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Issues relating to gender in Shakespeare's dramas have inspired critical interest for centuries, but in the late twentieth century gender has become of tantamount importance to many Shakespearean scholars. Modern commentary has focused on a variety of issues related to gender, including relations and conflicts between the sexes, the concept of what it means to be masculine or feminine, and the ambiguous ground where differentiation between the sexes blurs. Additionally, many critics have taken an interest in the historical component of gender on the Elizabethan stage, noting, for instance, the fact that female roles were originally performed by young boys. Also, scholars have explored Shakespeare's ideas about gender identity as they evolved over time in the different dramatic genres he produced, from the early comedies to the histories and later tragedies and romances. Taken as a whole, these studies portray the dramatist's highly complex and varied approach to the question of gender as an evolving personal, social, and cultural phenomenon.
Critics note that the nature of gender identity in Shakespeare's plays is generally portrayed from the perspective of the male, and, as a result, women are almost invariably seen as archetypal figures. Paula S. Berggren (1980) has explored Shakespeare's mythic and supernatural approach to women and finds that they are often viewed as having innate energies of rebirth and renewal—energies which the men do not possess. Femininity is further explored by Linda Bamber (1982), who has noted how frequently women are defined only in their relation to the actions or perceptions of men. Female roles, she observes, are notably downplayed in the histories, which generally deal with masculine power struggles. In the comedies Bamber contends that women are largely static creatures characterized by their avoidance of decision-making. In contrast, men in Shakespeare's plays tend to take a more proactive stance toward their fates. Coppélla Kahn (1981) observed, however, that this attitude can produce negative results, as in the cases of Macbeth and Coriolanus. Both use violent means, at the bidding of influential female figures—Lady Macbeth and Coriolanus's mother, respectively—to prove their manhood, but only succeed in bringing about their own destruction.
Shakespeare's exploration of androgyny is also of interest to many critics. The intersection of the male and the female appears most frequently in his romances, and it is in these works that commentators find some of the dramatist's strongest heroines—who often make their mark while disguised as men or boys. This device of a woman assuming the guise of a man has interested many feminist writers, such as Juliet Dusinberre (1975), who argued that it allows Shakespeare the means to present the strengths and weaknesses of his feminine characters more fully, as well as an opportunity for the critique of gendered social mores. Jean E. Howard (1988), in contrast, viewed the process of gender inversion through disguise as potentially radical, but ultimately unable to effect social change. She argues that though female characters such as Rosalind and Viola assume a masculine gender for a time, they eventually return to their proper positions in society as (married) women.
Still other critics see Shakespeare's attitude toward gender as a function of genre that changes from the comedies and histories to the tragedies and romances. Barbara J. Bono (1986) has focused on Shakespeare's As You Like It and finds an intertwined masculine and feminine discourse; the latter she describes as "doublevoiced"—that is, simultaneously adopting and deriding the conventions of the male-dominated culture. Carol Thomas Neely (1985) looked at Antony and Cleopatra as a special case among Shakespeare's plays which, with its relationship to the comedies, tragedies and tragicomedies, offers new considerations on gender. The genre of the tragicomedy is of particular interest to Helen Wilcox. Unlike many critics before her, Wilcox (1994) viewed the tragicomedy as not exclusively malefocused, but equally concerned with rendering the nature of its feminine characters.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11497
Paula S. Berggren (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "The Women's Part: Female Sexuality as Power in Shakespeare's Plays," in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 17-34.
[In the following essay, Berggren surveys the woman 's role in Shakespeare's plays as an archetypal figure of innate power that elicits both fear and adoration in men. ]
Despite all the ink spilled on inventing fanciful histories for Falstaff with Mowbray, Hamlet at Wittenberg, and the like, it is Shakespeare's women, rather than his men, who have most consistently moved his readers to a peculiarly cloying, gossipy condescension. No one, after all, has written a book on the boyhood of Shakespeare's heroes, complete with illustrations, nor have critics ritually agonized over who deserves to be hailed as the manliest of Shakespeare's men. Even worse, the contagion spreads from contemplation of his female characters to fatuous musings on their creator himself: we are invited to ponder not only Rosalind's happy hours in her forest of Arden, but Shakespeare's in his. A positively unwholesome curiosity about the author's erotic predilections springs naturally, it would appear, from a study of his women: we read of his "feminine" imagination, his bisexual tastes, his relations with his mother, his wife, his daughter, his mistress.1
In the wake of these deplorable critical fallacies, it takes some temerity to reopen the question of Shakespeare's characterization of women. Yet in the past few years a number of scholars have returned from the blameless consideration of rhetorical and structural elements in Shakespeare's dramatic poetry to a newly sophisticated investigation of his dramatic characters. While the time has happily passed when such a study must wallow in an evocation of the "real lives" of what J. Leeds Barroll has called "artificial persons," microscopic examinations of individual personalities may still profitably be undertaken.2 It is not my purpose to do so, however, but, risking some broad generalizations, I propose to take a synoptic view of feminine character development through Shakespeare's plays, arguing that underlying his detailed, idiosyncratic portraits of women is one constant that unites them all: the central element in Shakespeare's treatment of women is always their sex, not as a focus for cultural observation or social criticism (though these may be discerned),3 but primarily as a mythic source of power, an archetypal symbol that arouses both love and loathing in the male.
To begin, certain facts seem clear: although Shakespeare's women "live" on stage as the women of his immediate predecessors do not, they never achieve the grand and tragic dominion of the seventeenth century's heroines, French as well as English. In Shakespearean comedy, it is true, the heroine dominates; in Shakespearean tragedy, she most emphatically does not. Moreover, the women in tragedy seem to split into two basic types: victims or monsters, "good" or "evil." While Shakespeare drew on conventional sources for almost all of his characters, male and female, we need a fuller range of categories to group the men adequately: not just heroes and villains, but warriors, princes, courtiers; Machiavels and Vices; braggart soldiers, clowns, fools. Despite the fertility of local, imaginative touches that beggar our attempts to delimit, we can nevertheless perceive a fundamental distinction along sexual lines. The women in Shakespeare remain the Other; there are fewer of them, certainly, and they seem more regularly than the fuller array of male characters to bear heavy symbolic burdens. Furthermore, I would suggest, they become more or less crucial to the dramatic proceedings by virtue of the one act of which women alone are capable. The comic world requires childbearers to perpetuate the race, to ensure community and continuity; the tragic world, which abhors such reassurance, consequently shrinks from a female protagonist.4 Such women as exist in tragedy must make their mark by rejecting their womanliness, by sublime sacrifice, or as midwives to the passion of the hero. We wonder how many children Lady Macbeth had only because she has dismissed them as an irrelevance in her life. The curse of the tragic world is to be barren; the salvation of the comic is fecundity.
It is a paradox, therefore, that the romantic heroines so frequently disguise themselves as boys, thus denying the procreative function that makes them undisputed rulers of their terrain; but like all paradoxes, upon examination this one reveals more than it obscures. At first glance, the male disguise acknowledges the shortcomings of the female: in virtually every instance in Shakespeare, the heroine changes clothes because she needs to present herself in circumstances where a woman would be rebuffed or, more typically, subjected to injury. Traditional female fashions are designed to hamper movement as traditional female roles hamper mobility; only an exceptionally gifted woman will dare cross the boundaries defined by both fashion and role. The disregard for these limitations underscored by the change in costume might suggest a radical criticism of society, but while the wearing of pants allows expression of a talent otherwise dampened by convention, it does not, in Shakespeare, lead to a direct challenge of the masculine order. Portia does not take the bar exam and Viola does not organize a search party; they are content to reassume their womanly duties (but we must ask neither how their husbands coped with them nor how many children they had).5
Yet it would be foolish to see the male disguise merely as an indication of the female's infirmity; clearly derived from the romance tradition, the assumption of masculine garb creates no lady knights in Shakespeare's scheme of things, but rather celebrates a flexibility and responsiveness that few men, in comedy or tragedy, can match.6 Shakespeare's boy-heroines move effortlessly through their impersonations, despite—and because of—the encumbrance imposed by an actual change of costume. The disguises taken up by Shakespeare's men, on the other hand, are more often psychic than physical, demanding relentless concentration if they are to be sustained. The heroine, who can rely on her outfit to shroud her true identity, dresses up with amused nonchalance, innocent of the calculation typical of the master-disguiser, the Machiavel. Disguise remains incidental, though useful, for Shakespeare's women; for his men, it is the very core of experience.
So extensive a topic as disguise in Shakespeare cannot, of course, be adequately dealt with simply as a sex-linked phenomenon, yet I think one can see easily enough that the woman's disguise alters her far less than that undertaken, for very different reasons, by either the plotting villain or the alienated hero. Richard of Gloucester sets the pattern of the Shakespearean villain's reliance on disguise. Like the chameleon, like Proteus, he cannot exist without it: when he is finally stripped of disguise, the Machiavel has no form and disintegrates, deflated, silenced, insubstantial. The tragic hero, who rarely initiates his "disguise," must yet endure the profoundest crisis on its account. At once self-revelation and self-betrayal, his false identity goes deeper than the consciously contrived dissimulations of the heroine or the villain, yet the full achievement of tragic stature depends on his return to the original heroic self, leaving the audience to wonder whether the insight gained through the tragic disguise continues to inform the mind restored to greatness.7 Only the heroine seems to emerge from disguise enriched, however momentary our final view of her as woman once again may be.
The aimless and impromptu nature of the heroine's transformation confirms her identity instead of shattering it. Bent on neither devious manipulation of others nor frenzied interrogation of self, she simply activates the masculine resources within the normal feminine personality without negating her essential femininity. Thus she manages to absorb and retain what she has learned about being another sort of creature, for the female self in Shakespeare's plays rests on a foundation of purposes understood and accepted, a feature I would attribute to the sexual nature that gives her both roots and limits. The heroines are personally vulnerable, as are any of the non-villains who take up disguises, but they have a kind of faith—in time, in themselves, in biology—that anchors them, making the existential plunge into the self a short one. Where the tragic hero discovers quicksand, the comic heroine finds solid rock instead.
In the painful pursuit of self, Shakespeare's heroes may dress in borrowed robes, but they never assume a woman's garments. We can deduce a certain insecurity in this fear of seeming feminized; significantly, Antony, sexually the most mature of Shakespeare's men, is alone among them in having worn woman's dress. Still we never see him so attired, but learn from Cleopatra's recollection of their love games that she once decked him in her "tires and mantles" (11.v.22).8 Nor can we explain the general failure of Shakespeare's men to dress themselves like women by citing their tragic seriousness, for a man in woman's clothes need not be embarked on mere frivolity. Euripides' Pentheus demonstrates how devastating an avenue for self-examination such costume provides. For Anglo-Saxon audiences, however, a man in travesty, as the term suggests, remains an instrument of farce. In a society where men are ashamed to weep, to appear womanly can only be a humiliation, but in avoiding any semblance of the opposite sex, Shakespeare's men cut themselves off from an understanding of the fullest range of human experience. Thus, while women have the power to confound men, the masculine world holds little sway over a female who has walked around in trousers (or doublet and hose) unchallenged.9
Whether they have dressed like men or not, Shakespeare's women as a rule maintain a remarkably disinterested view of the masculine physique. In private his women may laugh at the expense of ungainly men, as Portia does, leaving no doubt in the reader's mind that they will choose good-looking husbands, but Shakespeare rarely writes a scene that explicitly delineates female sexual longing. The awkwardness of charging a boy actor with material of this sort has often been cited, but, as usual, Shakespeare capitalizes on a technical stricture. The heroine in disguise is more likely to admire herself in her boy's costume than she is to praise her lover's bodily attributes. In this complacency, she wittily remarks the superficiality of physical attractiveness. Similarly, when a Phebe or Olivia makes a sonneteer's inventory of the beloved's attractions, the joke lies in her misapprehension of externals: the man she admires is a woman. No woman in Shakespeare, not even Cleopatra, thirstily catalogues a lover's parts as Romeo and Troilus do in their poetry of frustration, the last gasp of Petrarchan worship of the unattainable.10 Shakespeare's women have it within their means eventually to fulfill their sensual needs and act rather than moon over rejection. As early as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Julia, the first of the heroines in pants, deflates the pomposity of phallic show. If she must wear a codpiece to guarantee her disguise, it is no more absurd a sartorial note for her than for the upto-date males who affect the style in order to stick pins on it (II.vii.56). She settles for what is "most mannerly" (58) in a pun that reminds us how often Shakespeare's women prove more "manly" than their lovers.
By obscuring their own sex, the heroines gain extraordinary access to the men they love, with the result that friendship validates marriage in Shakespeare's comedies. Consequently, when his heroines cease to adopt men's clothes, they forgo the rewards of friendship as well, and the comic world darkens. Helena's disguise as a female pilgrim rather than an adventurous boy signals a momentous shift in Shakespeare's treatment of women: "realistic" psychological development takes second place to a determined reification of gender. Because intellectual compatibility in sexual relationships becomes a luxury they can dispense with, the heroines of All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure shock some sensibilities. Shakespeare does not impede their already tortuous route toward consummation by dressing Helena, Isabella, and Mariana in masculine garments, but seems perversely to force a showdown between holiness and lust by clothing them instead in pilgrim's gown and nun's habit, cloistering them (like Mariana in her moated grange) from physical contact. This apparent perversity, however, brilliantly exposes the shallow religiosity that presumes chastity can be achieved simply by hiding all evidence of sexuality: both All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure insist that body as well as spirit may serve the divine plan.
The early comedies generally culminate in the ceremony of marriage or its promise; with All's Well and Measure for Measure, the ceremony itself does not suffice, for it threatens to become an empty legalism.11 Helena and Bertram, like Angelo and Mariana, are not truly married, while Claudio and Juliet, anticipating their rites, assuredly are. The problematic nature of these plays can be sensed in their demand for physical confirmation of relationships to which they fail to lend psychological credence. Helena finds that she must draw on her womanhood where the earlier heroines are free to release their boyishness; the image of ideal love enshrined in the universally appealing Ganymede and Cesario12 yields to the proof of physical encounter that only childbirth can give.
Like Helena, Rosalind boasts the twin advantages of disguise and an undefined personal magic, a source of power she must tap if a satisfactory conclusion to the riddles of As You Like If s antepenultimate scene is to be found (V.ii.82-125). Even in this most confidently artful of the great comedies, an increasing sense of strain begins to tell. On her wedding day, as Rosalind conjures Hymen's presence to bless a series of unions arranged on an ascending scale of mutual devotion, a new physical urgency bids farewell to games. The intensity of Celia's and Oliver's passion for each other compounds Orlando's despairing inability to live by thinking: Ganymede the artificer must vanish so that Rosalind the woman can supply the fleshly solution the lovers long for.
As You Like It alerts us to the supernatural admixture that strengthens the Shakespearean heroine, but neither Ganymede's glib invention of an old magician friend nor the last-minute introduction of an actual god should deceive us into thinking that she needs outside assistance. Rosalind's sexuality endows her automatically with the magic she requires: Hymen does not condescend to save an impossible situation, but merely enhances a foregone conclusion. If anything, Rosalind uses him to cover her tracks, manipulating a minor deity as skillfully as she has everyone else. While the men with magic power in Shakespeare need external aids, the women need only be themselves to become conduits of extraordinary forces. In reaffirming their sexual natures they exercise the most potent magic of all: Ganymede must become Rosalind; Cesario, Viola; the Pilgrim, Helena. Disguise provides the opportunity for, but not the substance of, their authority.
After Helena, disguise rarely aids Shakespeare's women, since the creative sexuality it fosters no longer enchants, but repels, the masculine protagonist. A man who doubts the very value of existence cannot spare the energy required to appreciate delicate ambivalence. The loathing of the flesh variously spat out by a Lear, Hamlet, Timon, or Posthumus represents a coarsened sexual sensibility that blames life's ills on a force outside oneself and beyond male comprehension. The same drive toward procreation that enriches female personality in the comedies expunges it in the tragedies: "Down from the waist they are Centaurs, / Though women all above" (Lear, IV.vi.126-27). Precisely their lack of clear motivation points to the importance of these woman-hating speeches of disgust. In a malign world, the perceived source of life best deserves to be attacked.
The climate of masculine prudery which seeks to deny male complicity in the "act of darkness" is inhospitable to nubile women, accounting in large measure for the powerlessness of the female in Shakespearean tragedy. As Barroll points out, even romantic heroines like Juliet and Desdemona are really "well-behaved ingenues";13 young women in these plays must be desexualized. Cordelia (whom one might call the ultimate "ingenue" of Shakespeare's middle period) is never allowed the seductiveness that leads Ophelia to an equivocal madness and Desdemona to the double entendre of death between her wedding sheets. In a way, Desdemona's progress through Othello is a more leisurely and explicit version of Cordelia's virtual canonization. The full-blooded, courageous bride of Act I, the witty yet reserved Venetian lady of Act II, flowers into the womanly warrior who greets Othello after the storm but then must slough off her joyous sensuality to become the naïve innocent who counters Emilia's worldly veniality in Act IV: rather than temper her husband's fury with a sexual invitation in Act V, Desdemona prays. Cordelia's womanliness, totally stylized, finds its only expression in her disembodied voice, "soft, / Gentle and low" (v.iii.272-73).
Lear's three daughters in effect sum up the Manichaean view of female sensuality in Shakespeare's high tragic world: if not Cordelia, then Goneril and Regan. After blessing them at first with the natural abundance embodied in "plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads" (I.i.65), King Lear reverses his promise to Goneril and Regan, bidding Nature instead "dry up [their] organs of increase" (I.iv.288). They consequently manifest that depraved and nonprocreative lasciviousness that the sonnets attribute to the Dark Lady; indeed, evil in Shakespearean women seems to grow from a sexuality so out of tune with its procreative potential that it breeds villainy rather than children. When female lechery is not actually sterile, its progeny is malignant: from Tamora to Cymbeline's Queen, the impulse to destroy passes inevitably from dissatisfied mother to dissatisfied son. Even the complex women of the major tragic phase suffer from an excess of libidinal energies that neither marriage nor motherhood can channel. Purgative transvestism might have done wonders for Goneril, Lady Macbeth, and Volumnia, but no outlets for safety-valve experimentation of this sort exist in the rigid masculine world of Shakespearean tragedy.14
Only Cleopatra relaxes this rigidity, symbolized in Antony and Cleopatra by the cold calculation of Rome, because she can put on Antony's sword, experience the trials of the masculine ruler, and renew her femininity at the last—the formula for the comic heroine restated in grander terms. Like the comic heroines, she enters a maternal phase in her final moments. Antony's botched suicide, his suggestive inaccuracy in the placing of his sword, is redeemed as Cleopatra takes the asp to her breast, mothering it like the stupendous vision of Antony to which she gives birth in her dialogue with Dolabella. She augments the imaginative generosity of the Desdemonas and Cordelias who, cherishing a vision of the men they love at their best, have died to perpetuate it; the "ingenue" tragic heroines spur on the men who survive them to a glory of self-delivery (Hamlet leaping into Ophelia's grave, Othello pulling out his weapon, Lear with his looking glass), while Cleopatra encompasses both the ultimate death and the glorification. In an important anticipation of the matriarchal final romances, Antony's fourth-act death leaves to Cleopatra the heretofore masculine prerogatives of the fifth.
In his last moments, the flawed Shakespearean protagonist converts himself into the tragic redeemer by sheer will; whether we call it self-realization or cheering oneself up, his transformation remains solipsistic, its price being death. The final plays enlarge this movement toward salvation by removing the sting: in place of the tragic sacrifice that leaves the world as much impoverished as redeemed, they substitute a promise of cosmic regeneration. Like Rosalind (and all the disguised heroines) a forerunner of the openly magical conciliators led by Prospero, Cleopatra, the first of Shakespeare's characters to be freed from the restraints imposed by the material world, prefigures a great aesthetic shift.15 Nursing the asp, voluptuous even as she prepares to die, Cleopatra assumes a posture that apparently was a medieval emblem of the dull earth.16 Yet at the last this enchanting queen triumphs over physical nature, readjusts the elements themselves, and sublimates herself into fire and air (v.ii.288-89).
Although Cleopatra sits grandly in maternal posture as she dies, performing a rite of translation to a higher realm, a ritual rebirth like that of her gods, this rebirth remains metaphor. Rebirth as miracle and as physical accomplishment becomes the frank subject matter of the last plays, which reinstate maternity as the primal fact that justifies the ways of God to men.17 The late plays confront again the misogynistic fears that cloud the tragedies, but resolve them with their paired mothers and daughters. The victim's death endured by Cordelia and Desdemona is here undergone by Thaisa and Hermione, but only provisionally, while their daughters clarify the merits of the mothers and prepare the repentant husbands and fathers for their return.
Incest, which haunts the fathers in the last plays, is the obverse of misogyny: it reveals the narcissism underlying the vilification of the female that Shakespeare's tragic heroes so arbitrarily indulge in.18 When men revile women, they cry out against their own failures, hating themselves for what women "tempt" them to; women, by contrast, curse men for external, verifiable wrongs against them. Women resent men for oppressing them, while men despise women for reminding them that they are creatures of the flesh. If a man can accept himself in this state, the false reassurance of personal worth that incest seems to promise holds no power over him. Thus, in refraining from the incestuous coupling with his own child, the Shakespearean father reestablishes his own sense of dignity and restraint, so that he once again deserves the company of his wife. This chastening process makes possible in turn the refreshing of the species by the next generation and weds the comic insistence on sheer physical continuity to the tragic achievement of self-purification.
In the tragic heroes, often uneasy about their sexual appetites, there is occasionally an anticipation of the riddle of incest which Pericles dares to understand. Thus the Fool castigates Lear for the obscene reversal of his relationship with his daughters; Hamlet, of course, transfixed by his mother, copes more directly with a confusion of idealism and desire. The women in the tragedies seem often to excite illicit responses, yet even the most treacherous among them do not nourish incestuous longings of their own, perhaps because even the troubled women in Shakespeare accept their bodies' limits and claims more easily than do men. As the heroines in disguise are never physically aggressive, so Lady Macbeth and Volumnia, who might profit from disguise and chafe against the constraints of their womanly roles, personify them in their final appearances. In her nightgown, with her hair loose, Lady Macbeth resembles not only an undisciplined madwoman, but a frightened innocent child, or a seductive unsatisfied wife; she is caught in the web that cripples women in a paternalistic society and is doomed to frustration in any case, for the husband who is neither father nor lover is beyond helping her. More secure in her social niche, more massive in her presence, Volumnia may want her son's opportunities, but not (at least consciously) his body. Indeed, she throws her motherhood up to him almost savagely, equating herself with Mother Rome in an exaltation of the womb to which the bewildered boy-hero can only yield.
The mature heroines of the last plays, on the other hand, represent an ideal, curative maternity. Loved by fathers, husbands, and friends till a great crisis deprives them of all three, in serene self-knowledge they survive, ultimately to be "resurrected," not merely by reproducing themselves, but also by enduring tragic disharmony to emerge the more beautiful for having undergone it. The quasi-religious retirement they enter into does not disqualify them from returning to the living world of bodies. While this movement back into family life recalls the prophetic frame of The Comedy of Errors, only the final romances give us this expansive view of married women. Domesticity in Shakespeare's earlier plays bears out Millamant's sad recognition in The Way of the World that witty ladies dwindle into wives. One thinks, for example, of Kate Percy's carefully rationed outings with a husband she can still charm if only she gets the chance. The full equation of wifehood with heroism begins with All's Well; unfortunately, the Shakespearean husband seems the last to know it.
If Helena in her mysteriously sanctified determination looks forward to the fruition of the maternal type represented by Hermione, Imogen's career explicates the transition from the comedies' resourceful virgins to the romances' beatified mothers. The nineteenth century preferred Imogen to the earlier heroines because her male disguise discomfited her, but if she lacks their high spirits, she has good cause. Even before Posthumus casts her off, in the simple act of marrying him she has set herself within a framework none of the boy-women had to cope with. The tomboy vivacity of the unmarried woman does not become the wife, who has already narrowed her choice of the options that a Rosalind is free to explore. Nevertheless, Imogen's change in clothes prompts her to the insight implicit in Rosalind's and Viola's bemused appreciation of their androgynous powers, as all three learn that being a man is not as easy as it looks. When the disguises donned for protection expose them instead to unexpected danger, the heroines stand their ground as males despite the onrush of that stereotyped "feminine" apprehension with which Shakespeare seems to signal their forthcoming return to their true selves. More sorely tried than Viola faced with a duel or Rosalind with a bloody handkerchief, Imogen more generoysly expresses the sympathy for men that all gain through imposture: "I see a man's life is a tedious one" ( Cymbeline, III.vi.1).
Posthumus, thinking himself betrayed, has sought to eradicate "the woman's part" from his being; Imogen, knowing herself wished dead, worries not only for herself but for the male reputation for honor as well. Throughout these last plays, the tragic predicament afflicts male and female protagonists equally, but the men remain more comfortably self-indulgent in their pain. Here too Shakespeare's works ask more resilience of women, and the women are able to supply it. Thus with marvelously egotistical humility, Posthumus suggests that "every villain / Be call'd Posthumus Leonatus," and keens: "O Imogen! / My queen, my life, my wife, O Imogen, / Imogen, Imogen!" When the disguised Imogen makes so bold as to answer his cry by identifying herself, the hero turns on this impudent "page," furious at the interruption of his showstopping theatrics, and strikes her: "Shall's have a play of this? Thou scornful page, / There lie thy part" (v.v.223-29). This heroine in boy's clothing lacks the power to fascinate a lover that the earlier androgynes enjoy. In his colossal self-absorption, Posthumus typifies the tragic hero, who demands compliant fidelity from women and little more. An extension of her husband rather than an autonomous object of desire, Imogen has chosen her disguise name wisely—Fidele.
As sole heroine of Cymbeline, Imogen combines the roles taken separately by mother and daughter in Pericles and The Winter's Tale. In her supposed death and apparent resurrection, she participates in the miracle experienced by Thaisa and Hermione, but their agony and rebirth more directly exemplify the woman's role as savior of the race through childbirth. Similarly, in the catalog of flowers strewn over her grave, Imogen's correspondence to the filial heroines of the other romances may be remarked. Less assertive than her younger counterparts, Imogen is appropriately the recipient, not the donor, of the bouquet; Marina and Perdita gather their own blossoms. In each case, however, the flowers themselves differ significantly from those connected with women in the tragedies—though events perplex Imogen more than Marina and Perdita, she never lets them defeat her. Thus floral passages in the tragedies are emblems of death and chaos, inventories of willows, nettles, and weeds. The romances offer visions of life-in-death: Marina, the unplucked flower, carpets her nurse's grave with brightly colored blooms; Arviragus sweetens his sister's rest with delicate primroses, antidotes to the wicked Queen's flowerbased poisons. The culmination comes in the long fourth act of The Winter's Tale, which reminds us that spring returns to earth. Tragic soil breeds weeping willows, while tragicomedy regathers the flowers that Proserpina let fall.
The Tempest's island, though fertile with life, is not a horticulturist's dream. Caliban sings of brine pits and bogs; Miranda and Ferdinand play chess rather than dally in gardens. That elusive form, tragicomedy, admits of complication here: critics have long noted the distinction between Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, tragicomedies, however divergent, that share a similar outlook, and The Tempest. For me, the contrast between the first three and the last of the late romances demonstrates succinctly the differences between masculine and feminine in Shakespeare. In telling opposition to the ripe overflow of The Winter's Tale, The Tempest is presided over by a magician adept at careful pruning. The Tempest itself has been similarly cut back. Its confines admit only one female character, Miranda, in whom femininity has been refined to the point of attenuation; herself a wonderer, she is more to be wondered at than understood. The Winter's Tale, in its greater abundance, has room not only for a mother and a daughter, but for a third heroine as well, Paulina, who seals the image of feminine power in the late plays. Like Cerimon, she preserves the maternal heroine, but without recourse to potions and infusions. Though her magic cannot be identified with her fertility, she has been introduced to us as the mother of three girls, sufficient recommendation in a world where boy children die of shock while infant girls survive far worse. Paulina's management remains so mysterious that even the audience wonders at her means, whereas Prospero's plans are engineered in our full view.19The Tempest seems an anomaly among the romances, a masculine stronghold where masques break off abruptly and no statues come to life. Rebirth here seems more a matter of sleight of hand than a dramatic embodiment of humanity's marriage with time. The taboo on premarital sex, an undercurrent throughout these explorations of sensuality's consequences and rewards, becomes the morbid preoccupation of a man who has known temptation, who speaks of contracts and warns of weeds.
Paulina as priestess arranges for Leontes' love to reincarnate his wife, yet she has made no provision for herself. Celia's generous support of the love-elated Rosalind deserves the praise it frequently wins for her, but Paulina seems to me the most selfless of all Shakespeare's women, ruthless in a cause that offers no personal profit whatsoever. In his fury at her persistence, Leontes calls Paulina a "mankind witch" (II.iii.67); the adjective perfectly encapsulates the spirit of The Winter 's Tale, which exorcises the violence of masculine jealousy and redeems it through the kind of patience Penelope achieved. The tragic actor finds correction not in action but in passivity: Leontes has to learn the woman's part, by unknowingly emulating Hermione as if he had tried on a woman's robes, before he can find her again. In fact, the chastened Leontes learns his lesson so well that he works what may be the play's ultimate miracle. Excluded from the marriage circle that traditionally consummates Shakespearean comedy, Paulina prepares like "an old turtle" to fly to "some wither'd bough" (v.iii.132-33) and mourn her widowed state. But in The Winter's Tale turtledoves come in pairs: Leontes gives Paulina's hand to Camillo and bids the young yield pride of place to their elders.
Thus fittingly Paulina once more leads the way, ushering the group out of her chapel back into a world of flux where even withered boughs may bloom anew.
Though another husband can be found for Paulina, no second wife could possibly warm Prospero's remaining years. Weddings in The Tempest rid fathers of fear for their daughters, but discord prevails despite them. The malignity of the flesh evades Prospero's intellectual solutions and spiritual lessons: the matriarchal figure in The Tempest is Sycorax, whose demonic powers and appetites bedevil Prospero in the shape of Caliban, who cannot be reformed. As Pericles and The Winter's Tale expatiate on the romance elements in The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest reaches back to the interlocking politics and witchcraft of the Henry VI trilogy. Female sexuality corrupts in this final statement as in the first; natural impulses must be straitened and rationalized. "Earth's increase" takes the form of a harvest prudently stored in barns and garners. Cupid breaks his arrows as Prospero his staff; masculine potency has limits no fourteen-year-old daughter can restore.20 Prospero's magic exhausts itself: like the tragic hero, he uses himself up. In Shakespeare's world, only the woman, sometimes witch, sometimes saint, sometimes mother, commands the innate energy that renews and revives.
1 The studies of Shakespeare's women by women, like Anna Jameson's Heroines of Shakespeare (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1848) or Mary Cowden Clarke's The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines, 2 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1851), rhapsodize over the heroines. Those by men, and of more recent vintage, prefer the "biographical" approach. See Frank Harris, The Women of Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1911); Wyndham Lewis, The Lion and the Fox (1927; rpt. London: Methuen, 1951), especially on Antony and Cleopatra; Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972).
2 The most complete recent study is J. Leeds Barroll's Artificial Persons: The Formation of Character in the Tragedies of Shakespeare (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1974), which deals almost exclusively with Shakespeare's men. Not surprisingly, writers who discuss the comedies have more to say about the women. I would cite particularly the character analyses resulting from Ralph Berry's assumption that "the behavior of the dramatis personae is, or ought to be, explicable in terms of naturalistic psychology," in Shakespeare's Comedies (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 18, and Hugh M. Richmond's emphasis throughout Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971).
3 See Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975), which stresses the importance of the Puritan, bourgeois background in the formation of the heroines of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
4 This is true of Shakespearean tragedy, but not of the Jacobeans in general, as Webster's Duchess of Malfi emphasizes. But while the later drama uses tragic women, it never allows them the introspective scope of the Shakespearean tragic hero. My general debt to Northrop Frye's treatment of Shakespearean comedy and romance in Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1957) and A Natural Perspective (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965) will be obvious here. See too Dusinberre's comments on women's sense of "the physical process of birth and death," pp. 169-71.
5 Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, however, insists on the "insubordination" implicit in the male disguise in the plays, because she connects it to the seventeenth-century attacks (memorialized by the Hic Mulier-Haec Vir debate) on women who wore men's clothing. See especially pp. 231-44.
6 Cf. the concluding paragraphs of Thomas Greene's "The Flexibility of the Self in Renaissance Literature," in The Disciplines of Criticism, ed. Peter Demetz, Thomas Greene, and Lowry Nelson, Jr. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968). To prove that Shakespeare's plays lack the earlier Humanistic confidence in man's ability to shape himself as he will, Greene distinguishes between "the adroit improviser," including the disguised women and Petruchio, Puck, and Prince Hal in this category, and the tragic heroes, "too stiff to adjust, obstinately and massively embedded in roles which no longer fit," p. 263. I would see a further distinction: disguise is no spontaneous self-extension but a shrewd political tactic for the not-quite-tragic characters like Hal and Edgar. Their early soliloquies announcing disguise unnervingly recall the Machiavel's confidences to the audience, and, again somewhat like the villains (see text below), they seem lesser figures in reaffirming their official selves, Edgar oddly oblivious to the astonishing inner journeys that produced Poor Tom, Hal sadly diminished by his retrenchment into a king.
7 See Maynard Mack's discussion of the hero's "cycle of change" in "The Jacobean Shakespeare," in Jacobean Theatre, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (1960; rpt. New York: Capricorn, 1967), particularly the treatment of madness and the contrast between change in comedy and in tragedy, pp. 33-40.
8 Shakespeare is cited throughout in the Arden texts, as follows: Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. R. Ridley, rev. ed. (London: Methuen, 1954); The Two Gentlemen of Verona, ed. Clifford Leech (London: Methuen, 1969); King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir, rev. ed. (London: Methuen, 1957); Cymbeline, ed. J. M. Nosworthy (London: Methuen, 1955); The Winter's Tale, ed. J. H. P. Pafford (London: Methuen, 1955); As You Like It, ed. Agnes Latham (London: Methuen, 1975).
9 Thomas Kelly says that one reason for the heroines' disguise "is to dramatize the rigidly circumscribed perception of the young men with whom they are paired," in "Shakespeare's Romantic Heroes: Orlando Reconsidered," Shakespeare Quarterly, 24 (1973), 13. The male disguise is in this view a deliberate tactic for keeping the man secondary in comedy.
10 See Rosalie Colie, Shakespeare 's Living Art (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1974) for a discussion of the use of Petrarchan rhetoric in the plays, especially pp. 135-67.
11 In Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), Leo Salingar postulates the existence in the problem plays, among others, of what he calls "the complex of the judge and the nun," a formula whereby a man will be saved from death if a woman is released from a convent, suggestive of a "conflict in [Shakespeare's] mind over the claims of love and the claims of law in Elizabethan society," pp. 311-12. I would stress the importance of the childbearing function: unless women get out of the convent, man will die.
12 See Jan Kott's discussion of androgyny as an image of the vanished Golden Age in "Shakespeare's Bitter Arcadia," in Shakespeare our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday/Anchor, 1966), pp. 287-342.
13 Barroll, Artificial Persons, p. 184.
14 Cf. Richmond's discussion of sexual imbalance in Shakespeare's heroines, passim. Perhaps the first full-scale analyses of the relationship between masculine and feminine in Shakespeare, G. Wilson Knight's essays on Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth in The Imperial Theme (1931; rpt. London: Methuen, 1965) still seem to me among the best. His study of All's Well That Ends Well, "The Third Eye," in The Sovereign Flower (London: Methuen, 1958), pp. 93-160, is also worth considering.
15 Harold C. Goddard speaks of Cleopatra as participating in an "alchemic effect," in The Meaning of Shakespeare, 2 vols. (1951; rpt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), II, 203; while Phyllis Rackin, in "Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature and the Golden World of Poetry," PMLA, 87 (1972), 201-12, sees her as an artist figure. Many have noted, too, the resemblance between Prospero and the powerful comic heroines; see, for example, Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), p. 149 and elsewhere.
16 I am thinking in particular of a set of metalwork figures representing the Four Elements owned by the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich and displayed in New York in 1970. Terra is a woman with a serpent pressed to her breast. See Konrad Hoffmann, The Year 1200: A Centennial Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Studies in Medieval Art (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970), I, 85-87. The serpent at Cleopatra's breast links her as well with the ancient images in which snakes draped around female bodies represent the interrelationship of the male and female principles. See Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, trans. Ralph Manheim, 2d ed., Bollingen Series, 47 (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1963), pp. 185-89, also 153 and plates 55-59.
17 Cf. Neumann, The Great Mother, p. 59: "Whenever we encounter the symbol of rebirth, we have to do with a matriarchal transformation mystery, and this is true even when its symbolism or interpretation bears a patriarchal disguise."
18 As Milton knew when he had Sin recall her incestuous mating with Satan, who first recoiled from her until he saw his "perfect image" in her and conceived Death upon her ( Paradise Lost, II, 759-67).
19 See Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies, pp. 325 ff.
20 Cf. R. E. Gajdusek, "Death, Incest and the Triple Bond in the Later Plays of Shakespeare," American Imago, 31 (1974), 156. This essay, which treats incest as a manifestation of the feminine world that the masculine heroes of the last plays must conquer, notes the phallic symbolism in Prospero's gesture.
Marianne Novy (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Imagery of Gender and Gender Crossing," in Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 188-202.
[In the following excerpt, Novy explores Shakespeare's changing use of gender imagery in his comedies, later tragedies, and romances.]
In an earlier chapter I connected the fact that Shakespeare's female characters were played by males on the Elizabethan stage with affinities between actors and women; now it is time to make explicit the more general analogy that his plays suggest between gender and theatrical role. The kings in Shakespeare were played by commoners; that fact, like the use of boy actors, gave rise both to moralists' complaints about the disorder of the stage and to Shakespeare's dramatization of the theatrical nature of social roles—in this case, of kingship. Just as Shakespeare found his imagination struck by the stage's transformation of subject to king and back again, he seems to have been fascinated by the image of gender as role. In five plays (Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Cymbeline), major female characters pretend to be male; in five other plays, mostly minor male characters briefly pretend to be female (the page in The Taming of the Shrew, Francis Flute in Midsummer Night's Dream, Falstaff and the boys who pretend to be Anne Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the boy actor of the Player Queen in Hamlet, and Ariel in The Tempest). There is, in Antony and Cleopatra, one other lengthy reference to boy actors of female roles. The two most explicit discussions of this practice, conveniently, occur in one early play and one late one, both plays in which the female character's acting is also an explicit theme.
In the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew, the lord directs his page how to take the role of Christopher Sly's wife. The main problem he expects can be solved easily:
if the boy have not a woman's gift
To rain a shower of commanded tears,
An onion will do well for such a shift.
The words of the second passage maintain that it is much more difficult for a boy to act a woman well; but they are spoken by a female character, and in that context suggest Shakespeare's confidence in the best boy actors in his troop and their capacity to gain the audience's belief. When Cleopatra anticipates her capture by Caesar she imagines this humiliation:
I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I'th' posture of a whore.
Here is the suggestion of a specifically female greatness that—contrasted not only to "boy" but also to "whore"—not all women can achieve—and not all boy actors either. The power of these lines onstage—especially on the Elizabethan stage—includes their celebration of the transforming power of the imagination.1 But they also include a celebration of the particular kind of being the actor and the audience's imagination have created—the female Cleopatra. If the play succeeded, at the same time as the Elizabethan audience imagined a boy who could not play Cleopatra, they saw one who could—partly because his creator made him admit onstage that it was more than a matter of smelling onions.
While I am not claiming that Shakespeare at the beginning of his career agreed with the lord in The Taming of the Shrew, I think that the juxtaposition of these passages suggests something—though not all—of the transition in Shakespeare's imagery of gender and gender crossing. But to see the full dimensions of this change we must look also at female characters who disguise themselves as men, at descriptions of characters' behavior as appropriate either to their own gender or to the other, and at the relative symmetry or asymmetry of characters' behavior according to gender within the various genres.2 What I will suggest is that Shakespeare's use of gender and cross-gender imagery changes significantly from the comedies through the tragedies to the romances; my evidence will recapitulate and develop the associations of different gender relations with different and genres that this book has explored. In both the comedies and the romances, the activities of the sexes are generally not as polarized as they are in the tragedies. The tragedies focus much more on ideals of manhood; the romances use cross-gender imagery more often to show men transcending a narrow masculinity, while the comedies use such imagery more often to show women transcending conventional limitations.
For the most part, what most of the lovers do in the comedies is talk about love, whichever gender they are. Unlike the tragedies, these plays are not set in military backgrounds that give the men a different goal. The women hold their own in conversation and are far from being chiefly spectators or assistants to the men. They don their masculine disguises with high spirits, making fun of men's appearances of courage at the same time. Rosalind declares
in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman's fear there will,
We'll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.
Portia similarly promises to
speak of frays
Like a fine bragging youth, and tell quaint lies,
How honorable ladies sought my love. . . .
. . . I have within my mind
A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks.
She implies that the men she imitates also lie and that if a masculine show of courage is a disguise for women, it may also be a disguise for men. Sir Toby makes a related point in advising poor Sir Andrew Aguecheek: "a terrible oath, with a swaggering accent sharply twanged off, gives manhood more approbation than ever proof itself would have earned him" (3.4.166-68).
Men do act violently in some of these comedies, to be sure. Orlando wrestles with Charles and saves his brother by fighting with a lioness. Sebastian fights as Viola—and Andrew—cannot. But these incidents of violence are not the men's main projects during the play, rather responses to tests that they meet. One of Orlando's gestures of violence—drawing his sword to get food—is censured by the gentle and generous exiles who welcome him to their table in the forest. In general, these characters wear their masculinity lightly. Most of them, for example, do not think it should prevent them from weeping. The Duke and Orlando include in their definition of the civilized life "drops that sacred pity hath engend'red" (2.7.123). Even Sebastian, who feels discomfort at being "so near the manners of my mother," weeps at thinking his sister dead, claiming to "drown her remembrance again with more" salt water (2.1.36, 28). For the most part, they are not apt to struggle hard for power. Sebastian submits readily to Olivia, and Orlando is ready to take instructions from Rosalind in her disguise as Ganymede. In the principal exceptions, The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing, the hot temper and ready wit of both man and woman means that in these plays, too, gender difference does not necessitate polarized behavior in the central couple throughout.
Nevertheless, an important scene in Much Ado About Nothing makes more of the relationship of violence to masculinity. "O that I were a man . . .," says Beatrice, "or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake!" (4.1.312-13)—and she wants to be a man specifically to fight a duel with Claudio—or to "eat his heart in the marketplace" (4.1.302). In the same scene she complains about the degeneration of manhood, mocking cowardice and braggardism somewhat as Rosalind and Portia do, but in a very different tone. "But manhood is melted into cursies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it" (4.1.313-16). When she refuses to accept Benedick as her lover until he promises to challenge Claudio to a duel, we approach the tragedies' concern with manhood. But Claudio repents and Benedick never has to fight. And the play offers some other definitions of manhood. Margaret observes that Benedick used to resist love and "now is he become a man" (3.4.78); Benedick describes his wit as "A most manly wit, Margaret: it will not hurt a woman" (5.2.14-15).
In As You Like It, an analogous scene in its dependence on conventions of gender difference in regard to violence is the one in which Oliver tells Rosalind of Orlando's fight with the lioness and then shows her his bloody napkin. Rosalind faints, and tries to cover up: "I pray you tell your brother how well I counterfeited" (4.3.167-68)—pretending to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind. Their dialogue sums up the parallel between female disguise as male and male disguise as brave:
Oliver Well then, take a good heart and counterfeit to be a man.
Rosalind So I do; but, i'faith, I should have been a woman by right.
Has the crisis of Orlando's wound taken the characters to the bedrock of sexual differentiation—to gender as ultimate reality, as Sandra Gilbert identifies the view of the male modernist?3 Or does the imagery that recalls the boy-actor convention remind us that the femininity presented on the Elizabethan stage is always counterfeit? As so often, Shakespeare allows us to have it both ways. Rosalind and the other disguised heroines joke both about how well they pretend—"I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat" (2.4.5-7)—and about their underlying femaleness—"Dost thou think, though I am caparisoned like a man, I have a doublet and hose in my disposition?" (3.2.185-87). What difference does it make that these lines were spoken by Elizabethan boy actors? The first becomes merely a joke about the importance of underlying maleness only to an audience that resists the theatrical illusion and sees actors rather than characters.4 If we see the actoras-character-as-actor—as Rosalind succeeding or failing to play Ganymede—remembering the boy-actor convention adds another dimension of awareness of gender as construction to both jokes. If boys can play women and characters that we think of as women can play boys, this reminds us doubly that gender can be seen as role rather than as biological given.
In the comedies, references to gender transcendence are not only frequent but also generally favorable. Orsino believes Viola/Cesario will be an effective wooer because
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.
Phebe says of Rosalind/Ganymede:
There was a pretty redness in his lip,
A little riper and more lusty red
Than that mixed in his cheek; 'twas just the difference
Betwixt the constant red and mingled damask.
Orlando and Olivia have less detailed speeches of admiration. The only character who finds androgynous figures distasteful is Malvolio, who describes Viola/Cesario thus: "He is very well-favored and he speaks very shrewishly. One would think his mother's milk were scarce out of him" (1.5.153-55). Malvolio seems as disgusted as he is with all disorder.
When we move from the comedies to the tragedies, the role of gender changes. Even in Romeo and Juliet, contemporary to the comedies, the young couple who in their scenes together seem partners in love are dealing with a society more rigid about gender.5 The expected relation of masculinity to violence, femininity to weakness, is crucial to the outcome of the play. Romeo calls his reluctance to fight with Tybalt "effeminate" (3.1.112) and to avenge Mercutio engages in a fight to the death that brings about his banishment. The friar repeatedly uses "womanish" as a synonym for "weak" when speaking to both Juliet (4.1.119) and Romeo (3.3.110), and he encourages Juliet to pretend obedience and death through his potion rather than helping her escape. He chides Romeo for his fury and grief at banishment with an image of androgyne as monster: "Unseemly woman in a seeming man! / And ill-beseeming beast in seeming both!" (3.3.112-13)
Most other male tragic heroes are even more concerned about masculinity. In Hamlet, manhood suggests standards of control and action: Claudius tells Hamlet his grief is unmanly, and Hamlet in his powerlessness to do more than speak compares himself to a whore or a drab. He goes to the duel that will kill him disregarding what he calls "such a kind of gain-giving as would perhaps trouble a woman" (5.2.204-5). The women in the play do not have enough strength to counter his conviction that "Frailty, thy name is woman" (1.2.146). In the military world of Troilus and Cressida, also, women are constantly associated with weakness. Troilus at the beginning calls himself unfit for war because he is "weaker than a woman's tear" (1.1.9). Cressida claims that she would like to transcend conventional female behavior, and in talking about her long attraction to Troilus she says, "I wished myself a man, / Or that we women had men's privilege / Of speaking first" (3.2.120-22). After they are separated, she would like to remain faithful to Troilus, but ultimately she behaves with the weakness expected of her.6 And this reinforces Troilus's determination to seek manhood in violence: "Let's leave the hermit pity with our mother" (5.3.45). Here, as in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, imagery of androgyny is used as an insult rather than with the appreciation of the comedies. As Patroclus says to Achilles:
A woman impudent and mannish grown
Is not more loathed than an effeminate man
In time of action.
Even in Lear, where the hero is not a soldier or bound to revenge, self-definition as masculine is important. "Let not women's weapons, water drops, / Stain my man's cheeks" (2.4.272-73), Lear says, "No, I'll not weep" (278). Yet his experience eventually leads him beyond Troilus's image of manhood, and he learns that he must weep, for "We came crying hither" (4.6.175).
This discovery that one's conception of masculinity is too narrow is a recurrent feature of Shakespearean tragedy, but the heroes usually make it only after their desire to be men has led them to murder. Othello kills Desdemona partly to avoid the pain of doubting her, which leads him to lose control in a way that Iago keeps reminding him is not manly. Macbeth is persuaded to kill Duncan because he believes Lady Macbeth's words: "When you durst do it, then you were a man" (1.7.49). Macbeth feels fear is not manly, yet, having killed Duncan and Banquo, he cannot help fearing Banquo's ghost, and becomes, according to Lady Macbeth, "Quite unmann'd in folly" (3.4.74). To live out his ideal of manhood, he eventually realizes, he has deprived himself of "honor, love, obedience" and friends (5.3.25).
In both of these plays, the hero's violence in defense of his masculinity also contributes to the destruction of his marriage. Different as they are, both Desdemona and Lady Macbeth attempt some kind of partnership with their husbands, some degree of joining in their enterprises, but the enterprises are violent, and in both plays only men can directly commit acts of violence. Othello uses cross-sex imagery of Desdemona—"My fair warrior" (2.1.180)—and she imagines herself as Cassio's "solicitor" (3.3.27) making Othello's bed "a school, his board a shrift" (3.3.24). These images of Desdemona as lawyer, teacher, priest have some of the charm of the cross-sex imagery of the comedies. But Othello cannot see her as partner here—the army is a man's world, not a woman's—and her insistence contributes to provoking him to jealousy.
Macbeth's "dearest partner of greatness" (1.5.10-11) uses more ominous cross-sex imagery of herself. What she wants to gain by transcending her gender is "cruelty" (1.5.41); otherwise the process is subtraction—"Unsex me here" (1.5.39). But her relation to violence is still vicarious; Macbeth praises her courage in terms of her procreative powers:
Bring forth men-children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.
Both of them are trying not to be woman-like, but it is Macbeth who strikes the blow. And his guilt separates them and destroys the relationship that began in partnership.
Antony and Cleopatra contains both of these motifs—a soldier who attempts to maintain his manhood and a woman who attempts partnership with him. But Antony, while he criticizes himself for acting under the influence of "this enchanting queen" (1.2.124), is much less insistent than the other heroes on a narrow conception of masculinity, and Cleopatra has more scope as well. In the eyes of Rome this leads to a confusion of gender as unattractive as in Troilus: Antony
is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he.
Cleopatra, however, finds delight in her memory of playful transvestism:
I drunk him to his bed;
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippan.
When he goes off to fight without her, she arms him and welcomes him in victory, and he calls her "squire" (4.4.14). But as a head of state, she can go further than the other women in accompanying her man in battle:
A charge we bear i'th'war,
And as the president of my kingdom will
Appear there for a man.
Twice Antony loses the battles in which she shares: she flees in the middle of the first, fulfilling the expectation of women's weakness. After the second, her use of pretense—the false message that she is dead—to bring about reconciliation follows the related stereotype of female deviousness.
But at the end, it is Antony who, having decided on suicide, is less skillful at it than his servant Eros. It is Cleopatra who, unlike the other heroines, stages her death scene with care and control, saying, "My resolution's placed, and I have nothing / Of woman in me" (5.2.238-39). But as death approaches, her words acknowledge her femaleness. By her death she will claim true partnership with Antony: "Husband, I come: / Now to that name my courage prove my title!" (5.2.286-87). She dies combining a call to Antony with words imagining a baby at her breast, and thus she affirms her gender while finally transcending the image of feminine weakness.
If several of the romantic comedies show women pretending playfully to be men for a time and many of the tragedies show men more seriously attempting to play the masculine role as they see it, in the romances playing the man is less important or means something different. . . . [Romance] heroes can take on occupations usually held by women and compare themselves to women without the anguish such imagery usually gives the tragic heroes.
In general, the cross-gender imagery in the romances emphasizes the primacy of generativity over aggression. Imogen's assumption of masculine disguise, for example, does not lead her to mockery of male assertiveness as it does the earlier disguised women; rather, she observes after a while, "I see a man's life is a tedious one" (3.6.1). Thus it is not so different from the female experience of pregnancy to which she has earlier compared her waiting: "Ne'er longed my mother so / To see me first as I have now" (3.4.2-3). When Leontes uses cross-gender imagery against Paulina, calling her "A mankind witch" (2.3.67), she has occasioned it not by her participation in war or violence but by her assertions in defense of a baby's parentage.
Among the young lovers in the romances, as in the comedies, the genders are not polarized in their activities. But as in the tragedies, partnership in one sphere—love—is balanced against another sphere where one sex has primacy over the other. In the tragedies that other sphere is violence, where men have primacy; in the romances it is the sphere of procreation, where in imagery women have primacy, and, as we have seen, a father can express his joy at finding his children by comparing himself to a mother (Cymbeline, 5.5.368-70). But while in the tragedies the attempts of both sexes to live by ideals of violence is disastrous, in the romances the assimilation by men of the values of generativity leads to the final harmony.
In the tragedies, and to some extent even in the comedies, "woman" seems to be associated with qualities—emotions, fears—one has against one's will, and "man" with a preferable mode of existence. Men are exhorted to be men, and women, playfully or seriously, often attempt to imitate male behavior. The reverse is much less often true. One of the few occasions where a character is told to be a woman still shows the relative rank given to the sexes. Angelo, attempting to seduce Isabella, says, "Be that you are, / That is, a woman; if you be more, you're none" (2.4.134-35). Both women and men often say they have too much of woman-like qualities in them; only Kent admits that he "Having more man than wit about me, drew" (2.4.41), and it is more a boast than a confession. The imagery of the romances is the most significant exception to the rule that Shakespeare's male characters identify themselves with women only in embarrassment, farce, or plays within the play.7
Some of the associations I have been developing may make the Elizabethan convention of boy actors understandable on another level. If manhood is a condition that males can achieve, then the sexes begin in a similar state. Boys and women are linked together and opposed to men: actors can be, as Rosalind playing Ganymede tells Orlando that she can be, playing Rosalind, "for every passion something and for no passion truly anything, as boys and women are for the most part cattle of this color" (3.2.387-89). This viewpoint runs interestingly parallel to that of contemporary psychologists who suggest that all children begin with an identification with their mother—or primary caretaker, almost always female—which typical socialization pressures boys to reject.8 But as we noted in an earlier chapter, boys who become actors are more likely to have kept some of this identification, and this prepares for their ease in later identifying with the characters they play.9 If this is true of contemporary males who act male roles, it is even more plausible for males who acted female roles.
These connections make an interesting background for the transitions in Shakespeare's use of cross-sex imagery. In the comedies and the tragedies, the use of boy actors to play women parallels the conventional classification of both groups as emotional and immature by comparison to men; when they show control and maturity we have the sense of their resourcefulness in rising above their limitations. But in the romances the male characters who compare themselves to women suggest the possibility of a different meaning for the boy actor of female characters: playing women can itself be maturing, whether in him or in the incorporation of nurturing and generative qualities, considered feminine, by characters like Cymbeline, Belarius, Pericles, Leontes, and Prospero.
Many different cultures have barred women from the theatrical profession and accepted males in female roles onstage: classical Greek and Japanese Noh drama are similar to Elizabethan in this respect, though their styles are more formal and their male actors are adult.10 In Greek drama, at least, the cross-gender imagery tends to be like that of Shakespearean tragedy, which criticizes men for acting like women and—occasionally and ambivalently—praises women for acting like men. But these other theaters do not portray female characters in male disguise anywhere nearly as often as Shakespeare does, nor, so far as I know, do they use imagery of femaleness positively as Shakespeare does in the romances, though this would be interesting to explore further. These contrasts help reinforce the point that Shakespeare's use of cross-gender images, visual and verbal, cannot come simply from the requirements of stage conditions. Rather, I believe it results from Shakespeare's ability to see through the limitations of conventional gender expectations. In the comedies the disguised heroines reflect his understanding of women's wish to transcend the roles they are customarily expected to play. But in the tragedies he explores in even more depth the destructiveness of conventional gender expectations for men if carried to the extreme. Perhaps this led him to the new appreciation that the romances show of specifically female experiences of childbearing, pregnancy, and nursing, and of masculine participation in the realm of generativity and nurturing.
Keats wrote, "Shakespear led a life of allegory: his works are the comments on it."11 Shakespeare's first grandchild was born in 1608, just before he wrote Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest; that biographical fact by itself might not have led him to the emphasis on adults' relationships with children in these plays, but the birth seems to have coincided with a point in his playwriting career when his exploration of human experiences had led him to start looking at these relationships with new interest.12 In play after play, he had treated adults' relations with other adults, including their parents (most notably, it seems, Hamlet in 1601, the year his father died, and Coriolanus in 1607, when his mother died). Anachronistic though it may sound, the tragedies, especially Coriolanus and Macbeth, include a sense of the inadequacy of the pursuit of power. Such an attitude would make a plausible motivation for a wish to turn to relationships with children and an increased interest in forgiveness between adults. With our hindsight, we can wonder how much this thematic shift found its inevitable completion in his return to his home in Stratford.
When I began this book, I was interested in how Shakespeare's comedies had, however unprogrammatically and ambivalently, anticipated feminist concerns with freeing women from conventions. Now I see how the tragedies and romances are relevant to recent re-analyses of masculinity and to the public rediscovery of parenthood in 1980s America. A few years ago a critic who had recently had a serious eye operation called attention to the eyes of the actors in the Kozintzev film of Lear. His own experience had made him especially interested in eyes, but such a concern is clearly relevant to a play in which one character is blinded and all characters use sight imagery. Similarly, I believe that concerns about relations between the sexes are demonstrably present in Shakespeare's plays and that feminist theory's refusal to take those relations for granted helps analyze the plays. My point is not to suggest that Shakespeare transcended his time enough to foresee everything, but rather to emphasize the variety and complexity of human relationships and attitudes his plays explore. He could imagine attachments between the sexes and between members of the same sex, across generations and between peers. He was writing—as he lived through his twenties, thirties, and forties—for a divided audience, and he understood its divisions intimately; he could probably see in himself both the appeal of mutuality and the appeal of patriarchy, both the desire to express emotions openly and the desire to control expressions of emotions. He used the potential of the theater to personify opposite attitudes and play them off against each other. This dramatic use of ambivalence gives as good an illusion of presenting all sides of human relationships as our theatrical heritage so far possesses.
1 See Phyllis Rackin, "Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry," Publications of the Modern Language Association 87 (1972): 201-12.
2 Some general studies of the issues discussed here are Carolyn Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (New York: Harper and Row, 1973); and Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975).
3 Sandra Gilbert, "Costumes of the Mind: Transvestism as Metaphor in Modern Literature," Critical Inquiry 7 (Winter 1980): 394.
4 See Michael Jamieson, "Shakespeare's Celibate Stage," in The Seventeenth-Century Stage, ed. G. E. Bentley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 86, reprinted from Papers Mainly Shakespearian, ed. G. I. Duthie (London: University of Aberdeen Press, 1964).
5 See Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 82-103.
6 See Gayle Greene, "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), pp. 133-49.
7 However, characters from Holofernes to Iago imagine their brains as pregnant. See Elizabeth Sacks, Shakespeare 's Images of Pregnancy (New York: St. Martin's, 1980).
8 See Robert Stoller, "Facts and Fancies: An Examination of Freud's Concept of Bisexuality," in Women and Analysis, ed. Jean Strouse (New York: Dell, 1975), pp. 403-11.
9 Philip Weissman, Creativity in the Theater (New York: Basic Books, 1965), pp. 13-14.
10 I am indebted to my colleague Mae Smethurst, who is working on a comparison between classical Greek and Japanese Noh drama, for information in this area.
11 John Keats, Selected Poems and Letters, ed. Douglas Bush (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), p. 284.
12 The fact that the King's Men bought the Blackfriars Theater in 1608 seems unlikely to account for this thematic aspect of the romances; coterie dramaturgy included few representations of childhood.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15756
Linda Bamber (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "The Comic Heroine and the Avoidance of Choice," in Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare, Stanford University Press, 1982, pp. 109-34.
[In the following essay, Bamber studies the role of the feminine "other" in Shakespeare's comedies as a figure that avoids change, development, and decisionmaking. ]
In Shakespeare's comedies, and only in the comedies, we see the feminine Other face to face. In the tragedies we respond to the women characters very largely on the basis of our interest in the hero; our vision of the feminine is mediated by our desires on behalf of the men. Our strongest feelings for Cordelia, for instance, come when we see her feelings for Lear; Cleopatra, for another instance, is never quite free from our hopes of her on Antony's behalf. In the histories we see the feminine primarily in relation to the masculine struggle for power. In the romances the loss and recovery of the feminine is experienced through our sympathy with the male Self who has lost and found his feminine Other. Miranda and Marina are most moving as figures that may be lost to Prospero and Pericles; Hermione is most important as a figure who may be lost and found by Leontes. But our response to the comic heroine is direct and unmediated by her father, lover, or husband. We do not judge Rosalind by her loyalty to Duke Senior; Viola does not move us by being restored to Sebastian; Portia's fidelity to Bassanio is not what impresses us about her. The interest we feel in these heroines is in an Other quite apart from her relationship to the desires of the Self—which is to say, apart from the fact of masculine unfulfillment. In comedy we are always sure of getting what we want, so masculine unfulfillment does not shape our response to the Other. In every other genre, it does.
The closest we come in the comedies to judging a woman by her loyalty to a man is in Act HI, scene i, of The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock hears that Jessica has traded his ring for a monkey. He cries,
Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.
Shylock, of course, is the closest thing to a tragic Self in all of the comedies; just as we have in him a glimpse of the tragic hero's rage and grandeur, so we also have a hint of the hero's tendency to deflect our feelings toward the feminine. If we dwell on this passage we may feel some of Shylock's anger at his daughter. But only if we dwell on it. In context it is so thoroughly surrounded with reminders of Shylock's hatefulness that we scarcely have time, when Shylock makes this appeal, to respond. Earlier in the scene Shylock revolts us by wishing Jessica dead with "the jewels in her ear .. . the ducats in her coffin!" On learning that Antonio will go bankrupt, he gloats, "I am very glad of it. I'll plague him; I'll torture him. I am glad of it." Then come the touching lines about his ring; but immediately afterwards his attention returns most unpleasantly to Antonio: "I will have the heart of him if he forfeit, for were he out of Venice I can make what merchandise I will." Shylock is so completely our antagonist that it is all we can do to notice his personal feelings in this scene. They scarcely have the power to turn us against Jessica.
In this scene we have a glimpse of masculine unfulfillment; but for the most part the comedies absorb masculine desire into what Charles Frey defines simply as "a sense of humor": "a sense of proportion and propitiation celebrating the huge ongoingness of lite."1 In the tragedies, where unfulfillment is rampant and life may end abruptly, the feminine Other is the object of intense suspicion; in the comedies, where life goes on and on, eventually giving us much of what we want, the feminine is treated to almost perfect trust. It is true that the comedies exhibit a continuous low-grade anxiety about cuckoldry, located mostly in the margins of the drama, in jokes and songs. But since the anxiety almost never focuses on a particular woman, it seems free-floating and unrelated to its ostensible object. Fear of cuckoldry seems to stand for a general discontent; it is the fly in the onitment, the uneasiness that keeps us from full enjoyment of the gifts of the earth. This is certainly its function in the final song of Love 's Labour's Lost, "The Owl and the Cuckoo." Here the threat of cuckoldry spoils the perfect spring:
When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he, "Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
Clearly the cuckoo's song does not speak ill of the women in this play, Rosalind and her ladies; it speaks of sexual anxiety per se and of the self-preoccupation that spoils nature for us. In Much Ado About Nothing, the only play in which a woman's virtue is in question, the cuckoldry jokes seem more substantial than elsewhere, more indicative of a possible Woman Problem. But Benedick comes to see his own fear of cuckoldry as one of the little disturbances of man; he plans to live with it rather than allow it to dominate his life. "Prince," he cries at the end of the play, "thou art sad. Get thee a wife, get thee a wife! There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn" (V.iv.122-24). Benedick refuses sadness and accepts his own anxiety as nothing more serious than a limitation on his pleasures.
If Lear's speech beginning "Down from the waist they are Centaurs" is the classic example of sexual anxiety in the tragedies, Bottom's comment on the song he sings to cheer himself up is the classic response to sexual anxiety in the comedies:
The finch, the sparrow, and the lark,
The plain-song cuckoo gray,
Whose note full many a man doth mark,
And dares not answer nay—
for, indeed, who would set his wit to so foolish a bird? Who would give a bird the lie, though he cry "cuckoo" never so?
(A Midsummer Night's Dream, III.i.129-35)
Bottom does not even realize what the song of the cuckoo means, and he feels a certain superiority to those who would converse with winged creatures. To worry about sexual betrayal in the comedies is to box with shadows, to talk to birds. The anxiety is there in the culture, identifiable in songs such as Bottom sings; but it need not affect our relations with the particular Other, the woman in question, who is without exception chaste, faithful, good.
Shakespeare's attitude toward women in the comedies is irreconcilable with the misogynist rage Fiedler discovers in the tragedies. In the comedies, Fiedler says, Shakespeare's hatred of women is concealed by the conventions of the genre.2 But if we compare Shakespeare's comedies to their sources or to the comedies his contemporaries were writing, it becomes clear that Shakespeare's attitude here is not conventional at all but quite particularly good-humored. Every change from the source is a change away from ambiguity and toward a feminine chastity that can be taken for granted.
Good humor toward the feminine in the comedies is part of a more general good humor toward the general conditions of life. When Parolles complains to Lafew, "I am a man whom Fortune hath cruelly scratched," Lafew asks him, "Wherein have you played the knave with Fortune that she would scratch you, who of herself is a good lady .. . ?" (All's Well That Ends Well, V.ii.26-31). In the comedies Lady Fortune smiles down like the noonday sun, casting no shadows onto the feminine Other who so often represents her in Shake speare's drama. When Orlando is invited to "sit down with me and . . . rail against our mistress the world," he firmly refuses: "I will chide no breather in the world but myself, against whom I know most faults" (As You Like It, III.ii.277-81). There is no call to rail against one's mistress the world, and there is no call to rail against one's mistress. In comedy both will be true.
The psychosexual confidence of the comedies, however, is no more to be identified with Shakespeare himself than the psychosexual doubt of the tragedies. His confidence, like his doubt, is a matter of genre. In the tragedies anxiety develops because the feminine Other, like the masculine Self, is forced to make choices, and these choices may go against the hero. In the comedies, however, choice is almost unnecessary. The comic world is frankly controlled and unified by its creator; it is a world of "both/and" rather than of "either/or," as in tragedy. Our confidence in the feminine Other is partly the effect of the world she lives in, a world in which we need not fear her choices because no choices confront her. Consider, for instance, Shakespeare's favorite love triangle, the constellation of father, daughter, and prospective son-in-law. In the tragedies the women are forced to make a choice between the father and the lover; in the comedies the choice is almost always avoided. The distinction is worth developing at some length.
In Othello and King Lear, Desdemona and Cordelia must explain to their fathers, however gently and reasonably, that they can no longer expect the best of their daughters' love. Desdemona tells Brabantio,
You are the lord of duty,
I am hitherto your daughter. But here's my husband,
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.
And Cordelia tells Lear,
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
Cordelia's choice is the epitome of all those motions by which the universe lets us know that we are not central to its concerns. What happens in King Lear, including Cordelia's own death, all follows from Lear's perception that he does not matter to Cordelia as she matters to herself—and, of course, from his recognition that he matters not at all to her sisters.
In Othello as in King Lear the situation requires the feminine Other to choose, and Desdemona's choice is orchestrated by Iago into a prototype of sexual betrayal. He tells Othello, "she did deceive her father, marrying you" (III.iii.206), implying that Desdemona is ipso facto a practiced adulteress. And Brabantio himself sounds the same note:
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
Leslie Fiedler, discussing the resemblance of Act I to the boy-gets-girl plot of New Comedy, comments as follows on this theme:
For marriage to occur, a girl must abandon her father, and that abandonment necessarily implies revealing capacities for deceiving men which terrify her husband forever, making assurance in marriage impossible. Behind the conventional happy ending of New Comedy, therefore, lies a potential disillusion which the genre itself cannot contain, yielding to farce when the consequence is cuckoldry, tolerated or ignored, and to tragedy when it is adultery, discovered and bloodily revenged.3
In Othello, of course, the disillusion is itself an illusion and adultery is bloodily revenged without ever having been discovered. There is something ludicrous about Fielder's paradox, that marriage is in itself proof of the wife's "capacities for deceiving men"; but in Othello jealousy is ludicrous as well as tragic. As Stanley Cavell has noticed,4 Desdemona is victimized merely for being a choice-making creature, merely for having the sexuality on which to base her choices, merely for choosing Othello himself. It is her choice of Othello that teaches him that she is capable of choice and therefore capable of choosing someone else.
The choices that Desdemona and Cordelia make are so natural in Shakespeare as to amount to a female rite of passage; and yet even so they bring on tragedy. The choices of other women in the tragedies are much more problematic. Gertrude, Ophelia, Cleopatra, and Cressida make choices whose outcome is much less predictable and may be much less acceptable to us. In Troilus and Cressida, Cressida's choice is Troilus's tragedy. In tragedy the best and the worst of women will make their choices, and the feminine itself is therefore cause for alarm.
But in the comedies, the women tend to avoid making choices. If a father opposes a daughter's marriage at the beginning of the play, he is sure to come around by the end. Two examples are Aegeus in A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Duke of Milan in Two Gentlemen of Verona, (It is not true, of course, in Romeo and Juliet, where Capulet's coming around would be sufficient to turn this tragedy into comedy.) Often in comedy there is no father to be hurt by the daughter's marriage: in Twelfth Night, for instance, there is a brother instead of a father; far from betraying Sebastian, as the daughters betray the fathers, Viola provides him with a wife. But the perfect contrast to Othello and King Lear is As You Like It, where the sexual tensions in the father-daughter theme are nothing but an occasion for jokes and flourishes. When Celia mentions "the duke your father," Rosalind asks, "But what talk we of fathers when there is such a man as Orlando?" (III.iv.36-37). Rosalind's cheerful self-irony would be impossible if she were actually forced to choose between the two. These words would be impossible from women who live in a tragic universe; Desdemona and Cordelia must be deeply serious about the essentially ordinary business of leaving home. For them, everything is charged. But Rosalind need feel no conflict between being a daughter and being a lover. In Act V she explicitly flaunts her freedom from the double bind that ruins Desdemona:
(To Duke) To you I give myself, for I am yours.
(To Orlando) To you I give myself, for I am yours.
And the men respond obediently,
Duke Senior If there be truth in sight, you are my daughter.
Orlando If there be truth in sight, you are my Rosalind.
In the comic universe the comic heroine need not choose between men; she is therefore without terrors for the masculine Self. There are two exceptions to this rule: in Much Ado About Nothing there is a moment when sexual tensions arise between Hero and Leonato; and in The Merchant of Venice, of course, Jessica betrays Shylock. Both exceptions are worth pausing over.
In Much Ado About Nothing, Don John, informing Claudio of Hero's betrayal, calls her "Leonato's Hero, your Hero, every man's Hero" (III.ii.101-2). Here the prior possession of the girl by her father is a kind of rhetorical advantage to her slanderer: because Don John can name two men who have "had" Hero, the phrase "every man's Hero" seems to confirm, not just to introduce, the idea of her duplicity. And Leonato, hearing her slandered, certainly falls into a frenzy of injured possessiveness. Clearly he takes her alleged betrayal of Claudio as a betrayal of himself as well. The following speech, with its obsessive repetition of the word "mine," is more appropriate to a cuckolded husband than to a father.
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar's issue at my gates,
Who smirched thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said, "No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins"?
But mine, and mine I loved, and mine I praised,
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her.
Leonato here recalls Brabantio, and Shakespeare is hinting at the theme of the betrayed father. But whereas Brabantio feels betrayed by Desdemona's marriage, Leonato feels betrayed by Hero's failure to marry. Her sexuality is not in itself the problem; only its supposed unlawfulness is cause for alarm. In any case he soon announces, "My soul doth tell me Hero is belied" (V.i.42), and from then on he takes her part. His pride of possession works in favor of his daughter's marriage; Brabantio's claim on Desdemona requires her to choose between himself and her husband.
The one woman in the comedies whose marriage actually does involve a betrayal of her father is Jessica. Two things, however, distinguish her choice from that of the women in the tragedies: first, it is so lightheartedly made that we hardly perceive it as a choice; and second, Shylock is such a villain that we rarely take his feelings into account. The following exchange is illustrative of both Jessica's insouciance and the general assumption in The Merchant of Venice that Shylock is a dreadful person:
Launcelot . . . look you, the sins of the
father are to be laid upon the children. . . .
you may partly hope that your father got
you not—that you are not the Jew's
Jessica That were a kind of bastard hope
indeed! So the sins of my mother should be
visited upon me.
Launcelot Truly then, I fear you are damned
both by father and mother. Thus when I
shun Scylla your father, I fall into
Charybdis your mother. Well, you are gone
In this fantasy the betrayal of Shylock is pushed back a generation from Jessica to her mother; Jessica is thoroughly justified in her desertion of her father; and the whole issue is cheerfully dismissed in Jessica's last remark: "I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian" (III.v.19-20). In this exchange heavy themes are orchestrated very lightly; salvation and damnation are subjects for witty repartee. Similarly, the theme of the betrayed father is so lightheartedly developed as to defuse anxieties even as it provokes them.
Furthermore, Shylock and Jessica are not the only father and daughter in the play. They are only the father and daughter appropriate to Venice, to realism, to the world of hard choices. The late Duke of Belmont and Portia present the Belmont version of the father-daughter theme. Portia's father has left a will that would seem to require her to choose between love and family loyalty. But whereas Jessica actually makes such a choice, Portia is spared the trouble of doing so. Her will happens to coincide with the terms of her father's will. In Belmont Fiedler's paradox does not apply, and Belmont has the last word in this play. Jessica's betrayal of Shylock is balanced by the happy outcome of Portia's obedience to her father's will.
How are we to understand the feminine avoidance of choice in Shakespeare's comedies? On the one hand it may seem to depotentiate the women; the comic heroine may seem a masculine wish-fulfillment, an Other who may be loved at no risk to the Self. But on the other hand, the avoidance of choice is a positive gift and a comic prerogative. In the world of comedy the barriers are lowered between our alternatives, and it is the characters who take advantage of the situation that appeal to us most. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance, the barrier is temporarily lowered between the world of reality and the world of the imagination. Bottom appeals to us because he moves with such aplomb between the real and the fantastic, stepping over the barriers as if they were not there. This is what we long to do in comedy: not to choose between competing worlds but to move between them with Bottom's stupendous calm. In tragedy, of course, the situation is different. In tragedy our alternatives are mutually exclusive, and characters who refuse to choose between them write themselves out of the story. Octavia and Ophelia, for instance, are much reduced by their failures to choose between men—Antony and Caesar in Octavia's case, and Hamlet and Polonius in Ophelia's. In tragedy we reserve our administration for those who face their choices squarely, like Cordelia and Desdemona. But in comedy we are attracted to characters who minister to our sense of freedom from choice, and it is no coincidence that these characters are often women. It is the feminine Other who is most at home in the alternative world; the male Self, as we shall see, is less than brilliant in this setting. Bottom is an exception, a male character whose presence dissolves all oppositions; but Bottom is hardly a male Self. His unconsciousness (not to say stupidity) makes him Other to the reader just as his lack of social status makes him Other to the Athenian lovers. When the feminine Other represents the avoidance of choice she does so more consciously than Bottom—although not necessarily more appealingly.
In The Merchant of Venice, for instance, Portia spares us the choice between love and law, Belmont and Venice, stepping Bottomlike over the barriers between the two worlds. Just as Bottom goes from being a real tinker to being an imaginary ass-headed creature, Portia goes from being a Belmont heiress to being a Venetian judge. But Bottom is at home in the world of the fantastic because he refuses to dwell on its differences from ordinary life. Portia, on the other hand, is at home in Venice because she knows exactly what the differences are between this public world and the world she has come from. She is perfectly conscious of the choices that face us in this play; she is merely confident that they need not be made.
In this play, general philosophical choices arise from specific choices made by the male hero, Bassanio. Bassanio is faced with a conflict between his concern for his friend and his own desire to marry Portia. He chooses Portia, allows Antonio to become bound to Shylock, and is about to suffer the consequences when Portia sweeps into Venice and saves him from them. At the same time she saves us from the philosophical choice between love and law. Because of her, we do not have to choose between our desire for social order and our desire to see our representative excused from society's bargains. On the one hand,
The duke cannot deny the course of law;
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.
In other words, it will be bad for business, bad for all our business, if Antonio is let off from his bond. But on the other hand, Antonio is a good man, a dear friend, and does not deserve to die at Shylock's hands. The conflict is absolute; when Portia arrives from Belmont it simply melts away. The course of law is upheld and Antonio is saved; because of the comic heroine we can have things both ways.
In Shakespearean comedy the successful avoidance of choice is a feminine prerogative, and the men are burdened with a graceless tendency to choose. During Antonio's trial, for instance, Bassanio blunders into this strange speech:
Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife, and all the world
Are not with me esteemed above thy life.
I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all,
Here to this devil, to deliver you.
In a passion to show his friendship for Antonio, Bassanio offers up his love for Portia, gratuitously creating a conflict between the two. No one has demanded the sacrifice of Portia, nor is it clear how it could possibly be of any help. Portia, in disguise as Bellario, is understandably annoyed to hear her husband say these lines. She tells him coolly, "Your wife would give you little thanks for that/If she were by to hear you make the offer." In mock revenge, Portia later pretends to have sacrificed Bassanio to a figure from his own public life: "Pardon me, Bassanio, / For by this ring the doctor lay with me" (V.i.258-59). Of course, Portia herself is the "doctor." As Bellario she demands the ring from Bassanio; as Portia she produces the ring to prove her own infidelity. The point is Bassanio's failure to be two things at once as Portia has been. Since he has betrayed her by choosing between love and friendship, she pretends to have betrayed him by choosing between men. The contrast is striking between the two characters at this moment. Bassanio seems heavy, puzzled, slightly unfit for the world of comedy; he has chosen Portia over Antonio, Antonio over Portia, and now he wants Portia again. Each time he has clumsily identified himself with a single desire. Portia, on the other hand, is talented and desirous as both a woman and a man, Bassanio's wife and, as it were, his lawyer. It is the feminine Other who can avoid choice in comedy, who can perform alternative identities, who can move gracefully between worlds that the hero finds mutually exclusive. The male Self seems tainted in the world of comedy by the lingering necessity to choose. He expects to be one thing only, like a tragic hero; in comedy we are blessedly free to be this and then that, or both at once.
In the courtroom scene, Bassanio fabricates a conflict where none exists; but the comic hero's choice is not always unnecessary. The typical choice faced by the hero in comedy is the one between love and friendship, between a woman and a man. But with the exception of A Midsummer Night's Dream, no play deals with a conflict for women between friendship and love. The final word on female friendship comes in The Merry Wives of Windsor when Mr. Ford derides the intimacy between Mrs. Page and his wife. Mr. Ford tells Mrs. Page, "I think if your husbands were dead, you two would marry," and Mrs. Page snaps back, "Be sure of that—two other husbands" (III.ii.13-15). Marriage is marriage; friendship is friendship. The feminine Other is confident she may simultaneously enjoy relationships that may be mutually exclusive for the male Self.
The exclusion of the masculine from the privileges of comedy is clearest in Much Ado About Nothing. Here Shakespeare develops his best and blithest comic hero; and yet Benedick's freedom from choice is heavily qualified. There are two sides to Benedick. On the one hand he is an individual male; on the other hand he is the male half of a couple. The couple is analogous to a comic heroine: Beatrice-and-Benedick both mock love and experience it, are self-aware but capable of spontaneity. Of course, they must be tricked into their spontaneous emotions; their friends must bring about the change in them from confirmed-bachelor-and-spinster to happily-engaged-couple. But Benedick-and-Beatrice, unlike the tragic Self, accept the change without a sense of lost identity. Benedick finally refuses the choice between the old self and the new, distancing himself like a comic heroine from all his roles even as he plays them:
In brief, since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it; and therefore never flout at me for what I have said against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion. For thy part, Claudio, I did think to have beaten thee; but in that thou art like to be my kinsman, live unbruised, and love my cousin.
The high-spirited self-consciousness of this passage allies Beatrice-and-Benedick with Rosalind and the other quick-change artists. But the circumstances of the play force Benedick into a choice from which detachment and high spirits cannot rescue him. The men in the play are confronted by a discrepancy between the illusion of Hero's infidelity and the reality of her love; like Antony and Othello they must choose between a woman and the world of men by whom she is condemned. Claudio chooses the old world of male solidarity; his friendship with Don Pedro teaches him to trust Don John instead of Hero. But Benedick, like Antony, chooses on the basis of his relationship to a woman, even though it costs him his place in the world of men to do so. He decides to defend Hero on the basis of his love for Beatrice. We are more sympathetic to Benedick's choice than to Claudio's because, of course, Don Pedro is wrong about Hero and Beatrice is right. But in the crucial scene where Benedick is persuaded, Beatrice is certainly less attractive than Don Pedro, who after all has been acting in good faith. In Act IV, scene i, Beatrice's good faith is sunk in her anger. "Kill Claudio," she tells Benedick, adding, "O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place!" (IV.i.288, 305-6) Her sudden spitefulness taints Benedick's choice almost as badly as Don Pedro's mistake taints Claudio's. If Benedick is seen as the central character of the play, it shapes itself into a version of tragedy, not into comedy. Of course, it is a much softer version of the tragic pattern. Benedick makes his impossible choice early and easily; he makes it, moreover, in the scene after Dogberry and Verges make their first attempt to explain the whole situation to Leonato, and this attempt on their part is our promise of a happy ending. Shakespeare can allow Benedick to agree, after only thirty lines of discussion, to fight his best friend because we all know it will never come to that: the world of this play is simply too safe. But Benedick's most important gesture as an individual has been to make a choice; and choice itself belongs to the tragic world of realism. It is only as the male half of Beatrice-and-Benedick that Benedick is a comic figure. Beatrice, of course, never faces the kind of choice that compromises Benedick's comic freedom. Like Emilia in Othello, she acts out of absolute belief in the woman's innocence. She is guided by the truth, whereas the men must make choices in the absence of certainty.
The avoidance of choice is at the heart of Shakespearean comedy; the very genre can be defined in these terms. Shakespearean comedy avoids not only the choice between the philosophical options within the plays; it avoids the fundamental dramatic choice between realism and convention, between moral fiction and pure pattern-making. Fully to understand the importance of the feminine Other in comedy we must understand that her prerogatives here are those of the playwright himself. I want to define Shakespearean comedy in terms of the choice it avoids between serious meaning and frivolousness; and then I shall offer a reading of "The Owl and the Cuckoo" as an epitome of the gesture of avoidance the playwright makes in all these plays.
Literary critics tend to write about the comedies as if they were realistic fiction in which moral truths emerge from conflict. And so they do. But although the emergence of truth from conflict may be a primary process in the tragedies, it never is in the comedies. This is clear if we compare, for instance, Twelfth Night to Hamlet. Hamlet can be seen as a competition between equally valid principles and its resolution as the resolution of the struggle. We may define these principles as consciousness versus activity, or inner life versus public honor, or however we wish. In Twelfth Night, by contrast, the competition between "pleasure" and "reality" does not define the architecture of the play. At the end of the play the right relationship is established between the two principles; the limits of indulgence have been reached, Sir Toby is beaten, and a priest introduces some institutional order into the general flux of romantic emotions. Furthermore, the conflict is resolved between Malvolio and everyone else. The final order arises from the merrymaking and lovemaking instead of in opposition to it. But this resolution is by no means the resolution to the play as a whole. For the play as a whole is only loosely identified with its central conflict. The ending of Twelfth Night depends at least as much upon the completion of ritual and the removal of disguise as it does on moral cadences like the chastening of Sir Toby and the expulsion of Malvolio. There are resolutions to moralrealistic problems in Shakespearean comedy, but to make these resolutions and the process of arriving at them the primary point of the comedies is to attach too great an importance to the conflicts that make them necessary. Conflict in Shakespearean comedy is often simply dismissed, as it is in the song that closes Twelfth Night. This song tells a sad story of life's difficulties and losses but ends with a lighthearted refusal of responsibility:
A great while ago the world begun,
Hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.
Whatever conflicts are at issue here are flicked away by the insouciant singer, who refuses to take things seriously and warns us not to either.
In A Natural Perspective, Northrop Frye advises us not to look for moral realism in the comedies. Only tragedy, he says, will satisfy those who believe that "literature's essential function is to illuminate something about life, or reality, or experience, or whatever we call the immediate world outside literature." These people "tend . . . to think of literature, taken as a whole, as a vast imaginative allegory, the end of which is a deeper understanding of the nonliterary center of experience." Comedy, on the other hand, attracts critics like himself: "In comedy and romance the story seeks its own end instead of holding the mirror up to nature. Consequently comedy and romance are so obviously conventionalized that a serious interest in them soon leads to an interest in convention itself."5
An emphasis on convention is certainly a logical consequence of the comic vision: the conventional plot emphasizes the ease with which the author will bring about the happy ending. The relationship between convention and comedy holds true even at the level of theatrical convention; in realistic drama theatrical conventions are used to save space, whereas in the comedies they are valued for themselves. For instance, eavesdropping in realistic drama may be a way for the characters to learn what the play requires them to know; in comedies like Love 's Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing the eavesdropping scenes are elegantly patterned and enjoyable for their own sakes. Because the dramatist has the power and will to make all things "Atone together" (As You Like It, V.iv.110), we have a great deal of energy to devote to questions of technique—energy that would otherwise be claimed by moral anxieties.
But the comedies are not merely conventional. They do include moral and realistic conflicts. It is excessively sophisticated to try to deal with them entirely in terms of convention and technique, as Frye seems to do. What the comedies offer to "the world outside literature" is an alternative to seriousness that is yet not frivolous; it is a way of "placing" serious concerns that depends upon our taking things seriously in the first place. What is offered is a relationship between the moral mode and the conventional mode, between the mode in which we face our conflicts squarely and the mode in which all dualities—moral, aesthetic, and intellectual—may be blithely dismissed. [Its duplicity of modes may be what makes Shakespearean comedy appeal so strongly to the modern sensibility. Our late prophet of modernism, Roland Barthes, argues that the modern work must "always have two edges": "The subversive edge may seem privileged because it is the edge of violence; but it is not violence which affects pleasure, nor is it destruction which interests it; what pleasure wants is the site of a loss, the seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss." (Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller [New York: Hill and Wang, 1975], p. 7.)]
In the tragedies this relationship is sequential: the sense of conflict intensifies as the plays go along, but yields in a great rush at the end to a sense of resolution. Hamlet's personality seems to be pulled apart by the choice he must make, but at the end his personality seems coherent and he dismisses the very conflicts that have troubled him. Throughout the plays the hero struggles—and we struggle along with him—to imagine a solution to the moral problems of opposing truths, of duality. At his lowest moment the hero despairs of finding a solution and gives in to the impulse to rail against his mistress and his world. Finally our sense of struggle is rewarded: all our moral tension is released at the end of the plays by the simultaneous death, selfachievement, and achievement-in-love of the heroes. The sense of conflict yields in a great rush to a sense of resolution. There is a climax to the experience.
The comedies reach no such climax, release no such tension. They are an exercise in sustained poise. Pattern and convention triumph in these plays not so much by having the last word as by coexisting with the moral problems and thus neutralizing them. Rather than being a stunning achievement costing and exacting the ultimate price, the unity of the comic world is simple, natural, continuously available. Shakespearean comedy is a kind of balancing act: every time a moral issue is put on one side of the scale, something goes on the other side that mocks the very process of moral analysis. We are constantly recalled by jokes, songs, games, feasts, plays; when we see Jessica and Lorenzo teasing each other in the moonlight, for instance, we must let go of our efforts to analyze the relationship between justice and mercy. The quality of the comic counterweight is exactly reflected in a passage of The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence where Ursula imagines that Noah's Flood only seemed cataclysmic to Noah. Probably, she decides, it was a local and unimportant affair:
It pleased Ursula to think of the naiads in Asia Minor meeting the nereids at the mouth of the streams, where the sea washed against the fresh, sweet tide, and calling to their sisters the news of Noah's Flood. They would tell amusing accounts of Noah in his ark. Some nymphs would relate how they had hung on the side of the ark, peeped in, and heard Noah and Shem and Ham and Japeth, sitting in their place under the rain, saying, how they four were the only men on earth now, because the Lord had drowned all the rest, so that they four would have everything to themselves, and be masters of everything, sub-tenants under the great Proprietor.
Ursula wished she had been a nymph. She would have laughed through the window of the ark, and flicked drops of the flood at Noah, before she drifted away to people who were less important in their Proprietor and their Flood.6
There is a point of view from which the great issues of tragedy are mostly a vehicle for the hero's fantasies of self-importance, and in Shakespearean comedy we must always be ready to see things from this point of view.
Evil itself may be dismissed in the comedies if only we choose to do so. Dogberry's warning to the Watch against excessive moral vigilance is one we should all take to heart:
Dogberry If you meet a thief, you may
suspect him, by virtue of your office, to be
no true man; and for such kind of man, the
less you meddle or make with them, why,
the more is for your honesty.
Watch If we know him to be a thief, shall we
not lay hands on him?
Dogberry Truly, by your office you may; but
I think they that touch pitch will be defiled.
The most peaceable way for you, if you do
take a thief, is to let him show himself what
he is, and steal out of your company.
(Much Ado About Nothing, III.iii.49-59)
In the tragedies, of course, we have no choice but to touch pitch and be defiled. Goneril and Iago are facts of life in tragedy. But in comedy we have another option, and the challenge is to take it up. Shakespearean comedy challenges our flexibility; it forces us to clear out the passageway that ordinarily blocks off serious moral activity from fantasy, self-assertion, social pleasure. We must be ready at a moment's notice to attend to our problems and at a moment's notice to forget them. The plays are perfectly poised between "It matters" and "It doesn't matter." And this poise itself is a triumph over the tragic necessity to choose, to be deeply serious, continuously responsible.
Obviously, then, the plays cannot resolve by releasing moral or philosophical tension: they have been dissipating this tension all along the way. The final gesture is always to sweep away the moral issue; "that's all one, our play is done" is the message not just of Feste's song but of the multiple marriages, the neat solutions to the intrigue, the final dance or masque or play. And yet such is the modesty of these plays that the final gesture is not a definitive victory for Ursula's mode. If the ending of a Shakespearean tragedy is like a prolonged symphonic finale, a Shakespearean comedy ends like a piano prelude that tosses off the expected final chord at the moment it stops developing its themes. The endings are too unassertive to end the dialectic. To contemplate one of the comedies after it is over is to start up again the alternation that was arrested by the ending: by turns the odd and even circles made by a stone in the water claim the whole pond for their own. Nothing is settled; the problems will recur. But when they do, we will always have the option we have exercised in these plays, of stealing quietly out of their company.
The lyric that ends Love 's Labour 's Lost demonstrates the poise Shakespeare maintains in comedy between moral-realistic meanings and pure convention. It is a good place, then, to continue the investigation of genre.
Spring When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he, "Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
And merry larks are ploughmen's clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he, "Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
Winter When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, "Tu-whit,
Tu-who!" a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, "Tu-whit,
Tu-who!" a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
This "debate," of course, is a non-debate. There is no conflict between winter and spring, for one implies the other. The contrasts between the two seasons, furthermore, are contained within the form of the lyric, tamed by the emphasis on symmetry and repetition. This is a universe in which things are predictable; there is Winter and there is Spring, each with its bird that sounds its note in the sixth and seventh lines of the stanza. What matters is not the contrast, but that the poem can triumph over the contrast. Both seasons are bound to self-repetition; the second and fourth stanzas can only repeat what has been said in the first and third stanzas. But the poem as a whole has the freedom to move casually from one season to the other; so casually that it does not bother to find a new verse form as it does so. Winter and Spring each claims to be the central fact in its own world, but both in fact are shaped by the conventions of the song itself.
On the one hand, then, this poem minimizes conflict and even contrast. But inside its imperturbable shape, its contrasts provide a great deal of liveliness. The effect is not of detailed and committed analysis but of quicksilver play of mind. Every time we think we understand what the categories are, we are surprised by a variation or inversion. In the first four lines we are led to expect a simple pastoral celebration of Spring. But when the bird sounds his note it is a word of fear, "Cuckoo." Then we understand that Spring has its defects as well as its virtues; if we are to enjoy the flowered meadows, we have to take the risk of adultery that follows from the joys of spring. The next stanza is a reprise; then we are ready to hear from Winter, and we know what to expect. First a landscape with skaters, their voices ringing out through the clear, frosty night; then a bird's note that warns of the price to be paid for these pleasures. These expectations are thwarted on all levels. First, we have switched from pastoral to genre painting; the mode appropriate to Winter is grubby realism. Second, the bird's cry is not the kind of contrast we have been led to expect. If Winter is a rotten thing while Spring is a glorious pleasure, the bird should remind us of some compensation instead of some price to be paid. But the owl's song is traditionally associated with the idea of death. The final surprise is that this memento mori is called "a merry note." To account for this we have to make yet another distinction between Winter and Spring. Winter may be bad and Spring good, but Winter is only bad in a workaday way. If it were bad in the way that Spring is good, it would annihilate us. But in fact it is bearable, and that is why the owl's note sounds merry. When it reminds us of death it reminds us that we are surviving, not dying. There are worse things than being cold, bored, or greasy. We could be dead, like a tragic hero.
Our expectations of the poem are for parallelism: we expect Winter to be the obverse of Spring. Insofar as the poem fulfills these expectations, it is a formal pleasure, an aesthetic object. But insofar as it thwarts these expectations and makes distinctions, it makes a statement. The individual comedies are similarly balanced between making a statement and refusing to do any such thing. The comedies hold lightly to their meanings; this lightness of grip is at least half the point.
The comic heroine, like the poem, is both meaningful and hostile to meaning itself as an enterprise. She is a kind of paradigm for the author, herself producing entertainments that both mean something and refuse to do just that. Portia's ring trick is a good example. At one level the trick has serious meaning, for Bassanio and for us; through it we learn to mistrust the absolute division between our public and private lives that Bassanio has assumed. The joke on Bassanio, then, recapitulates the action of the play and emphasizes the same values. And yet what we see is Portia teasing her husband in a fairly unelevated way. The joke itself is unsophisticated and depends quite simply on a discrepancy of awareness. It is folkloric rather than inventive, and although it is elegantly acted out, there is a Dagwood-and-Blondie aspect to it all. Portia's performance does not alter the truth, but it alters our attitude toward the truth. The problems of justice and mercy, public and private, love and law shrink to the size of a foible of Bassanio's. We respond to the reduction with a surprised, slightly affronted laugh, followed by a sense of liberation. The comic heroine plays Ursula to our Noah and flicks water at us for taking things so seriously.
Why does Shakespeare associate the feminine with the most basic privilege of the genre? There can be no satisfactory answer to this question—which leads us, moreover, to a consideration of other male writers who have and have not privileged the feminine in their comedies. The authors of Restoration comedy do; Cervantes and Fielding do not; Henry James does. The issue can be discussed at the level of cultural psychology or individual psychology or both. But perhaps one explanation is that the feminine Other does not require of her male creator the fatal seriousness he summons up when dealing with the male Self. The Other can be contained within the boundaries of her type: like the other comic types—braggart, friend, priest, gull—the comic heroine is generic as well as individual. She is the marriageable type, young, pretty, and available. For all her self-awareness she can always be absorbed back into the plot as the unmarried girl, Jill to the hero's Jack. At one level she is there simply to be shoved into a couple by the finale, to satisfy our unholy eagerness for marriages. As Charles Frey puts it, "So long as weddings and babies result, society cares almost nothing for the varieties and mix-ups of particular loves."7 In Shakespeare's case, the Otherness of the feminine seems to free him from the sense of particularity he directs toward representatives of the masculine Self. The feminine Other need not be particularized by her history, by the choices she makes. The plot can pass through her and leave her the same. This is perhaps the appeal of the feminine in comedy—that to her author she remains a type no matter how particularly she is imagined, and that she therefore serves the crucial modesty of the form.
The comic heroine herself avoids choice, and in imagining her the author is spared the choice between moralrealistic and comic-conventional modes. There is a second feminine privilege in comedy, the avoidance of change and development. Many would argue that change, and not the avoidance of change, is what we value in comedy; but the important changes in the comedies are collective rather than individual. Critics who see discovery of identity in the comedies, as even Northrop Frye claims at times to do,8 are perhaps displacing a process that takes place within the social unit onto the individual members of the society. Sherman Hawkins, following C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye, points out that the action of Shakespearean comedy opens up a society that was previously closed in on itself;9 by the end of the story all the characters who matter to us enjoy more freedom than they did to begin with. But this is not because there have been, as Anne Barton claims, "self-discoveries, a deepening and development of personality."10 The discoveries take place at the level of the plot, not at the level of individual psychology. In Twelfth Night, for instance, Viola and Sebastian discover each other's existence, Orsino and Olivia discover that Viola is a woman and not a man, Malvolio discovers that Olivia is not, after all, pursuing him. These discoveries and the confusions that precede them realign the whole society for the better; but they do not, as Frye puts it, "lead to a kind of self-knowledge which releases a character from the bondage of his humor."11 They are of quite a different order from the discoveries of tragedy, which often do amount to self-discovery. No recognition in Twelfth Night bears comparison to, for instance, Lear's recognition that he is implicated in the suffering of others ("I have ta'en / Too little care of this": III.iv.32-33) or Hamlet's recognition that he cannot create himself through the exercise of will alone ("The readiness is all": V.ii.224).
It is worth examining Twelfth Night in some detail because this play is often discussed as a play of self-discovery. No one argues, of course, that Malvolio is "released from the bondage of his humor." Clearly Malvolio is hopeless; at the end of the play he is simply dismissed. Nor is Sir Toby thought to change profoundly, although he is handily brought under control. It is the lovers—Olivia, Orsino, Viola, and even Sebastian—who are seen in terms of self-discovery. Helene Moglen's "Disguise and Development: The Self and Society in Twelfth Night" may represent the self-discovery approach to these four characters.12 For my part, I find nothing that could be called "a deepening and development of personality" in any of them, although I do see some change in one of the four. Not coincidentally, the character who changes is male.
Two kinds of development are discussed in Twelfth Night criticism: development of sexuality, and development of a sense of humor as Frey defines the term ("a sense of proportion and propitiation" related to "the ongoingness of life").13 In the case of Viola and Sebastian, however, both sexuality and sense of humor seem fully developed from the beginning. Take, for instance, Viola's opening lines:
Viola My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drowned. What think you, sailors?
Captain It is perchance that you yourself were saved.
Viola O my poor brother, and so perchance may he be.
What Viola exhibits here is not what we normally think of as a sense of humor, but in Frey's terms it is. She has a sense of proportion about even so painful a fact as the loss of her brother; she leaves the door open to the comic coincidence that will resolve the play. "Perchance he is not drowned," of course, is a nonsequitur; it does not follow from "My brother he is in Elysium." It is nonsequitur, precisely, that we depend on in comedy to make things come out right in the end; Viola speaks in the true illogical spirit of comedy when she goes straight from her brother's death to the hope for his life. In her first scene she is firm, forthright, confident, and even wealthy. She praises the Captain, pays him "bounteously," chooses her disguise, and matterof-factly commits herself to time. It is difficult to see her as the uncertain quester that Helene Moglen, for instance, describes. Moglen says that Viola's disguise is "the adolescent confusion of identity made visible";14 but in fact it is a consciously adopted role with which she entertains both herself and the audience. Neither does Viola's sexuality seem to develop gradually; she loves her man immediately and constantly and, given her situation, pursues him as best she can.
Sebastian, similarly, is perfectly sure of his desires from the beginning. Moglen argues that we see Sebastian turning gradually from a homosexual attachment to heterosexual love; but in his very first scene Sebastian decisively turns away from Antonio, absolutely refusing his service. Sebastian's prose here is almost too virile:
My stars shine darkly over me; the malignancy of my fate might perhaps distemper yours. Therefore I crave of you your leave, that I may bear my evils alone. It were a bad recompense for your love to lay any of them on you. .. . If you will not undo what you have done, . . . desire it not. Fare ye well at once .. . I am bound to the Count Orsino's court. Farewell.
(II.i.3-8, 37-39, 42-43)
Moglen says, "Having endured the loss of his sister, inviting a separation from Antonio, Sebastian seems in growing control of himself;15 but since the control is there from the start, it is difficult to perceive the growth.
Orsino and Olivia are another story. At the beginning these two characters lack both a sense of proportion and a clarity of desire. Orsino wallows in his own emotions and Olivia has "abjured the sight / And company of men" (I.ii.40-41). She is as self-involved in her mourning as Orsino is in his loving. These two characters seem to fit the pattern Sherman Hawkins describes in "The Two Worlds of Shakespearean Comedy": "In the comedies of the alternate pattern [as opposed to those that fit the pattern of New Comedy, where the older generation represses the sexuality of the younger] the heroes and heroines themselves are imprisoned in their inhibitions and aggressions, isolated by fear or repugnance from the general life, cut off not merely from others whom they ought to love but even from themselves."16 Olivia and Orsino are certainly isolated at the beginning of the play, and by their own actions. But let us look more closely at Olivia in her very first scene. Although she has been three times described as "abandoned to her sorrow" (I.iv.19) before we even see her, on her first appearance before us she is no such thing. Her first action is to allow Feste to fool her out of her mourning; her second is to fall madly in love with Cesario. Although Shakespeare may have intended to show development in Olivia, when he gets her onstage he immediately privileges her with perfect comic presence. Olivia explicitly claims both sense of humor and the love-ethic as her own. When Malvolio protests against the liberty of the fool, she says irritably,
O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite. To be generous, guiltless, and of free disposition, is to take those things for birdbolts that you deem cannon bullets.
We can find no fault with Olivia's definition of comic freedom: "to take those things for birdbolts that you deem cannon bullets." Again, it is a matter of proportion. And when, in the same scene, she finds that she has fallen in love with Cesario, she concludes, "Fate, show thy force: ourselves we do not owe. / What is decreed must be—and be this so!" (I.v.308-9). To be of a "free disposition" as a lover is to know, precisely, that "ourselves we do not owe." Before her first appearance Olivia is condemned of a willful attempt to "own" herself, to protect herself from love's uncertainties; but as soon as she appears before us we must withdraw the charges.
Olivia, then, does not seem to change in this play; she is perfectly attuned to comic values right from the start. The change seems to be in the author, not in the character. Shakespeare seems to have meant Olivia as a companion piece to Orsino, a female solipsist. But when he imagines her in action he abandons his plans and showers her with comic privileges. It is perhaps when he imagines her in conversation with Malvolio that he finds himself developing her differently from the way he may have meant to. In Shakespearean comedy the heroine is almost automatically the antithesis of the masculine blocking figure, and perhaps Malvolio's presence in Act I, scene v, is responsible for the change of heart about Olivia.
Orsino, however, is truly narcissistic and self-enclosed, truly in need of the challenge of comedy. Orsino does not seduce his author, as Olivia seems to, away from his intentions. And so Orsino does ultimately change. As Hawkins puts it, Orsino learns to allow the intruder into his world: "The force which knocks at the door is love."17 But although he does answer the knocking, Orsino does not seem to discover himself in the process. He discovers that Viola / Cesario is really a woman and forthwith admits her into his world: "Give me thy hand, / And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds" (V.i.271-72) is all he has to say. Moglen argues that Orsino has developed through a "transitional relationship"18 with Cesario, but the transition is surely dramatic rather than psychological. It is we who are prepared by their exchanges for Orsino to love Viola, not Orsino himself who is. Orsino's change of allegiance from Olivia to Viola is as daringly conventional, as arbitrary, as unmotivated as anything in the comedies. Since he has known Viola only as his page, the change to loving her as his "mistress" is unrealistically sudden and abrupt.
Orsino, then, changes from a figure of self-enclosure to a prospective bridegroom, and he changes from Olivia's lover to Viola's. Olivia, by contrast, is "of free disposition" from the first time we see her, and her emotions have a single object. When the Cesario she has married turns out to be Sebastian, there is no need for her to stop loving him on that account. In her case two errors of identity have cancelled each other out. The feminine Other is spared the necessity of change even as she is spared the necessity of choice. She is a constant element in comedy, even when, as in Twelfth Night, the scheme of the play suggests that she is there to be redeemed. The feminine is unregenerate in comedy just as she is in tragedy; but in comedy it is unregeneracy we aspire to.
1 Charles Frey, "The Sweetest Rose: As You Like It as Comedy of Reconciliation," New York Literary Forum 1 (1978), p. 167.
2 Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1973), p. 30.
3Ibid., p. 145.
4 Stanley Cavell, "Epistemology and Tragedy: A Reading of Othello," Daedalus 108, no. 3 (1979), p. 40.
5 Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965), p. 8.
6 D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (New York: Viking Press, 1961), p. 324.
7 Frey, "The Sweetest Rose," p. 174.
8 Frye, A Natural Perspective, p. 78.
9 Sherman Hawkins, "The Two Worlds of Shakespearean Comedy," Shakespeare Studies 3 (1967), p. 69.
10 Anne Barton, "As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending," in Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer, eds., Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 14: Shakespearean Comedy (New York: Crane, Russak & Company, 1972), p. 169.
11 Frye, A Natural Perspective, p. 79.
12 Helene Moglen, "Disguise and Development: The Self and Society in Twelfth Night," Literature and Psychology 13 (1973).
13 Frey, "The Sweetest Rose," p. 167.
14 Moglen, "Disguise and Development," p. 15.
15Ibid, p. 17.
16 Hawkins, "The Two Worlds," p. 68.
17Ibid, p. 69.
18 Moglen, "Disguise and Development," p. 16.
Lorraine Helms (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Playing the Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism and Shakespearean Performance," in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, edited by Sue-Ellen Case, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, pp. 196-206.
[In the following essay, Helms provides a feminist critique of Shakespeare's female roles in performance and envisions "a theatre where patriarchal representations of femininity can be transformed into roles for living women. "]
Feminist film theorists have revealed ways cinematic representation constructs the female as the object of the male spectator's gaze.1 Their analyses have raised parallel questions for theatrical and specifically Shakespearean representation: to what extent and through what strategies does Shakespearean performance also construct female characters for the spectator's eye, and, since Shakespearean theatre is as verbal as it is visual, for the auditor's ear? Kathleen McLuskie argues that the representational strategies of the playwright she calls "the patriarchal bard," like cinematic cues, "resist feminist manipulation by denying an autonomous position for the female viewer of the action." Shakespearean texts, bearing the traces of their history in a theatrical enterprise which completely excluded women, construct gender from a relentlessly androcentric perspective. Yet, as McLuskie also remarks, "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."2
I do not intend to press this analogy between theatre and film, but I draw it in order to underscore my concern with Shakespearean performance. The feminist critique of Shakespearean texts has transformed literary critical interpretation of "the woman's part," but few feminist Shakespeareans have considered the sexual politics of playing that part. My allusion to the anthology The Woman 's Part will, I hope, further underscore my immediate concern: to extend the feminist critique of Shakespeare to contemporary theatrical practice.3
A feminist critique for Shakespearean performance must, as McLuskie argues, acknowledge Shakespeare's androcentric playhouse as the originating context for his representation of gender before seeking a feminist potential within twentieth-century theatre conditions. Yet the convention of the boy actor vexes critical speculation.4 Cross-casting marks the nexus of character and performer in subtle and shifting ways which historical inquiry cannot recover. The performance of the boy actor could have been eroticized for some spectators, aesthetically distanced for others. It could have been illusionistic at one moment, only to be broken by self-reflexive theatricality at another, as the textual references to the boy actor playing the woman's part in Antony and Cleopatra and As You Like It suggest. Its ideological valence is ambiguous. It could foreground the social construction of gender by imposing femininity on male bodies and at the same time trivialize women's social roles in puerile caricatures. It could celebrate female heroism while it excluded women from the economic and expressive opportunities of theatrical activity. Certainly the theatrical convention resonates with the cultural practices of a patriarchal society in which women shared their children's disenfranchisement. The boy actor playing Rosalind obliquely comments on this disenfranchisement when he remarks that "Boys and women are for the most part cattle of this color."5 Yet the theatrical effect of his having said it remains elusive.
But in the social contexts and physical settings of twentieth-century Shakespeare productions, women play "the woman's part." To what extent does this re-casting transform the cultural resonances of Shakespeare's construction of gender? Elaine Showalter argues optimistically that "when Shakespeare's heroines began to be played by women instead of boys, the presence of the female body and female voice, quite apart from details of interpretation, created new meanings and subversive tensions in these roles."6 Less optimistic (or more radical) critics of the dramatic canon have argued that female roles originally written by men for male performers—the Medeas and Antigones of the Greek theatre as well as the Rosalinds and Cleopatras of Shakespeare's—are caricatures, and that they should again be played by men to emphasize the fact that the classic roles are, in Sue-Ellen Case's phrase, "classic drag."7
Now for a feminist who wishes to make her living in the theatre, Showalter's view has certain obvious attractions. Yet the feminization of the boy actor is the theatrical strategy through which the Shakespearean representation of gender was structured; a feminist critique must confront its residual effects. Theatre historians regularly attribute the paucity and brevity of Shakespearean women's roles to the inadequacy (or the expense) of the apprenticed boy players. They have not as often remarked that female characters rarely appear unaccompanied by males. Stage practice does not in this simply mime social restrictions on women's freedom of movement, but reveals its dependence on the narrowed range of difference at its disposal. The all-male acting company contrasts the boy and the mature male to create the illusion of female presence. To leave a boy actor alone on stage is to relinquish the difference on which his feminization partly depends. At such moments, poetic, rhetorical, and narrative strategies must accomplish what the presence of the adult actor does in other scenes: they must maintain the female persona by dominating the impersonator.
Such textual strategies, originally designed to feminize the boy actor, may infantilize or eroticize the woman who now plays the woman's part. Showalter's promise of feminist re-interpretation will not automatically be fulfilled. To create "new meanings and subversive tensions" in Shakespearean roles demands specific strategies for intervention. These strategies must interrogate the ideological continuity between apparently antithetical theatrical practices. The twentieth century, like the seventeenth, still divides humanity into men on the one hand and women and children on the other. The patriarchal structures which hierarchize physical and social distinctions between male and non-male characterize contemporary cultures as well as Shakespeare's. The actor who wants to play Shakespeare's female characters without playing parts scripted by a "patriarchal bard" must confront the linguistic recalcitrance of the Shakespearean construction of gender.
The Gendered Subjects of Shakespearean Soliloquy
Shakespearean verse, as John Barton remarks, gives the actor "stage directions in shorthand." He offers examples throughout Playing Shakespeare: monosyllables demand more rapid delivery; shared lines tell the actor to pick up the cue.8 Such stage directions create individuated patterns of speech and structure representation of the social categories of class and gender. They are perhaps most subtly directorial in soliloquies. Soliloquy, by convention, allows an actor to establish a privileged relation to the audience, either to tell the character's side of the story by creating the illusion of interiority or to restructure the theatrical event by breaking through the dramatic fiction. But Shakespeare's female characters are rarely alone on stage and even more rarely do they address the audience directly. When they do, the conventions of the soliloquy are regularly adapted to the female character, revealing the extent to which the Shakespearean soliloquy is ordinarily gendered as male.9
In Hamlet and Macbeth, the protagonist's soliloquies provide an internal analogue to the unfolding of the plot. They not only focus audience response on the speaker, but direct it toward his interpretation of events. But throughout Ophelia's soliloquy after the nunnery scene, Hamlet remains before the audience: "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" (HI. i. 150). When Lady Macbeth is alone on stage, Macbeth remains before the audience, as she reads a letter from him and then turns to apostrophe: "Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be / What thou art promis'd" (I. v. 15-16). The subjectivity of the female characters, even in soliloquy, is, for the audience, mediated through their shared concentration on the male protagonist. The text insistently interposes a male presence between the female speaker and the auditor.
Comic soliloquies deploy quite different strategies and seem to offer greater possibilities for feminist intervention. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena addresses the audience directly:
How happy some o'er other some can be!
Through Athens I am thought as fair as she.
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.
He will not know what all but he do know;
And as he errs, doting on Hermia's eyes,
So I, admiring of his qualities.
[I. i. 226-231]
End-stopped couplets replace the normal blank verse of the Shakespearean soliloquy. Their self-conscious artifice, through which Helena analyzes her situation so shrewdly and articulates it so cleverly, can, in performance, effect her transformation from a greensick girl into a commentator who interrogates the vagaries of erotic experience. This transformation plays on the soliloquy's power to privilege Helena's relation to the audience and yet distances the actor from the character. It creates an opportunity for the "gestic feminist criticism" which Elin Diamond calls for, a Brechtian practice which would "foreground those moments in a playtext in which social attitudes could be made visible."10
A similar prosodic device appears in Troilus and Cressida. Like Helena, Cressida addresses the audience on the subject of the ephemeral nature of male desire. But when Cressida articulates her love and her despair in rhymed couplets, prosodic and syntactical strategies simultaneously construct, delimit, and subvert the subjectivity of the female speaker:
Words, vows, gifts, tears, and love's full sacrifice,
He offers in another's enterprise,
But more in Troilus thousandfold I see
Than in the glass of Pandar's praise may be.
[I. ii. 282-285]
Why, in this speech, do rhymed couplets, sometimes in feminine rhyme, replace blank verse? Does their calculated artificiality serve numerically to represent the coquetry which patriarchal criticism attributes to Cressida? Do they heighten a pleasure which the actor is to offer by playing Cressida in the posture of a whore? Shakespeare's versified stage directions, it would then appear, undermine the rhetorical force of the character's argument. They provide a sort of linguistic analogue to cosmetics; they warn the audience that this is not an honest woman. Thus the Shakespearean script exploits Cressida's speech to tell Troilus's tale of feminine treachery rather than her own story of male violence. Discursive strategies recuperate the subversive potential of the speech, turning Cressida's analysis of male desire into a source of eroticized aesthetic pleasure for the male auditor. Even in soliloquy, Cressida remains an object of desire and disdain.
The syntax of the speech as well as its rhyme contains stage directions which further diminish the performer's opportunity to communicate directly to the audience. The formal structure of Cressida's speech, like Helena's in its prosody, differs strikingly in its syntax. Helena's soliloquy parodies a scholastic Petrarchism in its analysis of desire:
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgement taste;
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste;
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguil'd.
As waggish boys themselves in games forswear,
So the boy Love is perjur'd everywhere.
[I. i. 232-241]
Helena's argument is articulated with comically pedantic clarity. But Cressida's argument against male hegemony, which is equally knotty and more profoundly subversive, is aphoristic and obscured by ellipses:
Women are angels, wooing:
Things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing.
That she belov'd knows naught that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungain'd more that it is.
That she was never yet that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue.
Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:
Achievement is command; ungain'd, beseech.
[I. ii. 286-293]
While the artificiality of rhymed couplets works against the actor who tries to motivate a character who can tell her own story, the obscurity of this elliptical syntax works against the actor who tries to use the speech to comment on the dramatic fiction. Shakespeare's stage directions impede feminist revision in both naturalistic and gestic modes.
If a feminist re-interpretation of Troilus and Cressida is to succeed theatrically, the performer must find ways to re-interpret these stage directions. Patriarchal literary criticism has assumed Cressida's vanity and duplicity, while feminist re-readings have argued for her intelligence and vulnerability.11 Although literary analysis of Cressida's soliloquy can work through the androcentric text toward a feminist reading, it leaves theatrical practice with as patriarchal a bard as ever. Vanity and duplicity at least offer a theatrically viable motive for action. A feminist re-interpretation must discover performance choices which offer as much scope for motivated activity as showing off. The actor must transpose the mimetic foundation of Cressida's language into another key.
Yet what could Cressida's motivation be when the ellipses occlude the female subject: It is the soul of male joy that lies in the doing; it is male achievement and male command to which Cressida refers, while she herself is one of the "things" to be won and done. Cressida is already speaking from the androcentric perspective which she will more fully internalize at the end of play. In her last speech, her alienation is complete, and with it, the actor's options for consciously motivated action are further narrowed.
This second speech, again in rhymed couplets, occurs after the eavesdropping scene, in which Thersites spies on Troilus and Ulysses as they watch Diomedes force Cressida, through symbolic and perhaps physical violence, into sexual submission:
Troilus, farewell! One eye yet looks on thee,
But with my heart the other eye doth see.
Ah, poor our sex! this fault in us I find,
The error of our eye directs our mind.
What error leads must err; O then conclude,
Minds sway'd by eyes are full of turpitude.
[V. ii. 107-112]
These lines make sense from Troilus's perspective, from Ulysses' or Thersites', but not from Cressida's. Such de-centering renders this speech among the most difficult to perform in the Shakespearean canon; it also presents perhaps the greatest challenge to a feminist performance. Janet Adelman argues that, during the eavesdropping scene, the text has moved suddenly and inexplicably "into opacity .. . at exactly the moment at which we most need to understand what Cressida is doing, we are not only given no enlightenment but are forced to acknowledge our distance from Cressida by the structure of the scene itself." An actor will, she concludes, have to speculate on Cressida's motives "in order to play the part at all," but such speculation cannot be grounded in the text.12
What are Shakespeare's versified stage directions? Although the speech is delivered at a moment of intense emotion, that emotion is mediated by rhymed couplets which echo those of the earlier speech. This formal repetition implies a continuity of character that may undermine Troilus's interpretation of Cressida's inconstancy: "This is, and is not, Cressid" (V. ii. 146). Yet Cressida's words renew and deepen the alienation of the "Women are angels" soliloquy. They announce her collusion with the ideology Thersites offers as commentary on her speech: "A proof of strength she could not publish more, / Unless she said, 'My mind is now turn'd whore'" (V. ii. 113-114). Can the contradiction between the violence Cressida suffers and the blame she accepts create a space for a feminist performance as it has for a feminist literary criticism? What are the performance choices? Is there a motive which would subvert the androcentric perspective of the speech? Or a gest which would foreground the social contexts from which the character's alienation arises?
Cressida's soliloquies illustrate the technical and theoretical problems which a feminist theatrical practice encounters in re-interpreting "the patriarchal bard." Can one suit the action to the word if the word subverts the speaker? The 1987 Stratford, Ontario production resolved the dilemma in favor of the action. In the eavesdropping scene, in which the audience sees Thersites watch Troilus and Ulysses spy on Diomedes and Cressida, Diomedes subjected Cressida to relentless symbolic violence, intermittently underscored by physical menace. He left Cressida so near hysteria that when she came to her soliloquy, the words were virtually unintelligible. The text of Cressida's collusion gave way before an image which represented the terror of rape as forcefully as Gloucester's on-stage blinding represents the horror of mutilation.
The Ontario production exposed Cressida's victimization at the price of her silence her inarticulate hysteria deconstructed the patriarchal representation of a vain and shallow coquette, but did not in itself foreground the social attitudes and circumstances which structure sexual victimization. Troilus's response to the scene, however, in some measure completed Cressida's gest. His self-indulgent grieving for what he willfully interpreted as Cressida's faithlessness went extravagantly over the top. The audience had just seen a rape scene; they now saw patriarchal ideology at work as Troilus bustled about blaming the victim: "The fractions of her faith, orts of her love, / The fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics / Of her o'er-eaten faith, are given to Diomed" (V. ii. 158-160). Such theatrical moments may move spectators from empathy to anger.
Having praised the Ontario staging of the eavesdropping scene, I must also remark that the program notes do not affirm the interpretation for which I praised it: "No sooner has Troilus won Cressida than they are parted and, despite her desperate protests, she is sent to join her father in the Greek camp. There, confused and susceptible in her new womanhood, she is quickly seduced by Diomedes."13 A similar gap between program notes and theatrical performance characterizes another recent Shakespearean production in which, again, soliloquy focuses the tension between an androcentric playtext and a performable feminist critique.
How The Jailer's Daughter Escaped
Fletcher and Shakespeare's The Two Noble Kinsmen represents or evokes fourteen female characters. The three principals are Hippolyta, the Amazon queen who Theseus has conquered in a single combat; her sister Emilia, whose love for women underscores her suffering when Theseus orders her to marry the survivor of Palamon and Arcite's duel; and the nameless Jailer's Daughter, who fulfills her dramatic function in the main plot when she releases Palamon from her Father's prison and fulfills her function in the sub plot when, mad for unrequited love of the knight whom she has freed, she is seduced and thereby cured by a suitor who sleeps with her pretending to be Palamon. The text, like other texts of "the patriarchal bard," constructs these characters from a masculinist perspective which celebrates Hippolyta's defeat in her combat with Theseus, which validates Emilia's brutally forced marriage, and which mocks the sexuality of the Jailer's Daughter. Yet in contemporary performance, the female characters of The Two Noble Kinsmen may challenge the patriarchal perspectives of the text.
The Two Noble Kinsmen has only recently been rescued from long oblivion in Beaumont and Fletcher's Collected Works. In 1980, Glynne Wickham set the play in the homoerotic context of the Jacobean court, remarking that Theseus's love for Pirithous had "an all-too-evident counterpart" in James's relation to his favorite, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset.14 In 1985, Richard Abrams further questioned the play's sexual politics, noting that it is "with each other's fantasies, rather than Emilia's, that Palamon and Arcite, [who call themselves] 'one another's wife,' obviously interlock" and that Emilia's own "stated sexual preference is for other women."15 In 1986, Barry Kyle's production at the Swan in Stratford and then at the Mermaid in London gave The Two Noble Kinsmen a place in the repertory of the Royal Shakespeare Company, extending these questions of the play's sexual politics to their significance for twentieth-century audiences. As The Two Noble Kinsmen enters the academic and theatrical arenas where the contemporary meanings of Shakespeare are contested, it offers new perspectives on the relation between the scope of feminist criticism and the tasks of theatrical representation.
The elite cultural contexts of The Two Noble Kinsmen focus literary critical interpretation on the setting of Theseus' court. The duel between Palamon and Arcite for possession of Emilia and her torment thereby become the play's most significant representation of the physical and symbolic violence which underlie the exchange of women. A feminist critique of this exchange can recognize, with Richard Abrams, that "the play's deepest conflict is not between the kinsmen, but between Theseus, as patriarchal ruler of Athens, and Emilia as representative of 'the powers of all women'" (Abrams, 74 [III.vi.194]). Yet the narrative resolution of Emilia's story reveals its significance most fully when it resonates theatrically with the representation of the Jailer's Daughter, for this character, a crazed and nameless victim in the text, can command an extraordinary presence on stage—a presence which undermines both androcentric and elitist interpretations of the playtext. In resisting heterosexuality, Emilia exposes the symbolic violence of dynastic marital rites; in contesting the barriers to the marriage she desires, the Jailer's Daughter illuminates the intersecting hierarchies of class and gender.
The plot demands the sexual humiliation of the Jailer's Daughter, and it is this aspect of her role that the Royal Shakespeare Company program notes chose to underscore: they place the Jailer's Daughter among Shakespeare's "wanton wenches from the lower orders who give rein to their sexual appetites" and who are "contrasted with high-born ladies who put a proper price on their own virginity." She "is less a mad sister to Ophelia than a tragi-comic version of the ail-too available Jaquenetta in Love's Labour's Lost—or perhaps a sort of siamese twin from As You Like It, combining the honest earthiness of Audrey with the pretensions of poor Phebe, likewise fobbed-off with an inferior substitute for daring to fall in love beyond her social station."16
Like the Ontario production of Troilus and Cressida, the Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Two Noble Kinsmen belied the sexism and elitism that the commentary attributed to the playtext, for Imogen Stubbs, as the Jailer's Daughter, created a heroic figure who was at once socially marginal and theatrically central. The text invites this conflict between the social structures it seems to reinforce and its own theatrical strategies, for Fletcher and Shakespeare give the Jailer's Daughter four soliloquies. The first, in II. iii, opens with an analysis of the barriers she faces in her quest for Palamon's love:
Why should I love this gentleman? 'Tis odds
He never will affect me; I am base,
My father the mean keeper of his prison,
And he a prince. To marry him is hopeless;
To be his whore it witless. Out upon't!
What pushes are we wenches driven to
When fifteen once has found us!
To combat the disadvantages of class and gender, she must challenge both political and domestic order:
What should I do to make him know I love him,
For I would fain enjoy him? Say I ventur'd
To set him free? what says the law then?
Thus much for law or kindred! I will do it,
And this night, or to-morrow, he shall love me.
[II. iv. 29-33]
She frees Palamon and sends him, still in chains, to hide in a nearby wood until she comes to bring him files and food. The second soliloquy begins with a cry of triumph:
Let all the Dukes and all the devils roar,
He is at liberty! I have ventur'd for him.
If the law
Find me, and then condemn me for't, some wenches,
Some honest-hearted maids, will sing my dirge,
And tell to memory my death was noble,
Dying almost a martyr.
[II. vi. 1-2, 13-17]
In the third soliloquy, she realizes that Palamon will not keep their meeting in the wood. Fearful that he has fallen prey to the wolves she hears howling nearby, her struggle for her sanity begins:
My father's to be hang'd for his escape,
Myself to beg, if I priz'd life so much
As to deny my act, but that I would not,
Should I try death by dozens. I am mop'd:
Food took I none these two days—
Sipp'd some water. I have not clos'd mine eyes
Save when my lids scoured off their [brine]. Alas,
Dissolve, my life, let not my sense unsettle
Lest I should drown, or stab, or hang myself.
[III. ii. 22-30]
Her last soliloquy is delivered after she has gone mad:
I am very cold, and all the stars are out too,
The little stars and all, that look like aglets.
The sun has seen my folly. Palamon!
Alas, no; he's in heaven. Where am I now?
[III. iv. 1-4]
In Cressida's speeches, versified stage directions contain the representation of female subjectivity to recuperate patriarchal ideology; in these four soliloquies, as in Hamlet's and Macbeth's, they create an internal analogue to the action of the plot. Interrogative sentences, resolutions, and narrative speculations all reinforce a mode of direct address; and direct address offers an opportunity either to communicate a character's interiority or to comment on the scene.
Shakespeare more often extends this opportunity to his Hamlets than his Ophelias, and indeed, textual scholarship often attributes these soliloquies to Fletcher rather than to Shakespeare.17 If this is true, then Fletcher, having been the collaborator of "the patriarchal bard," can now become the collaborator of feminist Shakespeareans. When the actor who plays the Jailer's Daughter truly seizes her opportunity, the audience cannot easily dismiss her character as "a wanton wench from the lower orders" punished for failing to know her place or control her sexual appetites.
In the Royal Shakespeare Company production, Imogen Stubbs's performance fully realized the desperate heroism of the Jailer's Daughter. The actor's intelligence granted dignity to the character's erotic energy and her vulnerability made that dignity poignant. Perhaps most importantly, Stubbs is also an athlete. During her mad scenes, her skill enabled her to climb a flag-pole and to cross downstage walking on her hands while singing. Such explicitly theatrical actions charge the nexus of performer and character with an extraordinary vitality. They compel spectators to acknowledge that the physical presence of the performer constitutes the fictional character on stage; they insist that a character in a play is, as Michael Goldman argues, "something an actor does"18 When the Jailer's Daughter was realized as the enactment of Imogen Stubbs, the performer's skill and strength turned the madness of the Jailer's Daughter, not, like Ophelia's, to prettiness, but to power.
This power can refract the ideology of the Shakespearean playtext, expanding the strategies through which a feminist critique of Shakespeare can intervene in theatrical practice. This feminist critique may explore alternatives to the performance choices, tasks, and motivations by which masculinist productions have trivialized or demonized female characters; it may investigate more radical revisions through alienation effects, applying Diamond's gestic feminist criticism to the Shakespearean playtext. And it may also applaud the performer whose special skills can destabilize power relations in both the dramatic fiction and the theatrical space. Through such explorations and affirmations, feminist Shakespeareans may begin to create a theatre where patriarchal representations of femininity can be transformed into roles for living women.
1 See especially Laura Mulvey's influential essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16:3 (1975): 6-18. I find Mary Ann Doane, "Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator," Screen 23:3-4 (1982): 74-87, and Annette Kuhn, The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality (London: Routlege and Kegan Paul, 1985), particularly suggestive for questions of theatrical representation.
2 Kathleen McLuskie, "The patriarchal bard: feminist criticism and Shakespeare—King Lear and Measure for Measure" (93), in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, eds. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 88-108.
3The Women 's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980).
4 Discussions of the boy actor include Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975); Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (Brighton: Harvester, 1983); Phyllis Rackin, "Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage," PMLA 102:1 (1987), 29-41; and Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1988). See also my "Roaring girls and silent women: the politics of androgyny on the Jacobean stage," in Women in Theatre, ed. James Redmond (London: Cambridge University Press, 1989) and "'Marina thus the Brothel 'Scapes': The Senecan Rhetoric of Rape in Shakespeare's Pericles" (forthcoming).
5As You Like It, III, iii. 414-415. Quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). Subsequent references to this edition will be cited in the text.
6 Elaine Showalter, "Representing Ophelia: women, madness, and the responsibilities of feminist criticism" (80), in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, eds. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Metheun, 1985), 77-94.
7 Sue-Ellen Case, "Classic Drag: The Greek Creation of Female Parts," Theatre Journal 37 (1985): 317-27. See also the opening chapter of her Feminism and Theatre.
8 John Barton, Playing Shakespeare (London: Metheun, 1984). The book is based on a series of videotaped workshop programs which the Royal Shakespeare Company made in 1982 for London Weekend Television.
9 The most recent full-length study of the Shakespearean soliloquy, Wolfgang Clemen, Shakespeare 's Soliloquies (London: Metheun, 1987), does not employ gender as a category of analysis.
10 Elin Diamond, "Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism" (91), The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies 32:1 (1988), 82-94. In conjunction with Margot Heinemann, "How Brecht read Shakespeare"( Political Shakespeare, 202-30), Diamond's "gestic feminist criticism" suggests a range of possibilities for feminist Shakespearean performance that I hope to explore more fully in the future. See also Griselda Pollack, "Screening the seventies: sexuality and representation in feminist practice—a Brechtian perspective," 155-99 in her Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988).
11 Feminist defenses of Cressida include R. A. Yoder, "'Sons and Daughters of the Game': An Essay on Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida" Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 11-25; Gayle Greene, "Shakespeare's Cressida: 'A kind of self " in The Woman's Part, 133-49; and Arlene N. Okerlund, "In defense of Cressida: character as metaphor," Women's Studies 7 (1980): 1-17. See also my "'Still Wars and Lechery': Shakespeare and the Last Trojan Woman," in Arms and the Woman: Feminist Essays on War, Gender, and Literary Representation, eds. Helen Cooper, Adrienne Munich, and Susan Squier (Greensboro: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).
12 Janet Adelman, "'This Is and Is Not Cressida': The Characterization of Cressida" (128), in The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, eds. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 119-41. See also Linda Berning Labranche, The Theatrical Dimension of Troilus and Cressida. Diss. Northwestern University, 1984. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1984 (8502394). In '"Still Wars and Lechery': Shakespeare and the Last Trojan Woman," I argued that the language of Cressida's submission reveals a subtext of resistance; my concern here is with performance choices that will make such a subtext theatrically effective.
13 In this production, directed by David William, Cressida was played by Peggy Coffey, Diomedes by Lorne Kennedy, and Troilus by Jerry Etienne. The program notes are unsigned.
14 Glynne Wickham, "The Two Noble Kinsmen or A Midsummer Night's Dream, Part II?" (183), in Elizabethan Theatre VII, ed. George Hibbard (Hamden: Archon Books, 1980), 167-96,
15 Richard Abrams, "Gender confusion and sexual politics in The Two Noble Kinsmen" (71 and 69), in Drama, Sex, and Politics, ed. James Redmond (London: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 69-76.
16The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher: A programme/text with commentary by Simon Trussler (London: Methuen, 1987), xvii.
17 Paul Bertram argues for Shakespeare's authorship in Shakespeare and The Two Noble Kinsmen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1965), but the scenes in which the soliloquies of the Jailer's Daughter occur are more commonly attributed to Fletcher. For a concise summary of the debate, see Hallett Smith's introduction to the play in the Riverside edition.
18 Michael Goldman, Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 149.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14960
Coppélla Kahn (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "The Milking Babe and the Bloody Man in Coriolanus and Macbeth" in Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare, University of California Press, 1981, pp. 151-92.
[In the following essay, Kahn examines the false attempts of Macbeth and Coriolanus to become men through violent action.]
Bring forth men-children only!
A paradox of sexual confusion lies at the heart of these two plays. Their virile warrior-heroes, supreme in valor, are at the same time unfinished men—boys, in a sense, who fight or murder because they have been convinced by women that only through violence will they achieve manhood. Their manhood, displayed in the uncompromisingly masculine form of bloodshed, is not their own, not self-determined nor self-validated, but infused into them by women who themselves are half men. These women, seeking to transform themselves into men through the power they have to mold men (the only power their cultures allow them), root out of themselves and out of their men those human qualities—tenderness, pity, sympathy, vulnerability to feeling—that their cultures have tended to associate with women. In the intensity of their striving to deny their own womanliness so as to achieve transcendence through men, they create monsters: men like beasts or things, insatiable in their need to dominate, anxiously seeking security in their power and their identity, a security they can never achieve because they do not belong to themselves but to the women who made them.1
As he pursues the goal marked out for him by a woman, each of these heroes dedicates himself to an all-encompassing rivalry with another man, or men, a bloody antagonism as binding as any marriage. The rival is either a psychological synonym for the hero, sharing the same essential traits as he, an "enemy twin," or an ego ideal—the kind of man he would like to be, so that to triumph over him is to assimilate him, as Hal crops Hotspur's budding honors when he defeats him. In either case, "fratricidal violence exists to establish Difference" (as Joel Fineman argues): the difference between victor and vanquished that mirrors the difference between self and mother and between male and female.2 It is through violence that the hero tries to individuate himself, and its bloodiness measures the instability that underlies not only his particular sexual identity, but the polarized definitions of sexual identity held by his culture. Furthermore, through their rivalries, Coriolanus and Macbeth reenact the basic ambivalence of their sexual identities; their efforts to surpass and destroy their antagonists and to be supreme among all men signify both their fusion with the stronger wills of women closest to them, their desire to be what those women want them to be, and their need to differentiate themselves from those women, to be definitively separate from a significant other.3
In each play, the single striking image of a nursing babe defines this disrupted relationship between men and women. In Macbeth, the heroine voices it to her husband as an exemplum, an inspiration, to "be so much more the man," while she would be more than a woman:
I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.
The mother loves her babe by nursing it, and it actively "milks" her; she gazes at it, and it smiles into her face. The babe's trust in the mother and the lifegiving nourishment it receives from her give the mother her unique value as a mother, while she gives the babe not just milk, but the ontological reassurance of being seen and recognized.4 But beyond this reciprocal exchange of identities, what the woman wants is to transcend her femininity, to gain another identity through masculine action. In her fantasy, she does not murder the babe incidentally, as a way of showing her determination to act as a man; the murder of the babe represents the action she would take, and her conception of what masculine action is—murder. In Coriolanus, explaining to her daughter-in-law how blood "becomes a man," Volumnia says,
The breasts of Hecuba
When she did suckle Hector, look'd not lovelier
Than Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword contemning.
As in the other passage, Shakespeare first evokes a traditional image of fulfilled womanhood, so as to strengthen the contrast between it and the masculine action the speaker envisions as its alternative. But this passage does more; as Janet Adelman argues, it pictures a masculine response to dependency on the mother—the child's adult transformation of feeding into warfare, vulnerability into attack, and incorporation into spitting out, which fends off dependency in a traditional masculine way, by aggression and violence.5 In both passages, the women speakers identify completely with the masculine behavior they envision, unaware of how horrible it is. Proudly, they exult in their affirmation of killing over nourishing. But their affirmations seem repulsive—in part because it is women who are making them, while in Coriolanus's Rome, Macbeth's Scotland, and to some extent our own culture, violent aggression, so long as it is sanctioned by the political order, is approved behavior only for men.
The aggression is figured verbally and dramatically in bloody men. In Macbeth, the bleeding captain of the second scene, who describes how Macbeth unseams the rebel from the nave to the chops, is followed by Duncan and his two grooms, Banquo's "blood-bolter'd" ghost, the armed man and bloody babe of the apparitions, Macduff untimely ripped from his mother's womb, and most of all, Macbeth—who says he wades in blood. The single image of Coriolanus himself "mantled in blood" dominates the other play, the blood an ambivalent metaphor for his supremacy as a warrior and his lack of human feeling. Both heroes begin their fatal courses in notably bloody actions—Macbeth fighting against the rebels, Coriolanus against the Volscians—that confer new names on them, names signifying and fixing definitively their preeminence as fighters and recognizing their maturity as men. Yet both are deeply dependent on the women who goad them on. When their honors lead them into new realms of political and moral experience, therefore, they are unable to cope, and undergo reversals in behavior, Coriolanus turning against the city whose paragon he has been, Macbeth becoming the hardened murderer he deplored. These tragic reversals reveal cracks in the armor of their manhood, places where ordinary humanity restricted to a feminine realm by their societies, humanity they so long repressed and split off from themselves, proves fatal to them. In actuality, the bloody encounters or exploits in which they sought a second, definitive birth into real manhood are abortive, ending in psychic collapse as well as death.
One need not fabricate a boyhood for Coriolanus, as Bradley did for Othello, growing up in the forests of Africa: Shakespeare has brought it right into the play, by making both mother and son recall his upbringing. Volumnia's first speech is a straightforward account of how she made her son a man:
I pray you, daughter, sing, or express yourself in a more comfortable sort. If my son were my husband I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour, than in the embracements of his bed, wherein he would show most love. When yet he was but tender-bodied, and the only son of my womb; when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way; when for a day of kings' entreaties, a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding; I, considering how honour would become such a person—that it was no better than picture-like to hang by th'wall, if renown made it not stir—was pleas'd to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child, than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.
This speech lays bare the extreme sexual polarization of Rome and reveals as much about how Volumnia came to be what she is as how she shaped her son. Every word of it echoes Cominius's simple summary of the Roman value system, "It is held that valour is the chiefest virtue" (2.2.83-84). This virtus is the property of vir, the male, while the virtus of women is to be chaste and to bear male children.6 Philip Slater's paradigm of family structure in classical Greece applies to the family as we see it in this play. Woman, excluded from public life, is devalued save as the bearer of men-children; she must seek her primary emotional satisfaction through her son, who becomes a substitute for her absent husband, the vehicle through which she realizes herself, and a cure for the narcissistic wound of being a woman.7
Throughout the scene that begins with this speech, Volumnia's intense adherence to the masculine code of honor is contrasted to Virgilia's feminine recoil from it. Virgilia fears wounds, blood, and death because they may deprive her of the husband she loves; Volumnia covets them as the signs and seals of honor that make her son a man, and her a man, in effect, through him. Coriolanus in himself does not exist for her; he is only a means for her to realize her own masculine ego ideal, a weapon she fashions for her own triumph. Virgilia, on the other hand, is the walking metaphor of her husband's inarticulate, unacknowledged, undeveloped other self: pure love and utter vulnerability. In the extreme sexual polarity of Rome, all she is must remain feminine, split off from what is manly. She is the opposite of her husband without being his complement. He brings noise and leaves tears, as his mother boasts; Virgilia is "a gracious silence" shedding tears.8
Volumnia has succeeded all too well in making her son not a person but a personification, a grotesque caricature of Roman manhood. As the play unfolds, he seems to embody Menenius's image of
.. . the Roman state, whose course will on
The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs . . .
a huge impersonal mechanism that plows unseeingly through men or nations, oblivious to their human needs, destroying them on its progress toward some obscure and unchangeable destination. In word and deed, Shakespeare's least sympathetic hero manifests a strangely mechanical quality of mind and body in his pursuit of an heroic ideal dear to Roman society. He cuts down enemies "like a harvest man that's task'd to mow / Or all or loss his hire" (1.3.36-37); "a thing of blood," he strikes Corioles like a planet, and runs "reeking over the lives of men" (2.2. 105-122); he leads his soldiers "like a thing / Made by some other deity than Nature" (4.6.91-93); and "when he walks, he moves like an engine" (5.4.18-25). Obsessed with his supremacy as a warrior, happiest when bathed in the blood of his enemies, he is depicted as Mars himself. His feats of slaughter win him the adoration of the Roman public; the plebeians, despite their initial enmity, flock to his triumphal return from the Volscian wars, and his fellow patricians hasten uncritically to placate his rages.
Yet this god is but a boy, finally, a "boy of tears." Behind his superhuman courage and adamantine refusal to compromise, the play reveals an incomplete, psychologically immature half man who lacks the most basic skills for coping with change, opposition, frustration, duplicity, or his own needs to love or be loved. Coriolanus's warrior self resembles the "false-self system" that R. D. Laing describes as a component of the schizophrenic personality. This warrior self has arisen in compliance with his mother's conception of him, and has a false, automatic, inhuman quality, partly because it has been implanted in him rather than being allowed to develop from within, and partly because it is only half human in its exclusion of any emotional response to others save anger, scorn, and aggression.9 Even these feelings, as I will argue when discussing Coriolanus's relations with the plebs, manifest his rebellion against the mother who has refused to allow him a self. His identity is based on an abstraction of Roman force and on his love for his mother, who makes her affection conditional on his fulfillment of her hopes. The more manly he is, in the exclusive and extreme terms of manliness Volumnia establishes, the more he is "bound to his mother," as she proclaims.
Volumnia's tendency to obliterate distinctions between herself and her son, to treat him as the embodiment of her own ego ideal, is reflected in the ways she and Coriolanus refer to each other, in terms that stress her role as bearer and nurturer so as to make her his creator. She calls him "the only son of my womb" (1.3.6) and tells him, "Thou art my warrior; / I holp to frame thee" (5.3.62-63) and more revealingly, "Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck'dst it from me" (3.2.129). He too finds his identity in her, calling himself "her blood" (1.9.13-14) and her "the honour'd mould / Wherein this trunk was fram'd" (5.3.22-23). At several points mother and son virtually echo each other. Volumnia envisions her son in battle, and acts out his fervor:
Methinks I hear hither your husband's drum;
See him pluck Aufidius down by th'hair,
As children from a bear, the Volsces shunning him.
Methinks I see him stamp thus, and call thus:
"Come on you cowards, you were got in fear
Though you were born in Rome."
Then, in the next scene, he shouts to his soldiers, "He that retires, I'll take him for Volsce" (1.4.28). Telle mère, tel fils; Volumnia's curses against the plebs resemble her son's, as well they might, for he claims to have learned them from her. Compare, for instance, his
What's the matter, you dissentious rogues
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?
to her "Now the red pestilence strike all trades in Rome, / And occupations perish!" (4.1.13-14)10.
The warrior self that Volumnia has created in Coriolanus isolates him from others and prevents him from developing the self still potential within him. Katherine Stockholder has perceptively remarked that
Coriolanus devotes himself to creating the image of virile masculinity qua honour and then identifies his self with that image .. . a kind of murder of all parts of the self that do not fit into the preconceived image.11
His warrior self is "hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer" (to put D. H. Lawrence's description of the American hero in a different cultural context). Because it is also false, an artificially contrived image, he must constantly strive to maintain it, and Volumnia is always there to help him. This warrior self is separate from his humanity, which emerges only in the denouement and then with fatal effect, but identical with his manliness. Furthermore, because Volumnia's indoctrination of her son into the warrior mentality was identical with nourishing him, because he sucked "valiantness" and not milk, pleasing his mother is for him the same as serving Rome: Rome and Volumnia, mother country and mother, are equally ascendant in his inner world. Thus, paradoxically, his martial supremacy is actually an expression of his extreme dependency, but at the same time an attempt to defend against that very dependency, by achieving godlike superiority that marks him off from any other man.
In the heavily charged imagery of the battle scenes at Corioles, Shakespeare suggests this tragic paradox behind the hero's valor. There he reenacts the dilemma of his identity, of being bound to and striving to get away from his mother; of trying to be at once a man and her boy. He enters the gates of the city alone, his soldiers shrinking from what seems certain death; when he reappears, bleeding, the troops follow him and take Corioles. The city is traditionally a feminine enclosure, and Coriolanus's isolation within this hostile city is stressed in the visual and dramatic action of act 1, scene 4, and verbally throughout the play:12
.. . he is himself alone,
To answer all the city.
Alone I fought in your Corioles walls . . .
Alone he enter'd
The mortal gate of the city.
Alone I did it! Boy!
At the same time that he is alone, he is also enclosed by the city walls and engulfed by a whole army. It is a perfect image for the two conflicting sides of his self: the determination his mother has planted in him to excel all others as Rome's unmatched warrior, which also means isolating himself from feeling and denying human bonds; and the underlying bond with his mother that makes his martial valor the means of her fulfillment rather than of his own. The duality of engulfment and isolation within the city walls also mirrors his ambivalent wish to separate himself as violently and bloodily from Volumnia as from his antagonists, and to fuse completely with her, even as he is surrounded by his enemies and masked in their blood.13
In his behavior toward the plebeians, Coriolanus gives full rein to the first wish, for violent differentiation. The mob is depicted as a hydra with many mouths; dependent on the patricians for food, starved and clamoring for "corn gratis," it embodies his own dependency and impoverishment at his mother's breast, where he sucked "valiantness" but little else save the arrogance for which the people hate him. Its power is expressed orally, through "voices" or votes, as is its hungry presence, and in a similarly oral mode, Coriolanus attacks it with vicious, scornful abuse, using words as weapons. As Janet Adelman shows brilliantly, Volumnia has trained her son to despise dependency of any kind, and to turn his own into aggression.14 Truly, he "leaves nothing undone that may fully discover him their opposite" (2.2.20-21), and that is the psychological function of his aggression toward the plebeians. Their faults are the opposite of his virtues, for the implicit standard by which he condemns them is his aristocratic one of stoic constancy and fortitude:
He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is,
To make him worthy whose offense subdues him,
And curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness,
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man's appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil.
The strong, repetitive rhetorical oppositions in which he characterizes the mob reflect his own need to split himself off from their enveloping neediness. In battle they are cowards and he is a superhero; they drop their weapons to carry off the spoils while he fights without respite, careless of wounds; they complain of hunger and he scorns to eat. His attitude toward them is also congruent with his "zero-sum" hero's mentality: they are nothing, he is everything. If they are anything at all, he is nothing.15
While the wounds he hardly seems to feel are regarded by Rome as signs of his "service to the state," Coriolanus cannot bear to acknowledge them as such to the people, for that would be admitting a bond tantamount to his unconscious bond with the mother who is firmly identified with that state, its values, and its very existence. (He willingly acknowledges his bond to the senate when Menenius offers him the consulship, saying "I do owe them still / My life and services" [2.2.133-134], but cannot bear to show himself subservient to the plebeians.) Seeking wounds as he conspicuously does, he seems to court praise for them, yet when he receives it, he is driven to deny it and scorn those offering it. What he persistently seeks and finds, first in the mob and then in Aufidius, is an opposite with whom he can proclaim a negative bond, a bond of hate, the only kind he can afford to acknowledge and the kind that helps him maintain an identity that otherwise is too uncomfortably merged with his mother's.
As the plot unfolds, Volumnia and her son are trapped not only by the self-defeating emotional logic of their relationship, but also by historical circumstance. The play begins at a politically significant moment in the life of Rome—the creation of the tribuneship.16 But this first recognition of the plebeians' political existence is purely formal. Menenius's fable presents a vision of Rome as a unified organic whole, but as Michael McCanles points out, according to this conception any single member of the body politic that does not cooperate is thus a faction at war with all the rest.17 The organic model provides no means of solving conflicts by change and compromise. Coriolanus, on the other hand, sees the situation as one in which "two authorities are up, / Neither supreme." (3.1.109-110). Though his estimate is part and parcel of his defensive system that requires constant antagonism, it is nonetheless accurate. Each side uses the organic metaphor to refer to the other as extraneous to and destructive of the body politic. Coriolanus calls the people "scabs" and "measles" and curses them with boils and plagues, while the tribunes turn the metaphor against him: "He's a disease that must be cut away" (3.1.293), a metaphor made real when they banish him.
In this political context, election to the consulship is a kind of rite de passage that allows the patricians to reiterate ceremonially their adherence to the warrior ethic that defines them as an elite. To serve as consul is publicly regarded as "service to the state," and insofar as Coriolanus defends the city from the Volscians, he does serve the state. But in another sense, the external threat of war enables the patricians to validate their existence as an elite by creating and rewarding warriors, whose brave deeds make them worthy of civic office. The recent establishment of the tribunes makes it necessary, however, for the ritual of candidacy to reflect the new, supposedly representative government: the candidate must don humble garb and show his wounds to the people, to prove that his "service" makes him worthy of their votes. But since Coriolanus serves "to please his mother, and to be partly proud, which he is, even to the altitude of his virtue" (1.1.38-39), and since he ultimately serves the interests of his own class more than those of the whole, the ceremony is a charade. In addition, it is hollow because the politically naive plebeians (whose intuitions about Coriolanus are devastatingly accurate) are at the mercy of their scheming self-interested tribunes. They faintly perceive the artificiality of the whole procedure but, schooled in habits of compliance, go along with it. Coriolanus's distaste for it is not merely defensive arrogance, but also an unblinking assessment of the situation from the patrician viewpoint, which he is the only one to press openly, as the last pure aristocrat of his class.
It is at this historical moment that the political terms in which Coriolanus is accustomed to maintain his warrior identity change and betray him. In this new political climate of accmmodation and compromise, where gesture masks power, Coriolanus's rigid integrity is out of place and his aristocratic pride a liability. But his mother, who bred in him that integrity and pride, is determined that he shall "inherit the buildings of her fancy" and gain the consulship. Contradicting her own values for the sake of his success, she shows no understanding of his character when she urges him to humble himself to the people she has called "woollen vassals":
Cor: Would you have me be
False to my nature? Rather say I play the man I am.
Vol: You might have been enough the man you are
With striving less to be so.
What Coriolanus believes to be his authentic self is that self he has played all his life, with her prompting and for her applause. But now, having made him obstinate and cruel, Volumnia would have him false to himself—hypocritical and conciliatory. She has changed the script: now the word is "policy" instead of "valiantness," but she still relies on her power to make him play her part:
Cor: You have put me to such a part which never
I shall discharge to the life.
Com: Come, come, we'll prompt you.
Vol: I prithee now, sweet son, as thou hast said
My praises made thee first a soldier, so,
To have my praise for this, perform a part
Thou hast not done before.
Even as he agrees to perform that part, he portrays it as emasculation, he will resemble, he says, a prostitute, a eunuch, a virgin, a schoolboy, or a beggar; he sees himself before the plebs as dependent, castrated, womanish. For perhaps the first time in his life, he defies her—but when she then withdraws her approval and proudly refuses to beg, he collapses in a flurry of reassurances. When he confronts the crowd in act 3, scene 1, however, to hear the charges brought against him, he reverts instantly to his warrior self—the intransigent, scornful, angry boy his mother has created.
When the tribunes call him traitor and rescind the consulship he has just won at such cost, they provoke him to reject Rome in what seems a startling transformation of his values. Their behavior toward him is really similar to Volumnia's in the previous scene. She enticed him with her approval, then refused it; they overlook his insults and reward him for his valor with the consulship, then rebuke him for his "power tyrannical" and dishonor him with banishment. Their actions provoke his ungovernable rage not merely because he suspects the tribunes have manipulated the people in order to keep their offices, or because of his scorn for plebeian malleability. The magnitude of his anger identifies it as the repressed rage he could not show against his mother. Like her, they gave him something and then took it back; they led him on and with a terrible power, deprived him, just as she made a man of him but deprived him of a self, even enough of a self to maintain a consistency she had abandoned.
"Like to a lonely dragon," Coriolanus stalks into exile. But isolated as he is, he cannot bear to be alone and immediately seeks the solace of antagonism. In a double reversal, he allies himself with his archrival and pits himself against Rome. This action exemplifies one of his most distinctive, oft-noted traits: his inability to temper his convictions or his anger, his absolute, univocal stance, his either-or, all-or-nothing mentality. Thus his planned revenge against Rome is to be total and indiscriminate, "as spacious as between / The young'st and oldest thing" (4.6.68-69). Its intensity bespeaks the intensity of the hurt he must hide. Rome was his mother and she has cast him out, so he must cast her out. Coriolanus is Shakespeare's least inward tragic hero. He has but one soliloquy, which, significantly, charts his volte-face from Rome to Antium, characteristically in terms of total fusion and violent antagonism:
O world, thy slippery turns! Friends now fast sworn
Whose double bosoms seems to wear one heart,
Whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise
Are still together, who twin as 'twere, in love
Unseparable, shall within this hour,
On a dissension of a doit, break out
To bitterest enmity; so feilest foes,
Whose passions and whose plots have broke their sleep
Some trick not worth an egg, shall grow dear friends
And interjoin their issues. So with me:
My birthplace hate I, and my love's upon
This enemy town.
The kind of twinning same-sex friendship he depicts resembles the narcissistic mirrorings of the comedies, enjoyed by the Antipholi, Hermia and Helen, and Rosalind and Celia, who abandon them from marriage.18 But for Coriolanus and for his fellow warrior Aufidius, these man-to-man relationships, whether based on love or hate, compete in passion with their other marriages:
Cor: Oh! let me clip ye
In arms as sound as when I woo'd; in heart
As merry as when our nuptial day was done,
And tapers burn'd to bedward.
Auf: Know thou first,
I lov'd the maid I married; never man
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.
Coriolanus's meditation on friendship ends with the fantasy that these loving male friends "interjoin their issues" and marry their children to each other—reflecting a wish for an actual marriage between men.
It is Aufidius who enlarges on this homoerotic theme quite startlingly when he welcomes Coriolanus as his ally. Aufidius last appeared early in the play, vowing eternal hate to his rival out of sheer envy at being defeated by him (1.10). His fall into craftiness, announced then, was contrasted with Coriolanus's steely integrity. Thus the Volscian's passionate reception of Coriolanus is a sudden and unmotivated reversal, one fire driving out another. But hate and love are really all one to him, for they both take the form of rivalrous combat, the dominant form of masculinity in Roman culture:
Here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valour. . . .
. . . Thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me—
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat—
And wak'd half-dead with nothing.
Aufidius cannot possibly sustain an alliance that even in his dreams can only dissolve into a fight. At the heart of his antagonism is envy. He is the second-rater who will stop at nothing to be first, while Coriolanus, obsessed by revenge, surpasses him in valor and popularity without even thinking about it. It is supremely fitting that aggressiveness and competitiveness unite to bring about the hero's downfall, for they comprise the Roman warrior mentality: its extreme aggressiveness against enemies, which demands the suppression of human sympathy, is embodied in Volumnia, and its extreme competitiveness, which pits man against man in an incessant contest for superiority, is embodied in Aufidius.
But on Coriolanus's side, this intense rivalry is another reenactment of his ambivalent bond with Volumnia:
I sin in envying his nobility;
And were I anything but what I am,
I would wish me only he. . . .
Were half to half the world by th'ears, and he
Upon my party, I'd revolt to make
Only my wars with him.19
First he wishes to be Aufidius, his virtual double in all save honesty, and then declares that he would join the enemy in order to fight against him because only Aufidius is worthy to be his rival. As in the battle at Corioles, the hero would both fuse with another and also separate violently from him and oppose him. He can only love someone who is the same as himself, but then he must fight him. In the first half of the play, the two men are more unified in their "violent'st contrariety" than they are in their alliance in the second half, when Aufidius begins to plot against his partner. Both are dedicated to achieving the kind of victory in which their opponent is reduced to absolute nothingness:
Mar: I'll fight with none but thee, for I do hate thee
Worse than a promise-breaker.
Auf: We hate alike:
Not Afric owns a serpent I abhor.
More than thy fame and envy. Fix thy foot.
Mar: Let the first budger die the other's slave,
And the gods doom him after.
Shakespeare stresses the binding quality of their enmity throughout; in the first act, Aufidius declares, "He's mine, or I am his" (1.10.12), laying the foundation for the final confrontation in which "the fall of either makes the survivor heir of all" (5.6.18-19).
Coriolanus has behaved all his life so as "not to be other than one thing"—that perfect Roman his mother envisions him to be. When she pleads with him at Antium not to destroy Rome, that one thing splits in two, like a heart cracking. To pursue his revenge against Rome would indeed be, as he says, to "stand as if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin," the most extreme denial of his bonds with his mother and with Rome, the cruelest and bloodiest separation from his emotional and social matrix. But it would also be completely congruent with the character she has instilled in him; to destroy Rome would demand that insulation from all human pity, that relentless, narrowly defined integrity she has taught him in the name of valor and honor.
On the other hand, to relent as he does means to feel pity and love, to admit and act upon "the bond and privilege of nature" that binds him not only to his mother, but to all that is human. Volumnia has always made her son's Roman valor the price of her affection. Now, as when she begged him to don the white robe and seek the consulship, she asks him to abandon valor and to act out of feelings she has done her best to kill in him. All his life, to be Roman has meant being inhuman, like a deity or a "thing." Now, to be Roman means to be human. Thus, though presumably he pleases Volumnia when he relents, he does not relent only to please her, but in answer to a tenderness within him that she has tried to eradicate and that she would not admire even if she could recognize it. Interestingly, Shakespeare gives us no hint of her responses to her son's climactic turnabout; she has not a word to say after he agrees not to march on Rome, and makes only a brief wordless appearance in act 5, scene 5, to be hailed as "our patroness, the life of Rome." That Coriolanus does yield bespeaks a transformation within him far deeper than his relatively superficial reversal of political affiliation. For the first time, he gives voice to the silence, the vacant emotional space within him. As a "boy of tears" he is more of a man—and paradoxically, less than ever Volumnia's son—than he was on the battlefield. It is appropriate, then, that when his silence finds voice she falls silent, unable to voice the sympathy, approval, or affection the moment naturally invites.
But there is no place for a man's tears in the Roman world of this play. Inevitably, Aufidius's taunts against Coriolanus's manhood send him reeling back into the anger and obtuse defiance that have always been the seal of his manliness:
Auf: .. . at his nurse's tears
He whin'd and roar'd away your victory,
That pages blush'd at him, and men of heart
Look'd wond'ring each at others.
Cor: Hear'st thou, Mars?
Auf: Name not the god, thou boy of tears!
He cannot defend the peace he has made at his mother's urging because the man who made that peace is so newborn, so primitive and undeveloped, that he is like a boy, a helpless creature of tears and silence unable to stand up for himself. He vanishes at Aufidius's first insult, to be replaced by the cruel deity Mars, with whom Coriolanus has always been identified. And Coriolanus returns to being a warrior, "one thing" only, incapable of a temperate, rational response to any challenge. Though he briefly appeals to the "judgements" of the "grave lords" who (it is clear) might have kept Aufidius's minions from striking, he quickly falls into the warrior's mode of challenge, defiance, and boasting that plays into Aufidius's hands:
Cut me to pieces, Volsces, men and lads,
Stain all your edges on me. Boy! False hound!
If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there,
That like an eagle in a dove-cote, I
Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioles.
Alone I did it. Boy!
In recalling his solitary entrance into Corioles, the hero recreates his ideal self just before suffering the death that is the price of it—as Othello does when he remembers smiting the Turk, as Hamlet does when he asks Horatio to tell his story. His line "Alone I did it. Boy!" restates with a terrible irony the dilemma of his identity: his ambivalent attempt to sunder the maternal bond even as he fulfills its conditions, to be "alone" the warrior his mother wants him to be, and his failure to do it, for in these last moments of his life he is more her "boy" than ever. He dies longing for another good fight against his supreme enemy, for a perpetuation of the "violent'st contrariety" by which he has lived:
O, that I had him,
With six Aufidiuses, or more, his tribe,
To use my lawful sword.
By thrusting him from dependency and thrusting onto him a warrior self of her own devising, Volumnia effectively murdered the babe in Coriolanus—the loving and vulnerable self within him. He gains tragic stature in forsaking his revenge against Rome because he dares to revive that self and then dies because of the attempt. In contrast, Macbeth is more fully developed emotionally, already enough of a man to feel the horror of his cruel deeds—yet it is he who murders the babe of pity within himself as the play proceeds. The urges conflicting within him, the urges to kill and to nurture that infant self, are evenly matched and relentless. Though he gives in to the worse of the two, he is tragic because he lives each one out so fully, suffering for the good in his nature as well as for the evil.
But like Coriolanus, though he excels as a virile warrior, Macbeth has not fully separated himself from the feminine source of his identity. That he is destined to be defeated by a man "untimely ripp'd from his mother's womb" signifies, in Macbeth's sexually confused fantasy world, that only a violent and unnatural separation from woman can make a man whole, able both to feel and to fight, to be a father and to be valiant, as Macduff is.20 The sources of his sexual confusion are the witches, who direct their mischief toward him, and Lady Macbeth, who seeks vicarious fulfillment through him. These female beings ally themselves with destruction, not creation (Lady Macduff, appearing in only one scene as an anxious and defenseless mother, is a foil to them). Macbeth's susceptibility to them, and his inability to maintain and defend his conceptions of manliness, emanate from his unconscious dependency on them as mentors. His kingship, gained by repeated murders that rob him of all content, might be symbolized by bloody men, himself and those he kills, and those men are in turn associated with the kind of action urged on him by his wife in the name of manliness. He sees her, in fact, as a kind of man, who should
Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.
He speaks of her as though she were a sole godlike procreator, man and woman both. And she does have the terrible power to make him her kind of bloody man.21
Macbeth's dependency on women is closely related to a second motif, the rivalries he pursues with men: his violent agons with the rebels of the first act, and his equally violent envy of Banquo and then of Macduff, each the kind of man Macbeth could or would be. Like Coriolanus, Macbeth defines himself by fighting men who mirror him in some way, but his antagonists are ego ideals, not carbon copies, as Aufidius was of Coriolanus, for Macbeth's ego is more developed them Coriolanus's; he has greater self-awareness and a wider range of feelings. As the play proceeds, Macbeth follows a pattern of first imbibing encouragement from female sources, then attacking male antagonists. The first three scenes reflect this pattern, with the witches (in scenes 1 and 3) framing the accounts of Macbeth's valor (in scene 2). These accounts are phrased as a succession of single combats, each of which involves merger and then separation. Thus they constitute analogues to Macbeth's ambivalence: he merges his will with the wishes of his female influences in order to accomplish bloody deeds, but through the deeds he differentiates himself, to be singled out as a man and stand supreme. The Captain's account of Macbeth's valor suggests that he passes through a sort of initiation rite, to emerge fully validated as a man, warrior, and loyal subject. As the combat between Macdonwald and Macbeth begins, they merge in the heat of the fight, equally matched in a hostile embrace "as two spent swimmers, that do cling together / And choke their art" (1.2.7-8). But Macbeth triumphs with a vicious stroke, described so viscerally as to make us shudder, and at least momentarily question the value conferred on such brutality. When Norway enters the battle, Macbeth and Banquo are described as a pair, indistinguishable, both "bathe[d] in reeking wounds." And when Macbeth begins a third combat, with Cawdor, the equality of the match, and the likeness of the antagonists, is again stressed: Macbeth
Confronted him with self-comparisons,
Point against point, rebellious arm 'gainst arm,
almost as though they are twins. As in the rivalry between Coriolanus and Aufidius, the combat seems like a marriage that confers manly identity. First the combatants merge as equals, and then one of them distinguishes himself as victor; Macbeth becomes "Bellona's bridegroom, lapp'd in proof," his manhood consummated, and acquires a new identity as Cawdor—an ominous one of rebel and hypocrite.
Finally, Macbeth's struggle toward manhood is refracted in a third motif: fatherhood, presented as the crown of manhood and, especially in his competition with Banquo, deeply entwined with male rivalry. His character and his career pivot on the crucial distinction made in the witches' prophecies between being a king and being a father. Macbeth, they declare, will be king hereafter, while Banquo will get kings but not be one. And Banquo, though lesser, will be happier than Macbeth. Fatherhood is based not on deeds of blood but on the mystery of procreation: the harmony of male with female powers, in step with the steady rhythms of the natural order. It might be symbolized by the apparition of the crowned babe, the ruler of that future forever beyond Macbeth's grasp. The men in the play are fruitful: Duncan, Banquo, Macduff, and Siward all have sons, for and through whom they act to perpetuate the natural and the social order. But the childless Macbeth's only "firstlings" are murders. The confusion of sexual identity pervading the play is offset by this contrast between the sterility of bloody deeds and the fruition of fatherhood.
Tracing Macbeth's progress from the properly sanctioned, morally clear manhood of martial valor in defense of Duncan, to his final delusion that "no man of woman born" can harm him, we begin with his experience of feminine powers represented by the witches. They create a murky atmosphere of blurred distinctions, mingled opposites, equivocations, and reversals. In their world, things "hover through the fog and filthy air" and "fair is foul and foul is fair." This murkiness extends through the play as Macbeth yields to them: in the darkness that entombs the living light of day after Duncan's murder; in the light that "thickens" as Macbeth's assassins prepare to kill Banquo; in the self-contradictory messages the apparitions give Macbeth; in Lady Macbeth's "thick-coming fancies." The feminine, as the play depicts it, is a chaos of physical as well as moral elements, deviously inviting men to their destruction by confusion rather than direct attack.
In imagery, the feminine takes the form of "spirits" ambiguously aerial, liquid, and solid. They are the opposite of that morally and physically nourishing "milk of human kindness" Lady Macbeth would deny her baby if it impeded her will and would drain out of her husband. As a thick liquid that stops up the passages of remorse, the feminine is most vividly imaged in the contents of the witches' cauldron, that "gruel thick and slab" well described by G. Wilson Knight:
The ingredients are absurd bits of life like those of Othello's ravings (Othello 4.1.42), now jumbled together. . . . Though the bodies from which these are torn are often themselves, by association, evil, yet we must note the additional sense of chaos, bodily desecration, and irrationality in the use of the absurd members ... a feast of death and essential disorder (because of the disjointed ingredients) giving birth to spirits suggesting life that is to come (the Apparitions and their prophecies).22
"Finger of birth-strangled babe, / Ditch-deliver'd by a drab" and "sow's blood, that hath eaten / Her nine farrow" pointedly associate childbearing with murder and women with death, not in terms of legend or fantasy but as city and village realities. This hell-broth symbolizing chaos and destruction is a metaphor for the influence of the "spirits" who brew it; in a pervasive pun, "spirits" as devilish influences without and tendencies within man are like "spirits" or liquor, and they are feminine. Shakespeare establishes the connection between Lady Macbeth and the witches by having her invoke the spirits of evil and ask them to fill her with their spirits:
Come, you Spirits,
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,
Stop up th'access and passage to remorse;
That no compunctious visitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th'effect and it!
When she incites Macbeth to murder, she "pours" these same "spirits" into his ears, and like liquor, they make his will drunk, separating his eye from his hand and his reason from his actions. Similarly, Lady Macbeth drugs the grooms with wine and wassail that drench their memory and their reason, and prepares a drink for Macbeth before he goes to murder Duncan. While he awaits the drink, the vision of the dagger appears and plunges him into tortured ambivalence. To deny the reality of the feelings that gave rise to this vision, he evokes the same ritualistic, incantatory spirits of Witchcraft, Hecate, and Murder by which his wife originally persuaded him to the deed. Attaining the "rapt," spellbound state of blind readiness similar to that he experienced when the witches accosted him, as the scene closes he prepares to abandon himself to "the heat of deeds":
I go, and it is done: the bell invites me—
deeds he can perform only at the quasi-magical beckoning of the bell she rings and by quaffing the inebriating drink she serves him. The next scene begins with Lady Macbeth exulting in her "spirits," the possets she brews, and the powers of evil that possess her:
That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold:
What hath quench'd them hath given me fire.
The kind of manly action to which she successfully incites her husband by taunting him with his failure to be as resolute as she is originates, then, in a profound passivity, a suffusion by a liquid feminine element that drowns whatever compunctions oppose it.
Inevitably, the action inspired by this surrender to feminine spirits must be as self-defeating and delusory as action inspired by drink. The Porter's wry, mordant comments on how liquor affects sexual desire and performance apply equally to the effect of Lady Macbeth's and the witches' "spirits" on Macbeth's performance as a man:
Lechery, Sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to: in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.23>
The spirits that seem to make him potent actually render him impotent.24 For the more daringly, heartlessly, and blindly Macbeth acts, the less he gains, the farther he places himself from the chimera of safety. The blatantly phallic reference of the whole speech and the fears of impotence it voices, particularly in the phrases "stand to, and not stand to," express the self-defeating quality of the actions he undertakes: the deed never "done"; the throne never secured; and the manhood barren of issue.25 The futility of the "masculine" actions Macbeth undertakes to secure the crown might be paralleled to the sexual sterility at the heart of his identity as a man: they are complementary aspects of his plight. Some critics have claimed that he makes war on children because he cannot have any, but this is too literal a reading.26 Rather, that "he has no children" is a metaphor for his failure to realize an authentic manliness that integrates his conscience and his feelings with his valor, a manliness fostering rather than merely destroying life.
Continuing the idea behind the pun on spirits, another pun runs through the play: doing as the sexual act and as murder, the "daring" deed that will make the hero a man.27 It begins with the First Witch's line, "I'll do, and I'll do, and I'll do" (1.3.10): a terrifyingly vague litany of pure desire. As Matthew Proser argues in his excellent analysis of Macbeth's "manly image," the witches appeal to "desire alone . . . which then becomes a standard of action." Similarly, Lady Macbeth taunts her husband with his failure to be "the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire" (1.7.39-40). This identification of women with arbitrary, insatiable, and inscrutable desire bespeaks a fear of engulfment or absorption by them; he who follows such desire in order to become a man becomes, in effect, a slave. The crown itself does not spur Macbeth and his wife on, nor the "greatness" broadly associated with it; rather, as Proser says,
Duncan's murder, though in one light simply a means to the crown, in another is subconsciously understood by Macbeth as the act which will prove him worthy of it .. . as a kind of indelible stamp of valor.28
To do the murder is to dare, not merely to brave the rebels but to flout the holiest moral and political bonds. And the man who cannot "dare" in this fashion, Lady Macbeth declares, also reveals himself as less than a man sexually, impotent as a drunkard may be, timorous as a maid with green-sickness (1.7.35-38). Macbeth opposes her by saying,
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more, is none.
In Shakespeare's rich irony he accepts her implicit notion of manhood as morally blind courage, but he also resists it, for the "more" he alludes to is the bloody pitilessness that makes man a beast. As we have just seen in his soliloquy on the wickedness of killing Duncan, Macbeth has within him what may indeed "become" (in both senses) a man: the moral sense that graces him as better than a beast.
But his wife, countering his resistance in phrases anticipating the Porter's speech, as much as calls Macbeth impotent:
Nor time, nor place,
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you.
When she then "unsexes" herself in her vision of dashing the nursing child to the ground, his resistance crumbles. Intimidated by her valor and stung by her taunts at his virility, he "screws his courage to the sticking place" and "bends up his corporal agents" to the terrible feat. Shakespeare's language suggests a strained artificiality in this manliness similar to Coriolanus's, a body language that belies a lack of inward conviction.
When Banquo's ghost appears to fill his murderer with fear and unman him, another debate on the nature and limits of manliness arises between the hero and his wife:
Lady M: Are you a man?
Mach: Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that
Which might appal the Devil.
Lady M: . . . O! these flaws and starts
(Impostors to true fear), would well become
A woman's story at a winter's fire,
Authoris'd by her grandam. Shame itself!
Once again, she implicitly defines manhood as unblinking resolution, untouched by pity or fear, and he defines it as the courage to confront his own evil. And once again, she taunts him with effeminacy. When the ghost reappears, though, Macbeth no longer dares to look on him; he challenges the specter to a merely hypothetical combat as a way of replacing the gruesome vision with a comforting image of his own valor:
What man dare, I dare.
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The arm'd rhinoceros, or th'Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble: or, be alive again,
And dare me to the desert with thy sword;
If trembling I inhabit then, protest me
The baby of a girl. Hence, horrible shadow!
The hyperbolic feats of courage, the sheer fantasy of a second chance to prove himself a man against a ghost, the exaggerated self-deprecation by comparison not merely with a girl, but a girl's doll—Macbeth's rhetoric shows how desperate he is to make himself into his wife's kind of man, if only in words, and how he lacks any confidence in his own identity as a moral being. In fact, his word-magic works, and the ghost disappears, allowing his murderer to exclaim, "I am a man again" (3.4.107).29 He can only feel himself a man when he has repressed what is most characteristically his—his moral feelings—and conformed to the one-dimensional manliness his wife shames him into, which gives him only brief respite from fear and leaves him still unsatisfied, which "makes" him but then "mars" him. The ultimate manly satisfaction in this play resides in fatherhood, and that he never achieves.
It is the issue of fatherhood that makes him Banquo's rival. When Macbeth calls attention to the difference between what the witches promise him and what they promise Banquo, immediately after he is named Thane of Cawdor (1.3.118-120), he does so in a comradely way, as though wishing to draw his fellow warrior into his own state of exultant hope. His letter to Lady Macbeth mentions only his prospective kingship, and the matter of Banquo's issue lies dormant till after Duncan's murder, when Banquo himself revives it, taking satisfaction from thinking that while Macbeth is king now, Banquo himself "should be the root and father / Of many kings" (3.1.5-6). Unlike Macbeth, he seems content merely with the prospect of transmitting a royal inheritance; the hope on which his brief soliloquy closes is not the hope of having the throne for himself, but of being known in posterity as the father of kings.30 But though Macbeth thus lacks grounds for fearing Banquo, fear him he does—out of envy. Banquo combines "wisdom" with valor as Macbeth has not, and acts in the "safety" that Macbeth has exchanged for fear; he is Macbeth's ideal self image, the man of conscience as well as courage; he is, finally, his rival. "Under him / My Genius is rebuk'd," says Macbeth grandly, and his soliloquy moves into a new key of fevered, anxious resentment rather than fear, an itching determination, as he remembers the witches' promise to his companion, not to let Banquo have what he cannot have:
Upon my head they plac'd a fruitless crown,
And put a barren scepter in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding. If t be so,
For Banquo's issue have I fil'd my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murther'd;
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace,
Only for them; and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common Enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!
Rather than so, come, fate, into the list,
And champion me to th'utterance!
If Macbeth in fact had a son, his existence could not guarantee the security of his father's throne, for it could still "be wrench'd with an unlineal hand"; Macbeth thought Malcolm the step lying in his way. What agitates the hero so deeply is the thought that his present honor, purchased at such great cost, will some day long after his death accure, even indirectly, to his rival. Furthermore, "the seed of Banquo" attests, it seems, to a kind of greatness and power in him forever denied Macbeth—the power to procreate and specifically, to have sons. Sexually and socially, in Shakespeare's world, fatherhood validates a man's identity.31
The play does not bear out Freud's contention that the hero "is not content with the satisfaction of his own ambition, he desires to found a dynasty."32 Rather, Macbeth envies Banquo's dynasty primarily because it is Banquo's and not his, and additionally because it constitutes "all that may become a man"—the fulfillment of extending one's manly identity beyond one's own lifetime. In the soliloquy just quoted, Macbeth's rage does not come to rest on the cruelty of fate in denying him sons. Though "fruitless crown," "barren sceptre," and "no sons of mine succeeding" ring plangently with disappointment, this tone is quickly succeeded by the dominant tone of furious envy, my and mine repeatedly contrasted with them to stress the hero's competitive drive. The speech concludes with a defiant challenge to "fate"; Macbeth would personify his lack of issue in a chivalric opponent and fight him to the death, as he fought Macdonwald and Cawdor. And in effect, that is what he does with Banquo, in the ensuing scene with the murderers, displacing onto them his own sense that Banquo holds him "so under fortune," urging his own rivalrous envy onto them:
Are you so gospell'd,
To pray for this good man, and for his issue,
Whose heavy hand hath bow'd you to the grave,
And beggar'd yours for ever?
Macbeth feels more of a man when he has a man to struggle against—but here, even more than with Duncan, he hides from his own deed, hiring assassins and in addition hoodwinking them into thinking their motives are more than mercenary.
From this active enmity toward Banquo, Macbeth moves to passive identification with the mysterious, evil feminine powers who, his syntax suggests, will do his dirty work for him, as the murderers will.33 Alone briefly with his wife after sending his hirelings to their task, Macbeth verbally conjures up the evil powers associated with her—Hecate, her nocturnal agents, the night itself—and hints at the murder of Banquo in terms of the "deeds" Lady Macbeth demands of him:
Mach: . . . there shall be done
A deed of dreadful note.
Lady M: What's to be done?
Mach: Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed.
His language reveals his continuing dependence on her now internalized influence; only in a superficial sense does he act independently of her, by not telling her of his plans. He can "act" like a man only by concealing the knowledge of his actions from his better part, his moral self, and he uses both his identification with his wife and his rivalry with Banquo for this purpose.
Immediately after the banquet, when Banquo's ghost sits in Macbeth's place as if to mock his efforts to eliminate his rival, Macbeth notes Macduff s absence from the feast and announces that he will visit the Weird Sisters. Macduff will soon take Banquo's place as masculine rival and spur to action, while the witches take Lady Macbeth's role as feminine powers on whom Macbeth can rely for inspiration and reassurance. The mood in which he seeks them shows to what extent he has changed into the resolute man his wife wished him to be:
I will tomorrow
(And betimes I will) to the Weird Sisters:
More shall they speak; for now I am bent to know,
By the worst means, the worst. For mine own good,
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
"The worst" would be some confirmation of Banquo's preeminence through his issue, but again, such knowledge will not check Macbeth's pell-mell course of bloody action, which now takes on the monotonous and compulsive quality that palls his last stand in the besieged castle. Nothing the witches tell him can change him; he is already "bloody, bold, and resolute" and will manipulate whatever they say to sustain this attitude.
The apparitions, purely as visual symbols without their verbal mottoes, are richly overdetermined representations of the conflicting imperatives driving Macbeth toward his fatal manhood. The first, the armed head, suggests adult manhood and its warrior rivalries and combats: Macbeth heroically fighting the rebels in the first act and Macduff in the last act; Macbeth vanquished at the end, a bloody head on a pike dishonored and cast out by his country as his earlier opponent and namesake Cawdor was. The second, the bloody child, represents the infant man, bloodied at birth when nature separates him from his mother, the blood a sign of his link with women and his vulnerability as a human being dependent upon the human community. This child echoes Pity, the naked babe of Macbeth's great soliloquy, its helplessness paradoxically also its power, the power to move others to humane action. The third, the child crowned with a tree in its hand, symbolizes the paternity denied to Macbeth and reserved for the man able to refrain from action and wait for the seeds of time to grow, a man like Banquo—the kind of man Duncan began to "plant," when he honored Macbeth for bloody actions performed to protect the social order. The tree suggests a family tree, an organic union of male and female sustained from generation to generation.
Considered dramatically, as speaking personages to whom Macbeth responds, the apparitions perform like the witches and Lady Macbeth: they make him
. . . spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace, and fear.
In short, they pander to his infantile need for magical reassurance and utter certainty. And they do so in the way characteristic of the female influences in the play, by making and marring him, by setting him on with a spurious confidence and taking him off when the truth behind their equivocations becomes evident. The First Apparition is comparatively straightforward, confirming Macbeth's well-founded suspicion of Macduff, but it also reinforces the hero's irrational need to pit himself against another man in the attempt to solve inner conflict by external competition and combat. The Second Apparition's message cancels that of the first, as earlier the witches' promises to Banquo, so far as Macbeth was concerned, wiped out their promises to him. But here again Macbeth does not pause to puzzle out the discrepancy nor to ponder the meaning of the bloody child; instead, he seizes on the flattering image of himself as invulnerable that it implies:
. . . laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.
During the siege of the last act, he repeats the last sentence as if it were a charm to ward off the gathering army. Psychologically, it serves to make all other men seem effeminate compared to Macbeth, and sets him apart from women as well as from men. The Third Apparition's message also flatters his grandiose self-image, reinforcing the preceding message of invulnerability with a supernatural sanction.
Before bringing the play full circle to conclude with Macbeth's last heroic combat, Shakespeare takes pains to present Macduff and the two Siwards as touchstones of manhood and to set manhood in the context of procreation and the family.34 Only in defense of the family as the basis of social order, he suggests, does violence properly authenticate a man.
By acquainting us with Macduff through his absence as father and husband, by showing us the terrible results of his flight to England, however necessary it is for the good of Scotland, Shakespeare suggests how deeply women and men can cooperate, in normal circumstances, for their mutual comfort and reorients the sexual terms that have thus far dominated the play. When Lady Macduff compares her family to a family of birds, she reminds us of Banquo's beautiful description of Macbeth's castle, the last statement of order based on love, before Duncan's murder and the end of order:
This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle:
Where they most breed mid haunt, I have observ'd
The air is delicate.
Love, sexuality, and the divine are profoundly and sweetly one here. Their unity takes the natural shape of the family, with the traditional division of roles, the male providing and protecting, the female bearing and nurturing. Lady Macduff s family, in contrast, is disrupted and endangered by her husband's absence, and she argues—vociferously, vigorously—that even the female wren stays in her nest to fight the owl and protect her young ones. The father who leaves his family "wants the natural touch"; if he abandons them, he may as well be dead. Of course she speaks in ignorance of Macduff s praiseworthy motives for flight, but she is nonetheless right; had he stayed, he might have saved his "pretty chickens, and their dam."35 The extremity of her situation and her uncompromising protest against it throw into relief the natural (in terms of the social order as Shakespeare knew it) dependency of women on men, contrasting with the perversity of Macbeth's dependency on his wife, and its perverse results—his slaughter of women and children.
When Rosse finishes his brief and terrible account of that slaughter, Macduff s first reaction confirms his wife's: "And I must be from thence!" (4.3.212). Then he gives rein to his grief, and in five lines Shakespeare sums up, with full impact and precise economy, the critique of masculinity expressed by the whole play:
Mal: Dispute it like a man.
Macd: I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man:
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me.
He must first assert his feelings as a father, his grief born of paternal love, before he will exercise his valor as a man. Then, courage and pity fused, he marches against Macbeth, his opposite in every sense, who kills pity in the name of courage, who kills children. This scene puts the final confrontation of the two warriors in a wholly different context from that of the combats described in act 1, and not just for the obvious political reasons. Macduff fights not only for honor or glory, not only to save his country or avenge his family, but in the broadest sense, to defend the continuance of human life itself as it devolves on love between men and women, procreation, nurturance, and pity.
Siward's stoic patriotism casts fatherhood in a stern, Roman mold to contrast with Macduff s deep personal feeling. The final battle is, for his son as for "many unrough youths, that even now / Protest their first of manhood" (5.3.10-11), a rite de passage which tests not only valor but loyalty. Young Siward's death is pure, uncomplicated by the brutality and excessive blood of Macbeth's early glories; "They say he parted well and paid his score," declares his father, for whom the criterion of manliness is simply bravery in the service of the state. The episode thus comments on Macbeth's errant path, for Young Si ward seems to end where Macbeth began ("He only liv'd but till he was a man" [5.9.6]), and his father seems to attain through his child that sense of completion Macbeth can never know.
Like Coriolanus, Macbeth dies in combat as he lived, bloody to the last, at the hands of a man with whom he has a peculiar bond. That bond is an extension of his bond of rivalry with Banquo, not merely because Macbeth has projected his frustrations onto Macduff, but because Macduff represents and fights for the lineal continuity through fatherhood that Banquo also represented; he fights to avenge the "unfortunate souls that trace him in his line," as Macbeth called his family, and he fights to reinstate Malcolm as rightful heir. In doing so he asserts the alliance of political power with paternity, a "step" Macbeth has been unable to "o'erleap" as he had intended. What Macbeth feared and envied in Banquo he also fears and envies in Macduff, as his repeated invocation of the Second Apparition's motto indicates, being intended to charm that fear away.
When these mighty opposites finally meet, Macbeth first confesses his fear ("Of all men else I have avoided thee" [5.8.4]), but then has his last recourse to false reassurance from the female powers on which he has heretofore relied: "I bear a charmed life; which must not yield / To one of woman born" (5.8.12-13), he says. When his antagonist reveals that he does, after all, come from woman, though "untimely ripp'd," the hero responds, "It hath cow'd my better part of man" (5.8.18). This is the only use of "cow" as a verb in Shakespeare, and in this context it is richly suggestive. The OED states that the verb derives from O. N. kúga, to cow, force, tyrannize over. With fitting irony, then, it is Macduff s bond with the feminine which triumphs over Macbeth's manly valor, which cows him into his first cowardly refusal to fight. Furthermore, the cow as the most common milk-giving animal suggests the milk of human kindness, the naked babe of Pity, and the babe whose brains Lady Macbeth would dash to the ground—all those representations of nurturant tenderness that Macbeth's resolute dedication to violent deeds was supposed to extinguish. Finally, cow simply as a female animal suggests that Macbeth's "better part of man" has been feminized. This "emasculation" might be associated, on the one hand, with the unseaming of the rebel from the nave to the chops in act 1, and with the metaphorical unsexing of Lady Macbeth soon after, on the other.36 Shakespeare's language suggests that when Macbeth loses his valor, he resembles a monstrosity, a womanish man. This meaning is rein-forced when Macduff answers his opponent's refusal to fight:
Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o' th' time:
We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted upon a pole, and underwrit,
"Here you may see the tyrant."
All it takes to restore his courage, however, is the taunt of coward Lady Macbeth employed successfully before, and the threat of humiliation, a humiliation Macbeth perceives as submission to one embodying the lineal principle, the power of paternity, which he will die resisting: "I will not yield / To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet" (5.8.27-28). In this last battle, he fights for the first time without relying on feminine influences; the revelation of Macduff s birth has decisively shown their perfidy, and he blames them now for "juggling fiends." Trapped like an animal, he dies without remorse and, like Coriolanus, without the self-knowledge that might have ennobled his death. He fights as always, in fact, to avoid self-knowledge ("To know my deeds 'twere best not know myself), having murdered his deepest self in the attempt to become a man.
Coriolanus begins and ends his tragic career as a "boy," lacking a developed and authentic manly self, but he at least realizes that self for one moment at Antium before reverting to his old pattern of anger and attack. Macbeth, in contrast, whose inner self is mature, richer, and more active than Coriolanus's, threatening him continually with "horrid images" of his guilt up to the last act, is impelled by its very strength to defend against it more. After the murder of Macduff s family, he fluctuates between two states, both designed to quell his real feelings. On the one hand, he is desperately brave and confident, laughing all to scorn; on the other, he is dead to feeling—weary with tedium vitae, empty of joy or sorrow. He who wanted to do "all that may become a man" has accomplished nothing.
1 D. W. Harding, "Women's Fantasy of Manhood: A Shakespearean Theme," Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (Summer 1969): 245-253, also singles out this motif in Shakespeare, but reads Macbeth, Lear, Antony and Clèopatra, and Coriolanus as indictments of women for creating peculiar and unreal fantasies of manhood and forcing their men to act them out and suffer for them, while they (the women) collapse or withdraw. Once again, I distinguish between my conception of Shakespeare as a self-conscious (though also sympathetic) critic of ideals of masculinity emanating from patriarchal society, and the Shakespeare of Harding and others. The women Shakespeare portrays in these plays did not contrive their ideas of manliness out of whole cloth; they took them from a world managed by men.
2 In "Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare and His Sense of Difference," Psychoanalytic Review 64 (Fall 1977): 409-453, Fineman applies to Shakespeare René Girard's idea that the purpose of fratricide myths is to reaffirm the binary structure of social order. According to Girard, brothers who are alike in blood fight to establish the crucial difference between victor and vanquished as a model of all other differences, which ward off the chaos of "no difference"(Violence and the Sacred, tr. Patrick Gregory [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977]).
3 Mahler et al and Jacobson have noted that the child's definitive discovery of separateness from the mother coincides both with his discovery of the anatomical difference between the sexes and with his tendency to identify with the father, a person of the same sex, while his previous identification with the mother becomes subordinate. Jacobson holds that such same-sex identification with one who, at the same time, is beginning to be perceived as a rival for the mother's love promotes "testing of external objects and of his own self, helps him distinguish between fantasies about self and object, and real objects and his actual or potential self (Edith Jacobson, The Self and the Object World [New York: International Universities Press, 1964], pp. 75-79). I regard the same-sex rivalries in Coriolanus and Macbeth as later versions of a similar attempt to differentiate oneself from a feminine matrix.
4 Murray Schwartz, in "Shakespeare Through Contemporary Psychoanalysis," Hebrew University Studies in Literature 5 (Autumn 1977): 182-198, calls this passage "the prototypical moment in Shakespeare's use of theatrical space in tragedy to enact the violent interruption of ceremonial order," and goes on to say,
I feel this violent interruption of a nurturant, communal interplay as a source of Shakespeare's recurrent preoccupation with betrayal and with feminine powers to create and destroy suddenly, and in the repeated desire of his male characters both to be that all-powerful woman and to control the means of nurturance themselves, to the exclusion of the otherness of others. In Macbeth's response to Lady Macbeth's verbal violence—"If we should fail?" (1.7.59, italics mine)—I hear him identifying with the woman he fears would annihilate him. They are no longer separate psychologically: they have become a "we" who will murder Duncan, and live isolated from one another for the rest of the play.
Mahler et al. note that the human face in motion is the child's first meaningful percept, his or her first break-through from symbiotic fusion and focus on inner sensation to the outside world (p. 46). In Lady Macbeth's hyperbole, the mother murders her child at the very moment he first responds to her—his first step toward eventually establishing a self of his own.
5 See Janet Adelman, "'Anger's My Meat': Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus," in Shakespeare: Pattern of Excelling Nature, ed. David Bevington and Jay L. Halio (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1978), pp. 108-124. She uses this passage as the starting point in her brilliant explication of the hero's phallic aggressive defense against dependency, and argues (as I do) that he has no self that is not Volumnia's creation. I am much indebted to her fine essay.
6 Eugene M. Waith, "Manhood and Valor in Two Shakespearean Tragedies," English Literary History 17 (1950): 262-273, quotes Plutarch's "Coriolanus" to show that valor was called virtus in Latin and identified with virtue itself as "an all-inclusive virtue, the very emblem of manhood" (p. 262). Waith goes on to contrast this Roman ideal with the Renaissance ideal of manhood as moral virtue served by courage and fortitude.
7 Philip Slater, The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 23-30. Slater conceives the "oral-narcissistic dilemma" in Greek males as resulting from the mother's treatment of her son. Because she sees him as an expression of and a cure for her narcissistic wounds, she alternately belittles and exalts him, preventing him from negotiating a normal transition from infantile narcissism and total dependence to individuation and an awareness of the separateness of others. I find a similar pattern in Shakespeare's characterization of Coriolanus.
8 Philip Brockbank comments sensitively on the expressive power of silence in the play, in his "Introduction" to the new Arden edition (London: Methuen, 1976), particularly on how Coriolanus's silence as his mother kneels before him in the climactic scene at Antium (5.3) is prefigured by "other pleas, silences, intimacies, recognitions of kinship, and touches of nature" that were "compromised or contaminated" earlier.
9 R. D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1965). Laing shows how the false self system arises in response to a basic "ontological insecurity," in which "any and every relationship threatens the individual with loss of identity," thrusting him into isolation from others and into "a vision of reality as an antithesis between engulfment in another and complete isolation from any other" (p. 44). As a way of preserving himself from this dual threat, the individual assumes more and more of the characteristics of the person on whom his primary, crippling identification is based.
10 The new Arden note states that red pestilence is "probably typhus fever, which causes red skin eruptions."
11 Katherine Stockholder, "The Other Coriolanus," PMLA 85 (1970): 228-236.
12 See William S. Heckscher, "Shakespeare in His Relationship to the Visual Arts: A Study in Paradox," Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 13-14 (1970-1971): 5-72, for a summary of the verbal and visual iconographic tradition of the city as woman.
13 The motif of simultaneous engulfment and isolation is strikingly repeated in act 1, scene 6. Those soldiers who wish to follow Coriolanus back into battle "shout and wave their swords," then "take him up in their arms, and cast up their caps," according to the Folio stage directions, as he shouts, "O me alone! Make you a sword of me!" (Some editors have assigned this line to the soldiers, as does Brockbank in the new Arden, but it is attributed to the hero in the Folio.) In his death scene, he is similarly isolated in a now hostile city, and surrounded by Aufidius's soldiers who swarm around him and kill him. Thus Shakespeare emphasizes visually and dramatically the hero's dominant ambivalence.
14 She argues that the crowd figures as a "multitude of demanding and feminized mouths," a dependent and castrated image of Coriolanus himself (p. 9). (See note 5, above.)
15 Alvin Gouldner, Enter Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1965), shows how the Greek obsessions with fame and honor, competition, achievement, and envy combine with other salient traits in what he calls the Greek contest system, a zero-sum game, in which someone wins only if somebody else loses (pp. 41-74).
16 For a fascinating account of how the plebeians first separated themselves from the city as a group with separate interests, and then reintegrated themselves by means of the tribunes, see Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome (New York: Doubleday, n.d.). He describes the plebeians and the patricians as "two people that did not even understand one another, not having, so to speak, common ideas" (p. 297), which is surely the situation in Coriolanus, Leonard Tennenhouse, "Coriolanus: History and the Crisis of Semantic Order," Comparative Drama 10 (Winter 1976-1977): 328-346, shows how Shakespeare stresses the creation of the tribunes in contrast to his sources, and how they ramify the relationship between language and power.
17 Michael McCanles, "The Dialectic of Transcendence in Coriolanus," PMLA 82 (1967): 44-55.
18 Marjorie Garber, "Coming of Age in Shakespeare," Yale Review (Summer 1977): 517-533, describes these late adolescent friendships as bonds normally limited by marriage and separation from the family.
19 Judith Gray has pointed out to me that the wording of the last sentence in the quoted passage ("I'd revolt to make / Only my wars with him") expresses the speaker's ambivalence in that "with" means both "together with" and "against."
20 David B. Barron shares my emphasis on Macbeth's domination by female influence in "The Babe That Milks: An Organic Study of Macbeth," in The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare, ed. Melvin D. Faber (New York: Science House, 1970), pp. 253-279. He wavers, however, between arguing that the hero "chooses to submit to female influence" and that he unconsciously identifies with his mother. While his essay illuminates the text at many points, he maintains that "Macbeth is desperate to unite sexually with a fertile woman," for which I find no evidence in the play, and sees his bloody deeds as an attempt to cut his way out of the confining female element, while I see them as a mode of conforming with it.
21 It might have been the following passage from The Description of Scotland by Hector Boece, included in Holinshed's Chronicles (the major source of Macbeth), which inspired Shakespeare's conception of Lady Macbeth's "undaunted mettle":
Each woman would take intolerable paines to bring up and nourish hir owne children. They thought them furthermore not to be kindlie fostered, except they were so well nourished after their births with the milk of their brests, as they were before they were born with the bloud of their owne bellies, nay they feared least they should degenerai and grow out of kind, except they gave them suck themselves, and eschewed strange milke, therefore in labour and in painfulnesse they were equall, and neither sex regarded the heat in summer or cold in winter, but travelled barefooted. .. . In these daies also the women of our countrie were of no lesse corage than the men, for all stout maidens and wives (if they were not with child) marched well in the field as did the men, and as soone as the armie did set forward, they slue the first living creature that they found, in whose bloud they not onelie bathed their swords, but also tasted thereof with their mouthes. . . .
(Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 7 vols. [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973], 7:506-507)
These Scottish women showed as fierce a determination to nurse their children as to march beside their husbands in battle, and thus, in the terms their culture offered, were men as well as women.
22 G. Wilson Knight, "The Milk of Concord: An Essay on Life-Themes in Macbeth," in The Imperial Theme: Further Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tragedies Including the Roman Plays (London: Methuen, 1951), 3rd ed., p. 139.
23 A recent series of experiments explains the well-known capacity of alcohol to sharpen sexual desire in men but blunt its expression as a chain reaction that first drives down the production of testosterone, producing temporary impotency; concurrently, the lower testosterone level touches off the production of luteinizing hormone, which prompts sexual desire (Nils J. Bruzelius, "A Theory of Alcohol and Sex," Boston Globe, July 19, 1978).
24 Dennis Biggins, "Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence in Macbeth," Shakespeare Studies 8 (1976): 255-277, demonstrates in fascinating detail that much of traditional witchcraft was believed to involve the sexual exploitation of men by the witches' insatiable lust, sexual perversion, and sexual domination of several kinds. He then shows how the language of the play sexualizes violence, suggesting both that Duncan's murder is a kind of rape and that the sexual act is, in turn, a kind of murder. This interpretation supplements my own, insofar as Macbeth's violence is his attempt to become a man in his wife's eyes and is thus a substitute for his full sexual possession of her. Furthermore, if Lady Macbeth has psychologically "unsexed" herself and seeks to become a man through her husband's violence, then violence takes the place of intercourse, as a perverse consummation of their shared manliness.
25 Cf. the wordplay between Sampson and Gregory in Romeo and Juliet, 1.1.1-29, in which "to stand" first means "to be valiant," and then to have an erection and violate a maid; also All's Well That Ends Well, 3.2.40-41: "The danger is in standing to't; that's the loss of men, though it be the getting of children."
26 Notably, Barron (cited above) and Cleanth Brooks, "The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness," in Approaches to Shakespeare, ed. Norman Rabkin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), pp. 66-89.
27 M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Word-Play (London: Methuen, 1957), discusses wordplay on "done" in terms of nemesis and the hero's sense of time; for him, "the fatal moment is anticipated and recalled but never recognized as the now" (p. 133), while in the same vein, the terrible deed is never done in the sense of finished, but comes back to haunt him and then to punish him.
28 Matthew Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), provides the most rigorous and incisive account I have found of Macbeth's psychological processes. It is particularly valuable in dissecting the stratagems by which he avoids taking conscious responsibility for acting on his desires and in defining the "manly image" of himself that he attempts to realize.
29 Arnold Stein, "Macbeth and Word-Magic," Sewanee Review 59 (Spring 1951): 271-284, explores how Macbeth uses language to avoid thinking and moral awareness, so as to act precipitately.
30 A. C. Bradley, on the other hand, believes that Banquo, by acquiescing in Macbeth's accession to the throne, expects to profit from it (Shakespearean Tragedy [Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1964], pp. 306-307.
31 Shakespeare even alters Holinshed so as to increase emphasis on fatherhood and lineal succession. The story of Duncan's reign begins with a brief genealogy in which it is established that he and Macbeth are cousins. Muriel Bradbrook, "The Sources of Macbeth," Shakespeare Survey 4 (1951): 35-49, notes that according to the ancient custom of Scotland, succession was determined by tanistry—election within a small group of kinsmen. Thus Macbeth had as good a chance at the throne as Duncan's two sons, and when Duncan appointed Malcolm his successor, Holinshed says Macbeth took offense,
having a just quarell so to doo (as he tooke the matter) for that Duncane did what in him lay to defraud him of all manner of title and claime, which he might in time to come, pretend unto the crowne. (Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, vol. 7, p. 496 [cited in note 21])
Shakespeare, on the other hand, lets us assume that Duncan acts according to established custom in naming his son as his successor, and his hero conceives no "just quarell" against Melcolm, only the thought of eliminating him as well as Duncan so as to secure the throne.
32 Sigmund Freud, "Some Character-Types Met with in Psychoanalytic Work," in On Creativity and the Unconscious, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958), pp. 84-110. Freud hypothesizes that during Macbeth's ten-year reign as recounted in Holinshed, his lack of issue drove him to murder his rivals. In compressing the chronicle events into a play, Freud argues, Shakespeare slurs over the long-drawn disappointment of the hero and his wife that must have driven her to distraction and her husband to defiance, and thus clouds explanation for the changes in their characters. He nevertheless thinks it appropriate, in view of the murder of Macduff s children, that Macbeth is "punished by barrenness for his crimes against geniture." I take his barrenness, rather, as a metaphor for his unfinished, not fully individuated, manly identity.
33 Proser comments: "The 'black and deep desires' are acknowledged by Macbeth, but 'the eye' and 'the hand' seem detached from him, while the nameless deed itself 'is done.' It appears to do itself or is done by an act of prestidigitation" (p. 64).
34 Malcolm, as he is presented in act 4, scene 3, is also, certainly, the embodiment of ideal manliness. The lines in which he drops his pose of viciousness reveal him as the moral opposite of Macbeth:
I am yet
Unknown to woman; never was forsworn;
Scarcely have coveted what was mine own;
At no time broke my faith: would not betray
The Devil to his fellow; and delight
No less in truth, than life.
But since Shakespeare's main intention is to adumbrate Malcolm's virtues as king more than as man, he touches only lightly on his filial ties as "truest issue" of the Scottish throne.
35 David Barron (cited above in note 20) comments that Macbeth makes Macduff a man individuated through violence—separated from country and family because of Macbeth's cruelties—while Macbeth himself is enmeshed in "a female but unfeminine world." Paradoxically, though, Macduff s separation from Scotland is in the interest of family continuity through the royal succession, an interest so crucial as to outweigh his own family ties (p. 272).
36 Seth Lerer directed my attention to the etymology of cow as a verb, and to the metaphorical connections between Macbeth and other monstrous figures.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20423
Juliet Dusinberre (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "Androgyny: Crossdressing and Disguise," in Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, 2nd Edition, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996, pp. 231-71.
[In the following excerpt originally published in 1975, Dusinberre discusses Shakespeare's use of women in male disguise as a means to more fully explore the nature of femininity. ]
The boy actor had a special affinity with those women who offended Elizabethan and Jacobean society by wearing men's clothes. Condemned by opponents of the stage for dressing as a woman, he was often also guilty of disguising that woman as a man. Viola's melancholy reflection when she sees Olivia's ring fell on well-tuned ears:
My master loves her dearly
And I (poor monster!) fond as much on him.1
Viola was a monster on two counts: a man acting a woman and a woman in breeches. The woman in theatrical disguise aroused the same fear in moralists as the masculine woman in breeches. When Greene's Dorothea in James IV asks her dwarf whether she looks like a man in her disguise as squire, he retorts: 'If not a man, yet like a manly shrew.'2 Trousers on a woman, whether on the stage or off it, spelled insubordination. . . .
The masculine woman and the woman in disguise are both disruptive socially because they go behind the scenes and find that manhood describes not the man inside the clothes, but the world's reactions to his breeches. Masculinity is as much a mask as femininity, and the face it hides may be Sir Andrew Aguecheek's, or Petruchio's, or Volumnia's, or Moll Cutpurse's, or Portia's, or that of Coriolanus himself, bewildered by emotions the mask cannot express:
Like a dull actor now,
I have forgot my part, and I am out,
Even to a full disgrace.43
A woman in disguise smokes out the male world, perceiving masculinity as a form of acting, the manner rather than the man. But the charade only works if the sexes stick to their parts. When the lover fails to importune the lady in Love's Cure, she must relinquish reluctance if she is to bring him to the sticking-point. Beatrice, called on to admire Benedick's valour, mischievously delivers the wrong speech:
Beatrice: He is a very valiant trencherman; he
hath an excellent stomach.
Messenger: And a good soldier too, lady.
Beatrice: And a good soldier to a lady; but
what is he to a lord?44
Rosalind can play the man as convincingly as a coward:
Were it not better
Because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?
A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh,
A boar-spear in my hand, and in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman's fear there will,
We'll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.45
Portia revels in the prospect of her own boyish braggardism; the world will see her and Nerissa
in such a habit,
That they shall think we are accomplished
With that we lack; I'll hold thee any wager
When we are both accoutered like young men,
I'll prove the prettier fellow of the two,
And wear my dagger with the braver grace,
And speak between the change of man and boy,
With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps
Into a manly stride; and speak of frays
Like a fine bragging youth: and tell quaint lies
How honourable ladies sought my love,
Which I denying, they fell sick and died:
I could not do withal:—then I'll repent,
And wish for all that, that I had not kill'd them;
And twenty of these puny lies I'll tell,
That men shall swear I have discontinued school
About a twelvemonth: I have within my mind
A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks,
Which I will practise.46
Society values the rules of masculine and feminine behaviour because they are easy to follow. The dramatist of Shakespeare's theatre values them because they help him to turn his boy actors into women. Shakespeare affirms Portia's femininity by assigning her the woman's view that masculinity is a charade. The boy actor imagines a boy's pranks; declaring what he is, he gives the illusion of being what he is not: a woman acting a boy. Shakespeare draws attention to the boy actor only to confirm his woman's nature. Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew petulantly brushes aside her importunate tutor:
I am no breeching scholar in the schools.
I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times,
But learn my lessons as I please myself.47
The woman is born from the boy's petulant denial of his own identity. She mocks the boy who creates her. Imogen interrupts Pisanio's recital of the waggish tricks which must take the place of feminine foibles once she is disguised as a man:
Nay, be brief:
I see into thy end, and am almost
A man already.
None of the men in the play resemble Pisanio's sketch of a man, any more than Imogen herself resembles his idea of a woman, except in the one respect in which she is different from most women. 'Change/Command into obedience,'48 instructs the attendant of a princess, forgetting that women obey and men command. But when the playwright makes his boy actors act women, who are to act men, he gives them a sexual identity too positive to be confused with the change in their clothes. The woman character acquires independence from the boy who acts her.
One element in her independence lies in her detachment from the role of femininity. The woman is aware of herself as actress not in the theatre, but in a social setting. The Wise-woman of Hogsdon in Heywood's play advises one of the heroines, whom she believes to be a boy, how to act a girl: 'Thou shalt be tyred like a woman; can you make a curtesie, take small strides, simper, and seeme modest? me thinkes thou has a womans voyce already.' Luce assures her: 'Doubt not of me, He act them naturally.'49 The Lord in the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew summons his page to play Sly's lady:
Sirrah, go you to Barthol'mew my page
And see him dressed in all suits like a lady.
That done, conduct him to the drunkard's chamber
And call him madam; do him obeisance.
Tell him from me—as he will win my love—
He bear himself with honorable action
Such as he hath observed in noble ladies
Unto their lords, by them accomplishèd:
Such duty to the drunkard let him do
With soft low tongue and lowly courtesy,
And say, 'What is't your honor will command
Wherein your lady and your humble wife
May show her duty and make known her love?'
And then with kind embracements, tempting kisses,
And with declining head into his bosom,
Bid him shed tears, as being overjoyed
To see her noble lord restored to health
Who for this seven years hath esteemèd him
No better than a poor and loathsome beggar.
And if the boy have not a woman's gift
To rain a shower of commanded tears,
An onion will do well for such a shift,
Which in a napkin being close conveyed
Shall in despite enforce a watery eye.
I know the boy will well usurp the grace,
Voice, gait, and action of a gentlewoman.
When the players begin their entertainment for Sly, The Taming of the Shrew itself, two young ladies enter: Kate the curst, and Bianca, full of 'mild behavior and sobriety,' like the lady played by Bartholomew. Her father rages at the elder:
Why, how now, dame, whence grows this insolence?
Bianca, stand aside. Poor girl, she weeps.50
Shakespeare seasons the sorrow of Bianca with the suspicion of an onion close conveyed in a napkin. The boy feigns the woman's sorrow, and the woman's sorrow is feigned.
Disguise makes explicit in women what one writer describes as 'an ambiguity which corresponded to an ambiguity in the self, divided between surveyor and surveyed.'51 The woman observes her disguised self. But when the woman is played by a boy, she watches two people, herself disguised, and the boy who plays her. Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, disguised as the page Sebastian, describes to Silvia the lady Julia, who is
About my stature: for at Pentecost,
When all our pageants of delight were play'd,
Our youth got me to play the woman's part,
And I was trimm'd in Madam Julia's gown,
Which served me as fit, by all men's judgments,
As if the garment had been made for me;
Therefore I know she is about my height.
And at that time I made her weep agood,
For I did play a lamentable part.
Madam, 'twas Ariadne, passioning
For Theseus' perjury, and unjust flight;
Which I so lively acted with my tears,
That my poor mistress, moved therewithal,
Wept bitterly; and would I might be dead,
If I in thought felt not her very sorrow.52
Julia watches a boy put on Julia's gown and play a woman deserted by her lover. When he weeps she weeps in pity for him and he feels her sorrow, for the boy actor is Julia herself. Cleopatra shares with Antony, in a passion at once both real and theatrical, a highly developed aesthetic sense of self which allows the artist both to be and to observe himself being—the Callas temperament. Cleopatra dreads not death, but the image of her own femininity amateurishly acted:
The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels: Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I the posture of whore.53
Cleopatra, professional player of her own part as woman, spurns the boy who is also herself. The woman is audience to the boy.
In As You Like It Rosalind disguised as Ganymede watches her own performance as a boy. She consents shamefacedly to Oliver's friendly jibe: 'You a man! / You lack a man's heart,' protesting that she was only acting. 'Well then,' cries Oliver, 'Take a good heart, and counterfeit to be a man.' Rosalind, no longer acting, sighs: 'So I do: but i'faith, I should have been a woman by right.' Disguise makes Rosalind a man-woman. Trudging into Arden with Celia wilting on her arm as a shepherdess, she muses: 'I could find in my heart to disgrace my man's apparel, and to cry like a woman: but I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat.' Breeches compel her bravery, but the bravery is her own, perceived in the woman by the boy. As Ganymede she draws her own portrait for Orlando:
I will be more jealous of thee than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen, more clamorous than a parrot against rain, more newfangled than an ape, more giddy in my desires than a monkey: I will weep for nothing, like Diana in the fountain, and I will do that when you are disposed to be merry; I will laugh like a hyen, and that when thou art inclined to sleep.54
Rosalind revels in Orlando's discomforture at a boy's vision of the contrary wife of whom Erasmus had urged that 'she be not mery when he murneth nor dysposed to play when he is sad.'55 Projecting a woman's incorrigibility, the boy is incorrigible. 'But will my Rosalind do so?' asks Orlando, bemused. 'By my life,' she rejoins, 'She will do as I do.' Being a woman, she thrives on not being a woman: 'I thank God I am not a woman, to be touched with so many giddy offences as he hath generally taxed their whole sex withal.'56
Acting a man in the forest, acting a woman for Orlando, Rosalind acquires a Puckish insight into the theatrical nature of masculinity and femininity. Recognising the two roles, she travels from one to the other with the versatility of the Elizabethan player obliged to double parts. As a boy she is Orlando's equal; as a woman she is Celia's equal. Meredith might have had Rosalind in mind when he wrote:
The heroines of Comedy are like women of the world, not necessarily heartless from being clearsighted: they seem so to the sentimentally-reared only for the reason that they use their wits, and are not wandering vessels crying for a captain or a pilot. Comedy is an exhibition of their battle with men, and that of men with them: and as the two, however divergent, both look on one object, namely, Life, the gradual similarity of their impressions must bring them to some resemblance. The Comic poet dares to show us men and women coming to this mutual likeness; he is for saying that when they draw together in social life their minds grow liker; just as the philosopher discerns the similarity of boy and girl, until the girl is marched away to the nursery.57
The boy actor was a spur to the creation of heroines of allegedly masculine spirit. The high spirits and sharp repartee which characterised the Children's companies are reborn in the quick wits, audacity and independence of Shakespeare's heroines. But where Phyllida and Gallathea in Lyly's play are accessible to boy actors because they embody a boy's view of women, Shakespeare's women are both women and boys.
Encountering only each other, Phyllida and Gallathea learn nothing new about men from their disguise. But Rosalind sees Orlando through a man's eyes because he treats her as he might treat another man. Orsino in Twelfth Night, who can only address the high fantastical to the Lady Olivia, talks to his page as to a rational being. Had Rosalind worn a skirt, Orlando might have courted her with the masculine panache which she delights to display in the boy Ganymede. Theatrical disguise robs courtship of the artificial exaggeration of masculine and feminine difference sustained in the skirmishes between Phoebe and Silvius.
Yet Shakespeare, faced with actors who were literally the same, focused his imagination on creating out of more and more likeness, a sense of difference. Benedick and Beatrice speak more alike, act more alike than Orlando and Rosalind because Beatrice never looks like a man, so Shakespeare can afford to have her, as More would have wished, talk and think like one. Rosalind, who looks like one, is all vivacity, spirit, speed, susceptibility and fancy to an Orlando silent, melancholic, never drawn wholly into her sphere, wanting a world of substance as well as shadows: 'O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes! .. . I can live no longer by thinking.' As Corin is to Touchstone, so Orlando is to Rosalind; he cannot compete, but nor does he want to, any more than he wants to be cured of his love, and in this play his tranquil ease beside her greater brilliance marks masculinity beside a femininity not obscured by breeches.
Celia keeps before the audience a Rosalind who is always a woman. Affirming the fiction of boyhood, Celia continually destroys it. Rosalind laments Orlando's tardiness: 'Never talk to me, I will weep.' Celia retorts: 'Do, I prithee—but yet have the grace to consider that tears do not become a man.' Insisting that Rosalind is a man, Celia draws attention to the illusion of manhood. Rosalind assures Orlando: 'And I am your Rosalind,' and an anxious sisterly voice nudges the forgetful Ganymede: 'It pleases him to call you so; but he hath a Rosalind of a better leer than you.' In the play of shepherd and shepherdess the actors dry up and require a prompter, so that Celia, startled at Rosalind's swoon, cries: 'There is more in it . . . Cousin, Ganymede.' Celia stands witness that Rosalind is not changed from the girl of the first scenes. To that girl, the presence of Orlando in the forest is a delight at first marred by her own masculine appearance: 'Alas the day, what shall I do with my doublet and hose?' A woman in love demands the licence of womanhood: 'Good my complexion! dost thou think, though I am caparisoned like a man, I have a doublet-and-hose in my disposition?' Celia stands evidence to a fixed point in Rosalind's nature to which the moving foot of her acting of the masculine and the feminine always hearkens back. 'You have simply misused our sex in your love-prate: we must have your doublet and hose plucked over your head, and show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest.'58 Shakespeare separates his women from the boy actors who play them: at their most boyish they are still women watching their own performance as boys.
Shakespeare's actors gave him none of the actress' short-cuts to femininity—pre-packaged sex appeal, bosoms, hair, the tricks of the feminine trade which the female child may learn as soon as she sees she is admired. Shakespeare wrote into his text, just as he wrote blood and darkness into Macbeth, a femininity which would survive the most gangling of Ganymedes. Actresses tend to play Shakespeare's heroines too feminine; like elaborate scenery, too much archness has the effect of tautology. Shakespeare used poetry to evoke a scene he could not reproduce in the theatre; to suggest the physical passion which his actors could not demonstrate realistically; to create women when he had only men. To annex to his plays too much of what he had not is only to waste what he gives. Some of the finest Shakespearian women are still schoolboys.
Boys make bewitching girls, where women make lumbering youths. Slighter than the adult actor, a boy could still make a convincing girl even when disguised as a boy. The age at which a boy actor ceased to act women is a moot point. Malvolio describes Cesario as 'not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy; as a squash is before 'tis a peascod, or a codling when 'tis almost an apple: 'tis with him in standing water between boy and man.'59 Portia proposes to 'speak between the change of man and boy, / With a reed voice,'60 implying one harsher than her normal speaking voice. The natural transition from playing women to playing men is at the breaking of the voice, but boys' voices broke later in Shakespeare's time than now, and a trained voice not only tends to break later than an untrained one, but its alto tone may be prolonged even into the late teens.61 Nathan Field, boy actor and dramatist, may have played women's parts into his late teens or even till he was twenty, but it is unlikely that he continued to play them once his voice was really broken.62 The dramatists draw attention to women's high voices. Hamlet accosts the Player who will play the Queen: 'Pray God your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring.'63 Quince instructs Flute to 'speak as small as you will.'64 The comedy of Flute's name and profession as bellows-mender consists in the gruffness artificially repaired with which he renders Thisbe's dulcet tones. The vocal contortion is part of his amateurishness, not comic at all if Hippolyta declares it to be the silliest stuff she has ever seen in a tenor voice. The disguised heroine's lightness of voice gives her the skittishness of Lyly's boy pages which makes Cesario seem at once saucy to Maria and the Fool, and wistful to Orsino:
For they shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man: Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound—
And all is semblative a woman's part.65
Shakespeare may have used poetry to enhance a difference not easily discernible without its suggestion. But it seems more likely that when Arviragus and Guiderius sing the dirge for the youth Fidele (Imogen in disguise) Arviragus mentions their broken voices because he noticed that Fidèle's was unbroken, intuitively associating the unknown sister with his mother:
And let us, Polydore, though now our voices
Have got the mannish crack, sing him to th' ground,
As once to our mother: use like note and words,
Save that Euriphele must be Fidele.66
The point about the encounter between Sir Andrew and Viola is not that they both look like men but that they both look like girls. Young men wore their hair long, as Barnaby Rich had bitterly complained. When Julia disguises herself as a boy Lucetta reminds her to cut her hair, but she replies:
No, girl, I'll knit it up in silken strings,
With twenty odd-conceited true-love knots.67
In an age of effeminate fashions, it was easy for the boy actor to look like a woman.
The respectability of the theatre depended on the dramatist's ability to suggest that the boy actor was not Haec-Vir, the feminine man, any more than the woman he acted was Hie Mulier, the masculine woman. One way was to juxtapose the woman in disguise with the effeminate male adult actor. Middleton's Lactantio in More Dissemblers Besides Women is a typical Jacobean courtier, 'This perfiim'd parcel of curl'd powder'd hair.' He is debauched: attended by one pregnant mistress disguised as a page, he contrives for a second also to disguise herself, pretending to be shocked by her masculine immodesty in her new attire:
I arrest thee
In Cupid's name; deliver up your weapon,
[Takes her sword.
It is not for your wearing, Venus knows it:
Here's a fit thing indeed.
The author of Haec-Vir might have retorted that Lactantio had surrendered all manhood except the power of begetting, and had thus obliged his women to assume masculine bearing in his stead. The girlishness of the page measures the hero's girlishness, just as Viola's manhood queries Sir Andrew's. Dondolo describes
a young gallant lying a-bed with his wench, if the constable should chance to come up and search, being both in smocks, they'd be taken for sisters, and I hope a constable dare go no further; and as for knowing of their heads, that's well enough too, for I know many young gentlemen wear longer hair than their mistresses.
Femininity and masculinity become a Lewis Carroll joke in a looking-glass world; when the dancing master hears his boy pupil cry for a midwife, he expostulates:
A midwife? by this light, the boy's with child!
A miracle! some woman is the father.
The world's turn'd upside down: sure if men breed,
Women must get; one never could do both yet.
The effeminate man's reward for his inversion of nature is a wife in breeches:
He durst not own her for his wife till now;
Only contracted with her in man's apparel,
For the more modesty, because he was bashful,
And never could endure the sight of women.68
The masculine woman in Haec-Vir justified herself by pointing to the womanish man: 'What could we poore weake women, doe lesse (being farre too weake by force to fetch backe those spoiles you have unjustly taken from us) then to gather up those garments you have proudly cast away, and therewith to cloath both our bodies and our mindes; since no other meanes was left us to continue our names, and to support a difference?'69
Virginia Woolf claimed that 'it was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman's dress and of a woman's sex.'70 The dramatists declared that whereas an instability in Lactantio's nature made him wear feminine clothes, the boy actor's clothes were only a theatrical device. In The Roaring Girl Middleton conceived a scene between a woman in disguise, her lover, and Moll Cutpurse in the masculine woman's breeches. Despite the fact that they not only all three look like men, but are men, there is no mistaking the two who are women. Moll comments when Sebastian kisses his disguised mistress: 'How strange this shows, one man to kiss another.' Sebastian retorts:
I'd kiss such men to choose, Moll;
Methinks a woman's lip tastes well in a doublet.71
Clothes, in the theatre and out of it, manifest only that nothing that is so, is so.
The man-womanishness of disguise may have helped to rebut accusations that boy actors excited homosexuality. Orlando and Orsino develop love for a playfellow and confidant rather than for a sexual opposite—Erasmus' idea of love born from the harmony of like minds. When the woman in disguise is wooed by a woman she reverts to boyhood while protecting her womanhood. Rosalind is masculine to Phoebe's femininity—scornful, down-to-earth, impatient at the follies of women. Viola is robust in her relation to Olivia—proud, uncompromising, scrupulous: the lady, being of her element, is not in her welkin. In Lyly's Gallathea two girls woo each other without lasciviousness: passion reaches the audience filtered through comic distance. The image of love is fantastic, grotesque, lyrical, asexual, a pastime for gods and nymphs. Cupid haunts the grove disguised as a nymph, and nymphs haunt the grove disguised as boys in order to evade Neptune. Lyly's love-struck girls inhabit the same uncomplicated emotional climate as the boys in the Elizabethan friendship plays. There is little overt homosexuality in Elizabethan drama outside Marlowe's Edward II. Nor would it arguably have been politic for the dramatists, despite their capacity for evasion, to nurture on stage propensities for which moralists condemned the theatre.
Caroline drama compromises with the homosexual situation in a way that Elizabethan drama never does. Women disguised as men woo other women with more sense of physical involvement, less moral keenness and less honesty when the subterfuge is discovered. In Ford's The Lover's Melancholy, or Brome's A Mad Couple Well Match'd, or Suckling's Brennoralt or Shirley's The Sisters, ladies disappointed by suitors turned feminine are left high and dry with no questions asked and unreal protestations of eternal friendship covering unequivocal amorous betrayal. So many feelings are cavalierly swept under the carpet that the only conclusion possible is that these are not feeling beings. The earlier playwrights took care to develop in the disguised woman an unmistakable allegiance to the fact of her womanhood, while freeing her from its restrictions. Caroline drama, less interested in the restrictions, is also less interested in the woman, or in the man she might become. Blasé about both nature and custom, the Caroline dramatist peopled the theatre with monsters without noticing it.
Obliged to convince the audience of the boy actor's femininity even when he looked, because of his disguise, exactly like the boy he was, Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights created a femininity to outlast the boy actor's changes of costume. Not having a natural woman on the stage, the dramatists concentrated on making audiences believe in the fiction of real women. The fact that the boy actor gave them no help freed them to look beyond the acquired manners of femininity, as the masculine woman herself had done when she cast aside a woman's dress.
Women share with other women experiences which men can never have. The Duchess of York in Richard II despairs of finding in the Duke that love for a child which is born with the struggle for life:
Had'st thou groan'd for him
As I have done, thou wouldst be more pitiful.72
Imogen compares her longing to see Posthumus with a mother's longing for delivery:
Ne'er long'd my mother so
To see me first, as I have now.73
Giovanni in The White Devil cites his mother Isabella's feeding of him as a proof of her love:
I have often heard her say she gave me suck,
And it should seem by that she dearly lov'd me,
Since princes seldom do it.74
Lady Macbeth's image of dashing the babe from her breast evokes her femininity even more potently for Shakespeare's time because a noblewoman, like Juliet's mother, would not have been expected to suckle her child. On this primal level a woman's nature diverges from a man's, forging the tie which Hermione allows to be stronger than the tie of childhood amity:
To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong:
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay.
We'll thwack him hence with distaffs.75
The Duchess of Malfi's last thought is for her children:
I pray thee, look thou giv'st my little boy
Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl
Say her prayers, ere she sleep.76
Women are one with other women in the experience of motherhood in a way that men are with other men on the battlefield, both united against the isolation of violence and fear of death. The dramatists place the boy actor in a spiritual community of women.
Women are intimate not just as individuals, but as women. Brought up together in separation from the male world, women develop a loyalty to their sex, while the male child in their midst prepares himself to move into the company of men. Challenged to choose between her father and her childhood playmate, Celia embraces the feminine tie:
I was too young that time to value her,
But now I know her: if she be a traitor,
Why, so am I: we still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together,
And wheresoe'er we went, like Juno's swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.77
Helena reproaches Hermia not only with betraying a friend, but with betraying her sex to men:
Is all the counsel that we two have shared,
The sisters' vows, the hours that we have spent,
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us—O! is all forgot?
All school-days friendship, childhood innocence?
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key;
As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds,
Had been incorporate. So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem:
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart,
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one, and crownéd with one crest.
And will you rend our ancient love asunder,
To join with men in scorning your poor friend?
It is not friendly, 'tis not maidenly—
Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it;
Though I alone do feel the injury.
Women are reared in closeness to become competitors for male favour; the intrusion of a man converts intimacy into enmity. They have few weapons with which to war on each other; Hermia threatens scratching where Lysander draws a sword on Demetrius. Women try instead to influence a man against another woman, talking not to each other but to their defenders: 'She was a vixen when she went to school.' Helena turns to the two men who have deserted her friend:
I pray you, though you mock me, gentlemen,
Let her not hurt me. I was never curst:
I have no gift at all in shrewishness:
I am a right maid for my cowardice:
Let her not strike me. You perhaps may think,
Because she is something lower than myself,
That I can match her.78
When the sewing stops, the needle which worked the sampler pricks the helping hand. Women grow up knowing that men have power: father, brother, husband. To fight other women they enlist a man. If the four lovers in the wood all wore breeches there would still be no mistaking the women.
Born unequal in the eyes of the world, but with infant opportunity to observe each other's equality, brothers and sisters cherish a closeness streaked with hostility. Isabella fears Claudio's weakness because she knows it as well as she knows her own strength. Her rage at his wavering is a nursery laceration, unmoderated by acquired respect:
O, you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister's shame? What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair:
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne'er issued from his blood.79
Society hands all the cards to Claudio, and he asks Isabella for her only one—her chastity. The brother inherits his father's authority towards his sister: Ferdinand and the Cardinal have absolute power over the Duchess. But the sister who bows to the parent's yoke is restive under the brother's. The Duchess of Malfi secretly goes her own way. Ophelia, subject to her father's preaching, rebels at her brother's—the faintest hint of insurrection to presage the revolt of insanity:
I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But good my brother
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.80
The sister sees the libertine before society takes the boy out of smocks like her own and gives him breeches and the right to rule her, and she refuses to obliterate the memory of a being like herself. The boy actor, literally the same beneath a woman's clothes, entered naturally into the sister's role.
Women have a delightful sense of confederacy with their own sex when they are in love, where men find other men tiresome. Benedick mocks Claudio and betrays his passion to Don Pedro; Proteus is a gadfly to the moony Valentine. Enobarbus talks to Antony about war and the need to leave Cleopatra. Cleopatra talks to her women about Antony, and imagines him talking of her:
Where think'st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?
Or does he walk? or is he on his horse?
O happy horse to bear the weight of Antony!
Do bravely, horse, for wot'st thou whom thou mov'st,
The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm
And burgonet of men. He's speaking now,
Or murmuring, 'Where's my serpent of old Nile?'
For so he calls me.81
In As You Like It Celia's discovery to Rosalind of Orlando's love is an enchanting game whose rules both women know. Celia enhances Rosalind's joy by prolonging the disclosure: 'O Lord, Lord! It is a hard matter for friends to meet; but mountains may be removed with earthquakes and so encounter.' Rosalind is eager, inconsequential: 'Is it a man?' insatiable and irrational: 'But doth he know that I am in this forest and in man's apparel? Looks he as freshly as he did the day he wrestled?' A woman's love is not complete without a listener.
In the same scene, immediately following, Orlando and Jacques converse about Rosalind. Jacques informs the lover: 'I do not like her name.' Orlando retorts: 'There was no thought of pleasing you when she was christened.' Jacques calls Orlando's love his worst fault, and the lover rejoins: ' 'Tis a fault I will not change for your best virtue. .. . I am weary of you.' The man wants to protect his passion from idle stares where the woman wants to feed hers by communicating it. As Jacques dawdles laconically from the stage, a saucy lackey accosts Orlando. Shakespeare frames the lovers' first meeting with an interchange between two women, and an interchange between two men. The boy actor steps out of the feminine world as unmistakably as Orlando emerges from the masculine.
Shakespeare often places in among the boy actors a man on whom they may prove their femininity. Women treat a man alone in their company with a tantalising mixture of flirtation and exclusion. The presence of Alexas spices the vivacity of Cleopatra and Charmian and Iras. The ladies in Love's Labour's Lost rehearse their mockery of the lords on Boyet. Both Le Beau and Touchstone are whetstones to the wit of Rosalind and Celia, where a woman would not do. Touchstone is not taken in. After a complicated witticism from the heroine he glances at the gallery to which both the Fool and the lady play: 'You have said: but whether wisely or no, let the forest judge.'82 Women together make a single man among them feel an alien being, a Bottom among the fairies. A man either pays attention to a woman or he does not; a woman acknowledges his presence with delicate indirection. Beatrice assures Benedick at the end of his speech of her own inattention to it: 'I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you.'83 A real man on the stage throws into relief the boy actor's femininity.
The more traditionally feminine the woman the more ill at ease she is in breeches. Rosalind and Portia thrive on the masculine life where Imogen wilts beneath it.
The young princes sense her otherness: were she a woman they would woo her. Imogen's presence emanates refinement and delicacy, even fastidiousness; life becomes an art:
But his neat cookery! he cut our roots in characters,
And sauced our broths, as Juno had been sick
And he her dieter.
Femininity is all things to all men. Guiderius admires Imogen for her housewifery, Arviragus for her singing: 'How angel-like he sings.' What a man finds feminine defines not the nature of women, but his own nature. Nevertheless, Imogen's disguise discomforts her. When she urges the youths to hunt as usual, she might be speaking of herself:
Stick to your journal course: the breach of custom
Is breach of all.84
Breaking custom in her apparel, Imogen obstructs the current of her own life. Femininity is so deeply ingrained in her that to annihilate it is a kind of death, like Ophelia's madness, or Lady Macbeth's hallucinatory sleep-walking. Rosalind, Portia, even Viola, whose minds travel easily between the world of men and the world of women, extend rather than endanger their sense of self when they assume a man's dress. Imogen, less versatile, more vulnerable, herself more fully realised in the traditional feminine world, never acquires the double image of the comic heroines, the man-woman spirit, which is perhaps why the Victorian actress, Helena Faucit, preferred her above all Shakespeare's heroines. She spoke of 'Imogen, in whom all that makes a woman most winning to unspoiled manly natures is unconsciously felt through the boyish disguise.'85 Mrs Jameson wrote in 1832 that 'the preservation of her feminine character under her masculine attire, her delicacy, her modesty, and her timidity, are managed with the same prefect consistency and unconscious grace as in Viola.'86 But Viola disguised is in part Sebastian, her own natural division of herself, watching Viola the woman:
She never told her love,
But let concealment like a worm i'th'bud
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love, indeed?
We men may say more, swear more—but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.87
Imogen never sees herself as a man; the moment of her unmasking is as a consequence the least ambivalent dramatically and psychologically of any in Shakespeare's plays. Forgetting her disguise—which Viola or Rosalind would never have done—she presses forward to alleviate the anguish of Posthumus' remorse. He turns on her, enraged that a page should steal his scene:
Shall's have a play of this? Thou scornful page,
There lie thy part.
Posthumus, histrionic, always playing to his own private amphitheatre of over-heated, under-rehearsed passions, encounters his wife as another player on his own stage. Art and life marry. All disguises vanish before the question Imogen had to disguise herself in order to ask: 'Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?'88
When disguise gives a woman a double image of herself the dramatist has more difficulty getting her out of her breeches. Virginia Woolf described 'Shakespeare's mind as the type of the androgynus, of the man-womanly mind. . . . It is one of the tokens of the fully developed mind that it does not think specially or separately of sex. .. . It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or manwomanly.'89 The experience of Rosalind, or Viola, or Portia as men colours their character as women. A man's attire, like a man's education, allows them to be more complete and fully developed women. Disguise draws men and women together in the comedies through their discovery of the artifice of difference which social custom sustains. Lyly solved the awk wardness of resolving disguise by allowing one of his girls to change sex, but his mechanical plot device was innocent of any symbolism of harmony between the masculine and the feminine. Shakespeare's heroines integrate their experience as men with their feelings as women, which makes it harder for the dramatist to return them to their skirts. Orlando tires of the disguise before Rosalind. Rosalind is a perfect woman when a man; as a woman she needs more of a man than Orlando. Rejoicing with her in the saturnalian revelry of her masculinity in Arden, the audience regrets relinquishing her to her father to be formally given to a husband. Its playfellow must again become the possession of the male world. Shakespeare himself wanted his heroine to escape and brought her back as insouciant and elusive as ever to tell the audience that she was still Jove's own page: 'If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not: and, I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, or sweet breaths, will for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.'90
Viola, as isolated in her sorrow as Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, cherishes a special unacknowledged intimacy with the audience. When Viola tells Orsino that she knows:
Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith they are as true of heart as we,
the audience shares her doubleness. It identifies with the two selves with whom the actor himself has intercourse, where its relation with the Fool is only one of straightforward dialogue. Viola's love is nourished in the secrecy, suppression and melancholy of her disguise. The audience is committed not to her success but to her sadness. To be queen of a fancy so opal as Orsino's seems an unenviable bliss and Orsino, having squandered his treasury of love, is himself loth to lose his page: 'Cesario, come! / For so you shall be, while you are a man.' Outfaced by his own eloquence, he can find—like Cordelia—no genuine currency in which to court Viola except
Give me thy hand,
And let me see thee in thy woman's weeds.
This is exactly what the audience does not want to do; Viola is Viola in her breeches. Constant where Orsino is changeable, possessing a moral sensitivity which places Olivia in the same hemisphere as Cressida, Viola's other self is not the man she loves, but her brother:
One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,
A natural perspective, that is and is not.
Viola sees herself in his mirror:
If spirits can assume both form and suit
You come to fright us.
Sebastian's presence exorcises the wickedness of disguise; Nature has clothed his spirit in a shape to question Viola's 'masculine usurp'd attire:'
A spirit I am indeed,
But am in that dimension grossly clad,
Which from the womb I did participate.91
In the magical reunion of the twins, man and woman, Shakespeare soothes the mind with an illusion of concord between the masculine and feminine only to dispel the illusion by separating Viola from the second self with whom she has learnt to live. She is diminished by a return to a world where she must be Orsino's lady after the momentary freedom of a Twelfth Night masculinity which restored Nature's wholeness.
Shakespeare evaded in The Merchant of Venice the problems that he created for himself in Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Portia's disguise scenes are a dramatic performance produced and presented with faultless fluency, like that other well-staged charade, the casket lottery at Belmont. The audience is never private with the young Daniel; it hears no catch in the voice, sees no panic, no laughter and alarm, no inner life. Shakespeare arouses no special affection for Portia in her breeches and therefore has none to disengage when he returns her to her gown. Disguise is contained within the stage scene. Shakespeare exploits the mockery of discovery without risking its embarrassment. Disguise expresses Portia's poise and control of the male world, but it is a poise present in Belmont itself and there is no sense of loss when the heroine returns home. Portia's clothes effect no metamorphosis on her spirit: the lawyer was never the lady, although the lady is always something of a lawyer. But the comedy is less perfect for lacking that imperfection in romantic resolution which fascinated Shakespeare as early as Love's Labour's Lost. The audience admires Portia, but it loves Viola.
The woman in disguise is a reveller in her own masque; her masculinity intrudes on the order of society making her, like the servant who plays the master in the Twelfth Night festivities, a mistress of misrule. Like the court masquer's, her unmasking reveals not the chameleon player, who might be anyone, but a new reality affirmed against the illusion of the play. The court masquer unmasks into the real world of the court,92 and the woman in disguise discovers herself as part of the movement of the play out of the theatre into life—out of Arden, out of Twelfth Night into the rain that raineth every day. . . .
Shakespeare's feminism is not optional, to be taken or left according to the critic's taste. The masculine woman's claim that feminine clothes did not necessarily express a feminine nature was vital to the theatre's justification of the boy actor and the woman in disguise. The boy actor prompted the creation of boyish heroines. Disguise freed the dramatist to explore, in Bacon's new case or experiment, the natures of women untrammelled by the customs of femininity. More would have approved of Shakespeare's suggestion that the masculine spirit can liberate women from the constraints of traditional femininity.
1Twelfth Night, II.ii.33.
44Much Ado About Nothing, I.i.48.
45As You Like It, I.iii.114.
46The Merchant of Venice, III.iv.60.
49The Wise-woman of Hogsdon, II.i.
50 i.104, I.i.71, II.i.23.
51 John Berger, G, p. 167.
53Antony and Cleopatra, v.ii.215.
54 IV.iii.164, II.iv.4, IV.i.144.
55A Mery Dialogue, declaringe the Propertyes of Shrowde Shrewes, and Honest Wyves, sig. A vii.
56As You Like It, IV.i.152, III.ii.342.
57An Essay on Comedy, p. 248.
58As You Like It, V.ii.42, III.iv.I, IV.i.62, IV.iii.159, III.ii.217, 194, IV.i.196.
59Twelfth Night, I.v.156.
60The Merchant of Venice, III.iv.66.
61 W. Robertson Davies, Shakespeare's Boy Actors, p. 37.
62The Plays of Nathan Field, pp. 8-9, 8, n. 53. The belief that Field continued to play women's parts after his voice had broken is based on the dubious authority of Malone.
64A Midsummer Night's Dream, I.ii.46.
65Twelfth Night, I.iv.30.
67The Two Gentlemen of Verona, II.vii.43. Victor Oscar Freeburg, Disguise Plots in Elizabethan Drama, p. 26.
68 IV.ii.122, I.ii.172, I.iv.71, V.ii.224, 219.
69 Sig. C 2 .
70Orlando, p. 133.
74 Webster, The White Devil III.ii.336.
75The Winter's Tale, I.ii.34.
76 Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, IV.ii.203.
77As You Like It, I.iii.71.
78A Midsummer Night's Dream, HI.ii.198, 324, 299.
79Measure for Measure, III.i.135.
81Antony and Cleopatra, I.V.18.
82As You Like It, III.ii. passim.
83Much Ado About Nothing, I.i. 103.
84Cymbeline, iv.ii.49, 10.
85Shakespeare's Female Characters, p. 199.
86Shakespeare's Heroines, p. 200.
87Twelfth Night, II.iv.110.
88Cymbeline, V.v.28, 261.
89A Room of One's Own, pp. 97, 102.
90As You Like It, Epilogue, 16.
91Twelfth Night, II.iv.105, v.i.384, 215, 234.
92 Orgel, The Jonsonian Masque, p. 118.
Jean E. Howard (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 418-40.
[In the following excerpt, Howard contends that cross-dressing, while destabilizing the "notion of fixed sexual difference" in Shakespeare's plays, is nevertheless part of a conservative process in which inverted gender roles are ultimately restored to their "proper" positions.]
As a way of placing dramas of female crossdressing within larger gender struggles, I am going to look briefly at three Shakespearean comedies, beginning with what I consider to be the most recuperative: Twelfth Night. Undoubtedly, the crossdressed Viola, the woman who can sing both high and low and who is loved by a woman and by a man, is a figure who can be read as putting in question the notion of fixed sexual difference. For Catherine Belsey that blurring of sexual difference opens the liberating possibility of undoing all the structures of domination and exploitation premised on binary sexual oppositions.37 The play therefore seems susceptible to a radical reading. For Stephen Greenblatt, by contrast, Viola's sexual indeterminancy simply signifies the play's projection onto the crossdressed woman of the process of male individuation, a stage in "the male trajectory of identity."38 For Greenblatt the play thus echoes those Renaissance medical discourses of gender that largely erased the question of female subjectivity and rooted masculine privilege in the natural 'fact' "that within differentiated individuals is a single structure, identifiably male" (Greenblatt, [Shakespearean Negotiations,] p. 93).
I wish to question both readings, first by probing just how thoroughly Viola's gender identity is ever made indeterminate and thereby made threatening to the theatre audience (the subjects being addressed by the play's fictions), second by calling attention to the degree to which the political threat of female insurgency enters the text not through Viola, the crossdressed woman, but through Olivia, a figure whose sexual and economic independence is ironically reined in by means of the crossdressed Viola. The play seems to me to embody a fairly oppressive fable of the containment of gender and class insurgency and the valorization of the "good woman" as the one who has interiorized—whatever her clothing—her essential difference from, and subordinate relations to, the male.39 Put another way, the play seems to me to applaud a crossdressed woman who does not aspire to the positions of power assigned men, and to discipline a non-crossdressed woman who does.
Discussion of androgyny, or of the erasure of sexual determinacy, always centers with regard to this play on the figure of Viola. Yet the first thing to say about her crossdressing is that it is in no way adopted to protest gender inequities or to prove that "Custome is an idiot." Viola adopts male dress as a practical means of survival in an alien environment and, perhaps, as a magical means of keeping alive a brother believed drowned, and of delaying her own entry into the heterosexual arena until that brother returns. In short, for her, crossdressing is not so much a political act as a psychological haven, a holding place. Moreover, and this is a key point, from the time Viola meets Orsino in I.iv there is no doubt in the audience's mind of her heterosexual sexual orientation or her properly "feminine" subjectivity. As she says when she undertakes to be Orsino's messenger to Olivia, "Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife" (I.iv.42).40 She never wavers in that resolve even while carrying out the task of wooing Olivia in Orsino's name. The audience always knows that underneath the page's clothes is a "real" woman, one who expresses dislike of her own disguise ("Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness" [II.ii.27]), and one who freely admits that she has neither the desire nor the aptitude to play the man's part in phallic sword-play. The whole thrust of the dramatic narrative is to release this woman from the prison of her masculine attire and return her to her proper and natural position as wife. Part of the larger ideological consequence of her portrayal, moreover, is to shift the markers of sexual difference inward, from the surface of the body and the apparel which clothes that body, to the interior being of the gendered subject. The play shows that while crossdressing can cause semiotic and sexual confusion, and therefore is to be shunned, it is not truly a problem for the social order if "the heart" is untouched, or, put another way, if not accompanied by the political desire for a redefinition of female rights and powers and a dismantling of a hierarchical gender system. Despite her masculine attire and the confusion it causes in Illyria, Viola's is a properly feminine subjectivity; and this fact countervails the threat posed by her clothes and removes any possibility that she might permanently aspire to masculine privilege and prerogatives. It is fair to say, I think, that Viola's portrayal, along with that of certain other of Shakespeare's crossdressed heroines, marks one of the points of emergence of the feminine subject of the bourgeois era: a woman whose limited freedom is premised on the interiorization of gender difference and the "willing" acceptance of differential access to power and to cultural and economic assets.
Just as clearly, however, the play records the traditional comic disciplining of a woman who lacks such a properly gendered subjectivity. I am referring, of course, to Olivia, whom I regard as the real threat to the hierarchical gender system in this text, Viola being but an apparent threat. As Stephen Greenblatt points out, Olivia is a woman of property, headstrong and initially intractable, and she lacks any discernible male relatives, except the disreputable Toby, to control her or her fortune (p. 69). At the beginning of the play she has decided to do without the world of men, and especially to do without Orsino. These are classic marks of unruliness. And in this play she is punished, comically but unmistakably, by being made to fall in love with the crossdressed Viola. The good woman, Viola, thus becomes the vehicle for humiliating the unruly woman in the eyes of the audience, much as Titania is humiliated in A Midsummer Night's Dream by her union with an ass. Not only is the figure of the male-attired woman thus used to enforce a gender system that is challenged in other contexts by that figure, but also, by a bit of theatrical handy-dandy, the oft-repeated fear that boy actors dressed as women leads to sodomy is displaced here upon a woman dressed as a man. It is Viola who provokes the love of Olivia, the same-sex love between women thus functioning as the marker of the "unnatural" in the play and a chief focus of its comedy.
The treatment of Orsino, by contrast, is much less satirical. He, too, initially poses a threat to the Renaissance sex-gender system by languidly abnegating his active role as masculine wooer and drowning in narcissistic self-love. Yet Orsino, while being roundly mocked within the play, especially by Feste, is ridiculed only lightly by the play itself, by the punishments meted out to him. His narcissism and potential effeminacy are displaced, respectively, onto Malvolio and Andrew Aguecheek, who suffer fairly severe humiliations for their follies. In contrast, Orsino, the highest-ranking male figure in the play, simply emerges from his claustrophobic house in Act V and assumes his "rightful" position as governor of Illyria and future husband of Viola. Moreover, Orsino, in contrast to Olivia, shows no overt sexual interest in the crossdressed Viola until her biological identity is revealed, though his language often betrays an unacknowledged desire for the Diana within the male disguise. The point, however, is that the text makes his attraction to Cesario neither overt nor the object of ridicule.
If, as I have been arguing, this text treats gender relations conservatively, the same is true of its treatment of class. If unruly women and unmanly men are sources of anxiety needing correction, so are upstart crows. The class-jumper Malvolio, who dresses himself up in yellow stockings and cross garters, is savagely punished and humiliated, echoing the more comically managed humiliation of Olivia, the woman who at the beginning of the play jumped gender boundaries to assume control of her house and person and refused her "natural" role in the patriarchal marriage market. The play disciplines independent women like Olivia and upstart crows such as Malvolio and rewards the self-abnegation of a Viola. In the process, female crossdressing is stripped of nearly all of its subversive resonances present in the culture at large. There is no doubt that the play flirts with "dangerous matter": wearing clothes of the opposite sex invites every kind of sexual confusion and "mistaking." But the greatest threat to the sex-gender system is not, I would argue, the potential collapse of biological difference through the figure of Viola but the failure of other characters—namely, Orsino and Olivia—to assume culturally sanctioned positions of dominance and subordination assigned the two genders. As I noted earlier, it is ironic that it is through the crossdressed Viola, with her properly "feminine" subjectivity, that these real threats are removed and both difference and gender hierarchy reinscribed.
Not all the comedies are so recuperative. Portia's crossdressing, for example, is more disruptive than Viola's precisely because Portia's is not so stereotypically a feminine subjectivity. We first see her chafing at the power of a dead father's control over her, and when she adopts male dress, she proves herself more than competent to enter the masculine arena of the courtroom and to hold her own as an advocate in that arena. Her man's disguise is not a psychological refuge but a vehicle for assuming power. Unlike those crossdressed heroines who faint at the sight of blood or who cannot wield a sword, Portia seems able to play the man's part with conviction. Her actions hardly dismantle the sex-gender system; but they do reveal that masculine prerogatives are based on custom, not nature, since a woman can indeed successfully assume masculine positions of authority.41 Portia's actions are not aimed at letting her occupy a man's place indefinitely, however, but at making her own place in a patriarchy more bearable. She uses her disguise as Balthazar not only to rescue Antonio from death but also to intervene in the male/male friendship of her husband and Antonio and to gain control over her sexuality while setting the terms for its use in marriage. By the ring trick she gains the right to sleep not with her husband but by and with herself. In a play that insists on the patriarchal authority of fathers to dispose of daughters and that of husbands to govern wives, Portia's ability—through her impersonation of a man—to remain a married virgin and to set the terms for the loss of her virginity is a remarkable feat, as is her ability to guide Bassanio's choice of the correct casket without violating the letter of her father's will.
The incipient subversiveness of this representation—a subversiveness registered still in those modern critical readings of her that stress her manipulative, castrating qualities42—is not unrelated to the fact that this is the most mercantile of Shakespeare's comedies in its preoccupations. At one level its ideological project is the reconciliation of landed and commercial wealth, a mediation between feudal and protocapitalist economic systems.43 But the mediation of class conflict through the trope of marriage in this instance cuts against the patriarchal gender system. By feminizing the gracious world of landed wealth and masculinizing the commercial world of Venice, and by making the latter ill and unable to cure itself, Shakespeare created a fictional structure in which the ideology of male dominance breaks down. The woman is the only source of secure wealth, the only person in the courtroom capable of successfully playing the man's part and ousting the alien intruder. Portia may be "merely" an exception to her culture's patriarchal assumptions, but she, like Elizabeth I, is an exception that has continued to provoke uneasiness.
More complex still is As You Like It, which explicitly invites, through its epilogue, a consideration of how secure even the most recuperative representations of crossdressing could be in a theatre in which male actors regularly played women's roles. Rosalind's crossdressing, of course, occurs in the holiday context of the pastoral forest, and, as Natalie Davis has argued, holiday inversions of order can spur social change or, in other instances, can merely reconfirm the existing order.44 The representation of Rosalind's holiday humor has the primary effect, I think, of confirming the gender system and perfecting rather than dismantling it by making a space for mutuality within relations of dominance.45 Temporarily lording it over Orlando, teaching him how to woo and appointing the times of his coming and going, she could be a threatening figure if she did not constantly, contrapuntally, reveal herself to the audience as the not-man, as in actuality a lovesick maid whose love "hath an unknown bottom, like the bay of Portugal" (IV.i.208) and who faints at the sight of blood. Crucially, like Viola, Rosalind retains a properly feminine subjectivity: "dost thou think, though I am caparison'd like a man, I have a doublet and hose in my disposition?" (III.ii. 194-96). As Annette Kuhn has argued, in certain circumstances crossdressing intensifies, rather than blurs, sexual difference, sometimes by calling attention to the woman's failure to perform the masculine role signified by her dress.46 Rosalind's fainting constitutes such a reminder, endearing her to earlier generations of readers and audiences for her true "womanliness." And, as in Twelfth Night, the thrust of the narrative is toward that longdelayed moment of disclosure, orchestrated so elaborately in Act V, when the heroine will doff her masculine attire along with the saucy games of youth and accept the position of wife, when her biological identity, her gender identity, and the semiotics of dress will coincide.
Where this account of the consequences of Rosalind's crossdressing becomes too simple, however, is in a close consideration of the particular way in which Rosalind plays with her disguise. Somewhat like Portia, Rosalind uses her disguise to redefine (albeit in a limited way) the position of woman in a patriarchal society. The most unusual aspect of her behavior is that while dressed as a man, Rosalind impersonates a woman, and that woman is herself—or, rather, a self that is the logical conclusion of Orlando's romantic, Petrarchan construction of her. Saucy, imperious, and fickle by turns, Rosalind plays out masculine constructions of femininity, in the process showing Orlando their limitations. Marianne Doane has argued that "masquerade," the self-conscious staging, parody, exaggeration of cultural constructions of self, offers women a choice between simple identification with male selves—which is how she reads the meaning of crossdressing—or simple inscription within patriarchal constructions of the feminine.47 In my view, the figure of Rosalind dressed as a boy engages in playful masquerade as, in playing Rosalind for Orlando, she acts out the parts scripted for women by her culture. Doing so does not release Rosalind from patriarchy but reveals the constructed nature of patriarchy's representations of the feminine and shows a woman manipulating those representations in her own interest, theatricalizing for her own purposes what is assumed to be innate, teaching her future mate how to get beyond certain ideologies of gender to more enabling ones.
Moreover, this play, more than other Shakespearean comedies, deliberately calls attention to the destabilizing fact that it is boy actors playing the roles of all the women in the play, including Rosalind. There is a permanent gap on the stage between the incipiently masculine identity of the boy actors and their appropriation of the "grace, / Voice, gait, and action of a gentlewoman"—to borrow a definition of the actor's task from the job assigned the Page in the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew (Ind., 11. 131-32). I agree with Kathleen McLuskie that at some level boy actors playing women must simply have been accepted in performance as a convention.48 Otherwise, audience involvement with dramatic narratives premised on heterosexual love and masculine/feminine difference would have been minimal. It is also true, as McLuskie and others suggest, that the convention of the boy actor playing a girl can, at any moment, be unmasked as a convention and the reality (that the fictional woman is played by a boy) can be revealed. One of those moments occurs at the end of As You Like It. The play has achieved closure in part by reinscribing everyone into his or her "proper" social position. The duke is now again a duke and not a forest outlaw, Rosalind is now Rosalind and not Ganymede, and so forth. But when in the Epilogue the character playing Rosalind reminds us that she is played by a boy, the neat convergence of biological sex and culturally constructed gender is once more severed. If a boy can so successfully personate the voice, gait, and manner of a woman, how stable are those boundaries separating one sexual kind from another, and thus how secure are those powers and privileges assigned to the hierarchically superior sex, which depends upon notions of difference to justify its dominance?49 The Epilogue playfully invites this question. That it does so suggests something about the contradictory nature of the theatre as a site of ideological production, an institution that can circulate recuperative fables of crossdressing, reinscribing sexual difference and gender hierarchy, and at the same time can make visible on the level of theatrical practice the contamination of sexual kinds.
37 Catherine Belsey, "Disrupting Sexual Difference."
38 "Fiction and Friction," pp. 92-93.
39 For a much less political reading of the play see my own essay, "The Orchestration of Twelfth Night" in Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984). In that essay, while accurately mapping the actual and metaphorical disguises in the play, I did not explore the political implications of the text's insistence on the return to an "undisguised" state—what that meant for aspiring servants, independent women, etc. In short, I accepted the play's dominant ideologies as a mimesis of the true and natural order of things.
40The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), p. 416. All further references to Twelfth Night and other Shakespearean texts are taken from this edition of the plays.
41 Here I am agreeing with Karen Newman's view in "Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice" SQ, 38 (1987), 19-33, that Portia is an unruly woman who challenges masculine rhetorical hegemony and intervenes in the traffic in women upon which Renaissance patriarchal authority depended.
42 Harry Berger, Jr., "Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice: The Casket Scene Revisited," SQ, 32 (1981), 155-62.
43 For a complex argument concerning the play's relationship to changing economic practices in the Renaissance, see Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 195-211.
44 Davis, "Women on Top," esp. pp. 153-54.
45 For the view that the romantic comedies champion mutuality between the sexes, see Marianne Novy's Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984), esp. Chapter 2, "'An You Smile Not. He's Gagged': Mutuality in Shakespearean Comedy," pp. 21-44.
46 "Sexual Disguise and Cinema," The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), pp. 48-73, esp. pp. 55-57.
47 "Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator," Screen, 23 (1982), 74-89.
48 "The Act, the Role, and the Actor: Boy Actresses on the Elizabethan Stage," esp. p. 121.
49 For good discussions of the disruptive effects of the Epilogue, see Catherine Belsey's "Disrupting Sexual Difference" and Phyllis Rackin's "Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage."
Jan Kott (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "The Gender of Rosalind," in The Gender of Rosalind: Interpretations: Shakespeare, Buchner, Gautier, Northwestern University Press, 1992, pp. 11-40.
[In the following essay, Kott probes the structural, thematic, and historical components of Rosalind's ambiguous gender in As You Like It.]
On the Elizabethan stage the roles of young girls and even mature women were played by fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boys, always of course before their voices changed. The boy actor must have been like the onnagata in the traditional Kabuki. In the Japanese theater the convention is never bared onstage or the illusion abruptly suspended. In Shakespeare's theater, however, at least on two occasions the convention is suddenly unveiled for a brief moment; dramatic illusion is transformed into "theater in the theater," and as in Brecht's alienation effect theatrical time for that moment becomes audience time, and the performer who represents the role is not the he, or, rather, the she, whose role is being played.
In a dazzling Shakespearean anachronism, Cleopatra, queen of Egypt and mistress of Roman emperors, has no sooner ordered her maid to undo her bodice than she becomes for a moment a squeaking boy:
the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us . . .
. . . Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' the posture of a whore.
(Antony and Cleopatra V.ii.215-20)1
In the final scene of As You Like It, a boy who played a girl, who in turn played herself disguised as a boy, took off the doublet and hose tightly fastened around the knees. In the epilogue, back in women's clothes, Rosalind speaks directly to the spectators: "It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue; but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue. . . . If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not: and I am sure, as many . . . will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, bid me farewell."
"If I were a woman"—but now Rosalind not only wears a long gown that sweeps the ground and an ample bodice, but she curtsies as she leaves the stage. Genet insisted that at every performance of his Blacks, if there were no white spectators, a black in a white mask should be seated in the front row. The court consists of white judges only, but in fact they are blacks in white masks. "But what exactly is a black?" Genet asks. "First of all what's his color?"2 We could rephrase Genet and ask: "What exactly is gender? And above all, what's gender of gender?" In A Natural Perspective, essays on Shakespearean comedy and romance, Northrop Frye made a most penetrating observation on the links between reality and illusion onstage: "In watching tragedy we are impressed by the reality of the illusion. . . . In watching romantic comedy we are impressed by the illusion of the reality."3 The stage is both the reality of the illusion and the illusion of the reality. Following Frye, we could say: The illusion of gender is the gender of illusion. A girl/boy is a boy/girl. But what is his/her gender?
In a half-dozen Shakespearean comedies a youthful actor whose face has yet to feel the razor plays a girl who adopts the disguise of a boy. But in at least two masterpieces of Shakespearean comedy the disguise is not only a convention that serves to tie and untie the love intrigue. In such sparkling allegros with seemingly happy denouements as Twelfth Night and As You Like It, the ambiguity of gender is a bitter and truly disturbing theme not fully brought to light and still to be dealt with by the theater.
In the second scene of Twelfth Night, soon after coming ashore on the seacoast of Illyria, Viola says:
Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him.
. . . for I can sing,
And speak to him in many sorts of music
That will allow me very worth his service.
Not long ago some Shakespeare scholars suggested that at one point Viola was to sing the songs eventually given to the clown Feste. But in the passage cited above Shakespeare used the blunt word eunuch, not singer. A few lines later he repeated it in the speech of the Sea Captain, Viola's friend: "Be you his eunuch, and your mute I'll be" (II.ii.62).
There are no random words in Shakespeare, especially words like eunuch, so jarring to poetic diction. In an ambiguous confession, Viola, who has become Cesario, says: "Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much" (II.ii.26-27). Christian anthropology teaches that man has one soul and one body. Disguise as another body is a sin, hence the condemnation of theater since the days of Tertullian and Origen. One body and one sex. Playing the opposite sex is temptation by the devil: "How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly, / And I, poor monster . . ." (II.ii.32-33).
"And I, poor monster"—legendary and mythological monsters defy classification; they combine a lion's head with a woman's torso and an eagle's wings, or a woman's torso with a bird's beak. The eunuch and the hermaphrodite are "monsters" too. The hermaphrodite is an anatomical mediation between the male and female bodies. The androgyne was a platonic mediation in the Florentine and Elizabethan neoplatonic tradition:
As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master's love:
As I am woman (now alas the day!)
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe?
The boy/girl appears as a fascination/obsession in almost the same words in As You Like It, the Sonnets, and Twelfth Night, subtitled What You Will. What you will? "I am all the daughters of my father's house, / And all the brothers too" (II.iv. 121-22). The Duke says to Viola/Cesario:
Is not more smooth and rubious: thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.
Malvolio says of the Duke's messenger: "Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy: as a squash is before 'tis a peascod, or a codling when 'tis almost an apple. 'Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man" (I.v.158-61).
"I am not that I play," says the boy/girl to Olivia during their first meeting. But even more characteristic is what Olivia says to herself: "Methinks I feel this youth's perfections" (I.V.300).5 In botany the perfect flower has both stamens and pistils (male and female reproductive organs respectively). Perfection in the sense of sexual ambivalence is perfection for the followers of Sappho. At her next meeting with Olivia, Viola/Cesario will be transformed into Sebastian. The theme of siblings lost at sea and miraculously reunited, repeated in countless versions in comedies and romances from antiquity through the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and even the age of the baroque, is borrowed by Shakespeare from Plautus's Menaechmi for The Comedy of Errors. But in Twelfth Night in a brilliant reversal of gender, the twins are brother and sister, man and woman. The stamen and pistil are doubles, not to be told apart by their love partners: "One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons! / A natural perspective, that is, and is not!" (V.i.214-15). Antonio, Sebastian's friend and the ship's second captain during that night of mirrored errors, will repeat after the Duke: "An apple cleft in two is not more twin / Than these two creatures. Which is Sebastian?" (V.i.221-22).6
For the first and only time, Viola/Cesario and Sebastian are separated in the final scene of the play. They are to be separated as they appear together onstage. In accord with the tradition and rules of the genre, the romantic plot of the comedy ends in a "happy" joining of the two couples. Cesario, detached from Viola, has become Sebastian. But Viola and Sebastian are doubles. The girl/boy and the boy/girl will never stop circling between the Duke and Olivia like wooden horses on a merry-go-round during that "twelfth" night that never ends.
The Duke's final words about this night of mistaken identities are as brutal as those at the very beginning when Viola is to adopt the role of a eunuch. Viola is still in britches and doublet.
For so you shall be while you are a man;
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen.
In Elizabethan idiom this Shakespearean text (as well as a passage in the final scene of The Merchant of Venice) is almost openly obscene: "Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen." A "fancy woman" meant a kept woman or, in slang, a harlot, whore, strumpet Webster's). A "fancy man" meant lover and, more frequently, a harlot protector (Webster's and the O.E.D.). But what exactly is "fancy's queen"? In French argot it is reine, in Italian regina; in England from the Elizabethan period until the present day and in America, a "queen" is a man in drag.7
Sheridan Square on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is the site of an annual Halloween gay parade. The "queens" appear wearing monstrously big padded bras and enormous green, red, or purple wigs, their hair braided or pinned up into "cocks' combs." Alongside those frightening male/female figures resembling gigantic ostriches or parrots with hooked beaks, there are groups of boy/girls with hair cut short, either half-naked or in long, transparent gowns, dancing or holding hands, who look like angels in Pre-Raphaelite paintings.8 Angels are genderless. But Satan does show gender even in disguise: "Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness" (II.ii.26).
In Twelfth Night the triangle of Shakespearean eros almost graphically shapes the action and the relations between the characters. Viola/Cesario and her/his double, Sebastian, are the base of this triangle. The Duke, Orsino, is its left side, Olivia its right. The two symmetric ship captains, Viola's "mute" admirer and Antonio desperately searching for Viola's brother throughout Illyria, can be added to the triangle's two bottom vertices.
The love relationship without disguise, between man and woman, between Orsino and Olivia, is frozen; Olivia hides her passion under courtly manners, and Orsino hides his under the cold rhetoric of baroque concepts. From the very start the pulsation of eros is felt only between the Duke and the boy inherent in the girl, and between Olivia and the girl inherent in the boy. Instinct and sexual choices are not deluded by disguise, as if Shakespeare knew that he was only concealing and finding his own excuses for the inversions of desire. In a mask or a domino, sexual aggression and provocation elude social restraint and even one's own self-censorship. Disguise not only covers but also uncovers and bares.
The same triangle of Shakespearean eros is repeated in the Sonnets. The man, the "I" of the Sonnets, is its left side. The Dark Lady, who "would corrupt my saint to be a devil" (144.7) and took the youth away, is its right side. In the Sonnets the youth, "the better, fair angel," is the base of the triangle:
Two loves I have, of comfort and despair:
Which like two spirits do suggest me still.
The better angel is a man right fair.
In Marlowe's Edward II this youth is "in Dian's shape." In the Sonnets he has the face of a woman: "On Helen's cheek all art beauty set, / And you in Grecian tires are painted new" (53.7-8). Like "Orsino's mistress" in Twelfth Night, "the master mistress of my passion" in the Sonnets is an androgyne: "A woman's face, with Nature's own hand painted / Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion" (20.1-2).
The triangle from the Sonnets is repeated in As You Like It. Orlando is its left side, Phebe its right (in a certain sense Celia is the right side at the beginning of the action). But its sides do not close. There is no discernible eros between Orlando and Phebe or between Orlando and Celia (or perhaps only in a substitute form, since Orlando's brother marries Celia in the traditional comedie ending). The base of the triangle in As You Like It is Rosalind/Ganymede, the most fascinating and disturbing of all of Shakespeare's boy/girls both in the reading and on the stage:
CELIA: What shall I call thee when thou art a man?
ROSALIND: I'll have no worse a name than Jove's own page,
And, therefore, look you call me Ganymede.
The source of Shakespeare's As You Like It is Thomas Lodge's pastoral romance Rosalynde (1590), in which the daughter of a banished prince, driven out by the usurper to the throne, escapes with her female cousin to the Forest of Arden. Shakespeare took from Lodge not only the main line of the plot but also the sexually double name Rosalynde/Ganymede. The amazing peculiarity of that pastoral idyll is the deliberate and constant interchange of the pronouns she, he, her, and his throughout the story as if Lodge wanted to remind us that "she" (Rosalynde) is a woman, and "he" (Ganymede) is a man.9 But Rosalynde/Ganymede is one person. The alternation of pronouns on the level of the text is grammar of the androgyne.
Ganymede is not only a meaningful name, but from antiquity through the Renaissance and up to the late eighteenth century it was univocal. It meant a male lover. The "amorous girl-boy," as Lodge called him, reappears in Marlowe's poem Hero and Leander, written at almost the same period as As You Like It:
Some swore he was a maid in mans attire,
For in his lookes were all that men desire,
Jove, slylie stealing from his sisters bed
To dallie with Idalian Ganimed.10
Before Rosalind, back in woman's clothes, is united with Orlando in a marriage ceremony during the last scene of the comedy, however, she will go through love games involving both her sexes, male and female, and through a parody of a wedding ritual that almost anticipates Genet. While still at the Duke's court, before her banishment and subsequent transformation into a boy, she experienced the first girlish stirrings of emotion with her cousin Celia: "whose loves / Are dearer than the natural bond of sisters" (I.ii.87-88).
In Peter Stein's critically acclaimed production of As You Like It at the Berlin Schausbühne in the late 1980s, Celia and her "sweet girl" in man's attire pursued their amorous game in the thickets of the Forest of Arden almost to the very end of this comedy of disguise. Celia, now as Aliena, says:
We still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learn'd, play'd, eat together;
And whersoe'er we went, like Juno's swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable.
In that love dearer than "the natural bond of sisters," Celia had said to her "sweet girl":
Thou and I am one;
Shall we be sunder'd? shall we part . . .
Say what thou canst, I'll go along with thee.
In the Forest of Arden Celia is called Aliena and both as a sister and as an alien accompanies Rosalind throughout her experiences as Ganymede. But in disguise Rosalind is also an alien, not only for Phebe and unrecognized by Orlando, but for herself suddenly estranged like one's face reflected in the mirror which is I and not I. She is in the mirror but also outside it. Rosalind sees another face, the face of the opposite sex: "Alas the day! what shall I do with my doublet and hose?" (III.ii.221). And like Viola: "I am not that I play." Rosalind tries to convince Aliena as well as herself: "Do you not know I am a woman?" (III.ii.263).
The Forest of Arden is an initiation into eros. But like the process of maturing, it proves to be yet another encounter with the mirror in which desire for the other is reflected as a premonition of one's own sexuality: "this shepherd's passion / Is much upon my fashion." (II.iv.61-62). A shepherd's? For a moment Rosalind finds herself in Silvius as he sighs for Phebe:
The sight of lovers feedeth those in love.
Bring us unto this sight, and you shall say
I'll prove a busy actor in their play.
In his brilliant preface to Genet's The Maids, where the sexes are interchanged, Sartre writes that the actor in order to be "true" must be false to himself—false to his gender in Genet's erotics.11 But for a transvestite the false gender is his truth. In the "play" in which Rosalind is to appear the "busy actor" is Ganymede. In the Forest of Arden Rosalind is not as in contemporary theater a woman ineptly disguised as a man, but Ganymede: "I pray you, do not fall in love with me, / For I am falser than vows made in wine" (III.v.57-58). Phebe too is a false shepherdess. In that "forest" entered directly from a princely court, Phebe like Olivia in Twelfth Night and the "bad angel" in the Sonnets desires a girlish youth. In all his physical beauty, in all his undisguised corporeality,
His leg is but so-so; and yet 'tis well:
There was a pretty redness in his lip;
A little riper and more lusty red
Than that mix'd in his cheek; t'was just the difference
Betwixt the constant red and mingled damask.
The perseveration of the symbolic opposition of colors is astonishing. In the erotic triangle Phebe has replaced the Dark Lady. Her hair too is black:
'Tis not your inky brows, your black silk hair,
Your bugle eyeballs, nor your cheek of cream,
That can entame my spirits to your worship.
Fascination continues: "Sweet youth, I pray you chide a year together" (III.v.64).
The deception is mutual: the deceived is also the deceiver. In the Forest of Arden and in each and every Illyria not only genders are disguised; sex itself is in disguise. Lesbos is unfulfilled, but desire even if unsatisfied never ceases to feed the imagination. In Sodome et Gomorrhe Proust writes: "The young man whom we have been attempting to portray was so evidently a woman that the women who looked upon him with desire were doomed (failing a special taste on their part) to the same disappointment as those who in Shakespeare's comedies are taken in by a girl disguised as a youth. The deception is mutual, the invert is himself aware of it, he guesses the disillusionment which the woman will experience once the mask is removed, and feels to what an extent this mistake as to sex is a source of poetical imaginings."12 Rosalind, now a "busy actor" in short breeches and brightly colored hose, will test her new charms: "I will speak to him like a saucy lacquey, and under that habit play the knave with him" (III.ii.313).
Yet in the night of beautiful people in drag, Ganymede wants enamored Orlando to woo him not as a boy, but as Rosalind:
ORLANDO: I would not be cured, youth
ROSALIND: I would cure you if you would but
call me Rosalind, and come every day to
my cote and woo me.
ORLANDO: With all my heart, good youth.
ROSALIND: Nay, you must call me Rosalind.
As You Like It has two different endings: a happy ending that resolves the conflicts according to the rules and conventions of comedy, in which the Duke returns from the banishment, the good and bad brothers are reconciled, and Hymen unites the loving couples. But earlier in the play, there is another ending in which Ganymede is the bride. Everyone is disguised by this point, not only Touchstone (a clown is always disguised) but also Celia/Aliena, who has to play the role of priest in this fake ritual that takes place on the fragile boundary between carnival and blasphemy:
ROSALIND:> Come, sister, you shall be the priest and marry us.—Give me your hand,
Orlando:—What do you say, sister?
ORLANDO: Pray thee marry us.
CELIA: I cannot say the words.
ROSALIND: You must begin,—"Will you, Orlando,—"
CELIA: GO to:—Will you, Orlando, have to wife this Rosalind?
Desire and its disappointments, disguise and bodies in disguise, gender and illusions of gender are all intermingled and seem interchangeable. Silvius looks fondly at Phebe, Phebe looks fondly at Ganymede, Ganymede looks fondly at Orlando; Orlando loves Rosalind, Rosalind is Ganymede. In the Elizabethan theater where young boys were Rosalind/Ganymede, Phebe the shepherdess infatuated with Ganymede, and Celia/Aliena who plays the priest, the confusion of gender must have been total.13 But how can this confusion be shown and made convincing in the contemporary theater on both sides of the Atlantic that has neither the Japanese onnagata nor the boy actors up to such a task?
But there are other possible models. More than twenty years ago while I was still working on Shakespeare Our Contemporary, I spent one cold winter night in a discotheque in Stockholm. When the deafening music and frenetic dancing stopped for a moment and the blinding lights ceased whirling, the dancers would slowly leave the dance floor, their bodies still swaying rhythmically, and move toward the walls locked in each other's arms. They stood there for a long time oblivious to everything around them. All of them had blond hair closely cropped at the nape of the neck and were tall and long-legged, in tightly fitting jeans and loose denim jackets—boys and girls, girls and boys, indistinguishable one from the other. After a while a pair of dancers pried themselves from the wall and came over to the Swedish friends I was with. They were both female; on their jackets they had the identifying mark GIRL embroidered in red. It seems to me that in Twelfth Night the roles of the doubles, Viola/Cesario and Sebastian, should be played by two women disguised as men, instead of by an actor and actress. A young woman whose body is not fully developed is closer in appearance to an androgyne than a man. But in a new Elizabethan production of As You Like It, what should be the gender of the person playing Rosalind/Ganymede?
In his Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), Gautier was the first of the young Romantics to describe with the passion of a true neophyte the ambivalence of desire. But the novel's most astonishing innovation is the amateur production of As You Like It, played not to reveal the gender of Shakespeare's Rosalind, but as a test for discovering the gender of the performer of the role. The new Mademoiselle de Maupin played Rosalind in this ingenious production, proving that Gautier possessed theatrical imagination of which Shakespeare experts and theater scholars could be envious.
Before entering legend, Mademoiselle de Maupin was a real historic figure. She lived at the end of the seventeenth century. Always dressed in men's attire, an excellent equestrienne, and known for her courage as a duelist, she had many lovers of both sexes. She is said to have been the first contralto heard on the Paris operatic stage, appearing triumphantly in Tancred.
Gautier was only twenty-four when Mademoiselle de Maupin was published. Chevalier D'Albert, the novel's protagonist and narrator in most of the chapters, is the same age as Gautier and appears to be an alter ego of the author's, revealing his sexual fantasies. As the novel opens, D'Albert meets a young widow in a rose-colored gown in one of the salons. Rosette (she appears in the novel under this name) invites D'Albert to her country estate. Time in the novel is fluid. At the beginning it seems to be a contemporary novel, then the action appears to switch to the palaces and gardens typical of eighteenth-century libertine novels. The clothing of the "widow in rose," especially her lingerie and peignoirs, come from the Regency era. The scenery of the novel is a park, a forest, and a boudoir.
Despite the lovers' inventiveness in ever new and varied sexual pleasures, D'Albert's erotic imagination remains ungratified. Nurtured on Greek myth, it may appear contrived. But in the human soul-trapped-in-body the imagination too is carnal and feeds on its own sensual needs, be they concealed, partially avowed, or slowly penetrating to full awareness. "There is scarcely any difference between Paris and Helen."14 They are more tellingly and openly expressed in another of D'Albert's confessions: "This son of Hermes and Aphrodite is, in fact, one of the sweetest creations of Pagan genius. Nothing in the world can be imagined more ravishing than these two bodies, harmoniously blended together and both perfect, these two beauties so equal and so different, forming but one superior to both." In this Romantic novel Gautier is amazingly modern in his evocation of sexual transgression: "I have never wished so much for anything as, like Tiresias the soothsayer, to meet on the mountain the serpents which cause the change of sex, and what I envy most in the monstrous and whimsical gods of India are their perpetual avatars and their countless transformations."
D'Albert would like to change into his love partner in order to experience female eros: "I would have preferred to be a woman. . . . I would willingly have changed my part, for it is very provoking to be unaware of the effect that one produces, and to judge of the enjoyment of others only by one's own." In this eros of the imagination, the hermaphrodite is not only a joining of the two split halves from the platonic myth in the Symposium, but a fulfillment of the impossible desire that during the act of love the male could become female and the female male.
These phantasms become embodied with the arrival of Théodore, the third character in the love plot. He is a beautiful youth with the face of a girl. He had visited the young widow once before, and she had fallen in love with him. One morning, "rosier than her name," she unexpectedly entered Théodore's bedroom "with nothing on her" but a transparent chemise, but to no avail. Théodore was unresponsive to her embraces and caresses. But Théodore's ambiguous charm and ambiguous beauty now arouse D'Albert's desires. The unforeseen longing for union with a man is a disturbing temptation. In this novel in which sapphic unions feed the imagination of men no less than women, eros socraticus is still taboo: "What a pity it is that he is a man, or rather than I am not a woman." But perhaps D'Albert need not accuse himself of an inclination that goes "against the Order of Nature": "Théodore must be a woman disguised: . . . Such beauty, even for a woman, is not the beauty of a man. . . . It is a woman, by heaven, and I was very foolish to torment myself in such a manner. In this way everything is explained in the most natural fashion in the world, and I am not such a monster as I believed." "And I, poor monster," Viola/Cesario says about herself. In idioms, going from Elizabethan times to the nineteenth century, a "monster" (le monstre) was equated with a homosexual.
In Mademoiselle de Maupin Gautier repeats the triangle of Shakespearean eros. The Lady in Rose replaces the Dark Lady; D'Albert, the first person of the narrative, replaces the first person of the Sonnets. At the base of this immutable triangle, the new master mistress will take his place between the man and the woman.
The gender of this accomplished horseman and "master of the sword" with the face of a girl remains an enigma. In order to solve the mystery of the infallibility of instinct and of the illusion of disguise, D'Albert decides to put on an amateur performance of As You Like It in the mansion of the Lady in Rose. Rosette plays Phebe. Théodore plays Rosalind/Ganymede.
In the first scenes Rosalind is dressed as a woman. D'Albert describes her first appearance: "There was a general cry of admiration. The men applauded, and the women grew scarlet. Rosette alone became extremely pale and leaned against the wall, as though a sudden revelation were passing through her brain. She made in a contrary direction the same movement as I did. I always suspected her of loving Théodore." In the third act Rosalind transformed into Ganymede is now dressed as a man: "Yet he was dressed in such a way," D'Albert continues, "as to give one a presentiment that these manly clothes had a feminine lining; a breadth of hip, a fulness of bosom, and a sort of undulation never seen in cloth on the body of a man, left but slight doubts respecting the person's sex. . . . My serenity returned to some extent, and I persuaded myself afresh that it was really a woman. I recovered sufficient composure to play my part in a fitting manner."
Rosalind from the production of As You Like It came to D'Albert during the night. She was a virgin. But the romantic Mademoiselle de Maupin had returned all the embraces, was "astonished at nothing," and was ready to prolong the pleasures unknown to her. When D'Albert woke up after "a soft, voluptuous sleep," Théodore/Rosalind was gone. He must have left at the break of day. The maid said that when she entered her mistress's room at noon as usual, the bed was disturbed and tossed and bore the impress of two bodies. When she made the bed she found two pearls similar to those Théodore wore in his hair when he played the part of Rosalind. The beautiful cavalier had not been seen by anyone. The following morning Théodore left, never to be heard or seen again by D'Albert or Rosette with whom he had divided that night.
Rosalind is Ganymede, and Ganymede is Rosalind. But what is Rosalind's gender? What is Ganymede's gender? In this startling reading, the new conclusion of As You Like It is bitter and free of illusions. From another time, from another novel—the novel was Les Liaisons dangereuses.
French literature written around the time of Mademoiselle de Maupin is astonishingly rich in works whose main and often sole theme is inversion, transvestitism, the double, castrato and hermaphrodite. Heroes of inversion have been known since the Renaissance, but outside that period and some masterpieces of the eighteenth century, such literature has been clandestine and pornographic. In the mid-1830s these figures appeared in works of the greatest writers of the period: Gautier, Musset, Mérimée, Balzac, and George Sand.
In a portrait by Delacroix painted in 1830, now at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, George Sand is seen in a riding costume, a top hat—her dark hair streaming from underneath the broad brim—a high cravat, and a waistcoat with turned-down collar. At that time Sand preferred to wear men's attire.15 Sand was then twenty-six years old. It was two years before her scandalous, almost open relationship with the beautiful Parisian actress Marie Dorval and a year before the publication of her novel Lélia.16 Alfred de Musset, with whom Sand was about to have a romance, probably the most tempestuous in her entire life, in his letters always called her Lélia. In a letter to Sainte-Beuve Sand wrote: "I am utterly and completely Lélia. . . . I wanted to convince myself that that was not so."17
Lélia in the novel has a twin sister, Pulcheria, who can be taken for a mirror image of herself. When Lélia withdrew rather than confronting her first night of love, Pulcheria took her place in bed without being recognized. Although doubles physically, the two sisters have different souls. Lélia is frigid; Pulcheria is a courtesan in her constant need of a man. One of the earliest feminist manifestos, the novel shows that these are the two roles male morality reserves for woman. Lélia was considered scandalous in France almost until the advent of naturalism and in England for more than a century. Written by a woman, it disclosed woman's double eros. In youthful, sisterly incest, the two divided halves of the platonic apple are reunited for a brief moment, and Pulcheria experiences her first orgasm in the arms—covered with light down—of the sleeping Lélia.
But Lélia herself is split into two characters, a male and a female, and into two halves, one dark, the other fair (in George Sand's symbolism man is dark, woman is fair). From this juncture is born the Romantic androgyne of literature. "She has the ethereal features of a Tasso and the sad smile of a Dante. She has the boyish naturalness of Shakespeare's youthful heroines: she is Romeo, the poetic lover, Hamlet, the ascetic, pale visionary, and Juliet now half-dead, concealing the poison and the memory of her lover who broke her heart."18
Obsession with the theme of the androgyne—aesthetic, erotic, and social—seems to have been almost universal at that time. A year before Lélia and prior to starting his relationship with George Sand, Alfred de Musset wrote what is perhaps the best of all Romantic dramas, Lorenzaccio. The protagonist, a young Florentine prince at the time of the Renaissance, is even more internally divided than his literary prototype, Hamlet. He is also even more effeminate, a charge already made against Hamlet. Lorenzaccio's gender is shrouded in mystery to the very end. Undoubtedly he was intended as an androgyne. Perhaps for that reason, half a century had to elapse before the play could be put on the stage. It was first performed only in 1898 with Sarah Bernhardt in the title role. It proved to be one of her greatest triumphs: now sure of herself in the role of the androgyne, she decided to play Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Balzac's early novels are highly characteristic examples of the dark current of Romanticism. Not yet fully successful artistically, these works are nonetheless disturbing in their exploration of the sphere between the monstrous and bizarre that later fascinated Barbey d'Aurevilly and the surrealists, who called it l'insolite. In Balzac's Seraphita, where mysticism and physiology are strangely blended (as repeatedly happened thereafter), an androgyne, the angelic Seraphita, is adored by both a man, Wilfrid, and a young virgin girl, Minna.
Even more symptomatic is Balzac's Girl with the Golden Eyes, written in 1835, the year of Mademoiselle de Maupin's publication. "A Sappho resurrected in Paris," writes an anonymous memoirist in Souvenirs d'un demisiècle. "The passions of Sappho, who has been asleep for centuries on the rock of Leukos, have come back to life in Paris. Erynia, Mirra, Chloe, all those deserted nymphs, have reappeared in the penumbra of bedrooms like the restored frescoes of Greece."19
Paquita, the girl with the golden eyes, was brought from the southern isles and kept under strict guard in one of the great Parisian mansions. The marquise that brought Paquita to Paris, as Balzac writes in the preface to the first edition of the novel, "was a person brought up on islands where customs tolerate girls with golden eyes to such an extent that they have become almost an institution."20
From time to time Paquita could be sighted riding on the boulevards in a carrige with a black footman. De Marsay saw her one day, and the sight stirred his imagination. De Marsay reappears in later Balzac novels as a statesman and a minister, but in The Girl with the Golden Eyes he is still the most elegant of Parisian dandies. The description of De Marsay's morning toilet, with him seated in front of a mirror like a great actress preparing to go onstage, is one of the most brilliant scenes in the entire Human Comedy. De Marsay belonged to the secret Society of the Thirteen who, bound by inviolable oaths, put themselves above the law and did not recoil from murder and violence. "Through violence to pleasure," they would repeat as if they had learned it from the marquis de Sade himself.
De Marsay decided to win Paquita, and he won her by bribery and ingenuity. Paquita put the Argus guarding her to sleep with a dose of opium. She gave herself to De Marsay. Girls from faraway isles know all the secrets of love, and they are used to all forms of pleasure, but technically Paquita was a virgin. De Marsay wanted to be her first lover, but instead he was only her first man. That was not the innocence he had hoped to find in her body that smelled like a ripe peach. He felt deceived like Don Juan, who never found what he sought and was deceived by what he found.
De Marsay decided to punish in a bloody fashion the girl from Lesbos, but he was too late. In the boudoir covered with blood-red tapestry he found Paquita dying, her body mutilated and the marquise de San-Réal standing over her, dagger in hand. De Marsay caught her arm, and for a moment he and the marquise stood face to face. To their horror they saw in each other the same face, like the reflection in a mirror. The marquise, Paquita's true lover, and De Marsay, her one-night lover, were siblings, twin doubles. "In effect," Balzac concludes the story, "the two Menaechmi had not been more alike."
Balzac furnished an astonishing postscript to this bloody story. The author of the novel had met De Marsay when he was just barely seventeen. When he visited De Marsay ten years later, he could still discern a trace of "an extraordinary half-feminine beauty that so distinguished him as a boy." Thus in that lion of the Parisian salons Balzac detected a shade of the hermaphrodite.
The central character of Balzac's novel Sarrasine is a castrato. In eighteenth-century Rome under the name of Zambinella this operatic prima donna is a soprano and dancer famous for her beauty. Her voice and charms captivate the sculptor Sarrasine. He wants to sculpt her body. During their first physical contact, almost the moment before making love, though, Sarrasine discovers that the beautiful Zambinella is a disguised castrato. Like De Marsay who in Paquita's preserved virginity saw the "innocence" of a lesbian, Sarrasine exclaims: "Monster! For me, you have wiped women from the earth."21 But for the author ïf Mademoiselle de Maupin, in the astonishing poem "Contralto" from the collection Emaux et Camées (Enamels and Cameos), a castrato is the embodiment of "cursed beauty," a joining of a youth with a woman, Romeo with Juliet, like George Sand's Lélia. The castrato is a "monster," but in his multiple beauty he is a monstre charmant.
Chimère ardente, effort suprême
De l'art et de la volupté,24
Monstre charmant, comme je t'aime
Avec ta multiple beauté!
In Balzac's Sarrasine a castrato in eighteenth-century Rome is an actress who arouses desire in men; in nineteenth-century Paris a nearly hundred-year-old man contracts a symbolic marriage blanc with the very young and disturbingly beautiful Mariannine, disturbingly beautiful because she is an exact copy of her twin brother. So even here the castrato is accompanied by a double. Man/woman, his/her, with him / with her are intermixed as though they were as mutually complementing/annihilating in Sarrasine as in Lodge's pastoral romance two and a half centuries earlier. In Sarrasine signs and meanings are interchangeable and fluid; grammar and anatomy have ceased to give unequivocal answers. It should not come as a surprise that in the past twenty years this novel has been the most frequently and extensively discussed text, challenging for structuralists and poststructuralists, for phenomenologists and post-Marxists, for deconstructionists and linguistic critics alike. Roland Barthes, who in his S/Z—the most hermetic of them all—has analyzed one by one all the 561 lexias of the novel, observes: "Sarrasine represents the very confusion . . . the unbridled (pandemic) circulation of signs, of sexes, of fortunes."23
The castrato, hermaphrodite, and double do not conform to systems of binary classification. Viola in Twelfth Night was called a eunuch. Freud in his late "pre-Lacanian" frenzies of intuition has shown the similarity of the threat—"the uncanny" (das Unheimliche)—of the double and the castrato.24
In his anthropological essays on differences and similarities among various cultures, Victor Turner writes that for the Ndembu and neighboring people in northwestern Zambia the number of children is the first sign of wealth and that the women are proud of their fertile wombs. But the birth of twins is greeted with horror, especially twins of the same gender. They do not belong to the existing system of kinship, where every member of the clan has a fixed place. Newborn twins are frequently killed, both or only one, but in that case which one? But la pensée sauvage has found a solution. In Zambia besides the system of classification there is always the shaman. Twins may be given to the shaman to be brought up as his successors. The village chief and his wives and offspring also remain outside the system of classification. Twin sisters are often removed shortly after birth to a separate hut belonging to the chieftain, located outside the clan's village.25
In binary oppositions woman is not-man. Man is not-woman. In the axiom of the excluded middle there is no place for the castrato. The castrato whose gender has been removed is a negation of the opposition between the sexes. The double is a negation of the opposition: I and not-I. I am the other, but the other is also me. Doubles, who as in Balzac's early novels are brother and sister, are a double hermaphrodite and hence again a negation of opposition. Such considerations may seem no more than playing with abstractions, but they reveal, although differently than in Freud, the same threat that the mere presence of the castrato, the hermaphrodite, and the clone calls forth. In the theater, especially in comedy, the disguise of gender has a long tradition and serves to amuse. But in the novel in the mid-1830s the sudden proliferation of the theme of disguised gender seems bewildering.
Mimicry on a broader scale is the counterpart of disguised gender in literary fiction. It is in Barthes's formulation the "pandemic" of signs and modes in onomastics, in manners, and in the social tissue itself. The most pronounced proliferation took place during the Restoration and after the events of 1830. During the French Revolution the basic patterns of time and space were violated for the first time. The calendar started with the first day of the French Republic, the months changed their names and their numbers of days, citoyen replaced monsieur, and streets and squares changed their patrons; for example, the Place Louis XIV became William Tell.
During the Restoration, as in our own experience, history was rewritten retroactively: neither the French Revolution nor the empire ever occurred. In the charter of 1814 Louis XVIII announced: "Given in Paris, in the year of grace 1814 and the eighteenth year of our reign." The son of Louis XVI, of course, never assumed the throne and consequently never became Louis XVII. Louis XVIII therefore assumed the throne in that fiction of legitimacy, following the death of "Louis XVII," who in this same newly rewritten history supposedly was crowned king two years to the day after his father Louis XVI was guillotined.
In 1830, still half a year before the July Revolution, "pandemic" broke loose first in the theater—at least in its pit seats. During every one of the forty performances of Hugo's Hernani the hooters and hissers and the applauders tried to drown out one another, leading to frequent fistfights. Gautier did not miss a single performance, always sporting his famous red vest. In the battle of Hernani the perruques and Romantics were hardly fighting over the place of a caesura in the classical alexandrine.
After 1830 the young Romantics became more frenetic. Gautier now belonged to the Petit Cénacle along with Petrus Borei and Nerval. Petrus, called The Lycanthrope, was already insane, and Nerval was but a step away from madness. Madness can be black or white. Petrus's madness was black, as was Lautrémont's and Jarry's. In this opposition of colors, Nerval's insanity was white. Madness is always a disguise of reason, but when reason is mad, then madness is rational.
And 1830 once more. The subtitle of Stendhal's Le Rouge et le noir is Chronique de 1830. As a secretary for the marquis de la Mole, Julien Sorel always wore the black of a priest. When the marquis, confined to bed by the gout, invites him to his room, he has Julien put on a blue suit. In this costume he treats him as an equal. Dressed in black, Julien was just a little above a servant. Dressed in blue, this son of a peasant is le chevalier de la Vernaye and almost a relative of the marquis.
Even before disguised gender started to appear widely in novels, ancestral titles also became a disguise. In that merry-go-round of classes and fortunes, shopkeepers' daughters would exchange their dowries for aristocratic connections. The daughters of the nouveaux riches could not be distinguished from pauperized princesses and marquises. During Louis XVIII's reign the aristocracy became the bourgeoisie, disguised in its costumes.
In the postscript of 1830 to Sarrasine, Balzac wrote: "Contemporary society by leveling all class distinctions and throwing the same light on everything has destroyed the difference between the tragic and the comic." Binary systems of poetics have collapsed, just as has the binary opposition: aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Disguised class! Disguised gender!
Rosalind's gender. Exactly what is her gender? The gender of Rosalind seems to be dictated by history. Yet history on various levels and in various versions is present in everything contemporary, either openly or more often in disguised form. Striking evidence of this can be found in the differing interpretations of Shakespeare and in the stage history of his plays over the centuries. Contrary to the erroneous notions of many theater directors and scene designers, neither costumes nor settings are decisive in the never-ending tug-of-war between tradition and innovation, between the past and the present. The Forest of Arden in As You Like It, to which Rosalind flees disguised as Ganymede, can equally well be presented as the countryside near Stratford at the time of the Renaissance or as the byways of the Palais Royal in the Romantic Paris of Gautier and Balzac, the Bois de Boulogne of the Belle Epoque, or the Parc Monceau where young Proust and Gilberte played hopscotch. Gilberte had her hair in braids, or perhaps she wore a sailor suit. We might also recognize a far grimmer Forest of Arden in Berlin's Under den Linden during the Third Reich or in the streets of Soho in New York today. Shakespeare's Rosalind on the contemporary stage is accompanied by the shadows of all the Rosalinds who have disguised themselves as Ganymede—and by all the myths, all the obsessions, all the temptations of androgynous eros, all the ebb and flow of the ever-recurring past.
1 Quotations of Shakespeare's plays are from the Arden Shakespeare editions: Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. R. Ridley (London, 1962); As You Like It, ed. Agnes Latham (London, 1975); and Twelfth Night, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (London, 1975). The Sonnets are quoted from the edition edited by C. Knox Pooler (London, 1918).
2 Jean Genet, The Blacks, trans. B. Frechtman (New York, 1960), 3.
3 Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), 123.
4 "A woman's part" implies pudendum, also penis and testicles. James T. Henke, Courtesans and Cuckolds: A Glossary of Renaissance Dramatic Bawdy (New York, 1979). It seems that in the subtext of eros the Duke describing Viola/Cesario oscillates between the anatomy of a girl and a boy.
5Perfect (bot.): "Having all four whorls of the flower"; Youth: "novelty," "sexually curious," "amorous" (O.E.D.). "Perfect in lying down" means apt in lovemaking; Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (New York, 1937). "Come, Kate, thou are perfect in lying down" (Henry IV, Part I, III.i.226); often in Shakespeare "a youth with its sexual curiosity and amorous ardour." Provost on the pregnant Juliet: "a gentlewoman of mine, / Who falling in the flaws of her own youth" (Measure for Measure, see also Merchant of Venice V.iii.222). Fancy: a fancy woman, kept woman, "fancy man," or "fancy Joseph: harlot protector"; Partridge, Dictionary. "Fancy house: brothel"; Albert Barrère and Charles G. Leland, eds., A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant, (London, 1889-90; Detroit, 1967). "To take in a fancy work: to be addicted to the secret prostitution"; John S. Farmer and W. E. Henely, Slang and Its Analogues (1890-1904; New York, 1970), 2:374.
6 Shakespeare's choice of names is revealing. In Christian art from the late Middle Ages through the Renaissance until the late baroque, Sebastian and Adam were the only males allowed to be shown in the nude. With his girlish face and body almost resembling those of a young girl as seen in paintings by Guido Reni and Lorenzo Costa, Sebastian, clad only in a loincloth, pierced with arrows, whose smile in suffering seems close to ecstasy, has always been a favored sign for homosexuals. Antonio, too, seems to be a significant name: not without reason did Shakespeare so name his merchant of Venice, Bassanio's platonic friend ready for every sacrifice. Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (in some respects a first version of Twelfth Night) chooses the name Sebastian when she disguises herself as a boy. Sebastian and Antonio appear to be signifying signs.
7Queene: "a male homosexual, especially the effeminate partner in a homosexual relationship," from 1924 (O.E.D.). In the Renaissance, "effeminate marniere." The absence of slang notations from earlier periods does not necessarily mean they did not exist. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries queen was often denoted by the spelling "queene" or "quean." From the early Middle Ages (tenth century) a term of abuse, a hussy, a harlot, a strumpet (especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) (O.E.D.). In Shakespeare, an almost disparaging term: "A witch, a quean, an old cozening quean!" (The Merry Wives of Windsor), and, more vivid, "a scolding quean" (All's Well That Ends Well). In the seventeenth century: "All spent in a Tauerne amongst a consort of queanes and fiddlers" (Nashe, Almond for Parrai). The most interesting and chronologically close to Shakespeare: "A certain paultry Quean in mans apparel, that would pass for a Lady" (1670). A "quean's evil" is gonorrhea (A Trick to Catch the Old One V.ii.214). Henke, Courtesans and Cuckolds.
8 "Style is the weapon of these self-styled queens, their consorts and their entourages. Style is all-pervasive in speech, vocabulary, manner, dress and attitude. Style is a way of appearing to be 'real,' that is, a way of appearing to be something that, it is often apparent, one isn't." Vincent Canby, review of Paris Is Burning, a film about New York's "drag queens," New York Times, 14 March 1991.
9 See Janice Paran, "The Amorous Girl-Boy: Sexual Ambiguity in Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde," Essays 1 (1981): 91-97.
10 Christopher Marlowe, Hero and Leander, 11. 83-84, 147-48. From The Anchor Anthology of Sixteenth-Century Verse, ed. Richard S. Sylvester (Gloucester, Mass., 1983).
11 Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to The Maids, by Jean Genet (New York, 1954), 23.
12 Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (New York, 1982).
13 In England women first appeared on the stage in the Restoration period. The roles most coveted by young actresses were those of girls disguised as boys in Shakespeare's comedies, called breeches parts. For the first time it was possible for women to display their legs. That was one of the reasons for the popularity of Shakespeare's comedies. "To the Theatre and there saw Argalus and Parthenia; where a woman acted Parthenia and came afterward on the Stage in man's clothes, and had the best legs that ever I saw; and I was very well pleased with it." The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews (Berkeley, Calif., 1970), 203 (28 Oct. 1661).
14 Théophile Gautier, Mademoiselle de Maupin, trans. Burton Rascoe (New York, 1923). All quotations are translated from the French by Jadwiga Kosicka.
15 A line from Byron's Don Juan, written in 1823, "this modern Amazon and a quean of queans" (O.E.D.) seems to fit perfectly George Sand as seen in the portrait by Delacroix.
16 The beautiful Mademoiselle des Touches, known as Camille Maupin, appears in Balzac's Lost Illusions. She is a semifictional portrait of George Sand. In the novel Camille's lover is the actress Coralie: "Coralie joua dans la pièce de Camille Maupin et contribua beaucoup à ce succès de l'illustre hermaphrodite littéraire." Honoré de Balzac, Illusions perdues, Collection Classique Garnier (Paris, 1961), 461.
17 George Sand to Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, 8 July 1833, cited in André Maurois, Lélia; ou, La Vie de George Sand (Paris, 1952).
18 George Sand, Lélia, trans. with an introduction by Maria Espinoza (Bloomington, Ind., 1978).
19 Quoted in Honoré de Balzac, L'Histoire des Treize, ed. P. G. Castex.
20 Honoré de Balzac, The Girl with the Golden Eyes, trans. Ellen Marriage (New York, 1950). All quotations are from this edition.
21 Honoré de Balzac, Sarrasine, in S/Z, by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Miller (New York, 1974).
22 Théophile Gautier, "Contralto," in Emaux et Camées (Paris, 1822).
23 Barthes, S/Z, 216. See Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference (Baltimore, 1980); Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981); Sandy Petrey, Realism and Revolution: Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, and the Performances of History (Ithaca, N.Y., 1988). The final part of my essay is much indebted to Petrey's book, its analysis and quotations.
24 Sigmund Freud, Essais de psychoanalyse appliquée (Paris, 1933), quoted in Shoshana Felman, La Folie et la chose littéraire (Paris, 1978), 69.
25 See Victor Turner, The Ritual Process (Ithaca, N.Y., 1969), 44ff.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 25142
Carol Thomas Neely (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Gender and Genre in Antony and Cleopatra" in Broken Nuptials In Shakespeare's Plays, University of Illinois Press, 1994, pp. 136-65.
[In the following essay originally published in 1985, Neely argues that in Antony and Cleopatra "genre boundaries are . . . enlarged" to include "motifs, themes, and characterization "from Shakespeare's comedies, tragicomedies, and tragedies. Likewise, she contends that "gender distinctions . . . are expanded, magnified, and ratified" in this work as in no other Shakespearean play.]
Here I am Antony
Yet cannot hold this visible shape.
No more but e'en a woman . . .
It is shaped, sir, like itself.
Critics have long found Antony and Cleopatra a peculiar play whose genre is problematic. It has been viewed as an anomaly among the tragedies, a Roman play, a problem play, a precursor of the romances, and, most commonly, a blend of comedy and tragedy.1 Recently, psychoanalytic and feminist critics have likewise found in the play the dissolution of gender boundaries, a dissolution variously interpreted—as a regression to infantile modes of awareness in which self and other are undifferentiated; as a transcendence of gender oppositions allowing for interpenetration and metamorphosis; as Antony's terrified feminization at the hands of a powerful Cleopatra; or as Antony's achievement of an "alternative masculinity" through his acceptance of feminine aspects of himself.2 Underlying these studies is the assumption that the dissolving of gender roles is in some way connected with the amorphousness of the play's generic structure, that genre is determined by the nature of the psychological conflicts explored and the nature of the resolution to them. But the relationship is not specifically explicated.3
This [essay] provides a detailed consideration of the interaction between gender and genre in Antony and Cleopatra. Its purpose is to show that, in this play, gender roles are not exchanged or transcended, but are played out in more variety than in the other tragedies. In consequence, the generic boundaries of Antony and Cleopatra are expanded to include motifs, roles, and themes found in Shakespeare's comedies, histories, problem plays, and romances. This examination illuminates both the gender relations characteristic of different Shakespearean genres and the unique generic mix of Antony and Cleopatra, a play which, like Egypt's crocodile, is shaped only like "itself."
Antony at first evades full commitment to Cleopatra by playing the romantic lover, and she responds by playing the mocking, realistic beloved; both roles are familiar from the comedies. Then, like the protagonists of the history plays, especially the Roman histories, Antony turns for self-definition to a public, political realm; he leaves Cleopatra behind to commit himself to Roman politics, male alliance, and a marriage with Octavia designed to cement that alliance. As the bond with Caesar engenders new conflicts, Antony ruptures marriage and alliance together. He returns to Cleopatra and achieves with her the synthesis of love and heroism, authority and sexuality, autonomy and mutuality sought in the problem plays and early tragedies by Romeo, Troilus, Hamlet, Bertram, and Othello. But this synthesis engenders its own dissolution. When Antony succumbs to the enraged misogyny of the tragic heroes, Cleopatra defends herself by accommodation and a strategic mock death. Enobarbus, caught between Antony and Cleopatra, Roman power and Egyptian desire, comedy and tragedy, dies embodying the play's oppositions. Through their own deaths, Antony and Cleopatra resolve these conflicts and achieve the selfrealization and reunion that will be more fully achieved in the romances through the diminishing of tragic conflict and tragic scope. But unlike the romances, Antony and Cleopatra does not conclude with reunion; the deaths are framed and distanced by Caesar, whose commentary reduces the lovers' story from myth to stereotype and exploits it to enhance his power. Antony's and Cleopatra's symbolic marriage, although it affirms their sexual union and mutual commitment, does not reconcile them to the social order, ensure family continuity, or rejuvenate the political order as do the marriages in the comedies, histories, and romances; their deaths, like those of other tragic protagonists, transcend rather than transform the social order.
Throughout the variety of Antony's and Cleopatra's roles, gender divisions remain constant—as they do, I think, throughout the Shakespearean canon. Gender roles are polarized sexually, emotionally, and socially within a patriarchal framework. Men's roles are more varied, undergo more development, and are often experienced as dangerously unstable. Women's roles and identity are less varied, change less, and are more secure; but, paradoxically, because women so often act in response to the fluctuations of the men, they are perceived as stereotypically mutable and untrustworthy.4 Cleopatra's "See where he is, who's with him, what he does: / . . . If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick" (I.iii.2-5) is merely a subtle, self-conscious, and inverted example of the responsiveness that is characteristic of Shakespeare's women.5 Antony, like men in other plays, experiences anxiety about his identity, his masculinity, his relations to love and war. His assertions and Cleopatra's that he is Antony only emphasize his difficulty in maintaining his "shape" (IV.xiv.13-14).6 He experiences perpetual conflict between selfrealization as a soldier and a lover, between male bonds and heterosexual ones, between his own autonomy and his commitment to Cleopatra. He is both threatened and enhanced by Cleopatra's sexuality, her difference from him, her responsiveness to him.
Cleopatra, like other Shakespearean women, assumes more effortlessly her own identity and sexuality. She finds no conflict between her roles as queen and lover, between friendship with her women and love of Antony, between self-realization and union. Her desire for Antony affirms rather than threatens her identity;7 even when his death frees her from playing in response to him, she settles easily into a self defined entirely by its female "passion": a self, "No more but e'en a woman, and commanded / By such poor passion as the maid that milks / And does the meanest chores" (IV.xv.76-78). Her project, like that of other heroines, comic and tragic alike, is to absorb Antony's conflicts and to validate his heroic manhood for him so that he may allow her to become herself by satisfying her passion: "But since my lord / Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra" (IILxiii.186-87).
Indeed, the moments of apparent gender reversal on which critics base their assumptions of the dissolution of gender boundaries seem to me only to confirm the profound polarization of gender roles in the play. Caesar's accusation that Antony is "not more manlike / Than Cleopatra, nor the Queen of Ptolemy / More womanly than he" (I.iv.5-7), like many of the judgments in the play, is biased, limited, and contradicted—both by the preceding scene, which ends with Cleopatra's acquiescing in Antony's departure and wishing him honor and victory, and by those following it, which show Cleopatra in Egypt, languishing with desire for Antony and Antony's return to Rome and his successful negotiations with Caesar. Cleopatra's exuberant memory of hers and Antony's unique drunken exchange of clothes: "I drunk him to his bed; / Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst / I wore his sword Philippan" (II.v.21-23) is given its joyous point by the secure and satisfying gender roles in which the two ordinarily exist. These are suggestively revealed in Cleopatra's very next line to the messenger from Rome: "O, from Italy! / Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears, / That long time have been barren" (23-25). Both of these descriptions of gender role reversals are given their ironic point by the fact that they are not characteristic of the couple. This play seems different from the others, not because it overcomes gender dichotomies, but because it incorporates the greatest variety of gender relations, conflicts, assumptions, accommodations; because in it, Antony and Cleopatra have equal prominence, eloquence, complexity, and power, although the central conflicts and development are Antony's; and because it embodies the fullest mutual acceptance and self-realization of any of the plays. But this mutuality is neither complete nor symmetrical, and its price is death.
In the opening of the play, Cleopatra, like the heroines of comedy, mocks her lover's romantic hyperbole and his heroic poses to educate him to a more honest expression of his own passion, a more realistic view of his heroic posture, a less stereotyped view of her, and a fuller sexual commitment. She plays "the fool she is not" so that Antony can become "himself (I.1.42-43). Her first line, "If it be love indeed, tell me how much," jokingly calls into question, even as it provokes, Antony's romantic affirmation of a love that transcends all other claims on him: "let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall!" (I.i.33-34). She counters throughout his "excellent falsehood[s]" (I.i.40)—that his "Full heart / Remains in use" with her (I.iii.43-44), that he is her "soldier-servant, making peace or war / as thou affects" (I.iii.70-71), that their separation is not really one (103-05)—by harping on the fact of his marriage, the claims of Rome represented by its ambassadors, the callousness of his response to Fulvia's death. She mocks the empty posturing of the "Herculean Roman," as well as the hyperbole of the lover, refusing to let Antony swear by his aggressive "sword" without adding to it a gynocentric and defensive "target" (I.iii.82-85), and taunting him with his subservience to Caesar and Fulvia. She expresses her own desires bluntly:
O happy horse to bear the weight of Antony!
My music playing far off, I will betray
Tawny-finned fishes. My bended hook shall pierce
Their slimy jaws; and as I draw them up,
I'll think them every one an Antony,
And say, "Ah, ha! y'are caught."
Impatient with his rhetoric of sublimation, she imagines him expressing his desires for her: imagines him "murmuring, 'Where's my serpent of old Nile'" (I.v.25). When Cleopatra tries to articulate the magnitude of their love and its loss in unconventional terms, she fails; but she does intimate that both love and its loss involve reciprocity or fusion:
Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it:
Sir, you and I have loved, but there's not it:
That you know well. Something it is I would—
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.
Forgotten by Antony, Cleopatra forgets simultaneously him, herself, and the means to express their love; but even with the past, present, and future of their love obliterated, unarticulated, Antony fills up the void.8
Antony's refusal to commit himself fully to the sexual aspect of the relationship is apparent in the Petrarchan idealization of his rhetoric, in his anger at Enobarbus's sexual innuendos, and in his fear of sexual entrapment and debilitation: "These strong Egyptian fetters I must break / Or lose myself in dotage" (I.ii.117-18). The contrast between Antony's attempt to conventionalize and idealize their relationship and Cleopatra's desire to enter into a concrete, sexual intimacy with him is summed up in their contrasting communications during their separation. Antony sends a formal, romantic message: "'Say the firm Roman to great Egypt sends / This treasure of an oyster; at whose feet, / To mend the petty present, I will piece / Her opulent throne with kingdoms'" (I.v.42-46). Cleopatra seeks to penetrate the stilted rhetoric of the messenger to make contact with the actual varied Antony beneath it: "What was he, sad or merry? . . . Be'st thou sad or merry, / The violence of either thee becomes, / As does it no man else" (I.V.50, 59-61). The "sweating labor" (I.iii.93) in the relationship is all Cleopatra's, and Antony misunderstands its nature and its purpose. She has wrested from him a commitment to the concrete and variable self she is, to the "wrangling queen! / Whom everything becomes—to chide, to laugh, / To weep, whose every passion fully strives / To make itself in thee, fair and admired" (I.i.48-51). But her mockery does not lead to a comic reconciliation. At their parting, when her "becomings" fail to please, she ceases to mock his "excellent dissembling" and confirms his heroic self-image: "Upon your sword / Sit laurel victory" (I.iii.99-100), accepting the separation it imposes. But he must abandon the relationship entirely, seeking military glory and political power and a pragmatic marriage in Rome before he is ready to return to Egypt to enter a new union with Cleopatra.
Antony finds that Rome does not enable him to achieve his identity either; it offers no scope for his courage, his honor, his generosity. Personal heroism is no longer possible or useful; it is dead with Pompey's and Caesar's fathers. Battles are now won by shrewd calculation, by exploiting the enemy's weakness as at Actium, or by having him assassinated like Pompey. Displays of heroic endurance like Antony's at Modena are no longer called for. Hal, defeating Hotspur in personal combat, incorporates some of his rival's archaic glory. Caesar, who will refuse personal combat and defeat Antony through strategy, eliminates the need for and the possibility of such glory. Roman politics render honor likewise superfluous. In Rome, Antony is reduced to emulating the hypocrisy of Caesar, Lepidus, Menas, and the others. He weasels out of Caesar's accusations by blaming his lapses on the dead, defenseless Fulvia; he marries Octavia to consolidate his power; he and Caesar buy off Pompey rather than fight him and then have him liquidated. Male friendship no longer exists; it is merely simulated in the strained, drunken feast on Pompey's barge. Caesar has subordinates or rivals, not friends. As Antony's rich-hued, generous heroism emphasizes Caesar's colorlessness, Caesar's political power insures Antony's powerlessness; his "Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable" spirit is "o'erpow'red" by Caesar, as the soothsayer says (II.iii.18-21).
There is in the play no image of Rome or of empire that transcends the corruption of its current leaders. Rome is no longer an ideal inspiring loyalty as it was in Julius Caesar; its republican values, Pompey reminds us, have been lost. Nor is Rome embodied as a presence calling up devotion as England does in the English history plays, largely through the pervasive imagery of the bleeding land, which compels identification and sympathy. In Caesar's reference to "universal peace," even peace lacks the emotional charge that it has in both tetralogies, in which the brutality of war and the exhaustion and depletion of the war-torn country are experienced. With no alliance he can contribute to and no ideal he can serve, Antony eventually flees the Roman fetters of politics and marriage to Octavia as he earlier fled "Egyptian fetters" (I.ii.117).9
The institution of marriage serves in the comedies to qualify romance, to incorporate sexuality, and to reconcile individual passion with the social order. In the tragedies, where it provides an alternative to heroic self-assertion, sexual and political anxieties are exacerbated by it. In Antony and Cleopatra marriage is stripped of its comic purpose as a ritual for reconciliation and rejuvenation and of its tragic status as a catalyst to self-knowledge and self-destruction. The marriage of Antony and Octavia, even more than those between Henry and Kate and Richmond and Elizabeth at the conclusions of the two tetralogies, exaggerates the sociopolitical function of marriage to secure male alliances and eliminates its sexual and emotional purposes. The marriage is proposed by Caesar's subordinate, presumably at his master's behest, to solidify the renewed alliance between Antony and Caesar. In Octavia's absence the two men enact an Elizabethan betrothal ceremony; parodying the customary form for spousals, they take hands, deny "impediment," and vow love and fidelity to each other: ". . . from this hour / The heart of brothers govern in our loves / And sway our great design" . . . "Let her live / To join our kingdoms and our hearts; and never / Fly off our loves again" (II.ii. 147-54). This betrothal embodies the purpose of the marriage, which is, as Agrippa tells the two triumvers, "To hold you in perpetual amity, / To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts / With an unslipping knot" (II.ii. 126-28). Because this marriage is entirely subsumed under the political order, it is hardly surprising that it fails to engender either personal or political harmony.10
The marriage is made possible by Caesar's "power unto Octavia" (II.ii. 149) and by her perfect obedience to him, her willessness and docility. But this docility engenders the self-division that eventually exacerbates the men's rivalry. Octavia's inability to transfer her love and loyalty from Caesar to Antony as marriage requires of her is emphasized at each of her appearances. The Folio stage direction for her first entrance in act 2, scene 3 encapsulates her dilemma: "Enter Antony, Caesar, Octavia between them." At her parting from Caesar, Octavia is paralyzed by her divided love as a "swansdown feather / That stands upon the swell at the full of tide, / And neither way inclines" (III.ii.49-51). At her third appearance Caesar and Antony have fallen out, and Octavia, finding "no midway / Twixt these extremes at all" (III.iv.19-20) in effect chooses brother over husband, returning to Rome to magnify Caesar's rage and catalyze Antony's return to Egypt.11 Enobarbus's prediction proves exact: " . . . the band that seems to tie their friendship together will be the very strangler of their amity" (II. vi. 120-22).
Just as the men victimize Octavia, so the play exploits her to ignite the men's rivalry, compel admiration for Cleopatra even at her worst, and justify Antony's return to Egypt. Each of Octavia's brief, timorous appearances is juxtaposed to a vignette of Cleopatra's self-assertive vitality. Octavia's first entrance is preceded by Enobarbus's hyperbolic portrait of Cleopatra. Octavia's tearful farewell to Caesar is followed by the scene in which Cleopatra extracts from the messenger a derogatory description of her rival. Octavia's parting from Antony is followed directly by Caesar's description of Cleopatra and Antony extravagantly ruling in Egypt. Although Octavia's "beauty, wisdom, and modesty" (II.ii.243) are praised, they are given meager representation. Her stereotypical wifely virtues are repeatedly reduced to lifelessness by their contrast with Cleopatra's "infinite variety" (II.ii.238).12 Her marriage and the play demand that she become the messenger's caricature:
Her motion and her station are as one.
She shows a body rather than a life,
A statue than a breather.
The lack of identity that makes possible Octavia's marriage also subverts it. Its political and personal bankruptcy serves to legitimize for the play's audience Antony's return to a union with Cleopatra that exists outside of the institutions of marriage, the family, and the state.13
But the reestablished union seeks to appropriate these dimensions, as is first evident in Caesar's enraged tableau:
Contemning Rome, he has done all this and more . . .
I' th' marketplace on a tribunal silvered,
Cleopatra and himself on chairs of gold
Were publicly enthroned; at the feet sat
Caesarion, whom they call my father's son,
And all the unlawful issue that their lust
Since then hath made between them. Unto her
He gave the stablishment of Egypt; made her
Of lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia,
No longer fixed in the comic roles of romantic soldier-servant and worshiped beloved (as Antony imagined) or of mocking heroine and exasperated hero (as Cleopatra contrived), Antony and Cleopatra now play more mutual roles. Loving and fighting together, their union is political, erotic, dynastic. Antony delegates power to Cleopatra, and she rules, gives audience, and fights (not well). She, in turn, now that Antony is fighting on her side, wholeheartedly supports his political and military goals instead of mocking them.14 The issues of their desire are legitimized as kings and heirs. As Plutarch describes: "They have made an order betwene them which they called Amimetobion (as much as to say, no life comparable and matcheable with it)" (Bullough 5:275), an order that unites power and desire.
As Caesar's unintended tribute suggests, this union defies temporarily the antithesis of love and heroism which is common to all the plays in this study. Philo opens Antony and Cleopatra by introducing the terms of the conventional dichotomy: Antony's eyes, which once "glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn / The office and devotion of their view / Upon a tawny front." "His captain's heart, / Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst / The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper / And is become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gypsy's lust" (I.i.4-10). The oppositions of hard/soft, rigid/tempered, glowing/bending express, in terms familiar from earlier plays, the mutually exclusive claims and effects of war and love. Masculine energy is imagined as single-minded and limited, so that redirection of it into sexual passion inevitably diminishes heroic activity. Claudio waits until the "rougher tasks" of war are done before making room for "soft and delicate desires" (Ado, I.i.292-96); Parolles warns Bertram against spending "manly marrow in her arms, / Which should sustain the bound and high curvet / Of Mars's fiery steed" (AWW, II.iii.284-86); Romeo claims of Juliet, "Thy beauty hath made me effeminate / And in my temper soft'ned valor's steel" (Rom, III.i.116-17); Othello promises that "lightwing'd toys, / And feathered Cupid" will not "foil with wanton dullness / My speculative and active instruments" (I.iii.268-70); and Enobarbus argues that union with Cleopatra must deplete Antony: "Take from his heart, take from his brain, from's time, / What should not then be spared" (III.vii. 11-12). Coriolanus—"thing of blood" (II.ii.109)—will be the fullest embodiment of the heroic drive toward absolute autonomy and perfect invulnerability.
But at the midpoint of Antony and Cleopatra these antitheses merge. Passion becomes for Antony a source of heroism, and heroism becomes for Cleopatra a source of passion. As love is merged with and expressed through war, heroic activity becomes personal, erotic, de-Romanized (but not, I think, feminized). No longer a matter of abstinence and self-control as in Rome's past, nor of impersonal strategy as for Caesar, it is, instead, a passionate ritual of self-realization and communal rejuvenation. Because Caesar "dares us to 't," Antony determines to fight at sea, forgoing "assurance" and "knowledge" and giving himself up to "chance" and "hazard" (III.vii.29, 45-47). He challenges Caesar, with moving futility, to single combat. He goes into battle from Cleopatra's bed, armed by her, and eager to "make death love me" (III.xiii.194). Returning from battle, he celebrates his victory with his boldest declaration of passion in the play, radically transforming the heart imagery, which has earlier been used by Philo to mock Antony's decline and by Antony to keep desire at bay, into a fantasy of erotic vigor and emotional openness:
Leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triumphing.
His men, emulating him, have likewise fought heroically, embracing his cause as their own; they are urged to return, like him, to intimate reunions that validate their heroism, celebrate their courage, and acknowledge their vulnerability and dependence on family and community:
Enter the city, clip your wives, your friends,
Tell them your feats, whilst they with joyful tears
Wash the congealment from your wounds, and kiss
The honored gashes whole.
Intimacy here generates and restores heroism instead of depleting it.
But this union of heroic activity and love poses threats to both. Calling out new strengths in the protagonists, it also makes them vulnerable in new ways. The reckless courage that enables Antony to win the second battle causes his loss at Actium. His deepening dependence on Cleopatra allows him to brush off this dishonor and go on to win a victory, but it makes him fearful of his powerlessness and of her infidelity. Although Cleopatra has gained political power and Antony's sexual commitment, she is forced into an increasingly submissive posture by Antony's degradation of her. In the series of scenes from Actium through Antony's death, love and heroic activity renew and destroy each other as they begin to do in the problem plays, in which Bertram, Troilus, and Othello are sometimes energized but more often depleted by their relations to women. But unlike those other protagonists, Antony endures military defeat as well as emotional loss; his love is threatened not only from within but from without by the constraining context of Caesar's power.
After his retreat at Actium, Antony first takes responsibility for his own loss; "I have fled myself, and have instructed cowards / To run and show their shoulders" (III.xi.7-8), but at Cleopatra's entrance he transfers the blame: "O whither hast thou led me, Egypt? See / How I convey my shame out of thine eyes / By looking back what I have left behind / 'Stroyed in dishonor" (III.xi.51-54), "conveying" his shame to her. He claims that she is to blame for his flight as well as her own, excusing his actions by a declaration of romantic dependence; "Egypt, thou know'st too well / My heart was to thy rudder tied by th' strings, / And thou should'st tow me after" (III.xi.56-58). Cleopatra's (unjustified) acceptance of full responsibility,16 her request for pardon, and the tears that confirm her fault are necessary to erase Antony's loss and shame. By giving over to Cleopatra the maintenance of his honor and identity, Antony decreases his vulnerability to military defeat but increases his dependence on her sexual fidelity. He also initiates a pattern of male attack and female submission, a pattern familiar from the other tragedies, in which the tragic male protagonists, to assuage the sense of powerlessness they derive from their dependence on women,17 insist that these women accept blame and subordination. The pattern is repeated twice more in Antony and Cleopatra.
Antony's new vulnerability is apparent when, in the messenger scene, he is more enraged and humiliated by Caesar's imagined indirect sexual triumph than he was by his actual military one. Viewing Caesar as a sexual rival—"To the boy Caesar send this grizzled head, / And he will fill thy wishes to the brim / With principalities" (III.xiii.17-19)—Antony believes Enobarbus's dubious reading of Cleopatra's rhetoric as seductive and compliant. Belatedly longing for the legitimacy of marriage and the family, Antony assumes this legitimacy in a curious way by imagining that he (ironically, the adulterer) is a cuckold like other husbands: "O, that I were / Upon the hill of Basan to outroar / The horned herd!" (III.xiii.126-28). Whereas after Actium Cleopatra had to absorb and transform Antony's shame, now she must deflect his attack on her promiscuity, his degradation of her as a "morsel," a "fragment," a "boggier" (III.xiii.116, 117, 110). Finding that Antony does not yet "know" her, Cleopatra caricatures his delusion of her coldheartedness in order to counter it. In her images the melting, fertile sexuality with which she has been identified is perverted into a poisonous hail which "dissolve[s]" her life and that of her first son, her other children, her "brave Egyptians all" (III.xiii. 164), until they, "By the discandying of this pelleted storm, / Lie graveless, till the flies and gnats of Nile / Have buried them for prey!" (III.xiii. 165-67). By magnifying the effects of Antony's failure to credit her love and to attain the knowledge on which her generative erotic power depends, and by providing images of the effects of the deprivation of it, she proves her love and "satisfies" and revitalizes Antony. "I will be treble-sinewed, hearted, breathed" (III.xiii. 178), he vouches, and is triumphant in the next day's battle. Cleopatra absorbed Antony's military loss by taking responsibility for it. She now counters his imagined sexual loss by fantasizing her own destruction through her failure to love. In the third battle, Cleopatra's defection is imagined as both political and sexual; afterward she can only prove her love by pretending to acquiesce in Antony's demand for her death.
In this battle Antony assumes that the Egyptian fleet, tied to her as he was earlier, has made peace with Caesar at her behest and that she is a "triple-turned whore" (IV.xii.13) whose promiscuous sexuality is inseparable from political treachery. His double defeat is experienced as a loss of authority, honor, and manhood, and as a loss of the followers who guarantee these attributes but whose defection castrates Antony to enlarge Caesar: now they "do discandy, melt their sweets / On blossoming Caesar; and this pine is barked, / That overtopped them all" (IV.xii.22-24). Cleopatra's apparent defection engenders in Antony an emptiness more profound than the "oblivion" his departure had created in her: she "Whose bosom was my crownet, my chief end, / Like a right gypsy hath at fast and loose / Beguiled me to the very heart of loss" (IV.xii.27-29). This loss of love, of heroism, of identity can be compensated only by the death of Cleopatra: "The witch shall die" (IV.xii.47). Cleopatra responds with a mock death (suggested first by Charmian) which, like her other performances and like the mock deaths of Hero, Helen, and Hermione, is carefully staged to prove her love and to test and transform Antony's. Her mock death, like her real one later, is both active and defensive, both for her own sake and for his: "Mardian, go tell him I have slain myself: / Say that the last I spoke was 'Antony' / And word it, prithee, piteously. Hence, Mardian, / And bring me how he takes my death" (IV.xiii.7-10).
He takes it magnanimously, accepting it as confirmation of her love and courage, and hence of the validity of his love. Like Claudio, Bertram, Othello, and Leontes, Antony's intimacy with Cleopatra is restored, although, unlike the other men, he has received no proof of her fidelity. His desire to kill her is transformed into a desire to kill himself. His love for and dependence on her are acknowledged when he affirms his heart stronger through vulnerability to love than when apparently protected by soldier's armor:
Off, pluck off:
The sevenfold shield of Ajax cannot keep
The battery from my heart. O, cleave, my sides!
Heart, once be stronger than thy continent,
Crack thy frail case!
He prepares to die not as a defeated soldier but as a desirous lover, affirming not Cleopatra's idealized perfection but the regenerative sexual aspects of their union, imagined now as a marriage in death: "I will be / A bridgeroom in my death, and run into 't / As to a lover's bed" (IV.xiv.99-101)—"With a would I must be cured" (78). His subsequent suicide, however inept and incomplete, ratifies their love and prepares him to accept without anger or recrimination one more betrayal, her last gigantic mockery of his final grand gesture—the message that she is alive.
Antony is unlike the other tragic heroes, not because he takes on a more feminine role than they do, but because he can accept more fully Cleopatra's sexuality, duplicity, and difference from him and find them compatible with his manhood. Cleopatra is unlike most of the women in tragedy in that she, like the women in comedy and romance, fights to save both her love and her life. Her suicide is accomplished on her own terms and in her own good time. The full function and meaning of the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra can be explicated only by looking at both halves of the two-part death scenes of each: her mock and real deaths, his suicide attempt and death in Cleopatra's arms.
First, their deaths can be illuminated by their contrasts and similarities to that of Enobarbus, whose ambivalence in both life and death highlights their conflicts and their resolution of them. Enobarbus's death aptly concludes the life of this divided figure with mixed roots in comedy and tragedy. On the one hand, his role is that of the hero's friend in comedy, who, whether he is a misogynist like Benedick and Parolles or a lover of the hero like the two Antonios, is in rivalry with and must be subordinated to the marriage bond. On the other hand, Enobarbus's role is that of the friends who, in the tragedies, represent the narrow values of assertive manhood, which the hero partly transcends for a wider commitment to love and honor and partly remains bound to. Such characters either contribute to the rupture of the heterosexual bond (inadvertently, as in Mercutio's case, or maliciously, as in Iago's) or else outlast it (as when Horatio lives to tell Hamlet's story).
In Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus is at first the witty, detached misogynist, most familiar from comedy, who degrades Cleopatra and mocks Antony's attachment to her. But even his mockery hints at Cleopatra's compelling power, and in Rome, Enobarbus idealizes her and turns his cynicism against Roman pretensions to honor and the practice of realpolitik. After his return to Egypt, Enobarbus first leaves Antony, protesting his loss of Roman virtues, then dies affirming his love for Antony, his master's nobility, and Cleopatra's power. His movement from the detached misogynist of comedy to the loyal friend of tragedy parallels Antony's deepening commitment to Cleopatra. But his ambivalent and ambiguous suicide—on behalf of the Roman Antony who exists no longer—contrasts with Antony's more single-minded death.
Enobarbus's ambivalence toward Cleopatra is dramatized in his first appearance. We hear him order a feast with "wine enough / Cleopatra's health to drink" (I.ii.13) and then mock her when alone with Antony. His mockery, however, is double-edged. His sarcasm manages to suggest the splendor of her self-dramatizing passions: "We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears; they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report" (I.ii.148-50). His bawdy innuendo about her "celerity in dying" (145) describes her courage as well as her lasciviousness. She is, his banter implies, a "wonderful piece of work" (155) in more than the sexual sense; she is never merely degraded, as is Fulvia, whom he smuttily reduces to a "cut," a "case to be lamented," an "old smock" (I.ii. 168-69).
This scene has a function similar to that of early scenes in other plays in which the hero's friend—Parolles, Iago, Polixenes—engages the woman who is or who will become his rival—Helen, Desdemona, Hermione—in misogynist sexual banter. The friend degrades female sexuality while acknowledging its power; the scenes assert the woman's healthy desires and acquit her of the friend's misogynist imputations, but these will infect the hero and hurt her. Parolles, in the dialogue on virginity, reveals his anxiety about women's capacity to "blow up" and "blow down" men (I.i. 127); when Helen has taken his advice and married Bertram, he urges his friend's flight, aids his infidelity, and woos Diana for himself. Iago's banter with Desdemona more sinisterly reduces all the virtues of good women to counters for trivial sexual use and procreation—"To suckle fools, and chronicle small beer" (II.i.160). The scene foreshadows Iago's compulsion to turn Desdemona's "virtues into pitch" (II.iii.351), and Othello will come to accept these commonplaces as truth, degrading Desdemona as adulterer and "procréant" (IV.ii.28). In his dialogue with Hermione, Polixenes is charmingly guileless but no less explicit about the threat posed by female sexuality. He claims that Hermione and his wife are responsible for his and his friend's sexual falls: "Temptations have since then been born to's" (I.ii.77). Polixenes and Hermione, like Desdemona and Cassio, will be falsely accused of the infidelity that Parolles seeks to contrive with Diana and that the fair friend of the sonnets engages in with the dark lady. Although Enobarbus's dialogue is with the friend, not the woman,18 the woman's vexed relation to male bonds is implied. Male bonds are confirmed through degradation of women, but they are infected by rivalry over the possession of women which ruptures all the relations in the triangle. These early scenes foreshadow disruptions of heterosexual bonds by male friendship, as well as the eventual accommodation of male bonds to heterosexual union that takes place in all of the plays discussed.
Just as Antony's and Cleopatra's separation is foreshadowed in Enobarbus's jokes about Cleopatra in Egypt, so their reunion is predicted in his extravagant praise of her in Rome. There, in Cleopatra's absence, Enobarbus can idealize her—for himself, for Antony, for his audience, for the play—while indirectly acknowledging her sexual power. His set piece defends Antony by impressing his Roman audience and protecting Cleopatra from their degrading alehouse innuendos and by sublimating his desire. In the crucial central image of the encomium, Cleopatra is described by indirection; she is a static, indescribable artwork: "For her own person / It beggered all description; she did lie / In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue, / O'er picturing that Venus where we see / The fancy outwork nature" (II.ii.199-203). Her eroticism and the desire it arouses are first displaced onto her fluid, rhythmic, mutually responsive surroundings: "Purple the sails, and so perfumed that / The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver / . . . and made / The water which they beat to follow faster, / As amorous of their strokes. . . . The silken tackle / Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands, / That yarely frame the office" (II.ii. 195-99, 211-13). These surroundings radiate and invite desire but are kept separate from Cleopatra and Antony. The power of her sexuality is also implied—abstractly—by the "gap in nature" (220) that her presence creates and by her capacity to "make defect perfection" (233); it is expressed more concretely when Enobarbus counters Agrippa's cheerfully reductive bawdy, "He ploughed her, and she cropped" (230), with a description that is energetically physical, but not yet specifically sexual: "I saw her once / Hop forty paces through the public street; / And having lost her breath, she spoke and panted" (230-32). Both this anecdote and that of Antony going to meet her, "barbered ten times o'er" (236), comically distance her seductiveness. When Enobarbus finally affirms Cleopatra's compelling sexual power more directly, he still renders it as unthreatening as possible:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
Her mutability is translated into the "infinite variety" that guarantees perpetual pleasure; the connection of her sexuality with corruption, transience, and mortality is denied by this infiniteness and by the priests who sanction her wantonness.
But whereas, in Rome, Enobarbus mocked Roman strategy and defended Cleopatra, when back in Egypt, he supports the Roman values of reason and honor that generate opposition to Cleopatra and to Antony. In the second movement of the play, Cleopatra's opening challenge to Enobarbus, "I will be even with thee, doubt it not" (III.vii.1), signals their new relationship to each other and to Antony and prophesies her eventual victory, which Enobarbus fights to avert. He tries to sever the union by urging her to give up her part in the wars, by attempting to prove her politically unfaithful, and by exposing Antony's weaknesses to her. When his strategies fail and the union persists, Enobarbus's ambivalence is transferred from Cleopatra to Antony. Witnessing what seems to him the disintegration of the heroic Antony he loves, Enobarbus experiences a parallel division between love and reason: "my reason / Sits in the wind against me" (III.x.35-36)—"Mine honesty and I begin to square" (III.xiii.41). He rejects his master's claim of rejuvenated commitment to love and war on the eve of his triumphant battle. Instead, he views Antony's love as a self-destructive depletion of reason: "I see still / A diminuation in our captain's brain / Restores his heart. When valor preys on reason / It eats the sword it fights with" (III.xiii.197-200). He deserts to escape the self-division he finds in Antony and cannot endure in himself.
The parallels between the two men are, however, intensified when Enobarbus, like Antony before him, flees the Egyptian side for the Roman; his self-division increases and is embodied in his death. When Antony, by forgiving Enobarbus and sending his treasure after him, demonstrates his undiminished magnanimity and the union in him of heroism and love, Enobarbus, like Antony, abandons the security of reason for the fragility of the heart's affection. But whereas Antony, at his death, is reinvigorated by his love for Cleopatra, Enobarbus's heart, dry and brittle from his denial of love, shatters: "Throw my heart / Against the flint and hardness of my fault, / Which, being dried with grief, will break to powder, / And finish all foul thoughts" (IV.ix.15-18). The painfully thwarted and self-directed violence of Enobarbus's death reflects his trammeled, self-destructive passion. He can resolve his ambivalence toward Antony only by his suicide, debasing himself to ennoble his flawed master, like the poet of the sonnets, "Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss" (35). By becoming "the villain of the earth," Enobarbus affirms that Antony is a "mine of bounty" (IV.vi.30, 32); Enobarbus's epithet, "master-leaver" (IV.ix.22), demonstrates the incomparable generosity of the master who forgives his defection.
The circumstances of the death likewise express Enobarbus's continuing ambivalence toward Cleopatra and his acknowledgment of her power. His invocation to Cleopatra's planet, the moon—"O sovereign mistress of true melancholy, / The poisonous damp of night disponge upon me" (IV.ix.12-13)—recalls the "discandying" of the poisonous hail in Cleopatra's fantasy. The "ditch" in which he dies—"the foul'st best fits / My latter part of life" (IV.vi.38-39)—embodies and punishes his shame and has associations with that "ditch in Egypt" that Cleopatra will defiantly choose as a "gentle grave" (V.ii.57-58). The ditch and his wish to be inundated by the moon's "damp" hint that Enobarbus's death is experienced not just as self-abasement before Antony's nobility, but as an ironic and inadvertent capitulation to the "abode" of female sexuality which he had hitherto mocked. The suicide itself is surrounded with ambiguity. Enobarbus does not explicitly kill himself but expires so mysteriously that the only observers, the indifferent watch, do not know if he has fallen asleep, swooned, or died, and do not acknowledge his death as final: "he may recover yet" (IV.ix.33).
As the limitations of Antony's marriage to Octavia emphasize the fullness of his union with Cleopatra, so the self-abasement and self-division of Enobarbus's suicide heighten the self-affirming unity of Antony's death.19 Like the separation of friends in the comedies, Enobarbus's death represents the freeing of the heterosexual union from one kind of competing bond. Antonio becomes a "surety" to the marriage of Portia and Bassanio. Benedick challenges Claudio on Beatrice's behalf. Parolles joins Helen and Diana in exposing Bertram. In Antony and Cleopatra the actual departure of Enobarbus and the symbolic one of Hercules (IV.iii.15) represent the purging of Antony's excessively rational and excessively heroic aspects. As Cleopatra and Eros (significantly, the replacement for Enobarbus) lovingly arm Antony for battle, he takes on a fuller identity without discarding the virtues of the old. The deaths of rational Roman Enobarbus and passionate Egyptian Cleopatra are, taken together, an affirmation of the potential of this larger self. The first part of Antony's death scene echoes Enobarbus's divided, self-defeated death. As Antony prepares to die, he enacts the sense of disintegration and paralysis—"all labor / Mars what it does; yea, very force entangles / Itself with strength" (IV.xiv.47-49)—engendered by Cleopatra's apparent death. In his reunion with Cleopatra he anticipates her triumphant suicide.
Reunited with Cleopatra, Antony completes his death in another key, and "the play begins to live up to itself."20 He submits himself to the full range of Cleopatra's "becomings" and achieves his own heroic identity.21 By dying for Cleopatra and ignoring her deceit, he makes restitution for his former fantasy of her betrayal. Unlike Romeo, Hamlet, and Othello, who idealize dead beloveds, Antony acknowledges Cleopatra's sexual power, her love and selfishness, her fidelity and infidelity, while she is still alive. By urging her to stay alive, even at the price of her fidelity to him, he confirms his magnanimity. He happily allows her to turn his tragic death into farcical comedy. She is cowardly, refusing to leave the monument; domineering, as she tries to steal the scene from him—"No, let me speak and let me rail so high" (IV.xv.42); wistfully selfish—"Noblest of men, woo't die? / Hast thou no care of me?" (59-60). As the helpless Antony is, like those "Tawney-finned fishes," slowly and laboriously (somehow) "drawn up"22 into the enclosed space of Cleopatra's monument, his longed-for sexual weight now dead weight, the scene becomes a comic and visually suggestive enactment of Antony's ennobling submission to Cleopatra's seductive power and a staged antidote to the "fall" of his botched suicide.
Relinquishing himself to this Egyptian enfettering, Antony dies the heroic death he has sought, "a Roman by a Roman, valiantly vanquished" (IV.xv.57-58), but with his Roman manhood achieved through Cleopatra and pledged to her. At his death he recalls his heroic past, not to restore his public honor or to cheer himself up, but for Cleopatra's sake: "please your thoughts / In feeding them with my former fortunes" (52-53). Her suggestive epitaph, correspondingly, joins the sexual and military aspects of this manhood. She laments the loss of his heroism and of erotic mutuality, seeing his death as the climax and end of female desire and male power: "The crown o' th' earth doth melt. My lord! / O, withered is the garland of the war, / The soldier's pole is fall'n; young boys and girls / Are level now with men" (IV.xv.63-66).
In the last act Cleopatra must, as Antony did earlier, define her relation to Rome and Caesar; she must test her fidelity to Antony, achieve her own identity apart from her response to him, recreate his identity, and then die a death complementing his and transforming its comical tragedy into tragic comedy.23 Cleopatra's dealings with Caesar show her newly submissive in a more narrowly stereotypical gender role than heretofore. In place of her usually unabashed affirmation of her own gender, she admits, playing up to Caesar's misogyny, to "like frailties which before / Have often shamed our sex" (V.ii.123-24). She begs a kingdom from him as she never did from Antony. Her calculatedly false acquiescence to Caesar's unctuous hypocrisy reveals, in retrospect, the emotional honesty and self-realization that informed the roles she played for and with Antony. With him, Cleopatra could become herself, but with Caesar she can only play false. Acting for Caesar, in the absence of Antony, Cleopatra becomes more elusive than formerly. (Similarly, Antony's motives are most opaque when he is apart from Cleopatra.) We cannot be sure whether she genuinely seeks the "briefest end" (IV.xv.99), as she claims at the end of act 4, or whether she stalls to bargain for acceptable terms. We cannot tell whether her suicide attempt as the monument is seized is faked or authentic. We are not allowed to know whether Seleucus betrays her in the matter of the treasure, whether they conspire, whether he is an accident who furthers or ruins her game.24 Although Cleopatra can "word" Caesar (V.ii.191) as well as he "words" her, in doing so she must play a role as narrow, fixed, and deceitful as his; her "sweet dependency" is as false as his "bounty" (V.ii.26, 43). Each assumes a role to deceive rather than to change the other, and each recognizes the other's deceit; he wishes to keep her alive for display in his triumph; she, to evade it.
The image of this triumph dominates the end of the play. It reveals the limits of the power of all three protagonists, but especially the limits of Caesar's. Although he has won a military victory, his urgent need to display Antony and Cleopatra in Rome reveals the hollowness and vulnerability of his domination of the world. The threats to his order represented by Antony's personal heroism and Cleopatra's passionate sexuality remain unconquered by the military defeat. The triumph will enable Caesar to humiliate Antony, to appropriate his rival's valor for himself, and to degrade Cleopatra, vulgarizing and hence controlling her.25 As they imagine their parts, they imagine Caesar taking from both that which is most their own. Antony pictures his humiliation as a suppression of his physical valor and autonomy designed to transfer vital energy to his political rival; he pictures himself "with pleached arms, bending down / His corrigible neck, his face subdued / To penetrative shame, whilst the wheeled seat / Of fortunate Caesar, drawn before him, branded / His baseness that ensued" (IV.xiv.73-77). Cleopatra's role in the triumph is pictured differently from Antony's. Instead of being subdued, she will be caricatured; instead of "bending down," she will be "hoisted up" to sexual display. (Antony's threatening reference to the event and two of Cleopatra's defiant statements make use of this metaphor: IV.xii.34; V.ii.55; V.ii.211.) She will be exhibited as a degraded sex object, "brooch[ing]" (IV.xv.25) the triumph with her whoredom, "chastized" (V.ii.54) by her vindicated rival, Octavia, and mocked by the vulgar mob, "the shouting varletry / Of censuring Rome" (V.ii.56-57). She understands, too, that her degradation will be eternal, reiterated in endlessly reductive reenactments: "Antony / Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' the posture of a whore" (V.ii.218-21). To escape Caesar's appropriation of his heroism, Antony chooses a suicide that affirms and protects it. To escape the debasement of her sexuality, Cleopatra would choose the most abhorrent bodily degeneration: "Rather on Nilus' mud / Lay me stark naked and led the waterflies / Blow me into abhorring" (V.ii.58-60). Instead, she counters Caesar's planned degradation with alternate stagings of herself and her love.
First, Cleopatra's dream of Antony rescues him from defeat. It enlarges and reconciles his sexuality and heroism, satisfies her desire for him, and makes him worthy to die for. (More practically, it moves Dolabella to reveal Caesar's plans to her.) Like Enobarbus's vision of her, which it parallels and complements, the dream defends Antony to a disbelieving Roman audience by sublimating his sexuality and mythologizing him as a heroic ideal. Instead of being "subdued," bent, and penetrated as he would have been in Caesar's triumph, Antony is massive, upright, and in control: "His legs bestrid the ocean: his reared arm / Crested the world: his voice was propertied / As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends; / But when he meant to quail and shake the orb, / He was as rattling thunder" (V.ii.82-86). In the protected space of the dream, Antony's conflicts become rich paradoxes; his vacillation, the embracing of positive extremes; and his disintegration, comic fluidity: "His delights / Were dolphin-like, they showed his back above / The element he lived in" (V.ii.88-90). Roman heroism, purged of its associations with calculation, rigidity, and greed, becomes one with personal generosity and sexual largesse: "For his bounty, / There was no winter in't: an autumn 'twas / That grew the more by reaping. . . . In his livery / Walked crowns and crownets: realms and islands were / As plates dropped from his pocket" (86-88, 90-92). Cleopatra's desire-suffused dream of a perpetually satisfying Antony completes Enobarbus's vision of a Cleopatra who "makes hungry where most she satisfies" (II.ii.239-40). 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. In Enobarbus's idealized picture of Cleopatra, "fancy outwork[s] nature" (II.ii.203); in Cleopatra's desire-suffused dream, Antony is, she claims, "Nature's piece 'gainst fancy" (V.ii.98).
As Cleopatra's dream completes Enobarbus's vision of her, her death complements and completes Antony's. Like his, it is partly a mockery, partly an expansion, partly a transformation of the roles she has played all along. Antony's flawed suicide is redeemed by his generosity to Cleopatra, and her vacillation is redeemed when she grows "marble-constant" (V.ii.240). Both look forward to reunion. Antony imagines a gentle literary idyll "where souls do couch on flowers" (IV.xiv.51) and a marital consummation: "I will be / A bridegroom in my death, and run into't / As to a lover's bed" (IV.xiv.99-101); "I come my queen" (IV.xiv.50). Cleopatra likewise views death as a "lover's pinch, / Which hurts and is desired" (V.ii.295-96). Characteristically, she also imagines its concrete human details, creating Antony's response to her—"Methinks I hear Antony call; I see him rouse himself / To praise my noble act"—and acting in response to him—"Husband I come: / Now to that name my courage prove my title!" (V.ii.283-85, 287-89). Antony turned his phallic sword comically against himself. Cleopatra, "the serpent of old Nile," makes herself a morsel for asps, embodying the poisonous as well as the revewing aspects of her sexuality. At her death she assumes a variety of female roles: she is queen and goddess but also "no more but e'en a woman" (IV.xv.76), identified with the ordinary and archetypal woman of the clown's commentary—"a very honest woman, but something given to lie as a woman should not do but in the way of honesty" (V.ii.252-54). She is longing mistress, eager wife, satisfied mother: "Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep" (309-10). Her "Immortal longings" (281) are not only hopes for immortality but perpetual female desires. The scene, with its fluid images, its panting rhythms, and its identification of Antony with the asp, embodies the pun on die which has pervaded the language of the play.26 The painful, pleasurable tension of the scene builds through imagery of melting and disintegrating—"Dissolve, thick cloud . . . O, break! O, break!" to the ecstatic release of Cleopatra's mid-sentence death: "As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle— / O Antony, Nay, I will take thee too: What, should I stay—." The asp is lover and child, phallic and gynocentric, death-bringing and immortality-conferring: "with thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate / Of life at once untie" (V.ii.299-313). Fulfilling the asps' desires, Cleopatra, in one last achievement of perfect mutuality, fulfills her own.
In Romeo and Juliet the love death is painfully poignant, and in Othello it is perversely terrible; here it is profoundly satisfying.27 In Othello, Desdemona was desexualized at the last; here Cleopatra is allowed the fullest expression of her sexuality in the play. The elegant staging and ecstatic eroticism of the scene detach death from its connections with decay, corruption, pain, and lifelessness; the affirmation of future union mitigates its finality. Sexuality mystifies death, and death renders female sexuality benign. Its frank expression can be accommodated by the play and its audience because female sexuality here is tender, not violent; because it is autoerotic, expressed in the absence of men; because it is associated with conventional female roles; and because Cleopatra is dying of it, in it, for it. Even Caesar, after her death, can acknowledge not only her courage—"Bravest at the last, / She leveled at our purposes, and being royal, / Took her own way" (V.ii.334-36)—but also her seductiveness—"She looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace" (345-47).
He can do so because he is safe now—she has not caught him. But neither does he catch her. His attempt to diminish and exploit Antony's and Cleopatra's deaths is not entirely successful. While his victory elicits the resignation to order characteristic of the history plays, this dimension does not eradicate the sense of joyous fulfillment characteristic of comedy or the experience of irretrievable loss characteristic of tragedy.
The complex gender relations played out by Antony and Cleopatra lead to an ending that blends the dynamics of comedy, history, tragedy, and romance. Cleopatra, like the heroines of comedy, dominates the play to its end. Like them, she has, by her love and flexibility, transformed the hero and made possible their union. Like Portia, she loosens the bonds of friendship, tempers romanticism, and counters her lover's "betrayal"; like Viola, she would die for her lover "most jocund, apt, and willingly" (TN, V.i.131); like Helen, she transforms sexual degradation into sexual fulfillment. She must also, like earlier heroines, effect some submission of her power and control to the prevailing patriarchal order. Just as Kate vows subordination, Titania discards the changling child and her fantasies to achieve amity with Oberon on his terms, Hero and Helen undergo mock death, and Helen and Mariana the erotic humiliation of the bedtrick, so Cleopatra must endure Antony's vilification of her, endorse Antony's values, negotiate with Caesar on his terms, and die. But, like the other heroines, she engineers this submission to her own benefit, bringing Antony to participate with her in a loving union and in a love death that symbolizes joyous marital consummation.
Consummation, however, occurs only in death, and the play is not a comedy. Cleopatra is not, like the comedy heroines, a chaste maid whose sexuality is only potential; her sexuality is fully expressed, its threat fully acknowledged. Nor is Antony a boyish, pliant comic hero, but a mature warrior whose confrontations with passion and defeat are disintegrating. In Shakespearean comedy the concluding marriages are emblems of the reconciliation of the individual with the social order, of sexuality with love, family, and procreation. In contrast, Antony's and Cleopatra's symbolic marriage is a liberation of sexuality from family, society, and history, a consummation in death, not a movement into the world's future; "it is the conclusion and apotheosis of a union, not its beginning."28 Because it is divorced from the family, sexuality can be more fully admitted into the play and can withstand more extravagant degradation than in the comedies.
Antony's and Cleopatra's love is anomalous; it does not regenerate Rome. Egypt and the values it represents must be conquered, exorcised, appropriated. As in the other history plays, political order is secured by the elimination of rebellious individualism. The selfindulgently weak Richard II is deposed; the flamboyantly villainous Richard HI is killed. In Henry IV the rebels are defeated, and Falstaff, whose joyous contempt for morality and politics anticipates Cleopatra's, is banished. In this play Caesar not only eliminates the lovers; he attempts to demythologize them. He drains Cleopatra's death of its symbolic splendor by his literal-minded search for its physiological explanation. He sharply constricts the huge space that Antony claimed for his love and that Cleopatra so lavishly ceded to her lover in her dream: "No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / A pair so famous" (V.ii.358-59). He exploits them, although not in the way he had first hoped, to confirm his success by their pathos: "their story is / No less in pity, than his glory which / Brought them to be lamented" (360-62).
In the history plays such exclusions are made tolerable by the positive values of the new dispensations they make way for. The new orders at the end of the histories establish peace, promise future prosperity, justice, good rule, the end of tyranny. They are solidified by dynastic marriage, which, it is hinted, will bring individual happiness as well as political harmony and the continuity of heirs:
O now let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together!
And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so,
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,
With smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!
Take her, fair son, and from her blood raise up
Issue to me, that the contending kingdoms
Of France and England, whose very shores look pale
With envy of each other's happiness,
May cease their hatred, and this dear conjunction
Plant neighborhood and Christian-like accord
In their sweet bosoms.
But in Antony and Cleopatra Roman order is never fully endorsed; there is no gaze toward toward a prosperous, blessed future for family and land. The "High order" which Dolabella is urged to "see" in the last line of the play is not that of the future empire but of Antony's and Cleopatra's funeral. This emphasis on what has been lost is characteristic of tragedy, not history.
Caesar's order is, like those which take over at the ends of the other tragedies, narrowly political, male, and barren. It achieves its control, like those others, through a purging of women, marriage, family, sexuality, and the conflicts they generate, conflicts eliminated in the tragedies through marriages that are aborted, perverted, broken. Hamlet declares his love for Ophelia only in the grave strewn with the flowers that should have decked her bride-bed, and Fortinbras takes over, free of the conflicts which paralyzed Hamlet. Othello concludes with a focus on the "tragic lodging" of the marriage bed, and power passes into the hands of "unwived" Cassio and "proper" Lodovico. Edmund, Goneril, and Regan "now marry in an instant," consummating their love triangle in violent death; Lear joins Cordelia in death, and Kent joins Lear and Cordelia, the triangle of fidelity complementing that of infidelity. The last lines in the play are spoken by a man (whether Edgar or Albany) who is without family and disgusted by sexuality, aware of the new order as a falling off from the old. Lady Macbeth uses her sexuality to incite Macbeth to frenzied manhood and then loses him to a diabolical marriage with the witches;29 Malcolm, the new king, has a dead father and a dead saintly mother and presents his chastity as a qualification for the throne.30
Similarly, Antony's and Cleopatra's marriage is consummated in death, and the puritanical "boy" Caesar, in a departure from Plutarch, is without wife or children. But this order seems both pettier and more powerful than those at the end of the other tragedies; Caesar seems to have learned little, to be less chastened by his contact with Antony and Cleopatra than the other survivors of the tragic cataclysms. And here the exclusions matter more. Hence Antony's and Cleopatra's deaths seem less a defeat, more a fulfillment than those of the other tragic heroes. The play's ending thus holds in solution the marital celebration of comedy, the political achievement of the history play, and the selfrealizing individual defeat of tragedy; no one element is precipitated out. Later, in the romances, these elements will be joined, not merely juxtaposed, as the endings involve transformed sexuality and regenerated relationships that rejuvenate the family and promise political order as well.
In Antony and Cleopatra genre boundaries are not dissolved but enlarged. Motifs, themes, and characterization from comedy, tragedy, and history are included. Gender distinctions, too, are not dissolved but are explored, magnified, and ratified. And male and female roles are not equal—not even here. Cleopatra, like the heroines of comedy, engenders Antony's growth and her own, controlling the ending to glorify her submission to him. Like the heroines of the problem comedies, she endures sexual degradation and uses sexuality fruitfully. Like the heroines of tragedy, she dies, though her death is more self-willed and selffulfilling than theirs. This death, however, serves Caesar's political needs, confirming his historical control; serves Antony's emotional needs, reaffirming the nobleness of his "shape"; and serves Shakespeare's aesthetic needs, allowing him to make Cleopatra's death, like her life, "eternal in [his] triumph" (V.i.66).
1 R. H. Case, Introduction, Arden Edition, Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. R. Ridley (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954), pp. xxxiii-xxxiv; A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London: MacMillan, 1909), pp. 281-84; A. P. Riemer, A Reading of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (Sydney: University of Australia Press, 1968), pp. 101-15; and Peter Erickson, "Antony and Cleopatra as an Experiment in Alternative Masculinity," in Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare 's Drama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), see it as distinct from the major tragedies. Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: The Roman Plays (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1963), p. 79; and M. W. MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 341, classify it as a Roman play and a tragedy. Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), calls it a problem play and a tragedy (p. 183 and passim). Donald A. Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1949), p. 247; Paula S. Berggren, "The Woman's Part: Female Sexuality as Power in Shakespeare's Plays," 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), pp. 25-27; Julian Markels, The Pillar of the World (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968), p. 151; and Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare 's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 210—all suggest that the play is a tragedy with affinities to the romances. Numerous critics have found the play a mixture of comedy and tragedy, beginning with Richard Brathwait: "Love's interview betwixt Cleopatra and Mark Antony, promised to itself as much secure freedom as fading fancy could tender; yet the last scene closed up all those comic passages with a tragic conclusion" (The English Gentlewoman, 1631, quoted in Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra: A Casebook, ed. John Russell Brown [London: Macmillan, 1968], p. 25). Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973), has the best extended discussion of the play's mixture of tragedy and comedy (pp. 40-52). Also see Adelman, p. 190, n. 2, for a useful summary of views on the play's genre.
2 On regression, see Constance Brown Kuriyama, "The Mother of the World: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra", English Literary Renaissance 1 (1977): 324-51; on transcendence, see Murray M. Schwartz, "Shakespeare through Contemporary Psychoanalysis," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppèlla Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 30, and Adelman, Common Liar, pp. 144-45, 149; on feminization, see Madelon Gohlke, "'I wooed thee with my sword': Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms," in Representing Shakespeare, pp. 177-78; on alternative manhood, see Peter Êrickson, Patriarchal Structures.
3 But see Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development, pp. 12-19, for a general discussion of the relationship between psychological conflicts and the genres of comedy, problem comedy, and tragedy.
4 Like other critics who talk about gender in Shakespeare, I find it difficult to avoid either imposing on Shakespeare the most conventional and stereotyped presentation of gender roles or prescribing for him my own (supposedly) unstereotyped notions of what these roles could or should be. To discuss the issue at all is to find oneself relying on some sort of assumptions, usually unexamined ones, about gender roles and gender oppositions. Sherry B. Ortner's "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?" in Woman, Culture, and Society, ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974), pp. 67-88, is a clear and useful discussion of the assumptions on which universal sex-role divisions and universal second-class status for women rest. Women, Ortner argues, are always found to be closer to nature than men, are thought to occupy an intermediate position between nature and culture as a result of their physiology, of the social roles which this physiology originally imposed on them, and of their psychic states resulting from both the physiology and the social roles. Some such assumptions about male/female differences are rooted in Shakespeare's culture as in our own, and there are, I am afraid, traces of them in my discussion.
5 Marianne Novy, "Shakespeare's Female Characters as Actors and Audience," in Lenz et al., The Woman's Part, pp. 256-70, explores in the tragedies the audience-like responsiveness of the female characters to the male hero and the heroes' distrust of their acting. Edmund Tilney, A brief and pleasant discourse of duties in Mariage, called the Flower of Friendshippe (London: Henrie Denham, 1568), advocates for wives the conventional responsiveness to men's moods that Charmian urges and Cleopatra reverses; the husband's face must be the wife's "daylie looking glasse, wherein she ought to be alwayes prying, to see when he is merie, when sad, when content, and when discontent, whereto she must always frame her owne countenance" (E5 V).
6 Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1982), pp. 59-60, contrasts Cleopatra's secure identity with Antony's unfixed one.
7 Rosalie L. Colie, Shakespeare 's Living Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974), suggests that "Part of their tragedy lies in Antony's feeling himself dissolve when he is with her, and Cleopatra's feeling her 'nothingness' when he is not with her" (p. 189).
8 I am indebted to illuminating discussions of this elusive speech by Colie, Shakespeare 's Living Art, p. 189, and Barbara L. Estrin, "'Behind a dream': Cleopatra and Sonnet 129," Women's Studies 9 (1981-82): 181-82.
9 Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 2: 185-92, delineates shrewdly the nature and the limits of Roman politics and of Octavius's power.
10 Whether Caesar genuinely wishes the marriage to cement the alliance or hopes that it will give him an excuse to break it, and whether he thinks the marriage will satisfy Octavia or consciously sacrifices her to political ends, its political function is clear. For discussions of Caesar's motives, see Goddard, Meaning of Shakespeare, 2:186, and Traversi, The Roman Plays, pp. 112-14.
11 More typically, Shakespeare's women transfer their loyalty decisively from their fathers (perhaps Caesar's being Octavia's brother rather than her father makes the difference) to their lovers, as do Hermia, Portia, Juliet, Desdemona, Imogen, Perdita. Lynda Boose, "The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare," PMLA 97 (1982): 325-47, examines the ritual that accompanies this transfer. In Antony and Cleopatra the circumstances of the marriage prevent the ritual from being accomplished, and in some other plays the transfer is not complete. Cordelia returns to fight for the father who has banished her, and France, her husband, drops out of the play. Lady Macbeth, when confronting the sleeping Duncan, and Hermione during the crisis of her trial, are reminded of the powerful prior bond: "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done 't" (II.ii.12-13); "The Emperor of Russia was my father. / Oh that he were alive, and here beholding / His daughter's trial!" (III.ii.117-19).
12 Although Octavia is not fully characterized in Plutarch, she is a stronger and more sympathetic figure there than in Shakespeare. She is not a timid girl, but a widow with children when she marries Antony. Her skillful negotiations effect a temporary reconciliation between Antony and Caesar (Bullough, 5: 282-83); Plutarch's Cleopatra fears that Octavia "would then be too stronge for her" and feigns that she is fading away from love to keep Antony with her (pp. 288-89); in Plutarch, when Anthony has returned to Eygpt, Octavia will not leave his house as Caesar orders her to, but continues to behave well toward him and to pacify Caesar (pp. 289-90). She has three children by Antony and cares for them as well as for his children by Fulvia and Cleopatra; the last paragraph of Plutarch's Life details her marriage negotiations on behalf of all the children in her charge. Samuel Brandon's Tragicomedie of the vertuous Octavia emphasizes and magnifies Octavia's strength and integrity, suggested by Plutarch, and diminishes the role of Cleopatra, omitting, for example, her death. Not only does Shakespeare diminish Octavia's role, her strength, and her connection with Antony, but he makes Cleopatra more sympathetic and more human than she is in Plutarch, further increasing the contrast between them. L. T. Fitz, "Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism," Shakespeare Quarterly 28 (1977): 310-13, discusses the departures from Plutarch in Shakespeare's characterization of Cleopatra.
13 In contrast, many of the versions of the story sympathetic to the lovers assume or specifically include the marriage of Antony to Cleopatra. In the tale of Cleopatra in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women (1386?), Antony is a charming courtly lover, and he and Cleopatra are married in a ceremony that the narrator coyly refuses to describe because of lack of time (lines 616-23), The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 496. In Boccaccio's novel Fiammetta (1343), the heroine is consoled and ennobled by comparing herself with Cleopatra, lamenting over the body of her dead husband (Amorous Fiammetta, trans. Bartholomew Young , ed. K. H. Josling [London: Mandrake Press, 1929], book 7, pp. 151-52, quoted in Marilyn L. Williamson, "Infinite Variety": Antony and Cleopatra in Renaissance Drama and Earlier Tradition [Mystic, Conn.: Lawrence Verry, 1974], p. 55). In Giraldi Cinthio's Cleopatra (1583), both Cleopatra and Antony refer to her as his wife (cf. I.iii, trans, in Bullough, 5:348). In Robert Garnier's Marc-Antonie, translated by the Countess of Pembroke as The Tragedie of Antonie (1595), Cleopatra mourns for Antony, recalling their "holy marriage" (line 1947, Bullough, 5:405), and in Samuel Daniel's Tragedie of Cleopatra (1599) her wifehood and motherhood are persistently emphasized in order to manifest her dignity and pathos—as in this dialogue with Charmion:
CH. Live for your sonnes. CL. Nay for their father die.
CH. Hardharted mother! CL. Wife, kindhearted, I.
[LINES 555-56, Bullough, 5:372]
14 Schanzer, Problem Plays, p. 140, likewise sees a "temporary fusion of Love and Honour" at this point in the play (see n. 1 above).
15 The same word, pants, is used by Cassio in his prayer for Othello's safety, which, like Antony's welcome, celebrates the potential for a regenerative union of love and valor: "Great Jove, Othello guard, / And swell his sail with thine own pow'rful breath, / That he may bless this bay with his tall ship, / Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms, / Give renewed fire to our extincted spirits" (II.i.77-81, Signet edition, Folio text).
16 The question of who is actually to blame—and for what—is a vexed one. In Plutarch, Cleopatra is specifically blamed for both the strategy and the loss: "Cleopatra forced him to put all to the hazard of battel by sea: considering with her selfe how she might flie, and provide for her safetie, not to helpe him to winne the victory, but to flie more easily after the battle lost" (Bullough, 5:298). In Shakespeare, the two seem to share responsibility for the defeat. Antony decides to fight at sea, although Cleopatra may incite in him the recklessness to take on this challenge: "By sea? what else?" she agrees (III.vii.28). Cleopatra's flight is, as far as we can tell, unpremeditated, and its motive unknown, but the responsibility for it is hers. Neither the sea battle nor her flight need have resulted in defeat, however, had not Antony followed her. In Plutarch, Antony, before Cleopatra's flight, was holding his own; in Shakespeare, he may even have been winning: "vantage, like a pair of twins appeared / Both as the same, or rather ours the elder" (III.x.12-13). After her flight, he still might have won: "Had our general / Been what he knew himself, it had gone well" (III.x. 26-27). In neither Shakespeare nor Plutarch is there any support for Antony's accusation that Cleopatra was responsible for the defection of the Egyptian fleet in the third battle; in Plutarch she does not explicitly deny responsibility as she does in Shakespeare (IV.xiv.122).
17 Madelon Gohlke, in "'I wooed thee with my sword,'" (see n. 2 above) analyzes the tragic heroes' fictions of femininity, their fears of feminization, and their association of heterosexuality with violence. See especially her discussion of Antony and Cleopatra pp. 177-79, which anticipates and has influenced my interpretation of the play, although I emphasize more than she does the positive consequences of Antony's union with Cleopatra. Her discussion of the negative consequences is a useful corrective to mine.
18 Related mocking exchanges between the friends about the woman occur in Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet. In the comedy, Benedick jokingly speaks "as being a professed tyrant to their sex," ambiguously mocking Hero to dissuade Claudio from marriage: "Why, i'faith, methinks she's too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise. Only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other but as she is, I do not like her. . . . Would you buy her, that you inquire after her?" (I.i. 165-75). When Claudio asks, "Can the world buy such a jewel?" Benedick replies, "Yea, and a case to put it into" (176-77). In a well known and far more bawdy variation on the conventional scene, Mercutio, outside Juliet's garden, mocks and degrades Romeo's love for Rosaline—"O, Romeo, that she were, O that she were 7 An open et cetera, thou a pop'rin pear!" (H.i.37-38), while Romeo inside, hearing him, rejects Mercutio's innuendos and commits himself to a passion that Mercutio cannot comprehend or alter: "He jests at scars that never felt a wound" (II.ii.1).
19 Adelman, Common Liar (see n. 1 above), likewise sees Enobarbus as "the pivotal figure in the play" (p. 131). Caught between "measure and overflow" (p. 131), he moves from being a detached commentator to becoming a "central actor" (p. 33) in the tragedy, one whose death teaches us "the cost of scepticism" (p. 131).
20 Colie, Shakespeare's Living Art, p. 194.
21 Adelman, Common Liar, pp. 144-45, has a fine discussion of the crucial importance of "becoming" in the play.
22 Cf. Cleopatra's "and as I draw them up, / I'll think them every one an Antony" (II.v.13-14) with her "Help, friends below, let's draw him hither" (IV.xv.13); "But come, come, Antony— / Help me, my women we must draw thee up" (IV.xv.29-30).
23 Anne Barton, "Nature's Piece'gainst Fancy": The Divided Catastrophe in Antony and Cleopatra (An Inaugural Lecture, Bedford College, University of London, 1973), argues that the fifth act and Cleopatra's death create a "new angle of vision," an "alteration of emphasis" (p. 4) that transforms our earlier attitudes toward Antony, toward his death, toward Cleopatra, and toward the nature of the play.
24 In Plutarch it is made clear from the start that Cleopatra intends to deceive Caesar but not whether she and Seleucus are in collusion. Brents Stirling, "Cleopatra's Scene with Seleucus: Plutarch, Daniel, and Shakespeare," Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 299-311, shows how Shakespeare deliberately withholds from the audience all knowledge of Cleopatra's motives and of the implications of the scene as it is being enacted.
25 Caesar's need to identify with Antony's valor and passion is suggested in his lament for "my brother, my competitor / In top of all design, my mate in empire, / Friend and companion in the front of war, / The arm of mine own body, and the heart / Where mine his thoughts did kindle" (V.i.42-46); the first three lines follow Plutarch closely, but the last two are Shakespeare's addition. (Cf. "Caesar . . . burst out with teares lamenting his hard and miserable fortune, that had bene his frend and brother in law, his equall in Empire, and companion with him in sundry great exploytes and battells" (Bullough, 5:310).
26 Philip J. Traci, The Love Play of Antony and Cleopatra (The Hague: Mouton, 1970), argues, overschematically, that the structure of the play is a metaphor for the love-act (pp. 153-60); but this notion does bring out the importance of the sustained eroticism of the final scene and the sense of consummation and release engendered by Cleopatra's death.
27 Barton, Divided Catastrophe, points out that this is the only tragedy in which we want a protagonist who is not a villain to die (p. 16).
28 Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 280.
29 Joan Larsen Klein, "Lady Macbeth: Infirm of Purpose," Lenz et al., in The Women's Part, p. 243.
30 Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development, pp. 146-47 (see n. 1 above).
Barbara J. Bono (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: "Mixed Gender, Mixed Genre in Shakespeare's As You Like It" in Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation, edited by Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 189-212.
[In the following essay, Bono offers a feminist analysis of As You Like It and contends that the play "represent(s) both the masculine struggle for identity and a female 'double-voiced' discourse"—the latter implying that the feminine simultaneously adopts and derides the conventions of a dominant male culture.]
Does Shakespeare's preoccupation, especially in the comedies, with strong female characters and an underlying complex of "feminine" concerns—sexuality and familial and domestic life—provide evidence for what Juliet Dusinberre calls a "feminism of Shakespeare's time"?1 Or does the same evidence indicate male projections of what women must be, what Madelon Gohlke terms a "matriarchal substratum or subtext within the patriarchal text" that "is not feminist," but rather "provide[s] a rationale for the structure of male dominance"?2 Put more generally, does the literature and social practice of the early modern period exhibit, as Stephen Greenblatt and Natalie Zemon Davis suggest, a theatricality, a ready embrace of role playing and social inversion, that nonetheless functions most often to test and strengthen traditional authority?3 And if, with Davis and, more tentatively, Greenblatt, we wish to argue that the subversion occasionally escapes its cultural containment, how does this escape occur, and in what does it, or our latter-day perception of it, consist? In this essay I seek to erect a framework of contemporary feminist theory around a traditional genrebased analysis of the heroic, romantic, and pastoral strains in Shakespeare's As You Like It in order to conjure a complex response to these questions.
Recently Nancy Chodorow has offered a powerful and influential new model for psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender that seems very useful for analyzing the representation of gender in literature as well.4 In an object-relations account of identity formation that stresses the temporal primacy of the mother, Chodorow presses her analysis back beyond the oedipal phase to the preoedipal phase, significantly revising Freud's classic accounts of both masculinity and femininity.
Freud privileges the male sex in his account of gender identity, speaking of the oedipal castration fear of the boy child and the penis envy of the girl child. But by placing the mother as socializer at the heart of her account, Chodorow characterizes gender and sexual differentiation not "as presence or absence of masculinity and the male genital" but as "two different presences."5 The male child defines himself in a tension-fraught opposition to his potentially engulfing mother, while the female child has the more complex and extended, if less extreme, task of simultaneously affirming a gender identity with the mother and an individual differentiation from her.6 A girl child's "penis envy" is, then, not a recognition of a primary lack but a secondary, defensive reaction against maternal power and an attempted appropriation of what is seen as greater masculine autonomy from it. Chodorow argues that the events of the oedipal period must be understood against this preoedipal background that is itself more centrally a social than a biological experience: "In fact, what occurs for both sexes during the oedipal period is a product of this knowledge about gender and its social and familial significance, rather than the reverse (as the psychoanalytic accounts have it)."7
The strengths of Chodorow's clinically documented and tenaciously argued model seem to me many. Her stress on the early, preconscious psychological formation of these patterns in interaction with a female mother who is primary caretaker explains the seeming universality, rootedness, and strong elements of complicity in those arrangements through which women become the "second sex." Although the responsibility has often been diffused or configured somewhat differently, primary female mothering has been a cultural and historical constant. However, it need not be an inevitability. Chodorow's theory is genuinely anthropological and sociological in denying biological determinism and in noting considerable differences in the social practice of mothering, and it shares with thinkers like Dorothy Dinnerstein a revolutionary feminist belief in the possibility of change in our sexual arrangements based on changing the sexual division of labor into shared parenting.8
It also contains an embryonic historical dimension, for Chodorow notes that the emphasis on the single female mother has altered over time. She comments especially on the effects of modern capitalism in widening the sexual division of labor by separating home and workplace and institutionalizing within the workplace a division between largely female service occupations and the ideal of a male worker detached from prior community, eager to succeed, and highly malleable to organizational needs.9 Certain features of this analysis seem relevant to the early modern period in England, during the rise of capitalism—the period when Shakespeare's plays were written. Then men, often no longer owners or caretakers of land in a feudal system, were sent out early for education or apprenticeship and took up entrepreneurial schemes in court and city, while patriarchal values kept women even more closely tied to the work of childbearing and motherhood.10
Coppélla Kahn has demonstrated the applicability of Chodorow's theory of gender formation to the representation of male personality in Shakespeare's plays, particularly King Lear. Arguing that Lear's unconscious male fear of maternal power is displaced into metaphoric expression, Kahn instances his loathing of his "pelican daughters" and his shame at his own woman's tears and "female" hysteria (the "climbing mother," the disorder of the wandering womb).11 She might also have added the most inclusive metaphoric expression in the play of this threatening female power, the goddess-Mother Nature whom Edmund invokes to "stand up for bastards," and who proves Lear and his followers not ague-proof. The implication of this sexual metaphorization of landscape is that pastoral and antipastoral—"soft" and "hard" primitivism—may figure the opposite sides of the male crisis of individuation from the mother—nurturance or antipathy.
Kahn's methodological tactic supports Louis Montrose's excellent sociological reading of that pastoral play, As You Like It12 Focusing explicitly on the historically sensitive oedipal situation of brothers' rivalry over a paternal inheritance, Montrose rightly restores balance to the interpretation of the play by dwelling on the very engaging plot of Orlando's rise that frames Rosalind's androgynous disguising. He devotes the penultimate section of his essay on "the complex interrelationship of brothers, fathers, and sons in As You Like If to a suggestive discussion of Rosalind and of the play's strategies for containment of the feminine. In Montrose's shrewd formulation, "The 'feminism' of Shakespearean comedy seems to me more ambivalent in tone and more ironic in form than such critics [those infatuated with Rosalind's exuberance] have wanted to believe."13 Kahn's work suggests that from a male point of view both Rosalind and Arden are initially threatening but eventually beneficent manifestations of a nonfeminist maternal subtext. It is possible, then, that in Shakespeare's works both the explicitly threatening women of the tragedies and the seemingly benevolent women of the comedies operate within a "universe of masculinist assumptions" about the nature of women.14
Yet Chodorow's model would also argue for a positive female identity, although one severely handicapped by the perception of itself as culturally secondary. Kahn and Montrose do not inquire whether Shakespearean drama can plausibly represent this point of view, and if so, whether that drama can provide us with any tool for dislodging "the universe of masculinist assumptions" in which it is embedded. In what follows I would like to sketch both Orlando's and Rosalind's roles in the play on the basis of Chodorow's model for the formation of gender identity. I shall argue that the patriarchal, oedipal crisis of the first act of the play is displaced back onto its preoedipal ground in the nature of the forest of Arden—that place named suggestively after Shakespeare's own mother, Mary Arden, and the forest near his birthplace at Stratford-on-Avon.15 There the play can represent both the male struggle for identity and a female "double-voiced" discourse—Elaine Showalter's term for one that simultaneously acknowledges its dependence on the male and implies its own unique positive value—within it.16
For this Shakespeare employs, of course, not a modern psychoanalytic or sociological vocabulary, but his period's vocabulary of genre, set within the consciously experimental frame of the mixed genre of pastoral.17
Orlando's masculine heroic quest, couched simultaneously in the language of biblical typology and classical epic, is resolved within Arden's "sweet style." There Rosalind, fully acting out romance's conventions of disguise, transforms the social perception of woman from the Petrarchan conventions that both idealize and degrade them to a new convention of companionate marriage. Unlike Orlando's simpler quest, Rosalind's "double-voiced" discourse, criticizing the subject of which she is a part, can thus offer a method for cultural change. She performs within the text the critical task feminists today must perform toward the text as a whole. As Madelon Gohlke says, "For a feminist critic to deconstruct this discourse is simultaneously to recognize her own historicity and to engage in the process of dislocation of the unconscious by which she begins to affirm her own reality."18
But only begins. Rosalind's deconstructive efforts within her own text are one such beginning—a method, not an ideal end. Ironically, she resubordinates herself through marriage to masculine hierarchy, giving herself to her father to be given to her husband, and thus serves the socially conservative purpose of Shakespearean romantic comedy. And "she," of course, acts out a fiction of femininity on an exclusively male stage, her part played by a boy. The representation of women has, more often than not, functioned this way in literature, as in life—as an accommodating device within the dominant fictions of male identity.
Thus far I have emphasized Rosalind's critical role within the text and her eventual surrender of it. Nonetheless, the interaction in As You Like It between masculine heroic discourse and feminine romantic "double-voiced" discourse, which it is the burden of this essay to document, forms the dramatic "inside" to a metadramatic context or "outside" of more pure interpretative possibility. Rosalind's disguise, initially the most striking convention of romance implausibility in this text that is so largely structured like an "old tale" (1.2.120), ultimately functions to create new possibilities for it. Her mutable action most fully demonstrates Touchstone's peacemaking "If (5.4.97-103); Ganymede—the lovely boy whose rapture connected earth and heaven—predicates Hymen, the god of marriage who will "atone" all the elements of the play. In this play romance sustains the constructive, as well as the critical, aspects of pastoral. Arden and the audience addressed in the "Epilogue" function as the complementary environments of the play. Although, looking ahead to Lear, I shall characterize the pastoral environment of Arden as a sometimes harsh, sometimes nurturing "Mother Nature"; it is also, as Amiens hints to the Duke, a theater for literary and social criticism and change. For the culturally belated urban artists of the Renaissance, pastoral, which in theory promised a return to origins and a poetic apprenticeship, in practice often presented itself as a field for heightened reflexivity, itself criticizing the subject—the larger culture—of which it formed a part. The "Epilogue" to As You Like It freely acknowledges affect as in part constituting the meaning of a work of art: although we may never know what Shakespeare's audience made of the actor-playing-Rosalind's final address, we are licensed to make of it what pleases. At the close of this essay I shall offer a few tentative speculations on why Shakespeare himself, in his later career, made difficult or surrendered this "poco tempo silvano," this play-space of pastoral. But within As You Like It, at least, we and the forest are the final judges.
In Shakespeare's As You Like It both Duke Senior and Orlando are victims of parricidal rage. The anger of Orlando's brother Oliver is given biblical and classical archetypal overtones as their old family retainer Adam, a representative of the Golden Age "When service sweat for duty, not for meed" (2.3.58), stands in place of their father to bemoan the loss of original "accord" and to denounce Oliver, that Cain figure, who has made "this house .. . but a butchery" (1.1.64; 2.3.27). Shakespeare heightens the at once fairy-tale and all-too-contemporary figure of the impoverished younger brother into an image of paradise lost, where the rising spirit of one's father threatens to turn into rankling bitterness.19
Orlando does not seek the patrimony. He desires only his "poor allottery" of "but poor a thousand crowns" (1.1.73; 2-3) and his due "breeding" in gentility. Ironically, he has only his physical strength, his wrestler's skill, to prove these largely immaterial claims, and even his victory over Charles is immediately frustrated by Duke Frederick's antipathy. As with Chodorow's oedipally fraught male child, these problems in the patriarchy open a greater void in his identity, a potential regression to a threatening maternal subtext. Orlando fears that his growth may prove, as Oliver says, "rank" (cf. 1.1.13 with 1.1.85-86). In the wrestling scene Charles taunts him with being, like Antaeus, "desirous to lie with his mother earth" (1.2.201). Although Orlando at first inverts the allusion by defeating Charles as the moral Hercules defeated Antaeus, he then assimilates some of its force when, in a "modest" displacement of Charles's incestuous image, he finds himself violently in love with Rosalind.20 His formerly dignified speech before Rosalind is now shattered as the deepest dimension of his insecurity, his lack of good breeding, surfaces (cf. 1.2.165-193 and 245-260), and he fears exile in an inhospitable nature where he might have to beg, or, like Tom Jones, fall in with robbers (1.1.75; 2.3.31-35).21
When Orlando flees to the forest, he expects to encounter savagery. Instead, this young man struggling for gentility—"inland bred" (2.7.96)22—meets not brigands but a kindly, paternal, philosophic ruler, the exiled Duke: "Sit down and feed, and welcome to our table" (2.7.105). Shakespeare compresses in this brief exchange the ancient ideal of hospitality, those guestrites most fully performed in the offering of a meal, the contemplative counterweight to epic's celebration of martial deeds and heroic adventure. And as with Odysseus at Alcinous's house or Aeneas at Dido's banquet, the gesture releases Orlando's pent-up memory and social desire. His deeply moving litany of the ceremonies of civilization is ritually echoed by the Duke:
True is it that we have seen better days,
And have with holy bell been knoll'd to church,
And sat at good men's feasts, and wip'd our eyes
Of drops that sacred pity hath engend'red;
And therefore sit you down in gentleness,
And take upon command what help we have
That to your wanting may be minist'red.
The text expands momentarily into a calm reflective pool of noble pity—"sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt" ("here, too, there are tears for misfortune and mortal sorrows touch the heart," Aeneid, 1.462). A moment later Orlando visually contradicts Jaques's vivid but reductionistic image of the "seven ages of man" by entering with the frail old Adam, quite possibly borne on his shoulders, and thereby evoking that classical image of pietas, Aeneas carrying his father Anchises from burning Troy (2.7.139-168). Then, even while Amiens sings of man's ingratitude, the Duke discovers that Orlando is his beloved "good Sir Rowland's son" (2.7.191-192) and welcomes him to his new society.
The Duke's masculine governing identity has not been violently dislocated by exile. Unlike Lear, who feels the "climbing mother," gives way to women's tears, and, in a sharply discontinuous action marked by disjoint, raving speech, exposes himself to the raging elements, Duke Senior exercises seemingly benign verbal control over his environment. The balanced blank verse of his first speech moves to contain the sharp sensuous apprehension of difference: "the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter's wind, / Which . . . bites and blows upon my body" is literally bracketed by his declaration that "Here feel we not the penalty of Adam" and his smiling philosophic conclusion (2.1.5-17, emphasis mine). The Duke tries to surround the threatening nature that had opened up with the failure of the patriarchy in the first act, controlling it so that Orlando, and to a large extent we, now experience it as the playfulness of Rosalind, rather than the threat of the unnurturing and devouring mother. His "kindly," "sweet" stylization—the words resonate with the high philosophic seriousness of the dolce stil nuovo and its ideals of gentility—now permits the growth of Orlando's romantic art.
Chodorow speaks of boys as having to "define themselves as more separate and distinct [from the mother], with a greater sense of rigid ego boundaries and differentiation," and thus resolving their oedipal crisis more rapidly, extremely, and definitively than girls. The resolution takes the form of "identification with his father . . . the superiority of masculine identification and prerogatives over feminine" (in Freud's more extreme language, "What we have come to consider the normal male contempt for women"), and the eventual displacement of his primary love for his mother onto an appropriate heterosexual love object.23 Orlando, after initial conflict with paternal figures—his older brother and Duke Frederick—which nearly culminates in archetypal tragedy, experiences nature as harshly threatening. He is saved from its ravages by a kindly father figure who thus metaphorically restores the archetypal line of paternal descent. With the confidence of that masculine relatedness he is able to play seriously at the civilized game of love without threatening his basic male heroic identity. Then Rosalind-as-Ganymede can work to refine his personality while being herself ultimately contained by an overt masculinist sexual ideology.
Meanwhile, similar social problems unfold differently in an aristocratic women's world. Instead of Orlando's importunate strivings, Rosalind at court displays a more diffuse melancholy, partially relieved by feminine confidences—Chodorow's female "self in relationship."24 Rosalind's musings about the precarious social position of women in love—"[Fortune] the bountiful blind woman doth most mistake in her gifts to women" (1.2.35-36)—suggest that the Duke's exile, deeply felt though it is, is less important than her problematic femininity, especially without his protection. And the desultory and slightly forced nature of the talk portrays the extreme constraints on women's expression in such a setting. Even Touchstone's flat joke about the pancakes must be triggered by a reminder of their feminine lack of a beard (1.2.60-80)! Against this sense of inferiority and vulnerability the young women here have only ready wit.
Exiled by her tyrannous uncle, Rosalind assumes masculine disguise as a safeguard against female vulnerability in a threatening male world. Once she is safely installed in her cottage in Arden, however, there is in theory no need for her to maintain that role. Indeed, once she hears from Celia that young Orlando, who at court "tripp'd up the wrastler's heels and your heart, both in an instant" (3.2.212-213), is in the forest poeticizing her praises, she immediately exclaims, "Alas the day, what shall I do with my doublet and hose?" (3.2.219-220), and bursts forth with a stereotypically female torrent of questions and effusions, ending with "Do you not know I am a woman? when I think, I must speak" (3.2.249-250). She seems on the verge of throwing off her masculine attire and becoming the Renaissance total woman: witty, perhaps, but ultimately compliant.
At this moment, however, Orlando and Jaques enter in conversation. They implicitly raise the issue of women's dependence on men that Rosalind's exile from the court has merely transferred from the political to the psychological sphere. Orlando's "pretty answers," the love commonplaces that Touchstone has already parodied (2.4.46-56; 3.2.100-112) and that Rosalind herself has criticized as "tedious" and having "more feet than the verses would bear" (3.2.155, 165-166), are now attacked by the satiric Jaques, "Monsieur Melancholy." Although Orlando, "Signior Love," holds his own in this comic agon, it is not at all clear from the women's point of view that his disagreement with Jaques is anything more than a battle of wits masking potentially violent sexual appetite. As Jaques accuses, Orlando may be tritely copying his "posies" out of the inscriptions inside goldsmiths' rings. More ominously, he may have "conn'd" the "rings" themselves from the goldsmiths' wives, where the connotations "con" = "pudendum" and "rings" = "vagina" suggest seduction. As Celia warns, if you drink in this type of discourse uncritically, you risk putting a "man in your belly" (3.2.204). Hearing this affected and subtly threatening exchange prompts Rosalind to keep her doublet and hose, and what is more, to use them in exactly the sort of "double-voiced" discourse that, according to Showalter, has always characterized the relationship of female to male culture: "I will speak to him like a saucy lackey, and under that habit play the knave with him" (3.2.295-297). That is, she will adopt the "habit"—the clothing and habitual ways—of the dominant male culture, including its view of women, even while skewing it "saucily" toward self-consciousness and criticism, and maintaining a part of herself hidden and inviolate.
Nancy Vickers, in a recent article on Petrarchism, implies the defensive wisdom of this tactic.25 This tradition imagines a chaste, inaccessible, Dianalike woman as the object of the male speaker's love, engendering in him a narcissistically luxuriant range of contradictory emotions that further objectify her, retributively fragmenting her body. Shakespeare continually documents and criticizes this pathology, from Romeo's bookish love for the chaste Rosaline, to Orsino's self-indulgent laments after the "cloistered" Olivia, to its reductio ad absurdam in Troilus' languishing after the parts of Cressida, soon to become nauseating "fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics / Of her l'er-eaten faith" (Tro., 5.2.159-160). Within this self-generating fiction the only power that women seem to have is the defensive one of refusal, for then, at least, they may put off being consumed and discarded: as Cressida says: "Therefore this maxim out of love I teach: / Achievement is command; ungain'd beseech" (Tro., 1.2.293-294). Orlando hymns a Diana-like Rosalind in a patently artificial language predicated on the Duke's philosophic sweet style; instead of finding "tongues in trees" (2.1.16), the eager new versifier vandalizes them: "these trees shall be my books, / And in their barks my thoughts I'll character" (3.2.5-6). Rosalind witnesses the hitherto uncultivated Orlando's burgeoning conventional love poetry, and by remaining a boy at first defensively distances herself from it.
But Rosalind ultimately accomplishes something more constructive through her pastoral disguise as Ganymede, that pretty boy beloved by Jove, alternately a figure of sexual degradation or of ecstasy.26 By self-consciously retaining her superficially plausible disguise as a girlish boy—that is, by seeming to "be" Ganymede offering to "play" Rosalind—Rosalind simultaneously offers Orlando a chance to test "the faith of . . . [his] love" (3.2.428) within the relatively nonthreatening limits of supposed male discourse about women, and attempts to exorcise her own fears about giving herself into such a discourse.
In doing so she illustrates the greater social burden borne by women, in line with Chodorow's contention that the oedipus complex develops "different forms of 'relational potential' in people of different genders" and that "Girls emerge from this period with a basis for 'empathy' built into their primary definition of self in a way that boys do not."27 Having suffered an oedipal crisis in the first act of the play because of the exile of her father and the opposition of Duke Frederick, Rosalind too is thrown back upon nature. Unlike Orlando, however, she does not experience this preoedipal nature as harshly threatening, nor does she require the immediate assurances of a restored father figure. Instead she arrives "weary" but resourceful; female ennervation in the court here translates into boyish pluck (2.4.1-8). As Chodorow says, "girls do not define themselves in terms of the denial of preoedipal relational modes to the same extent as do boys. Therefore, regression to these modes tends not to feel as much a basic threat to their ego."28
Chodorow's careful characterization of "a relational complexity in feminine self-definition and personality which is not characteristic of masculine self-definition or personality"29 not only highlights the difference between Rosalind's and Orlando's reactions to Arden; it also helps explain why Rosalind/Ganymede behaves the way she/he does there. In Arden Rosalind discovers a female identity that will allow her to complete the difficult, triangulated resolution of a girl's typical oedipal crisis: differentiation from and continuity with the mother and transfer of affection from the father onto an appropriate heterosexual love object. She must act out her own involvement with this less threatening "Mother Nature" in a way that does not shatter Orlando's more fragile ego boundaries; having done so she may deliver herself to the restored patriarchy, giving herself to her father to be given by him in marriage to her husband.
Her interaction as Ganymede/Rosalind with Orlando thus functions from the male perspective as a form of accommodation and as a test. In the court Orlando had been tongue-tied before beautiful, young, aristocratic women; freed and newly confident in the forest he understandably blurts out cliches. Talk with an attractive boy about women can work to root and refine his discourse, as encounter with "the real thing" at this point could not. Orlando recovers his quietly dignified desire in conversation with Ganymede: "I am he that is so love-shak'd"; "I would not be cur'd"; "By the faith of my love" (3.2.367, 425, 428). Meanwhile, Rosalind/Ganymede tests "the faith of. . . [his] love" against the tradition of misogyny that the unrealistic idealism of Petrarchism could reinforce. As a young man supposedly educated by a sexually disillusioned and withdrawn "old religious uncle of mine" (3.2.344), she professes scepticism toward Orlando and cynicism toward women (3.2.369-371, 348-350), and in her succeeding therapy, proposing to cure love by counsel, she acts out for his benefit men's stereotypical expectations of women's fickleness and seeming cruelty
in this manner. He was to imagine me his love, his mistress; and I set him every day to woo me. At which time would I, being but a moonish youth, grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow, inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles . . . that I drave my suitor from his mad humor of love to a living humor of madness, which was, to forswear the full stream of the world, and live in a nook merely monastic.
In response to her trying poses, Orlando remains constant. The Orlando we see in the final act of the play is now appropriately sceptical of fanciful love at first sight and has painfully earned the "real" love he is given.
However, he does not develop a very much more sophisticated understanding of women's ambiguous position in the world. Throughout Rosalind's disguising, Orlando retains an essentially simple faith grounded in his newly secure identity in the Duke's service. He has an increasingly melancholy feeling that this interlude is just a game—that he may be wasting time—and he breaks off wooing to "attend the Duke at dinner" (4.1.180). Rosalind's action as Ganymede/Rosalind does not shock or void his identity in the way nature had earlier threatened to do; instead she leads him to revise his Petrarchan idealization of women—"The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she" (3.2.10)—toward a desire for a chaste wife, and sets that desire within the dominant code of his male heroic identity.
Rosalind as Ganymede, however, transforms herself more thoroughly. As her words imply, she is not a dispassionate therapist: "Love is merely a madness, and I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punish'd and cur'd is, that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too" (3.2.400-404, emphasis mine). Critics have always commented on Rosalind's control of decorum while in disguise, but in a play written almost contemporaneously with Hamlet her "holiday humor" (4.1.69), like his "antic disposition," is as much used to exorcise her own fears about love as it is to criticize or educate her lover. Rosalind's control lies in standing outside of amatory convention, but it is her action within these conventions that carries her, almost imperceptibly, into the "magic" of creating a new, and within the value judgments of this play, more adequate convention of companionate marriage.
This becomes clear in her interaction with Silvius and Phebe. During a frustrating break in her play with Orlando—he is late for his appointment with her—she slips from her earlier facile and uncritical sympathy for Silvius' mooning "shepherd's passion" (2.4.60) to a desire to do something, to enter their amusingly static and artificial pastoral "pageant" and "prove a busy actor in their play" (3.4.47-59). What she does there, quite to her surprise, is to become the sexually ambiguous means—a boyish "ripe sister" (4.3.87)—through which their hopelessly stalemated and conventional Petrarchan attitudes are softened toward reciprocal love. Silvius, who has previously been an utter fool in love, running off stage (as Orlando later does for Rosalind, cf. 3.2.9-10) exclaiming "O Phebe, Phebe, Phebe!" (2.4.43), assumes a sober fidelity under Ganymede's rebuke; the disdainful Phebe, having now felt the pang of love for Ganymede, is at least sorry for "gentle" Silvius (3.5.85). When Rosalind dissolves her disguise at the end of the play, they have seen each other through her, and Phebe assures Silvius that "Thy faith my fancy to thee doth combine" (5.4.150).
Rosalind-as-Ganymede's action within Silvius and Phebe's play has double relevance for her action within her own. It makes explicit her androgynous power, even while it implies her own subliminal desire to give herself to Orlando. In her next scene with Orlando she fulfills her earlier plan (4.1), acting as she thinks men expect women to do, alternately Lady Disdain and the threateningly promiscuous dark lady of the sonnets. The vehemence and verve of her acting here argues that she is now doing this as much for her own sake as for Orlando's. It is necessary for her to misuse her sex, to soil her own nest, as Celia half-jokingly puts it (4.1.201-204), in order to hide the "woman's fear" (1.3.119) in her heart. She must act out her ambivalence toward her social inscription as woman in order to participate in male privilege. Yet she has just sharply criticized such behavior in Phebe, urging her to "thank heaven, fasting, for a good man's love" (3.5.58), and in 4.1 she becomes confident enough in Orlando's faithful replies to stage a mock marriage. Temporarily empowered within Petrarchan love conventions, she has worked her way through to surrendering them in favor of a provisional trust in her partially tested lover. The imaginative space provided by the forest can take her this far—to an imagined wedding.
It takes an intrusion from outside the forest and a resurgence of male heroic force to turn the imagined wedding into a real one. The Duke's "kindness" and Rosalind-as-Ganymede's "play" have allowed Orlando to become a moral rather than merely a physical Hercules (see the wrestling match and Rosalind's cry at 1.2.210), and thus also a type of Christ.30 Those inchoate energies which in the court could find expression only through wrestling Charles, in the forest focus on the picture of "A wretched ragged man, o'ergrown with hair" and menaced by a snake and a lioness (4.3.102-132). Suddenly Arden has grown threatening again, its postlapsarian state implied by the snake; its maternal peril implied by the Ovidian "suck'd and hungry lioness"; the masculine fear of return to nature emblematized as the supposed wild man. This threat presents itself to Orlando as a moral dilemma, for he recognizes the endangered man as his brother, his eldest brother, "that same brother .. . the most unnatural / That liv'd amongst men." The "old oak, whose boughs were moss'd with age / And high top bald with dry antiquity" and the "wretched ragged man, o'ergrown with hair" both suggest patriarchal and epic genealogy brought to the verge of savagery and decay by Oliver and Duke Frederick's actions: as Orlando earlier laments, "a rotten tree, / That cannot so much as a blossom yield" (2.3.63-64).31 The description builds to a climax that Shakespeare will repeat near the end of The Tempest. To Rosalind's anxious query, "But to Orlando: did he leave him there, / Food to the suck'd and hungry lioness?" the stranger, like Prospero to Ariel (Temp., 5.1.24-28), replies:
. . . kindness, nobler ever than revenge,
And nature, stronger than his just occasion,
Made him give battle to the lioness,
Who quickly fell before him . . .
Orlando redeems Eden, and the story bursts into present reality with all the force of its teller's awaking and sudden conversion to brotherly love: "in which hurtling / From miserable slumber / awaked" (emphasis mine).
The stranger is thus revealed as Orlando's eldest brother, Oliver. His conversion is emphasized by the dramatic introduction of the personal pronoun and the succeeding insistent play upon it (4.3.135-137). Oliver declares that his real identity surfaced from disguise through disguise; he states that his former unnaturalness has been "sweetly" transformed in the forest; he undergoes in a flash the experience of male bonding, of kinship, that his brother had found with the exiled Duke, to whose society Orlando now leads him (4.3.142-144).
The bloody napkin Oliver brings to Ganymede/Rosalind emblematizes the male adversarial experience of the world of nature. The sign of Orlando's wounding by the lioness, it intrudes the reality of death into Arden: et in Arcadia ego. Because of it Rosalind discovers how empathetically tied she is to Orlando: Oliver reports "he [Orlando] fainted, / And cried in fainting upon Rosalind," (4.3.148-149), and Ganymede also promptly swoons. She can now only lamely maintain her disguise; events have impelled her toward accepting this "reality," even with its implied threat to herself—for the "bloody napkin" will reappear in Othello as the strawberried handkerchief, a threatening emblem of the dangers of sexual consummation.
Things happen quickly after this. Orlando, now "estate[d]" with the patrimony by his grateful brother, readily gives consent to Oliver's marriage to Celia (5.2.1-15). The improbability of this marriage is satisfactorily glossed by Rosalind/Ganymede's witty "pair of stairs to marriage" speech (5.2.29-41), which at once raises our objections to the suddenness of it and reminds us that it is her own protracted negotiation with Orlando that predicates our conditional acceptance of this love at first sight. Rosalind is having increasing difficulty maintaining her disguise as Oliver and Orlando's words seem to cut closer and closer to her real identity. Pressured by Orlando's emotional urgency—"I can live no longer by thinking"—Rosalind/Ganymede declares, "I will weary you then no longer with idle talking" (5.2.50-52). Persuaded now by Orlando's "gesture" (5.2.62), which I take to be as much his heroic action in saving his brother as his fidelity within their love discourse, Ganymede promises to produce Rosalind to marry Orlando in truth tomorrow.
In the final act of As You Like It Rosalind seemingly surrenders the play. She gives herself to the Duke her father so that he may give her to Orlando (5.4.19-20, 116-118). She thus reminds us that their initial attraction to each other was as much through their fathers—the old Sir Rowland de Boys whom Duke Senior loved as his soul (1.2.235-239)—as it was to their unmediated selves, and gives herself into the patriarchy toward which her defensive behavior all along has been in reference.
Yet in As You Like It a tissue of metadramatic discourse has been woven through and around this pen-ultimate sublimation of the self-consciously fictive mode of romance to the redeemed biblical "realism" of its patrilinear plot that may help us suggest what "kind" of pastoral this play finally is. During the course of their comic wooing Audrey queries Touchstone, "I do not know what 'poetical' is. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?" to which Touchstone replies, "No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most feigning, and lovers are given to poetry; and what they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign" (3.3.17-22). Now Touchstone would dearly love to find Audrey a little more poetical, for then, despite her protestations, she might feign/fain (pretend/desire) to lie (to tell a falsehood/to copulate), and either way he might get to have sex with her. But more seriously, his reply and the play's constant allusions to the analogous powers of poetry and sexual relations to make something like, but other than, the previously existing reality have relevance to the metadramatic question of what its action produces in us, its audience. Is poetry merely a lie, or does it work to give apprehensible form to our desires? And what, we ask as feminist critics, are these desires?
As You Like It is the ultimately contextual play. Despite its very firm grounding in contemporary social realities and the conventions of romantic and heroic discourse, the play remains conscious that its pastoral inside reflects a playful outside of continuing interpretation. Thus act 3, scene 2, the initial scene of pastoral negotiation, is prefaced by a debate between Touchstone and Corin on the significance of "this shepherd's life," in which the old shepherd's simple and appropriate tautologies are circumscribed by Touchstone's courtly wit. Touchstone does not decenter the mysterious esse of Arden, any more than he discomposes Corin, but he does remind us that as sophisticated, postlapsarian auditors we will never be content to rest here. Structured as a debate in all its details and its major patterns, As You Like It also invites us to enter its debates, ourselves "busy actor[s] in their play" (3.4.56).
On the specific issue of the play's treatment of gender identity and sex roles, we need finally to move beyond Rosalind's defensive fears, her complex interaction as Ganymede/Rosalind, and her resubmission of herself to the restored patriarchy of her noble father and tested lover to consider the altered environment of the last movement of the play, including Rosalind's invocation of magic, and the play's metadramatic "Epilogue."
For all its self-conscious artfulness, its impositions and nuances of style, a part of this play remains beyond man's control and is discovered in action. As the play closes, that part, suddenly, and without explanation, turns benign: "the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter's wind" (2.1.6-7) turns to "spring time, the only pretty [ring] time" (5.3.19); Rosalind/Ganymede's fictional misogynistic "old religious uncle" (3.2.343-350) becomes an equally fictional but now romantically helpful "magician, most profound in his art, and yet not damnable" (5.2.60-61; see also 5.4.30-34); and from beyond any rational expectations that the text has established, the god Hymen comes to "atone" the play, wedding earth and heaven, country and town. Hymen's own words can serve as an hermeneutic for this final movement of the play: "Feed yourselves with questioning; / That reason wonder may diminish" (5.4.138-139). Rational interpretation and the conversations that the characters conduct beneath Hymen's nuptial lyric can explain in great part how these characters have come together. But though "reason wonder may diminish," it cannot cancel it altogether. The play has worked toward evoking an atmosphere of wonder and a promise of fresh beginnings that Touchstone's realism or Duke Frederick's and Jaques's contemplative withdrawals can anchor but not destroy. As You Like It transforms the problem of sexual relations insofar as it suggests a world of possibility for the continued negotiation of these differences.
In the metadramatic "Epilogue" the continued negotiation of sexual difference becomes the tentative metaphor for the most successful art. Here, for once, men bear the greater burden. The Elizabethan boy actor who played Rosalind conjures women to please themselves and men to play with women for mutual pleasure:
My way is to conjure you, and I'll begin with the women. I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you; and I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women (as I perceive by your simp'ring, none of you hates them), that between you and the women the play may please. ("Epilogue," 11-17)
He thus inverts the sexological situation of the play itself, where Orlando had but to become assured in his male heroic identity, while Rosalind had had, through her disguise, her "double-voiced" discourse, to accommodate herself to him. This final inversion in this consummately playful play suggests that men and women can work together—albeit often awkwardly—to transform a world not deterministically bound by its cultural conventions.
Much of Shakespeare's later career suggests how difficult that is. As You Like It itself delicately skirts, with the Duke's sweet style, Orlando's simple heroism, and Rosalind's self-restraint, the excoriating issue of the nonfeminist maternal subtext that will erupt in Shakespeare's tragedies. Although we may use Rosalind's double-voiced discourse and the final metadramatic openness of the play to decenter its patriarchal assumptions, Shakespeare's later plays gravitate around the threat to these values represented by a woman's projected infidelity, the "nothing" that is the source of her reproductive power.32 In closing I can only hazard some of the symptoms and causes of this shift from comic playfulness to tragic anxiety about sexuality.
I believe that as Shakespeare perfected his romantic comedies and the movement toward marriage within them, he was compelled to face more directly the threat within marriage that coincides with the metaphysical and political crisis uncovered in his history plays. If, as the history plays suggest, there is no clear divine sanction for ruling, nor any untainted or disinterested human succession, you confront your origin in the female body, where no one really knows his father: "there," as Othello cries, "where I have garner'd up my heart, / Where either I must live or bear no life; / The fountain from the which my current runs / Or else dries up" (Othello, 4.2.57-60). Literary conventions such as the traditional chaste inaccessibility of the idealized lady and the use of boy actors to play female parts might shield Shakespeare for a time from this threat of the female body, allowing him, in the romantic comedies, to experiment with a dazzling series of sexual permutations that we may now appropriate for our own ends. But Shakespeare also deconstructs these literary conventions in the course of his plays in a way that brings him up against the new social realities of marriage and the family in early modern Europe, where decline of external religious authority, loss of feudal power, urban centralization, and nascent capitalism all function to alienate actual women while making their sexuality the focus of ever more anxious regard. Within Shakespeare's career As You Like It offers us a brief moment of tremulous poise before we sound those depths.33
1 Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London, 1975), p. 1.
2 Madelon Gohlke, '"I wooed thee with my sword': Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray Schwartz and Coppélla Kahn (Baltimore, 1980), p. 180.
3 Stephen Greenblatt, "Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and its Subversion," Glyph, 8 (1981), 40-61; Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, 1975), esp. "The Reasons of Misrule," pp. 97-123, and "Women on Top," pp. 124-151.
4 Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1978).
5 Ibid., pp. 141-158, esp. p. 157.
6 Ibid., p. 169: "Women's mothering, then, produces asymmetries in the relational experiences of girls and boys as they grow up, which account for crucial differences in feminine and masculine personality, and the relational capacities and modes which these entail . . . From the retention of preoedipal attachments to their mother, growing girls come to define and experience themselves as continuous with others; their experience of self contains more flexible or permeable ego boundaries. Boys come to define themselves as more separate and distinct, with a greater sense of rigid ego boundaries and differentiation. The basic feminine sense of self is connected to the world, the basic masculine sense of self is separate."
7 Ibid., p. 151.
8 Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York, 1977).
9 Chodorow, Reproduction, pp. 173-190.
10 See, for example, Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (New York, 1977), pp. 123-218.
11 Coppélla Kahn, "Excavating 'Those Dim Minoan Regions': Maternal Subtexts in Patriarchal Literature," Diacritics, 12 (1982), 37-41.
12 Louis Montrose, "'The Place of a Brother' in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form," Shakespeare Quarterly, 32 (1981), 28-54.
13 Ibid., pp. 53, 52n.
14 The phrase is Myra Jehlen's, "Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism," SIGNS, 6 (1981), 576, as cited by Kahn, "Maternal Subtexts," p. 32.
15 For the forest of Arden and Mary Arden, see Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (Oxford, 1977), pp. 4, 19-22.
16 Elaine Showalter, "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," Critical Inquiry, 8 (1981), 201-204.
17 Rosalie Colie, Shakespeare 's Living Art (Princeton, 1974), pp. 243-261.
18 Gohlke, "Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms," p. 184.
19 Shakespeare first evokes the ideal image of Arden—where echoes of Eden fuse with Hesiodic hints of "the golden world" and more local, English tales of social inversion (1.1.114-119)—within the socially oppressive opening scene, where Orlando complains that Oliver mars the imago dei and "the spirit of my father" within him (1.1.29-34 and 1.1.21-23, 46-51, 70-71). See Montrose, "Place of a Brother," pp. 45-47, for parallels between the biblical story of Cain and Abel and the contemporary problem of the patrimony and unequal inheritance. Throughout my essay I cite the text of As You Like It from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).
20 See Montrose, "Place of a Brother," pp. 37-38, for a glossing of the significance of the fight, and Richard Knowles, "Myth and Type in As You Like It," ELH, 33 (1966), 1-22, on the allusions to Hercules.
21As You Like It has often been compared with Lear. Some of the deepest filiations connect Orlando's vague misgivings about his breeding with Edmund's vigorous embrace of his bastardy as cause of his naturalistic villainy, and Orlando's fear of nature with Edgar's painful exposure on the heath as poor Tom. As You Like It avoids painful male confrontation with the threatening maternal subtext of nature through Orlando's own restraint and the benign paternal mediation of Duke Senior, but it remains a latent menace.
22 See Madeleine Doran, "'Yet am I inland bred,'" Shakespeare Quarterly, 15 (1964), 99-114, for a discussion of the rich traditions of civility that inform the play.
23 Chodorow, Reproduction, pp. 169, 94, 182.
24 Ibid., p. 169; see also n.5 above.
25 Nancy Vickers, "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme," Critical Inquiry, 8 (1981), 265-280.
26 For the myth of Ganymede as potentially degrading or exalting, see Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York, 1962), pp. 212-218. In As You Like It Ganymede offers a homoerotic bridge to Orlando's encounter with a "real" female other. Shakespeare's decision to highlight the dramatic fact that boy actors played women's parts may indicate that we are seeing an essentially male drama of power in which women are even further objectified as mere roles. But I think it also indicates the strain which that convention of representation was coming under, as Shakespeare's portrayal of women shifts from the already powerful girls of the romantic comedies to the explicitly threatening women of the tragedies. In the later plays, although boys still play the woman's part, the extra-dramatic referents of their play have become an imagined woman, not an excluded middle term: we move from the boy actor who plays Portia playing a young male lawyer in The Merchant of Venice to the boy actor who plays Cleopatra complaining that a boy actor will misplay her—"Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I'th'posture of a whore" (Antony and Cleopatra 5.2.220-221)—and to the artifice-shattering resurrection of Hermione in The Winter's Tale.
27 Chodorow, Reproduction, pp. 166-167.
28 Ibid., p. 167.
29 Ibid., p. 93.
30 Knowles, "Myth and Type," pp. 14-18.
31 See Montrose, "Place of a Brother," pp. 50-51, for the female sexual threat of the snake and the lioness, and p. 43 for the genealogical significance of the description of Oliver. The lioness probably descends from the lioness who mauls Thisbe's mantle with her bloody mouth in Ovid's story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Metamorphoses, bk. 4, a story that we know from the rude mechanicals' play in A Midsummer Night's Dream was much on Shakespeare's mind. I am grateful to B. Cass Clarke for suggesting its relevance here. The genealogical tree is one of the topoi of epic, invoked to establish the text's relationship to the past; see, for example, Homer, Odyssey, 23.173-204; Vergil, Aeneid, 4.437.449; Dante, Divine Comedy, "Purgatorio," 31.70-75.
32 This issue has received two recent impressive formulations: "I am reading the development from the comedies through the problem plays and the major tragedies in terms of an explosion of the sexual tensions that threaten without rupturing the surface of the earlier plays" (Gohlke, "Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms," p. 174); "Possibilities for conflict latent in earlier writings are released in the violent action of tragedy, where boundaries previously provided by separation of genre are broken through, and the drama takes into itself the entire range of family-based conflict in Shakespeare" (Richard Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn [Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1981], p. 156).
33 For As You Like It as a work of exquisite balance, see the classic essays by Helen Gardner, "As You Like It," in More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John W. P. Garret (London; New York, 1959), pp. 17-32, and Ann Barton, "As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending," in Shakespearean Comedy, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and D. J. Palmer, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 14 (1972), pp. 160-180.
Helen Wilcox (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "Gender and Genre In Shakespeare's Tragicomedies," in Reclamations of Shakespeare, edited by A. J. Hoenselaars, Rodopi, 1994, pp. 129-38.
[In the following essay, Wilcox confronts the myths commonly associated with the genre of tragicomedy, and maintains that Shakespeare's tragicomedies are "as much about femininity as masculinity. "]
In recent years, much has been spoken and written about Shakespeare's works in terms of the critical and cultural myths that have accrued around them.1 Cultural materialist and feminist critics in particular have rightly drawn attention to the haze of previous interpretation and appropriation through which we always inevitably approach the plays. How might our reading of Shakespeare's tragicomedies be deepened by such a consciousness of the myths with which the critical reception of the plays has become riddled? By this generic term "tragicomedy" I mean the two problem comedies (All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure), and the late plays (often also referred to as the romances). What emerges initially from an examination of the ways in which these plays have been received and characterized is that the myths about them are particularly strongly gendered. They have been constructed by generations of critical readings as dramas of lone male figures; in the case of the late plays in particular, these have been identified autobiographically with the dramatist himself. We have been led to assume that the main focus of the plays is patriarchal: kings (Leontes, Pericles, Cymbeline, and the ailing king of France in All's Well That Ends Well), or controllers (Prospero and Duke Vincentio), fathers to their states and families. In almost every case, these are men in crisis over their role as ruler, father or husband, and they are joined in that state by a number of other males, including Angelo, Bertram and Post-humus. Such lists remind us forcibly of the pervading masculinity of these plays—or, perhaps, of the myths through which we have observed them for so long.
I should like to challenge these myths by suggesting that the plays are as much about femininity as masculinity. This is not proposed out of a spirit of perverseness on my part, but as a possible means of more fully understanding the tragic potential of the genre, by approaching it in terms of gender opposition. Does the feminine function in these plays as a means of restoring comic redemption after the devastation of masculine tragedy? My purpose here is not only to reclaim .. . an awareness of femininity in Shakespeare's tragicomedies, but also, more significantly perhaps, to ask questions about the inter-relation of gender and genre in Shakespeare's work.
When we begin to think of the feminine in Shakespeare's tragicomedies, we immediately encounter another critical myth—that the plays are all about chaste women. Again, we are the inheritors of assumptions about the "coldly" celibate Isabella in Measure for Measure, or the sensual but innocent young heroines of the romances.2 It is true that in place of the swashbuckling energetic females of the comedies, the tragicomedies indeed present figures such as Isabella, Perdita and Marina; but we need to pursue the issue further and enquire into the significance of their chastity. In their purity lies a vulnerability to threat, and many are put to the test during the course of the plays: Isabella in the crisis of chastity versus charity, Imogen under Iachimo's scrutiny, Marina in the brothel. But to what end is this testing, if not ultimately to guarantee that the subsequent children of these women will be their husbands'? Chastity was, like most prescribed feminine virtues in the English Renaissance, a means to male peace of mind. The startling words of Antigonus in The Winter's Tale, astounded at the idea that the queen, Hermione, might be impure, vividly demonstrate this sense of chastity's necessity for patriarchy:
Be she honour-flaw'd—
I have three daughters: the eldest is eleven;
The second and the third, nine and some five;
If this prove true, they'll pay for't. By mine honour,
I'll geld 'em all; fourteen they shall not see
To bring false generations.3
In the view of this not untypical (and later nobly self-sacrificial) male, a daughter is better "gelded" than unchaste, because of the threat to the father inherent in "false generations", an eloquently ambiguous phrase linking fertility and illegitimacy. Chastity, then, may best be regarded as having been a prerequisite for acceptable motherhood, rather than a virtue which was an end in itself.
This view is borne out by the conclusions of the tragicomedies; all the previously chaste women are partnered by the time we reach the conclusion of the plays. Virginity was hardly ever envisaged in this period as a permanent state; the virgin status of Elizabeth the First became a political embarrassment as soon as it was discerned as a continuing feature of her reign and not merely a prelude to a successful marriage guaranteeing the succession. In Measure for Measure, Isabella's chastity, a most deliberately chosen celibate state, is shown through fascinating parallels in the play between the convent and the jail to be an unnatural imprisonment, from which she is released by the Duke's match-making finale. The plays construct chastity as a temptation and yet a promise of "treasures" to men (Measure for Measure, 2.4.96), thus implicitly supporting Angelo's tortured response to Isabella, or Parolles's taunting of Helena, or Iachimo's voluptuous reading of Imogen. The plays uphold a male-oriented vision of female chastity as marketable and reassuring, and undermine any notion of virginity as an enduring virtue for the individual female. Rather than debate the morality of the bed-tricks in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, perhaps we should simply observe that the beds are never empty of a woman on those occasions.
Both these prevailing views of the tragicomedies, therefore—the maleness of their focus, and chastity as their dominant female ideology—need to be challenged. I intend to do so by means of a brief consideration of a feminine focus other than chastity found in the plays—that is; motherhood—as presented in the visual, verbal and generic structures of the tragicomedies. The idea of maternity is, of course, not so far removed from chastity; in addition to the obvious example of the virgin Mary, contemporary with Shakespeare was a virgin queen who, according to her own rhetoric, was married to the state and mother to her own people.4 Previous chastity is also integral to the ideal of pure motherhood within the tragicomedies, as Prospero's words to Miranda at the beginning of The Tempest demonstrate:
Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and
She said thou wast my daughter.
These lines, although still relying on chastity as a source of legitimacy for the father's offspring ("my daughter"), honour Prospero's wife, Miranda's mother. However, a notable feature of the comment is its past tense, for the mother is long dead; absent motherhood is a predominant feature of the tragicomedies. Like Miranda, Marina grew up not knowing her mother, being "Born in a tempest, when my mother died" (Pericles, 4.1.19). Just as Thaisa is secluded in a temple in Pericles, Hermione spends half of The Winter's Tale in hiding, apparently dead; she functions in the second half of the play as a potent memory, an icon in absence. Hermione appears as a figure in a vision; similarly, Posthumous's mother is only represented in Cymbeline as part of a dream, and Sycorax functions in The Ternpest as a symbol of Caliban's sense of injustice. We may have a strong impression, then, that motherhood lies at the margins of these plays—in the past, in the secrecy of death or hiding, or in the private space of memory or dream.5
Are Shakespeare's tragicomedies yet another group of texts in which motherhood, or the feminine, is marked by negativity and absence? Paradoxically, though motherhood may be marginalized in these plays, it would not be true to say that maternity is absent from them. On the contrary; maternal bodies are astonishingly present in the tragicomedies in the number of pregnancies visually or verbally represented within the plays. The decision to include mothers-to-be who "round" or "spread" (The Winter's Tale, 2.1.16 and 19) among the dramatis personae must have been a particularly conscious choice on Shakespeare's part, bearing in mind the problems for boy actors playing expectant mothers convincingly, but more pregnant women are involved in these plays than in any other genre of Shakespeare's output. In Measure for Measure, Juliet is shown on stage "very near her hour" (2.2.16) and attention is repeatedly drawn to her excess of fertility, in contrast to Isabella's chastity. By the end of All's Well That Ends Well, Helena is "quick" with child in order to fulfil the terms of Bertram's apparently impossible riddle; like the enigma of the riddle's solution, pregnancy can be concurrently hidden and obvious. In The Winter's Tale, Hermione's pregnancy is a sign falsely interpreted by her husband Leontes as evidence of an adulterous affair with Polixenes: "let her sport herself, cries the desperately jealous king, "With that she's big with" (2.1.60-61). When Hermione gives birth to Perdita in prison, it is observed that the child is set free from her "imprisonment" in the womb by the liberating force of "great Nature" (2.2.60). Most striking of all, perhaps, in the sense of visual impact, is the case of Thaisa who, before dramatically giving birth during a storm, is shown pregnant in a dumb show. Does the body, female and maternal, speak louder than words?
In the tragicomedies, which marginalize actual motherhood but visualize actual maternity, the missing link between these two elements must surely be that the plays highlight how troubled the process of becoming a mother in full relationship with the child and the father can be. The course of pregnancy and mothering certainly does not run simply or comfortably through these plays. Though necessary to the future of a society, pregnancy is not always regarded with appreciation by those who observe it. Juliet is made to feel shame at her "plenteous womb" which expresses too readily the "husbandry" of her lover Claudio (Measure for Measure, 1.4.43-44). Hermione finds that her pregnant state indites her for a crime of which she is innocent, while Helena's impending maternity is a means to entrap Bertram and keep him within a marriage which he clearly resents. The women's fruitfulness, then, in these plays is for the most part a source of dismay or misinterpretation. Neither do things get any easier as the pregnancy progresses. In addition to the dangers of childbed shown through the experience of the mothers of Miranda and Marina, we are lugubriously reminded of the bizarre folklore surrounding pregnancy when we hear of Autolycus's ballad about a "usurer's wife" who conceived for "twenty money-bags at a burden" and, during pregnancy, longed to eat "adders' heads and toads carbonado'd" (The Winter's Tale, 4.4.257-60).
There is nothing straightforward or easy in maternity here, nor in the mothering which follows for those who live beyond childbed. Hermione, for example, is briefly shown in a playful relationship with her young son, Mamillius, before her own imprisonment, his sickness and death, her delivery of Perdita but separation from the baby, her own trial in a weak state too soon after childbirth, her fainting and apparent death. This bald summary of the sequence of events is a reminder of the dangers associated with motherhood in the tragicomedies. Mothers are also vulnerable to a more insidious kind of danger, that of mental rather than physical attack. Being a mother leads, it would seem, to censure and blame, as Posthumus reveals when he begins to mistrust Imogen; he immediately assumes that, if his wife is unfaithful, then his mother, who "seem'd / The Dian of that time", was also false (Cymbeline, 2.5.6-7; italics added). Interestingly, the strongest mother/child relationship established in the tragicomedies is one sought rather that given: Helena and her potential mother-in-law, the Countess. However, even here there is a hint of the inherent threat of mothering: the Countess's comment, "When I said 'a mother', / Methought you saw a serpent" (All's Well That Ends Well, 1.3.131-32), anticipates the sinister role played by step-mothers in Cymbeline and Pericles. The darker side of motherhood is also suggested by the plays' flirtations with the idea of incest. The closeness of daughters to their mothers in appearance and function is a significant element in The Tempest, Pericles and The Winter's Tale; Leontes, for example, has to be bullied by Paulina out of thoughts of taking his (unrecognized) daughter as his new wife because she resembles Hermione so strongly. The preoccupation of these dramas with the unscripted text of incest, which is also profoundly evident in the sibling-relationships in Cymbeline, surfaces as a part of the plays' concern with motherhood in the definition given in Pericles: the incestuous woman is termed in the Riddle "no viper, yet I feed / On mother's flesh which did me breed" (1.1.64-65).
In the structures and ideologies of these plays, therefore, motherhood is deeply ambivalent. It is absent and yet unusually present, threatened and threatening, but also talked about and sought out. One could argue that on this showing. Shakespeare was simply conscious of the complexity of maternal experiences, as also expressed in the texts of contemporary Englishwomen. Diaries and other autobiographical writings reveal the dangers of pregnancy, the fear of death and the sorrows of actual loss, and yet these records also assert the pride and authority associated with early modern mothering even in the homes of Protestant patriarchs.6 The ambivalence in women's attitudes no doubt stems from the basic fact that mothering was not a choice but an inevitable burden, for good or ill. Shakespeare's ironic awareness of this uninvited routine of constant motherhood emerges in The Winter's Tale when he portrays Hermione in disgruntled mood with her playful son as she herself enters the wearying late stages of her subsequent pregnancy. But does the playwright go any further in his tragicomedies than this subtle and sympathetic awareness of the lives of real and imagined mothers?
If we turn our attention to the conclusions and overall dramatic structures of the plays, we find a profoundly maternal working of the tragicomic narrative process. It is significant, for instance, that a restored mother/child relationship, and particularly mother/daughter, is frequently the crowning glory of the comic ending. For too long, this fact has been obscured by the conventional critical focus on father/daughter reunions, modelled on the tradition of King Lear. But these tragicomic conclusions are vitally different from the tragic model, as their generic name of course implies, and yet we have been unwilling to allow for this difference in terms of gender. As the tragicomedies find a way to end happily, it is often by means of replacing the false step-mother or foolish father (or both) by the mother. At the conclusion of All's Well That Ends Well, a play whose title invites us to be conscious of its ending, Helena's final words signal a joyous reunion with the Countess. The last scene of Pericles movingly depicts the first meeting, outside the childbed, of the now mature Thaisa and her daughter Marina; Pericles requests Cerimon, in maternally loaded language, to "deliver / How this dead queen re-lives" (5.3.64-65). The play's climax is birth itself. The Winter's Tale famously concludes with the statue of Hermione coming to life before her daughter's eyes; the arrival of Perdita, it must be remembered, is the catalyst for this event, and not any action on Leontes's part. The focus of this dramatic closing is predominantly female. Paulina is utterly in charge, and the visual centre is a woman's body, the figure of Hermione in image and then in reality (or, at least, in enacted reality). When Hermione steps down from the pedestal, she embraces Leontes but saves her first public words after sixteen years' silence for Perdita:
You gods, look down,
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter's head! Tell me, mine own,
Where hast thou been preserv'd?
While the paternal line has been shown to be barren and fruitless, destroying, as Leontes did, everything around him including his only male heir, the female line is epitomized in these words of Hermione as holy, preservative, life-giving.7 The myth of the masculinity of the tragicomedies must surely be called into question here.
Even where there is no mother present in the closing moments of a play, Shakespeare returns to the discourse of motherhood in his tragicomic conclusions. The Tempest celebrates in its masque the fundamental principle of the "Earth's increase" (4.1.110), and when Cymbeline rediscovers his daughter Imogen and her two long-lost brothers, the king cries out:
O, what am I?
A mother to the birth of three? Ne'er mother
Rejoic'd deliverance more.
Indeed, perhaps the most profound representation of motherhood in these plays is not in material mothering but in the language, modes and structures of the genre itself. We might describe Shakespearean tragicomedy as labouring in near tragedy but eventually and with difficulty giving birth to a life-affirming conclusion. Several of the plays require strong midwife figures—the Duke in Measure for Measure, for example, or Paulina in The Winter's Tale—and the conclusion is, as we have seen, envisaged as a new birth, often linking the grace of femininity (as in Hermione's blessing of Perdita) with rebirth or resurrection into spiritual grace. Like childbirth, the endings of the tragicomedies can only come about at the appointed time. These are plays obsessed by time, so much so that the enigmatic phenomenon is given physical embodiment in the chorus of The Winter's Tale, spoken of by the Gower chorus in Pericles, and referred to repeatedly and anxiously by Prospero. The wish expressed for the pregnant Hermione—"Good time encounter her!" (The Winter's Tale, 2.1.20)—might well serve as an epigraph for the functioning of the plays as a whole. In addition to awaiting their auspicious concluding moment or "good" time, the plays also construct their achievement of finality in feminine and maternal ways. The Tempest and Pericles are finally subject to the movements of the sea, that fluid of destruction and renewal so fundamentally construed as feminine; the conclusions are life-giving and fruit-bearing, again a maternal vocabulary echoed by Posthumus when he joyfully exclaims on embracing the rediscovered Imogen, "Hang there like fruit, my soul" (Cymbeline, 5.5.263). Such maternal fruitfulness is perhaps the conceptual background for the defiant comment of Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, that "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie" (1.1.202). Though the statement smacks of a general self-sufficiency, it may, as the end of the play suggests, refer more specifically to the female power of reproduction, bearing "in ourselves" the life of the future.
Shakespearean tragicomedy, therefore, not only presents a remarkable array of characters and concerns which are close to the matter of mothering, but also finds its patterns of action, language, metaphor and resolution in motherhood, drawing on ideas of maternity in nature, society, royal images and ordinary female experience. The genre itself, then, may be characterized as a maternal form; the play might usefully be seen as the ultimate maternal body. As we have seen, motherhood in early modern England consisted of many paradoxes, relating to chastity and fertility, absence and presence, life-threatening and life-giving qualities. Thus it is entirely apt that maternity should epitomize the paradoxical complexity of the tragic/comic mix in these plays, and exemplify a genre which brings both death and new life into its cycle of action.
The implications of this reading of the tragicomedies are considerable, since if genres can be gendered in this way, the idea may be more widely applied. If tragicomedy is characterized as productively feminine, would it be useful to consider tragedy as destructively driven by a compulsive masculine concept of heroism? Perhaps it would be more challenging and critically responsible to avoid falling into the old binary trap, and instead to suggest that tragedy in Shakespeare's hands is allied with unnatural sexuality and false parenting. We have only to think of Lady Macbeth's "unsex me here"(Macbeth, 1.5.38) and Iago's metaphor for his cruel plan as a "monstrous birth" (Othello, 1.3.398), or the relationship of tragedy to forced or inauspicious time, to realize that this linking of genre and gender, or dramatic form with sexuality, may be worthy of further investigation. Are the comedies an exploration of the place of androgyny in a patriarchal world? How closely is historical or political success, as portrayed by Shakespeare, linked to denial of sexuality? There is no room to follow up these subsequent questions here, simply the opportunity to hint at some further areas for fruitful consideration which the exploration of gender and genre in the tragicomedies has raised. We always find ourselves, of course, in the business of making new myths through which to re-read the works of Shakespeare; but as we shift our gaze from the filter of one myth to another, some fresh insights may, I hope, be glimpsed.
1 See, for example, The Shakespeare Myth, ed. Graham Holderness, Manchester, 1988; Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis, London, 1985; Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, eds Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, Manchester, 1985; The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds Carolyn Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Nealy, Chicago, 1980; Terence Hawkes, That Shakespeherian Rag, London, 1986.
2 For a discussion of reinterpretations of Shakespeare's female characters by contemporary actresses, see Carol Rutter, Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare's Women Today, London, 1988.
3The Winter's Tale, 2.1.143-48. All Shakespeare quotations are taken from the one-volume text, The Complete Works, edited by Peter Alexander, London, 1951.
4 See Frances Teague, "Queen Elizabeth in Her Speeches", in Gloriana's Face: Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance, eds S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies, London, 1992, 63-78.
5 For further reading on repressed maternal subtexts in the works of Shakespeare, see Coppella Kahn, "The Absent Mother in King Lear", in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, eds Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy Vickers, Chicago, 1986, 33-49; see also Janet Adelman's psychoanalytic study, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, "Hamlet" to "The Tempest", London, 1992.
6 For women's varied and in some cases detailed accounts of pregnancy, childbirth and the upbringing of children, see Her Own Life: Autobiographical Writings by Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen, eds Elspeth Graham, Hilary Hinds, Elaine Hobby and Helen Wilcox, London, 1989; for women's elegies on their lost children, see Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women's Verse, eds Germaine Greer, Jeslyn Medoff, Melinda Sansone and Susan Hastings, London, 1988.
7 For a fuller interpretation of this scene, see my "Shakespeare's Winter's Tale: Drama and Sexual Difference", forthcoming in Lectures de la difference sexuelle from Editions des Femmes, Paris, 1994.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366
Brown, Steve. "The Boyhood of Shakespeare's Heroines: Notes on Gender Ambiguity in the Sixteenth Century." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 30, No. 2 (Spring 1990): 243-63. Discusses Elizabethan notions of male sexuality and homosexuality.
Fiedler, Leslie A. "The Woman as Stranger: or 'None but women left...'." In The Stranger in Shakespeare, pp. 43-81. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.
Surveys Shakespeare's use of women as types or fictional "others"—foreigners, whores, and witches.
Jardine, Lisa. "'As boys and women are for the most part cattle of this colour': Female Roles and Elizabethan Eroticism." In Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, pp. 9-36. Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1983.
Examines the eroticism and homoeroticism elicited by Shakespeare's transvestite heroines.
Maguire, Laurie E. "'Household Kates': Chez Petruchio, Percy and Plantagenet." In Gloriana's Face: Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance, edited by S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies, pp. 129-65. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992.
Suggests Shakespeare "takes a middle-of-the-road position in negotiating the tension between feminism and chauvinsim."
Orgel, Stephen. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 179 p.
Study of gender issues—including patriarchy, marriage, homoeroticism, effeminacy, and transvestitism—in Shakespeare's works.
Paiker, Patricia. "On the Tongue: Cross Gendering, Effeminacy, and the Art of Words." Style 23, No. 3 (Fall 1989): 445-65.
Explores "the effemination of male discourse" associated with a range of Renaissance texts, including Shakespeare's plays.
Rackin, Phyllis. "Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage." PMLA 102, No. 1 (January 1987): 29-41.
Investigates the shift that took place in English Renaissance drama from an "idealized image of the androgyne" to "the image of the unnatural hermaphrodite."
Russell, Anne. "Gender, Passion, and Performance in Nineteenth-Century Women Romeos." Essays in Theatre / Études Théâtrales 11, No. 2 (May 1993): 153-66.
Discusses theatrical crossdressing in a Victorian context as it "embodies social and cultural contradictions in the representation of Shakespeare's characters."
Smith, Molly Easo. "John Fletcher's Response to the Gender Debate: The Woman's Prize and The Taming of the Shrew." Papers on Language & Literature 31, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 38-60.
Offers Fletcher's 1612 "sequel" to The Taming of The Shrew as "an example of the ambivalent and problematic nature of Renaissance attitudes towards gender roles."
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