she is the leftovers from his great feast.
At the same time as this analogy reveals the extent to which Troilus himself is the soiling agent, it also expresses the same fear of sexuality that we have seen as Troilus waits outside Cressida's bedroom for their first encounter. Given the insistence on the possibility of male impotence throughout the play,19 Troilus' concern that he cannot stand firm by honor if he blenches from his wife reiterates the language of impotence; the imagined wife herself becomes suggestively associated not now with India (1.1.104) but with the “dangerous shores / Of will and judgment.”20 For ultimately Troilus himself is the fearful virgin in the night (1.1.11);21 the union with Cressida which he so desires is simultaneously felt as fearfully dangerous to him. Both the fear with which he anticipates the union and his ready acceptance of the separation point toward the deep ambivalence of his desires. Throughout, his portrayal of himself as true in love insists on the dangerously infantile vulnerability of both truth (“the infancy of truth” [3.2.171]) and love (“skilless as unpracticed infancy” [1.1.12]). For in Troilus' fantasy of sexuality as union with a maternal figure, the fear of impotence or castration becomes the fear of maternal engulfment. If union with Cressida as the all-powerful mother promises new wholeness, it also threatens to dissolve the self; if it promises to be a tasting of repured nectar, it also threatens a feast in which one will be eaten, not eater. Immediately after their night of love together, Troilus imagines night as a witch (4.2.12), the dark side of the maternal figure with whom he desires union; and the busy day of their aubade awakens ribald crows (4.2.9), sexualized devourers.22 And in the face of his own infantile vulnerability, Troilus seems to want to rob Cressida of her frightening power; in extraordinarily ambivalent lines, he wishes his own vulnerability on her:23
Sleep kill those pretty eyes, And give as soft attachment to thy senses As infants' empty of all thought!
Insofar as these lines suggest Troilus' desire to transfer his own felt weakness from himself to Cressida, they are prophetic of the structure of the play as a whole. For ultimately the necessities of Troilus' character, rather than of Cressida's, require her betrayal of him. Cressida's betrayal in effect allows Troilus to blench and still stand firm by honor; it serves to free him from a union ambivalently desired while allowing him to continue to think of himself as the embodiment of truth. Moreover, if Troilus' splitting of Cressida is designed to preserve his fantasy of union with an ideal maternal figure in the face of her betrayal, her betrayal itself seems ultimately to serve the same end—to be shaped, that is, by the same underlying fantasy. For the fantasized mother threatens her infant-lover with oral engulfment in the consummation partly because the very fact of her sexuality makes her into the witch mother rather than the ideal mother with whom Troilus had sought to unite, transforming her into a soiled whore, a type of Helen.24 That is, insofar as sexuality itself is soiling, it is incompatible with the union Troilus desires; Troilus' own sexuality transforms Cressida into a betraying whore. Cressida's betrayal then becomes in effect a rationalization, allowing Troilus to perform the act of splitting that is essential to the preservation of his union with an idealized maternal figure, a union no longer possible with Cressida herself once she has been contaminated by sexuality: by locating Cressida's sexual self in the contaminated relationship with Diomed, Troilus is free to retain an idealized, nonsexual union with the Cressida of his desires, nurtured by absence. The very sexuality that promises union with the mother is thus in fact the agent of separation; as Troilus half-knows even before the consummation, the sexual act achieves not boundlessness but a sense of limit: “This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit” (3.2.82-85).25
Through the sexual act, then, the pure—or repured—mother with whom Troilus wished to unite is soiled and becomes a whore; and Cressida is made to enact this transformation. That Cressida acts in response to Troilus' need to separate her sexual from her ideal maternal self accounts, I think, for the opacity of her motives as she leaves Troilus: she acts less from the necessities of her own character than from the necessities of his. Moreover, in enacting Troilus' fantasies, she protects Troilus from responsibility for them. Troilus' response to Cressida's infidelity in 5.2 is strikingly close to his fantasy about marriage in 2.2, but with the onus shifted from him to her: the soil is the result of her action, not of his fantasy; she is distasted, felt as leftover food, not because he is now full but because she has betrayed her faith. Because she obligingly enacts his fantasy, he can rest assured that it is her infidelity, not his sexuality, that soils our mothers. But the play does not in fact invite us to speculate about Troilus' character in noting the transfer of guilt from Troilus to Cressida, for the transfer is of course enshrined in the plot: not only Troilus but the play itself insists on Cressida's guilt. After the moment that Cressida leaves Troy, the play everywhere exonerates Troilus at the expense of Cressida: she becomes a whore to keep him pure. Ulysses' parallel speeches on Cressida and Troilus at that moment suggest some such exchange: as he directs us to see Cressida as no more than a daughter of the game (4.5.55-63), he directs us to see Troilus as a matchless hero in praise that nearly exceeds Pandarus' puffery and does not tally with our experience of Troilus (4.5.96-112); as Cressida is debased, Troilus is idealized.
The transfer of guilt from Troilus to Cressida is enshrined in the plot, but not without some traces of anxiety. Cressida's insistent worry that Troilus will betray her—in a story everyone knows is about her betrayal of him—may be one such trace: in a very real sense, she is right to be worried. For Cressida herself is an odd fusion of betrayer and betrayed. The fusion that composes her character may be recorded in Troilus' amalgam of Ariadne and Arachne in the “Ariachne” of his response to Cressida's betrayal (5.2.149): the poisonous woman-as-spider, associated with infidelity in The Winter's Tale,26 is fused with the archetypal woman betrayed, as though the two betrayals were at bottom one.27 We may thus begin to understand a habitual oddity in critical responses to the play. When Cressida tells us that “things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing,” many of us respond as though she is speaking for the world of the play in general and for Troilus in particular.28 And yet the manifest love plot seems to prove her wrong: Troilus seems more than ever her devoted servant after the consummation of their union;29 it is Cressida for whom things won are done. We respond, despite the evidence of the plot, as though Cressida is somehow obscurely right because the plot in some respects runs counter to the fantasy that shapes the play; in fact the plot serves precisely to defend against acknowledgment of the fantasy. For the effort to keep Troilus pure seems to me finally evidence of Shakespeare's failure to dissociate himself from the fantasies explored in the creation of Troilus; and insofar as the play consequently embodies Troilus' fantasies, Cressida as a whole character must be sacrificed. But Shakespeare does not rest with Troilus and Cressida; and when he reworks this material in Othello, where Desdemona is subject to very similar fantasies, he dissociates himself from these fantasies by localizing them in the minds of Iago and Othello. As a result, Desdemona remains a vigorous and independent character, larger than Othello's fantasies of her, while Cressida fades from us.
I have argued elsewhere for the need to respond to Shakespeare's characters as whole psychological entities.30 But characters may not always permit us to respond to them in this way, or the presentation of character may shift in a way that disengages us from concern with their inwardness. At such moments the characters may be shaped by psychological pressures not their own. The psychological fantasies embedded in the creation of another character or in the play as a whole may require the sacrifice of the internal psychological consistency of any single character. I suspect that female characters are particularly prone to being so sacrificed, partly because of their status as others, partly because of the (related) intensity of the fantasies that are attached to the idea of the mother. To speak of character as shaped in this way is by no means to speak of artistic failure: characters so shaped may become the embodiments of our dearest shared fantasies and hence carry enormous force. Cordelia, for example, seems to me to suffer the same fate as Cressida, but the sacrifice of her character points in the opposite direction, toward idealization rather than debasement: during the play we witness her separation from the sexual self that she had defended so proudly in Act 1 at the same time as we lose touch with her inwardness; and yet she is the guarantor of many of our best dreams. But in King Lear, splitting is embodied not only in the change in the characterization of Cordelia but in the creation of complementary characters as well: even as the play begins, Cordelia has already been partially split from her sexual self, now located in Goneril and Regan. Troilus' splitting of Cressida from herself thus allows us to see, reproduced in the mind of a single character, the process of one of Shakespeare's major modes of generating his dramatic characters; hence our vertigo as we watch Troilus creating two characters out of one: “This is and is not Cressid.”
See, for example, Henri Fluchère in response to Troilus' words: “Tortured love here presents a problem of identity which the play fails to solve” (Shakespeare, trans. Guy Hamilton [London: Longmans, 1953], 216). Other critics are also troubled by Cressida's failure to achieve a stable identity. Derek Traversi argues that not only Cressida but others in the play fail to have “consistent status as persons” because all are subject to time, that is, are ultimately victims not only of a world in which all constancy and value is destroyed by time but also of Shakespeare's uncertainty about how to generate meaningful characters in such a world (An Approach to Shakespeare [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956], 328-29). Traversi's view is extended in John Bayley's brilliant essay “Time and the Trojans” (Essays in Criticism, 25 , 55-73). Bayley sees Troilus' horror at the two Cressidas as “a recognition not so much of falsity as of the fact that she is not a single coherent person” in a play in which Shakespeare dissolves the “assurances of selfhood” (70). But at the same time he is always uneasily aware of her potential as a full or novelistic character (63, 67); he locates this potential in such moments as our discomfort with Ulysses' characterization of her as simply a “daughter of the game” (67). This uneasiness is, I think, characteristic of the best critical commentary on Cressida. See, for example, L. C. Knights's comments both on Cressida's position as a stereotypical wanton and on the note of sincerity we sometimes hear in her exchanges with Troilus (“The Theme of Appearance and Reality in Troilus and Cressida,” in Some Shakespearean Themes [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959], 69) and Arnold Stein's analysis of Cressida both as a full character who believes that “what is precious is what the masculine ‘particular will,’ unsatisfied, imagines” and as a character whose dramatized reserve “prevents her from ever saying or doing what might register the feeling of her full presence” (“Troilus and Cressida: The Disjunctive Imagination,” ELH, 36 , 157-58). Gayle Greene's excellent account of Cressida acknowledges that her “sudden and complete violation of declared intentions damages her coherence in ‘realistic’ terms” (“Shakespeare's Cressida: ‘A Kind of Self,’” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980], 135). But Greene ultimately derives this violation from Cressida's character understood realistically rather than from Shakespeare's characterization of her: she has only “a kind of self”—not an authentic self—because she is so much the creature of the values others set on her. William W. Main eliminates the problem pyrrhically by claiming that Cressida is not properly speaking a character at all but rather an unconvincing amalgam of four character types usually represented separately (“Character Amalgams in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida,” Studies in Philology, 58 , 172-73).
The phrase is L. C. Knights's (Some Shakespearean Themes, 69), yet he himself notes the inadequacy of this characterization and comments tantalizingly that “she exists mainly in the imagination of Troilus.” See Carolyn Asp, “In Defense of Cressida,” Studies in Philology, 74 (1977), 406-17; Grant I. Voth and Oliver H. Evans, “Cressida and the World of the Play,” Shakespeare Studies, 8 (1975), 231-39; and Gayle Greene, “Shakespeare's Cressida,” for partial accounts of Cressida's critical history. These critics all attempt to rehabilitate Cressida after the injuries done her by her former (mainly male) commentators; they stress her subjection to Troilus' idealism (Voth and Evans) or to a society in which there is no intrinsic value (Asp and Greene). See also R. A. Yoder's argument that Cressida is helplessly subject to the war machine (“‘Sons and Daughters of the Game’: An Essay on Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida,” Shakespeare Survey, 25 , 11-25). These efforts at rehabilitation have taught us to see Cressida as the victim of her world, but, valuable as they are, they all seem to me to founder because at the crucial moment of betrayal the text does not give us sufficient grounds for understanding Cressida fully in their terms.
References throughout are to the Signet edition of Troilus and Cressida, ed. Daniel Seltzer (New York, 1963).
The gap between expectation and performance becomes definitive of sexual experience when Troilus defines the “monstruosity in love” (3.2.82) and of war when Agamemnon speaks to his demoralized commanders of the “protractive trials of great Jove” (1.3.20); it governs our aesthetic experience as the play refuses to meet our expectations, to present its heroes as heroic or to behave as a proper play with a coherent plot in which, for example, combat advertised as important will be important and endings will be conclusive.
These are generally the terms in which critics sympathetic to Cressida see her; insofar as I see Cressida as a realistic character, my arguments are frequently close to theirs. See, for example, Asp, “In Defense of Cressida,” 409-10, 412-13. Robert Ornstein comments forcefully on the masculine ego that makes Cressida what she is: “She is a daughter of the game which men would have her play and for which they despise her” (The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960], 245). Gayle Greene persuasively associates Cressida's valuation of herself both with capitalism and with woman's tendency to see herself as an object (“Shakespeare's Cressida,” 135-39, 142).
Gayle Greene comments on Cressida's “uncustomary loss of self-control”; she sees Cressida throughout 3.2 as “struggling both to maintain and to relinquish the defenses she has so carefully constructed” (“Shakespeare's Cressida,” 140). Voth and Evans argue that the failure of Cressida's realistic and defensive wit leaves her ruinously subject to Troilus' idealism (“Cressida and the World of the Play,” 234); their account seems to me to ignore the effects both of Cressida's own “idealistic” impulse to believe in love and of Troilus' “realistic” expectation that she will be a coquette. Emil Roy comments more broadly on Cressida's defensive use of language to acquire phallic power and to deny her vulnerable situation (“War and Manliness in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida,” Comparative Drama, 7 , 112).
Both Asp (“In Defense of Cressida,” 411) and Voth and Evans (“Cressida and the World of the Play,” 234) see Cressida as accepting Troilus' idealized view of herself at the end of the scene, despite her fears of vulnerability. If she does, the terms of her acceptance are very uneasy: although she ends by vowing fidelity, she does so only by imagining herself as the emblem of infidelity.
In the course of a discussion of the inadequacy of all love objects in Troilus and Cressida (and out of it), Stephen A. Reid comments that Troilus “does not regret that the day has come” (“A Psychoanalytic Reading of Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure,” Psychoanalytic Review, 57 , 267).
Derek Traversi's wonderful intuition that sexuality seeks union but always entails a sense of separateness seems to me very near the center of the play; he, too, sees the plot as in effect a rationalization for this inevitable movement (Approach to Shakespeare, 325-27). See also L. C. Knights: “The actual separation of the lovers … only emphasizes what is in fact intrinsic to their relationship” (“Theme of Appearance and Reality,” 67). For Traversi, Troilus' sensuality dooms his passion insofar as he seeks “to extract from the refinement of the sensual a substitute for spiritual experience” (331); for Knights, it is Troilus' “subjectivism” that commits him to time and appearance, hence to separation (67). I will argue below for the close association of sexuality with separation in psychoanalytic terms. In any case, Shakespeare manipulates the plot to make us feel the separateness inherent in sexuality: 3.3, the scene in which the lovers' separation is arranged, substitutes in our imaginations for the moment of consummation, placed as it is between the scene in which the lovers move toward the bed-chamber under the guidance of Pandarus (3.2) and the morning-after scene (4.2). See Norman Rabkin, who notes that arrangements for the separation are being made while the lovers are enjoying their night together (Shakespeare and the Common Understanding [New York: Free Press, 1967], 50). But in fact this simultaneity is an illusion that Shakespeare achieves at some cost to ordinary temporal continuity. The second scenes of acts 3 and 4 clearly represent the beginning and end of one night; 4.2 takes place in the early morning (l. 46) of the day of the battle between Hector and Ajax. But 3.3 seems to be an outdoor daytime scene, and throughout it, the day of the battle is clearly “tomorrow’ (ll. 34, 130, 247, 296). That is, 3.3 must take place before 3.2, not in the interval between 3.2 and 4.1; the simultaneity of sexual consummation and separation occurs only in our imaginations, not in the linear plot.
Several critics blame Pandarus for the failure of Troilus' love without noting the implicit alliance between them here and elsewhere; see, for example, Richard D. Fly (“‘I Cannot Come to Cressid but by Pandar’: Mediation in the Theme and Structure of Troilus and Cressida,” English Literary Renaissance, 3 , 153-56) and R. J. Kaufmann (“Ceremonies for Chaos: The Status of Troilus and Cressida,” ELH 32 , 149).
Yoder comments shrewdly on Troilus' relatively easy acceptance of the separation: he is “calmed, even relieved in returning to his public role—he belongs to ‘the general state of Troy’” (“Sons and Daughters of the Game,” 21).
Terence Eagleton says, more charitably: “Cressida to him is the Cressida of their relationship; she has no meaning or existence for him outside this context,” because reality and identity are social, shared creations. (Shakespeare and Society [London: Chatto & Windus, 1967], 17).
That Troilus imagines himself an infant as he imagines the possibility of betrayal suggests not only the extent to which that possibility makes him feel utterly vulnerable but also the extent to which his image of himself as an overtrusting infant requires the confirmation of the mother's betrayal.
Joel Fineman writes powerfully about the consequences of the loss of distinction, or Difference, in Troilus and Cressida, expanding on René Girard's brief commentary on Ulysses' speech (Fineman, “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles,” in Representing Shakespeare, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980], 94-100; Girard, Violence and the Sacred [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977], 50-51). In locating the terror at the loss of Difference in the possibility of self-obliterating fusion with the mother, Fineman moves beyond the Girardian myth by denying its explanatory force; he does not, however, discuss this possibility specifically in relation to Troilus and Cressida (102-4).
In his desire for wholeness and fear of fragmentation, Troilus is the repository for fears and desires felt intensely throughout the play. For the whole of Troilus and Cressida is invested with a nostalgia for order, wholeness, what Ulysses calls “the unity and married calm of states” (1.3.100). This unity is everywhere subject to fracture, figured most dramatically in Hector's myriad wounds and in Achilles' substitution of his myrmidons for his own single heroic action. Hence, for example, the predominance in character descriptions of disconnected lists of qualities, mere “attributes” (3.1.37) without a center (see, for example, the descriptions of Troilus as “minced man” [1.2.263-67] or of Ajax as “gouty Briareus” [1.2.19-30]). And hence the force of Achilles' insult to Thersites: “fragment” (5.1.8). As in Troilus' response to Cressida's betrayal, to be a piece rather than a whole here is to be a piece of spoiled food; in a world lacking wholeness, everything becomes a fragment (as the predominance of lists of nouns in Ulysses' speech and elsewhere suggests) subject to appetite, the universal wolf (1.3.121), subject finally to utter negation as appetite, like lechery (5.4.36), eats up itself. See J. Hillis Miller's discussion of stylistic fragmentation in “Ariachne's Broken Woof,” Georgia Review, 31 (1977), 54. For Charles Lyons, the play concerns the gap “between the pure and constant identity of desire and the despoiled and complex fragmentation of identity in reality” (“Cressida, Achilles, and the Finite Deed,” Etudes anglaises, 20 , 233). R. J. Kaufmann identifies “self-consumption” as the deep theme of Troilus and Cressida and notes the presence of eating and cookery images, “subversive of ideals of wholeness and permanence,” in connection with this theme (“Ceremonies for Chaos,” 142, 155).
Emil Roy similarly suggests that strategies of splitting in the play derive from failed attempts to regain the nurturing mother, whose loss threatens the “loss of separate, fixed identities. To preserve their individual autonomies, the Trojans adopt strategies of splitting and projection … isolating Cressida's loving from her betraying selves” (“War and Manliness,” 118-19). Roy does not elaborate fully on this comment and treats Troilus and Cressida only sporadically in his maddeningly chaotic and wonderfully suggestive essay on the framing of oedipal issues in preoedipal terms in the play. The extent to which the mother is initially idealized is implicit not only in the concern with keeping her pure and unsoiled but also in the association of her with nectar, the food of the gods. Many critics, following G. Wilson Knight, see Troilus' love as in some sense idealizing, an attempt to achieve the infinite and spiritual by finite sensual means (The Wheel of Fire [New York: Meridian, 1957], 63-65; see also Traversi, Approach to Shakespeare, 331, 335). Troilus' passion is, I think, doubly idealized, shaped by desire not only for an ideal maternal object but also for a total fusion, infinite insofar as it removes the boundaries of the self, spiritual perhaps insofar as it is appropriate only to Milton's angels (“If Spirits embrace, / Total they mix” [Paradise Lost, 8.626-27]): ideal, that is, in both object and aim. Such idealization produces a corresponding debasement when, inevitably, the object loses its ideality by participating in sexuality and the aim turns out to be unattainable. Traversi hints at the connection between Troilus' “sense of soilure” and his “abstract idealism” (Approach to Shakespeare, 337) without exploring it. Greene comments persuasively on the idealization and debasement inherent in Troilus' passion from the start: “Exalting woman as a goddess, reducing her to object, what he omits is the person” (“Shakespeare's Cressida,” 138). Freud traces this bifold impulse, familiar now to feminist critics, to the desire to protect one's original incestuous object from the current of one's sexual feeling (“On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love,” in Standard Edition, XI, 179-90).
Her sexual betrayal is of course the ultimate sign of her status as opaque other: when she gives herself to Diomed, she demonstrates to Troilus that she is both unknowable and unpossessable. But even before the lovers have parted, Troilus suggests a magical connection between Cressida's infidelity and their separation: “Be thou true, / And I will see thee” (4.4.66-67), he says, as though her fidelity could magically ward off separation. At issue here is, I suspect, a primitive fantasy in which separation is infidelity: for the infant, the mother's separateness constitutes the first betrayal; insofar as she is not merely his, she is promiscuously other. I suspect that this sense of otherness itself as promiscuous betrayal antedates the more specific oedipal jealousies and is retrospectively sexualized by them. The whole process is condensed in the play's demonstration, in the character of Cressida, that separation, opaque otherness, and sexual betrayal are one.
In teaching this play, I have often found myself “correcting” students who assume that Troilus is announcing his impending union with Cressida; see Daniel Seltzer's footnote to this passage for a similar correction (Signet ed., 85). We all know that Troilus is simply inventing an analogy. But I think that the naive students are, as so often happens, at least partly right: they can teach us to notice Troilus' breathtaking capacity to compartmentalize, so that he can use this analogy apparently without feeling its relevance. Critical responses to this passage suggest that Troilus' capacity is catching.
See, for example, Pandarus' threat that Cressida will “bereave” Troilus of deeds as well as words (3.2.57), Cressida's comments on the inadequacy of male performance (3.2.86-91), Troilus' own fears that the act is a slave to limit (3.2.84-5), and Pandarus' final song about the bee's loss of its sting when it is “subdued in armèd tail” (5.10.42-45).
The deep fantasy associates intercourse with the boat trapped between menacing shores, but the language here is characteristically double: on the one hand, he cannot stand firm if he retreats from these dangerous shores; on the other, it is not the retreat but the wife felt as dangerous that poses the threat to standing firm.
Troilus' “expectation” in approaching Cressida—“what will it be / When that the wat’ry palates taste indeed / Love's thrice-repured nectar?” (3.2.17, 19-21)—suggests his lack of sexual experience. Like Othello, Troilus and Cressida thus becomes an exploration of the consequences of the man's first sexual experience. It is part of the play's implicit identification with Troilus' fantasy that the extent of Cressida's experience never becomes clear. In Troilus' imagination, at least in 1.1, she is an unapproachable virgin; and Shakespeare allows us to participate at least partly in this fantasy insofar as his Cressida—unlike Chaucer's—is not a widow. The aphorisms of her soliloquy in 1.2 may reveal that she is “already an experienced coquette” (Fluchère, Shakespare, 214) or they may be merely secondhand schoolgirl wisdom. Her morning-after response to Troilus—“You men will never tarry” (4.2.16)—is, however, chilling in its implication that Troilus is only one of many. These moments serve, I think, to make us uncomfortable with our lack of knowledge.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “crow” is “in England commonly applied to the Carrion Crow (Corvus Corone), ‘a large black bird that feeds upon the carcasses of beasts’ (Johnson).”
Troilus' wish to infantilize Cressida is curiously echoed in Pandarus' teasing her after the consummation by using babytalk (“Hast not slept tonight? Would he not, a naughty man, let it sleep? A bugbear take him!” [4.2.32-37].
In the course of the play, Cressida merges with Helen, not only insofar as she becomes sexually soiled but insofar as she becomes the foreign woman, a center of sexual desire. Both Troilus and Cressida's first meeting (3.2) and their morning-after scene (4.2) are symbolically mediated by Helen, literally present in 3.1 and figuratively present in Diomed's description of her “soilure” in 4.1; variants of “soil” are insistently used in reference to Helen (2.2.148, 2.2.70, 4.1.56) in preparation for Ulysses' use of the word to question Troilus' response to Cressida's betrayal (5.2.131). We might expect Helen to be at the center of the play, insofar as she is the cause of the war; curiously she appears only near its literal center, in 3.1, and then only vacuously, as though Shakespeare wanted to suggest an absence at the center. Emil Roy sees both Helen and Cressida as contested mother figures (“War and Manliness,” 109, 110). Given the longing for maternal presence manifest in the play, the relative absence of the great mother Hecuba is particularly striking. One might speculate that the missing Hecuba is replaced by Helen and that the substitution of whore for idealized mother initiates the disease that is the play, here as in Hamlet. In a war seen as an extended sexual disease (2.3.18-21), Helen herself is the hollow center of disease, almost anatomically the “putrefied core, so fair without” (5.8.1), that “disarm[s] great Hector” (3.1.153).
This line seems to me to locate precisely the source of the psychic equivalence of sexuality and separation that shapes the love plot (see nn. 9 and 17). Sexuality entails separation not only because it soils the pure mother of desire but also because the act itself can never achieve the total union desired. The “monstruosity” is the necessary discrepancy not only between boundless desire and limited performance but also between the desire for boundlessness and the act that serves finally to remind us of our limits, our boundaries; insofar as we invest the sexual act with the promise of boundlessness, it will serve as the emblem of our separateness. Underlying the love plot is, I think, a dreamlike necessity: in place of merger, sexuality reveals the absolute otherness of the other, reveals what I have earlier called Cressida's promiscuous betrayal of the fantasy of merger; and that promiscuous betrayal itself becomes sexualized when Cressida becomes a whore. Sexuality thus entails the separation in the plot, and that separation entails sexual betrayal. Stephen Reid notes Troilus' worry that the sexual act will be disappointing as a result of “the gap between the sense of boundlessness in his desire and the limitation of the sexual act” (“Psychoanalytic Reading,” 264). Although his essay locates the source of sexual dissatisfaction where Freud does, in the deflection of desire from its original incestuous objects and in the repression of pregenital components of sexuality, he curiously attributes this gap to the temporal limitations of the sexual act, noting neither Troilus' desire for oral fusion nor his association of Cressida with his mother.
The Winter's Tale, 2.1.45. See Murray M. Schwartz's discussion of the maternal significance of the spider (“Leontes' Jealousy in The Winter's Tale,” American Imago, 30 , 270-72); his suggestion that the spider signifies the sexually threatening mother and the fear of maternal engulfment is very germane to Troilus and Cressida. My general indebtedness to Murray Schwartz, Richard Wheeler, and especially C. L. Barber will, I hope, be evident to everyone familiar with their work. A more private debt is owed to Jann Gurvich, who shocked me years ago in a class by suggesting that Troilus wanted Cressida to be his mother. This paper is dedicated to C. L. Barber, whose living presence continues to inspire us all.
J. Hillis Miller prefers to see “Ariachne” as a symptom of the general challenge to Western civilization posed by the play, or at least by the deconstructionist critic's reading of the play, insofar as it asks us to hold two incongruent myths in our head at once, an impossibility in Western logocentric monological metaphysics (“Ariachne's Broken Woof,” 47). As I have labored to suggest, I don’t think that the myths are at the deepest level incongruent. Furthermore, I find his implicit endorsement of Troilus' response to Cressida curious. The extremity of Troilus' response surely tells us not that the story of cosmic order, “as it is told by the reasonable discourse of Western metaphysics, is itself a lie” (48) but that Troilus has impossibly located that order in the idea of his union with Cressida. As Ornstein says, Troilus “projects his inner confusion into a law of universal chaos and would have us believe that because his vanity is stricken the bonds of heaven are slipped” (Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, 249). Miller's argument has a powerful—and characteristically unassuming—antecedent in Knights's discussion of the same passage (Some Shakespearean Themes, p. 71).
See, for example, Stein, “Troilus and Cressida,” 158; Kaufmann, “Ceremonies for Chaos,” 155; and Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding, 44.
This fact presents problems for Charles Lyons, who argues persuasively that the self-consuming sexual act, in which “the very consummation which appetite demands destroys the appetite and so disintegrates the source of value,” is the model for all action and all valuation in the play (“Cressida, Achilles, and the Finite Deed,” 233). His argument founders only when he turns to Troilus specifically, as his uneasiness about the point at which Troilus revalues Cressida indicates: “he conceives of her as a sexual object, uses her, and—when he suffers knowledge of her common behavior—he discards her” (241). My entire argument might be read as an attempt to untangle this uneasiness.
See Introduction to Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “King Lear” (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978), 1-21.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7788
SOURCE: “Feminism and Shakespeare's Cressida: ‘If I Be False …’,” Women's Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1990, pp. 65-82.
[In the essay below, Harris analyzes the ways in which Cressida has been reviewed by modern criticism. Harris underscores the way feminist critics have countered each of these views of Cressida, and adds that feminist critics have found new ways of studying this character.]
In the late 1960s, Jeanne T. Newlin posited the modernity of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida in terms of its adaptability to twentieth-century issues. One aspect of particular interest in Newlin's study is the seemingly disparate ways in which Cressida has been portrayed on the stage. In William Poel's 1912 production, Cressida was obviously older and more experienced than Troilus, and she became the shaping force of the tragi-comedy genre to which Poel assigned the play: Cressida's “frivolity led to the comedy of the early scenes, but the earnestness of her betrayal blended with the tragic finality” (Newlin 360). Ten years later when the Marlowe Society of Cambridge University staged the play, its tone was reflective of the weariness Europeans were feeling in the aftermath of war. But the implications of Cressida's portrayal captured more than just war-weariness, as a reviewer in The Observer noted at the time: “I doubt whether there is a young man in these islands to whom it is not a clear and simple play …” (qtd Newlin 362-363). That is, not only did the young men now more clearly understand the Greek warrior scenes, but a great many of them also assumed the universality of woman's betrayal. These same parallels were used in the London Mask Theatre's 1938 anti-war rendition of the play as England once again teetered on the edge of conflict. By 1960, however, a more abstract, allegorical production was performed by The Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon: “the production moved toward a ‘gradual isolation of Hector and Achilles, symbols of the conflict between chivalry and brutal opportunism to which the ruin of Troilus by the faithless Cressida is secondary’” (Newlin 368-369).
What is significant in this fifty-year pattern is the continuity of interpretations concerning Troilus and Cressida's relationship—the “ruin” of the young Troilus is repeatedly rooted in the “frivolity” and “wantonness” of the “faithless” Cressida. This is not a pattern limited to dramatic productions of the play, however. The following is a survey of literary criticism concerning Cressida from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s, and it reveals a parallel continuity that remains a solid forefront of critical attitudes until the late 1970s. In terms of genre classification for Troilus and Cressida, Michael Jamieson has claimed that attitudes toward the play since 1920 “have undergone a revaluation so radical as to amount to a rediscovery” (126). However, this survey will demonstrate that in terms of attitudes toward Cressida, there was no such long-term progression. In fact, until the early to mid-1970s, critics actually focused upon Cressida very little; when they did, it was with varying versions of her betrayal in terms of Cressida as “the Trojan drab.” With the advent of feminist critical perspectives, however, there was indeed a “radical” re-viewing of this characterization and of Cressida's function in the play—so radical, in fact, that all of the major traditional interpretations of Cressida's character have been brought into question.
Before examining the ways in which feminist critical interpretations have challenged and broadened our understanding of Cressida, it is important to survey the six major patterns into which traditional responses have fallen. Surprisingly, one of the most prevalent “responses” to Cressida has been virtually to ignore her as an entity in the play. Certainly not all analyses would require her direct inclusion; but she is, time and again, excluded from essays addressing issues such as the love relationship, social order and social action, honor (or the lack thereof), what is truth and what is falsity—that is, issues that would seem especially to call for the inclusion of an analysis of her character and her function in the play (see, for instance, Cole; Council; Greaves; Jamieson; Leech, “Locality”; Leech, Dramatist's; Lyman). Such quantities of silence about a particular character begin to claim the definition of a very powerful response, albeit a mute one. Additionally, there is a unique twist on this silence, this time from sources where we might most expect comment—critics whose perspectives are directed specifically at the women in Shakespeare's canon (Ewbank, Mowat, Sexton). One can only wonder, in this instance, if such exclusion falls under the category of critical precedence, consternation at a seemingly stereotypic “bad” woman, or … ?
If the silence surrounding Cressida is notable, it is exceeded by the prevalence of the second pattern: those reviewers who have distinguished Cressida in one term only—that of the whore. This approach views the young woman as not only the epitome of perfidy when she enters the Greek camp, but as having been so from beginning to end of the play. This attitude far outweighs other responses to Cressida, and it spans the five decades under review in this survey. To demonstrate its pervasiveness, I have drawn on representative readings from each decade. In the 1940s, we can look to such notable Shakespearean scholars as Theodore Spencer and E. M. W. Tillyard. Spencer emphasized the rapidity with which Cressida supposedly breaks her promise to Troilus: “Cressida, the object of Troilus' passionate devotion, after swearing to him that she will be forever true, betrays him the very first night after their separation” (111). Spencer mourned the passion Troilus wastes on “the worthless Cressida” and concluded that “Cressida is a whore; and the nobility of Troilus, shining through his own sensuality and the murky lustfulness of his environment, is disillusioned and betrayed” (116, 121). This same evaluation was echoed by Tillyard in his assertion that the Cressida we first meet “is anything but the regal character” Troilus has made us envision (75-76). Tillyard termed the scene in which Cressida is kissed and passed around by the Greeks as “broadly comic” and further insisted that, while Cressida is grieving over her forced separation from Troilus, “we feel that even then the thought flashes through her that the merry Greeks may compensate for what she is losing. Troilus behaves with dignity” (78). Undoubtedly, many readers would prefer to dissociate themselves from Tillyard's burdensome “we.”
In the 1950s, Troilus was not always seen as quite so noble, but Cressida remained “weak,” “an absolute of perfidy,” and a die-hard “daughter of the game” (Knowland 254; Dunkel 334; Muir 99). It is interesting to note a “sign of the times” in these appraisals, similar to what Newlin observed in various eras' stagings of Troilus and Cressida. In the literary responses of the 1950s, there was an adamant assertion that Shakespeare surely did not mean to condemn all women with Cressida's scarlet nomenclature: “Cressida does not stain our mothers … Cressida did not cancel out Rosalind and Viola”; the failure is true only of one woman, or at most … of one type of womanhood” (Muir 106; Knowland 364).
In the 1960s, scholars continued to depict Cressida as “whore,” though with some diversity of approach. Derick R. C. Marsha remarked that after Pandarus's bawdy jokes, an audience “must know that Cressida cannot be ‘stubborn chaste.’ Nor, indeed, does Troilus' later behavior give any indication that he really believes her to be so” (185). Thus Marsha manages not only to castigate Cressida from the beginning of the play but to excuse Troilus's later abandonment of her as well. Several scholars emphasized Cressida's perfidy in terms of Troilus's self-illusion, blaming Cressida's “equally proficient employment of her ‘chastity’ as an allurement” (Bernhardt 139)—ironically echoing Angelo's charges against the chaste Isabella in Measure for Measure—or suggesting that though Troilus tries to cling “momentarily to an almost Rousseauistic belief in the truth of the heart [V.ii.118-124] … the belief in the deceptive nature of the sense will not do to uphold the value of Cressida” (Soellner 260). We cannot leave this decade, however, without examining the perspective of Cressida set forth by the Shakespearean scholar A. P. Rossiter:
She is a chatty, vulgar little piece, and in the rhyming soliloquy at the end (where she speaks what she takes for her mind), the principles of the loftily chaste heroines of amour courtois are brought down exactly to the level of Mrs Peachum's advice in The Beggar's Opera: “O Polly, you might have toy’d and kissed, / By keeping men off you keep them on.” (132)
Rossiter's entire discourse maintained this extremely derogatory tone—“she must have power and (as she thinks) makes every man dance to her tune” (133). Rossiter further posited an interesting reversal of the play's actual turn of events when he suggested that Cressida's “kissing the Greek generals all round as soon as she meets them” caused Ulysses thus to see her as part of the “sluttish spoils of opportunity” (133). Rossiter noted that Cressida's inability “to stick to her design,” her failure of intentions, is common in the play; but no other character was described by Rossiter in terms that so inherently reveal antagonistic sexism toward a character.
What is especially interesting in the critical response to Cressida of the 1970s and 1980s is not merely that traditional views continue the “whore” definition (Foakes, Schwartz, West) but that several feminists reinforce this tradition as well. Juliet Dusinberre, for instance, classified Cressida as part of the “whore” genre. Though Dusinberre defined Cressida's “womanhood” as thus encompassing some facet of power in terms of its use as a “political bargaining point,” she validated Troilus's feelings at the same time that she discounted Cressida's: “In her first encounter with Troilus [Cressida] counterfeits the confession of a lovesick girl, baffling Troilus who really feels that confusion” (64). Coppelia Kahn also attempted to combine the “argument for a whore” with a sense of power in its social correlation when she suggested that “Ulyssess' vision of emulative chaos finds its final expression in Troilus' response to Cressida's wanton sexuality” (96), and Kahn concluded that Cressida's “If I be false” approach is merely “rhetorical” (97). Gayle Greene and others have discussed Cressida as acting in terms of the dictates of her environment, and this will be discussed in a later section; but Greene also viewed Cressida in her first scene not as Troilus romantically describes her but as a “coquette,” and Greene suggested that “descriptions of Cressida as ‘stubborn-chaste, against all suit’ (I.i.97), and of Helen as a ‘theme of honor and renown’ (II.ii.199), are belied by the actual women …” (SEL 281, 276). Though later feminist interpretations will challenge these assumptions, it is noteworthy just how entrenched were such notions of “Cressida-as-whore.”
Not all traditional responses to Cressida have ignored her function in the play or cast her as the “daughter of the game” from beginning to end. The third traditional pattern of analysis has been a little less harsh in approach (though, in actuality, no less negative). It centers on the conclusion that there is some limitation inherent in Cressida's nature that makes her betray Troilus. Elaine May Eldridge denied Cressida's wantonness but asserted that it is a failure of imagination on Cressida's part not to believe that she really could be loved by Troilus. Cressida believes, according to Eldridge, that “she can survive only as long as she keeps her relation with Troilus static, and therefore tries to protect herself by teasing him … even if the circumstances she describes [at the end of I.ii] prove true, she is also willing her own pathetic limitedness” (86-87). In 1967, H. A. Hargreaves lamented the efforts of earlier scholars whom he viewed as “floundering in efforts to make Cressida overly important” (49). He noted that, “fortunately,” Troilus was again seen as “the single focal point of the play”; Cressida was simply “frail, all too human” (50). Other scholars have observed Cressida's limitations in what they considered her too easy abandonment of a “vision of eternal fidelity”; or that she is “dominated by fear … a timid, prudent person”; that she is limited by her “unstable and fickle nature … Passively she allows herself to be carried on the tide of events”; or simply that her behavior “is weak and trying” or “resigned” (Legatt 258; Slights 46-47; Ure 42; Smith 21; Barber 529; McAlindon 32). Thus if Cressida's betrayal is not an act of blatant prostitution, it is a sign of her womanly frailty. That such traits are deemed synonymous with her gender was typified in Camille Slights' transference of descriptions to the inactive warrior, Troilus, at the same time that she denigrated the woman, Cressida:
The portrayal of a Cressida who would lie upon her back to defend her belly mocks Troilus' description of her as “too stubborn-chaste” to be won, and, conversely, the weak, womanish Troilus of I.i. renders ridiculous Pandarus' description of him in I.ii. as a warrior with bloodied sword. … (43)
Published in 1974, Slights' analysis perpetuated stereotypic responses that demand acts of war from men and condemn women for their sexuality and, by inference, agree with the concept that they are weak and limited creatures.
There is a similar result in the fourth pattern of traditional critical analysis of Cressida. This pattern has surfaced most typically since 1960, when numerous scholars asserted that Cressida is acting within some convention (epic, chivalric, rhetorical, comic, and so forth), and thus her actions function to support or mock that particular convention. What repeatedly occurred, however, is that these arguments turned into discussions of what was still depicted as Cressida's one-dimensional, wanton behavior. Rosalie Colie suggested that Shakespeare was “travesting” several devices and forms in Troilus and Cressida, especially the epic and, ultimately, Chaucer himself. Within this genre, conventional attitudes have entrenched the assumptions “that Troilus must die and Cressida be cast out as a leper” (321); yet, Colie asserted, perhaps Shakespeare went too far in his mockery with a final passage that is extremely ironically bitter. With no comic opposition for resolution, Colie insisted, “this play denies its tragic component” (321). Whether we agree or disagree with this analysis, it seems straight-forward in its discussion to this point. However, Colie then made certain judgments of Cressida that slip outside her original framework of the convention; now Cressida is “coarse,” obviously a woman experienced in love, is equated with Pandarus as two “equivocators, not quite liars but certainly not truth-tellers either,” and ultimately is described as “giving herself in game and willy-nilly, in earnest and acquiescent, to another lover” (336-337). Colie asserted that both Troilus and Cressida “predestine” themselves to be what they are (that remains unnamed in the essay with regard to Troilus, though named as “false” for Cressida). But in Cressida's case, she is not just false “by the power of a predestinating tradition, but false also because of the extreme triviality of her character” (339). So, in spite of her function as part of a convention, Cressida remains somehow more at blame because of a weak character.
Other critics have pursued similar arguments in discussing the conventions of courtly love (A. A. Ansari) and of heroism (Robert Ornstein), but one of the most interesting was William W. Main's discussion of the “feminine role” itself. By convention, Main stated, an Elizabethan love plot may portray the feminine role in one of four ways: she “may be a romantic modest maid, a satiric forward maid, a satiric shrew, or a pathetic penitent” (172). However, he cautioned, if we try to force Cressida into one of these slots, “we obscure her complexity by over-simplification, for Cressida is an amalgam of all our roles” (173). Again, so far so good. But the discussion slips not into a celebration of Shakespeare's creation of Cressida's diversity within the framework of convention, as one might expect from the introduction, but into another kind of stereotype that lies outside of the conventional roles Main established. While acknowledging that Cressida can shift between several of these categories within one scene, Main ultimately declared that “she is all of these—romantic, satiric, and pathetic; however, her eclectic qualities focus from her swearing and forswearing of love” (174). The final scene of Cressida we have from this analysis is not that her role is adjusted within the dictates of convention but that she is not much more than the stereotype of an equivocating female, now promising her love and now withdrawing it.
The fifth traditional critical response to Cressida has almost become a convention in itself; while man may be equated with order in the universe, woman is synonymous with disorder in her society. More importantly, at the basis of such an analogy is the assertion that woman is weak and/or promiscuous and, therefore, causes a breakdown in order. Most scholars working within this pattern of analysis in Troilus and Cressida look, of course, to Ulysses' renowned speech stressing order and degree. Kenneth Muir reminded us that this powerful Greek warrior is not relying upon divine ordering of the universe but rather on natural law. In Muir's analysis, however, it is “natural” only to men:
There was a strong dramatic reason for this impressive establishment of the idea of order, for, at the climax of the play, when Troilus witnesses Cressida's unfaithfulness, we witness the breakdown of order. … The build-up of order by Ulysses is a necessary preparation for the chaos which seems to result from Cressida's unfaithfulness. … [Ulysses warns Achilles that] it is individual worth and individual deeds that are more important than a man's position in the hierarchy of order. (“Shakespeare” 71-72)
For a woman, there is no position in that hierarchy; she is an outsider who has no worth (unless assigned by a man) and whose deeds can only serve to crumble that man-made order. While David Bevington asserted that he was not “unsympathetic” to Cressida, he also cast her in the role of disrupter. Bevington noted that Troilus must pick between love and duty. Yet when Cressida must do the same, he described her as “giv[ing] up, hating herself for doing so” and concluded that “this surrender to will and appetite in her … is emblematic of a universal disorder, and is partly caused by it” (503). R. A. Foakes more directly placed blame upon Cressida, for both the decay of Trojan society and values and for her own degradation: “The flippancy of Cressida matches the bawdy of Pandarus, and establishes the atmosphere of Troy” where adultery and promiscuity are familiar; “perhaps Cressida's casual acceptance of the idea takes her half way to deed itself” (“Reconsidered” 144). Foakes did not deny a certain amount of culpability on Troilus's part, but what are we to make of the concluding assertion that Troilus and Cressida “ends fitly … the truth of Troilus is rescued from his faults … and Cressida's curse on herself has been fulfilled—her falsehood has become proverbial” (149-150)? In this construction, Cressida-as-woman is a corrupter of Trojan society, and therefore, her corruption at the hands of the Greek soldiers is only “fit.”
The sixth and final traditional perspective of Cressida is closely connected to woman-as-chaos and deserves review before turning to the feminist challenges to these standard readings. Not unlike those scholars who have attempted to justify Cressida's behavior within a certain convention, many have asserted that Cressida acts only as she can, considering her circumstances and her environment. Some have approached this perspective in the by-now familiar negative “justification” mode; however, here we also begin to see a turn toward the feminist analyses of Cressida that attempt to look behind the curtain of her actions and the accounts of others in order to understand more clearly her character and her function in the play. The split in this particular pattern is one of chronology as well; the more denigrating readings are centered in the mid-1960s, but by the early 1980s the feminist critical influence has become apparent. For instance, in the earlier analyses, there were still such commonplace statements as, “The character of Troilus may be somewhat more romantic and less unattractive than that of Cressida … Cressida is no better than Troilus, but it is difficult to determine exactly how much worse …” (de Almeida 331). Even so, this critic noted the relatively comparable sanity of Cressida in terms of Helen's behavior and, therefore, concluded that Cressida's behavior is “sane” under the circumstances (331-332). Another analysis, similar in its duality, echoed the same assertions of relativity of behavior couched in the assumption that Cressida does, indeed, lure the Greeks to her:
The fact that Cressida has been conditioned by this particular society—like Pandarus's, her speeches are aphoristic and bawdy—permits an unconsciously ironic revelation of how obedience to prescribed ends distorts human impulses which conflict with idealized commitments. … Cressida is on the defensive in a patriarchal society. The soldiers put on their armor in order to fight to survive to fight again; she puts on a titillating seductiveness. (Callahan 64)
It is the discomfort with a woman's sexuality or the assignation to woman of the role of sex object that continually surfaces as a basis for many of the traditional patterns of response to Cressida. Is she “titillating”? Is she a “whore”?
In the above quotation, Callahan did categorize Cressida's actions as defense mechanisms; and by the end of that decade (the 1960s), typical responses to Cressida's actions within this traditional critical stance were beginning to focus upon the “patterned or ritualistic way … puppet-like” that Cressida reacted to the Greeks and at times to Troilus (Oates 143). By 1980, however, the sense that Cressida was acting in the only manner open to her in her circumstances exemplifies the beginning of a feminist revisionist attitude toward Troilus and Cressida. These are “beginning” analyses because many of them still harbor fugitive echoes of the old, traditional patterns' failings. Arlene Okerlund's “In Defense of Cressida,’ for example, presents for the first time a recognition that Cressida's actions are essentially the same as those of Shakespeare's “unadulterated” heroines in the sense that all of them must deal with the world on its own terms. Okerlund notes that in the opening scene Cressida is “an innocent young woman with all the intelligence and energy of Shakespeare's comic heroines,” that she “possesses the wit, charm, vitality and passion of Rosalind or Portia” (3-4). But Cressida's world is immoral and corrupt, and instead of the previous attitude of woman-as-chaos and corrupter of that world, Okerland suggests that Cressida is being forced into certain actions in spite of her inherent goodness. Okerlund makes the astute observation that for Cressida there is no Arden, no source of sustenance and revival, only the decadent world of Troy. What remains disturbing in this analysis, however, is a final assignation to Cressida of evilness. Cressida changes, Okerlund claims, “into a faithless, capricious dissembler … as the action develop[s], Cressida becomes caught up by the evil that surrounds her. To survive, she not only adopts the evil ways of the world, but eventually perpetuates corruption herself” (3-4). We are perilously close to the traditional view of woman as disrupter of order and society, undermining Okerlund's singular recognition that the missing link here is an Arden, not Cressida's strength to persevere.
Marilyn French has also offered fresh insights into Troilus and Cressida; yet she, too, slips into traditional patterns of response. French has claimed that sexual disgust is the “donné” of the problem plays and asserts that “the disparagement of sex … underlies the schizophrenic value-system that informs worlds like Troy” (165). She places blame for this “with the males … the masculine principle has become its own end” (154). Yet French repeatedly accepts the male characters' valuation of Cressida; she refers to Helen's and Cressida's moral worthlessness (as symbolic of the war's futility) and asserts that “Cressida shows herself easy in the world and knowledgeable about sexual matters in a way no other Shakespearean heroine is” (159). In an apparent reversal of her original assertion that the “failure rests with the males,” French then emphasizes the failure of the women characters since they are “accepting the masculine principle” (163). What ultimately occurs in French's reading of Troilus and Cressida is that we all, readers and critic alike, are left floundering in a maze of contradictions due largely to a failure to maintain distinctions between “male” and “masculine principle.”
More salient feminist responses in the “Cressida-and-her-circumstances” pattern do begin to emerge, however. Lisa Jardine reminds us that Cressida becomes Diomedes' ward, and therefore, her actions under the circumstances at the Greek camp “might (at the outset of the scene at any rate) be merely dutiful behavior toward Diomedes” (99n). Jardine does not explore Cressida's behavior further, but she makes one other important observation. “In Troilus and Cressida V.ii., three male eavesdroppers provide relentlessly patriarchal commentary on” Cressida's behavior (99n). Thus the “actions” of Cressida for which critics have traditionally condemned her are those voiced by characters who have a vested interest in upholding the male-dominated political structure. Gayle Greene also concludes that critics have erred in accepting male characters' evaluations of Cressida, whose behavior is not a sign of “the innate depravity of women, as male characters and critics claim, but that her price has fallen”—and that is a luckless fate in a mercantile society (Fem. & Marxism 39). Two important conclusions are drawn from this recognition: first, that in accepting a masculine valuation of herself, Cressida represents a woman's typical psychological pattern to define herself in relation to how others value her; and second, it becomes apparent that Shakespeare is more sympathetic to Cressida's depiction when we see her in context of the men and society she encounters, that is, “the stereotypical in her character occurs in a context that constitutes a critique of stereotyping” (“Shakespeare's Cressida” 145). Thus, if we more carefully observe Cressida and her world, we not only come to a better appreciation of Cressida as a character but of Shakespeare's artistry as well. With this reading of Cressida's reactional behavior to her circumstances, we enter the realm of scholarly, enlightening feminist analyses of Cressida's function in the play as a whole. As Carol Thomas Neely observes, “Cressida's infidelity to Troilus is not ignored or defended [by feminists] but explained as a result of her role as an object defined, controlled, exchanged by men, and totally dependent on them” (“Fem. Modes” 8).
Feminist scholars have made numerous other inroads into reshaping the traditional patterns of response to Troilus and Cressida. In first exploring traditional analyses and noting the major patterns as outlined, I began to despair at what seemed to me an overwhelming disparagement of a character and a play that I had found beautifully complex, moving, and rich in interpretative possibilities. It was only with the feminist “discovery” of this play that attitudes began to change. Feminists and those influenced by their work have not only countered each of the traditional patterns of response but have added several new avenues for exploration as well. Lisa Jardine and Gayle Greene countered the traditional pattern of “Cressida-and-her-circumstances,” as discussed above; other patterns are also being readdressed:
The “whore” pattern: Not surprisingly, the most vigorous feminist responses have been in reaction to the tradition of Cressida-as-whore. Raymond Southall, in an early attack on such readings, takes both Wilson Knight and E.M.W. Tillyard to task. Cressida is not a whore, Southall asserts; she is merely a bartered commodity—not just by Troilus but by all men, including her father (223). Southall particularly disputes the assumption, typically conjoined with “Cressida-as-whore,” that Troilus, in Tillyard's term, is a “romantic and unfortunate lover” (228). Like any other member of the “gluttonous and lecherous capitalistic society,” Southall notes, Troilus merely wanted “access” to Cressida (228). Indeed, what emerges in the text is “Shakespeare's political humanism” (232). Katherine Stockholder also denies Cressida's role as whore and points to another important reversal. Noting the violent images of ulcers, gashes, knives, and so forth that Troilus employs in I.i.51-64, Stockholder asserts, “This violence, together with this treatment of Cressida as sex object, prepare us for the total reversal Troilus makes at the end of the first scene” (542). Therefore, Troilus's reversal needs to be observed as much as Cressida's.
These early denials of Cressida as whore led the way for the seminal renunciaton of such one-dimensional attitudes in Grant Voth's and Oliver Evans' 1975 study. They argued that the complexity of Cressida's character and her role in the play deserved more critical attention than such elements had previously received. This assertion has been supported and expanded upon by Carole McKewin, Gayle Greene, and others. Voth and Evans begin with the observation that critics have agreed for too long that “Cressida is mere prostitute, a cold and calculating woman” (231). Closer observation reveals that her movement in the play parallels that of Troilus's “from awareness to self-deception and back to awareness again” (231). In the beginning of the play, Cressida is astute: she knows what Trojan men value in women in spite of the admiring language they sometimes invoke. Yet as her affair with Troilus progresses, she is persuaded to his “ideal” vision; however, the realities of the Greek camp draw her back to her original awareness: “she reluctantly returns to her initial and more accurate, if less attractive, understanding of the way things go in the world” (231). It is “unattractive” because it holds no illusions about love, but “it is a more legitimate approach to love than is Troilus' corrupt idealism,” when one considers their world (234). Voth and Evans also discount the “whore” perspective's assumptions that Cressida willingly and abruptly submits to or encourages her abuse by the Greek warriors. It is “utterly unclear” why Ulysses initiates the kissing scene, though it does serve to force Cressida once again to rely upon her wits for survival. It is important to recognize the reluctant Cressida who finally submits to the actions of the real world; there is regret and “perhaps even … pathos” in her final lines: “‘Troilus, farewell! one eye yet looks on thee; But with my heart the other eye doth see’ (V.ii.107-108)” (236). Carolyn Asp has also recognized a pathos in Cressida's situation, rooted in the “very assumption that she has no intrinsic value apart from that reflected back to her by observers” (“Defense” 409). If there is any “folly” to Cressida's actions, Voth and Evans argue, it is only in giving way to Troilus's ideal vision when it is she who knows the truth of the world; however, they continue, it is “a folly which we feel has won her a disproportionate amount of blame” (237). Here, many readers will undoubtedly be more willing to rejoin the collective “we.”
In M. M. Burns' study of Troilus and Cressida, another insightful distinction is made: if we, as readers, do not passively accept other characters' evaluations of Cressida but look instead to her actual responses, a very different portrayal of Cressida emerges. Though Pandarus's language is certainly bawdy, Cressida's is not; in fact, she often avoids Pandarus's innuendos (such as when they are observing the warriors parade forth) by responding in the form of questions and by noticing the people around her, virtually ignoring Pandarus (106-107). She is not notable for being a whore but rather, Burns asserts, for her “clearer sight and straighter language” (108). This is hardly the Cressida viewed by Rossier as “a chatty, vulgar little piece.”
Gayle Greene has also responded to the concept of Cressida as a whore in her study of “Women on Trial in Shakespeare,” published in the Fall 1982 issue of Topic, which is devoted to the Elizabethan woman:
Cressida fails her chastity test as readily as Isabella passes hers, and though the men in the play see her as the simplist of stereotypes, she is not the “whore” (V.ii.110) that the disillusioned Troilus or Thersites call her, nor that critics, taking them at their words, have likewise pronounced her. She is actually a fascinating and sympathetic study of a character in relation to a society that has made her what she is—that values her little yet insists that she be as she “is valued” (II.ii.52). Defined in relation to one lover, her characterization implies a critique of an exclusively relational conception of self-hood which leaves woman with only “A kind of self” (III.ii.140). (12)
Not unlike the traditional responses, feminist analyses often overlap “patterns”; and Greene further suggests that it may be the very negation of woman's worth in terms of sexual power that underlies Cressida's inability “to function as regenerative agent of a social order that remains as diseased as it is male-dominated” (12). That is, it is not woman who creates chaos in society, but rather man's devaluing of her that does so.
Cressida's “limitedness”: In this traditional response pattern, we noted the repeated assertion that Cressida was weak, frail, encompassed by fear, or, as some critics summed it up, “womanly.” R. A. Yoder has responded most thoroughly to this pattern by following the strong, significant actions of Cressida throughout the play. First, Yoder counsels, it is erroneous to assume that Cressida is sexually experienced because of the way in which she speaks since Shakespeare's virginal heroines, such as Rosalind and Juliet, speak in the same manner (122). Indeed, it is Troilus's language that is suspect; he is supposed to be “mad in Cressida's love,” but he joins Aeneas in “the very council that has dealt the blow. … [Pandarus] reacts more passionately than Troilus. He is left to console Cressida whose grief, so unlike Troilus's, points toward tragic intensity …” (120). When Cressida is passed around among the Greeks, she is “essentially a captive [and] has no real power to refuse” (122). She is smart enough, however, to know that wit and spirit are her most effective means to play the Greeks' game. Nor is she shocked at their rude behavior, because “there is in her less illusion than in Troilus and an adaptive reserved strength. She is indeed a daughter of the game,” but not the game of love—of war (122). It is that game by which she has been raised, as has everyone in this decaying society, and Cressida acts not with weakness but with intelligence and skill to survive.
Cressida within a convention: This pattern has received less attention from feminists than some others, but G. K. Hunter has explored one of the most prevalent conventions that traditional criticism has relied upon—courtly love and heroic traditions of language, which focused sharply on Cressida's betrayal of the romantic and “true” Troilus. As Hunter notes, while Troilus speaks with “heroic protestations” of the good intentions of men like himself, Cressida replies with comments that reveal
for her, monstrosity in love is not essentially a matter of language, nor of the discrepancy between the life and the mind and the limits of action, but of masculine unreliability in promising adoration but being casual and inattentive in actual affection. (48)
It is Cressida who moves beyond the confines of convention, and when Troilus continues to boast that he would certainly be absolute in his constancy, “Cressida listens to this and says (her finest moment?): ‘Will you walk in, my lord?’” (Hunter 48). It is through such close attention to the text, rather than relying upon the observations of other characters, that feminist scholars turn our attention to the complexities and truth of the situation. Troilus does not overvalue Cressida; he values language—his own—and the illusions he can create thereby. Ironically, even while disclaiming rhetoric, Troilus emphasizes it, to the exclusion of the real person and situation that he confronts. As Hunter notes, for Troilus, Cressida “is scarcely there at all” (49). Certainly, his behavior after their brief night of love supports Cressida's earlier questioning of his constancy. Hunter reminds us that it is Cressida's function in the play (as it is Juliet's, Cordelia's, and Perdita's) to be part of the “frontline troops in a campaign to deflate a rotundity of language” into which lovers so often fall (50). Thus, Shakespeare uses Cressida to mock such rhetorical conventions, not to hide behind them.
M.M. Burns has also suggested that Cressida's function in the play is to destroy the conventions of the chivalric ideal. In observing the patterns of aggression that serve as the design of Troilus and Cressida,
men are turned into objects of fear, to be cut apart physically, and women turned into objects of scorn to be cut apart figuratively. The spuriously heroic chivalric ideal of man as warrior and woman as mistress dissolves into a parody of itself. … (128)
Burns further suggests that, if we closely pursue Hector's speech on this subject in I.iii.273-283, we see the result of this “chivalric” episode—honor for the man, dishonor for the woman—is not at all an “accidental figure of speech … nor is it accidental that the disgrace will be living and the ‘honour’ connected only with death” (128). It is the very convention of the chivalric ideal itself that Shakespeare is questioning, and Cressida's function in that aspect of the play must not be ignored.
Feminist scholars' analyses of Troilus and Cressida have not been limited to the de-mythicizing of traditional response patterns, however. In addition to awakening readers to variations between the text and many standard assumptions about Cressida, feminist interpretations have also contributed new avenues of exploration. Velma Bourgeois Richmond, in her survey of “Shakespeare's Women,” notes that Cressida, Cordelia, and Desdemona all have one thing in common—they are motherless. These women are “less competent and assured than is Juliet, however sad her end” (337); and with this observation at hand, Richmond suggests that a “feminine model seems, then, more important than a father figure, unless the young woman can develop through being without parental supervision, as in many comedies” (337). This assertion is not fully developed in the essay since it is a survey approach, but the idea raises provocative questions for feminists to explore regarding the feminine developmental processes and the effect of role models (or lack thereof).
Similar queries regarding differences in gender responses are raised by M.M. Burns' analysis of Act IV, Scene V, when Cressida enters the Greek camp:
When a society falls into a general state of aggression, even people like Hector cease to deal fairly with others as individuals; as Ulysses advocates (for ulterior reasons), they cease to distinguish “particular” people. At least one character in this play, however, does try to distinguish among other individuals and to distinguish as an individual, in the faceless flux of aggression around her. In so doing, Cressida surely contravenes the usual critical assessment of her character. (105-106)
This perspective returns, ultimately, to the questions of how particular characters make choices between desire and duty, between self and other. Not only does this cause us to assess the moral dilemmas and resolutions, and possible distinctions between how a male or a female character makes those decisions, but also how societal influences help shape the choices made by each. There are certainly many such facets open to exploration by feminist scholars in Troilus and Cressida.
These issues lead us to another point regarding ways in which further scholarship will add to our understanding of Troilus and Cressida and other Shakespearean plays, an approach which I will refer to as a “mutuality” of interdisciplinary exploration. That is, literary feminists can and should draw upon the work being done in other disciplines to enhance interpretations of Shakespeare's canon. Gayle Greene has explored this avenue in relation to feminism and Marxism; Jonathan Culler has done so in terms of feminism and deconstruction. Psychology, of course, is another discipline that has much to offer to literary studies, as Janet Adelman's articulate feminist psychoanalytic evaluation of Troilus and Cressida reveals. Newly developing feminist studies in the field of psychology, such as Carol Gilligan's recent attempts to refocus attitudes toward female personality development, concepts of self, motives, and moral commitments, also suggest promising applicability. In Gilligan's studies of how men and women respond to decision-making when there is no simple right or wrong answer, no solution in which some person will not be hurt, she has discovered certain interesting and apparently gender-specific differences in response. Gilligan reports that men are more likely to define a “morality of rights,” while women define a “morality of responsibility” (98-99). The distinction, as Gilligan defines it, is that:
The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the “real and recognizable trouble” of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protest from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment. (100)
Thus, women are described as responding in terms of responsibility and an inclusion of others in their moral decision-making processes, while men respect others' rights and therefore respond in a pattern that excludes others in order to protect themselves. Gilligan has demonstrated such distinctions in terms of Antonio and Portia in The Merchant of Venice (105), and the result certainly constitutes an appropriate analytical basis for further exploration of Burns' suggestions that Hector and Ulysses, under such stress, cease to particularize others or to deal fairly with them—that is, they exclude—in order to give preference to their own priorities, while Cressida continues in her attempts to distinguish both among and as an individual—that is, inclusively.
There are many more facets of literary and interdisciplinary analysis that feminist criticism can explore in order to reshape interpretations of characters and our understanding of their functions within Shakespeare's plays. Carole McKewin has suggested that feminist criticism in Shakespeare, for whatever purpose or perspective, promises “new directions in the reading, teaching, and appreciation of Shakespeare's art” (164). Cressida and the questions of her “falseness” are richly deserving of such attention.
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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10742
SOURCE: “Explaining Woman's Frailty: Feminist Readings of Gertrude,” in Hamlet, edited by Peter J. Smith and Nigel Wood, Open University Press, 1996, pp. 83-107.
[In the following essay, Ouditt examines three feminist studies of Gertrude (from Shakespeare's Hamlet) in order to demonstrate the various types of concerns which serve as the focus of feminist criticism, and to highlight the shortcomings of these approaches.]
What might feminism offer to Shakespeare studies? Or, to reorder the proposition slightly, what might Shakespeare offer to feminist studies? What kind of relationships exist between the archetypal symbol of English literary heritage and the textual wing of a political movement bent on stripping bare and eradicating the structural inequalities between the sexes?
In fact, the intersections are many and fruitful, and one might detect a gradual evolution in feminist approaches. Lisa Jardine describes her ‘growing tide of personal irritation’ at the ‘reverence’ of early feminist critics for Shakespearian ‘realism’ (Jardine 1989: 1); Lynda E. Boose, on the other hand, is unhappy with Marxist critic Kate McLuskie's argument that the only viable position open to feminist readers of Shakespeare is radical resistance. McLuskie's line is that to imagine Shakespeare as an advocate for feminism is merely a sentimental attempt to co-opt his authority (Boose 1987: 723). Elaine Showalter takes the debate a stage further in her essay on representations of Ophelia. Here she outlines and implicitly dismisses three possible feminist approaches: first, the idealist pursuit of the ‘real’ Ophelia; second, a French psychoanalytical approach that would see Ophelia as ‘nothing’, ‘the cipher of female sexuality to be deciphered by feminist interpretation’; and third, the construction of Ophelia as ‘the female’, the weakness and emotional instability which needs to be jettisoned from the patriarchal world of the play before Hamlet can act (Showalter, ‘Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism’, in Parker and Hartman 1985: 78-80). Showalter's modest responsible and historically researched feminism, conscious of the ‘age of critical hubris’ which it inhabits, takes the path of considering Ophelia in her particular historical representations, from the seventeenth century to the present day, and thus produces a character of ‘multiple perspectives’; a cultural icon, which takes on the preoccupations of its age, whether on-stage, in paintings, or in lunatic asylums, rather than the ‘“true” Ophelia, for whom feminist criticism must unambiguously speak’ (Parker and Hartman 1985: 92).
Faced with these developing approaches, it is as well to remember that feminism is a living, political practice with a range of goals. It constantly questions its own aims, blindnesses, methods and assumptions from a number of perspectives. Showalter's essay raises some recurring criticisms within feminist theory, explicitly and implicitly. These might be summarized as follows:
1 Its tendency to idealize, universalize or essentialize women, that is, to see women as fundamentally the same and similarly victimized and misrepresented by patriarchy, irrespective of race, class, sex and historical differences.
2 A tendency to celebrate madness in women as a form of deviation from the suffocating patriarchal symbolic order; to see women as culture's victims, slipping through the gaps in rational representation.
3 Its preoccupation with questions of identity, ideology and discourse at the expense of a radical political analysis; in the name of diversity it has fragmented, lost sight of its original goals.
Not all of these criticisms are valid all of the time. Some refer to particular approaches, and there is no doubt that feminism is presently characterized by its diversity, by a global as well as a local framework, by its attention to culturally specific detail, by the scope of its objectives and objects of study. For some, a populist political agenda can seem alienating—for example, Diana Fuss on Tania Modleski: ‘Why … do I find Modleski's concluding invocation of “female empowerment” so distinctly disempowering?’ (Fuss 1989, 28).1 For others, feminism's basis in women's experiences (the personal as the political) can appear tiresomely unprofessional—for example, Lisa Jardine on Marilyn French: ‘French's book reveals rather depressingly clearly the common misapprehension that to be a literary feminist is adequate qualifications [sic] to make one a specialist feminist critic’ (Jardine 1989: 8, n. 15).
Feminist literary theory is often said to have begun, in the context of second-wave feminism in the late 1960s, with the recognition of a mismatch between the experience of women readers and the representation of female experience in texts, resulting in ‘images of women in’ studies. This gave way to the rediscovery of lost narratives, lost heroines, lost writers, whose recovered stories began to redress the balance, tell the other side, put the woman's point of view. This, however, did not answer the problem of ‘femininity’. What is it? How is it constructed? Where and in what form does it exist? Social and psychoanalytical studies were useful here in analysing difference, questioning the universality of female identity, theorizing ‘otherness’. And thus arose the question of cultural blindness, the recognition that white, Western middle-class concerns had routinely been privileged above those of other races and classes, in ignorance of the complexities of sexuality and the effects of imperialism. Subsequently came the development of sophisticated theories concerned with destabilizing hierarchies, reconstructing coalitions, recognizing diversity, announcing that there are many ways in which to be a feminist. What begins as ‘This does not meet with my experience’ ends with a similar kind of recognition, but from a scholarly, political and theoretical base that has taken on some of the implications of ‘difference’ rather than being a reaction to the experience of feeling excluded from a patriarchal interpretative game.
Feminism, then, is not ‘simply one thing’. The précis above is intended to give an impression of a theory that is, and always has been, on the move. It is a theory that is not an originary fable but a social and cultural practice. It changes, develops, revises, reflects, is lashed against, regroups, is over, is poised on the brink of a revolution—in relationship with the cultural register of its day. It may come as no surprise, then, that I should request the tolerance of the reader and deviate slightly from the standard format of this series. Contributors are generally expected to take a single, influential, theoretical text, identify its main features, then apply it to a single, influential, literary text. There is, however, such diversity within feminism that I would consider it impossible to do justice to the range of responses—by both critics and students—if I were to take a single voice and consider it representative.
Instead, I should like to consider three perspectives and the interpretative possibilities that they present. This will not solve the problem of representativeness, but it will go some way towards articulating the kinds of concerns with which feminism is engaged and against which readers can test their own responses. In order to mitigate the potentially fragmented effect that this approach may have, I have chosen pieces that relate directly to the play itself, and particularly to the role of Gertrude. These are Rebecca Smith's ‘A Heart Cleft in Twain’ (in Lenz et al. 1983), Jacqueline Rose's ‘Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure’ (in Drakakis 1985) and Lisa Jardine's Still Harping on Daughters (1989). I have chosen these in order to represent three different feminist perspectives, respectively ‘reading as a woman’, psychoanalytic, and materialist feminist. These perspectives exemplify particular preoccupations in feminist literary theory that concern, first, the different interpretation that a woman reader might bring to a character that has traditionally been analysed (and in the case of a play, produced, both in the theatre and on screen) by men; second, arguments centring on the ‘inscrutable’ nature of female sexuality, and the burden of guilt borne by women for social, sexual and aesthetic failure; and third, the effect of summoning a broad cultural and historical framework of ideas and practices concerning the changing roles of women in the Renaissance period, accompanied by an alert scepticism about the omniscience and objectivity of literary criticism.
The individual essays raise specific issues concerning the nature and limits of interpretation. In the meantime, however, I should like to set up three basic questions which underpin feminist theoretical enquiry. The first is whether women read differently from men. Does the different experiential ground of women's lives inevitably produce alternative readings? The spectrum between the responses ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is vast and is complicated by many questions often stimulated by the idea of ‘difference’ itself: that between men and women, that which arises from sexual orientation, class, race, relationship to power, and that which is constructed internally, on the level of subjectivity, that is to say, the many different ideologies, discourses, social, sexual and aesthetic practices that intersect in any one person, or subject. The second is to ask what feminism does to texts. Does it expose patriarchal attitudes? Locate articulations of femininity as ‘other’? Investigate the immediate context in order to cut through ‘universal’ ideas of femininity? The third, and related, question asks what is the object of feminist study. This might be the words on the page, myth, ideology or discourse—the form of speech that constructs concepts of gender and its social operations. Equally, it could be femininity itself (its social sexual, verbal, aesthetic manifestations), historical documents, theatrical conventions, inheritance laws, religious change—the complexity of the social environment in which a text was originally produced, and in which it continues to be produced in different historical periods. All of these possible approaches, in feminist criticism, are situated in the context of wanting to produce social change. That desire is their common feature.
REBECCA SMITH, ‘A HEART CLEFT IN TWAIN’
Rebecca Smith's essay on Gertrude (‘A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare's Gertrude’) was first published in 1980 in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Lenz et al. 1983). It is representative of the kind of approach Elaine Showalter, in a germinal essay, called ‘the feminist critique’.2 That is, in taking male-authored texts as the object of study, it seeks to reveal patriarchal attitudes particularly through the representation of female characters as stereotypes, whose role is to further male fantasy.3 Smith sets out to unlock the prison house of misconceptions that has resulted in a historically consistent, but nevertheless inaccurate portrayal of Gertrude. The interesting thing about this essay, though, is that it does not criticize Shakespeare for his part in a patriarchal conspiracy. He is—at least partly—exonerated from blame. The guilty parties are the other male characters and ‘most stage and film directors’ (she names Olivier, Kozintsev and Richardson), who ‘have simply taken the men's words and created a Gertrude based on their reactions’ (Lenz et al. 1983: 194). We can gather two things from this: first, that Smith considers Shakespeare to exist somehow above and beyond the boorish chauvinism of his interpreters (and his characters) as a liberal humanist of exceptional sympathy; and second, that there is a ‘real Gertrude’ for whom Smith must speak. This seems to suggest a certain naïvety about literary ‘realism’: the dubious conviction that literary characters are accessible as ‘people’. If we accept this stance, then the essential Gertrude can be properly recognized from an analysis of the words she herself speaks—rather than the things said about her by the Ghost and by Hamlet. The suggestion is that a proper interpretation can only be attained by reading against the grain of the male-originated comments and listening attentively to what she has to say for herself. Smith is thus reading as a woman; offering a ‘herstory’4 of the dowager Queen. She is Gertrude's advocate, defending her against false accusations of lasciviousness and cunning.
Smith's line of argument is that Gertrude is portrayed as a sex object by the Ghost, Hamlet and Claudius, and that this is an unjust representation. She is ‘the ultimate sexual object’ in Olivier's Hamlet (Lenz et al. 1983: 195) and seen ‘in quite heightened terms as a sexual object’ by the triad of male combatants (1983: 207). Her self-representation, however, does not add up to the same thing. Instead, when we listen to her alone, we are presented with ‘a quiet, biddable, careful mother and wife’ who ‘obviously loves both Hamlet and Claudius and feels pain and guilt at her inability to please both’ (1983: 201, 204). This, we are told, is the Gertrude that Shakespeare created (and who has nothing to do with the one described by the Ghost, Hamlet, etc.). So the lascivious Gertrude is a projection by the ‘jilted’ husband and anxious son who cannot bear the idea of his mother remarrying. The real Gertrude needs to be rescued from the portrayal of sexual objectification and seen for what she is: ‘a compliant, loving, unimaginative woman’ who marries Claudius ‘probably because of her extremely dependent personality’ (1983: 207). Smith admits that Gertrude is not fully rounded and densely layered, that she appears in only ten of the twenty scenes and takes up only 3.8 per cent of the dialogue (1983: 199) and that she, Smith, is probably only outlining another stereotype (‘malleable, submissive … solicitous of others at the expense of herself’ (1983: 207)), but she maintains that this is a more positive stereotype than that of the temptress and that it ‘more accurately reflects the Gertrude that Shakespeare created’ (1983: 208).
One could point out here that this ‘Gertrude’, distinct from the whole play, merely creates a further problem: how to understand the part played by dramatic gestures (even those that are performed when Gertrude is not needed on-stage) over and above excerptable speeches assigned to her. The relative paucity of words she utters does not decree how significant such speech actually becomes within the dramatic text. For instance, the single line ‘But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading’ (II.ii.168) sounds so alternatively in the context of the male voices in the scene (Polonius on the cause of Hamlet's madness, Claudius' businesslike efficiency), that it gathers enhanced attention to itself. The projection of Hamlet's fears and logic during the Player Queen's speeches in Act III, scene ii, should not be confused with any propria persona utterance from Gertrude, yet it could still be influential when we observe Gertrude's relationship with Claudius in Act IV, scene i, and the apparent pragmatism with which she initially reflects on Ophelia's mad fit at IV.v.14-16. Does this information provide a context for the full reversal of Gertrude's perspective at her lyrical account of Ophelia's drowning (IV.vii.141-58)? Or are we simply overlaying inappropriate novelistic reading conventions that assume the construction of characters along ‘normal’ patriarchal lines, that is, ‘knowing’ another person on the strength of how they are permitted to utter? If so, the noting of female silence comes dangerously close to the assumption that Renaissance women had no characters at all.
The interpretative categories that Smith uses resemble many of those in books such as Dale Spender's Manmade Language (1980), that seek to emphasize women's nurturing, caring, enabling capacities (see for example, Dinnerstein 1976; Chodorow 1978; Sara Ruddick, ‘Preservative Love and Military Destruction’, in Treblicot 1983). Gertrude does not say very much, as indicated above. When she does speak, she usually asks questions or ‘voices solicitude for the well-being and safety of other characters’ (Lenz et al. 1983: 200); she demonstrates ‘perspicuity’ and intuition and her actions are similarly unlascivious. She rarely appears without her husband, and does what he tells her; she scatters flowers on Ophelia's grave and wipes Hamlet's face with a napkin during the fencing match. In short, she is not a whore, she is a good mother who made a mistake in marrying Claudius (not much perspicacity there) and who has been unfortunately branded ever since. She cannot be made responsible for the imagination of a dead husband and a tormented son.
What is puzzling about this is not this particular reinterpretation of a character whose portrayal has been coloured by masculine obsession and fantasy (which element of the analysis is, surely, perfectly credible), but the apparent need to think of characters as though they are human beings, as though there is an essential Gertrude to whom the right-minded critic with appropriate interpretative equipment can gain access. Smith admits that, as a speaking part, it is pretty sparse; Showalter comments that Shakespeare did not really leave a great deal of evidence on which to base that kind of detective work (Showalter, ‘Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism’, in Parker and Hartman 1985: 78). Jardine (1989: 4) simply considers Smith's approach ‘endearing’. A lot of this is a matter of critical fashion, and it is perhaps a little cheap to criticize a critic for holding assumptions that are not presently in vogue; nevertheless, let us see how this estimation of Gertrude helps with the business of interpretation. Three questions suggest themselves. First, was Gertrude involved in the murder of her first husband? Second, did she have a sexual relationship with Claudius before the murder? And third, do we need definitive answers concerning either matter? The first two recur in analyses by critics who try to assess Gertrude's character and role in the play, and are considered by Smith. The third arises from a critical consideration of Smith's approach.
‘When speaking to Hamlet, the Ghost does not state or suggest Gertrude's guilt in his murder, only in her “falling-off” from him to Claudius (I.v.47)’ (Lenz et al. 1983: 201-2). It seems indeed to be the case that the Ghost accuses only the ‘serpent’ Claudius of ‘stinging’ his life—and of seducing his wife. It could be (if she were involved in the murder) that the Ghost had no knowledge of it, or that he wants to enlist Hamlet's vengeful passion purely against Claudius in order that he should immediately lose the crown, while Gertrude can be left to the heavens and to her own conscience. On the other hand, Gertrude, unlike Claudius, at no stage admits guilt of any specific crime. When faced with Hamlet's implied accusation, ‘almost as bad, good mother / As kill a king and marry with his brother’ (III.iv.29-30), she merely retorts ‘As kill a king?’ (III.iv.31). Smith suggests that she exclaims this in horror (Lenz et al. 1983: 202); it could be horror or disbelief at the extraordinary sequence of events—first Hamlet, with no provocation, kills Polonius, then, expressing no immediate regret for this, he retorts that it is not quite as bad as murdering a monarch. Hamlet could be mocking his mother, who may understand his jibe and be faking innocence. On the other hand, Gertrude, as far as we are aware, has no knowledge at this stage that Claudius was responsible for her first husband's death, so there need be no guilt either on her own account or on Claudius'—merely bewilderment at Hamlet's extraordinary and violent behaviour, accompanied by the strange flux of his imagination (all of which is of a piece with his ‘antic disposition’ and vile treatment of Ophelia during the play). Why on earth, she may be wondering, should he think that I killed his father? Or, even more difficult for the critic eager to attribute blame to her, what on earth is he talking about? The scene continues. Having understood Hamlet's professed intention to ‘wring [her] heart’ (III.iv.36), she asks two questions: ‘What have I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tongue / In noise so rude against me?’ (III.iv.40-1), and ‘Ay me, what act / That roars so loud and thunders in the index?’ (III.iv.52-3). These questions seem to indicate innocence, or at least a lack of understanding as to why her ‘o’erhasty’ marriage should produce such tempestuous emotions in her son. It is only when Hamlet has been through the ‘counterfeit presentment of two brothers’ (III.iv.55) and demonstrated the grace and majesty of the one as against the ‘mildewed ear’ of the other, that she cracks a little and admits to seeing ‘black and grainèd spots’ in her soul (III.iv.82). This might, of course, be her greatest virtue, that she is ruthlessly self-critical of negligible faults. She then implores Hamlet to ‘speak no more’ several times until his passionate flow is interrupted by the appearance of the Ghost.
Hamlet's line of attack concerns his mother's irrational choice and unthinking sexual response. It is not until line 88 that he names Claudius ‘A murderer and a villain’, and these epithets might be taken by her to be metaphorical, or yet another symptom of Hamlet's hyperbolic frame of mind. Whether she believes him or not, she cannot bear to hear any more either against herself or her second husband. One might easily assume that she knew nothing about it.
But how far-reaching was her involvement with Claudius? Many critics argue that the Ghost's description of her ‘falling-off’ (I.v.47), his description of Claudius as ‘adulterate’, the description of lust sating itself in a celestial bed and then preying on garbage (I.v.56-7) amounts to a clear implication of Gertrude's guilt. She is clearly guilty in the Belleforest source. The term ‘seeming-virtuous’ (I.v.46) seems to imply duplicity in marriage, the comparison between his love, that was faithful to its marriage vows, and hers all add up to a reading that condemns her for adultery (cf., for example, Bradley 1974: 134). Smith, however, maintains that she is innocent. She points up the ambiguity in the Ghost's narrative—it cannot be clearly concluded that he is describing simultaneous events rather than a close sequence of events. It might appear equally immodest to marry hastily after the death of a husband, without leaving due mourning time, and thereby revealing an unwarranted sexual appetite. The sequence of ‘falling-off’ and ‘declin[ing] / Upon a wretch’ (I.v.50-1) might equally have taken place after the King's death as before it. The time-scale is brief. The same could be said of the celestial bed/preying on garbage sequence (I.v.42-57). Hamlet's concern, Smith insists, is with the speed of his mother's remarriage and with her apparent betrayal of the memory of King Hamlet—this is what ‘makes marriage vows / As false as dicers' oaths’ (III.iv.45-6) (Lenz et al. 1983: 202-3).
This reading of Gertrude as a solicitous matriarch, her heart ‘cleft in twain’ by her equal loyalties to her son and to her husband, releases her from the female stereotype of ‘lascivious whore’ even if only to place her uncomfortably close to its dumb and vulnerable counterpart, characterized by unreflective passivity. Both interpretations are drawn from the same information—the words on the page—plus a general cultural sense of what women's roles might be in a violent and vengeful setting. It is that latter, unacknowledged source that persuades critics to supply the parts of the drama omitted by the dramatist; that is, to make whole and coherent that which is inevitably sparse, ambiguous and driven by forces other than the creation of a full range of psychologically consistent characters.
The process of attempting to answer the questions concerning Gertrude's guilt and adultery lead one to consider whether or not those questions should require a definitive answer. And this in turn recalls my earlier comment on the nature and limits of interpretation in the framework of feminist criticism. The text can never be autonomous. It invites readings, and the nature of that process is not bounded by the horizon of the text, no matter how close the reading becomes. The text does not provide definitive answers to those questions concerning Gertrude's guilt or otherwise; it is the act of intervention on the part of the critic that might decide this, and that act is, in this case, performed with the explicit intention of preventing the occlusion of the female by the male; preventing the silence that is the result of heeding only the play's main (male) protagonists. So the nature of this interpretative act is interventionist, radical, aligned to the feminist cause of rescuing women from silence, obscurity and the presumption of guilt.
The limitations of Smith's interpretative strategy coincide with assumptions concerning the close reading of ‘character’ in a dramatic text. The shortage of verbal evidence on the part of Gertrude herself, allied to the exclusion of non-verbal, performance elements that might shape the direction of the play combine to produce a reading based on conviction rather than certainty. The ambiguity, in any case, leaves us as readers/audience in a similar position to that of Hamlet: we do not know. We are invited to interpret, and we may do so on the basis of textual evidence, in an attempt to undo the repressive interpretations that have dominated discussions of Gertrude. But, in the context of a practice of close reading, a discursive, interventionist strategy leaves us not with ‘knowledge’, but with an angle, a position from which to speak and interrogate, and one buttressed by the weight of a firm ideological commitment which extends to cultural practices beyond literary criticism.
JACQUELINE ROSE, ‘SEXUALITY IN THE READING OF SHAKESPEARE’
Jaqueline Rose is best known for her feminist and psychoanalytic criticism (see Rose 1982; 1991; 1993). Her essay on Hamlet appeared in Alternative Shakespeares edited by John Drakakis, which sets out to dismantle the ‘myth’ of Shakespeare (Drakakis 1985: 24); in her own book, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (Rose 1986); and again in the Norton edition of Hamlet (Hoy 1991), Rose moves away from direct concentration on the play and from any attempt at a direct ‘reading’ in the light of psychoanalytic theory, and looks instead at the concept of ‘femininity’ and the way it has been used to explain away the shortcomings of Shakespeare's most problematic play. Her object of study, then, is not ‘women’ or ‘Shakespeare’, but the common ground of ‘language, fantasy and sexuality’ in which ‘the woman occupies a crucial, but difficult place’ (Drakakis 1985: 95). In this essay, language, fantasy and sexuality are seen to circulate in literary, literary-critical and psychoanalytical texts—namely Hamlet, T. S. Eliot's ‘Hamlet’ (Eliot 1975: 45-9) and extracts from Freud and from Ernest Jones.
Rose addresses the same initial problem as that addressed by Rebecca Smith: that Gertrude stands accused of lasciviousness. This is linked to the question of the play's ‘problematic’ status: that it has been described as an aesthetic failure because it demands too much of the act of interpretation (Drakakis 1985: 95). The two accused, then, the woman and the play, form the focus of an essay which looks at the relationships between sexuality and aesthetic form and finds that it has been all too easy to make the woman bear the burden of failure when the cause really lies elsewhere, in the failure to integrate the self both within language and subjectivity. In other words, critics such as Eliot are looking in the wrong place and with misguided motivations when they scapegoat Gertrude. A more fruitful focus of attention and more appropriate motivations, Rose suggests, can only be properly discovered using the tools that have arisen from the study of psychoanalysis within a post-structuralist framework.
Eliot is first in the dock, and is called to account for adopting the attitude of a literary policeman: a ‘particularly harsh type of literary super-ego’, whose general tendency towards repression (which was to find other outlets in political terms) demanded the too-neat resolution of linguistic, sexual and aesthetic complexes (Drakakis 1985: 102). Rose explains her questioning of Eliot's influential assumptions with reference to his concept of the ‘objective correlative’, which he developed in his essay on Hamlet. The objective correlative is ‘a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts […] are given, the emotion is immediately evoked’ (Eliot 1975: 48). In other words, the route towards experiencing the ‘particular emotion’ is external to, and not to be confused with, the emotion itself. Proper artistic control means that the emotion must be brought under control in the mind of the artist and rendered in an aesthetically contained and objective form. The problem with Hamlet, in Eliot's eyes, is that there is a mismatch between the character of Gertrude and the emotional excess that she has apparently generated in her son. The emotional effect that she has on the play thus causes it to veer out of aesthetic control, Hamlet's mother being an inadequate stimulant of Hamlet's reaction to her: ‘his disgust envelops and exceeds her’ (Eliot 1975: 48).
So, Eliot suggests, Gertrude is to blame for the play's artistic failure. Which is not to say that the play lacks interest: indeed it is, according to Eliot, ‘the “Mona Lisa” of literature’ (Eliot 1975: 47). Rose picks up this analogy, precisely because we see Eliot using another image of a woman to convey the play's failure: ‘Like the Mona Lisa, Hamlet is a flawed masterpiece whose very failing acts as a pull on spectator and critic alike. Its very imperfection brings with it the power to seduce’ (Drakakis 1985: 96). So the idea of undecipherability, of the enigmatic, of that which lures only to refuse to yield up its meanings, is transferred between play and painting with the woman as common, and deceptive, currency, implicitly denigrated by male authority.
In Hamlet, then, sexuality is unmanageable. Gertrude's impropriety provokes disorder and tumult. To Hamlet it is disgusting: he cannot control his response to it. It is horrific. And this excessive emotional reaction, the object of which is too insubstantial a dramatic presence to warrant it, leads to a problem of interpretation: ‘how to read, or control by reading, a play whose inscrutability (like that of the Mona Lisa) has baffled—and seduced so many critics’ (Drakakis 1985: 98). Rose's argument is that Eliot's criticism operates on the principle of strict control and proper example. He demands formal constraint in the body of works that comprise the ‘Literature’ that is worthy of that status. Formal constraint is exemplified by the objective correlative, which ‘carries the burden of social order itself’ (Drakakis 1985: 98) in that it forces emotion into the strait-jacket of object. And Gertrude's character, in its weakness and deficiency, is indicative of the crisis that occurs when the (ever-present, but none the less) unknowable, the incomprehensible in social and affective life, refuses to be contained by aesthetic form. Rose is thus setting up a comparison between the objective correlative and social order. The former is to art as the latter is to life—but they are linked by an unacknowledged concern with what is considered proper behaviour in the normal world.
Rose's real interest is not so much in Eliot's critical formulations in themselves, as in the surprising resemblance that they bear to psychoanalytical concepts. Her essay progresses along lines that are more associative than linear, and her next move is to indicate the similarity between Eliot's formulation and the psychoanalytic account of subjectivity. Just as Eliot (1975: 49) sees the dangers of the ‘inexpressibly horrible’ threatening to upset aesthetic form, so psychoanalysis sees speech, or utterance, as open to disruption by the ungovernable forces of the unconscious. The more obvious manifestations of this are found in dreams, slips of the tongue and jokes, but ordinary language use might be similarly affected. Where Eliot (1975: 49) observes the ‘buffoonery’ of Hamlet's unchanelled emotional excess delivered in the form of puns, repetitions and other instances of word-play, in the light of psychoanalysis we could equally see traces of the unrepresentable (the unconscious). Thus aesthetic coherence (which Eliot detects in many other Shakespeare plays) is perilously close to aesthetic collapse. One false move and the Bard, instead of displaying masterly control, ‘slips off the edge of representation itself’ (Drakakis 1985: 99). In other words, the insistence on control always bears traces of its flip side, chaos and disorder, and the example of psychoanalysis suggests that readers and critics should be aware of their proximity. This need not necessarily result in Eliot-style condemnation of the work in question, but might, on the other hand, open up new avenues of enquiry.
In another associative move, Rose points up the similarities between the (psychoanalytic) Oedipal drama and Eliot's cultural theories in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (Eliot 1975: 37-44). The former is central to the Freudian psychoanalytic theory which accounts for the division of human subjects into male and female and for the direction of desire on to its appropriate object. The boy child, for example, perceives his father as a rival for his mother's love and fantasizes about killing him in order to possess the mother. Fears of castration, however, which the father, the source of all authority, threatens, persuade the child to relinquish desire for his mother and move towards identification with the father, on the understanding that one day he, too, will be similarly empowered. In ‘Tradition’ the artist must submit to something outside himself and surrender to the tradition which precedes and surrounds him. Just as the son pays his debt to the father and thus becomes a male subject, so the artist pays his debt to the dead poets and thus becomes a poet. Either son or poet may, of course, fail to submit: alternative claims may prevail over those of patrilineal tradition. Rose's point is that, as well as this being another scenario suggestive of the capitulation to order of the growing (literary and social) subject, it also recalls the numerous pleas for appropriate mourning in Hamlet which go unheeded, or remain unresolved (Drakakis 1985: 99-100). The play is, of course, noted for its palpable inadequacy of mourning (of King Hamlet, of Polonius, of Ophelia): ‘a beast that wants discourse of reason / Would have mourned longer’ than Gertrude, in Hamlet's eyes (I.ii.150-1).
Having set up a literary-psychoanalytical context in which order is repeatedly asserted and frequently fails, Rose returns to the issue that it is a woman who is seen as the cause of excess and deficiency in the play and a woman (the Mona Lisa) who symbolizes this in Eliot's essay. She now relates this to the drama of sexual difference, as described by Freud, where woman is failure in representation, is something deficient, is lacking or threatening to ordered systems, whether these be aesthetic or sexual (Drakakis 1985: 100).5 This can result in fetishization or mystification - or inscrutability. Enter the Mona Lisa once more: again, it is evoked as that which cannot be controlled, managed, that which is in excess, that which is not an ‘objective correlative’ to the range of emotions which it seems to produce - but this time Rose is setting this in the context of psychoanalysis and reveals Freud's similar interest (at around the same time) in the enigma of the representation of ‘the contrasts which dominate the erotic life of women’ (Freud 1953-74, 11: 108; cited in Drakakis 1985: 101). Rose's deduction from this is that Eliot's invocation of the Mona Lisa suggests that what seems unmanageable to a rigidly controlled aesthetic theory is ‘nothing other than femininity itself (Drakakis 1985: 101). So what needs explanation is not why Gertrude is so inadequate as an object for the emotions generated in the play, but why she should be expected to support them. Why should Gertrude be responsible for her son's feelings towards her? Why does she bear the guilt? Why does Hamlet not concentrate more on his revenge project and less on her sexuality? Woman embodies a whole range of fantasies concerning sexuality, disruption, seduction, reserve, voracity, cruelty, compassion, grace—many of which are seen lurking behind La Gioconda's smile, and many of which are projected on to Gertrude, the scapegoat for the failure of the play. Rose's point is that behind Eliot's reference to Leonardo's painting lies a whole history of the fantasies that woman embodies and is required to uphold. Furthermore, the burden of guilt, like the male-orientated construction of femininity, falls unfairly, displacing attention on to a fetishized concept of woman and away from more demanding considerations concerning language and subjectivity.
writing which proclaims its integrity, and literary theory which demands such integrity (objectivity/correlation) of writing, merely repeat that moment of repression when language and sexuality were first ordered into place, putting down the unconscious processes which threaten the resolution of the Oedipal drama and of narrative form alike.
(Drakakis 1985: 102)
So Eliot's aesthetic demands are ethically oppressive. He blames the woman for the play's lack of resolution on the level of form (she is not an adequate objective correlative) and theme (she obstructs the resolution of the revenge plot). Femininity, as Rose puts it, ‘is the image of that problem’—is the concept through which that problem is represented. As a locus of lack of representation, of excess, of inscrutability, femininity is a focus for the threat of disintegration, on both literary and psychic levels, that can rise through the cracks in normative representation at any time. Gertrude disrupts the surface of the representation of Hamlet—both character and play.
An account of readings by Ernest Jones and D. W. Winnicott (Drakakis 1985: 109-15) brings Rose on to the question of interpretation through the psychoanalytic concept of resistance: this is where meaning disguises itself, is overwhelming or escapes. It is not a question of simple concealment, but represents the ‘truth’ of a subject ‘caught in the division between conscious and unconscious which will always function at one level as a split’ (Drakakis 1985: 116). Interpretation can only move on when resistance is seen not as obstacle, but as process. Hamlet's problem is that he cannot act. He also cannot make sense of, cannot interpret his immediate situation. The fact of being unable to interpret what the intervention of the Ghost means, what Gertrude's change of sexual partner means, what Ophelia's behaviour means, ‘leaves the relationship between word and action held in unbearable suspense’ (Drakakis 1985: 117). The tension between words and actions, the difficulty of interpreting the incapacity of words (in this case ‘revenge’) to complete themselves in action (to kill Claudius) provides the productive focus of critical uncertainty. Rose suggests that Gertrude has been a kind of victim of this tension: ‘Failing in a woman, whether aesthetic or moral, is always easier to point to than a failure of integration within language and subjectivity itself’ (Drakakis 1985: 118).
The kind of ‘failure’ of which Gertrude stands accused could only be upheld within discourses based on coherence models—and coherence models which take partriarchy as the norm. Rose is suggesting that Eliot's repressive desire to see Hamlet conform to the aesthetic coherence of Shakespeare's ‘more successful’ plays is of a piece with an attitude that ignores the gaps and chasms in representation, that seeks to smooth over interpretative inconsistencies or to arraign them for breaking the law of aesthetic unity. Rose is suggesting that the critic should turn his or her attention away from apportioning blame for shortcomings in the literary meritocracy, and instead turn towards subjectivity, which is not unified, but is a space, cross-hatched with a multiplicity of conflicting drives, desires and duties. In this way femininity might cease to become a scapegoat for the incoherence of the human subject.
LISA JARDINE, ‘WEALTH, INHERITANCE AND THE SPECTRE OF STRONG WOMEN’
The approaches that we have examined so far have considered Gertrude's ‘character’, in an attempt to come to a more accurate understanding of her role in the play than that traditionally portrayed. These approaches have analysed why Gertrude takes the ‘blame’ for the play's ‘failures’, from a psychoanalytic perspective that considers ‘femininity’, not only as it is represented in the play, but also in terms of the history of myths and fantasies that it supports and which are read into the play by critics, psychoanalytic and otherwise.
The third approach looks to the place of the female subject in history and fits somewhere between the categories ‘new historicist’ and ‘materialist feminist’. Lisa Jardine, in her updated preface to Still Harping on Daughters, describes her ambivalence towards the discovery that she was considered as part of a general critical trend ‘loosely called the “new history”’ (Jardine 1989: viii), and also describes her debt of intellectual gratitude to American feminist psychoanalytic critics, in particular Coppélia Kahn and Carol Neely. Valerie Wayne, in her introduction to The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, outlines a rift between feminism and new historicism in which the latter is criticized for its apolitical and élitist tendencies (Wayne 1991: 4-5).6 Lisa Jardine's description of her own method aligns her more with materialist feminism, and it is within this broad theoretical context that I should like to consider her.
She states that, in her case, ‘the move forwards towards a new fusion of methodologies and material from cultural history and text studies was made in order to retrieve agency for the female subject in history’ (Jardine 1989: viii). Her object is to build back in for woman her place in history as agent as well as receiver of masculine ideologies. She does this by ‘treating the individual female subject in the drama as a “cultural artifact” … I look for the subject in history at the intersection of systems of behaviour, customs, beliefs, out of which, I consider, personal identity is constructed’ (Jardine 1989: viii-ix).7 By using the term ‘cultural artifact’ she is distinguishing her approach from those who see characters as ‘people’ and from those who seek to understand concepts such as ‘femininity’ in terms of their relation to ahistorical psychic drives—that is, from the two approaches we have already considered. Catherine Belsey describes materialist feminism's ‘concern with the social and the economic, as opposed to the purely psychological, and with historical difference, as opposed to the universal and essential categories of ‘woman’ or ‘patriarchy’ (‘Afterword: A Future for Materialist Feminist Criticism?’, in Wayne 1991: 257). In other words, ‘the past is another culture’ (Jardine 1989: ix). Our access to it and to those subjects who participate in it should be formed by an understanding of the values and practices of that culture, which give shape and meaning to individual action and to representation. Jardine's practice, then, is to offer detailed historical documentation concerning, for example, the changes in education, the effects on women of religious reform and the complications involving inheritance laws as ‘avenues of approach’ to the representations of women in Renaissance drama (Jardine 1989: 6). She does this not with the conviction that the plays offer an accurate reflection of the social scene or articulate explicitly the changing views on ‘the woman question’ (for this see Dusinberre 1975) but with the belief that plays are one form, among others, in which concern about social change is registered.
Now, how does this help with the question of interpretation? What form of activity is involved in putting into practice this broadly historicist, materialist, feminist theory? Perhaps, first of all, we should say that Jardine (1989: 6) rejects the status of ‘theory’ for her analysis and calls it instead ‘a practice of feminist interest in literature’. The heuristic work, she suggests, involves detailed contextualization of the plays, in which social formations, conventions and practices are seen as intersecting systems, which are articulated in the form of texts or subjects. For our purposes here, Jardine's chapter on ‘Wealth, Inheritance and the Spectre of Strong Women’, coupled with other documentary evidence (gathered by materialist critics such as Catherine Belsey and Sara Eaton8), can help put Gertrude in the context of beliefs concerning women, power and sexuality in the Shakespearian period.
Belsey speaks of the ‘silence’ of women in the period: women were
enjoined to silence, discouraged from any form of speech which was not an act of submission to the authority of their fathers or husbands. … [T]hey speak with equal conviction from incompatible subject positions, displaying a discontinuity of being, an ‘inconstancy’ which is seen as characteristically feminine.
(Belsey 1985: 149)
Their legal position was in flux, their position in the family ambiguous, their power position in the state non-existent. Some women did resist, but they were nevertheless ‘placed at the margins of the social body, while at the same time, in the new model of marriage they were uneasily, silently at the heart of the private realm which was its microcosm and its centre’ (Belsey 1985: 150). The notable exception was, of course, Elizabeth I. Perhaps this can help us out with an explanation of Gertrude's relative silence in comparison with the psychological weight that she bears in terms of Hamlet's relation to her as his mother. The ‘positions’ from which she speaks are normally as Claudius' wife, and as Hamlet's mother—for example, at I.ii.68-73 she bids Hamlet, ‘cast [his] nightly colour off’; in Act III, scene i, she obeys Claudius' request that she leave, but only after she has expressed the hope that Ophelia's ‘virtues’ will restore Hamlet's sanity; in Act III, scene iv, however, the closet scene, which Gertrude opens by criticizing her son's behaviour, Hamlet names her conflicting roles and his own troubled relation to them: ‘You are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife, / But—would you were not so—you are my mother’ (ll. 16-17). Her heart is ‘cleft in twain’ when the demands of her present husband and son, the present occupants of her familial microcosm, pull in opposite directions. Her ‘inconstancy’ is notorious. But instead of looking for a psychological motivation that could explain her ‘frailty’, we might consider instead her awkward duty to speak from the position of Claudius' wife. When Hamlet reminds her of the qualities of her former husband, all she can do is request his silence (‘speak no more’ (III.iv.80)): her past life, her past position as King Hamlet's wife, is at odds with her present position. She can do little more than try not to acknowledge the discontinuity and thereby to maintain some kind of dignity in the role in which she presently has, as it were, a speaking part. Hamlet's attention to her lack of judgement—‘what judgement / Would step from this to this?’ (III.iv.71-2)—and lack of constancy—‘O shame, where is thy blush?’ (III.iv.74)—elicit no explanations. This is the consequence of remarriage in the Renaissance period. One is a wife, and then, one is a wife. There is no opportunity to explain the discordance in the sequence. Gertrude's single, terse comment on female prolixity—‘The lady protests too much’ (III.ii.216)—is perhaps not so much an admission of her own sexual laxness as an indication that verbal excess is either not an appropriate aspect of female behaviour, or that it is positively dangerous in such a threatening patriarchal world. However we interpret it, it seems to suggest the difficulty of making the autonomous female voice heard, especially for one in her ‘cleft’ position.
We can add to this Jardine's (1989: 69) point that the ‘female hero moves in an exclusively masculine stage world, in which it is the task of the male characters to “read” her’. This is almost exclusively what happens to Gertrude (and largely what happened to Elizabeth I). Gertrude is ‘read’ by the Ghost and by Hamlet who find in her ‘frailty’, a ‘falling-off’, absence of reason and an unseemly lasciviousness. The atmosphere surrounding these assessments of her motivations is thick with sexual accusations, which we can take as an accurate judgement or leave as the overheated imaginative response of a husband in hell and distraught son. As far as Gertrude is concerned, the rest is silence. Contemporary sources warn against ‘dishonest’ behaviour. Ophelia is given a good talking to by her brother and her father: ‘weigh what loss your honour may sustain / If … you … / … your chaste treasure open / To his unmastered importunity’ (I.iii.29-32); ‘Tender yourself more dearly, / Or … / … you’ll tender me a fool’ (I.iii.107-9). Women, in general, were assumed to be the ‘Image of sweetnesse, curtesie and shamefastnesse’ (quoted by Jardine 1989: 76, from Boccaccio 1963: 177): any sign of sexual awareness would brand a woman as Eve or Magdalene rather than Mary (Jardine 1989: 77): Gertrude would thus have been seen as ‘wanton’ because of her rapid remarriage, irrespective of her son's vile imaginings.
Widows, however, were often expected to remarry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, despite the Church's emphasis on the chastity of widows and the assumption that they would remain true to the man they married with God's blessing. As Jardine (1989: 83) puts it, ‘the widows of wealthy men were married off again with quite undignified haste where those responsible for them considered it financially advantageous to the line to do so’. Gertrude's own status is deeply ambiguous. It does seem that Claudius was probably elected King by a group of elders—he ‘Popped in between th’election and [Hamlet's] hopes’ (V.ii.66)—and that he married Gertrude once this position was secure, rather than her bestowing the monarchy on him by marriage (which even now is not possible in English law). It is also not clear whether one can assume that Shakespeare had English or Danish law in mind—or, whether his original audience would have had any knowledge of Danish law. This operated on the principle of elective monarchies, although, according to Jas. Howell, in 1632, the last three kings of Denmark had ensured, before their deaths, that their eldest sons were confirmed as successors (Jenkins 1982: 434).
Jardine (1989: 192) argues that Gertrude's remarriage excites in Hamlet a ‘suppressed fear of female interference in patrilinear inheritance’. This focuses his revulsion at her remarriage because it places in question his own position as successor to the throne. According to the (English) law of tail male, the estate passes from eldest son to eldest son, and thus would pass next to Hamlet. If Hamlet were to remain childless, however, his paternal uncle Claudius and his offspring would then be next in line. This would be the case regardless of the marriage of Claudius to Gertrude. The fact of their marriage, however, means that a child born of that union would displace Hamlet. This might explain Hamlet's insistence that Gertrude ‘go not to [his] uncle's bed’ (III.iv.155) in an age of unreliable contraception. The whole scenario—lust interfering with inheritance—would make Gertrude guilty of the disruption of patrilineal tradition irrespective of any conscious intention on her part.
Jardine's (1989: 93) argument is that the question of inheritance adds a dimension to Hamlet's reaction to the marriage that a modern audience would probably miss, at the same time as it renders Gertrude ‘guilty’ by the simple fact of her having a (potentially interventionist) sexual role in a drama that circles around patriarchal power. She comments that the inheritance theme is subsidiary in the play, but that it nevertheless sheds some light on the supposition of Gertrude's culpability (in the absence of any ‘proof’ of her involvement in murder or adultery) and on Hamlet's obsession with her sexual relations with Claudius.
Sara Eaton, in her essay on ‘Defacing the Feminine in Renaissance Tragedy’ (in Wayne 1991) makes the basic point that the female characters of the period give less of an impression of their physical and psychological fullness than do the males: ‘their expressions of desire, of will, of being, their explanations for their actions, rarely add up to the complicated declarations of interiority common to male characters by the 1590s' (Wayne 1991: 186). This is clearly the case with Gertrude, who is notably silent on her own motivations. Eaton also comments on the increasingly private treatment of female sexual misdemeanours, at a time when women's lives were gradually being redefined as domestic (Wayne 1991: 191). What is interesting is that while punishment was private, the theatrical space publicized it, most notably in somewhat later plays such as Webster's The Duchess of Malfi or Heywood's A Woman Killed With Kindness (Wayne 1991: 193); male protagonists are frequently concerned with female virtue (a concern that dominated the public performances of Elizabeth I), and punishments are often enacted in private spaces—such as the ‘closet’ in which Hamlet upbraids Gertrude. ‘Men's power to punish is made visible by their actions, and is rarely questioned, demonstrating the power of the patriarchy to construct the “realities” of women's lives’ (Wayne 1991: 193). Lust is not to be permitted to interfere with inheritance.
Eaton's essay does not refer directly to Hamlet. Its implications suggest, however, that one might interpret Gertrude's silent suffering, her plea that she should hear ‘no more’, as an indication that she has no way of answering Hamlet's accusations; that her role as wife determines one set of loyalties at the same time as her role as mother sets out another. The men surrounding her continue to interpret her life in terms of their lives. Her silence and passivity make her an object on to which their demands (and deepest fears), in all their contradictions, are projected. When Ophelia speaks in her own voice—actively, without status—she utters ‘things in doubt / That carry but half sense’. Perhaps more crucially, according to Horatio, ‘Her speech is nothing’ (IV.v.6-7). The single occasion when Gertrude acts in propria persona, in defiance of Claudius' wishes, she drinks poison, the prelude to her own extinction.
A reading of Gertrude as a subject in history, then, offers explanations for her silence and for the presumption of her guilt that rely on an understanding of the ideologies concerning marriage, inheritance and submission to authority that were current at the time.
What, then, are the problems in each of these three approaches, and how do they help us to interpret Gertrude?
It has already been suggested that Rebecca Smith relies on the idea of re-presenting Gertrude ‘as she really is’, stripped of the voyeuristic trimmings imposed upon her by the masculine eye and mind, solicitous in her maternal duties. This is a ‘rereading’ in the light of an alternative vision—a woman's—and one that takes account of the ways in which the accretion of stage and screen representations of Gertrude constructs a dominant cultural vision of her which should be challenged. Jacqueline Rose does not attempt to offer us a clear interpretation of who Gertrude ‘is’, or what her role is in the play. She suggests instead that the cultural construction of ‘femininity’, with all its fantasies of seduction, cunning, grace, etc., have blinded critics such as Eliot to the essence of the play's ‘problem’. Eliot ‘blames’ Gertrude for the play's failure. In doing so he is revealing his own authoritarian insistence on order and missing the point. The point is that subjectivity and language are infinitely complex systems, criss-crossed with incompatible motivations and unknowable drives which rarely resolve themselves in any easy or ‘unitary’ meaning. The reason for Hamlet's inability to act is not necessarily something ‘inexpressibly horrible’ that concerns his relationship with his mother, but might equally be read as an articulation of the nature of subjectivity itself. The weight of interpretative activity that Gertrude seems to require is not an aspect of a fault in the play's construction, but a comment on the way language and subjectivity operate. The feminist point here is that Gertrude is absolved. Rose is indicating a cultural obsession with the ‘inscrutability’ of femininity and the way that it tends to serve as a decoy, an easy target, deflecting attention from areas perhaps more analytically complex, but less susceptible to the combination of seduction and blame.
The Jardine approach offers us a Gertrude who is a ‘subject’, that is, who is constructed by the cultural position of her femininity at a particular historical moment. The interpretative problem here is in gaining access to the specifics of that historical period and in combining this, in all its conflicting multiplicity, with a reading of a notoriously unstable text. Many feminist Shakespearians who take this path seem to do so with a sense of modesty, combining detailed scholarship with a recognition that they are producing a contribution to an ongoing project (Jardine 1989: 6-7; Wayne 1991: 23-4). And this seems an appropriate point on which to conclude. Feminism, by its very nature as a political programme as well as an aspect of literary study, is a continuing project. The contributions to it and the readings of Gertrude considered here form part of a changing cultural and critical history. They are interventions, committed to a form of social change that will undo the inequalities between men and women. As such they read against the grain of a predominantly patriarchal and conservative cultural inheritance in order to undermine the tendency to represent women in terms of common stereotypes and to shed some historical, cultural, analytical light on the particular circumstances in which femininity has been constructed.
nigel wood: In Janet Adelman's Suffocating Mothers (Adelman 1992) Gertrude's ‘maternal body’, the intrusion of her mark on masculine identity and its destabilizing effects, casts a long shadow (see Adelman 1992: 11-37). She regards the matter of female characterization as bearing more or less directly on masculine identity as well as signs of the female. This seems a manœuvre that is not catered for in your review of feminist positions. I wonder whether you could say more about the particular challenge the ‘mother-figure’ sets in Shakespeare or other texts?
sharon ouditt: I think that there is something of this implicit in Rose's reading of Eliot's position, and that is precisely what she—Rose—is steering clear of. The ‘inexpressibly horrible’ that Eliot describes bears some relation to the ‘horrific maternal body’ to which Adelman alludes. It seems to speak to an invocation of ‘deep fantasy’, of the Oedipal forces that align the female body with the power to engulf, to render into nothingness, to emasculate? Perhaps it speaks more to male fantasy about women than to female experience. This doesn’t mean, of course, that it is invalid as an approach: it’s very useful in elucidating a masculine fear of femininity that troubles so many texts—Shakespearian and other—and in explaining the inability of this particular kind of masculinity to ‘grow up’, that is, to perceive women in any function other than the maternal/sexual. The best example in a modern text that I can think of that explores both sides of this kind of figure (positive and negative) is Mrs Ramsay in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. She is oceanic in some respects, but also limited and limiting, preventing the younger generation from outgrowing her dictates while she still lives. She does indeed cast a long shadow—over Lily Briscoe's canvas. But that’s another story.
nw: Is there a contradiction between the impulse towards public or general meanings in materialist approaches and the private histories uncovered in psychoanalytic readings?
so: Not in so far as the personal and the political, or the general, are elements of the same continuum in the context of women's oppression. There has been some considerable friction between psychoanalytic approaches (commonly characterized as ‘French’) and social, or materialist approaches (often described as ‘Anglo-American’) and, while I don’t want to suggest that there is no distinction, I think that the idea of the ‘subject’ has provided a lot of common ground. That is to say, psychic meanings are also social meanings. The forces which make up the unconscious are socially as well as privately induced. The subject is a kind of battleground in which drives, ideologies, discourses struggle against each other and in which the private is barely distinguishable from the public. We can see this in all three readings of Gertrude that I’ve outlined: the private meanings which the Ghost and Hamlet apply to her are aligned with public ideas of what it means to be female. Her silence, confusion, lack of coherence, whether it be explained in the language of personal motivation or public duty, seems to be a product of the inevitable ‘inconstancy’ of woman's position when she has a number of roles to play and each is viewed separately from a male-orientated perspective. I think the two approaches are complementary rather than contradictory.
nw: You state … that several of the disagreements within feminist criticism could be attributed to ‘critical fashion’. Are there approaches that are distinct from transient cultural forces?
so: Perhaps the word ‘fashion’ suggests a capriciousness that I didn’t really intend. I can’t imagine an approach that is not inflected by the cultural and historical forces of its day even if aspects of that approach remain stable across long periods of time. In the case of feminism (in the recent term) emphases have shifted, alliances have been established, changes have been made - it has been a learning process for all - but many of the core considerations are still there because our culture has not yet been able to change them.
nw: How would you confront the common resistance to feminist critiques that emerges whenever it is pointed out that what is now held as an article of good faith just could not be true of Renaissance perceptions?
so: First, I would say that this is not a problem borne by feminism alone. I don’t think any approach, from practical criticism to present-day post-modernist preoccupations, can entirely divest itself of the prejudices—conscious and unconscious—of its time. Then, I would say that feminism, like a lot of other politically inflected theories, is by nature interventionist. That is, it is not trying, by some mysterious act of transhistorical osmosis, to get to and re-experience the object of its study, in the historicist and literal terms derived from that object's temporal location. Feminism is, on the whole, conscious that there is historical and cultural difference between Renaissance perceptions and those of the present day. Its concern is to elucidate the position, roles, cultural existence of women at that time and to unpick the silencing of women's issues in literary criticism that has dominated our cultural understanding of that period since. It reads against the grain, when that grain is characterized by patriarchal attitudes, in an effort to analyse the effects of those attitudes. And to examine the various ways in which women, who are not always perceived by feminists as victims of a patriarchal conspiracy, have dealt with them.
Fuss is referring to Modleski's essay ‘Feminism and the Power of Interpretation: Critical Readings' (de Lauretis 1986), in which Modleski argues for the empowering of ‘real’ women readers. Fuss takes issue with Modleski's democratizing impulse on the grounds that she does not account for the material differences between women of different races, class backgrounds or sexual orientations. Modleski is trying to assert feminist criticism as something that is for women; a tool in the female resistance to patriarchy, rather than simply existing as one theoretical approach among many. The debate is explained in Landry and MacLean (1993: 149-50).
Showalter's essay, ‘Toward a Feminist Poetics' was originally printed in Jacobus (1979); it is reprinted in Showalter (1986).
The best-known practitioners of the feminist critique are Kate Millett (see Millett 1970) and Germaine Greer (see Greer 1970). For an American perspective see also Fetterley (1978).
The term ‘herstory’ became part of feminist linguistic currency towards the beginning of the ‘second wave’. It is normally used to emphasize that ‘women's lives, deeds and participation in human affairs have been neglected or undervalued in standard histories’ (see Miller and Swift 1976: 135).
Rose cites Freud's ‘The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex’ (Freud 1953-74, 19: 173-9) and ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’ (Freud 1953-74, 19: 243-58). See also Mitchell (1974), esp. Chapters 6-8.
Boose (1987) goes into this further. She points up a division, commencing in or around 1982, between, on the one hand, approaches characterized by psychoanalysis, gender, the family, with emphasis on the microcosmic, and, on the other, new historicist approaches concentrating on what is implicitly masculine, Court politics, the macrocosmic. The problem with new historicism for feminists appears to be that it erases gender and femininity as analytical foci or contextual forces. In a Woolfian analogy, she further characterizes feminism as born ‘outside’ the ‘manor of literary fathers’ and thus detached and philosophically free to constitute itself, while new historicism she sees as the ‘son and heir’, born ‘inside the academy and inside Renaissance studies’ and therefore ‘doomed by the obligation to repeat the oppressive struggle for power’ (Boose 1987: 738).
In terms of method this may appear indistinguishable from new historicism; the political inflection is given by the specific concentration on the female subject.
See, for example Belsey (1985); and Eaton ‘Defacing the Feminine in Renaissance Tragedy’, in Wayne (1991).
Belsey, Catherine (1985) The Subject of Tragedy.
Boose, Linda E. (1987) ‘The Family in Shakespeare Studies—or—Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans—or—The Politics of Politics’, Renaissance Quarterly, 40: 707-42.
Fetterley, Judith (1978) The Resisting Reader. Bloomington, IN.
Freud, Sigmund (1953-74) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. J. Strachey, 24 vols.
Fuss, Diana (1989) Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference.
Greer, Germaine (1970) The Female Eunuch.
Jacobus, Mary (ed.) (1979) Women Writing and Writing about Women.
Landry, Donna and MacLean, Gerald (eds) (1993) Materialist Feminisms. Oxford.
de Lauretis, Teresa (ed.) (1986) Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Bloomington, IN.
Miller, Casey and Swift, Kate (1976) Words and Women: New Language in New Times. New York.
Millett, Kate (1970) Sexual Politics.
Mitchell, Juliet (1974) Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Harmondsworth.
Showalter, Elaine (ed.) (1986) The New Feminist Criticism.
Wayne, Valerie (ed.) (1991) The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Hemel Hempstead.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9082
SOURCE: “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, Manchester University Press, 1985, pp. 88-108.
[In the following essay, McLuskie reviews several feminist approaches to Shakespeare's plays, highlighting in particular the problems with the mimetic and essentialist models of feminist criticism. The critic then applies her critique of such feminist approaches to King Lear and Measure for Measure.]
Every feminist critic has encountered the archly disingenous question ‘What exactly is feminist criticism?’ The only effective response is ‘I’ll send you a booklist’, for feminist criticism can only be defined by the multiplicity of critical practices engaged in by feminists. Owing its origins to a popular political movement, it reproduces the varied theoretical positions of that movement. Sociologists and theorists of culture have, for example, investigated the processes by which representations of women in advertising and film reproduce and reinforce dominant definitions of sexuality and sexual relations so as to perpetuate their ideological power.1 Within English departments critical activity has been divided among those who revived and privileged the work of women writers and those who have focused critical attention on reinterpreting literary texts from the traditional canon. In the case of Shakespeare, feminist critics have contested the apparent misogyny of the plays and the resistance of their feminist students by directing attention to the ‘world’ of the plays, using conventional tools of interpretation to assess Shakespeare's attitude to the events within it.2
In a number of essays3 the feminist concern with traditional evaluations of sexual identity has been used to explore the importance of ideals of violence in the psychological formation of Shakespeare's male characters.4 Janet Adelman has analysed the importance of structures of psychological dependence in accounting for Coriolanus's phallic aggression5 and Coppelia Kahn has described the feud in Romeo and Juliet as ‘the deadly rite de passage that promotes masculinity at the price of life’.6 These essays have built on and developed a feminist psychoanalysis7 which places motherhood at the centre of psychological development, as Coppelia Kahn makes explicit in her book on Masculine Identity in Shakespeare: ‘the critical threat to identity is not, as Freud maintains, castration, but engulfment by the mother … men first know women as the matrix of all satisfaction from which they must struggle to differentiate themselves … [Shakespeare] explores the unconscious attitudes behind cultural definitions of manliness and womanliness and behind the mores and institutions shaped by them.’8
Modern feminist psychoanalysis could be applied to Shakespearean characters for the texts were seen as unproblematically mimetic: ‘Shakespeare and Freud deal with the same subject: the expressed and hidden feelings in the human heart. They are both psychologists.’9 Shakespeare was thus constructed as an authoritative figure whose views about men and women could be co-opted to the liberal feminism of the critic. Within this critical practice, academic debate centred on conflicts over the authors' views rather than on the systems of representation or the literary traditions which informed the texts. Linda Bamber, for example, reminded her readers of the evident misogyny of Shakespeare's treatment of his tragic heroines and placed her own work ‘in reaction against the tendency for feminist critics to interpret Shakespeare as if his work directly supports and develops feminist ideas’.10 While noting the fundamental inconsistencies between Shakespeare's treatment of women in comedy and tragedy, she explicitly resists the temptation ‘to revel in them offered by post-structuralism’. She finds instead a cohering principle in Shakespeare's recognition of women as ‘other’, which ‘amounts to sexism only if the writer fails to attribute to opposite sex characters the privileges of the other’.11 In tragedy his women are strong because they are coherent—‘certainly none of the women in the tragedies worries or changes her mind about who she is’—and the attacks which are made on them are the product of male resentment at this strength—‘misogyny and sex nausea are born of failure and self doubt’.12 The comic feminine, on the other hand, is opposed not to men but to a reified ‘society’:‘In comedy the feminine either rebels against the restraining social order or (more commonly) presides in alliance with the forces which challenge its hegemony: romantic love, physical nature, the love of pleasure in all its forms.’13
These assertions rest on a reductive application of feminist anthropological discussions of nature and culture but their primary effect is to construct an author whose views can be applied in moral terms to rally and exhort the women readers of today: ‘the comic heroines show us how to regard ourselves as other … the heroines laugh to see themselves absorbed into the ordinary human comedy; the heroes rage and weep at the difficulty of actually being as extraordinary as they feel themselves to be’.14 These moral characteristics ascribed to men and women take no account of their particular circumstances within the texts, nor indeed of their material circumstances and the differential power relations which they support. Feminism thus involves defining certain characteristics as feminine and admiring them as a better way to survive in the world. In order to assert the moral connection between the mimetic world of Shakespeare's plays and the real world of the audience, the characters have to be seen as representative men and women and the categories male and female are essential, unchanging, definable in modern, commonsense terms.
The essentialism of this form of feminism is further developed in Marilyn French's Shakespeare's Division of Experience. Like Bamber, she constructs a god-like author who ‘breathed life into his female characters and gave body to the principles they are supposed to represent’.15 Although shored up by references to feminist philosophy and anthropology, this feminine principle amounts to little more than the power to nurture and give birth and is opposed to a masculine principle embodied in the ability to kill. These principles are not, however, located in specific men or women. When men are approved of they are seen as embracing feminine principles whereas women are denied access to the male and are denigrated when they aspire to male qualities. French suggests that Shakespeare divides experience into male (evil) and female (good) principles and his comedies and tragedies are interpreted as ‘either a synthesis of the principles or an examination of the kinds of worlds that result when one or other principle is abused, neglected, devalued or exiled’.16
The essentialism which lies behind Marilyn French's and Linda Bamber's account of the men and women in Shakespeare is part of a trend in liberal feminism which sees the feminist struggle as concerned with reordering the values ascribed to men and women without fundamentally changing the material circumstances in which their relationships function. It presents feminism as a set of social attitudes rather than as a project for fundamental social change. As such it can equally easily be applied to an analysis of Shakespeare's plays which situates them in the ideological currents of his own time. In Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, for example, Juliet Dusinberre admires ‘Shakespeare's concern … to dissolve artificial distinctions between the sexes’17 and can claim that concern as feminist in both twentieth-century and seventeenth-century terms. She examines Shakespeare's women characters—and those of some of his contemporaries—in the light of Renaissance debates over women conducted in puritan handbooks and advice literature. Building on the Hallers' essay on ‘The puritan art of love’,18 she notes the shift from misogyny associated with Catholic asceticism to puritan assertions of the importance of women in the godly household as partners in holy and companionate marriage. The main portion of the book is an elaboration of themes—Chastity, Equality, Gods and Devils—in both polemic and dramatic literature. The strength of her argument lies in its description of the literary shift from the discourses of love poetry and satire to those of drama. However her assertions about the feminism of Shakespeare and his contemporaries depend once again upon a mimetic model of the relationship between ideas and drama. Contemporary controversy about women is seen as a static body of ideas which can be used or rejected by dramatists whose primary concern is not with parallel fictions but simply to ‘explore the real nature of women’. By focusing on the presentation of women in puritan advice literature, Dusinberre privileges one side of a contemporary debate, relegating expressions of misogyny to the fictional world of ‘literary simplification’ and arbitrarily asserting more progressive notions as the dramatists’ true point of view.19
A more complex discussion of the case would acknowledge that the issues of sex, sexuality, sexual relations and sexual division were areas of conflict of which the contradictions of writing about women were only one manifestation alongside the complexity of legislation and other forms of social control of sex and the family. The debates in modern historiography on these questions indicate the difficulty of assigning monolithic economic or ideological models to the early modern family, while the work of regional historians has shown the importance of specific material conditions on both the ideology and practice of sexual relations.20 Far from being an unproblematic concept, ‘the nature of women’ was under severe pressure from both ideological discourses and the real concomitants of inflation and demographic change.
The problem with the mimetic, essentialist model of feminist criticism is that it would require a more multi-faceted mirror than Shakespearean drama to reflect the full complexity of the nature of women in Shakespeare's time or our own. Moreover this model obscures the particular relationship between Shakespearean drama and its readers which feminist criticism implies. The demands of the academy insist that feminist critics reject ‘a literary version of placard carrying’,21 but they cannot but reveal the extent to which their critical practice expresses new demands and a new focus of attention on the plays. Coppelia Kahn concedes that ‘Today we are questioning the cultural definitions of sexual identity we have inherited. I believe Shakespeare questioned them too …’22 and, rather more frankly, Linda Bamber explains: ‘As a heterosexual feminist … I have found in Shakespeare what I want to imagine as a possibility in my own life’.23 However, the alternative to this simple co-option of Shakespeare is not to assert some spurious notion of objectivity. Such a procedure usually implies a denigration of feminism24 in favour of more conventional positions and draws the criticism back into the institutionalised competition over ‘readings’.
A different procedure would involve theorising the relationship between feminism and the plays more explicitly, accepting that feminist criticism, like all criticism, is a reconstruction of the play's meaning and asserting the specificity of a feminist response. This procedure differs from claiming Shakespeare's views as feminist in refusing to construct an author behind the plays and paying attention instead to the narrative, poetic and theatrical strategies which construct the plays' meanings and position the audience to understand their events from a particular point of view. For Shakespeare's plays are not primarily explorations of ‘the real nature of women’ or even ‘the hidden feelings in the human heart’. They were the products of an entertainment industry which, as far as we know, had no women shareholders, actors, writers, or stage hands. His women characters were played by boys and, far from his plays being an expression of his idiosyncratic views, they all built on and adapted earlier stories.
The witty comic heroines, the powerful tragic figures, the opposition between realism and romance were the commonplaces of the literary tradition from which these tests emerged. Sex and sexual relations within them are, in the first analysis, sources of comedy, narrative resolution and coups de théâtre. These textual strategies limit the range of meaning which the text allows and circumscribe the position which a feminist reader may adopt vis-à-vis the treatment of gender relations and sexual politics within the plays. The feminist reader may resist the position which the text offers but resistance involves more than simple attitudinising.
In traditional criticism Shakespeare's plays are seldom regarded as the sum of their dramatic devices. The social location of the action, their visual dimension and the frequent claims they make for their own authenticity, invite an audience's engagement at a level beyond the plot. The audience is invited to make some connection between the events of the action and the form and pressure of their own world. In the case of sex and gender, the concern of feminists, a potential connection is presented between sexual relations as an aspect of narrative—who will marry whom and how?—and sexual relations as an aspect of social relations—how is power distributed between men and women and how are their sexual relations conducted? The process of interpretative criticism is to construct a social meaning for the play out of its narrative and dramatic realisation. However this is no straightforward procedure: the positions offered by the texts are often contradictory and meaning can be produced by adopting one of the positions offered, using theatrical production or critical procedures to close off others. The critic can use historical knowledge to speculate about the possible creation of meaning in the light of past institutions and ideologies but the gap between textual meaning and social meaning can never be completely filled for meaning is constructed every time the text is reproduced in the changing ideological dynamic between text and audience.
An interesting case in point is Measure for Measure, in which the conflicting positions offered by the text have resulted in critical confusion among those who wish to fix its moral meaning as the authentic statement of a coherent author. The problems have centred in large part on the narrative resolution in which the restoration of order through marriages seems both an affront to liberal sensibilities and an unsatisfactory suppression of the powerful passions evoked throughout the action. There seems to be an irresolvable gap between the narrative strategies—the bed-trick, the prince in disguise plot—and the realism of the other scenes in which we see ‘corruption boil and bubble till it o’errun the stew’.
The relevance of discussions of early modern sexuality and social control is evident in the play's treatment of public regulation of morality. Nevertheless such historically informed attention as the play has received25 has been in the attempt to close off its meaning by invoking Jacobean marriage law or Christian theology in order to determine the rightness or wrongness of Angelo's judgements, the reason or lack of it in Isabella's defence of her chastity. These arguments fail to convince, not because history is irrelevant but because they cannot solve problems which arise in the first instance from the production of meaning by the text.
The confusion in the narrative meaning is created because it offers equal dramatic power to mutually exclusive positions. The comic vitality of the low-life characters and their anarchic resistance to the due processes of law dramatises the inadequacy of any system of control which stops short of an order to ‘geld and splay all the youth of the city’ (II.i.230). Nevertheless engagement with them is complicated by the equal dramatic impact of the Duke's disgust with their trade in flesh (III.ii.22-27). Similarly Isabella's single-minded protection of her sexual autonomy is placed first by the masochism of the sexual imagery in which it is expressed and then by its juxtaposition with her brother's equally vividly expressed terror at the thought of death. Moral absolutes are rendered platitudinous by the language and verse, particularly in the Duke's summary where the jingling rime of the couplet mocks the very morals it asserts.
This speech, at the mid point of the play, offers a summary of the tension between narrative and social meaning. The moral absolutes of the first part of the speech are set against the Duke's solution to the problem. But the terms of the solution are moral and pragmatic:
Craft against vice I must apply. With Angelo tonight shall lie His old betrothed but despised. So disguise shall, by th’disguised Pay with falsehood false exacting And perform an old contracting.
Yet the ending of the play, for all its narrative manipulation, imposes not only a narrative solution but also a possible social resolution. Both the coup de théâtre of the Duke's reappearance and the language which accords his merciful authority the status of ‘power divine’ provide theatrical satisfaction for the finale which endorses the social implications of the Duke's judgement. Marriage is the solution to the puzzle of the bed-trick but it is also the solution to the disruptive power of Lucio who has offered troublesome alternatives to the main narrative line. The solution is imposed in this play by a figure from within the action, the all-powerful Duke, but it is no more inappropriate to the characters concerned than the finale of many another romantic comedy.
It is impossible to say how this resolution was regarded by Shakespeare's contemporaries. There is evidence to suggest that marriage was regarded as just such an instrument of effective social control and social harmony. However there is no reason why the elusive responses of past audiences need carry privileged status as the ultimate meaning of the text. The ideological struggle over sexuality and sexual relations which informs the text has emerged in different terms in the late twentieth century, and a liberal humanist reading of the text might present its social meaning as a despairing (or enthusiastic) recognition of the ineffectiveness of attempts at the control of such private, individual matters. A radical feminist production of the text could on the other hand, through acting, costume and style, deny the lively energy of the pimps and the bawds, foregrounding their exploitation of female sexuality. It might celebrate Isabella's chastity as a feminist resistance, making her plea for Angelo's life a gesture of solidarity to a heterosexual sister and a recognition of the difficulty of breaking the bonds of family relations and conventional sexual arrangements.
These different ‘interpretations’ are not, however, competing equals in the struggle for meaning. They each involve reordering the terms in which the text is produced, which of its conflicting positions are foregrounded, and how the audience response is controlled. In Jonathan Miller's production of the play, for example, Isabella literally refused the Duke's offer of marriage and walked off stage in the opposite direction. Miller has been a powerful advocate for the right of a director to reconstruct Shakespeare's plays in the light of modern preoccupations, creating for them an afterlife which is not determined by their original productions.26 As a theatre director, he is aware of the extent to which the social meaning of a play depends upon the arrangements of theatrical meaning; which is different from simply asserting alternative ‘interpretations’. The concept of interpretation suggests that the text presents a transparent view on to the real life of sexual relations whether of the sixteenth or the twentieth century. The notion of ‘constructed meaning’ on the other hand, foregrounds the theatrical devices by which an audience's perception of the action of the play is defined. The focus of critical attention, in other words, shifts from judging the action to analysing the process by which the action presents itself to be judged.
This shift in the critical process has important implications for feminist criticism: the theatrical strategies which present the action to be judged resist feminist manipulation by denying an autonomous position for the female viewer of the action. Laura Mulvey and others have explored through the notion of scopophilia the pleasures afforded by particular ways of perceiving men and women in classic film narrative. Mulvey argues that in classic Hollywood films the techniques of lighting, focus and narrative pattern create women as the object, men as the bearers of the look: ‘A woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude.’27 Theatrical production, of course, effects less complete control on the spectators' gaze than Hollywood cinema. Nevertheless the techniques of soliloquy, language and the organisation of the scenes limit the extent to which women characters are ‘seen’ in the action. One of the most common strategies of liberal mimetic interpretation is to imagine a past life, a set of alternatives and motivation for the characters. Yet the text much more frequently denies this free play of character, defining women as sexualised, seen vis-à-vis men.
The effect of this process can be seen in Measure for Measure where the women characters define a spectrum of sexual relations from Mistress Overdone (Overdone by her last husband), the elderly bawd, through Juliet who is visibly pregnant, to Isabella whose denial of sexuality is contained in the visual definition of her nun's habit. Mariana's ambiguous position as ‘neither maid, widow nor wife’ affords her no autonomy but is seen as problematic: indeed the narrative organisation of the latter part of the play is directed to reinstating her within the parameters of permitted sexual relations.
Mariana's introduction into the play shows how the text focuses the spectator's attention and constructs it as male.28 She is introduced in tableau, the visual accompaniment to the boy's song. Her role in the action is defined not by her own activity but by her physical presence, itself contextualised within the narrative by the song's words:
Take, O, take those lips away That so sweetly were forsworn; And those eyes, the break of day, Lights that do mislead the morn; But my kisses bring again, bring again; Seals of love, but seal’d in vain, seal’d in vain.
Isabella, for all her importance in the play, is similarly defined theatrically by the men around her for the men in the audience. In the scene of her first plea to Angelo, for example, she is physically framed by Angelo, the object of her demand, and Lucio the initiator of her plea. When she gives up after Angelo's first refusal, Lucio urges her back with instructions on appropriate behaviour:
Give’t not o’er so. To him again! entreat him, Kneel down before him, hang upon his gown! You are too cold.
As her rhetoric becomes more impassioned, her speeches longer, our view of her action is still dramatically mediated through Lucio whose approving remarks and comic asides act as a filter both for her action and for the audience's view of it.
Through Lucio and the provost the text makes us want her to win. However, the terms of her victory are also defined by the rhetoric and structure of the scene. A woman pleading with a man introduces an element of sexual conflict which is made explicit in the bawdy innuendo of Lucio's remarks (II.ii.123-4). The passion of the conflict, the sexualising of the rhetoric, and the engagement of the onstage spectators create a theatrical excitement which is necessary to sustain the narrative: it also produces the kind of audience involvement which makes Angelo's response make sense. Like Angelo we are witnesses to Isabella's performance so that we understand, if we do not morally approve of, his reaction to it. It is, moreover, rendered theatrically valid in the heartsearching soliloquy which closes the scene. His rhetorical questions ‘Is this her fault or mine … Can it be that modesty may more betray the sense / Than woman's lightness?’ define the sexually appealing paradox of the passionate nun, and the audience is intellectually engaged in his quandary by his dilemma being put in the questioning form.
A feminist reading of the scene may wish to refuse the power of Angelo's plea, may recognise in it the double bind which blames women for their own sexual oppression. However to take up that position involves refusing the pleasure of the drama and the text, which imply a coherent maleness in their point of view.29
Isabella's dilemma is, by contrast, a pale affair. Her one soliloquy deals only in the abstract opposition of chastity against her brother's life. Her resounding conclusion ‘Then Isobel live chaste and brother die: / More than our brother is our chastity’ (II.iv.184-5) offers no parallel intellectual pleasures; it does not arise out of the passion of the preceding scene which was a conflict between Angelo and Isabella not Isabella and Claudio; its lack of irony or paradox offers no scope for audience play. It is simply the apparently irresolvable problem which the ensuing action, under the Duke's control, must seek to resolve. Isabella's action is determined in the text by her sexuality and her space for manouevre is explicitly defined in Angelo's reminder of her circumscribed condition:
Be that you are That is, a woman; if you be more, you’re none; If you be one, as you are well expressed By all external warrants, show it now, By putting on the destined livery.
Angelo's definition of a woman ‘by all external warrants’ is shared by the theatrical devices of the text. Any criticism which argues whether Isabella is a vixen or a saint places itself comfortably in the limited opening that the text allows for it; it takes up the argument about whether Isabella is to be more than a woman in giving up her brother or less than one in submitting to Angelo's lust. The text allows her no other role. The radical feminist ‘interpretation’ floated earlier would require a radical rewriting both of the narrative and of the way the scenes are constructed.
Feminist criticism of this 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—gelding and splaying hold no terror for women—and the women's role as the objects of exchange within that system of sexuality is not at issue, however much a feminist might want to draw attention to it. Thus when a feminist accepts the narrative, theatrical and intellectual pleasures of this text she does so in male terms and not as part of the locus of feminist critical activity.
In Measure for Measure the pleasure denied is the pleasure of comedy, a pleasure many feminists have learned to struggle with as they withhold their assent from the social approval of sexist humour. A much more difficult pleasure to deny is the emotional, moral and aesthetic satisfaction afforded by tragedy. Tragedy assumes the existence of ‘a permanent, universal and essentially unchanging human nature’30 but the human nature implied in the moral and aesthetic satisfactions of tragedy is most often explicitly male. In King Lear for example, the narrative and its dramatisation present a connection between sexual insubordination and anarchy, and the connection is given an explicitly misogynist emphasis.
The action of the play, the organisation of its point of view and the theatrical dynamic of its central scenes all depend upon an audience accepting an equation between ‘human nature’ and male power. In order to experience the proper pleasures of pity and fear, they must accept that fathers are owed particular duties by their daughters and be appalled by the chaos which ensues when those primal links are broken. Such a point of view is not a matter of consciously-held opinion but it is a position required and determined by the text in order for it to make sense. It is also the product of a set of meanings produced in a specific way by the Shakespearean text and is different from that produced in other versions of the story.
The representation of patriarchal misogyny is most obvious in the treatment of Goneril and Regan. In the chronicle play King Leir, the sisters’ villainy is much more evidently a function of the plot. Their mocking pleasure at Cordella's downfall takes the form of a comic double act and Regan's evil provides the narrative with the exciting twist of an attempt on Lear's life.31 In the Shakespearean text by contrast, the narrative, language and dramatic organisation all define the sisters' resistance to their father in terms of their gender, sexuality and position within the family. Family relations in this play are seen as fixed and determined, and any movement within them is portrayed as a destructive reversal of rightful order (see I.iv). Goneril's and Regan's treatment of their father merely reverses existing patterns of rule and is seen not simply as cruel and selfish but as a fundamental violation of human nature—as is made powerfully explicit in the speeches which condemn them (III.vii.101-3; IV.ii.32-50). Moreover when Lear in his madness fantasises about the collapse of law and the destruction of ordered social control, women's lust is vividly represented as the centre and source of the ensuing corruption (IV.vi.110-28). The generalised character of Lear's and Albany's vision of chaos, and the poetic force with which it is expressed, creates the appearance of truthful universality which is an important part of the play's claim to greatness. However, that generalised vision of chaos is present in gendered terms in which patriarchy, the institution of male power in the family and the State, is seen as the only form of social organisation strong enough to hold chaos at bay.
The close links between misogyny and patriarchy define the women in the play more precisely. Goneril and Regan are not presented as archetypes of womanhood for the presence of Cordelia ‘redeems nature from the general curse’ (IV.vi.209). However Cordelia's saving love, so much admired by critics, works in the action less as a redemption for womankind than as an example of patriarchy restored. Hers, of course, is the first revolt against Lear's organising authority. The abruptness of her refusal to play her role in Lear's public drama dramatises the outrage of her denial of conformity and the fury of Lear's ensuing appeal to archetypal forces shows that a rupture of ‘Propinquity and property of blood’ is tantamount to the destruction of nature itself. Cordelia, however, is the central focus of emotion in the scene. Her resistance to her father gains audience assent through her two asides during her sisters’ performances; moreover the limits of that resistance are clearly indicated. Her first defence is not a statement on her personal autonomy or the rights of her individual will: it is her right to retain a part of her love for ‘that lord whose hand must take my plight’. Lear's rage thus seems unreasonable in that he recognises only his rights as a father; for the patriarchal family to continue, it must also recognise the rights of future fathers and accept the transfer of women from fathers to husbands. By the end of the scene, Cordelia is reabsorbed into the patriarchal family by marriage to which her resistance to Lear presents no barrier. As she reassures the king of France:
It is no vicious blot, murder or foulness, No unchaste action or dishonoured step That hath deprived me of your grace and favour.
Her right to be included in the ordered world of heterosexual relations depends upon her innocence of the ultimate human violation of murder which is paralleled with the ultimate sexual violation of unchastity.
However, any dispassionate analysis of the mystification of real socio-sexual relations in King Lear is the antithesis of our response to the tragedy in the theatre where the tragic power of the play endorses its ideological position at every stage. One of the most important and effective shifts in the action is the transfer of our sympathy back to Lear in the middle of the action. The long sequence of Act II, scene iv dramatises the process of Lear's decline from the angry autocrat of Act I to the appealing figure of pathetic insanity. The psychological realism of the dramatic writing and the manipulation of the point of view, forges the bonds between Lear as a complex character and the sympathies of the audience.
The audience's sympathies are engaged by Lear's fury at the insult offered by Kent's imprisonment and by the pathos of Lear's belated attempt at self-control (II.iv.101-4). His view of the action is further emotionally secured by his sarcastic enactment of the humility which his daughters recommend:
Do you but mark how this becomes the house: Dear daughter, I confess that I am old. Age is unnecessary. On my knees I beg That you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed and food.
As Regan says, these are unsightly tricks. Their effect is to close off the dramatic scene by offering the only alternative to Lear's behaviour as we see it. The dramatic fact becomes the only fact and the audience is thus positioned to accept the tragic as inevitable, endorsing the terms of Lear's great poetic appeal:
O reason not the need! Our basest beggars Are in the poorest things superfluous. Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man's life is cheap as beasts.
The ideological power of Lear's speech lies in his invocation of nature to support his demands on his daughters; its dramatic power lies in its movement from argument to desperate assertion of his crumbling humanity as the abyss of madness approaches. However, once again, that humanity is seen in gendered terms as Lear appeals to the gods to
touch me with noble anger, And let not women's weapons, water drops Stain my man's cheeks.
The theatrical devices which secure Lear at the centre of the audience's emotional attention operate even more powerfully in the play's denouement. The figure of Cordelia is used as a channel for the response to her suffering father. Her part in establishing the terms of the conflict is over by Act I; when she reappears it is as an emblem of dutiful pity. Before she appears on stage, she is described by a ‘gentleman’ whose speech reconstructs her as a static, almost inanimate daughter of sorrows. The poetic paradoxes of his speech construct Cordelia as one who resolves contradiction,32 which is her potential role in the narrative and her crucial function in the ideological coherence of the text:
patience and sorrow strove Who should express her goodliest. You have seen Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears Were like a better way: those happy smilets That played on her ripe lip seemed not to know What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence As pearls from diamonds dropped.
With Cordelia's reaction pre-empted by the gentleman, the scene where Lear and Cordelia meet substitutes the pleasure of pathos for suspense. The imagery gives Cordelia's forgiveness divine sanction, and the realism of Lear's struggle for sanity closes off any responses other than complete engagement with the characters' emotions. Yet in this encounter Cordelia denies the dynamic of the whole play. Lear fears that she cannot love him:
for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong. You have some cause, they have not.
But Cordelia demurs with ‘No cause, no cause’.
Shakespeare's treatment of this moment contrasts with that of the earlier chronicle play from which he took a number of details, including Lear kneeling and being raised. In the old play the scene is almost comic as Leir and Cordella kneel and rise in counterpoint to their arguments about who most deserves blame.33 The encounter is used to sum up the issues and the old play allows Cordella a much more active role in weighing her debt to Leir. In Shakespeare's text, however, the spectacle of suffering obliterates the past action so that audience with Cordelia will murmur ‘No cause, no cause’. Rather than a resolution of the action, their reunion becomes an emblem of possible harmony, briefly glimpsed before the tragic debacle.
The deaths of Lear and Cordelia seem the more shocking for this moment of harmony but their tragic impact is also a function of thwarting the narrative expectation of harmony restored which is established by the text's folk-tale structure.34 The folk-tale of the love test provides an underlying pattern in which harmony is broken by the honest daughter and restored by her display of forgiveness. The organisation of the Shakespearean text intensifies and then denies those expectations so as once more to insist on the connection between evil women and a chaotic world.
The penultimate scene opposes the ordered formality of the resolution of the Gloucester plot with the unseemly disorder of the women's involvement. The twice-repeated trumpet call, the arrival of a mysterious challenger in disguise, evoke the order of a chivalric age when conflict was resolved by men at arms. The women, however, act as disrupters of that order: Goneril attempts to deny the outcome of the tourney, grappling in an unseemly quarrel with Albany (V.iii.156-8) and their ugly deaths interrupt Edgar's efforts to close off the narrative with a formal account of his part in the story and Gloucester's death.
Thus the deaths of Lear and Cordelia are contrasted with and seem almost a result of the destructiveness of the wicked sisters. Albany says of them: ‘This judgement of the heavens, that makes us tremble, / Touches us not with pity’ (V.iii.233-4). The tragic victims, however, affect us quite differently. When Lear enters, bearing his dead daughter in his arms, we are presented with a contrasting emblem of the natural, animal assertion of family love, destroyed by the anarchic forces of lust and the ‘indistinguished space of woman's will’. At this point in the play the most stony-hearted feminist could not withhold her pity even though it is called forth at the expense of her resistance to the patriarchal relations which it endorses.
The effect of these dramatic devices is to position the audience as a coherent whole, comfortably situated vis-à-vis the text. To attempt to shift that position by denying Lear's rights as a father and a man would be to deny the pity of Lear's suffering and the pleasurable reaffirmation of one's humanity through sympathetic fellow feeling. A feminist reading of the text cannot simply assert the countervailing rights of Goneril and Regan, for to do so would simply reverse the emotional structures of the play, associating feminist ideology with atavistic selfishness and the monstrous assertion of individual wills. Feminism cannot simply take ‘the woman's part’ when that part has been so morally loaded and theatrically circumscribed. Nor is any purpose served by merely denouncing the text's misogyny, for King Lear's position at the centre of the Shakespeare canon is assured by its continual reproduction in education and the theatre and is unlikely to be shifted by feminist sabre-rattling.
A more fruitful point of entry for feminism in is the process of the text's reproduction. As Elizabeth Cowie and others have pointed out,35 sexist meanings are not fixed but depend upon constant reproduction by their audience. In the case of King Lear the text is tied to misogynist meaning only if it is reconstructed with its emotional power and its moral imperatives intact. Yet the text contains possibilities for subverting these meanings and the potential for reconstructing them in feminist terms.
The first of these lies in the text's historical otherness; for in spite of constant critical assertion of its transcendent universality, specific connections can be shown between Shakespeare's text and contemporary material and ideological conflict without presenting a merely reductive account of artistic production in terms of material circumstances.36
Discussing the ‘gerontocratic ideal’, for example, Keith Thomas has noted that ‘The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are conspicuous for a sustained desire to subordinate persons in their teens and twenties and to delay their equal participation in the adult world … such devices were also a response to the mounting burden of population on an unflexible economy’.37 This gerontocratic ideal was not without contradiction, for the very elderly were removed from economic and political power and ‘essentially it was men in their forties or fifties who ruled’.38 Moreover the existence of this ideal did not obviate the need for careful material provision for the elderly. There is a certain poignancy in the details of wills which specify the exact houseroom and the degree of access to the household fire which is to be left to aged parents.39 However, this suggests that Lear's and his daughter's bargaining over the number of his knights need not be seen as an egregious insult and that the generational conflict within the nuclear family could not be resolved by recourse to a simply accepted ideal of filial piety.
As a corrective to prevailing gloomy assessments of the happiness of the early modern family, Keith Wrightson has produced evidence of individuals who show considerable concern to deal with family conflict in a humane and flexible fashion.40 But it is equally clear from his evidence that family relations were the focus of a great deal of emotional energy and the primary source both of pleasure and pain. This is also borne out in Michael MacDonald's account of a seventeenth-century psychiatric practice in which, as today, women were more susceptible to mental illness than men:
Not all the stress women suffered was caused by physical illness … women were also more vulnerable than men to psychologically disturbing social situations. Their individual propensities to anxiety and sadness were enhanced by patriarchal custom and values that limited their ability to remedy disturbing situations … Napier and his troubled patients also believed that oppression made people miserable and even mad, but the bondage they found most troubling subordinated daughters to parents, wives to husbands rather than peasants to lords.41
This discussion of social history cannot propose an alternative ‘interpretation’ of the text or assert its true meaning in the light of historical ‘facts’. Rather it indicates that the text was produced within the contradications of contemporary ideology and practice and suggests that similar contradictions exist within the play. These contradictions could fruitfully be brought to bear in modern criticism and productions. The dispute between Lear and his daughters is in part concerned with love and filial gratitude but it also dramatises the tense relationship between those bonds and the material circumstances in which they function. Lear's decision to publish his daughters' dowries is so ‘that future strife / May be prevented now’; the connection between loving harmony and economic justice is the accepted factor which underlies the formal patterning of the opening scene and is disrupted only by Cordelia's asides which introduce a notion of love as a more individual and abstract concept, incompatible both with public declaration and with computation of forests, champains, rivers and meads. Cordelia's notion of love gained precedence in modern ideology but it seriously disrupts Lear's discussion of property and inheritance. When Lear responds with ‘Nothing will come of nothing’ his words need not be delivered as an angry calling to account: they could equally be presented as a puzzled reaction to an inappropriate idea. Moreover Cordelia is not opposing hereditary duty to transcendent love—she does not reply ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned’. When she expands on her first assertion her legal language suggests a preference for a limited, contractual relationship: ‘I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less’ (I.i.94-5). The conflict between the contractual model and the patriarchal model of subjects' obligations to their king was at issue in contemporary political theory42 and Cordelia's words here introduce a similar conflict into the question of obligations within the family.
When in Act II Lear again bargains with his daughters, a similar confusion between affective relations and contractual obligations is in play. Lear asserts the importance of the contractual agreement made with his daughters, for it is his only remaining source of power. Since they are now in control, Goneril and Regan can assert an apparently benign notion of service which does not depend on contract or mathematical computation:
What need you five and twenty? ten? or five? To follow in a house where twice so many Have a command to tend you?
The emotional impact of the scene, which is its principal power in modern productions, simply confuses the complex relations between personal autonomy, property and power which are acted out in this confrontation. The scene could be directed to indicate that the daughters' power over Lear is the obverse of his former power over them. His power over them is socially sanctioned but its arbitrary and tyrannical character is clear from his treatment of Cordelia. Lear kneeling to beg an insincere forgiveness of Regan is no more nor less ‘unsightly’ than Goneril's and Regan's formal protestations to their father. Both are the result of a family organisation which denies economic autonomy in the name of transcendent values of love and filial piety and which affords no rights to the powerless within it. Such a production of meaning offers the pleasure of understanding in place of the pleasure of emotional identification. In this context Lear's speeches about nature and culture are part of an argument, not a cri de coeur; the blustering of his threats is no longer evidence of the destruction of a man's self-esteem but the futile anger of a powerful man deprived of male power.
Further potential for comically undermining the focus on Lear is provided by the Fool, who disrupts the narrative movement of the action, subverting if not denying the emotional impact of the scenes in which he appears. In an important sense the Fool is less an alter ego for Lear than for his daughters: like them he reminds Lear and the audience of the material basis for the change in the balance of power. However, where they exploit Lear's powerlessness with cruelty and oppression he denies that necessity by his continued allegiance. In modern productions this important channel for an alternative view of events is closed off by holding the Fool within the narrative, using him as a means to heighten the emotional appeal of Lear's decline.43
The potential for subversive contradiction in the text is, however, restricted to the first part. Lear's madness and the extrusion of Gloucester's eyes heavily weight the action towards a simpler notion of a time when humanity must perforce prey upon itself like monsters of the deep, denying comic recognition of the material facts of existence. Yet even Cordelia's self-denying love or Gloucester's stoic resignation are denied the status of ideological absolutes. The grotesque comic lie of Gloucester's fall from Dover cliff is hardly a firm basis for a belief in the saving power of divine providence and Cordelia's acceptance of her father's claims on her is futile because it is unsupported by material power.
A production of the text which would restore the element of dialectic, removing the privilege both from the character of Lear and from the ideological positions which he dramatises, is crucial to a feminist critique. 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.
The misogyny of King Lear, both the play and its hero, 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 that balance of power is altered.
An important part of the feminist project is to insist that the alternative to the patriarchal family and heterosexual love is not chaos but the possibility of new forms of social organisation and affective relationships. However, feminists also recognise that our socialisation within the family and, perhaps more importantly, our psychological development as gendered subjects make these changes no simple matter.44 They involve deconstructing the sustaining comforts of love and the family as the only haven in a heartless world. Similarly a feminist critique of the dominant traditions in literature must recognise the sources of its power, not only in the institutions which reproduce them but also in the pleasures which they afford. But feminist criticism must also assert the power of resistance, subverting rather than co-opting the domination of the patriarchal Bard.
See Michele Barrett, Ideology and Cultural Production (London: Croom Helm, 1979), Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements (London: Marion Boyars 1978) and Annette Kuhn, Women's Pictures: Feminism and Cinema (London: Routledge, 1982).
See the preface to Carolyn Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Neely, eds., The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Urbana: Illinois Univ. Press, 1980).
See Lenz, Greene and Neely, ‘Women and Men in Shakespeare: a selective bibliography’, ibid., pp. 314-36.
See especially Madelon Gohlke, ‘“I wooed thee with my sword”: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms’, ibid., pp. 150-70.
Janet Adelman, ‘“Anger's my meat”: Feeding, Dependency and Aggression in Coriolanus' in David Bevington and J. L. Halio eds., Shakespeare's Pattern of Excelling Nature (Newark, 1978), pp. 108-24.
Coppelia Kahn, ‘Coming of Age in Verona’, in Lenz, Greene and Neely, op. cit., p. 171.
In particular Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper and Row, 1977) and Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley and Los Angeles: California Univ. Press, 1979).
Coppelia Kahn, ‘Man's Estate’, in Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley and Los Angeles: California Univ. Press, 1981) p. 11.
Ibid., p. 1.
Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: a Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press), p. 1.
Ibid., p. 5.
Ibid., p. 15.
Ibid., p. 32.
Ibid., p. 39.
Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (London: Cape, 1982).
Ibid., p. 25.
Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975) p. 153. Dusinberre's understanding of feminism has been challenged by Martha Anderson-Thom, ‘Thinking about Women and their Prosperous Art: a Reply to Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women’, Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978), 259-76.
William Haller and Malleville Haller, ‘The Puritan Art of Love’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 5, (1942) 235-72. Cf. K. Davies, ‘“The sacred condition of equality”: how original were Puritan doctrines of marriage?’ Social History, 5 (1977), 566-7.
Juliet Dusinberre, op. cit., p. 183.
Chapter 4, ‘Husbands and Wives, Parents and Children’ of Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (London: Hutchinson, 1982) provides a comprehensively informed discussion of the controversy. See also Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977); G. R. Quaife, Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives: Peasants and Illicit Sex in Early Seventeenth Century England (London: Croom Helm, 1969); Margaret Spufford, Contrasting Communities: English Villagers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Cambridge University Press, 1974).
Lenz, Greene and Neely, op. cit. preface, p. ix.
Coppelia Kahn, op. cit., p. 20.
Linda Bamber, op. cit., p. 43.
See for example Lisa Jardine's summary dismissal of feminist criticism in favour of historical criticism in Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: Harvester, 1983), introduction, or Inga-Stina Ewbank reminding her audience at the bicentennial congress of the Shakespeare Association of America of Ibsen's distinction between ‘feminism’ and the truth about men and women: ‘Shakespeare's Portrayal of Women: a 1970s View’ in Bevington and Halio, eds. op. cit., pp. 222-9.
See Ernest Schanzer, ‘The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure’ Shakespeare Survey, 13 (1960), 81-9, and replies by J. Birje-Patil, ‘Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure’, Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1969), 106-11; S. Narajan, ‘Measure for Measure and Elizabethan Betrothals’, Shakespeare Quarterly 14, (1963), 115-19.
This idea was fully developed in Jonathan Miller's Eliot Lectures, ‘The After Life of Plays’ delivered at the University of Kent in 1978 (London: Faber and Faber, forthcoming).
Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen 16, no. 3, p. 13. For a more extended discussion see Annette Kuhn, op. cit.
Cf. Laura Mulvey's account of the way songs and close-up are used in order to fetishise women characters in Hollywood cinema, op. cit., p. 13. The fact that Mariana was played by a boy does not alter the point: she is always played by a woman in modern representation.
Cf. the discussion of ‘Reading as a Woman’ in Jonathan Culler, Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 43-63. The implication there is that positioning the reader as a woman is a matter of free choice and the position adopted is coherent and determines clear cut readings.
Raymond Williams, Modern Tragedy (London: Chatto, 1966), p. 45.
See The True Chronicle History of King Leir, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, The Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. VII (London: Routledge, 1973), 337-402.
The imagery of ll. 12-14 gives this resolution a political tinge; resolution is seen as subjection.
See The True Chronicle History of King Leir ed. Bullough, p. 393.
Freud in ‘The Theme of the Three Caskets’ accounts for the psychological power of the myth in terms of ‘the three inevitable [sic] relations that a man has with a woman—the woman who bears him, the woman who is his mate and the woman who destroys him’. Lear's entrance with Cordelia dead in his arms is, for Freud, a wish-fulfilling inversion of the old man being carried away by death (The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud, ed. Ernest Jones, vol. IV (London: Hogarth, 1925), pp. 244-56).
‘The problem of stereotyping is not that it is true or false, distorting or manipulated, but that it closes off certain production of meaning in the image’, Elizabeth Cowie, ‘Images of Women’, Screen Education, 23 (1977), 22.
Bullough (op. cit., p. 270) has drawn attention to ‘the remarkable historical parallel’ of the case of Sir Brian Annesley whose daughter Cordell took steps to prevent her sister declaring their father insane so that she could take over the management of his estate. Cordell Annesley's solution was that a family friend should be entrusted with the old man and his affairs.
Keith Thomas, ‘Age and Authority in Early Modern England’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 62 (1976), 214.
Ibid., p. 211.
Discussed in Margaret Spufford, op. cit., p. 113.
See note 20.
Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth Century England (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 39-40.
See Gordon Schochet, Patriarchalism in Political Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975).
For example in the 1982-3 Royal Shakespeare Company production Antony Sher played the fool as a vaudeville clown but the theatrical inventiveness of his double act with Lear emphasised the closeness of their relationship with the fool as a ventriloquist's dummy on Lear's knee.
See Michele Barrett and Mary McIntosh, The Anti-Social Family (London: Verso, 1982).
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11316
SOURCE: “Feminist Thematics and Shakespearean Tragedy,” PMLA, Vol. 103, No. 2, March 1988, pp. 125-38.
[In the essay below, Levin examines the problems with the thematic approach to Shakespeare's tragedies in general, and the feminist thematic approach to the tragedies in particular. Levin observes that the central theme of Shakespeare's tragedies, as seen by feminist thematics, is the role of gender within society and the individual, and that according to feminist thematics critics, the tragic outcome of the plays is a result of masculinity or patriarchy.]
Feminist criticism of Shakespeare appeared on the scene as an identifiable “movement” a little over ten years ago, with the publication of Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women in 1975 and the first Modern Language Association special session on the subject in 1976. In this brief period it has enlisted a number of intelligent and dedicated critics and has produced a substantial body of publications. Its remarkable growth can be measured, moreover, not only in these statistics but also in the steady enlargement of its range from the first tentative efforts, aimed primarily at rectifying sexist misinterpretations of Shakespeare's female characters, to much more confident and ambitious studies of many other aspects of the canon.1 Today it may surely be said to have come of age and to have taken its place as one of the established branches of Shakespearean research.
It seems to me, then, that this is an appropriate time to examine the nature of this criticism, for while some of the individual studies have been subjected to scrutiny over the years (including some searching scrutiny from the feminists themselves2), there has not yet been any systematic investigation of the methodology and consequences of the enterprise itself. Its very success has made such an undertaking difficult, since the quantity and diversity of the interpretations it has generated cannot be encompassed within a single article. I have therefore narrowed the scope of this inquiry to one major trend of the movement in this country, which defined itself in 1980-82 in our only anthologies of feminist criticism of Shakespeare—The Woman's Part (Lenz et al.) and two special issues of Women's Studies (Greene and Swift). Most of the contributors to those anthologies (many of whom went on to write other essays and books) shared an interpretive approach, which a number of other critics have also employed and which I focus on in this investigation. This focus means that I have had to exclude those feminist critics who adopt other approaches, even though some of them have given us significant studies that may be riding the wave of the future.3 It should be understood, therefore, that the following inquiry is meant to refer only to the particular body of work produced by this one approach within the larger enterprise of feminist criticism of Shakespeare, and to the critics actually named here, although I think much of the discussion will also apply to similar kinds of feminist criticism in other fields. Because of space limitations, I have further narrowed my focus to the tragedies, which are generally regarded as Shakespeare's greatest achievement and so should provide the clearest test of this approach.
Probably the best way to begin the investigation is to ask what these critics think the tragedies are—or what they are about, which amounts to the same thing—since that should lead directly to a definition of their approach. On this crucial question there seems to be virtual unanimity, as some representative quotations demonstrate. Coppélia Kahn finds in Romeo and Juliet “a critique of the patriarchal attitudes expressed through the feud” (86). According to David Leverenz, Hamlet is concerned with “the opposition between male and female”—between “the world of the fathers,” dominated by reason, public roles, and duty, and the feminine world of emotion and the true self (125-26). Irene Dash says that Othello is a “stud[y] of the complexity of marriage and of the pressure of conventional patterns” or “stereotyped ideals” of marital roles (129-30), and Gayle Greene says it is a “radical critique of some of society's most cherished notions [concerning] accepted ideals of manly and womanly behavior” (“‘This …’” 30). Edward Snow tells us that this play “treats jealousy … [as] an object of inquiry, and pursues it beyond superficial explanations to the grounds of human tragedy” in the “pathological male animus toward sexuality” (387-88). Harry Berger claims that Macbeth portrays “the dialectic of gender conflict” (73), and Robert Kimbrough finds that it “contains a fierce war between gender concepts of manhood and womanhood played out on the plain of humanity” (176). Madelon Gohlke says all the tragedies “may be viewed as a vast commentary on the absurdity and destructiveness of th[e] defensive posture” of “the masculine consciousness” in relationships with women (“‘I Wooed …’” 162-63). For Marilyn French, the entire canon is examining the “division of experience” into a “masculine principle” and a “feminine principle” that are often “at war” (41, 60, 139, 199, 290). Peter Erickson finds “a pervasive motif in Shakespeare's drama” in its “sustained critical exploration” of “the basic conflict” between “male-female relations” and “male bonding,” which he sometimes simplifies to “the male/female dialectic” (Patriarchal 1, 122). And Marianne Novy believes all the plays deal with “the conflict between mutuality and patriarchy and the conflict between emotion and control. Both conflicts involve the politics of gender: the first, in power relations between the sexes; the second, in the relative value of qualities symbolically associated with each gender” (3-4).
More quotations of this sort could be produced, but these should be enough to make the point, which is, quite simply, that this body of criticism is thematic. These critics agree that the plays are not really about the particular characters who appear there but about some general idea and, consequently, that they are not primarily dramatizations of actions but explorations of or commentaries on or inquiries into or critiques of that idea, which the characters and actions subserve. Some of the critics are explicit about this conception of drama—Gohlke, for example, says the tragic plots “may be regarded as expanded metaphors” for that masculine defensive posture (“‘I Wooed …’” 152), and Novy asserts that the plays are “symbolic transformations” of attitudes toward gender and that Shakespeare “used the potential of the theater to personify” these attitudes (3, 202). But even those who do not make such statements usually assume that character and action exist for the sake of the thematic idea. It is true that there are few appearances of the term central theme, which seems to be going out of fashion, and very few of the “my theme can lick your theme” arguments that used to serve as the standard opening gambit of thematic readings;4 in fact, some of these critics (as may be seen in the phrasing of the two quotations from Gohlke) state or imply that they are only presenting one possible way of viewing the plays. But whether they claim to have found the only correct theme or not, it is clear that they all interpret the tragedies in terms of a theme.
It is also clear that the themes employed in their interpretations are basically the same. Although the terminology may vary, these critics all find that the plays are about the role of gender in the individual and in society. Moreover, their formulations of this theme usually turn on a polar opposition between two abstractions that are supposed to encompass and divide the world of the play and all human experience. This kind of formula was very common in the older thematic criticism of Shakespeare, which regularly discovered that his plays portrayed the conflict of appearance and reality or reason and passion or the like, so we might expect these new gender thematists to adopt the same strategy, especially since it is implicit in the very concept of gender, which comes in two varieties. Thus their thematic dichotomies usually turn out to be some version of the eternal struggle of yang and yin. Even the readings that make “patriarchy” the theme are really not an exception, since they always define it in terms of this gender opposition. And that opposition, we must remember, is not between the female and male characters (although there may be some relation to them) but between two abstract entities that can “conflict” inside one character or outside any character in the thematic ether, just like “appearance versus reality.”
This last point is especially important when we are dealing with tragedies, which all end in disaster, because any reading will have to account for this disaster, and any thematic reading will have to account for it in terms of the critic's formulation of the theme. We will not be surprised to learn, therefore, that in these studies the cause of the tragedy is located not in the particular characters but in one of those two abstractions whose opposition constitutes the theme, nor will we be surprised to learn which one always turns out to be the guilty party. According to Kahn, “the primary tragic force” in Romeo and Juliet is “the feud as an extreme and peculiar expression of patriarchal society, which Shakespeare shows to be tragically self-destructive” (84). Leverenz says that “Hamlet's tragedy is the forced triumph of filial duty over sensitivity to his own heart,” wherein resides “the woman in Hamlet [that] is the source of his most acute perceptions about the diseased, disordered patriarchal society” that destroys him (111, 113). For Snow, “the principle of evil and malice” in Othello is “the outraged voice … of the patriarchal social order,” which kills Desdemona to “undo the breach her sexuality has created in the stable male order of things” (410-11). Berger finds that not only Macbeth but all the thanes are guilty of a “pathologically protective machismo,” supported by their “mystified male-dominated cosmology,” which is responsible for every crime in the play (68, 74); and for Kimbrough, Macbeth's downfall is caused by “a definition of masculinity which comes from dominant societal norms that equate machismo with manhood” and thus teaches us the “destructiveness of polarized masculinity and femininity” (177, 183). Novy concludes that the sufferings of Lear and Cordelia are “created by [sex-role] behavior patterns” and show the “vulnerabilities of men and women in a patriarchal society” (162).5 “What Shakespeare's tragedies portray,” according to Gohlke, “is the anguish and destruction attendant on a … culturally supported set of fictions regarding heterosexual encounter,” embodied in that “defensive posture” of “the masculine consciousness” (“‘I Wooed …’” 161-63). French asserts that the tragedies of Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Timon, and Coriolanus turn “on ‘masculine’ values,” since their worlds “place supreme value on the qualities of the masculine principle” and show a “blindness to or rejection of ‘feminine’ values” (200). And Erickson finds that a number of tragic catastrophes are brought about by the inability of heterosexual relations to overcome “male bonds that have behind them the force of patriarchal social norms” (Patriarchal 1). Of course, the characters themselves are unaware of the real cause of their misfortunes (as many of the critics acknowledge), which seems a pity, for if they only knew they might have given us some great last words. When the dying Desdemona is asked by Emilia, “Who hath done this deed?” she could have answered, “Nobodie, twas the male order of thinges, farewell.” And the dying Laertes could have ended his confession to Hamlet by exclaiming,
I can no more; the Patriarchie, the Patriarchie's to blame!
I think we can conclude, then, that one defining characteristic of this approach to Shakespearean tragedy is its location of the cause of the tragic outcome in “masculinity” or “patriarchy,” operating through individuals and the society as a whole. (Even critics like Dash, Greene, and Novy, who put part of the blame on a stereotype of “femininity,” agree that the stereotype is imposed by the patriarchal ethos, so the result is the same.) There is some truth in this view. Except for Antony and Cleopatra (which many of these critics treat separately), the tragic actions all take place in societies dominated by males and male attitudes and could not have taken place in a society that was matriarchal or androgynous or egalitarian, because gender relations are an essential aspect of the “world” of each play, and this “world” is built into the author's dramatic conception so that it is inseparable from the characters and actions, as they are from it. But this intimate connection between the characters and their society means that we really cannot say Lear would not have come to grief if he had not lived in a patriarchy, for if he had not lived in a patriarchy he would not have been Lear. Moreover, it is equally true that none of these tragic actions could occur in a capitalist or socialist economy or in any “world” significantly different from the one presented in that play (which would even include other forms of patriarchy: Lear, for example, could not exist in Othello's Venice). And since gender relations are only one of the components of each “world,” we have no reason to single them out as the basic cause of events. Actually, these components cannot be called causes in the usual sense: they are necessary conditions of the action but are not in themselves sufficient to cause it. Many of these critics seem to have confused these two different kinds of agency.
The distinction may become clearer if we look at some of the crucial actions that these readings blame on patriarchy. Novy, for instance, devotes some time to arguing that Lear's rejection of Cordelia in the opening scene is based on patriarchal assumptions concerning the father-daughter relationship (151-55). But the witnesses to this rejection—Kent, Gloucester, Burgundy, France, even Goneril and Regan—all of whom presumably share these patriarchal assumptions, regard his behavior as a shocking abnormality, which must mean that, while the assumptions made his behavior possible (by giving him absolute power over Cordelia), they cannot have caused it, for then it would appear normal. Similarly, Greene argues that Othello's killing of Desdemona is the consequence of the gender roles imposed on the pair by their patriarchal society (“‘This …’”); but, again, we note that the characters who comment on it (including Othello himself after he learns the truth) do not view it as one of your everyday patriarchal events; instead, they consider it a horrifying violation of the norms of their world. The same must be said of the tragic deeds in the other plays: they are all made possible by the kind of society in which they occur (otherwise they would not seem convincing), but they are all regarded by that society as extraordinary calamities (otherwise they would not seem tragic). It is hard to see, then, how these plays could be blaming the patriarchal society for the tragic outcome. It is even hard to see how they could be conducting an inquiry into patriarchy, when the actions they focus on are clearly meant to be atypical.
This attempt to blame the catastrophes on patriarchy is illogical in another sense as well, for while it is true that they would not have occurred in a nonpatriarchal society, it is also true that they would not have occurred in a society that was even more patriarchal than the one we are shown—a society, for instance, where Juliet and Desdemona could not be married, or Ophelia be courted, without the consent of their fathers, or where Goneril and Lady Macbeth were completely subservient to their husbands (which is just another way of saying that each tragedy could only take place in the specific “world” depicted in that play). Moreover, if patriarchy is held responsible for the unhappy endings of the tragedies, then it must be equally responsible for the happy endings of the comedies and romances, which are also brought about in patriarchal worlds. Some of the critics try to account for the happy endings by claiming that women have more active roles in these other genres, which is true (with a few notable exceptions), but that does not alter the nature of the society. In fact, in their final scenes all these “strong” heroines reinsert themselves into the patriarchal structure, which presides over the marriages and reconciliations.6 It seems evident, then, that patriarchy cannot have any necessary causal connection to misery, when it is just as capable of producing happiness. Nor can this conclusion be averted by distinguishing, as Erickson does, between a “harsh” form of patriarchy that creates problems and a “benign” form that resolves them (Patriarchal 12, 32, 148), although this is a step in the right direction, since “patriarchy” is obviously not a single entity, or even two, but a general class covering a wide range of attitudes and practices found in very different societies (and in very different individuals). It is only the logic of this critical approach that has reified it as a sort of Platonic Idea that is supposed to serve both as the subject of these tragedies and as the cause of their catastrophes.
The preceding difficulties are peculiar to this feminist branch of thematism (i.e., to the kind of central theme it employs), but there is another, more general difficulty that it shares with all other thematic criticism of Shakespeare—namely, that it does not work. In the older thematic readings that I have examined, the concrete facts of the play never really fit the abstract theme of the critic, and I am afraid the same must be said of these new feminist readings of the tragedies. Thus in the first example cited above, the actual presentation of the feud in Romeo and Juliet does not support Kahn's attempt to subsume it under her theme of “patriarchy.” The chief patriarch of the play's world, Prince Escalus, is vehemently opposed to the feud, and although the patriarchs of the Montague and Capulet clans are drawn into the brawling of the first scene (where both seem ridiculous), they are then pledged to keep the peace (1.2.1-3). After that we never see them fighting or encouraging anyone else to fight; in fact, Shakespeare shows Capulet exercising his patriarchal authority at the ball to prevent Tybalt from challenging Romeo.7 The feud is carried on by the young men, who are not acting “on behalf of their fathers,” as Kahn claims (83, 86, 93): Tybalt does not pursue Romeo on behalf of Capulet (who is not his father), Mercutio is not even a Montague, and when Romeo finally attacks Tybalt, his motive is not to uphold “the honor of his father's house” (93) but to avenge Mercutio. She is surely right in pointing out that some of the youths treat the feud as a test of manhood, but it is, if anything, an antipatriarchal test in defiance of the older generation and its laws. Moreover, the reconciliation of Montague and Capulet that ends the feud (and that Kahn never mentions) does not weaken the patriarchy but strengthens it, by joining their power with the prince's. I do not see, then, how Shakespeare can be presenting the feud as an expression of patriarchal attitudes.
Kahn's essay struck me as one of the most perceptive of these readings, especially in its treatment of Juliet's growth and the lovers' deaths; yet even it is undermined by this basic weakness of thematism, which can be found in all the others. Since I cannot discuss each of them in the same detail, I must limit myself to some representative examples of the principal ways by which these critics accommodate Shakespeare's facts to their themes. By far the most common of these strategies is selectivity—the critic just cites those facts that support the theme and ignores those that do not. (This need not imply conscious deception, for the thematic idea can function as a kind of lens in the mind's eye that brings only the “right” facts into focus and filters out all the rest, so that the critic may not even notice them.) Often the selectivity simply involves passing over the material that is not relevant to the critic's formulation of the theme. Greene's essay on Othello, for instance, never refers to the cashiering of Cassio or the loss of the handkerchief, which do not seem to figure in the play's “critique” of gender roles; and many more examples could be cited, since none of the themes espoused by these critics (or by nonfeminist thematists) accounts for all the significant characters and actions in the play.
The selectivity becomes much more disturbing when the facts omitted are not merely irrelevant to the critic's theme but actually contradict it. A striking example is provided by Berger in his handling of the episode in Macbeth where Macduff learns that his family has been killed: he quotes Malcolm's line urging Macduff to “Dispute it like a man” (4.3.220), which fits his theme of an all-pervasive “machismo” (70), but he passes over Macduff's answer, “I shall do so; / But I must also feel it as a man,” which asserts a very different sense of manhood.8 And Neely gives us several examples in her attempt to prove that the thematic “central conflict [in Othello] is between the men and the women” (Broken 108), which leads her into a series of contrasts placing all the men on one side (always the wrong one) and all the women on the other. In one part of this demonstration, she accuses the men of “persistently placing blame for their actions outside themselves” and compares this attitude to that of Desdemona, whose last words exonerating Othello and assuming responsibility for her own death “provide the sharpest possible contrast to the men's excuses” and to “Othello's evasions” (124-25). But Neely fails to mention Othello's response, “She’s like a liar gone to burning hell: / ’Twas I that kill’d her” (5.2.129-30), which rather blunts that sharpest possible contrast. (Nor does she mention here Desdemona's crucial evasion of responsibility about the handkerchief in 3.4.80-87.) And in an earlier section showing that the play “sharply contrasts the genuine intimacy of the women with the hypocritical friendship of the men,” she asserts that “romantic love is destroyed by the semblance of male friendship” (121-23), ignoring the fact that Cassio's friendship with Othello, which was not hypocritical, fostered the romantic love, as we are told in 3.3.70-73. But there is no need to go on, since it should be obvious that any demonstration that all the men here have the identical vices (in addition to their evasion of responsibility and incapacity for friendship, they are all supposed to be competitive, cowardly, foolish, jealous, passive, vain, swaggering, and murderous) would have to omit a number of uncooperative facts. The same can be said of Berger's essay on Macbeth and Leverenz's on Hamlet, which also discover a thematic similarity in every male.9 This kind of reading, however, is not limited to feminist thematists. In one common form of the older “theme and structure” studies, the critic set out to prove that all the characters in a play are basically alike as exemplars of the central theme—that each of them takes appearance for reality, or subordinates reason to passion, and so on. The difference is that this process of homogenizing was applied to the entire cast, while these feminists limit it to the men, but the effect on its victims is the same, for the homogenization is always down to the lowest common denominator encompassing that group of characters. Thus every male in Othello descends to the level of Iago, the thanes are all as bad as Macbeth, and the men in Hamlet become “mini-Claudiuses.” And this result can only be achieved by filtering out any facts that differentiate the characters and so contradict the critic's theme.
This selectivity in the use of evidence is even more obvious in those essays that place all the tragedies under a single theme (which is really another form of homogenization, applied now to the tragic heroes rather than to the men in one play). Gohlke, it will be recalled, views the tragedies as one “vast commentary on the … destructiveness of th[e] defensive posture” of “the masculine consciousness.” That posture, she says, involves “shared fictions on the part of the heroes about femininity [which they see as a weakness in themselves] and about their own vulnerability in relation to women” and leads to “a violence of response on the part of the hero against individual women, but more important, against the hero's ultimately damaging perception of himself as womanish” (“‘I Wooed …’” 152, 159). But she only tries to demonstrate this pattern in five tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra—and even with them she has problems. While she shows that Hamlet, Lear, and Antony exhibit aspects of “the masculine consciousness” at times, she fails to establish any causal connection between that consciousness and their catastrophes, although such a connection is supposed to be essential to her pattern (“What Shakespeare's tragedies portray is the anguish and destruction attendant on … [this] set of fictions”). Lear shows no sign of these feelings until his confrontation with Goneril and Regan some time after he made the fatal mistakes that bring about the tragedy, and it could be argued that Antony comes to grief because he does not act against Cleopatra as the pattern says he should. Moreover, except on the verbal level, none of these three heroes engages in any “violence against women,” which is also supposed to be part of the pattern (156, 159, 161). (Gohlke says that Hamlet kills Ophelia , which is not true.) It seems, then, that only Othello and Macbeth fit “Shakespeare's tragic paradigms,” as she calls them, and even Macbeth requires some stretching,10 which suggests that they are really Gohlke's paradigms rather than his.
This kind of criticism may be unfair to Gohlke, who states that she is treating the plays as “metaphors,” and so is apparently not concerned with the actual causal sequence of the plots or the distinction between verbal and physical “violence”; but Judith Wilt's argument that a single theme informs Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth seems to make a more literal claim. The theme is “the male world's banishment of the female” (93), which, she asserts, precipitates these tragic actions, and her case rests on specific events in each play: Brutus's ordering Portia to bed before he joins the conspirators (2.1) and Caesar's denial of Calphurnia's plea that he stay home (2.2); Hamlet's attack on Ophelia in 3.1; Othello's sending Desdemona away in 4.2; Lear's renunciation of Cordelia in 1.1; and Lady Macbeth's calling on the spirits to unsex her (1.5). But, once more, we can see a process of selection that passes over crucial facts contradicting the critic's theme. There is no reason to believe that Brutus would have abandoned the conspiracy if he had confided in Portia in 2.1, for we learn in 2.4 that he has told her his plans and she has not dissuaded him; and while Caesar could have averted the assassination if he had listened to Calphurnia in 2.2, the same result would have ensued if he had heeded the male Soothsayer in 1.2 or read the letter of the male Artemidorus in 3.1. Hamlet's “banishment” of Ophelia in 3.1 has no discernible effect on his later actions, and we find in 3.2 that he has apparently unbanished her again. In 1.1 Lear does not banish “the female”—he banishes one female and embraces two other females, who proceed to destroy him. And the application of the theme to Macbeth is only figurative; if we applied it literally, we would have to say that Macbeth's banishing the female—Lady Macbeth and the witches—would have saved him (and the same could be said of Antony and Coriolanus, who fall outside Wilt's purview). So we are left again with Othello, the only tragedy that actually bears out this thematic lesson of what happens to men when they do not listen to women.11
These critics also have another means at their disposal for accommodating Shakespeare's facts to their themes: instead of selecting the facts to fit the theme, they can manipulate the theme to fit the facts (again, without necessarily meaning to deceive). This too is a standard strategy of the older thematists that reappears in their feminist successors. Undoubtedly, the worst offender is French, whose masculine and feminine “principles” undergo some strange metamorphoses. As Greene notes in her review of the book, “‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are defined so loosely and arbitrarily that their meanings slip about in response to the exigencies of the argument” (481). But French has to do more manipulating than the others because she is applying her theme to many more plays than they are. Examples of theme stretching can also be found in their readings, especially when the theme involves “patriarchy.” In Kahn's essay on Romeo and Juliet, we saw, the term applies primarily to rule by the father (or head of the clan) but also includes manifestations of machismo by the young men, even when those actions are opposed by their patriarch; and in Novy's book it seems to cover almost anything that interferes with “mutuality” between the sexes. Moreover, the critics can always make their thematic concepts of gender fit the facts of the play, because the facts are defined by the theme, rather than the reverse. Erickson provides a revealing example of this process in his chapter on The Winter's Tale, where he asserts that Leontes's “spontaneous outburst of jealousy” is “intrinsic to the male psyche” (Patriarchal 148). But no other man in the play ever shows a trace of jealousy, and all the men who comment on Leontes's accusation of Hermione take her side, which is not what one would expect if his feelings also resided in their own psyches.12 Why then does not Erickson infer that the play presents their faith in Hermione as the intrinsically male attitude and Leontes's jealousy as an aberration (as they themselves regard it)? Obviously, because he is not deriving his idea of what is “intrinsic to the male psyche” from the play but is imposing it on the play. That is what the older thematic critics did with their themes (which is why they always found that the plays were “saying” something that echoed their own beliefs), and the practice of these feminist thematists seems no less arbitrary. Indeed it is virtually forced on them by their approach: since they are dealing with tragic outcomes (Erickson is concerned with the near-tragic movement in the first part of The Winter's Tale), and since, as we saw, they must explain this outcome in terms of their gender themes, then whatever causes the outcome (i.e., Leontes's jealousy) has to be defined as “masculine,” which requires a lot of thematic flexibility.
Although there are other, less important features of their methodology that might also be discussed, I would like to turn now to the results of this approach to Shakespeare's tragedies, focusing on four areas of major concern: the characters, the final effect, the conception of tragedy, and the role of Shakespeare himself. Here I must emphasize that I can only speak of general tendencies, since in most of these areas we find a range of individual practice and some exceptions. There are no significant exceptions, I think, in the treatment of the female characters in these plays, where the results have been entirely positive. This group of critics has not only cleared up long-standing sexist misinterpretations of these characters (which was the main thrust of the early studies) but has given us many valuable insights, from a new perspective, into their personalities and especially their situations as women in male-dominated worlds. This is a very impressive achievement, and I do not dwell on it, only because it seems so obvious. Unfortunately, however, the same cannot be said of their treatment of the male characters, particularly the tragic heroes. Although Romeo and Antony are often exempted from the general curse and there are a few appreciative comments on the others, in most of these studies most of the heroes emerge as a sorry lot indeed, having lost virtually all their admirable qualities and even their individuality. This result is by no means unique to their approach. For some years now a number of critics of various persuasions have been busy attacking these characters (along with Henry v, Duke Vincentio, Prospero, and others), often claiming that an apparently sympathetic portrayal is undercut by a pervasive irony that renders them antipathetic. But these feminists have made their own contribution to this campaign against the protagonists, a contribution that seems to follow from their methodology. We saw that the thematic approach adopted by them treats the characters as exemplars of a general theme (which means it will pass over their more particular traits) and that it tends to homogenize them down to the lowest moral level, so the protagonist, who is usually the most individualized and most admirable character, will suffer the greatest diminution on both counts. Moreover, this general thematic pressure on the protagonist is increased considerably by the specific themes they use. Since most of those themes involve some form of gender opposition, their positive treatment of the female characters seems to require a negative treatment of the males. And since, as we noted, the masculine half of this thematic opposition must be responsible for the tragic catastrophe, it is usually loaded with deplorable traits, which are of necessity embodied in the hero. (The obvious exceptions are critics like Dash, Novy, and Kimbrough who blame the gender roles imposed on both men and women by “patriarchy,” which allows them to be more generous to the heroes.) All too often, the result is what can only be called a sexist stereotyping of the protagonist.13 Indeed, the stereotyping in real-life prejudices may be seen as a kind of thematism, with the stereotype acting like the critic's theme as a lens that selects, or focuses on, any facts that confirm it and filters out any that do not. It would almost appear, then, that the general evolution of this body of criticism—again, with notable exceptions—has been from freeing Shakespeare's women of negative stereotypes to imposing such stereotypes on his men. That is very unfortunate, because there really is no necessary connection between these operations. If we do not view the tragedies as thematic “conflicts” of the two sexes, we find that our appreciation of one sex never depends on the depreciation of the other. On the contrary, it seems easy for us to respond positively to both—to sympathize with Ophelia and Hamlet, Othello and Desdemona, Cordelia and Lear.
This denigration of the tragic hero will of course influence the treatment of the tragic effect, to which I now turn, although I should first note that some of these critics virtually ignore it. This too may be seen as a result of thematism, which tends to minimize emotional involvement with the characters in its concentration on an intellectual grasp of the thematic lesson.14 But other critics do discuss the effect of the tragedies, and most of them do not find it very tragic. In their response to the ending there is usually little sense of compassion for the hero, which is not surprising when we consider their view of him. And there is even less sense of any resolution or catharsis. Here, for example, is French on Macbeth:
The play ends as it began, in a totally masculine world. … Although some balance is restored to the kingdom, there is no change in its value structure. What is restored is the sacred inner circle, in which men are expected to refrain from applying the standards of the outer [i.e., feminine] one; what is reasserted is moral schizophrenia.
And Leverenz on Hamlet:
The play ends in a mindless sequence of ritual male duties, roles without meaning. … [Fortinbras], who inherits an irrevocably corrupted world, is the arrogant, stupid, blundering finale to the theme of filial duty. … The hawkish voices of blood, honor, and ambition inherit the world of the fathers, with its false roles and false proprieties.
And Neely on Othello:
The restoration of military order provides little satisfaction here. … The conflict between the men and the women has not been eliminated or resolved. … The “tragic lodging of this bed” … signifies destruction without catharsis, release without resolution. The pain and division of the ending are unmitigated.
And Snow on the same scene:
The directions for Iago's torture reconstitute society in terms of the same impotent dialectic of violence and repression that caused its rupture. … We are left with … [the state] blindly revealing in itself the evil it seeks to … punish in its victim. There is neither transcendence nor catharsis in Othello.
It is not difficult to understand why these critics do not find any resolution in these endings, for this is a direct consequence of their approach. Since the basic issue (and cause) of the tragedy is defined in terms of the thematic problem of gender, rather than in terms of the protagonist's individual character and situation, it is not and cannot be resolved by his death. From these critics' point of view, at the conclusion of the play nothing has really ended or even changed—“patriarchy” has simply produced another disaster and will go on producing more. This also helps to explain why they do not find any catharsis here, because that depends, in part, on our “sense of an ending,” our realization that the action has run its course. But catharsis in Shakespearean tragedy involves other factors as well, I believe, including some kind of restoration of order and a renewal or enhancement of our positive feelings for the hero, who usually achieves or learns something at the end and regains his earlier noble stature. Neither of these effects, however, can be recognized by this group of critics. Because their view of the hero before he enters the final scene is usually very negative, he has no noble stature to regain, and anything he achieves there (confronting his enemies, revenging his father, executing justice on himself) will not alter that view, since they regard this as another example of his “machismo” and his evasion of the real issue. Their definition of that issue, moreover, makes it impossible for them to accept any discovery on his part, for while many of the heroes learn many things, they never seem to learn what these critics insist is the thematic lesson of the play—namely, that the concept of masculinity itself is to blame for the tragedy.15 (Nor does anyone else in the play ever learn it.) This conception of the theme also prevents them from accepting any restoration of order at the end, because what is being restored is always the same patriarchal order that, according to them, was responsible for all the calamities. Indeed, from their standpoint such a restoration not only fails to resolve the problem of the play but actually exacerbates it, since, as Berger says of the ending of Macbeth, “it will only enable, by concealing, the ongoing dialectic of gender conflict” (73). Thus in their lexicon “restoration” becomes a dirty word; the solution is part of the problem. Yet while it is easy to see why they find these endings so untragic, it is much more difficult to imagine the kind of ending that could give them a satisfactory sense of resolution and catharsis. Presumably it would require a complete change in the men's attitudes that would result in a dismantling of “patriarchy” and the establishment of a new order of gender equality and harmony. But that does not sound very tragic either.
This problem leads me to the conception of the tragic genre itself that emerges from these studies. In most of them I did not find any real sense of the genre as an important determinant of dramatic form and effect. Like many other results of their approach, this can be partially explained as a tendency of thematism in general. As we just noted, most thematists are much more interested in the intellectual theme they derive from a play than in its emotional effect, which figures so prominently in our recognition of genre. And they typically formulate this theme as some universal proposition about life that cannot be genre specific; in fact, it is seldom possible to tell from their account of a play's central theme whether they are dealing with a comedy or a tragedy. But this general tendency of thematism is strengthened, again, by the specific theme of gender relations adopted by these critics, since they usually regard it as the real subject of all the plays, and that must diminish the significance of any generic distinctions. Thus French can say that “the comedies and tragedies deal with identical material” (28), and Erickson in his review can complain that she is still too concerned with differentiating them, instead of “stress[ing] the ways in which the two forms converge” (195). Moreover, their commitment to this one theme leads some of the critics to compose a thematic biography for Shakespeare, wherein his entire career is seen as a sustained inquiry into the problem of gender, so that the genres he employed are merely stages of this enterprise, of no major importance in themselves.16
For at least two of these critics, this view of the canon leads to a further diminution of the tragic genre in particular. Gohlke, who says she is “reading the development” of Shakespeare's portrayal of gender relations “from the comedies through the problem plays and the major tragedies,” speaks of “the failure of [Romeo and Juliet] to achieve the generic status of comedy” and of “interpret[ing] the tragedies … as comedies gone wrong” (“‘I Wooed …’” 154, 152; “‘All That …’” 175). And Neely approaches Othello from the “context” provided by “Shakespearean comedy, to which [it] shows pervasive and profound resemblances,” and concludes, in similar terms, that in it “the comic resolution … is aborted” (Broken 108-09, 135). But I suspect this treatment of tragedy as failed comedy depends less on the chronological place of those genres in the canon than on the thematic conception governing both. Since, according to these critics, Shakespeare is always grappling with the problem of gender, the comedies, which end in gender harmony, are often seen as his solution to the problem, the goal he is seeking, and therefore the tragedies come to represent a failure to solve this problem and achieve this goal. Moreover, the difference between the two genres is explained by the role of the women in the thematic gender conflict: when they are able to cure or at least restrain the men's masculinity, the result is a comic resolution, and when the men will not let them do this, the result is tragedy, which makes it, again, a kind of failure. The idea has obvious affinities to the view of Wilt and Greene (and apparently Leverenz) that tragedy is what occurs when the men do not listen to the women. And this tendency to reduce tragedies to comedies manqués is reinforced by the description of the tragic effect in negative terms as a lack of resolution and of cathartic release, which does not sound like something a dramatist would aim for. Most of these critics, it appears, do not see Shakespeare deliberately setting out to write a tragedy, where the nature of the genre (its conventions, expectations, and appropriate pleasure) might determine the nature of the gender relations portrayed in the play, rather than the other way around. But, then, it is hard to believe that they see him deliberately setting out to write a comedy gone wrong.
This uncertainty about Shakespeare's relation to the tragic genre raises the whole question of authorial intention, which I think is one of the greatest problems of this group of critics, although they seldom acknowledge it, for they all seem to assume that their interpretations correspond to his intended meaning.17 That is not what I expected when I began this inquiry, because I thought they would often find themselves in disagreement with a male author writing in such a male-dominated society. But I later realized that this situation does not arise in the tragedies, since “patriarchy” always comes to grief there, and so Shakespeare's attitude toward gender would seem in accord with their own. In some of the other genres, however, where a happy resolution is often accompanied by, or is even dependent on, the subordination of women, they run into difficulty and must either argue that the ending is ironic or else give up the intentionalist position.18
That position is inherent in thematism itself, because thematic critics (including these feminist thematists, as we saw) regularly claim that the play is “exploring” or “commenting on” the central theme, which implies a conscious purpose. An unintended exploration seems self-contradictory; to adapt E. D. Hirsch's dictum on meaning, there can be no exploring without an explorer. All thematists therefore have the obligation of proving that the play really is intended to be about their theme. And this general obligation becomes even greater in these feminist readings, for they assert that each tragedy is meant to call into question some of the most basic beliefs in the fictional world it dramatizes and in the real world of its author, which ought to place a very heavy burden of proof on them. Plays of this sort have of course been written. An obvious example is Ghosts, and it is obvious because Ibsen takes some pains to let us know that he is criticizing the pieties of the play's society (and his own) by subjecting them to intensive discussion, during which Oswald attacks them at length; by presenting a much more desirable alternative to them in Oswald's description of the idyllic bohemian life of Paris; by establishing explicit causal connections between them and all the unhappiness depicted in the play; by showing in his resolution that the world governed by them rewards the worst people and punishes the best; and by having Mrs. Alving converted to Oswald's view of them, when she learns the lesson that her son and the play are teaching. I am not suggesting that every play that criticizes its own world must include all these factors, but we would expect to find at least some of them present. We do find them in Webster's Duchess of Malfi, which is probably the best Jacobean example of this kind of play: the corrupt society depicted there is condemned at the outset by Antonio, who also gives us a possible alternative in his report on the reformed French court; it is made responsible for the misery of the sympathetic characters; it punishes the innocent duchess and her family while rewarding the flagrant adulteress Julia (though she is killed at the end); and its cruelty even brings about the conversion of Bosola, who finally takes the duchess's side against it. But do we encounter anything like this in Shakespeare's tragedies to support the claim that they are criticizing the gender assumptions of their worlds? There is no explicit attack on those assumptions, except for a few speeches of Emilia. There is no necessary connection between them and the tragic outcome—in fact we found that this outcome is usually regarded as an extraordinary deviation from the normal life of the play's world. There is no unjust distribution of rewards and punishments that they can be blamed for. There is no conversion leading to a rejection of them, because, as we saw earlier, nobody in these plays ever learns the lesson that these critics say is being taught there. And, except in Antony and Cleopatra, there is no suggestion of an alternative society with different assumptions that might serve as a basis for judging them. In view of this lack of evidence, then, it seems more reasonable to conclude that the tragedies are not criticizing their own gender assumptions but just assuming them, along with other conditions underlying the dramatized action, which is their real subject. This does not mean that we cannot criticize those assumptions; it only means that we should separate our activity from Shakespeare's.
There are signs that some of these critics are in fact moving in this direction, although they may not always be clear about it, for we can sometimes discern a nonintentionalist subtext within their intentionalist readings. It is apparent, as we noted, in their view of tragedy as failed comedy and in their account of the tragic effect, which can hardly have been what Shakespeare intended. It is more obvious in Greene's statement that “feminist critics may direct their attentions to freeing female characters from the stereotypes to which they have been confined by the critical tradition or from the biases and prejudices of authors themselves” (“Feminist and Marxist” 30). The first operation, presumably, seeks to recover the author's intended meaning by correcting previous misinterpretations of it, but the second implies a very different conception of the relation between critic and author. So does Wheeler's statement that “it has taken the energies of feminist criticism to dislodge [Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca] from the play's powerful rhetoric of both idealization and degradation” (209), for if we remember who is responsible for that rhetoric, then this operation too involves rescuing characters from their own creator.19 And that is apparently what Leininger is doing when she asserts that “Caliban is made to concur in the accusation” that he assaulted Miranda (289), as if the accusation were not true (although she later hedges by referring to “his real or imputed lust” ). These critics seem to be treating the plays as biased accounts of real people that they must set straight, which seems absurd; but I think the impulse behind their undertaking is sound, since they are trying to articulate their own views of the gender assumptions of the plays. They are treating those assumptions, that is, as assumptions, and so can distinguish their attitudes toward them from Shakespeare's (which is also what Erickson recommends). I would say that they are moving here in the right direction, toward a promising line of inquiry for feminist critics into the actual nature of the gender assumptions in these plays.20 It would mean holding in abeyance (temporarily, of course) their own attitudes toward gender, as well as their claim to be interpreting Shakespeare's intention, which required a transformation of the assumptions into the thematic subject he was exploring (to arrive at conclusions happily coinciding with their own), since in such an inquiry their attitudes and his intention would both be irrelevant. Above all, it would mean abandoning their preconceptions of what these assumptions will be. They might begin with one tragedy and try to determine what its gender assumptions really are by deriving them inductively from the play itself, and then proceed, again inductively, to see if they could derive valid generalizations about the assumptions of the tragedies as a genre. It is an inquiry for which they are uniquely suited, because their feminist perspective gives them the “distance” needed to recognize the assumptions. And it is one that would put the rest of us greatly in their debt.
As my final point I would like to pursue the question of preconceptions just referred to, by looking at the psychoanalytic theory that apparently underlies a number of these essays. It is not the theory of Freud, of course, but the revised feminist versions of Dorothy Dinnerstein, Nancy Chodorow, Adrienne Rich, and others, which retain the Freudian faith that some basic childhood trauma is responsible for all our problems but locate that trauma in the child's relation to the mother during the “pre-oedipal stage” of development. I am less concerned here with their account of that stage, however, than with the picture of the adult male psyche that has filtered down, perhaps in distorted form, to affect this body of criticism. The general idea seems to be that men, because of difficulties in their infantile experience with mothering (which is supposed to be very different from the experience of female infants), grow up with an unconscious but overpowering fear and hatred of femininity, both in women and in themselves, which they try to repress by certain defense mechanisms, including an obsessive need to idealize or degrade women and to control them. They are all, in short, unconscious misogynists. This is the conception of masculinity that presumably stands behind Gohlke's assertion that the tragic heroes share a “defensive posture” resulting from feelings about “their own vulnerability in relation to women,” which leads to “violence against women” (“‘I Wooed …’” 152, 161, 163); and Berger's that all the Scots thanes suffer from a “pathologically protective machismo” based on “the male fear of feminine contamination” and “fear of impotency and vulnerability to women” (68, 71, 76); and Erickson's that the “spontaneous outburst of jealousy” in Leontes is “intrinsic to the male psyche” (Patriarchal 148); and Snow's that Othello kills Desdemona because of the “pathological male animus toward sexuality” and “underlying male fear” of “thralldom to the demands of an unsatisfiable sexual appetite in woman” (388, 407), which are triggered off in him by the consummation of his marriage. We can presume that such assertions come from this “feminist” conception of masculinity that these critics bring to the plays, since they cannot come from the plays themselves. For this conception does not fit any of the tragic heroes (or any of the thanes). It is true that four of them—Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and Antony—express some of these misogynist feelings at certain times, but always in situations of crisis and always in response to what they view as a very serious provocation by a woman. Not one of them, in his usual or characteristic state of mind, could be termed a misogynist; in fact, Shakespeare shows us that in this state each is (or was) capable of forming a loving relationship with a woman, and this applies to the other tragic heroes as well.21 The imposition of this conception, therefore, radically distorts their characters. It also eliminates their individuality, since they all turn out to have the same stereotypical male sickness. And it debases them to a level beyond the reach of tragic sympathy. We saw that this is a tendency more or less inherent in the approach of these critics, but this conception of masculinity further contributes to it.
It also affects the treatment of female characters, for one of its corollaries seems to be that, while men grow up sick, women grow up healthy—that is, without unconscious fears or hatreds. (I am speaking not of the theory itself but only of its deployment by these critics.) Sometimes this results in what can only be called an idealization of the female, which may seem strange since feminists are so opposed to it, but apparently it is acceptable if couched in the language of modern psychology. Berger, for example, regards Lady Macduff as the sole representative of “saneness” and “authentic humanity” (71) in a sea of male pathology (Lady Macbeth is disqualified because of her “mimetic desire to join the manly ranks,” and the witches are “scapegoats of the masculine imagination” [72, 74]). And Snow almost grows lyrical in his praise of Desdemona for her “erotic vitality,” freedom from “Oedipal guilt,” and similar virtues (406-07). She seems flawless, and he gets very angry at her mistreatment by Robert Dickes, an orthodox Freudian, who finds in her a “castrative” need to “dominate Othello in terms of phallic rivalry” (287, 293).22 Snow insists that “the reality of [her] behavior” does not support this diagnosis (405), which is true; but it is equally true that the reality of Othello's behavior does not support Snow's own account of a “pathological male animus” and “underlying male fear.” Snow, in other words, condemns Dickes for doing to Desdemona what he does to Othello, since they are both imposing on the character an unconscious (and of course unsavory) motivation that is dictated by their own preconceptions. But apparently Desdemona (and Lady Macduff) cannot have an unconscious like the men, which may be a new form of sexual discrimination.
I think we would also have to say, finally, that this “feminist” conception of masculinity is just as much a distortion of real life as it is of the tragedies. In both areas it contains an element of truth, for some men, like some tragic heroes, do have those misogynist feelings at some times (some, of course, have them all the time). While it is very important to recognize this phenomenon, to elevate it into a universal definition of the gender is absurd, as may be seen if we try to apply the statements quoted above. If Erickson's statement were true, then most men would walk around suffering spontaneous outbursts of jealousy. If Snow's were true, most wedding nights would terminate in uxoricide. Indeed, if any of them were true, half of the human race would be pathological. Why then do some of these critics accept this conception of masculinity and employ it? They cannot be convinced by the evidence offered for it, since there is none. The explanation must be that they want to believe it. And they want to, apparently, because it neatly turns the tables on the Freudian theory of “penis envy” by making female development the norm and male development abnormal. One can easily understand their dislike of Freud's theory, for in it, as Gohlke says, “femininity itself is defined as the condition of lack” (“‘I Wooed …’” 162). She is right, but the theory she sponsors does the same thing to masculinity, by defining it as a malady. Surely the only sensible course is to abandon both these theories, along with the fruitless search for a single basic cause of gender difference and all its problems, and give our support to a scientific study of the complex factors in human development, which would investigate the similarities as well as the differences between women and men, based on evidence that compelled the assent of all rational people, regardless of their gender or ideology.
For an account of the first phase see Neely, “Feminist” 6-7, and for some examples, see the essays of Garner on Desdemona, Fitz on Cleopatra, and Smith on Gertrude; this phase is also a major concern of Dash's book.
See, e.g., Neely, “Feminist” 4-9; Bamber, ch. 1; Jardine 1-6; McLuskie 88-92; and the reviews of French's book by Erickson and Greene.
Probably the two most important studies excluded for this reason are Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men, and Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy.
See, e.g., Neely, Broken 107-08; French 242.
Similarly, both Dash and Greene (“‘This …’”) argue that the sufferings of Othello and Desdemona are caused by the conventional sex roles imposed on them by society (see their statements of the theme quoted above). This is also Dreher's thesis, although she only deals with Desdemona, whose “tragic fate stems from slavish conformity … to the traditional norm for feminine behavior,” showing that “Shakespeare repudiates” this norm defined by “patriarchal expectations” (93, 76, 92).
A number of the critics comment on this; see especially Park's witty account of the fates of Portia, Beatrice, and Rosalind.
Note the language of patriarchy: “What, goodman boy? … you’ll be the man? … You are a saucy boy” (1.5.77-83). Kahn never deals with this episode and only refers to it once indirectly (95).
Erickson quotes this response in a note but says it “is too slender a thread” to exonerate Macduff from “the general pattern of distorted masculinity,” shown in “his excessive violence in decapitating Macbeth” (Patriarchal 192). Kimbrough, however, regards it as “one of those great Shakespearean moments” because it points to “androgyny,” which is Shakespeare's solution (and his own) to the thematic “war between gender concepts” (176, 178). But he never mentions Macduff's decapitation of Macbeth, which is not very androgynous.
Like Berger and Neely, Leverenz works very hard to score points against all the men. He tells us that Hamlet Senior's “peacetime behavior seems to have been primarily sleeping on the job” (because of the Ghost's reference to naps) and that the former king was “more like Claudius than the Ghost can dare admit”; that when Laertes says to Ophelia, “Do not sleep, / But let me hear from you” (1.3.3-4), he means that “the body's natural desire to sleep must yield to the role of always-attentive sister”; and that even the gravediggers are “mini-Claudiuses” (117, 118, 122).
It would take quite a bit of stretching, for instance, to connect the killing of Lady Macduff, which is Macbeth's only “violence against women,” with any feeling he has about “vulnerability in relation to women.”
Cf. Greene's comment on this play: “In the comedies and romances, and in Antony and Cleopatra, women make themselves heard, but part of what is tragic about the tragic world here is that they do not. … [Emilia] is a woman capable of challenging male prerogatives and assumptions, who might be able to bring about a comic resolution” (“‘This …’” 29). Leverenz, whose essay inspired Wilt's, avoids her difficulty with Ophelia by inventing a woman within Hamlet whom he should listen to but does not, so that his tragedy exemplifies this same thematic lesson.
See the comments of Camillo in 1.2, Antigonus and the unnamed lord in 2.1, and Dion and Cleomenes in 3.1. (Antigonus's view has changed in 3.3 because of his misinterpreted dream.)
In her survey of the approach, Neely criticizes the tendency of some feminists “to employ what might be called reverse sexism, attacking and stereotyping male characters” (“Feminist” 4; see also 7).
Novy is unusual in acknowledging some embarrassment about this: “There is so much sympathy with Lear at the end that it seems cold to turn from feeling with him to any further analysis of the play in terms of sex-role behavior, but it is worth noting that part of the effect of the play is to impress on us the suffering created by these behavior patterns [imposed by patriarchy] and then to show us how inadequate they are” (162). She, Dash, and Kimbrough can pity the hero because their themes, we saw, do not require an attack on him. But for McLuskie, who is not in this group (see n. 20), any pity for Lear is a temptation that feminists must resist, since it “endorses” the play's “patriarchal” ideology (100, 102).
According to Erickson, e.g., in their last scenes Othello exhibits a “powerful need for self-deception,” Lear a “continuing self-evasion,” and Malcolm's thanes an “escapist belief in an entirely masculine social order”; and Hamlet's “disturbed attitude toward female sexuality is neither squarely faced nor transformed and resolved.” Antony is the honorable exception because he finally “rejects the definition of masculinity” entailed in his soldier identity (Patriarchal 100, 115, 122, 78, 140).
See Novy 200-01; French 71; and Erickson, Patriarchal 116, 171-72. Similarly, some of the older thematists viewed Shakespeare's development as a continuous exploration of the one central theme they found in all his plays.
The only apparent exception I noted is Gohlke, who begins by stating that she is “abandon[ing] a strictly intentionalist position”; yet she later says the tragedies “may be viewed as one vast commentary” on male attitudes, which they “examine” with “acute attention” (“‘I Wooed …’” 150, 161, 163). One of the few discussions of the problem among this group of critics is in the essay on the “author-function” by Erickson; he argues that we must distinguish our attitude toward the treatment of gender in a play from Shakespeare's (as he does in his book, 36-37, 169-70, 182), but he does not address the prior question of how we know this treatment of gender is Shakespeare's subject.
For some examples, see Kahn on The Taming of the Shrew (114-17), Riefer on Measure for Measure (167-69), and Leininger on The Tempest (291-92).
Perhaps Wheeler might claim that Shakespeare deliberately misled his audience in order to test or educate them. This was a standard rationale of the older ironic readings, which reappears in Berger and Snow.
This is the line taken by Jardine, Belsey, McLuskie, and a few other feminist critics, most of them British and associated with “cultural materialism.” They are not thematic (which is why I have excluded them) and so avoid some of the problems discussed here.
See Bamber's perceptive discussion of this point (14-16). Hamlet does not begin the play in this “normal” state, because of Gertrude's remarriage, but before that he was courting Ophelia. The only real exception is Timon, but he is seldom cited by these critics, perhaps because his misanthropy is so much stronger than his misogyny.
Dickes's “Desdemona: An Innocent Victim?” appeared in American Imago; but we do not need to read it to find the answer to his question, for in the articles of that journal no one is ever innocent, except the authors of the articles. (The same issue includes “Desdemona's Guilt” by Stephen Reid.) French, similarly, claims that Desdemona is “shown a near-ideal” since she “has no sexual guilt,” is “whole,” etc. (215-16).
Bamber, Linda. Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1982.
Belsey, Catherine. The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama. London: Methuen, 1985.
Berger, Harry. “Text against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth.” Genre 15 (1982): 49-79.
Dash, Irene. Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Columbia UP, 1981.
Dickes, Robert. “Desdemona: An Innocent Victim?” American Imago 27 (1970): 279-97.
Dreher, Diane. Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1986.
Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan, 1975.
Erickson, Peter. Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Plays. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.
———. Rev. of Shakespeare's Division of Experience, by Marilyn French. Greene and Swift 189-201.
———. “Shakespeare and the ‘Author-Function.’” Erickson and Kahn 245-55.
Erickson, Peter, and Coppélia Kahn, eds. Shakespeare's “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1985.
Fitz, L. T. “Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 28 (1977): 297-316.
French, Marilyn. Shakespeare's Division of Experience. 1981. New York: Ballantine, 1983.
Garner, Shirley Nelson. “Shakespeare's Desdemona.” Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 233-52.
Gohlke, Madelon. “‘All That Is Spoke Is Marred’: Language and Consciousness in Othello.” Greene and Swift 157-76.
———. “‘I Wooed Thee with My Sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms.” Lenz et al. 150-70.
Greene, Gayle. “Feminist and Marxist Criticism: An Argument for Alliances.” Greene and Swift 29-45.
———. “Feminist Criticism and Marilyn French: With Such Friends, Who Needs Enemies?” Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 479-86.
———. “‘This That You Call Love’: Sexual and Social Tragedy in Othello.” Journal of Women's Studies in Literature 1 (1979): 16-32.
Greene, Gayle, and Carolyn Ruth Swift, eds. Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. 2 spec. issues of Women's Studies 9 (1981-82): 1-215.
Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Brighton: Harvester, 1983.
Kahn, Coppélia. Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare. Berkeley: U of California P, 1981.
Kimbrough, Robert. “Macbeth: The Prisoner of Gender.” Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 175-90.
Leininger, Lorie Jerrell. “The Miranda Trap: Sexism and Racism in Shakespeare's Tempest.” Lenz et al. 285-94.
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.
Leverenz, David. “The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View.” Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays. Ed. Murray Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. 110-28.
McLuskie, Kathleen. “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure.” Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 88-108.
Neely, Carol Thomas. Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.
———. “Feminist Modes of Shakespearean Criticism: Compensatory, Justificatory, Transformational.” Greene and Swift 3-15.
Novy, Marianne. Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.
Park, Clara Claiborne. “As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular.” Lenz et al. 100-16.
Riefer, Marcia. “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 157-69.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. Boston: Houghton, 1979.
Smith, Rebecca. “A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare's Gertrude.” Lenz et al. 194-210.
Snow, Edward. “Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello.” English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 384-412.
Wheeler, Richard. “‘And My Loud Crying Still’: The Sonnets, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello.” Erickson and Kahn 193-209.
Wilt, Judith. “Comment on David Leverenz's ‘The Woman in Hamlet.’” Greene and Swift 93-97.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332
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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