William Shakespeare Feminist Criticism - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Feminist Criticism

Under the umbrella of “feminist criticism” there is a wide range of critical practices and approaches to Shakespeare's works, and each of these approaches has its own supporters and detractors. Due to the diverse array of feminist studies, many feminist critics hesitate to posit a general description of what, exactly, feminist criticism is. It has been observed, however, that feminist criticism reflects the assorted theoretical positions of the feminist movement. Common topics of feminist studies of Shakespeare include examinations of patriarchy, gender and sex roles, and the relationship between gender and power in Shakespeare's plays. It is generally agreed that feminist criticism of Shakespeare as a “movement” began in the mid-1970s. Richard Levin (1988) cites Juliet Dusinberre's publication of Shakespeare and the Nature of Women in 1975 and the Modern Language Association's special session of feminist criticism in 1976 as the genesis of the feminist criticism movement in Shakespeare studies.

Feminist critics of Shakespeare's works are often the subject of critiques—this is due in part to the tension that exists between feminist critics and critics of other branches of criticism. Jonathan Dollimore (1990) critiques various feminist approaches to Shakespearean studies. He explains and defends the approach of cultural materialism as a method of Shakespearean criticism, and responds to feminist critics of this approach. Lynda E. Boose (1987) traces the evolution of feminist criticism, particularly in regard to the treatment of marriage, sex, and family. Boose also discusses feminist debate over Shakespeare's own attitude toward patriarchy and the subordination of women. Feminist criticism is also the subject of Peter Erickson's 1997 essay. Erickson outlines the development of feminist criticism in America, and argues that there is a stark contrast between what he views as prefeminist criticism, before 1980, and feminist criticism after 1980. The year marks a shift, Erickson asserts, toward an emphasis in feminist criticism on culture and ideology. Erickson concludes by reviewing a new wave of feminist criticism which provides an expanded framework for viewing “otherness” in such characters as Shylock and Othello.

Character studies often form the focus of feminist analyses of Shakespeare's works. Feminist critics such as Janet Adelman (1985) examine the way in which various characters are portrayed and perceived. Adelman studies the portrayal of Cressida in Troilus and Cressida and maintains that the play enacts the fantasy of Cressida's inconstancy. At the moment when Cressida is separated from Troilus, Adelman explains, Cressida becomes “radically unknowable, irreducibly other,” and due to the inconsistent way Cressida is portrayed, the other characters in the play, as well as the audience, are forced to view Cressida in the same way. Like Adelman, Sharon M. Harris (1990) studies the portrayal of Cressida. Harris reviews six traditional critical responses to her character: she is ignored, viewed as a whore, thought to possess an inherent limitation or frailty, thought to behave in accordance with a particular theatrical convention, viewed as synonymous with society's disorder, and thought to behave in the only way possible given her circumstances and environment. Harris identifies the way feminist critics have responded to each of the categorizations of Cressida and notes that feminist critics have found new ways in which to analyze her character. Similarly, Sharon Ouditt (1996) outlines the various methods by which feminist critics examine Shakespeare's characters. Ouditt selects three feminist critics who have studied Hamlet's Gertrude, and uses these studies to elucidate different feminist perspectives. Ouditt then identifies the problems inherent with these approaches.

The way feminist critics analyze Shakespeare's plays has been reviewed by a number of critics. Kathleen McLuskie (1985) identifies several feminist avenues of approach and highlights the shortcomings of each. She notes that the mimetic and essentialist modes of feminist theory fail to allow for the “full complexity of the nature of women” in Shakespeare's time or modern times. McLuskie examines the way sex and sexual roles in Measure for Measure and King Lear are discussed by feminist critics, and reviews the problems with these types of analyses. She notes that feminist readings often “reorder” the terms of the text and shift the critical attention from judgement of the action to focusing on the process by which the action may be judged. Similarly, Richard Levin (1988) investigates the problems with a feminist thematic approach to Shakespeare's tragedies. Levin contends that the central theme of the tragedies is often viewed by feminist thematic critics as the role of gender within the individual and society, and that these same critics identify the cause of the plays' tragic outcomes as masculinity or patriarchy. Levin stresses the illogic of this approach, and also observes that there are problems inherent in the thematic approach in general, not just the feminist thematic approach to Shakespeare's tragedies.

Lynda E. Boose (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 14273 words.)

Jonathan Dollimore (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9565 words.)

Peter Erickson (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 9091 words.)

Janet Adelman (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10216 words.)

Sharon M. Harris (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7788 words.)

Sharon Ouditt (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10742 words.)

Kathleen McLuskie (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9082 words.)

Richard Levin (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11316 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 332 words.)