William Shakespeare Rethinking Gender and Genre in the History Play

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Rethinking Gender and Genre in the History Play

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Martha A. Kurtz, Southampton College of Long Island University

Two concepts that have exercised considerable influence over criticism of Elizabethan drama in the past fifteen years are what might be called the hegemony of genre—that is, the idea that the ideological content of a play is predetermined and controlled by the dramatic genre to which the play seems to belong—and the Lacanian dualistic theory of gender in which masculine and feminine are seen as discrete and oppositional identities, the boundaries of which are never blurred and which can never overlap or unite. These two assumptions coalesce in the frequently reiterated premise that the history play as a genre is fundamentally antagonistic to women and the "feminine":

The myth of the history plays involves fathers and sons. It does not involve mothers, daughters, or wives.

Antagonists and consorts, queens and queans, witches and saints: women play almost every conceivable role on Shakespeare's historical stage. But there is one role that no woman can play, that of the hero. Aliens in the masculine world of history, women can threaten or validate the men's historical projects, but they can never take the center of history's stage or become the subjects of its stories.

In the man's world of the history play, the only power the woman can wield is her power to dismay through verbal abuse . . . The curse of the scold is feared almost as much as the drubbing she supposedly administers to her unfortunate man . . . but it achieves nothing.

Tudor history was not simply written without women; it was also written against them. Patriarchal history is designed to construct a verbal substitute for the visible physical connection between a mother and her children, to authenticate the . . . relationships between fathers and sons, and to suppress and supplant the role of the mother.

The feminine offers too powerful a challenge to the idea of history itself for Shakespeare to deal with it in the history plays. The Otherness of the feminine challenges the ethos of power and conquest through aggression; history as a genre must ultimately base itself on that ethos, no matter how it also criticizes it. If we lose interest in the military-political adventure we have lost interest in history itself as a genre.1

An extension of a patriarchal Tudor historiography, the history play is seen by these writers as inherently a "men's world" in which women are the naturally feared and opposing Other whom the genre must minimalize, weaken, and exclude in order to maintain its own generic identity. The domain of the "masculine" is the public life that becomes documented history; its ethos is "power and conquest through aggression." The domain of the "feminine," it is implied, is the opposite of this—the private life that is never documented, the ethos that, whether it renounces aggression or pursues it in distinctively "feminine" ways (deception, manipulation, verbal abuse), is ultimately powerless.

We should be cautious about arguments that make such sweeping claims. "Masculine" and "feminine" are notoriously slippery terms, which are more apt to show the qualities that a particular culture in a particular historical moment assigns to men and women than any unchanging truths about gender, and which reduce the complexities of real men and women to gross oversimplifications. To define the "masculine" as an "ethos of power and . . . aggression" implies that no gentler qualities properly belong to men; if to be "feminine" is to be passive, powerless, and overlooked, then women can never appropriately be powerful or important. Linda Bamber, Phyllis Rackin, and Lisa Jardine are not, of course, speaking about masculinity and femininity in general, but as they are seen in the characters and situations of Elizabethan history plays. We may wonder, however, whether a genre that includes plays as diverse as the Henry VI trio and Sir Thomas More, 1 Henry IV, and Woodstock, is likely to show one point of view about...

(The entire section is 8,537 words.)