illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

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Shakespeare's Representation of Women

Shakespeare's representation of women, and the ways in which his female roles are interpreted and enacted, have become topics of scholarly interest. While seldom occupying the center of his plays (the few exceptions include Rosalind in As You Like It and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra), Shakespeare's heroines encompass a wide range of characterizations and types, from the uncompromising frankness of Cordelia, the quick wit of Beatrice and of Kate, and the intelligence of Portia, to the ruthlessness of Lady Macbeth, the opportunistic unkindness of Regan and Goneril, and the manipulative power of Volumnia. Within this gallery of female characters, critics note similarities, especially among Shakespeare's young women characters, who commonly display great intelligence, vitality, and a strong sense of personal independence. These qualities have led some critics to herald Shakespeare as a champion of womenkind and an innovator who departed sharply from flat, stereotyped characterizations of women common to his contemporaries and earlier dramatists. Contrastingly, other commentators note that even Shakespeare's most favorably portrayed women possess characters that are tempered by negative qualities. They suggest that this indicates that Shakespeare was not free of misogynistic tendencies that were deep-seated in the culture of his country and era. Within the texts of the plays, charges of promiscuity are often leveled against young women, for example, and women occupying positions of power are frequently portrayed as capricious and highly corruptible.


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Irene G. Dash (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Introduction: Their Infinite Variety," in Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays, Columbia University Press, 1981, pp. 1-6.

[In the following essay, Dash discusses the depth, individuality, and variety of Shakespeare's female characters, and the ways in which stage portrayals of these women have been ruled by gender stereotypes of different eras.]

Strong, attractive, intelligent, and humane women come to life in Shakespeare's plays. They not only have a clear sense of themselves as individuals, but they challenge accepted patterns for women's behavior. Compliance, self-sacrifice for a male, dependence, nurturance, and emotionalism are the expected norms. Yet independence, self-control and, frequently, defiance characterize these women. In The Winter's Tale, for example, Hermione disdains tears although unjustly imprisoned; her husband, Leontes, weeps in self-pity. In Othello and Romeo and Juliet, women, exercising their independence, defy their fathers as well as the mores of their society.

Shakespeare's women characters testify to his genius. They are drawn with neither anger nor condescension. In personality they vary. Some are warm, delightful, friendly; others cold, aloof, and scornful. Some speak with confidence; others with diffidence. They range in age from the youthful, joyous Juliet to the wizened, bitter Margaret. But most have a vitality; they grow and develop during the course of a drama. Their actions spring from a realistic confrontation with life as they learn the meaning of self sovereignty for a woman in a patriarchal society.

But critics, limited by their own perceptions of a woman's role, fail to hear all the texts' cues and wrestle with interpretation. Simplification or evasion results. Some of the women are castigated as shrews; others are removed from the human sphere and their resemblances to deities or goddesses are emphasized; still others are considered as merely personifications of ideas. Occasionally a critic asserts, as [Hugh Richmond, in Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy] did recently, that Shakespeare's women are "the conscious sustainers of society and culture, as are Modern American Women." This critic, however, then continues:

The prime sources of disaster in Shakespeare's plays are to be found in women who neurotically forget their biological role … or their social tact (like Desdemona …), or who...

(This entire section contains 9344 words.)

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attempt to seize physical supremacy from the male (like Queen Margaret or Cleopatra).

The individuality of Shakespeare's portraits is buried beneath the generalizations in this statement.

Editors, too, rely on stereotypes, but they also react to the intellectual and moral climate of their era. Thus, Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century decries the frequent use of bawdy language in Love's Labour's Lost and wonders how the work could have been performed before a "maiden queen." The play, whose characters include outspoken, independent women, did not appear on the stage of his time. J. W. Lever, writing in our twentieth century, wonders what all the fuss is about in Measure for Measure. He can't understand why Isabella should refuse to capitulate to the threats of a rapist-seducer. This editor writes: "Chastity was essentially a condition of the spirit; to see it in merely physical terms was to reduce the concept to a mere pagan scruple."

Actor-managers, directors, and producers have difficulty transferring Shakespeare's vision of women to the stage. Shaped by the cultural mores of their particular society, they too conform to its biases. With sometimes slight, sometimes massive changes of the text, these men of the theater reshape the woman's role in the image of the age. Promptbooks—records of plays as performed—recapture those performances. They also permit comparison of the acted play with the original. Lines are cut, roles excised, scenes transposed, and stage directions interjected. The cumulative effect of these changes is usually an altered portrait of the woman character Shakespeare had intended.

In the dramatist's age, stage props were minimal: a tree, a table, a chair, and language that cued the audience in to the exact location of the action. In later times, large stage sets were devised. Striving for grandeur, the designers created costly scenery that took time to move. The uninterrupted performance of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage gave way to productions with long intermissions. But the cost of moving scenery also inspired producers to try to consolidate scenes occurring in one place. Antony and Cleopatra provides an excellent example. The scenes shift back and forth in kaleidoscope fashion between Rome and Egypt. Shakespeare's actors probably had no difficulty with such shifts. People listened to the language, looked at the costumes, and imagined. Later audiences, however, demanded verisimilitude. They wanted to see Rome and Egypt. To shift from Egypt to Rome then back to Egypt and again to move for a brief interlude in Rome before returning once more to Egypt required massive shifts of scenery. How much simpler it was to consolidate these many short scenes into a few long ones. But the intricacy of Shakespeare's method for developing a portrait was lost—and with it the subtlety of the statement.

Stage business also affects responses to a character. Ellen Terry, the famous Shakespearean actress, writing early in this century, tells of playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. When Beatrice's cousin swoons at being falsely slandered on her wedding day, Beatrice's suitor, Benedick, quickly goes to the aid of the fainting woman. Mr. Lacy, an old actor with the company, advised Terry to attempt to prevent Benedick from being of assistance:

"When Benedick rushes forward to lift up Hero after she has fainted, you 'shoo' him away. Jealousy, you see. Beatrice is not going to let her man lay a finger on another woman." I said, "Oh, nonsense, Mr. Lacy!" "Well, it's always been done," he retorted, "and it always gets a laugh." I told him then that not only was it impossible for me to do such a thing, but that it was so inconsistent with Beatrice's character that it ought to be impossible for any actress impersonating her to do it!

Terry triumphed on that occasion. But not all actresses are in that commanding a position. And even she, at other times, had to bow to the wishes of Henry Irving, the renowned actor-manager of the end of the nineteenth century, when he insisted that they play for a "gag" rather than be true to Shakespeare's portrait of a woman character. The word of the director usually prevails.

M. C. Bradbrook, the contemporary critic, observes that theatrical practices today—the open stage, the swift shifts of setting, and even the absence of scenery—most nearly approximate those of Shakespeare's age. The potential exists to recapture the quality of his dramas on the stage. But receptivity to Shakespeare's technique does not assure receptivity to his voice—his ideas and attitudes. A recent production of Richard III testified to this. Audiences should comfortably enjoy hissing Richard, one of Shakespeare's unrepentant villains. Instead, a 1979 audience applauded when Richard, through guile, won for his wife a woman whose life that audience knew would be tortured and tragic. The misogynistic tone of the production indicates that technical knowledge has little to do with substance. In this production, Shakespeare's vision was ignored and his insights into women's lives lost. Instead of seeing the powerlessness of Anne, a woman tragically marked by Richard for his bride, the audience saw a cold, aloof c' aracter who seemed to deserve her fate. And the one woman character with courage enough to challenge him openly, Margaret, never appeared. Absent too was the choral lament of the wailing widows—powerless queens. The production failed to show how Shakespeare dramatized the ways in which power impinges upon and shapes a woman's life.

The sweetest power a woman can possess is that over herself. Simone de Beauvoir calls it the sense of one's self as "subject, active, free." Virginia Woolf symbolizes it with the phrase, "five hundred pounds a year and a room of one's own," admonishing women to achieve economic and political independence. But this power is incomplete. As de Beauvoir later notes, a woman loses this freedom when she discovers her own sexuality. She then realizes that to fulfill herself sexually, she must think of herself as "Other," or secondary, and of man as primary, for she lives in a patriarchal society. Marriage dramatizes this power of one human being over another. John Stuart Mill, the Victorian philosopher, notes that the reason the majority of men refuse to relinquish this power is that they are still too much afraid of living with an equal. He reasons for a sexual equality that will free both men and women to enjoy the full value of life.

Shakespeare focuses on this inequity. Men and women confront the same experience from opposite perspectives. By creating confident, attractive, independent women whom we like, he questions the wisdom of a power structure that insists they relinquish personal freedom. Some of his dramas question accepted patterns of behavior. Some stress the value of mutual respect between a man and a woman. Some reveal the confusion in a woman's mind when she seeks to understand the limits of her world. Occasionally, a drama documents the tragedy of a woman who loses her way and her sense of self when she seeks to conform. To hear his voice, however, one must recognize the individuality and three-dimensional quality of his women characters. Like the men, the women too respond to a variety of forces in their environment and are troubled by the world they see. But that world differs from the one perceived by men.

Living at a time when a woman sat on the English throne, an artist of Shakespeare's sensitivity must have been affected by this extraordinary circumstance. Not only was Elizabeth I a remarkable woman and a person of power, but she remained unmarried, thus preserving that power. Her reign began before Shakespeare was born and extended well into his playwrighting years. C. H. Williams, the historian, describes the impact of her presence as monarch for forty-six years:

From the moment of her accession until the time of her death Elizabeth I was a phenomenon—it is not too strong a word—in European history. She was at once a crowned monarch and an unmarried woman. To such an unconventional conjunction some of the stiffest problems of the reign must be attributed. The Queen's methods of dealing with them often bewildered her contemporaries. They have not been any clearer to historians.

The Queen's life dramatized a woman's potential for greatness and the subordination that a patriarchal society mandated for her if she were to marry. With great skill, Elizabeth evaded marriage and avoided that possible loss of power. She refused to share her life or her throne with any man. As she knew by observing her sister monarch, Mary of Scotland, in a patriarchal society, marriage transforms even a queen's power. If Elizabeth is an enigma to historians, perhaps it is because they have difficulty understanding the effect of this inequity on a woman's thinking and acting. Surely the dramatist drew on this example.

Today, Shakespeare's women characters have a relevance and vitality. They offer insights into women's perceptions of themselves in a patriarchal world. They reveal the conflict women know as they move from that early awareness of themselves as "essential" to that later eroding of self-confidence when they discover that they are merely "Other." Shakespeare's plays show the diversity of the mind of a sixteenth-century man whose understanding of the human condition extended beyond his own sex and beyond his own time.

Marianne Novy (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Demythologizing Shakespeare," in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1981, pp. 17-27.

[In the following essay, Novy examines Shakespeare's presentation of a range of female character types from a feminist critical perspective.']

I begin with a question: what is it about the experience of feminist Shakespeare criticism that is different from the experience of feminist criticism of Spenser, Milton, Hemingway, or Virginia Woolf? Suppose that feminist critics of all these writers are interested in the relationships of characters and imagery (and other literary elements) to sex roles and expectations, and refuse to take conventional stereotypes for male and female behavior for granted as normative. Are there any experiences specific to the Shakespeare critic?

In addition to demythologizing masculine and feminine stereotypes, the feminist Shakespeare critic must also deal with two other stereotypes that are polar opposites: Shakespeare as the uncritical adherent of the most conservative views of his time, and Shakespeare as the universal genius who totally transcends all historical and psychological limitations. If feminist Shakespeare criticism is to continue its growth towards more significant insights, I believe we must demythologize these stereotypes as well. In some ways Shakespeare's choice of the drama, where the writer's position is more elusive than in a lyric or epic poem, contributes to the temptation to adhere to one or other of these stereotypes; Shakepeare's ability to give life to widely different characters increases it. Corresponding to the variety of Shakespearean characterization is the variety of the critics who have found their own attitudes in Shakespeare's plays—a discovery sometimes mediated by the image of the transcendent genius, sometimes by the image of the conversative, and sometimes even by a paradoxical blend of the two. On the other hand, feminist critics who see Shakespeare as only the celebrant of conservative orthodoxy about male dominance may still reduce his complexity. We can find a range of attitudes in Shakespeare partly because a range of attitudes really exists in his work. In short, both because of Shakespeare's unique status in our culture and because of the particular complexity of his attitude toward women, the feminist critic of Shakespeare confronts a somewhat different situation than the feminist critic of the other authors I have mentioned.

My own thinking about Shakespeare's women started, I suppose, in adolescence, before I read any feminist literary or social criticism. The first occasions that I remember hearing discussions of Shakespeare's women that did not take conventional stereotypes of femininity for granted were in the early sixties, when I heard (three years apart) an actress and my college Shakespeare teacher, Nancy Pollard Brown, talk about The Taming of the Shrew. In different ways, both were calling attention to important aspects of a play that many critics still take as simply a cautionary tale for the uppity woman. Kate is not a conventional subservient passive woman, and both of them, in their interpretations of the play, made clear that they liked her unconventional spirit, much preferred her to her more traditionally feminine sister Bianca, and felt that the way Shakespeare wrote the play encouraged this preference. Neither one saw Kate as defeated by the ending: the actress emphasized the attraction and love between Kate and Petruchio, and the teacher suggested that Kate is the real victor because she has learned how to control him.

When I wrote my dissertation on Shakespeare's comedies, I wanted to express a positive view of the play as combining an attractive, strong, unconventional woman and a happy ending, but I found my writing becoming rather strained. Love is hard to demonstrate in the farcical text, and if Kate is manipulating Petruchio by belittling herself at the end, I could no longer see such a modus vivendi as happy. Eventually I tried to justify the last scene by describing it as a game. Proud of finally discovering a way to deal with it, I described Kate's satisfaction at being able to use patriarchal language in the last scene in terms that applied to my own satisfaction at being able to write about the play without being rendered incoherent by conflicting emotions. My dissertation chapter was basically an attempt to understand the play in its own terms—not to point out any of the problems with the patriarchal elements in those terms—and in that sense I was using patriarchal language very much as Kate was, and remaining within the mythology of Shakespeare as transcending all limitations.

Whenever I saw or taught the play, however, my discomfort with it came alive again. I would insist that directors removed key scenes, or that actors' gestures distorted them. It was hard to admit that elements in the play lent themselves to interpretations suggesting that Kate was forced into submission. But eventually, having read more in feminism and Elizabethan social history, having lived more, and having been prodded by arguments with colleagues and friends, I wrote a paper that tried to confront this problem. The Shrew uses imagery of play and games, I concluded, partly to make us feel that the institutions of patriarchy can be as freely entered into and as enjoyable as play. It may suggest that they are also as arbitrary as play and that other modes of play, such as Kate's wit combat with Petruchio, are also enjoyable and valuable, but it leaves us with a situation in which Petruchio's power as husband coalesces with his power as leader of games, and the audience may take as primary whichever definition of Kate's relationship to him they prefer—patriarchal or playful. This ambiguity seemed to me to reflect and respond to the tension in Elizabethan attitudes toward marriage between patriarchy and companionship. Whether the situation of Elizabethan women was better or worse than that of their predecessors, historians may argue, but such tension clearly existed in practice and in ideology. For example, the popular preacher Henry Smith fills his Preparative to Marriage, published in 1591, with images suggestive of marriage as equal partnership. Husband and wife are like a pair of oars, a pair of gloves, and even David and Jonathan. Yet he also declares that "the ornament of a woman is silence; and therefore the Law was given to the man rather than to the woman, to shewe that he shoulde be the teacher, and shee the hearer."

After I had finally confronted and named the patriarchal elements in Shrew, however, my tendency was still to see that play as essentially an anomaly. (As I still do, but not as much as when my Shakespeare mythology was stronger.) In most Shakespearean comedies the women control the games, and most of them are easy to see as models of strong, intelligent, resourceful women attractively portrayed. Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola all escape the trials that Kate undergoes, and none of them give long speeches on their duty to their husbands. Surely any playwright who can create four heroines like these is affirming female activity. He even allows them to criticize the limits that their society places on them as women—both by their words and by their competence in the masculine disguise that removes some of these limits.

But the masculine disguise sometimes breaks down. Shakespeare's women simply cannot fight a duel, except with words. Furthermore, even the strongest, most resourceful of the heroines end their comedies with ritual gestures of submission, as Clara Claiborne Park has shown [in American Scholar 42, Spring 1973]. Rosalind says to Orlando and her father, "To you I give myself, for I am yours," and after a few more ritual lines she is uncharacteristically silent until the end, where she comes back to say the epilogue. Benedick says to Beatrice, "Peace! I will stop your mouth," and after his kiss she says nothing more, while he goes on talking. Although the women are active throughout the plays, and the relationships are presented as developing by a mutuality of dialogue by women and men, nevertheless, as Park says, in all of the comedies female assertiveness is tempered, at least verbally. Beatrice explicitly recants her pride when she responds to the story of Benedick's love for her. Portia has a long speech of submission to Bassanio. One can argue that these heroines regain or retain their assertiveness in spite of what they say; but the need for a rhetoric of modesty must still be taken into account. Even male disguise can be taken as a softening of female assertiveness because it permits us to take anything a woman says or does while in disguise as only playing a role. And, as Carolyn Heilbrun has pointed out, we may take the relationships created by these couples as allowing the women more freedom only because their condition is still courtship and not marriage. Thus again Shakespeare gives us an ambiguous picture in which those who emphasize patriarchy and those who emphasize female activity can both find some elements to satisfy them and, if they wish, take those as the essentials. It seems that Shakespeare's ideal woman—the kind he presents in the most depth in the comedies—is active but willing to subordinate herself, like the ideal woman of the protestant preachers discussed by the Hallers. She can harmoniously combine strength and flexibility, individualism and compromise.

Tragic heroines like Juliet, Cordelia, and Desdemona also combine both of these qualities attractively. Desdemona, for example, bravely chooses Othello and defends her choice before Venice, but she uses the argument that she is acting just as her mother did in following her father. She stubbornly tries to carry out her promise to plead Cassio's case, but she lies about her handkerchief. She defends herself stoutly on her deathbed but she has put herself in the vulnerable position in which Othello can kill her. Her combination of qualities makes it possible for critics on both sides to praise her or criticize her, contrasts with the simple images Othello has of her, and contributes to the ultimate disaster.

If the women Shakespeare presents most attractively, different as they are, combine these seemingly opposed qualities of self-assertion and self-subordination, can we make any similar generalization about the women he presents as most destructive? What interests me about these women—Goneril, Regan, Lady Macbeth, Volumnia—is that all of them influence men through a traditional feminine role—as daughter, wife, mother—and can use behavior associated with that role. Goneril and Regan begin by playing the dutiful daughters who flatter their father, while Cordelia stands aloof. Lady Macbeth and Volumnia, in encouraging husband and son to achievement through violence, are also pursuing a traditional feminine pattern of seeking vicarious accomplishment because of social limitations on what women can do themselves. Even the wicked queens in the romances plot against others' children because they want to advance their own. In a sense, these women, like those in the first category, also combine behavior associated with self-subordination and behavior associated with self-assertion—although their ways of combining the behaviors are different. Cleopatra too, whether we put her with the first group of women or the second, combines opposite qualities; she asserts her own identity, but when away from Anthony she thinks of him and not of ruling her country. She is self-centered and loving in lifelike ambiguity. Just as the first group of women can be praised by feminists and traditionalists for different reasons, the second group can be criticized by some for their stereotypically feminine qualities and yet criticized by others for being too masculine.

Does Shakespeare portray in depth any female character who does not demonstrate some mix of self-assertion and self-subordination? I can find none of his most memorable characters at the self-assertive extreme, as the previous discussion should suggest; at the other extreme, such characters as Hero and Ophelia are close to a model of self-subordination, but the structure of the plays presents this as a model to be questioned more than to be imitated. In Much Ado and Hamlet, female submissiveness is linked to pressures from badly flawed fathers, and the contrasts of docile Hero and lively Beatrice, timid Ophelia sane and bold Ophelia mad, suggest that extreme submissiveness is imposed and destructive rather than spontaneous and attractive.

Although the variety and complexity and general fascination of the women Shakespeare creates (as well as the sympathy with which he portrays their subjection to social restrictions), encourage one to say that Shakespeare's drama shows liking and appreciation of women, his attitude is not free from ambiguity. I have been suggesting that those he presents most attractively are strong women who at some point are willing to make at least a gesture of subordinating themselves to the men they love. In some ways this could be considered an androgynous ideal, combining traditional masculine and feminine virtues. From another point of view, it seems that his heroines are typically called upon to subordinate themselves more than his heroes—although most of the heroes of the comedies and romances (Petruchio excepted) speak lines that suggest some gesture of self-subordination toward the women they love; and the fact that the tragic heroes do not subordinate themselves may be part of why they are tragic. The ideal can be considered a concession to patriarchy as much as an incarnation of androgyny; but we can perhaps go one step further and consider the plays as explorations of the limits of the patriarchal world view to which they make concessions.

In this context, it is interesting that Shakespeare so often portrays anti-feminism in his male characters. He pursues the theme of male suspicion of cuckoldry in both tragedy and comedy. Hamlet and Lear, not themselves cuckolds, make long verbal attacks on female lust. While in many plays the hero's accusations of female infidelity are shown to be unfounded, in others there is no clear challenge to the hero's appraisal of women. Berowne's words about Rosaline and Hamlet's about Gertrude provide the main evidence for thinking of these women as excessively lustful, and the men's descriptions are frequently uncritically accepted by audiences. Even in Othello, Winter's Tale, Much Ado about Nothing, and Measure for Measure, male suspicion is portrayed so convincingly that some critics think that the women must have done something to justify it.

Shakespeare clearly found male suspicion of women an interesting theme to explore, and frequently presented men who held these suspicions in ways that earn the sympathy of many in his audience. It is entirely possible to read the jealousy plays and think that the men were wrong only in their judgment of these women, not in their overall attitude. It seems to me that Shakespeare intimately understood his culture's suspicion of women—he could identify with Elizabethan anti-feminism as well as with Elizabethan feminism. My point is not so much that he saw all sides as that his attitude about women was profoundly ambivalent. He used the potential of the genre of drama to personify opposite emotions and play them off against each other. Leslie Fiedler may be right about Shakespeare's portrayal of the woman as stranger in the early histories. But after the first few plays Shakespeare explores the suspicion of women most deeply in contexts where it is male-generated and not justified by female behavior. Furthermore, his men often speak lines that explicitly link their suspicion of women with inability to accept certain aspects of their own personality—in a way that anticipates some modern theories about the origins of sexism and the hazards of trying to live up to the masculine ideal and prove that one is not like a woman.

To the extent that Shakespeare's suspected women are so often vindicated and his comic heroines allowed greater freedom of action than most, critics have sometimes tended to see him, by contrast with many other writers, as a kind of champion of women. For all the limitations on his feminism, he is one of the few widely honored culture heroes who can be claimed as a supporter of women at all. This role has been especially important for female readers and critics, and thus it leads to my speculations on the special psychological demands of feminist Shakespeare criticism.

It is not uncommon to think of an author's fictional characters as his progeny, and I wonder how often, as we notice the concern with father-daughter relationships in Shakespeare's play, we unconsciously think of Shakespeare as the father of his female characters, particularly the younger ones. I wonder how much the restrictive fathers within the plays encourage, in particular, female readers who meet Shakespeare's plays in adolescence to develop a contrasting image of Shakespeare as a more beneficent father who enjoys daughters who are active, daring, bright, witty, and resourceful. Shakespeare would then become the ideal father, in fantasy, to both his female characters and to those among his female readers who identify with those characters.

There are many paths to becoming a literary critic, and I am probably not the only one who was motivated partly by such emotional investments in the works about which I am now writing. Although many feminist critics of Shakespeare may have read him first as adults with a clear sense of his limits and those of his heroines, I met him before I read any book more explicitly feminist than Jane Eyre. For me, and I suspect, for other women of my generation and before, it was Shakespeare's women who embodied alternatives to the stereotyped images of women as ideally submissive or as decorative objects that we as adolescents met in most literature and popular culture.

The feminist critic probably approaches, say, Norman Mailer, with the task of pointing out the antifeminism of a man whose view of women she has never accepted. But the critic of Shakespeare may be examining the writer who helped to form her own ideals for female behavior. To find the limitations of Shakespeare's feminism, she has to find the limitations of the heroines he created, and she may have to discover the way in which her own degree of feminism has been unconsciously limited by her choice of them as models.

Once she finds some of these limits, then what? If she discovers that her interpretation of Shakespeare has included attempts to maintain a view of him as perfect, with the loyalty that a dutiful daughter might have for her father, and if she discovers, further, a connection between these attempts and Shakespeare's insistence that all women eventually make gestures of subordination to men, what stance can she then take as a critic? In order to avoid the confining role of the dutiful daughter who must always praise Shakespeare, must she always take the role of the rebellious daughter and attack him? But is this real freedom, or a kind of "disobedient dependence"? It seems to me a better goal would be to try to step back from the patriarchal framework of thought which presents these alternatives. I do not believe in enforcing a bardolatry that cannot admit Shakepeare's limitations, but I do not want to find myself writing paper after paper to prove that Shakespeare is not perfect. There are many more interesting things for feminist critics to say.

Perhaps it would help to change metaphors and think of Shakespeare not as a father, but as a brother to women. The brother-sister metaphor does not give men primacy, and it emphasizes what people of both sexes have in common. So many women could not have been able to identify with his female characters if he had not, to a large extent, been able to identify with those characters himself, to see that both men and women have within themselves impulses towards both self-assertion and self-subordination. We can learn a lot from Shakespeare about how far a brilliant man can go in trying to understand women, in trying to understand the ambivalence that he and other men have towards women, and in trying to understand the interactions between women's behavior and men's ambivalence. We cannot learn from him the new possibilities for being a woman in the nonsexist society that feminists hope to create, nor should we expect to.

Declan Kiberd (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "New Woman, New Man," in Men and Feminism in Modern Literature, Macmillan, 1985, pp. 1-33.

[In the following excerpt, Kiberd comments on the masculine and feminine qualities portrayed by Shakespeare in characters of both sexes.]

It was only with the advent of Shakespeare that a major writer offered a recognition of the male and female elements in all rich personalities. In Richard II the king unfit to rule his people paradoxically discovers the androgyny of the full self only when it is too late—after he has reverted to the status of ordinary citizen. Confined within his prison cell, the disgraced male rediscovers elements of his absent queen in himself:

I have been studying how I may compare This prison where I live unto the world: And for because the world is populous, And here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it. Yet I'll hammer it out: My brain I'll prove the female to my soul, My soul the father, and these two beget A generation of still-breeding thoughts; And these same thoughts people this little  world, In humours like the people of this world, For no thought is contented.

In Shakespeare's own life, this same shock of recognition is recorded most poignantly by his sonnets:

Two loves I have of comfort and despair, Which like two spirits do suggest me still, The better angel is a man right fair, The worser spirit a woman coloured ill. To win me soon to Hell, my female evil Tempteth my better angel from my side, And would corrupt my saint to be a devil, Wooing his purity with her foul pride.

Shakespeare's love for the handsome Earl of Southampton is platonic and noble, whereas his obsession with the dark lady is lustful and corrupt—and he is happy to indulge in such cosy traditional divisions. However, when at last he encounters his two lovers in one another's arms he knows that he has not just learned something new about the world but that he has also discovered the truth about his inner self. Good and evil are not so easily distinguished, nor male and female either. Leslie Fiedler has argued that this recognition had been implicit in the sonnets from the outset, for the handsome youth had been compared to Helen, as well as to Adonis, as far back as Sonnet 53. Like the Gaelic bards of Ireland and Scotland, Shakespeare transferred the images of female beauty from the mistress of amour courtois to the young nobleman whom he loved and praised. Moreover, the epicene beauty of the youth seems to find an answering echo in the poet's own soul, as if he seeks in him the delicate beauty of a woman and the constancy of a man:

A woman's face with Nature's own hand   painted Hast thou, the master-mistress of my  passion, A woman's gentle heart, but not  acquainted With shifting change, as is false woman's  fashion, An eye more bright than theirs, less false  in rolling, Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth, A man in hue, all hues in his controlling, Which steals men's eyes, and women's souls  amazeth. And for a woman wert thou first created, Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell  a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.  But since she pricked thee out for women's   pleasure Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their   treasure.

In the final distinction between love and its physical embodiment, Fiedler sees Shakespeare arguing for the superior integrity of his own passion, which is innocent of lustful desire. Hence the sharpness of his disappointment to find his noblest love in the arms of his own lusty whore. Disinterested friendship between males proves just as impossible as a pure love for a woman. Even more notable is the way in which a failed friendship between males becomes the basis for a disclosure of the androgyny of the full personality, a point to be developed over three centuries later by Lawrence and Joyce.

Fiedler sees Sonnet 144 as Shakespeare's admission that the seed of corruption was in his friend from the start, in the female element of Southampton's personality, and that 'since there is no pure masculine principle, no male is immune to the evil represented by the female.' But Shakespeare's disclosure that human motives are as mixed as human sexuality does not permit so clearcut an equation of 'evil' and 'female'. His whole art is to question such stereotypes. Those who continue to endorse them in his plays are, like Posthumus in Cymbeline, written off as jealous victims of self-defeating emotionalism, prissy men who actually believe all that they read in books:

            Could I find out The woman's part in me! For there's no  motion That tends to vice in man but I affirm It is the woman's part. Be it lying, note it The woman's; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers; Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers

That is Shakespeare's description of the art of his precursors in Europe, but his own work is a generous celebration of the woman's part in man, and even more notably of the man's part in woman.

In the forest, where all repressed instincts are liberated, Shakespeare's young lovers discern their deepest selves. The pansexuality of the couples in A Midsummer Night's Dream as they fall in and out of love with one another at a bewildering pace, is a sign that they are still experimenting with roles in an adolescent fashion. It is also a mark of the adolescent to reject the absolute differentiation of male and female, for this is a period in life when the identity is as yet unresolved and could go either way. Disguised as Ganymede in the forest of Arden, Rosalind discovers and savours the male element in herself, not merely as a trick, but in order that her lover may learn to see that she is a person before she is a woman. Moreover, in her male disguise, she has the opportunity to see Orlando as he really is in the company of other men, and not simply in his assumed role as a gallant theatrically seeking his lady's love. She has already parodied such swaggering performances in her role as Ganymede, so there is nothing left for Orlando but to offer himself, as he is, to another honest person. By way of contrast, the courtship of Phoebe and Silvius is factitious and jagged, precisely because it is a set of clumsy performances, based, in the words of Juliet Dusinberre, on 'the artificial exaggeration of masculine and feminine difference.' Dusinberre wryly adds that Rosalind, always acting the part of Ganymede, presents her real self, while Phoebe, lamentably herself, is always acting. It is interesting, too, that, like an adolescent girl with a crush on an older friend, Phoebe should isolate those feminine qualities in Ganymede as the traits which make him worthy of her love. In the end, it is left to Rosalind to explain the true nature of Phoebe and Silvius as opposed to their romantic self-deception. This is something which Rosalind has known for herself all along. Her intimate awareness of the opposite sex is matched by a corresponding ability to see that there are two sides to every story. So, even as she submits to her lover Orlando, she does so in the knowledge that 'men are April when they woo, December when they wed' and she knows that such a relationship, if based on true love and bonding, must be able to survive its own self-questioning. All good marriages, no less than all good artistic conventions, must contain the essential criticism of the morality to which they adhere. Hence T. S. Eliot's praise of the play might be applied with equal justice to Rosalind, for he saw in it the intelligent 'recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible.'

Rosalind is simply the most striking example of those resourceful and charming heroines for whom Shakespeare can find no better destiny than the love of a passive and featureless man. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a vibrant girl finally weds herself to a somewhat girlish man, simply because he is honest enough to accept himself for what he is. It is clear that Shakespeare was fascinated by such heroines long before they put on those male garments which are the ultimate symbols of their intellectual daring and emotional versatility. These figures normally appear in the comedies, not because the genre is more trivial than tragedy, but because it is the real medium for the fate of the self in society. In this context, Dusinberre valuably recalls for us George Meredith's observation, in his Essay on Comedy, that the comic poet 'dares to show us men and women coming together 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' [Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, 1975].

In Twelfth Night this androgynous vision is made flesh in the scene where Viola is mistaken for her identical twin brother Sebastian. The amazed Orsino exclaims:

One face, one voice, one habit, and two   persons! A natural perspective, that is and is not.

Viola has disguised herself as Cesario, page to the Orsino whom she loves. She is forced, however, to carry his highflown professions of passion to Olivia, who promptly falls for the attractive page. Only when the missing Sebastian reappears is all set to rights, as Viola wins her man and Olivia falls in love with the new arrival, who tells her:

So comes it, lady, you have been mistook. But nature to her bias drew in that.

Nature, like the bowler who casts his ball with due deference to its bias, has seen to it that Olivia went wrong in order to go right. In her flirtation with Cesario, she was prepared for her true love Sebastian, just as Orsino, having been educated in the nature of real love by Cesario, is thereby prepared to love Viola. Throughout these discussions Viola was hard put to hold back her true identity and deepest feelings, but she did so, and therefore taught Orsino that his fancy for Olivia was scarcely the basis for a lasting commitment. Like Posthumus, Orsino rehashes the bookish protests against the fickleness of woman, but Viola strongly demurs:

My father had a daughter loved a man, As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman, I should your lordship. She never told her  love, But let concealment like a worm i' the 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 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.

In those scenes where Viola woos Olivia on behalf of a man whom she herself adores, we are given the measure of her selfless personality, just as in her response to physical danger we witness the extent of her courage. As C. L. Barber has observed: 'Her constant shifting of tone in response to the situation goes with her manipulation of her role in disguise, so that instead of simply listening to her speak, we watch her conduct her speech, and through it feel her secure sense of proportion and her easy, alert consciousness.' As a disadvantaged woman who must live on her wits, she makes common cause with the clown and becomes a past master of his professional techniques: 'he must observe their mood on whom he jests.' At various stages, she runs the risk of exposure, or even death by duelling: 'Pray God defend me! A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of man.' But, like Rosalind, she holds back the tears and puts on a brave front. Her boldness inspires a love in Olivia, which will find its resting-place in the peerless Sebastian; just as her male apparel simply serves to set off her deep-seated feminine appeal to Orsino. As Cesario, she combines the finest traits of Viola and Sebastian. Walter King has written that 'Viola and Sebastian, both of whom are Cesario, are emblems of a metaphysical possibility—that oneness cannot be so easily distinguished from twoness as human beings like to think; and of a psychological reality—that Olivia and Orsino fell in love with given human potentialities far more than with given human bodies.'

Once again, the strong ties of honour that bind man to man are jeopardised and broken against the backdrop of an androgynous love, as Antonio is left to fend for himself in the belief that Sebastian has betrayed him. Sebastian conducts himself with a feminine delicacy, just as Olivia pursues Cesario with a positively masculine aggression. It is no wonder that the clown's song promises her a true love 'that can sing both high and low'. The fact that Cesario is played by Viola, who was herself played by a boy, added to the jest for Shakespeare's original audience, who would have had far less difficulty believing in Cesario's boyhood than in Viola's girlishness. Dusinberre has argued that the fact that boy actors would always look like boys, however effective their apparel and make-up, forced Shakespeare to create a femininity deeper than mere costume and closer to the real nature of woman. The acquired trappings of femininity are replaced by a flesh-and-blood woman of high spirits; and the all-male cast frees Shakespeare to record the racy dialogue of Rosalind and Celia, the dialogue of women as they are in company together rather than as men would believe them to be. Moreover, by his use of the boy-actors, Shakespeare can give added point to his conviction of how little substance there is in the conventional notions of 'masculine' and 'feminine.' Portia can outwit male lawyers at their own game, while Richard II weeps like a woman. More subtly, a woman like Imogen is praised by different men for widely discrepant qualities, forcing Dusinberre to the conclusion that 'femininity is all things to all men—what a man finds feminine defines not the nature of women, but his own nature.' Polonius, looking at a cloud, says it is very like a whale, because Hamplet has told him so; and the same fanciful subjectivity governs most of Shakespeare's men in their dealings with women. Dusinberre marvels at how Imogen is a housewife to one, a gentle singer to another, and a traitor to a third. As Stanislaus Joyce wryly observed, in the end women are always blamed by men for being precisely what men themselves have made them.

It has always seemed charming and arresting when women become boyish as Ganymede and usurp male functions, but the reverse is not always true, even for the open-hearted Shakespeare. Men who become effeminate are often suspect, unless like the hero in The Two Gentlemen of Verona they impress their lovers by the honesty with which they accept their own passivity and weakness. Perhaps all this is merely to say that the weak one who seeks power is always admirable, while the strong one who yearns for weakness (like Lear) is not. The woman who can ape the man seems to add an exciting dimension to her personality, but the man who grows passive and womanly seems to subtract an important dimension from his. 'No man can ever be worthy of a woman's love,' wrote James Joyce to his wife, and this is certainly true of the effete and overelegant males who win the hands of Rosalind, Viola and Portia. Dusinberre has gone so far as to suggest that the audience is truly disappointed when Viola settles for Orsino, because her other self is not the man she loves but her brother. She sees the real marriage of the play as the magical reunion of the separated twins, by which '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 learned to live.' The liberated woman must become a fetish of the pallid male imagination, Orsino's mistress and (most suspiciously) his fancy's queen, after she has thrown away her male clothes. True androgyny has been achieved at the start of Act 5, only to be lost at the very conclusion.

Even Shakespeare's androgyny must pay its respects to social convention and so the high spirits of his heroines cannot survive their return to female clothing. Coming from a skirted lady, the probing comment might seem shrewish, and self-confident demeanour might seem like aggressiveness. For a brief spell, male disguise freed Rosalind and Viola to be more irreverently sparkish with men than they normally dared, but even then their wit was exercised only within the traditional female domain of love. For all their sharp criticisms of romantic posturing, the ultimate joke on Rosalind and Viola is that they themselves are hopelessly in love with forgettable nonentities. Clara Claiborne Park has shown in an essay [in American Scholar 42, No. 2, 1973] that they are devotees of a tradition which finds its most spectacular exponent in Kate—the male fantasy of the high-spirited woman who will ideally tame herself.

Yet, for all that, these girls are a great deal more vivacious and forceful than the sighing, ultrafeminine heroines of Shakespeare's tragedies. They attain a personal authenticity unknown to the simpering Ophelia or the suffering Cordelia, just as they achieve an inner harmony impossible to the unbalanced and self-divided Hamlet or Lear. In the great tragedies, Shakespeare seems to have shifted the focus of his investigations from the manly woman to the womanly man. That androgyny which was an enrichment to the comic heroine now becomes a dangerous liability for the tragic male. Hamlet is passive to a fault, not just in politics but in love. He is callous in his treatment of Ophelia, in hopes that he will provoke her to treat him more harshly. His demeanour is more that of the sighing lovelorn woman of tradition than of the aggressive all-conquering man. As Ophelia herself reports:

He took me by the wrist and held me hard; Then goes he to the length of all his arm; And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow, He falls to such perusal of my face As he would draw it. Long stayed he so; At last a little shaking of mine arm And thrice his head thus waving up and down He raised a sigh so piteous and profound As it did seem to shatter all his bulk And end his being.…

The female element in Hamlet is attracted by the boy-actors, whose voices are still unbroken. That same element is defeated by an Ophelia who has been trained to suppress all traces of masculinity in herself. Hamlet's problem is that he is too feminine, 'passion's slave,' and so he despises feminity when he finds it exaggerated in Ophelia, whom he would prefer to be more coarse and masculine. At the play, he goads her into a response with his obscene innuendoes, but she merely observes that he is 'keen' in both senses. As a woman she has trained herself to be submissive to elders and gentlemen, so her slender wit can operate only within stark constraints. In performing the role of an obedient and delicate girl, she has colluded with her father in the attempt to deceive Hamlet. So, when he unmasks the deception, he sees in her mincing femininity the key to her falseness:

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God's creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I'll no more on 't; it hath made me mad. I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already, all but one, shall live; the rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.

So the androgynous hero, who says that 'man delights me not, nor woman neither', is forced to turn to the players for entertainment. Yet, at the same time, it is the actress in Ophelia, the performer of femininity, who so enrages Hamlet.

Like Viola, like the clown, the woman of Shakespeare's tragedies must live on her wits, by pleasing elders and superior males. Men have made women their dependants and yet, as Marianne Novy notes, they are the first to complain when this leads to the insincere role-playing of which women like Ophelia are so often accused. The reason male actors played women so successfully in Shakespeare's theatre, according to Novy, is that the very precariousness of their profession enabled them to identify with the traditional dependence of women and 'the need to please.' The Hamlet who loves male actors and hates female acting is himself fatally in thrall to the histrionic temperament. As androgynous as any actor, as soft as any woman, as ambitious as any man, he is an exponent of multiple selfhood at a time when he needs to act with a single will. He, too, would like to cut out the woman's part in himself, but that is not so easily done, as even the manly Laertes discovers after his sister's death by drowning:

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, And therefore I forbid my tears: but yet It is our trick; nature her custom holds, Let shame say what it will: when these are  gone, The woman will be out.

Shakespeare's sharp awareness of the hollowness of traditional notions of 'masculinity' and 'femininity' is the basis of his lifelong attempt to define where true manliness and womanhood reside. The Lady Macbeth who is so ashamed of her woman's part that she all but denies her own sexuality is not a resourceful heroine but a monster. She is ashamed of her androgyny and her craving for complete manliness constitutes a parody of the very notion. Instead of honestly confronting the masculine element within herself, she projects it onto her husband and asks him to live out her own repressed masculinity. She steels herself for a deed of murder, asks the spirits to unsex her, and would resolutely repudiate her own motherhood, if that proved necessary to the success of her enterprise. Her husband, by contrast, she berates for his unmanly irresolution and remorse of conscience. She who would pluck the nipple from a sucking babe fears that he is too natural, 'too full o' the milk of human kindness,' to be a true man, whom she defines as one who acts on his desires. But Macbeth subtly redefines the concept of manhood:

I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more is none.

Dusinberre acutely points out that in denying that masculinity ordains brute power in action, Shakespeare 'undermines the logic which declares women to be weak and ignoble because incapable of fighting.' Moreover, in his portrait of Lady Macbeth, he depicts a woman who cultivates male attributes only at the cost of her female virtues, thereby getting the worst of both worlds, the squeamishness of a woman who fears blood allied to the callous indifference of a man. Through her Shakespeare warns women that liberation will not be found in emulating the brutality and egotism of incomplete men, but rather in a joint attempt by the sexes to discriminate true authority from false power, strength from force, conviction from self-assertion, and sensitivity from squeamishness. Those women who deny the virtues of their own sex are the ultimate slaves to the male principle and so they mistake an intelligent sensitivity in men for a feminine weakness. 'I pray you father, being weak, seem so,' says Regan to Lear, despising in him the female element which she has already suppressed in herself. As Lear's dutiless daughters grow more manly, he himself becomes more womanly, a development common in most of Shakespeare's doting old fathers, who seem as emotional and androgynous as babies. Polonius is the most credible old woman Shakespeare ever created, just as Joan is the most martial man.

Types Of Shakespearean Women Characters

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24763

John W. Draper (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Ladies-in-Waiting," in Neophilologus, Vol. XX, No. 285, July, 1965, pp. 255-61.

[In the following essay, Draper examines the dramatic functions fulfilled by ladies-in-waitinghigh-born women attendants of noblewomenin Shakespeare's plays.]

From the feudal Middle Ages, the Elizabethans inherited a supposedly fixed scheme of society in which each generation of the noble, and even of the bourgeois, classes was trained in a sort of apprenticeschip to occupy its special niche in the immutable order of things. The knight's or nobleman's son became a page usually at seven, and about fourteen, a servingman, generally in the household of his father's suzerain, where he was supposed to be perfected in courtesy and arms: Chaucer's Squire shows how well this sometimes worked; and Havelok the Dane, how badly. The nobleman's daughter, likewise, became in due course a lady-in-waiting to the suzerain's wife until her father, if he could, raised the needful dowery for her marriage. This arrangement had much to say for it if the suzerain did his part and the father had the money or the influence to get knighthood and all its accoutrements for the youth at twenty-one and an appropriate portion for the maid sometime in her teens; but, as this was not always the case, the kings and dukes and counts both in the Middle Ages and later in the Renaissance were surrounded by wellborn servitors who were not supposed to be subject to menial labor, but, like Borachio and Conrade in Much Ado, might find that their lord's service led them into dishonorable doings far worse than Havelok's job as a kitchen-boy and at times as disreputable as Falstaff's. Each queen also had her ladies-in-waiting, who like Elizabeth's Maids of Honor often lived frustrated lives with little hope of marriage; for the Virgin Queen expected her attendants to be as virgin as herself. Elizabeth's Maids of Honor amused her with singing, wit and games, joined in dances, supplied elegant background at great court functions, and might sub rosa play at politics by passing on gossip and confidential oddments, even to foreign ambassadors, for a price. In short their fathers might indeed find it more convenient to keep them within earshot of the Sovereign rather than to dower them.

Though Shakespeare's Company did not achieve the official status of Grooms of the Royal Chamber until after the accession of King James, they enjoyed Elizabeth's high favor, often playing before her; and, as Shakespeare became more knowledgeable of the court, he must have come to understand this old feudal custom that so clearly separated the serving gentry from the servants—an understanding not always shared by his later editors and critics. Indeed, the basis of Twelfth Night is the plot of the well-born Sir Toby, Maria and Fabyan to defeat Malvolio's upstart plan to marry the Countess Olivia. Ladies-in-waiting, generally as minor characters, are common enough in the plays: a few seem to be merely alluded to as when Miranda in The Tempest remembers, "Four or five women once that tended me"; some are merely noted in the stage directions like the "attendants" on Theseus and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream; and a few, like Fabyan in Twelfth Night and probably Reynaldo in Hamlet are actually mis-described in Rowe's Dramatis Personae, which is followed by most editors, as mere "servants". As a matter of fact, eleven ladies-in-waiting have speaking parts in eight of Shakespeare's comedies; two in the chronicle histories; and four, in the tragedies—altogether seventeen in fourteen plays. Great ladies could not get along without gentlefolk to send on errands to other great ladies—and neither could the playwrights. Drama, furthermore, often required a confidante to whom the heroine could tell her inmost thoughts, and so tell the audience also. The great lady, moreover, generally enters "attended", and this gave her the pomp and circumstance that was politically necessary to impress the vulgar, so that even if the lady-in-waiting says little, she adds emphasis to the scene; for she impresses also the vulgar in the audience. Love's Labor's, perhaps Shakespeare's earliest play, had three such ladies; and one appears even in A Comedy of Errors, though it is Roman in both source and setting; and at the end of the playwright's career comes one in Henry VIII. Surely a review should be attempted of these gentlewomen, so serviceable both in Elizabethan life and on the Elizabethan stage.

Critics' neglect of Elizabethan social background has obscured the fact that the comedies of Shakespeare's first and second periods are generally realistic in style character, and theme—sometimes realistic of the court and of courtly conversation, sometimes a contrasting realism of less exalted social levels. Love's Labor's shows the sunny facade of courtly life as seen, with no great depth of understanding, by an outsider lately come up from the provinces. Beside the amorous Don Armado, the plot concerns five pairs of lovers headed by King of Navarre and the Princess of France, each of whom is served by three highborn attendants. The complications of the plot are slight; and the play depends on its style, lyrical persiflage among the gentles and salty parody and satire among the others. The diplomatic mission of the Princess seems to be only an excuse for puns and pasquinades. They hunt, they masquerade; and taking a term from the lordly game of tennis, their meeting is a "set of wit well played"; and the Princess takes the love-making lightly as "pleasant jest and courtesy" (V, ii, 29, 768). Thus in fact did courtiers amuse royalty-on-holiday and since the plot seems to be Shakespeare's own, so are the lords and ladies.

A Comedy of Errors has Luce, "servant" to Adriana and perhaps a gentlewoman; but her part is slight. Two Gentlemen of Verona supplies Lucetta, who waits upon Julia. She seems to be a preliminary study for Nerissa in The Merchant; she favors Proteus, as Nerissa does Bassanio; and her mistress calls her "a good broker" (i.e. galeotto). Nerissa is Portia's confidante, helps her review her lovers, perhaps gives her favorite a hint regarding the caskets, and rejoices at his success. She goes to Venice as Portia's law-clerk, introduces the learned advocate at the trial, and parallels Portia's stratagem in the Ring Episode. Her part in the plot is small; but she is an expert confidante and essential to our understanding of Portia. Jessica is apparently either not aristocratic enough to have a lady-in-waiting, or not important enough in the play to require a confidante, or Shylock was too stingy. In As You Like It, Celia and Rosalind confide in one another, and so need not be encumbered with ladies-in-waiting in the Forest; but Much Ado, somewhat needlessly, has two, both serving Hero. Apparently, Beatrice is too independent to need a "waiting-gentlewoman" (II, i, 23). Margaret bandies wit with Benedick and Beatrice; and Ursula runs errands for her mistress; Margaret provides the complication of the Hero plot; and they both help to bring about a happy ending by convincing Benedick that Beatrice loves him. None of the waiting ladies in these early comedies is of major importance in their respective plays, or greatly influences the plot, or has a sharply complex personality.

Maria, however, in Twelfth Night, is and does, all these things. Though Sir Toby calls her "My niece's chambermaid" (I, iii, 47), she is without question gently born; for, with the approval of all concerned, she finally marries a knight, this same Sir Toby: and all concerned were much concerned that class distinctions be preserved. Like the other realistic characters in the play, she seems to be entirely Shake-speare's own. She has a speaking part in six of the eighteen scenes, and delivers 169 lines and part lines, whereas even Nerissa has only a hundred and ten. She appears in every activity proper to her station, can hold her own in wit with the jester Feste, can ensnare the laggard knight Sir Toby into the toils of marriage, can make Malvolio a figure of fun before the Countess and her household, and so uphold the sacred system of social class. She does not play at politics, but no extramarital politics are in the play. To be sure, she cannot quell Sir Toby's drunken riot; and when the play begins, she does not extract from Feste, where and why he has been absent; but Feste joins with the gentles against Malvolio; and Maria has made herself so essential to her mistress that when Sir Toby at last gives up his match-making between Olivia and Sir Andrew, he decides instead to stake the future of his "cakes and ale" on marrying this indispensible lady-in-waiting; and so she achieves her purpose of becoming the Lady of a knight.

Most of these gentlewomen are Shakespeare's own additions to his sources; and they present a wide variety of dramatic uses: some are mere silent background or run occasional errands; some bandy wit, or take the place of confidante or chorus. In Love's Labor's, each of the three attendants on the Princess repeats her words and actions, and so makes a vaguely limned echo-plot. Lucetta in Two Gentlemen and Nerissa in The Merchant promote the major love affair; Margaret in Much Ado helps both the complication and the resolution of the plot; and Maria in Twelfth Night at once manages her own affaire with Sir Toby and saves Olivia the trouble of rejecting the upstart Malvolio, much to the merriment of her co-conspirators and of the audience. By the time that Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, doubtless in the fall of 1600, he had come to understand the workings of a noble household and the well-born ladies who were the eyes and ears and hands of its noble mistress.

The chronicle history plays, the problem comedies and the romances seem to have little space for ladies-in-waiting. In Act III of Richard II, one of the ladies of the unhappy Queen offers to amuse her with bowls, dancing, tales or singing, but to no purpose; and, in Act V, "Ladies" accompany her, but have no speaking part. In Henry V, (III, iv), Alice, who attends the royalty of France, has been to England, and so gives her mistress a lesson of sorts in English; and later (V, ii), "Alice and other Ladies" are present, but do not speak. In Henry VIII ( I , iv), Anne Bullen, then a "Maid of Honor" to Queen Katharine, jokes with Lord Sands at Wolsey's "banquet"; and the King enters and greets her, as custom permitted, with a kiss. Later (II, iii) she declares that she cares nothing for nobility, but she accepts the marquisate of Pembroke with alacrity. When Queen Katharine and her women are "at work" (III, i), the Queen asks one to take her lute and sing; and, as Katharine falls out of favor, her "woman" Patience notes her sickly looks and cries. "Heaven comfort her!" The problem plays and the romances have little more to offer. In All's Well, Helena, described by Rowe as "a gentlewoman protected by the Countess", is hardly a gentlewoman since her father seems to have been a mere physician; and she is not shown acting or speaking as a lady-in-waiting. In A Winter's Tale, Hermoine's attendants bandy broad jests with Mamilius (II, i); and one of them, Emilia, tells Paulina of Perdita's birth. In Cymbeline, the Queen has her "Ladies" (I, v); and Helen attend on Imogen (II, iii); and Cloten bribes "a Lady" with "gold" (II, iii); but all of these examples are rather incidental to the plays where they occur.

The tragedies offer some oddments and two fuller treatments of the type. The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is clearly not a lady but a nurse and so may be ruled out. In Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia have no high-born attendants; and this is strange, for Shakespeare takes the setting of the play out of the Dark Ages of history and puts it in the contemporary Renaissance. In Macbeth, the gentlewoman that watches the Queen in the Sleepwalking Scene appears but once, talks with the physician, but does nothing. In Coriolanus, Virgilia has a "gentlewoman" who announces Valeria's visit and then ushers her in (I, iii), and later (V, iii) is probably among the attendants of her mistress, but has no speaking part.

Othello, however, has the only lady-in-waiting who can compare in importance with Maria. Though in the first act, Emilia is not on the stage, the Moor brings her to the attention of the spectators by suggesting that she attend Desdemona on the trip to Cyprus; and, though as the wife of an "ancient", she hardly has gentle status, she appears throughout the later acts as Desdemona's lady-in-waiting. Like Nerissa and Maria, she is Shakespeare's own addition to the old story, and therefore especially important, for such additions must have had special reason. She appears in seven of the fifteen scenes, and speaks 245 lines and part-lines— more than twice the number spoken by Nerissa. Early in Act II, while Desdemona awaits Othello's arrival, Emilia helps to introduce the conversazione on womanhood that helps while away the time for her mistress. After Cassio's dismissal from his lieutenancy, she encourages him (according to army custom) to use Desdemona for regaining the general's favor, and so lays the foundation for Othello's jealousy. In the handkerchief episode, furthermore, she plays a major part, and so, unwittingly, enrages him still more. When Othello demands the "napkin" of his wife, Emilia says. "Is not this man jealous?" (III, iv, 100), but Desdemona, secure in her innocence, refuses to believe it. Later, the Moor vainly questions her about his wife's doings, and has her watch the door while he upbraids Desdemona, and when he leaves insultingly offers her a tip. In the talk that follows between the two women Emilia reminds us of Desdemona's happy past in Venice:

Hath she forsook so many noble matches. Her father and her country and her friends, To be call'd whore? would it not make one  weep?

She blames the present pass on "Some busy and insinuating rogue", such as had made Iago suspect her "with the Moor." She prepares her lady's bed, and delivers a long diatribe against jealousy. Early in Act V, she is present just after Roderigo is killed, and virtuously calls Cassio's Bianca "strumpet"; and Bianca replies that gossip says that Emilia is no better. In the final scene, just after Othello has killed Desdemona, she insists on entering to tell him that Cassio is wounded and Roderigo dead. Othello admits that he has smothered his wife, and threatens Emilia when she defends Desdemona's honor. Emilia calls for help; others come in; and Emilia supplies the key that reveals Iago's plots. Thus she not only helps to cause the. initial tragic situation but also brings about the solution and catastrophe, her mistress' murder and the Moor's suicide. As a serving lady, she is less characteristic than Nerissa but has greater influence on the plot. Indeed, she is, though inadvently, more important to Iago's plots than is Iago himself: in this respect her only rival is Maria.

Both of these two have individualized personalities beyond the mere fact of their social station; and both have parallel, yet different parts in the play's action. Maria is a not-too-well-born gentlewoman come down to the earth-earthy with her feet firm on the ground and her purpose concentrated on the pursuit of a proper—or if need be, not quite proper—husband; Emilia is the substantial product of a lower social class but the admirer of a gentility that she willingly accepts when Iago's good fortune brings it. Maria defends her social place and pursues her hope (Sir Toby) with schrewd psychological warfare, her one recourse in the absence of an energetic father with the required dowery; Emilia, after having been the somewhat stupid, and unintentional cause of her noble mistress' ruin, risks even her life to defend that mistress despite threats of master and of husband. Maria and her not-too-enamored lover largely govern the plot of Twelfth Night; Emilia and her husband are the only begetters of the course and the catastrophe of Othello: both are those gods from the machine, those upper servitors who, with or without intention, make or unmake the lives of the exalted. Maria accomplishes her aim; and Sir Toby changes from making a joke with Sir Andrew of her amatory intentions (I, iii, 43-75) to taking the matrimonial yoke for the practical reasons of "cakes and ale." Emilia is less shrewd but more unselfish and more loyal to her mistress, but she sees her lady's predicament too late, and then bewails rather than remedies it; she can understand the cruder mind of Iago but hardly the noble passion of the princely Moor; and she fails in saving her lady's marriage, and so brings on tragedy.

Plutarch's Life of Antony mentions Cleopatra's two ladies-in-waiting, Charmian and Iras, only as dying with their mistress; but in Shakespeare's play, they are her constant attendants, even when they have no speaking part. Charmian is the more important, and has 109 lines and part-lines; Iras has thirty. Like the "Ladies" of the Princess in Love's Labors, they lend awe and majesty to Cleopatra's royal station; they run her errands; and Charmian advises her in her conduct of the love affair with Antony and her final retreat to the monument. At the bitter news of his marriage to Octavia, Charmian tries to cheer her with remembrance of the counterfeit fishing party when the Queen's diver put a salted fish on his hook (II, v, 15-18). Charmian also attends to the matter of the asp by which the Queen kills herself; and both of them, as Plutarch had told, commit suicide with their mistress. In their first scene with the Soothsayer, Charmian persuades him to reveal her future, and his ambiguous oracle suggests the tragic catastrophe. Like Shakespeare's other ladies in-waiting, these two show loyalty to their mistress; but they have hardly any other trait of character: one can only guess what they thought of Antony and Caesar and the other barbarian Romans who threatened the ancient civilization of the Nile; nor do they comment on the politics in the play that derives from Plutarch. Cleopatra as a royal personage seems to absorb their entire interest; for Shakespeare in these later tragedies seems to be using a more Classical technique of greater concentration on the major figures. Here, as in Coriolanus, he is also attempting a more accurate local color; and, with Egyptian characters, he doubtless felt himself even less sure than with Romans such as Enobarbus, and so made Charmian and Iras merely handmaids of the Queen without significant traits or actions of their own until, as related in Plutarch, they assist at her suicide.

Some of Shakespeare's ladies-in-waiting are included merely in the anonymous "attendants" who have no speaking part and supply a sort of scenery, and also attest to the spectators the importance of their ladies. Some, slightly more notable, run errands, deliver messages, and take the place of a modern telephone. Some, like Nerissa, are also confidantes, so that the audience may learn the thoughts and motives of their mistresses. A very few like Maria in Twelfth Night and Emilia in Othello, set off their ladies' characters by contrast, and even play a chief role in the plot. Although waiting ladies are doubtless to be found in every advanced civilization, they are particularly characteristic of the Renaissance, and in various matters, large or small, they help to unfold the story, and so serve their mistresses, and also William Shakespeare.

D. W. Harding (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Women's Fantasy of Manhood: A Shakespearean Theme," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 3, Summer, 1969, pp. 245-53.

[In the following essay, Harding discusses Shakespeare 's presentation of females who usurp traditionally male roles.]

One scene in Macbeth has always troubled me—that between Lady Macduff and her son before the murderers arrive. The critics, too, have often felt it needed some apologia. For me its painful quality lies in the conflict between the trustful love and respect she has for her husband and her sense now that he has abandoned and failed her. For all the mockery and subtle overtones of the exchanges with her son, which give a curiously "modern" tone to the scene, it remains a cruel way to go to a terrified death. Our emotional state would have been altogether more comfortable if we had merely been told of the slaughter, as Macduff himself is told, and seen his grief. The grief implies the genuine devotion of a man whose courage we cannot doubt—but behind our view of it lurks the knowledge that his wife died with a bewildered sense of betrayal. If she had been shown nobly urging her husband to leave and then meeting her fate with dignity—as she might have been by a lesser author—that would have been just the usual tragic stuff to which every playgoer is inured. But her reproaches hurt.

I. A. Richards once suggested that in a great writer's work the point which at first seems incomprehensible or unacceptable may be crucial in an understanding of the whole work, and possibly the scene in Macduff's castle is of this kind.

At all events Macduff's reception of the news permits the reiteration of one of the great themes of the play.

Malcolm urges him, "Dispute it like a man", and he replies

I shall do so; But I must also feel it as   a man …

lines that echo Macbeth's earlier reply to his wife's taunts,

I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more, is none.

The nature of manliness is a question running all through the play, manliness as lived by the man and manliness seen in the distorting fantasy of the woman.

The fullest exploration of the theme occurs in the relations of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In one sense the whole action of the play is the outcome of her insistence on his playing to the full the role of a man as she imagines it to be. When she has won him over to his own worst inclinations he exclaims:

Bring forth men-children only! For thy undaunted metal should compose Nothing but males …

and in his subsequent actions he is in fact the man-child of her dreams. How completely the manliness belongs to her dreams, how bogus her undaunted mettle, is beautifully stated in the next scene but one while she waits for him to commit the murder. She enters in her swashbuckling spirit:

That which hath made them drunk hath made  me bold: What hath quench'd them hath given me  fire.

And then in two words her boldness is exposed:

         Hark!—Peace! It was the owl that shrieked.…

"Hark!" is the terrified exclamation of a woman at the unexpected noise; "Peace!" her reassurance to herself. The irony is sometimes missed in production. But her startled terror at that point is essential for bringing out the falsity of her calm when, to Macbeth's shaken question, "Didst thou not hear a noise?", she replies, "I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry." The juxtapositions with their concise irony give a new sense to what she has earlier called "the valour of my tongue".

Lady Macbeth's femininity is an essential feature of the theme, and any first impression that she has cast it off cannot survive more than a casual reading of the play. It was Coleridge who pointed out the femininity implied by the fact that when she upbraids Macbeth with shrinking from what he has sworn to do she chooses the murder of her suckling babe as the most dreadful thing she can contemplate. Her invocation to the murth'ring ministers, itself highly emotional and exaggerated in tone, underlines her own awareness that she needs to be unsexed in order to carry out what she contemplates. And the compunctious visitings of Nature which she wants to keep at bay are shown in action almost at once when she claims that she would have stabbed Duncan herself

    Had he not resembled My father as he slept.

At the end, the Sleep-walking Scene openly reiterates her femininity: "all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand". The compulsively fastidious handwashing is the crowning exposure of the bogusness in that unconcern about blood which in the murder scene she takes to be true masculinity. Then it is the real man who asks with horror,

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this   blood Clean from my hand?

and the woman pretending to be masculine who replies, "A little water clears us of this deed." For her, a man is without fear or compunction. Macbeth, the actual man rather than her fantasy, is full of both.

In his handling of Macbeth in this respect Shakespeare departs revealingly from Holinshed. In Holinshed's account, Duncan's lenient, overmerciful nature has been responsible for the revolt of Makdowald which Makbeth is sent to quell. Makdowald is said to have called the king "a faint-heart milkesop", and in the council which discusses the revolt Makbeth is described as "speaking much against the kings softnes, and overmuch slacknesse in punishing offendors." Makbeth, according to Holinshed, was regarded unfavorably for his cruelty, which was considered as much a drawback as Duncan's undue clemency. This trait of Makbeth, stressed in Holinshed, is entirely omitted by Shakespeare; his Macbeth is valiant and deadly in battle, but without any personal cruelty at the opening of the play. On the contrary we have Lady Macbeth saying:

            Yet do I fear thy nature: It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness, To catch the nearest way.

Moreover Macbeth's attitude to Duncan's gentler qualities is totally changed by Shakespeare, who instead of making them a matter for contempt or disapproval has Macbeth reflect:

        Besides, this Duncan Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been So clear in his great office, that his virtues Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued.…

There is no scorn for the milksop in this, but a recognition of one valid kind of manhood and kingship. It is not greatly stressed, but its sharp departure from Holinshed makes it significant for our understanding of Shakespeare's aim.

This is one side of manhood that Lady Macbeth over-looks. But there is another. Manhood for her consists in ambition, resolute action, physical courage, and aggression in seeking one's own ends and over-coming opposition. It still remains true in our culture that men are allowed or encouraged to be more openly aggressive than women and seem to have more scope for direct action in their own interests. To the wife, who has largely to secure her worldly ends indirectly through her husband's efforts, his opportunities seem vastly greater than hers. She is prone to overlook the fact that his freedom to act aggressively and boldly is limited by being exercised in a masculine world where the other men too are free to act boldly and aggressively. You can be as ruthless as you like, but somebody may be ruthless back. Macbeth perfectly understands this. It provides his prudential scruples:

             But in these cases, We still have judgment here; that we but  teach Bloody instructions, which, being taught,  return To plague th' inventor.…

Lady Macbeth, tipping the scales in her husband's moral and prudential conflict, commits him to the role not of manhood but of what she imagines manhood should be. It is not quite that the woman uses the man as catspaw—a common case—but that she gains control through him of the sort of person she believes she could be if only she were a man. This naturally she considers to be in his own interests too. The development of the play shows Macbeth working through the dreadful course of living out in the real world her fantasy of manhood.

She has, it goes without saying, only reinforced one side of his own nature—his underthought, welcomed and encouraged by nature's underworld of evil in the form of the Weird Sisters. And he never blames her. In fact the impressiveness of Macbeth, the quality that makes him interesting enough for a tragedy rather than a newspaper account of politics in an emergent nation, is the way he accepts the desperate consequences of the bargain his better and wiser self would not have made. From the moment the murder is committed he wishes the bargain unmade: "Wake Duncan with thy knocking: I would thou couldst!" He has to go on; and at first, even up to the Banquet Scene, Lady Macbeth is able to bear her part and support him in the role she has cast him for; but from then on she is shown as withdrawing from the reality of the course of action with which she has outraged her femininity. In the real masculine world she quickly loses her dominating role. Although, just before the Banquet Scene, she still thinks of murder as the means of securing themselves against Banquo, Macbeth, who has on his own initiative already arranged the murder, now shields her, with an almost patronizing term of endearment, from too much foreknowledge:

Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, Till thou applaud the deed.

The term and the attitude express a complete reversal of their relation to each other when Duncan's murder was in project. Her excursion into exaggerated manhood is collapsing under its real consequences. "The affliction of these terrible dreams, That shake us nightly" drives Macbeth to further real efforts but reduces her to illness, self-betrayal through the dissociated horror expressed in the Sleep-walking Scene, and suicide. She withdraws into breakdown.

Macbeth in contrast is almost unflinching as the bargain works itself out. He does at the very end have a moment of flinching, when Macduff announces that he was not of woman born. Stage production commonly spoils the ensuing lines by letting Macbeth rant them aloud at Macduff, instead of treating them as the aside they were presumably meant to be:

Accursed be that tongue that tells me so, For it hath cow'd my better part of man And be these juggling fiends no more  believ'd, That palter with us in a double sense; That keep the word of promise to our  ear, And break it to our hope.

Then he turns back to Macduff and says openly, "I'll not fight with thee." But Macduff's taunts sting him into resuming the version of manliness, partly real and partly caricature, to which he has been committed, and he fights to the death.

His conflict over the role he has committed himself to is indicated at several points. As the end draws near he shrinks from what he supposes to be his certain slaughter of Macduff:

      my soul is too much charg'd With blood of thine already.

And earlier there is none of the gusto of cruelty or the unconcern of tyranny in his killings; the acts are ruthless but the state of mind is shown to be merely desperate. Before Banquo's murder he quotes the proverb, "Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill", and while he contemplates doing away with Macduff he is fully explicit:

                          I am in blood Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

This is when he decides to go to the Weird Sisters again. And again, from the spirits raised by women, he gets advice urging him towards a caricature of fearless manhood:

Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn The power of man.…


Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers  are.…

With this he is off again on his course of exaggerated masculinity, the firstlings of his heart and of his hand being the slaughter of Macduff's family.

We are back at the scene for which several critics have felt it necessary to offer justification. It could easily have been omitted without any consequential alterations; much more conveniently than the supposititious scenes Dover Wilson believes to have been cut. It must have some appreciable importance. Bradley's suggestion that the quality of its pathos is sufficient justification seems inadequate, though the scene does extend what would otherwise be the rather narrow emotional spectrum of the play. L. C. Knights links it more effectively with the main theme by pointing to its display of the disorder and uncertainty in the world that result from the evil Macbeth has unleashed. The sense of bewilderment and confused judgment reinforces the picture of a nation plunged into disorder. But apart from extending that broad theme into the domestic sphere, the scene is closely relevant to the play's pre-occupation with manliness and the nature of the masculine and feminine roles. It is after all one of the play's few glimpses through a woman's eyes of a notably masculine world. Its essentially painful quality lies in Lady Macduff's disillusioned sense that a real husband would have stood by her even against hopeless odds, like the wren against the owl. I think we have here again, but in a poignant form contrasting with Lady Macbeth's, the woman's feeling that although she is helpless in the world of action a man should be able to cope with anything. Macduff himself, destined in the play to be the instrument of Macbeth's downfall, and living in the actual world where single-handed manliness has negligible power, has turned to political and military alliance with other men as the only means of restoring his country and re-establishing a right order. His dilemma consisted in the choice between living out his wife's fantasy of the dauntless protector, with an impotent gesture of manliness, and playing an effective part in the real world of men. His remorse at having to fail his wife comes out in his sense of unworthiness:

              Sinful Macduff! They were all struck for thee. Naught that I  am, Not for their own demerits, but for mine, Fell slaughter on their souls.…

He is in this way himself the victim of the socially exaggerated contrast between the sexes, unable to live up to a conception of manhood that the woman has been encouraged to harbor. All he can do is to convert his grief and self-reproach to a resolve for just revenge, and Malcolm comments approvingly, "This tune goes manly." Malcolm's is the orthodox view of manliness, the nature of which is so important a concern of the play that it gives point to what has struck some critics as a digressive passage. "We are men, my liege", says the First Murderer, and Macbeth replies

Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men; As hounds, and greyhounds, mongrels,   spaniels, curs, Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are   clept All by the name of dogs …

and he goes on to develop the theme. One function of the passage is to convey his own divided view of men, seeing them partly with disgust as the instruments he uses but also with respect for the variety of gifts which bounteous Nature has provided. But besides this, the speech, midway in the play, directs attention to the range of manliness exhibited, from the two Murderers to Duncan and from Macbeth to Macduff. It is Macduff, not born of woman, symbolically less dependent on her, who carries the most complex experience of manliness—courageous but powerless unless he can gain Malcolm's support, devoted to his wife but also to his country, resolute in revenge but only after he has let himself experience his grief. When he exclaims:

O! I could play the woman with my   eyes, And braggart with my tongue …

he is rejecting both alternatives and waiting to achieve a complex and unified masculine attitude which is neither. Macbeth's experience, in contrast, works out the confusion and disintegration that result from the woman's having taken charge of the man's masculinity and committed him to a grossly over-simplified version of manliness—bloody, bold, and resolute.

It is not likely that a theme of such significance and so many facets should have been dealt with once and for all in one of the plays. Its treatment in Macbeth is in fact a reappearance, for it was sketched in King Lear in the relation of Goneril and her husband. Compared with Lady Macbeth, Goneril is a simple conception, the woman who usurps the conventionally aggressive male role—ambitious, unscrupulous, cruel, and herself making the sexual advances. She is a less interesting conception than Lady Macbeth precisely because she makes a success of the male role; she is a convincing imitation of an unscrupulous man, eventually overthrown it is true, as many villains are, but not divided and defeated by her femininity. In Macbeth it is Lady Macbeth herself who draws attention to her maternal role, both when she speaks of having given suck and in her invocation to the spirits of evil to take her milk for gall. In King Lear on the contrary it is left to Lear in his curse on Goneril, invoking barrenness, to remind us of her role as a woman, and she herself listens unmoved to what he meant as the most fearful of curses. Though she makes an effort to spur her husband into active ambition, it is more evidently with the object of making him an instrument for her own ends and not, as with Lady Macbeth, to make him fulfil himself. She is much more simply a usurper of the male role:

I must change arms at home, and give the   distaff Into my husband's hands.

Even if scholarship had not suggested the earlier date of King Lear it would have been difficult to believe that this rather sketchy treatment of the usurping woman could have come later than its complex handling in Lady Macbeth.

When he came to Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare was still interested to explore the theme of the woman's usurpation of the man's role, though in the setting of a very different personal relation and, it goes without saying, with far greater subtlety than Goneril demanded of him. He came to Cleopatra after Macbeth, in which he had realized that the woman's unreal fantasy of manhood and her own continuing femininity are crucial elements in such situations.

It would be quite untrue to say that Antony's downfall comes about because he wastes his time with a woman and sacrifices political and military success for love.

This is the vulgar misreading and simplification that Dryden adopted in titling his version of the story All for Love. In Shakespeare's play the crucial disaster is made to occur only because Cleopatra interferes in the military campaign. Enobarbus protests:

              'tis said in Rome That Photinus, an eunuch, and your maids Manage this war.

She encourages Antony, against better advice, to fight by sea, and most fatally of all she insists on being there herself. Again to Enobarbus she states the essence of it:

             A charge we bear i' the war, And, as the president of my kingdom, will Appear there for a man.

Canidius in the same scene sums it up in saying,

           …so our leader's led, And we are women's men.

Cleopatra, supremely if not exaggeratedly feminine in her personal life, is also a ruler having powers and responsibilities like those of the men rulers with whom she shares the world. Antony carries the main responsibility for the war but he lacks full power; Cleopatra can insist upon entering the man's world, though she can no more stand the stress of its realities than Lady Macbeth could use the dagger herself.

The importance in this play of the theme of the woman's usurpation of the man's role has been stressed by William Rosen in calling attention to the symbolism of the sword:

I laugh'd him out of patience; and that night I laugh'd him into patience; and next morn Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed; Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst I wore his sword Philippan.

"Cleopatra's exchange of garments with Antony and her appropriation of his sword, symbol of manliness and soldierly virtue, signify more than playful hilarity; they point to her dominance over him, and this is made explicit on many occasions." Although this speech is undoubtedly significant in itself, it is set within a frame-work of action that makes the point even more decisively. Cleopatra's stubborn insistence on being present in the naval battle and her fatal flight from it are crucial events in the action of the play, and the action of the play—perhaps especially in this period of Shakespeare's work—is an integral part of the way he states his theme.

An important aspect of the general theme, once we have gone beyond the first sketch of it in Goneril, is the woman's good intentions towards the man she ruins. She wants him to be a more glorious version of what he himself wants to be. It is Macbeth's own ambitions that Lady Macbeth urges him to fulfil, and it is Antony's own contemptuous sense of superiority and his conviction that he can triumph in the Roman world as well as revelling in Egypt which Cleopatra encourages. In both cases the man has another side of himself that protests and whispers good sense; his experience of the man's role in reality is pitted against the glamorous fantasy which the woman tries to see realized in the man she controls.

The ultimate view of the man as victim of the woman's ideal of manhood is given in Coriolanus. Wives and mistresses may have great influence, but it is nothing like the shaping control that the dominating mother can have over the son she has brought up; and Volumnia provides Shakespeare's most blood-chilling study of the destructive consequences of a woman's living out at someone else's expense her fantasy of what manhood should be. Once again, as in Macbeth, a man has to abide in the real world of men the bargain made for him by a woman who has played with the idea of manhood but retreats from its final implications.

Volumnia has been able largely to shape Coriolanus to the pattern of her fantasy. Besides being bloody, bold, and resolute, the true man for her is arrogantly imperious. She has developed this trait in her son. She imagines his ranting contemptuously at the plebeians who shrink in battle, and to show how thoroughly she has molded him we are given Coriolanus himself ranting in almost the same words.

For such a mother the ideal son is motivated largely by the wish to live up to her expectations. The First Citizen sets the keynote in the first scene of the play: "Though soft-conscienced men can be content to say it was for his country, he did it to please his mother, and to be partly proud." Naturally, any tender attachment to another woman must be given a very low place in his values, and Volumnia's upbraiding of the affectionate Virgilia, unbewitched by fighting, for bothering about his wounds and possible death splendidly registers the intoxication of the woman with the glory reflected on her from the man she has created. She boasts,

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 in first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.

Virgilia. But had he died in the business, madam; how then?

Volumnia. Then his good report should have been my son; I therein would have found issue. Hear me profess sincerely. Had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike and none less dear than thine and my good Marcius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.

The value—for the structure of dramatic action—of this scene in which Virgilia's ordinary affection is disparaged lies in its contrast with the final meeting of the son and the mother, where Volumnia eagerly exploits his love for his wife and child in her efforts to undo what she has helped to bring about by the arrogance she has nurtured in him. Her unmaking of what she has made is the effective end of the play, with the actual slaughter of the doomed man only a tailpiece.

The scene in which Coriolanus is broken by his mother is not, however, the last comment on Volumnia. True, she speaks no more, but this is conspicuously a point where Shakespeare makes his statement rather in theatrical action than words. What he does is to insert a brief scene, V.v, in which Volumnia passes processionally across the stage with the women she had included in her deputation escorted by two Senators and cheered by the whole populace: "Behold our patroness, the life of Rome!" And although the Senator who speaks does include a brief reference to Coriolanus the spotlight is all for Volumnia:

Unshout the noise that banished Marcius; Repeal him with the welcome of his   mother; Cry 'Welcome, ladies, welcome!'

And the mob obediently repeats the cry. The proud Roman matron passes on triumphantly while the son, having performed his last act to the greater glory of his mother, goes to the death which she herself has made inevitable. Where Lady Macbeth collapses into horror at what she has precipitated, Volumnia is armored in iron self-righteousness, and the play is the most desolate of these presentations of the woman who decides what manhood should be and lives it out at the expense of her proxy. As Coriolanus gives way fatally to his mother the sun comes out, and what she takes to be a heavenly comment on her triumph for Rome Coriolanus interprets with a bitter difference:

           O mother, mother! What have you done? Behold, the heavens do  ope, The gods look down, and this unnatural scene They laugh at.

In handling this theme in its most fundamental form, that of the relation between the mother and the man-child she has created (for Coriolanus might as well have had no father for all the play tells us), Shakespeare evidently finished with it. He passed on to the last plays; and there, especially in the repeated handling of a father-daughter relation, he offers a very different view of the possible sharing of human experience between the sexes.

Clara Claiborne Park (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular," in American Scholar, Vol. 42, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 262-78.

[In the following essay, Park analyzes characteristics of Shakespeare's lively, intelligent, and self-confident young women characters, focusing on Beatrice, from Much Ado about Nothing, Portia, from The Merchant of Venice; and Rosalind, from As You Like It.]

In the major literature there are no useful Bildungs-romans for girls. A boy's development into manhood through testing experience is one of the oldest themes in literature; Homer's Telemachus presents the first model of how to grow into the kind of man one's society approves and has need of. From the Odyssey to "The Bear," literature affords a long procession of raw youths; almost all manage to become men. Girls, however, had to wait out a twenty-five-hundred-year literary history before anyone made fiction of their growth. When Evelina and Emma did at length appear on the scene, a capable girl—let us imagine, for example, the young Florence Nightingale—might have been pardoned for feeling that whatever else they did, these characters scarcely enlarged her sense of possibility. The scope of their activities was even more restricted than that of the ladies who created them—who did, at least, write books. Only the dearth of images of the possibilities open to a developing girl can explain the immense influence of a novel that most males never read—Louisa May Alcott's little Women.

Yet young females, like young males, create themselves according to the models their society provides for them; and like young males, those who read look in literature for images of what they could be and what they ought to be. Stories of female trial and initiation are by their nature difficult for male writers to provide, and we should remember that from Sappho—floruit 600 B.C.—to Jane Austen, there were hardly any writers who were not male. Male writers, of course, can and do provide models for females, but not very many. A cursory check of the dramatis personae of any Elizabethan play will demonstrate what is still true of modern fictions: female characters are greatly outnumbered. (A London director estimated last year that there are five times as many parts for actors as for actresses.) Still, quantity is not everything. Literate girls could find without difficulty images which, although they lacked the dimension of development, still provided a warm variety of ways of being female. They could—like everybody else—read Shakespeare.

As classics go, Shakespeare isn't bad reading for a girl. The conventions of tragedy and romance offer horizons considerably wider than those available in Fanny Burney and Jane Austen; the courts of Europe and the seacoasts of Bohemia provide backgrounds in which a girl can imagine herself doing far more interesting things than she could at home. It is true that, unlike those paradoxical dramatists of male-chauvinist Athens, Shakespeare never allows a woman a play of her own. He provides neither Antigones nor Medeas; no feminine name appears in his titles except as the second member of a male-female pair. Yet a girl can read Shakespeare without calling upon the defenses necessary for Milton or Hemingway, or Lawrence or Mailer—writers she must read calloused for survival, a black in Mr. Charlie's land. Shakespeare liked women and respected them; not everybody does. We do not find him, like Milton, luxuriating in the amoebic submissiveness of an Eve in Paradise, and we can surmise that he would have found little interest in the dim Marias and complaisant Catherines whom Hemingway found nonthreatening. He is not afraid of the kind of assertiveness and insistence on her own judgment that Eve displays when she gets busy bringing death into the world and all our woe; the evidence of the plays is that he positively enjoyed it.

From Mrs. Jameson on, critics, male and female, have praised Shakespeare's women. "The dignity of Portia, the energy of Beatrice, the radiant high spirits of Rosalind, the sweetness of Viola"—William Allan Neilson's encomia can stand for thousands of others. Juliet, Cordelia, Rosalind, Beatrice; Cleopatra, Herminone, Emilia, Paulina—Shakespeare's girls and mature women are individualized, realized, fully enjoyed as human beings. His respect for women is evident in all the plays, but it is in the middle comedies that the most dazzling image recurs. It is an image significant for what it can tell us about the extent—and the limits—of acceptable feminine activity in the Shakespearean world, a world which in this as in other things remains, over time and change, disconcertingly like our own.

Limits? What limits? It would seem that no girl need feel herself diminished when she reads As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice or Much Ado. Rather, she is given a glittering sense of possibility. Who would not, if she could, be beautiful, energetic, active, verbally brilliant and still sought after by desirable men, like these Shakespearean heroines? Hebraic and Pauline tradition might subordinate the female; secular codes might make her, like Juliet and Portia, her father's to dispose of as he wished, to a man who, once her husband, could exercise over her the same absolute dominion. Yet Juliet and Portia, like Rosalind and the ladies of Love's Labour's Lost, clearly think of themselves as autonomous people. Submissive mildness is not lacking in Shakespeare; Bianca and Hero and Mariana would content a Milton and reassure even a Mailer. But such characters are never central to the action—logically enough, because they do not act. Apparent exceptions are seen to prove the rule: beneath Cordelia's gentleness is a strain of iron stubbornness that Milton would probably have welcomed much as Lear did.

Bianca and her like do not interest Shakespeare. When he does bring this kind of woman to full individuality it is, significantly enough, not to present her as an effective human being but to offer her to our sympathies, like Desdemona and Ophelia, as a helpless victim. What catches his imagination in As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, and Much Ado is a young woman of an entirely different kind: one who, by her energy, wit and readiness to give as good as she gets, successfully demonstrates her ability to control events in the world around her, not excluding the world of men. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the greatest Elizabethan was attracted by the qualities of his sovereign, who told her lords that

though I be a woman, I have as good a courage answerable to my place as ever my father had.… I thank God I am endued with such qualities that were I turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom.

But perhaps we should be surprised; there are no such women in Marlowe or Jonson or the other dramatists who could have been expected to remember the qualities of the Virgin Queen. In drama as elsewhere, men find such women hard to handle, and often hard to take. Shakespeare knew how to manage them—at least on stage. That he could create women who were spunky enough to be fun to be with, and still find ways to mediate their assertiveness so as to render them as nonthreatening as their softer sisters, is one of the secrets of his perennial appeal. His is one of the surer methods of keeping a love story from liquefying pre-maturely, durable enough to remain serviceable to Yale professors who write bestsellers.

We should note at the outset something that Shakespeare's wide-ranging geography and tapestried history can easily obscure: that whoever and wherever they are, the sphere of action he allows his women is severely limited. As Betty Bandel shows in her fascinating unpublished Columbia dissertation, "Shakespeare's Treatment of the Social Position of Women," Shakespeare never dramatizes, even peripherally, a learned woman (although women may be, even should be "wise"). Nor, in so many plays that deal with politics, does he ever present a woman who is active in politics in her own behalf, in spite of the example of the sovereign under whom he spent his formative years. The type of "la très sage Hëloise" interests him no more than Joan of Arc, and although his women often intervene forcefully in political matters, it is always in the interest of the male to whom they are attached, whether husband, lover or son, and usually—as with Lady Macbeth—their influence is for the worse. Professor Bandel points out that even when a tradition of independent action clearly exists, as with Cleopatra, Shakespeare does not use it; he leaves undeveloped Plutarch's suggestions of the queen's political ability and power. "The play is not the play of a woman ruler; insofar as Cleopatra is concerned, it is the play of one of the sisterhood 'that trade in love'." Similarly, it would have been easy, in All's Well That Ends Well, to give Helena the credit for the skill that cures the king of France; the knowledge of herbs and simples was an acceptable part of the feminine role. Instead, she merely administers the medicine bequeathed her by her father the physician.

But what Shakespeare does not do is far less immediately striking than what he does, and what he does is to glorify as never before the image of the bright young girl. In Much Ado, in As You Like It, in The Merchant of Venice, the image recurs, lovingly differentiated, but the same in its essentials: a young woman who is to delight the audience by her beauty, vigor, self-confidence and wit.

It is Beatrice and Benedick who provide the real interest of Much Ado. As we have seen, when Shakespeare himself couples a masculine and a feminine name, the feminine comes last, but although Juliet follows Romeo, and Cleopatra, Antony, in the mouth of both common reader and critic, Beatrice precedes Benedick. From the beginning, it is Beatrice who determines the tenor of the relationship: "I wonder you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you." Benedick's parry is instant—"What, my dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?"—but it is a response to her initiative; the lady has taken the offensive, and Beatrice will give as good as she gets. The young woman and the young man are endowed with the same kind of wit and the same enjoyment of verbal competitiveness. The pleasure of watching them lies in the equality of the match.

It is significant that Shakespeare went to the trouble of inventing Beatrice and Benedick; there is no trace of them in his Renaissance originals. It is already clear in Love's Labour's Lost that he enjoyed this kind of relationship, and this kind of woman. Born in a merry hour, when a star danced, Beatrice clearly is delightful to her creator. The older men in the play also find her attractive and charming; although her uncle warns her she will never get a husband if she "be so shrewd of her tongue," the tone of the reproof is light and it leads merely to further cheerful repartee. Don Pedro considers her "a pleasant-spirited lady" and actually makes her a semi-serious proposal, to which she replies that so grand a match would only do for Sundays. Like Benedick, she has a good time making jokes against marriage, and there is no tinge of bitterness in them. Both are good-natured beneath their repartee; they are obviously well-suited, and it's no wonder their friends decide to bring them together.

Beatrice's capacities match Benedick's; so does her cheerful self-assertion. That, it would seem, is the point of what's going on; that is what Shakespeare intends his audience to enjoy. Yet if we examine more closely this apparent glorification of equality between the sexes, we will discover that what it in fact demonstrates is exactly what its glitter obscures: that if the bright young girl is to be made acceptable—to audiences, to readers, perhaps even to her creator—ways must be found to reduce the impact of her self-confidence, to make sure that equality is kept nominal.

There is an undercurrent of uneasiness in the audience's response to Beatrice. Ellen Terry warned that Beatrice's encounters with Benedick "can easily be made to sound vulgar and malicious," and cautioned the actress taking the part to speak with "the lightest raillery, with mirth in voice and a charm in manner." Don Pedro may find her charming, her uncle may value her gaiety, but young males are more vulnerable. Much Ado is not out to test the limits of our tolerance for feminine assertiveness. Shakespeare's bright young girls are meant to please, not to make us uncomfortable. A way must be found to mitigate this lightest of threats. We need some reassurance that Beatrice cannot hurt us, and Shakespeare will provide it.

Beatrice and Benedick are both scoffers at Cupid, and as their personalities are similar, so the stratagems that are to make them fall in love seem at first glance strictly parallel. Equally matched, male and female apparently are to be treated with strict equality. Their friends arrange for each to overhear a put-up conversation; planted in it is the information that in spite of all appearances, each is hopelessly in love with the other. We might expect that the two conversations, parallel in their effects, also would be parallel in content, but this is by no means so. Benedick merely overhears a circumstantial account of how much Beatrice is in love with him. Beatrice, however, must hear herself accused of scornful carping which "turns every man the wrong side out," of disdain, of pride, of egoism. "Her wit," says her cousin Hero,

Values itself so highly that to her All matter else seems weak. She cannot   love,

Nor take no shape nor project of affection, She is so self-endeared.

Although she and Benedick have been presented up to this point as two of a kind, Benedick is not thus criticized. Young females are expected to temper their behavior to the vulnerability of the male, and those who fail to do so expose themselves to the censure of their peers. We remember that earlier, although Beatrice bore up well under Benedick's taunt that she got her wit from a joke book, her retort (that he was called "the prince's jester") sent him off to complain to his friends that "she speaks poniards, and every word stabs." Merry Beatrice is no Katharine, but she is tainted with shrewishness. Although her cousin's criticism is touched with hyperbole, Beatrice is evidently meant to take it to heart. And so she does. Benedick does not hear her recantation, delivered in soliloquy, but the audience must.

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be   true? Stand I condemned for pride and scorn   so much? Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu! No glory lives behind the back of such. And Benedick, love on; I will requite thee, Taming my wild heart to thy loving   hand.…

At the end she is still joking; when Benedick tells her that he takes her for pity, she replies that she yields only to save his life. But the audience can feel quite comfortable. The slight ambiguity of her character need never be resolved. We need not decide whether or not there is a bit of the shrew in Beatrice; since we know that she will need no taming, it does not matter.

This is, of course, the ideal: the high-spirited woman who will tame herself. She offers both men and women that most precious of assurances—that they can have it both ways. To women, a girl like Beatrice affirms their bright potentialities, but also the warm safety of their conviction that these should never be displayed in any way that could threaten men. The men in the audience—like the men in the play—can enjoy her company, free from both the threat of in-subordination and the necessity of putting her in her place. Only the most flamboyant of Petruchios enjoys playing the tyrant; it is much pleasanter not to have to.

If Beatrice is delightful, Rosalind is even better. Neilson (who, as president of Smith College, occupied a privileged position for girl-watching) describes her as having "the wit of Portia and Beatrice softened by the gentleness of Viola"—exactly as we like it. In As You Like It, however, Shakespeare does not hesitate to tip the equal balance that affords the fun of Much Ado in favor of the lady; in wit and energy, Rosalind has no male rival. Insofar as any other character is able to match her repartee, it is Celia, who although she is usually remembered as the gentle foil, the "other kind" of girl, turns out to have a surprising number of the snappy lines. Orlando, however, is merely a nice young man; as is true at Radcliffe and Harvard, the girls come out with noticeably higher College Entrance Examination Board verbals.

Rosalind, however, is more than witty. As You Like It is her play. This is, of course, unusual in Shakespeare. Heroes act, but heroines commonly do not, which is why, unlike Antigone and Lysistrata, none of them gets a Shakespearean title to herself. Neither does Rosalind—although Thomas Lodge had accorded her one—but nevertheless it is she who moves the play. She is energetic, effective, successful. She has the courage to accept exile; she decides to assume male dress, and, playing brother, she guides her friend to the Forest of Arden. The late comedies no longer present these forceful young women, and the faithful Imogen of Cymbeline retroactively exposes the extent of Rosalind's autonomy. It is not Imogen but her husband's servant who originates the idea of male disguise; the necessity for her journey originates not in her own position but in her relation to her husband, and as soon as she lacks a man to guide her, she gets lost. Her complaint at this point measures her distance from Rosalind: "I see a man's life is a tedious one." (Her previous remark to Cloten also bears thinking about: "You put me to forget a lady's manners / By being so verbal.") Through Imogen we can appreciate the unique position of Rosalind in her play. Rosalind's decisions control the progress of As You Like It, and it is by her agency that the four couples assemble in the concluding nuptial dance which, as in The Boke of the Governor, "betokeneth concord" and embodies for the audience the harmony restored that is the essence of Shakespearean comedy.

Yet Shakespeare arranges for her to do all this without making the ladies censorious or the gentlemen nervous. He has various methods of rendering her wit painless and her initiatives acceptable. The most obvious way is to confine them to love matters, a proper feminine sphere. Rosalind is a political exile, but she shows no disposition to meddle in politics; it is not through her agency that her father is restored to his rightful place. Her wit is not, like Portia's, exercised in the service of sensible men engaged in the serious business of the world, nor are her jokes made at their expense. Her satire is, in fact, narrowly directed at two classes of beings—sighing lovers, and women. In the course of the fun she works her way through most of the accusations already traditional in a large antifeminist literature (inconstancy, contrariness, jealousy, unfaithfulness, et cetera) to the point where Celia tells her, "We must have your doublet and hose plucked over your head, and show the world what the bird has done to her own nest." Add that we know all along that she herself is the butt of her own jokes, being herself both lovesick and female, and it would be a fragile Benedick indeed who could feel himself stabbed by her poniard.

The most useful dramatic device for mediating the initiatives of the female, however, is the male diguise. Male garments immensely broaden the sphere in which female energy can manifest itself. Dressed as a man, a nubile woman can go places and do things she couldn't do otherwise, thus getting the play out of the court and the closet and into interesting places like forests or Welsh mountains. Once Rosalind is disguised as a man, she can be as saucy and self-assertive as she likes. (We can observe a similar change come over sweet Viola of Twelfth Night as soon as she begins to play the clever page.) The male characters will accept her behavior because it does not offend their sense of propriety, the female characters because (like the audience) they know she's playing a role. With male dress we feel secure. In its absence, feminine assertiveness is viewed with hostility, as with Kate the Shrew, or at best, as with Beatrice, as less than totally positive. Male dress transforms what otherwise could be experienced as aggression into simple high spirits.

The temporary nature of the male disguise is of course essential, since the very nature of Shakespearean comedy is to affirm that disruption is temporary, that what has turned topsy-turvy will be restored. It is evident that Rosalind has enjoyed the flexibility and freedom that come with the assumption of the masculine role, but it is also evident that she will gladly and voluntarily relinquish it. "Down on your knees," she tells the proud shepherdess who scorns her faithful swain, "and thank Heaven, fasting, for a good man's love." Rosalind, clearly, is thankful for Orlando's, and although she is twice the person he is, we are willing to believe that they live happily ever after, since that's obviously what she wants.

Portia is another lady who outweighs her man. Bassanio is one of the most firmly nonmemorable of Shakespeare's characters, but Portia is nonetheless delighted with him. It is true that she has more excuse than Rosalind. Bassanio may be no more than a pleasantly affectionate incompetent in need of a rich wife to free him from his debts. But Portia is not free to choose her husband; Shakespearean fathers may dispose of their daughters as they will, and she must marry the fellow who chooses the right casket. Among suitors who include a drunken German, an Englishman who speaks no European language, and an African prince in whose negritude she finds no appeal, Bassanio looks good. She can make up, after all, what he lacks in intelligence and force. His improvidence and poor judgment have put his friend's life in jeopardy, and he lacks the wit to extricate him. It is not he who possesses the resourcefulness to pass himself off as a lawyer, or the brains to find a technicality to win on. Portia sends her newly wed husband off to Venice to bid goodbye to the friend he has ruined, since this is evidently all he is capable of. She herself posts off to assume the male attire that will make possible her triumph over Shylock.

Portia recalls Beatrice and Rosalind, but unlike them her intelligence is allowed to engage with matters more serious than the pairing of lovers. The law, the quality of mercy, the survival of a man—alone of Shakespeare's heroines, Portia is allowed to confront a man over matters outside a woman's sphere—and to win. (A somewhat similar confrontation occurs in Measure for Measure—not mediated by male dress—but Isabella's opposition to Angelo is swiftly reduced to sexual terms, and she thereafter loses the center of the stage.) Even the male disguise will hardly be enough to render harmless such a formidable lady. We may expect that special means will be necessary to mitigate this unusually serious threat.

One way is to reduce the significance of her male adversary. Shylock is a man, but not one with whom the audience was expected readily to identify. The Elizabethan response to Shylock, unlike our own, was not ambiguous. Shakespeare's audience unquestionably would have found it reassuring that the man Portia confronted and vanquished was not a person of her own status in society, but a misbelieving Jew.

The audience, however, needs more explicit reassurance than this. It is provided. Here, in the only play besides As You Like It where Shakespeare allows a woman's action to control the outcome, Shakespeare makes sure that Portia does not have her day in court until she has explicitly affirmed her subordination to her husband-to-be. Portia's betrothal speech to Bassanio rivals in its length, its emphasis, and its poetry even the locus classicus where Shakespeare showed the proper attitude of a girl whose assertiveness was unmitigated by charm and good nature toward a husband likewise not notably endowed with either. Katharine's submission to Petruchio is famous:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for   thee.… Such duty as the subject owes the prince, Even such a woman oweth to her husband; And when she is froward, peevish, sullen,   sour, And not obedient to his honest will,

What is she but a foul, contending rebel, And graceless traitor to her loving lord? I am ashamed that women are so simple To offer war when they should kneel for  peace, Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway, Where they are bound to serve, love, and  obey.

And a great deal more of the same. Katharine's speech, considering what she's just been through, might be considered a bit over-wrought. Portia's, however, seems to well up quite spontaneously, and it is just as strongly phrased. She wishes herself "a thousand times more fair, ten thousand times / More rich," just to be good enough for Bassanio. Yet, says this lady who is about to astonish the Venetian courts,

             … the full sum of me … Is an unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractis'd; Happy in this, she is not yet so old But she may learn; happier than this, She is not bred so dull but she can learn; Happiest of all is that her gentle spirit Commits itself to yours to be directed, As from her lord, her governor, her king. Myself and what is mine to you and yours Is now converted. But now I was the lord Of this fair mansion, master of my servants, Queen o'er myself; and even now, but now This house, these servants, and this same   myself Are yours, my lord.…

"Thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign"—or "Her lord, her governor, her king." But this is not an admission wrung from ill-natured, headstrong Katharine, this is Portia speaking, brilliant Portia, confident Portia, who will soon be off to accomplish what no male Venetian seems able to. She speaks in this vein for twenty-four lines—Katharine's submission takes forty. No audience, as far as I know, has complained of the length. It is interesting, then, to compare Shakespeare's treatment of one of the rare occasions when a man submits. In such a case, our patience is assumed to be short. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Master Ford makes an apology to his wife for incorrectly suspecting her virtue. He imprudently begins "Pardon me, wife. Henceforth do what thou wilt." This is too much; he scarcely gets out five more lines before Master Page interrupts him:

'Tis well, 'tis well, no more. Be not as extreme in submission As in offence.

Once again we are shown that when the sexes are reversed, parallel situations lose their similarity.

Brilliant and fascinating women are a pleasure to watch, once we can be sure they will accept the control even of the Bassanios and Orlandos of the world—at least this was so in Elizabethan England. That was, however, a long time ago. Shakespeare's feminine models certainly can be seen as significant to the pre-twentieth-century reader. But today's young girls have never heard of Rosalind and Beatrice. To consider that Shakespeare's comic heroines have something to tell us about the twentieth-century feminine image would seem to be academicism gone overboard.

And yet—have you by any chance seen Love Story, or read it? Millions have, if you have not; for many, the story of the doomed love of Jenny Cavilleri and Oliver Barrett III stands as an epitome of what the relationship between young male and young female should be. The popularity of Love Story is genuine and significant; it expresses what a very large number of people believe. If we scrutinize it we will discover something that we may find encouraging or disconcerting: Professor Segal has demonstrated that the Shakespearean formula is still a winner.

Invent a girl of charm and intellect; allow her ego a brief premarital flourishing; make clear that it is soon to subside into voluntarily-assumed subordination; make sure that this is mediated by love. Today, however, the archetypal bright young girl is to be found not in courts or forests, but in the Radcliffe library.

When a likely Harvard jock tries to borrow a book, Jenny, like Beatrice, takes the offensive. "Do you have your own library?" she asks, and the parry and thrust that follow impart a sense of déjà vu. It glitters with I.Q., and the heroine wins it. It is only the first of a series; she wins them all. However tricky her Benedick's riposte, she always tops it. She's lovely when she takes off her glasses; she is brilliant, but she is nice too, sweet and warm and young, and the audience cries at the end much as it did when Juliet died some years ago in another successful love story. We who teach college students, especially female ones, had better watch out how we knock Love Story; those tears are wet, and as many of our students have told us, they don't care what we say, it's a beautiful story. And if we take the unaccustomed trouble to consider it from a young girl's point of view, we must concede that it is a compelling one: who wouldn't want to be beautiful, clever and good, like Jenny?

Like Shakespeare, Professor Segal writes for the box office, and like Shakespeare in the romantic comedies, he writes not to disturb, but to reassure. Oliver and Jenny are no more likely to disrupt the social order than are Florizel and Perdita. The Harvard they inhabit is as remote from today's vexed colleges as the Forest of Arden. Love Story is built to last—on the hypothesis that demonstrations and demands for relevance are temporary phenomena, but that images of youthful brilliance, generational misunderstanding, love and early death are likely to retain their traditional interest. So, evidently, is the bright young girl. We may refuse to accept Jenny as an avatar of Rosalind and Beatrice, but we are bound to recognize her, complete with the assertiveness, the charm and the fundamental acquiescence in traditional sex roles that allow us to have our cake and eat it.

Jenny's verbal one-upmanship must not be allowed to mislead us. Her aggressiveness is only apparent, part of the delightful game that assures us that this prize is worth having. Since Jenny wins each verbal passage, her Benedick has to discover this in bed, the minimal measure of how far the social mores have progressed since Shakespeare. The necessary reassurance comes with the required explicitness: "Our first physical encounter was the polar opposite of our first verbal one.… This was the real Jenny—the soft one, whose touch was so light and loving." The real Jenny is as different from the clever one as the "unlesson'd girl" is from the shyster lawyer. The clever Jenny has a scholarship to study in Paris; the real Jenny gives it up without hesitation when Oliver asks, "What about our marriage?" The bright Jenny keeps up the repartee and never loses a set, but the real Jenny has given up all for love. When Oliver is disinherited by a stern father, Jenny teaches music to support him through law school. She gives up participation in music groups. "She came home from Shady Lane exhausted, and there was dinner to cook." Woman's work is never done. Oliver, after all, is making a sacrifice too; he has had to give up football. There is no suggestion that the independent exercise of her highly-trained abilities gives her the slightest satisfaction; her work is obviously temporary. When Oliver lands the lucrative job proper to an all-Ivy jock who has graduated third in his class, the only WASP in the top ten, Jenny retires contentedly into an expensive apartment on East Sixty-third Street and assumes the activities proper to a woman whose husband is supporting her. She cooks for him (even later, when she's dying, she fends off his attempts to help because that isn't "man's work"). She goes to work on getting pregnant. And she obediently enters upon the conspicuous consumption that he sees as the blazon of his triumph.

It pleases us to see that, like Rosalind and Portia, she's wiser than her man, and it's made clear that she uses her charge accounts, as she does everything else, only because he wants her to. We are allowed to understand that her own values are less crudely materialistic, but that she is too wise not to indulge her husband's fierce competitiveness in these unimportant matters. For all the verbal victories are kept carefully only verbal. The one matter of substance on which she and Oliver disagree is his implacable refusal to understand his father, and although she is shown to be absolutely right when she calls her husband a heartless bastard, she obediently abandons her attempt to soften him, and the final reconciliation between father and son is brought about only through her death. Jenny, we are given to understand on the last page, is more than a tender memory, she is an enduring influence—but an influence of the traditional womanly kind, whose strength is in its gentleness and willingness to give way.

So Jenny dies, and millions weep for her, including many who will not afterwards admit it. I teach at an extremely unsophisticated college, but unsophisticated students are not without perspicacity. The force with which my students insist on the enduring beauty of Love Story is intensified by a certain irritation growing out of their suspicion that their sophisticated teachers are, as usual, trying to put something over on them. They suspect that we are quite simply lying; that either we did cry at Love Story, or, that if we did condescend to read it, we would. I suspect they are right. Our need for images of brightness and beauty, fidelity and tenderness, is insatiable. Sophisticated modern literature refuses to give them to us, and rightly; the cleverer we are, the surer it is that we will repudiate in today's fiction the old patterns that free us to weep at Romeo and Juliet and smile at As You Like It. Yet love stories are hardy, as Segal knew when he chose his title. Stereotypes do not necessarily detract from their durability, for truth, unfortunately for us sophisticates, is an essential component of stereotypes. Women commonly do smooth their assertiveness into acceptability, and it is those who do so who are experienced as charming—by men and by women. Women frequently do exercise a softening influence on the extremes of male competition; they do, like Portia and Isabella and Jenny (and Antigone) speak out for mercy and the relaxation of the lethal rigidities of men. Literature is not unrealistic in representing this as one of the most satisfactory ways in which women interact with men, and Shakespeare may not be unrealistic, either, in bodying forth the repulsion of the race when even women abandon gentleness for ambition and aggression. "Proper deformity shows not in the fiend / So horrid as in woman." Theodore Roszak has recently called for a liberation of "the compassionate virtues"—in men as well as in women—and warned that the world will not be better if women exercise their indubitable right to be "every bit the brutes and bastards men have been.… Courage, daring, decisiveness, resourcefulness, are good qualities, in women as much so as in men. So too are charity, mercy, tenderness. But ruthlessness, callousness, power, lust, domineering self-assertion—these are destructive, whether in man or woman." But literature, which is still overwhelmingly produced by males, has not been very helpful in providing the young girl with the Bildungsroman that would show her how to combine the compassionate virtues with the expansion of ego-strength that is her due as a human being. Shakespeare does better than the rest; as accurately as if he had died yesterday, he represents the limits a girl can reach and still be sure of the approval of her society. But it remains true that no major writer since those curious woman-obsessed Athenians has made a woman's active heroism his central concern, and that a girl who wants, in George Eliot's words, "to make her life greatly effective" can search the literature of her own civilization and find even in George Eliot only treatments of how to fail in the attempt. The point of the male Bildungsroman, however, is that it deals not with failure but with success. The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch come as close to the model as the feminine situation has allowed, yet Maggie is destroyed by her surging emotions, and Dorothea Brooke is explicitly presented as an Antigone with no brother to bury, a Saint Theresa with no convents to found. George Eliot wrote Middlemarch to show the forces that prevent a woman from being a hero. Unless or until these forces lose their strength, the best a girl can hope for is to be a heroine, while waiting for the new literature that will render Love Story—but not, we hope, Shakespeare—hopelessly out of date.

Barbara A. Mowat (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Images of Women in Shakespeare's Plays." Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 145-57.

[In the following essay, Mowat examines the discrepancy between reader and audience perception of Shakespeare's women characters and the ways in which Shakespeare's male characters view those same women.]

When we look carefully at the image of woman presented in Shakespeare's plays, we realize that what we are in fact seeing is a set of images superimposed one on the other. The first image is that created primarily by what Shakespeare's heroines actually say and do within their plays. This image is remarkably unbiased, sexually; that is, in terms of his female characters' words and actions, they are not stereotypically "female," but show the same range of human strengths and weaknesses as do his males. It is to this image of woman that Juliet Dusinberre is, I think, responding when she concludes her study of Shakespeare and the Nature of Women with the statement that "Shakespeare did not divide human nature into the masculine and the feminine."

A second image of woman emerges when we look at two additional methods which Shakespeare uses in presenting character: namely, what others say about a given character, and how the character is presented in relation to others. Often these methods of presentation reinforce the primary image of the heroine simply as a human being; sometimes, however, they do not. When, for instance, woman is shown in relation to some significant male—her lover, her husband, her father, her son—what is said about her by that male, and how he sees her in relation to himself and other males, is often in sharp contrast to what we as audience see her do or hear her say.

The discrepancy between what the character apparently is and how that character is perceived by another is an interesting study in itself, and would likely yield important information about Shakespeare's general view of personality and relationship; my interest here is in the often very large discrepancy between what we see objectively in a female character and how some significant male responds to her. Instead of seeing their mistresses, their wives, their mothers, their daughters, as the ordinary human beings which their words and actions show them to be, his heroes often seem to see them as figures of well-nigh mythic power to attract, to transform, to destroy the male; his heroes sometimes act as if they see themselves in a life-and-death struggle either to escape from the powerful woman creature or else to control or destroy the evil power they fear in her. From early comedies to late romances, they batter themselves against what they perceive as the female mystery—comically, tragically, bitterly, ironically—in a struggle which enters into most of the male-female relationships in the plays.

These two sets of images contain most of what we see of woman in Shakespeare's dramas. Woman functions first as person, as social being, as articulate, thinking, feeling human; she functions also, and equally importantly, as "woman"—as powerful, frightening, alluring goddess/witch, a creature more magical, more Apuleian, than the saint/whore figure of tradition. A third image, that of woman as she perhaps functioned in Shakespeare's own imagination, is extremely illusive. It doubtless determines the shift in woman's role as we move through the canon, from woman as maiden and potential bride to woman as wife and finally to woman as daughter—a shift which parallels the shift in age of the Shakespearian hero from youngster to husband to father, and which is surely related to Shakespeare's development in his own life. Shakespeare's personal image of woman also accounts, perhaps, for random peculiarities in his presentation of women characters, for a kind of mystery or uncertainty about the motives or actions of some of his females, or for a puzzling, sometimes strangely harsh, comment from a heroine; it may account for Shakespeare's tendency to return to the shrew-figure, or to concentrate on stories of women betrayed.

Image superimposed on image, each in its own way intriguing. The first image is generally understood and frequently commented upon: Shakespeare's awarding of wit and strength to his heroines has long been recognized. The third image—Shakespeare's personal image of woman—is beyond the scope of this essay, and is important primarily as it sheds partial light on Shakespeare the man. My concern is with the second image—that of woman as "the other," woman as she sometimes appears to the Shakespearian male.

In his earliest comedies, Shakespeare is careful to distinguish between the rather ordinary young lady to whom the hero is attracted and the remarkable, powerful creature whom he, in the grip of love, perceives her to be. In Comedy of Errors, for instance, Luciana is presented to the audience as a cool, witty young spinster characterized primarily by her loyalty to her sister and by her fixed ideas about marriage and husbands. Mistaking Antipholus of Syracuse for her brother-in-law, she chides him for mistreating his supposed wife:

If you did wed my sister for her wealth,     Then for her wealth's sake use her with             more kindness. Or, if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth,     Muffle your false love with some show             of blindness:

Bear a fair presence, though your heart be   tainted;

Be secret-false. What need she be acquainted?

Then, gentle brother, get you in again;     Comfort my sister, cheer her, call her             wife.

Luciana's message is clear: be a philanderer if you must, but learn to hide your falseness under a fair show.

Antipholus's response to this cynicism is comically inappropriate; he hears not chiding words but the voice of a siren luring him to a watery death:

O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy   note,    To drown me in thy sister's flood of            tears. Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote.     Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden             hairs, And as a bed I'll take them and there lie,     And in that glorious supposition think He gains by death that hath such means to   die.                                   (3.2.45-51)

Antipholus here yields happily to the power which he feels Luciana exerting over him. Like Odysseus, he hears the clear-toned song of the siren, and he would willingly be dashed to pieces on the rocks of the mermaid's island. Almost immediately, though, the willingness gives way to panic. In her absence, and in the light of his servant's report on his own confrontation with a fat kitchen wench who seems a diviner, a sorcerer, a witch who would transform him into a curtal dog, Antipholus suddenly sees Luciana's power as destructive, threatening. He sees Luciana as "possess'd with … gentle sovereign grace, / Of … enchanting presence and discourse," but now her transforming power which had only moments earlier seemed to him godlike, new-creative, seems that of a witch, a Circe. He determines that:

There's none but witches do inhabit here, And therefore 'tis high time that I were  hence.                                             (3.2.161-2)

Luciana's very "grace," her "enchanting presence," he claims,

Hath almost made me traitor to myself. But lest myself be guilty to self-wrong, I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's    song.                                     (3.2.167-169)

In his comic over-response to Luciana as mermaid, siren, and witch, Antipholus seems to see himself as another Odysseus, called by the siren's song and fighting transformation by Circe. When he speaks of stopping his ears against her song, and when he accuses her of almost making him traitor to himself, he lets us know that instead of seeing a rather bewildered young maiden lady, he sees a mythic creature of beauty, of danger, of fearful transforming or death-dealing power. Shakespeare is careful to show us that Antipholus's feelings of attraction, of inner swerving, of helplessness, originate in Antipholus, almost in spite of Luciana's determined sisterly role; by having Antipholus speak of Luciana as siren and enchantress, Shakespeare also makes it clear that Antipholus's sense of the ineluctability of female power has an ancient lineage that goes back at least as far as Homer, with his siren and Circe figures.

In Two Gentlemen of Verona, the hero again senses in the female a transforming power, one on which he can now and again lay the burden of his own inconstancy. Proteus is bound in love to Julia, in friendship to Valentine. One look at Sylvia and he breaks both bonds. In all innocence Sylvia shines upon him, and love, faith, friendship melt like a wax image in a flame: "She is fair," he says,

       and so is Julia that I love— That I did love, for now my love is   thaw'd,

Which, like a waxen image 'gainst a fire, Bears no impression of the thing it was.                                      (2.4.199-202)

Worshipping what he calls "a celestial sun" (2.6.10)—or as Sylvia puts it, worshipping "shadows" and adoring "false shapes" (4.2.131)—Proteus is blinded, transformed. Sylvia as we see her is no Circe, nor is she a heavenly figure whose brightness will blind Proteus, as he claims he fears. Rather, Shakespeare presents her as a loyal girl, faithful to her own lover, contemptuous of Proteus's fickleness, and in no way guilty of enchanting Proteus. In his more enlightened moments, Proteus himself recognizes this, and lays the blame where it belongs: "O heaven, were man / But constant, he were perfect! That one error / Fills him with faults, makes him run through all th' sins" (5.4.110-112). But for most of the play, he sees her beauty as a kind of witchcraft; in her presence he is transformed; and his actions following this transformation, compounded of treachery, lust, and violence, cannot but remind us of the beasts into which Circe transformed men.

In yet one more early comedy, Love's Labour's Lost, the hero again feels himself pulled away from his true course, enticed into the field of irresistible female power. He who has been love's whip finds himself suddenly a corporal in Cupid's army; he does not find Rosaline beautiful, and knows without knowing her that she is lustful and inconstant. Yet he sighs for her, watches for her, prays for her!

What, I? I love? I sue? I seek a wife? A woman, that is like a German clock, Still are pairing, ever out of frame, And never going aright, being a watch, But being watch'd that it may still go   right! Nay, to be perjured, which is worst of   all; And, among three, to love the worst of   all, A whitely wanton, with a velvet brow, With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for   eyes; Ay, and, by heaven, one that will do the   deed Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard!                               (3.1.191-201)

The most fascinating aspect of Berowne's plight is his conviction that Rosaline is a lustful creature, one who "will do the deed / Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard." Thomas Mann points out that this harsh characterization of Rosaline by Berowne is "strangely insistent," "unnecessary," and "dramatically little justified." As Mann notes, the picture of her "as a faithless, wanton, dangerous piece of female flesh is given to her only in [Berowne's] speeches, whereas in the actual setting of the comedy she is no more than pertly witty."

Mann attributes Berowne's expression of fear to an obsession on Shakespeare's part. He senses autobiographical material breaking through into the play, and feels that only an uncontrollable compulsion could have made Shakespeare so artistically negligent as to present a heroine to us and to the other characters as a "pertly witty" court lady, and to have the hero describe her as if she were a lascivious temptress. I would argue, rather, that Berowne's harsh image of Rosaline is akin to Antipholus's siren/witch fantasy and Proteus's goddess/ Circe image, and that it is as much a creation of male fantasy as is the obviously Petrarchan image of Rosaline which appears in Berowne's later speeches in praise of love, in praise of woman. The fear fantasy which erupts in the speech quoted above is actually a mild form of a fantasy which becomes increasingly important in Shakespeare's later plays, the fantasy of woman as harlot, as temptress who is herself both corrupt and corrupting.

The image of woman as harlot, like that of woman as siren or Circe, has a venerable heritage. She appears often in the Scriptural wisdom literature, where, as in sermons and moral writings of Shakespeare's time, she figures powerfully as a threat to the male. Like the siren and the enchantress, the harlot demolishes male self-control; like the witch, she transforms man into beast; again like the witch, she is a demonic figure, bringing with her blasts from hell. As the old citizen warns the young apprentice, in a book of good conduct printed in 1577:

Keep thee from the evill woman and from the flattering tongue of the harlot, that thou lust not after her bewty in thine heart, and least thou be taken with her fayre lookes.… The lippes of an Harlot are a dropping Hony Combe, and her throat is softer than Oyle, but at the last she is as bitter as Wormewood, and as sharp as a two edged sword, her feete go down unto death and her steppes pierce through unto Hell.… Therefore looke not to narrowly uppon the bewty of a woman, lest thou be provoked to desyre toward her.… Lyke as the worme and moath commeth out of cloathing, so doth wickedness of women.

Woman as siren, as enchantress—beautiful, alluring; woman as temptress, as witch, as harlot—fascinating, soul-destroying: these fantasy images of woman—of female power and female sexuality as it affects the male—recur throughout Shakespeare's plays. In the early comedies, they primarily appear in courtship situations, and are not ultimately serious; in later comedies and in the tragedies, they enter also into male-female family relationships and are of more serious import.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick expresses comically, hubristically, the impact of such fantasies on husbands—or, in this case, on the young man refusing marriage:

That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise give her most humble thanks; but that I will have a rechate winded in my forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none; and the fine is (for the which I may go the finer) I will live a bachelor.


The message is a simple one: woman must not be loved, because she cannot be trusted; to love is to dote, to marry is to be cuckolded. O word of fear.…

In a less comic form, the fear of marriage expressed here can explode within the provoked male into a kind of madness. Glimpses of the nightmare that underlies that madness appear early—again, in Much Ado About Nothing—in Claudio's outburst against the "rotten orange" that his betrothed has become in his eyes:

You seem to me as Dian in her orb, As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown; But you are more intemperate in your    blood Than Venus, or those pamp'red animals That rage in savage sensuality.                                          (4.1.58-62)

There is more at stake here than a young man's concern about a husband's honor or about the legitimacy of his offspring. Before his very eyes the goddess of chastity has been unveiled and shown to be Venus, the chaste bud has become a rutting animal, and Claudio lashes out in fury. His cry of pain is later echoed by Othello, for whom the same dream turns nightmare: "O curse of marriage!" he cries, "That we can call these delicate creatures ours, / And not their appetites!" (3.3.268-270).

For the Shakespearian hero/husband, the terror comes-from his sense that woman's appearance may hide a very different reality. "Who is't can read a woman?" cries Cymbeline, misled for years by the beauty and apparent virtue of his treacherous queen. " … she confess'd she never lov'd you," he is told after her death:

          only Affected greatness got by you, not you; Married your royalty, was wife to your    place, Abhorr'd your person.                                     (5.5.37-40)

"Mine eyes / Were not in fault," says Cymbeline, "for she was beautiful; / Mine ears, that heard her flattery; nor my heart, / That thought her like her seeming. It had been vicious / To have mistrusted her" (5.5.62-66). In context, this speech is almost comic, for the audience is all too aware, throughout the play, of the perfidy of Cymbeline's wife. Yet his cry of despair—"O most delicate fiend! / Who is't can read a woman?"—articulates a far from comic fear present in full many a Shakespearian hero/husband. The fact that he cannot distinguish between virtue and the mask of virtue in woman, even in a woman he thinks he knows well, is for the Shakespearian male a fearful thing precisely because he believes that woman's power to attract and to transform the male is almost irresistible: "Beauty is a witch / Against whose charms faith melteth into blood." (Much Ado, 2.1.186-187). And this power to make man traitor to himself rests, in his mind, in a creature whose angelic outside may actually encase a devilish harlot. Here we are at the heart of the Othello nightmare: Desdemona, "that cunning whore of Venice that married with Othello," must be destroyed, else she'll betray more men. Her very loveliness—so lovely fair that the sense aches at her—makes it imperative that she be destroyed. In a harlot, the more lovely, the more dangerous.

"You seem to me as Dian in her orb / … But you are more intemperate in your blood / Than Venus.…" Claudio's cry of pain echoes through the plays and expresses those feelings that underlie both the violence and what seems to us the downright stupidity of such Shakespearian husbands as Othello, Posthumus, and Leontes. It is a cry that we hear as well, I feel, in those otherwise strangely intense confrontations between Shakespearian sons and mothers or fathers and daughters. The violence of Hamlet's reaction to his mother's remarriage has been often noted; the explanation for the violence, and for Hamlet's expressions of horror at the speed of the remarriage and the lust that seems to lie behind that wicked dexterity rests, I think, in the same kind of male anxiety about the female nature that we have already seen. The Freudians, I would claim, are wrong when they attribute Hamlet's anguish to jealousy at having to share Gertrude's affections with another man; Hamlet's own words about Gertrude, and his words to Gertrude in the Closet Scene, seem to indicate that he is not so much jealous of Claudius as he is appalled to see in his own mother confirmation of moralistic attacks on women: "Like as the worme and moath commeth out of cloathing, so doth wickedness of women." And T. S. Eliot is also wrong when he claims that the play is an artistic failure because Gertrude "is not an adequate equivalent" for the disgust which Hamlet feels toward her actions, a disgust which "envelops and exceeds her." What Eliot has failed to see is that the kinds of fears and suspicions about the nature of woman occasionally experienced by Shakespearian heroes cannot be felt about the mother except at the cost of intense pain. Suspicion of lechery and hypocrisy in one's wife is, as we see in Othello, maddening; suspicion of such in one's mother is, as we see in Hamlet, literally intolerable.

Only four times in the canon, outside of the English history plays, does Shakespeare make significant use of the mother-son relationship, and only in Hamlet does he force the son to confront his mother's sexuality. With father-daughter relationships, the situation is quite different. In seventeen plays, the father-daughter relationship is important; in eleven of these seventeen, the plot significantly involves the father's giving—or losing—the daughter in marriage. Throughout, the intensity of the father's reaction to the daughter is awesome. When the daughter refuses the father's choice—as do Hermia, Juliet, Imogen—the father responds with fury, revulsion, and incredible hostility; the daughter becomes for him "baggage," "green-sickness carrion," fit "to die the death": "Graze where you will," says Capulet to Juliet, "you shall not house with me":

An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend; An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the  streets, For by my soul I'll ne'er acknowledge thee, Nor what is mine shall never do thee good.                (Romeo and Juliet, 3.5.193-196)

When the daughter is accused of lechery, of hypocrisy, the response is even more awful. The fathers of Hero and of Desdemona must listen as their daughters—seemingly so chaste, so perfect—are described in animalistic sexual terms: Iago describes for Brabantio the animal couplings of Desdemona and Othello, and Claudio publicly compares Hero, before her father, to an animal raging "in savage sensuality." Both fathers, confronted with the vision of the sweet girl-child turned lecherous animal, lash out at their own daughters and at the treachery, the terrible lust, of all women. As Brabantio says to Desdemona: "For your sake, jewel / I am glad at soul I have no other child; / For thy escape would teach me tyranny, / To hang clogs on them" (1.3.195-198).

It is, of course, in King Lear that male dreams and fears about the daughter are given fullest expression. Again the story contains the theme of daughters and husbands, daughters and father, but in this play the relatively simple anxieties of the Brabantios and the Leonatos are hardly touched on. Instead, Shakespeare gives us, in the Lear plot, not just a moment of terror in which it seems that one's own daughter is temptress, witch, or harlot, but full-scale stories in which the hero lives out two of the more terrible nightmares of the Shakespearian male. First, like Claudio and like Othello, Lear makes the dreadful mistake of misjudging the virtuous, the loving female—here, the good daughter—and casts her away; second, like Cymbeline, he fails to recognize evil in the wicked female—here, the evil daughters—and falls into the dreadful power of women who can mask cruelty with words of love. Goneril and Regan are embodiments of the male anxieties about women seen in many of Shakespeare's males: in their power madness, their cruelty, their treachery they are like witches; in their lust for Edmund, they are like harlots. Cordelia is the other side of the nightmare, for she is the pearl beyond price who is cast away. Faced with the double horror of a daughter betrayed and daughters beyond measure wicked, Lear goes mad, and in his madness utters the ultimate statement of male horror vis-à-vis the female:

Behold yon simp'ring dame, Whose face between her forks presageth   snow, That minces virtue, and does shake the   head To hear of pleasure's name. The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't With a more riotous appetite. Down from the waist they are Centaurs, Though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit, Beneath is all the fiend's. There's hell, there's darkness, there's the   sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption.                                                (4.6.120-131)

In tone, we have come a long way from male fantasies about women in the early comedies, but the paired, contrasting images of the "face [which] presageth snow" and the "soiled horse [going] to't with … riotous appetite," the image of woman as monstrously divided, belonging half to the gods, half to the fiend, link this speech clearly to many another speech in earlier plays.

In the Romances, the pattern suddenly breaks. Ted Hughes [in Afterword to A Choice of Shakespeare's Verse, Selected by Ted Hughes, 1971] accuses Shakespeare of "beginning to cheat" in the Romances in his depiction of male-female dynamics. Whether we want to call it cheating or not, it is true that in Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest things are different. In the father-daughter relationships, for instance, the daughter is a fantasy figure of a new kind—she is the female as the male would dream her: young, pure beyond belief, loving, and with no trace of hypocrisy or guile in her nature. Marina, Perdita, Imogen, Miranda—each reminds us a bit of the heroines of the early comedies. However, their attractive and transforming power over their young men is not that of siren or Circe, but is presented as "divine"—a word often used to describe these young dream creatures. Instead of being seen as tempting young men away from the path of virtue and chastity, it is they themselves who are beset by sexual dangers. Marina, captured by pirates, is sold to a brothel; Imogen is prey to both oily Iachimo and brutish Cloten; the admired Miranda, almost raped in childhood by Caliban, is sought as consort by a drunken Stephano. But the chastity of these maidens remains pure and bright, and having about them no trace of witch or harlot, they manage to spread chastity wherever they go—even in brothels.

The evil female figures who appear, or who are imagined, are so wicked as to seem grotesque. It is as if, in the late plays, the dreadful imagined figure of woman which haunts earlier heroes is incarnated in her full horror, then wonderfully destroyed: the lecherous daughter/wife of Antiochus is "shrivelled up" by a fire from heaven; the wicked queen so injurious to Marina is burned alive in her castle by out-raged citizens. The wicked stepmother-queen of Cymbeling ends her life "with horror, madly dying, like her life / Which (being cruel to the world) concluded / Most cruel to herself (5.5.30-33). In The Winter's Tale, the wicked, lustful queen exists as such only in the king's twisted mind; this creature falls dead as she is being tried as a traitor. Her image as incarnate witch and harlot remains dead, though her body (somewhat more wrinkled) and her true pure self return sixteen years later. In The Tempest, the foul witch Sycorax is dead when the play opens, though references to her and to her wicked powers appear throughout the play as counterpoint both to Prospero's power and to the goddess image carried in Miranda. This process of banishing the evil, lustful female becomes symbol in The Tempest in Prospero's wedding masque for Miranda, when Venus, "Mars's hot minion," and her "waspish-headed son," who "thought to have done / Some wanton charm" upon Miranda and Ferdinand, are banished, sent back to Paphos.

In the Romances, then, the evil women are destroyed; the good women who are cast away return. And in these plays both fathers and young men seem untouched by any lingering fear about the chastity, the purity, the loyalty of daughter or bride-to-be. In terms, then, of the male fantasies and fears about women which we have been tracing in the plays, critics who see the Romances as giving us a kind of dream come true are in many ways justified.

To study fully the image of woman as "the other" in Shakespeare's plays, we need to consider other plays, other fantasies. We need to look closely at Cleopatra, who so complexly illustrates the spectrum of male fantasies touched on in this brief survey. We need to discover those fantasies which feed into the stories of heroines who disguise themselves as males; we need to look at the Kates, the Beatrices, the Helenas, none of whom fit the images discussed in this essay, but all of whom partake of some elements of male dream or male nightmare.

Without this extended study, however, we can, I think, say that male fantasies of women as sirens, as Circes, as temptresses, witches and harlots appear throughout Shakespeare's plays, lending potency to stories of young love and lending urgency to marriage and male-female family relationships. These images of woman show us one half of the human species as seen in a distorting mirror or in a dream or a nightmare—larger than life, magically potent, fascinating, horrifying. Sometimes the image is comically or grotesquely different from the real figure whom it reflects; in this difference lies much of the pain of Othello, where the hero's vision of Desde-mona as a harlot is unbearably at odds with the girl we see who cannot pronounce the word "whore." Sometimes the image is ambiguously related to the figure it reflects, and the Gertrude who has taken "the rose from the fair forehead of an innocent love and set a blister there," who has "made marriage vows as false as dicers' oaths" and at whose acts "Heaven's face doth glow" reflects in part the actual deeds of Hamlet's "wretched queen," just as Ophelia's connivance in the trap laid for Hamlet in some part reflects the hypocrisy—the painting, jiggling, ambling, lisping—which is Hamlet's view of woman as he describes her to Ophelia. Sometimes—and here the pain is perhaps greatest—the image and the reality coincide, and male fears about woman, in King Lear, turn out in this case to be true.

Shakespeare's larger portrait of woman is much more complex than this image of woman as she emerges from male dreams and nightmares; as I noted earlier, the portrait is composed of a set of images of which this is only one. Yet in our zeal to see in Shakespeare's plays an image of woman as a human possessed of normal strengths and weaknesses, let us not ignore this fantasy creature who again and again emerges in the words of his male characters. Posthumus's attack on this fantasy creature, "woman," which begins

Is there no way for men to be, but women Must be half-workers?

is unusual in its viciousness, but Posthumus is certainly not alone among Shakespearian heroes in his distrust and his fear of the female creature.

Joyce H. Sexton (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "'Slander's Venom'd Spear': The Tradition," in The Slandered Woman in Shakespeare, English Literary Studies, 1978, pp. 11-38.

[In the following excerpt, Sexton discusses Shakespeare's theme of the slandered woman in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale.]

About mid-way through his career as a dramatist, in 1598 or 1599, Shakespeare took up the theme of the slandered woman. From a familiar story (one he could have found in Ariosto, Bandello, and Spenser, among others) of a bride falsely accused by a rejected suitor, he created the main plot of Much Ado about Nothing. But Hero, Claudio, and Don John, as it turned out, were just a beginning. In some five years Shakespeare returned to the theme, this time transmuting a "true" tale (from Cinthio's Hecatommithi) of disappointed passion, vengeful slander, and violent murder—a simple, crude narrative—into great tragedy: Othello. Then, after another five years approximately, now near the end of his writing career, he took over a story from the Decameron in which the villain calumniates a woman so that he may appear to have won a wager; this became Cymbeline. The next romance, The Winter's Tale, was Shakespeare's final portrayal of the slandered heroine.

The plays form a remarkable set—unique, in fact, in Shakespeare. This is the only type-story that he used as the main plot of four different plays. We may wonder what particularly there was in it that appealed to him again and again. We are enlightened by both the resemblances and the differences among the plays. The stories of Hero, Desdemona, Imogen, and Hermione are similar structurally: four tracings of one basic pattern. Shakespeare rearranged quite consistently the various materials—in continental epic and novel, English allegory and romance—which make up the long list of sources for these works. Whatever the aesthetic rationale or the ethical intent of a given predecessor, Shakespeare designed each play so as to emphasize the strong lines inherent in the story and to insist on a particular conception: that good name has absolute value, that (as Mowbray puts it to King Richard):

The purest treasure mortal times afford Is spotless reputation: that away, Men are but gilded loam or painted clay. A jewel in a ten-times-barr'd-up chest Is a bold spirit in a loyal breast. Mine honour is my life; both grow in one; Take honour from me, and my life is done.

In contrast to their sources for the most part, Much Ado, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale concentrate on the idea that slander, the enemy of honor, is a peculiarly powerful and destructive force in society. It was a theme worthy of repetition.

As variations on a theme the four plays illuminate one corner of Shakespeare's imagination. They differ sharply not only in kind and mood but in degree of emphasis on motive, act, consequence. As slander stories Much Ado and Othello reveal the author's interest in motivation especially. In the sources of Much Ado, the slanderer had been impelled by revenge: rejected love turned to hate. Shakespeare changed the villain profoundly. He discarded the received motive and suggested another, one less readily intelligible but interesting enough to be re-examined in another play. Don John is a sketch of the envious man, who needs no real motivation beyond his own spite; and Iago (whose prototype in the source is also a rejected suitor) is the finished portrait, although he is also much more. Having created Iago, made envy and slander so real in this character that he defies final analysis, Shakespeare turned in Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale to the other side of the story. Iachimo's motivation, a mixture, is not very important; Leontes has no motive at all (his jealousy, his opinion that his wife has betrayed him, being a "disease"). In the romances what absorbs us most is the meaning of reputation as the "purest treasure mortal times afford," the evil of words which strike at reputation, however they may be prompted. These plays, until their miraculous conclusions, are spectacles of loss and pain brought about by the instrument "Whose edge is sharper than the sword.…" But whether focussing on motive or deed, Shakespeare was always exploiting the underlying theme in his slander plays.

This theme was a very old one, and its expression had long before Shakespeare's age become conventionalized. Sixteenth-century artists inherited directly from the Middle Ages (primarily through the tradition of the Seven Deadly Sins) a precise definition of slander, a vocabulary through which it was customarily expressed, and a set of associated ideas and images. In the Sins tradition slander, or detraction, was usually thought of as a form, method, or product of the most devilish Sin, the "werst of alle synnes": Envy. Writers like Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate, whose extended allegories on the Sins formed part of the imaginative inheritance of sixteenth-century artists, presented detraction as essentially envious. Their literary treatments of the Sins, alongside a continuing homiletic tradition, helped to perpetuate through Shakespeare's lifetime the sense that slander is peculiarly devilish, in effect even when not in inception. And this idea is fundamental to Shakespeare's plays on the subject.

Kathleen McLuskie (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "'Nay, Faith, Let Me Not Play a Woman, I Have a Beard Coming': Women in Shakespeare's Plays," in Critical Survey, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1992, pp. 114-23.

[In the following essay, McLuskie maintains that Shakespeare exploited a shift in dramatic convention from the symbolic to the representational to portray women characters both emblematicallyas idealized or stereotyped symbolsand mimetically, with as much realism and naturalism as was available to him within Elizabethan dramatic conventions.]

In the mechanicals action of A Midsummers Night's Dream Shakespeare presents for us the problems of staging a play at a time when the conventions of dramatic production were shifting from a symbolic to a mimetic form of action. The abstract figures of morality drama were replaced by characters with fully realised histories and relationships: where the morality plays fulfilled a predetermined design, the mimetic drama presented the illusion that action followed from motivation. The mechanicals in Shakespeare's play comically explore the conventions through which reality can be presented on the stage. They discuss the possibility of exploiting the actual physical conditions of their performance space in which both the action and the audience can share the moonshine coming through the casement of the great chamber (III.i.51-3) but eventually decide on a symbolic action in which:

one must come in with a bush of thorns and a lantern and say he comes to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine (III.i.54-6)

At this stage in the development of the drama and for these inexperienced players, the problem of playing a woman presents analogous problems. There was no question of representing a woman by an actual woman's body and so she must be represented by a set of recognisable and accepted conventions. When Flute protests that he cannot play a woman because of his incipient beard, Quince reassures him:

That's all one. You shall play it in a mask, and you may speak as small as you will. (I.ii.45-6)

The conventions range from the most symbolic: the mask which represents a woman's face, to the most mimetic: the notion that women have higher voices than men. However, even the mimetic needs can be met by performance. Bottom, who has already been cast as the male lead, feels himself equally up to the part, in spite of his previous macho performance in 'the raging rocks' speech:

An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too, I'll speak in a monstrous little voice, 'Thisne, Thisne'

and so on.

This combination of the symbolic and the mimetic in Shakespeare's dramaturgy made it possible for him to represent women both as a set of conventions and, through the creation of 'real characters', by creating the illusion of idiosyncratic life which extends beyond the boundaries of the plays' action. Shakespeare's women characters are thus bound by the conventions of female representation to a set of conventional attributes; defined in terms of the associations drawn from the misogynistic or hagiographic conventional wisdom about the woman question. At the same time his 'real characters' present us with such individualised, idiosyncratic figures as Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Goneril, Portia, Rosalind, which have created the star roles for actresses from the Restoration (when women first began to play the parts) to the present day. The conventional misogynistic assumptions come to the fore in such generalisations about women as Lear's crazed diatribes or Posthumus's denunciations of the woman's part in Cymbeline, while feminist critics have insisted on the idiosyncratic individuality of his women characters which seems to acknowledge the reality of women's lives and subvert the misogynistic assumptions of his age.

However, it is important to recognise that the mimesis which creates 'characters' both in Shakespeare's theatre and our own, is itself the product of the interaction of conventions. In the case of Shakespeare's women, moreover, the conventions of representation interact with conventions about the essential attributes of each gender. When Antony dies in Act IV of Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra faints and is revived by her anxious handmaidens calling 'Royal Egypt, Empress', to which she replies

No more but e'en a woman, and commanded By such a poor passion as the maid that milks And does the meanest chares.                                  (IV.xv.75-7)

It is a moment of enormous emotional power, not only because of the horror of her situation but because it insists upon the individuality of the character by setting it against the essential human type she invokes. The contrast between queen and milkmaid serves to make Cleopatra even more of a queen because of the reminder of the distance, not the sameness, between her and a milkmaid.

This process of establishing a woman character's identity through an implied contrast with woman-kind works equally well when the character is not demanding sympathy or approval. When Lady Macbeth calls on the spirits that tend on mortal thoughts to 'unsex' her, she too is drawing on familiar essential notions of what it is to be one sex or another and asserting her own individuality. The dramatic impact comes from the complex theatrical reality of a woman (or, on the Elizabethan stage, a boy) denying the reality of her womanhood in order to assert a different kind of individuality which is supposed to go beyond sex.

In the originating moment of Shakespeare's plays, the power of these essentialised notions of women's identity was not restricted to the theatre. This contrast between a generalised notion of women and the attributes of a particular woman was used very effectively by Queen Elizabeth's biographers. Camden described her as 'a virgin of a manly courage', and Heywood, in his propaganda play, If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody included a scene in which the queen explicitly contrasts herself to the carefree milkmaid she hears singing outside her prison and represented the apocryphal moment when she appeared in armour at Tilbury after the Armada. Elizabeth's speech on that occasion demonstrates both the rigidity of gender definitions—the association of courage with masculinity—and the paradoxical ease with which they could be attributed to either sex:

Your Queene hath now put on a masculine   spirit, To tell the bold and daring what they are, Or what they ought to be; and such as faint, Teach them, by my example, fortitude. Nor let the best proou'd soldier here disdaine A woman should conduct an host of men.

In Shakespeare's plays, the fluidity of these images of gender, the possibility of men and women rejecting the attributes of their sex or taking on those on those of the other provided the means of creating individual character and exploring what being a man or a woman might mean. Lady Macbeth's desire to be unsexed is carried forward into her argument with Macbeth about the behaviour appropriate to a man. She reminds Macbeth that she has fulfilled the quintessential woman's role:

       I have given suck, and know How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks  me.                                                  (I.vii.54-5)

But her behaviour is not bound by her womanliness, for

I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have plucked my nipple from his boneless   gums And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn As you have done to this.                                  (I.vii.56-9)

Notions of natural and unnatural behaviour lie behind and are extended into what it is to be a woman or a man. For the discourses of the play acknowledge that being a woman can be a matter of biology, 'I have given suck', but that biology need not determine behaviour: 'I dare do all that may become a man', / 'Who dares do more is none.'

The natural attributes of men and women, the relationship between identity and action, were of course brought into even sharper focus in plays by the constant metatheatrical play with questions of true identity and the question of what reality, if any, lay behind performances on the stage. These questions were particularly extended to questions of gender by the fact that women's parts were taken by boys. Cleopatra, like Queen Elizabeth, plays frequently on the exact nature of her femininity. However, her assertion that she is 'no more but e'en a woman' is complicated by her later fear that

      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'th' posture of a whore.                                 (V.ii.212-17)

These questions of role playing and essential sexual identity could extend to male characters as well. Lear implores

O, let not women's weapons, water drops, Stain my man's cheeks!                                         (scene 7, 436-7)

However, for the most part, male characters' considerations of identity are much more wide-ranging. Hamlet insists that his mourning for his dead father is rooted in a reality within which passes show (I.ii.85); Richard II plays with the identity of king and man and the question of what is left when he is 'unkinged by Bolingbroke, / and straight am nothing' (V.v.37-8); Bottom can ask 'What is Pyramus, a lover or a tyrant?' Unlike the male characters who can play the roles of lover, tyrant, king, man, woman, the only alternative for a woman character is 'not woman' or a range of identities determined by sexuality: maid, widow or wife, mother or 'the posture of a whore'.

Feminist criticism has gone beyond simply drawing attention to this fact and lamenting it. Indeed many feminist critics have recognised the paradox that the fixed character of sexual identities in Early Modern England allows a certain fluidity around and between them such as we see in the cross-dressing of Shakespeare's comedies. However, when we come to look at modern performance of Shakespeare's heroines, both the fixedness and the fluidity of gender identity seem to me to have changed fundamentally. The change began in the Restoration when the fact that women's parts were played by women mean that commentators on the theatre could connect the character of fictional women with those of the women who took the roles. Charles Gildon, for example, stressed the quiet respectability which made Mrs Betterton the ideal person to play Shakespeare's heroines and throughout the nineteenth century the plays and performances were adapted to suit contemporary notions of 'womanliness'. The fact of women's parts being played by women's bodies bridged the gap between character and convention, made possible the elision, central to mimetic drama, between women on stage and women in the world.

The details of modern actresses' interpretations of character may be different; they react as modern critics have reacted against the moralising of the 'family Shakespeare' associated with the Victorians. However, the notion that a character is a consistent individual remains firmly in place. Discussing the role of Portia [in Players of Shakespeare, edited by Philip Brock-bank, 1985], Sinead Cusack found

the great problem for the actress playing the role is to reconcile the girl at home in Belmont early in the play with the one who plays a Daniel come to judgement in the Venetian court. I couldn't understand why Shakespeare makes her so unsympathetic in those early scenes—the spoilt little rich girl dismissing suitor after suitor in very witty and derisory fashion. The girl who does that, I thought, is not the woman to deliver the 'quality of mercy' speech.

Sinead Cusack was attempting to find consistency in the character in order to make the character understandable in her own terms and she arrives at the solution of making her 'very young' as a way of motivating and explaining her 'mercurial moods'. The solution was effective since it also ensured a kind of audience sympathy and fitted in with a trend to 'young' performances of Shakespeare's heroines which began with Zeffirelli casting the 14-year-old Olivia Hussey in his film version of Romeo and Juliet. Nevertheless, Sinead Cusack's observation about the difference in style between the 'suitor' speech and the 'mercy speech' could be explained very differently. For within the construction of the play, the speech in which Portia dismisses a list of suitors with witty set piece descriptions has to do more than express her character. It has to introduce the situation at Belmont and establish the comic tone of the Belmont world. It also generates the subsequent scenes with the Prince of Morocco and the Duke of Naples which eliminate the gold and silver caskets, building up to the climax in which Bassanio chooses lead as we always knew he would. In other words the scene has a structural function quite independent of Portia's character as a coherent human being.

Shakespeare has used a very similar structure to introduce Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (I.ii.9-16), for such witty set pieces were part of his dramatic raw materials, and part of his skill as a dramatist was to integrate such formal elements into the flow of narrative. Many women characters in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are introduced in similar ways: Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It begin their action by a set piece in which they 'mock the good huswife Fortune', Desdemona engages in a set play of wit with Iago when the action moves to Cyprus and Cleopatra banters with Mardian the eunuch and her women while she waits for news from Antony. In the latter two cases Shakespeare seems aware of the problem of consistency. Desdemona is given an aside in which she explains her inappropriate levity:

I am not merry, but I do beguile The thing I am by seeming otherwise.                                  (II.i.125-6)

and Cleopatra's jesting is kept firmly on the central subject of sex and her passion for Antony. Nevertheless, in all cases the deep structure of the comic set piece is evident. It serves itself to dramatise the notion of a character making individual choices about her marriage partner and, in the case of the tragic figures creates the impression of complexity by the interaction of comic structures in an otherwise tragic narrative. For women characters, as well as representing people involved in an action, also have a function in a narrative, which is to be the object of men's love, a solution to the conventional pattern of heterosexual relations.

Part of Shakespeare's achievement is in taking that conventional pattern and creating the illusion of idiosyncratic characters, making, as it were, their own story. The rift which Sinead Cusack experienced between the Portia of the Belmont scenes and that of the court is a rift in poetic styles and conventions of representation which create the illusion of complexity by being incorporated in a single character. When a modern actress experiences these inconsistencies as a problem, it is because she is responsible for speaking the lines in character and therefore regards all of them as the expression of her thoughts and feelings. Lying behind this notion is the idea that every character is an individual, her love for the man in the play a result of individual choice and not part of the predictable social organisation in which women fulfil their literary and social destiny by marrying men. By rejecting or ignoring the conventional character of women's speeches in Shakespeare, the actresses mystify the conventional nature of the social relationships which they present. Just as it would be impossible in the naturalist conventions of modern theatre for a woman to be represented by a bearded man in a mask, so the elements of the construction of character have to be integrated into the expression of a consistent personality.

The task of a modern actress is to find a way of speaking the lines written for very different theatrical circumstances in ways that will make them make sense for a modern audience. One of the most important influences on this process has been the work of Cicely Berry, the voice coach for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her work, as described in The Actor and His Text, presents a fascinating combination of technical analysis and character study. One of the fullest reflections of her work is to be found in Juliet Stevenson's description of her performance as Rosalind in As You Like It. She is describing the scene where she first meets Orlando in the forest and behind the description, once more, lies the problem of creating character out of formal language and the convention of the scene filling 'set piece':

she tries to 'speak to him like a saucy lackey': 'Do you hear, forester?' When Orlando replies, 'Very well. What would you?' she's stumped. What does she want that she can express in disguise? Erm … 'I pray you, what is't o'clock?' She might as well have said, 'Got a light?' It's that witless. She hasn't a clue what she's going to say to him so she says the most banal thing in the world. He responds, 'There's no clock in the forest.' Undaunted, she then launches into a dazzling performance. 'I'll tell you who Time ambles withal, who Time trots withal …' Once again, the arcs of her language get longer and longer until you almost have to draw air into your boots to get through it. At the beginning of the scene the breath is coming in shallow gulps—the delirium, the nerves, the shock, the anticipation show up in the breathing. But then as things develop, the breath gets deeper and deeper as she grows more confident with what she's discovering.

In this passage we see the actress applying Cicely Berry's method of using the syntax of a speech, the breathing indicated by the punctuation and phrasing, physically to feel and so perform the character's state of mind. In Juliet Stevenson's description, the rhythm of breathing which is a technical necessity for getting through a long speech with complex punctuation has become the key to character and situation. The mask which Quince advised Thisbe to wear has become fused onto the actor's face and become one with her personality.

For an actress performing a Shakespearean role, Cicely Berry's approach, which finds clues to character in the structure and punctuation of individual speeches, can be very suggestive. It motivates particular lines and provides a clue to the pressing question of how, in what tone of voice, with what physical expression, to say a particular line. Sinead Cusack, for example, decided

to play Portia's words 'my little body is aweary of this great world' not in the bored voice of a child who has too much of everything, but as a cry of anguish from one who finds the whole business of the caskets very painful.

It opens the possibility of hearing the lines in a different way, sensing the possibility of real life anguish which lies behind the completely formal, fairy tale structure of the casket plot.

However, Cusack's distinction between the 'usual' way of playing the line and her own interpretation is significant. For as well as creating a consistently serious tone, the performance met the other requirement of modern theatre that each interpretation should offer something new. Jonathan Miller, for example, has described [in Subsequent Performances, 1986] how 'As a director I often respond negatively to a precedent and … I recoiled from the sentimental radiance that actresses bring to Portia's famous mercy speech'. In this negative response to precedent, directors are rejecting the conventions and fixed images of previous productions and this often includes the ways in which gender has been represented in the past.

Siobhan Redmond, discussing her performance as Goneril in a recent Renaissance Company production of King Lear, deplored the conventions in which

in the opening scene, three women walk on, one wearing blue and with long blonde hair; the other two wearing black and looking sinister.

In rejecting this image of Lear's three daughters, Redmond is rejecting the fixed symbolic system which defines character according to costume and which defines action in terms of easily identifiable good and evil. She suggests in its place a more individualised approach which frees the actress to create a character in terms of a model of human personality, motivated by a fully realised life which extends beyond the boundaries of the action. However, that motivation is not less conventional. It merely replaces moral received ideas with psychological ones:

'He (Lear) is so horribly blatant about loving Cordelia best' says Francine Morgan, the Renaissance Company's Regan. 'It's no wonder I'm so bitter and twisted …'

When Lear curses Goneril, invoking the 'great goddess Nature' to 'dry up her organs of increase' audiences cannot help but wince.

Estelle Kohler (RSC) sees Goneril as a woman desperate for children who is naturally terrified by this curse.

These actresses' efforts to understand their characters, to find 'the tragic roots of their villainy', bypasses the question both of representation and of what is being represented. The text provides no lines for the actress to express her desperation for children, her pathological resentment of Lear's treatment of her. The psychological reading is in fact based on a modern convention about what it is to be a woman (naturally desperate for children) and how the companionate family should function, mediating the power of patriarchy through affective bonds between parents and children. By naturalising and modernising the text, the performers are able to mitigate the misogyny of Shakespeare's play. Overt misogyny based on absolutes of gender is one of the greatest difficulties for a modern audience for it denies the individuality which is central to liberal democratic ideas. Richard Briers, who played King Lear, declared himself appalled by the 'vicious language about women':

When I was learning the part, my jaw dropped.

But by seeing Lear's language merely as an expression of his pathology, the actors were able to separate Lear's language from Shakespeare's:

In the end I think Shakespeare's treatment of them is sympathetic. I'm absolutely sure he wants us to see beyond the violent speeches and understand more about these women.

The implications of this approach through psychological characterisation are evident in the director Claire Higgins's summary of her feelings about the play:

It's like reading about some suburban housewife who's gone mad and murdered her three children. An enormous tragedy, yes—but I always want to know what really went on in that family.

Domestic violence is seen as the product of an individual family and their particular psychopathology rather than being located within the structures of social organisation. Women characters are constructed as individuals with a particular psychological history which is then located as one of the truths about the play and part of its enduring appeal.

This process of interpretation has been criticised by the French theorist Pierre Macherey [in A Theory of Literary Production, 1978]. He describes the 'interpretative fallacy' in which the critic as interpreter 'replaces a text by its meaning':

it transposes the work into a commentary, a displacement intended to conjure up the content, unchanged and stripped of the ornamentation that concealed it. The interpreter realises a copy of the work and, in a miracle of reciprocity, discovers that of which the work itself is a copy.

In the theatre this process of reinterpretation is inevitable, for by dint of speaking the lines in different voices, with different set designs and different bodies on the stage, every production makes a new object which can more properly be called a recreation rather than a mere interpretation of a pre-existing text. The vitality of the resulting performance depends as much on the creativity of the director and actors, their ability to create startling stage images, as it does on the cogency of their interpretation in literary critical or historical terms.

For example, Sinead Cusack has described how she worked on the character of Lady Macbeth, informing the role with an awareness of the psychology through which real women are created. Her description suggests that she perceived a gap between the woman Lady Macbeth, deprived of her children, denying her femininity, and the queen who has to support the man she loves. In her discussion of the sleepwalking scene, she dealt with the most complex psychological moment in the character's stage life. But she also saw it in terms of the technical question of avoiding generalisation which would turn the speech into 'one long blur'. Her solution was to break up the long speech with stage business which she in turn motivated psychologically:

I knelt and started putting stuff all over my face. I was looking in a mirror and making myself up to be Queen. To be the very very beautiful Queen …

On the 'Oh! Oh! Oh!' I collapsed on the floor. But then I pulled myself together, in queenly fashion, took my little pot of carmine, made up my lips with that queenred lipstick, put my carmine away, looked down at my hand—and saw blood on my fingers! It was the carmine, but I saw Duncan's blood! I went berserk then.

In the interview, Cusack locates these images in her own memories of sleepwalking as a child. However, the technical means she uses to create the scene, the use of the carmine, the sense that a queen or a beautiful woman is made not born, have a resonance which goes beyond the individual and her psychology. They are first of all part of a fashion for representing mad people which goes back to the Brook production of the Marat Sade where the inhabitants of the Charenton asylum were presented as obsessive rather than raving. They thus appear to communicate a 'truth' about madness which seems quite absent from, for example, old films of Ellen Terry's performance, produced in a more melodramatic late-nineteenth-century style. Secondly, the incongruity of a mad queen making herself up removes the action from the familiar realm of naturalism and renders the action symbolic or representative. We are seeing both a woman putting on makeup and a mad woman turning herself into a travesty of a beautiful queen. The resonances of these images for an audience informed by feminism are inescapable. They invoke similar oppositions to those of Cleopatra's lament which allow movement around the images of woman and queen, the sense that women characters always have to work through essentialised ideas about what it is to be a woman; the continual complex negotiation around biology and behaviour is brought into focus by a single telling image.

For however much women might want to resist the conventions of the ways they are stereotyped in the social world, in the theatre meaning has to be constructed in terms of familiar conventions. The most powerful images of women are as a result created out of an adaptation and reworking of familiar notions of what it is to be a woman which are not necessarily the same as fully realised characters. Trevor Nunn's recent production of Timon of Athens for the Young Vic demonstrated this to the full. Timon is a play in which women are almost entirely absent. There is a 'masque of Amazons' who appear at Timon's feast early in the play and when Alcibiades returns to Athens he is accompanied by a pair of whores. Women in other words are absent as characters but present as symbols which can be read to understand the role of women in the male world of commerce and wealth. Nunn's production had a contemporary setting with many of the images owing more to Tom Wolfe's novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities than to Shakespeare. The contemporaneity of the play's exploration of the world of commerce was thus made evident and David Suchet presented Timon entirely credibly as a high financier whose change of fortunes echoed those of the many companies which have crashed in recent months. In that male world women were seen as one of the commodities which wealth gave access to. The masque of Amazons came in dressed as eighteenth-century ladies who first danced very formally and elegantly; emblems of high culture for the entertainment of the dinner-jacketed men. However, their bodies were also sexually entertaining, for once the formal dance was complete, they removed their skirts, revealing the fishnet tights and high-cut body suits which signal prostitution. The scene presented a powerful image of both sides of corporate entertainment: the sponsorship of high culture urged by successive arts ministers and its alternative side in the gratification of male sexual desire.

When Timon in his misanthropic phase encounters Alcibiades' whores, his denunciation of them is seen as part and parcel of his rejection of all commodities, his insistence that the reality of mankind, as Lear also found, was in the poor bare forked animal. However, by presenting the whores as sophisticated and elegant women, not the disease-ridden parasites of Timon's imagination, Nunn's production allowed the audience to understand the psychopathology of commercial culture which has no place for women except as commodities.

Timon is a difficult play; it is Lear without the consolations of Cordelia. But in this production it seemed a play which engages urgently with contemporary social circumstances and the role of women within them. This engagement with contemporary social issues, including consideration of the role of women, seemed to have been more successfully produced by working with and playing on convention than by engaging with individualised characters in which we can see mirror images of ourselves without perceiving the conventions through which that knowledge is produced.

Gender Issues

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16162

Linda Woodbridge (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Civilian Impotence, Civic Impudence," in Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620, University of Illinois Press, 1984, pp. 152-83.

[In the excerpt below, Woodbridge contends that transvestite disguise in Shakespeare's plays tends to reinforce, rather than undermine, traditionally perceived differences between the sexes.]

During the 1590s, Shakespeare frequently used transvestite disguise in his plots; other dramatists used it occasionally. It is true that, as Juliet Dusinberre says, [in Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, 1975], "disguise invites the dramatist to explore masculinity and femininity"; it is probable, however, that the feminism resulting from such explorations has been over-estimated. Writing that "Shakespeare's feminism is not optional, to be taken or left according to the critic's taste," Dusinberre notes that "disguise freed the dramatist to explore … the nature of women untrammelled by the custom of femininity." But most dramatists … regarded femininity as a matter of nature rather than custom; and as such it could never be sloughed off with clothes. Granted, masculine disguise gives heroines certain unwonted freedoms: sometimes a woman travelling alone adopts male clothing to discourage rape ("Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold," As You Like It, I.iii.l12); sometimes, like Portia in The Merchant of Venice, she must adopt male dress to practice a profession barred to women; sometimes she dresses as a man to effect a daring escape or for the sheer love of adventure. The dramatists saw clearly enough that women qua women could not easily travel alone, plead a case at law, have adventures. It is at least possible, given the spirit and intelligence with which they endowed their heroines, that they saw something unfair about these restrictions. But the dramatists insistently remind us that such behavior, however necessitated by emergency circumstances, is unnatural. Julia, who dons a page's costume to "prevent / The loose encounters of lascivious men," worries about her reputation: "But tell me, wench, how will the world repute me / For undertaking so unstaid a journey? / I fear me, it will make me scandalized" (Two Gentlemen of Verona, II.vii.40-41, 59-61). She reproaches her lover for having forced her to such a shift: "O Proteus, let this habit make thee blush! / Be thou ashamed that I have took upon me / Such an immodest raiment" (V.iv.104-106). Jessica too sees her boy's disguise as shameful: "I am glad 'tis night, you do not look on me, / For I am much ashamed of my exchange. / … Cupid himself would blush / To see me thus transformed to a boy. / … What, must I hold a candle to my shames?" (Merchant of Venice, Viola's "masculine usurped attire" represents behavior, according to Orsino, "much against the mettle of your sex. / So far beneath your soft and tender breeding" (Twelfth Night, V.i.257, 330-331). The idea that wearing male clothing implies a change in her feminine nature shocks Rosalind: "Dost thou think though I am caparisoned like a man, I have a doublet and hose in my disposition?" (As You Like It, III.ii.204-206). Upon hearing that Orlando is near, she is as perturbed as Jessica before Lorenzo: "Orlando? … Alas the day! What shall I do with my doublet and hose?" (III.ii.229-231).

Dusinberre's most attractive theory about male disguise is that "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 reaction to his breeches.… A woman in disguise smokes out the male world, perceiving masculinity as a form of acting." This may well have been true for the "masculine woman," by which Dusinberre means the man-clothed woman of Jacobean times; but unfortunately it does not ring true for Shakespeare's transvestite heroines. When Rosalind dons curtle-axe and boar-spear to declare, "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" (As You Like It, I.iii. 120-124), and when Portia takes up a dagger to disguise herself "like a fine bragging youth" (Merchant of Venice, III.iv.69), what they expose as "a form of acting" is not masculinity but the feigned masculinity of the braggadocio. This is to say nothing: the coward had hidden behind the braggadocio role in literature from classical antiquity to Falstaff. To advance from this convention to the perception that the "true" masculinity of an Orlando and the "true" femininity of a Rosalind are merely artificial roles is a large step—a step Shakespeare did not take. Nothing in Shakespeare suggests that but for a little artificial social conditioning, an Orlando would faint at the sight of blood, or a Rosalind challenge Charles the wrestler. Shakespeare's transvestite heroines do not approach any nearer to true manhood than do the fraudulent "mannish cowards." In the confrontation between Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Viola, we are invited to laugh with mild contempt at the male coward and with affectionate indulgence at the female coward: cowardice violates his nature but is a natural expression of hers. Transvestite disguise in Shakespeare does not blur the distinction between the sexes but heightens it: case after case demonstrates that not even masculine attire can hide a woman's natural squeamishness and timidity. King Lear must disrobe to find the essential nature of a human being; a woman's essential nature, Shakespeare insists, shines through any kind of clothes. When Shakespeare's romantic heroines play at being men, Shakespeare invites us to smile at their trepidations and their posturings, with the affection of a parent watching his child play at being grownup. His obvious good will, and the central roles he assigns these heroines, keeps the condenscension from being offensive. But neither is it feminist. As Paula S. Berggren notes [in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, 1983], "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." Shakespeare's transvestite heroines are "content to reassume their womanly duties."

All but one of Shakespeare's transvestite heroines belong to the 1590s, when female transvestism was out of fashion on the London streets. After the fashion was revived in early Jacobean London, Shakespeare largely abandoned the device. His sole remaining female transvestite, Imogen in Cymbeline, is ill at ease in her masculine weeds: as Dusinberre points out, "Rosalind and Portia thrive on the masculine life where Imogen wilts beneath it." In All's Well, Shakespeare seems to avoid the device deliberately; Helena travels alone to the court and the wars without adopting male disguise. There are many possible explanations for Shakespeare's abandoning such a cherished plot device; among them is that he recoiled from the sight of real-life women in breeches.

Shakespeare's plays contemporary with the revival of masculine attire among London women (Macbeth, 1606, Antony and Cleopatra, 1607, Coriolanus, 1608) take a persistent interest in women who violate their "natural" sex roles. Shakespeare is not without sympathy, in these plays, for the frustrations of a woman who must live a vicarious life of action through a man who has more freedom to act than she does. But the yearnings of such women for masculinity must have disturbed him: none of his breeches-envying tragic heroines of this period is treated with unqualified approval.

Lady Macbeth's attempt to unsex herself, so as to put on the power and ruthlessness she attributes to men, is foreshadowed by the hermaphroditic witches—bearded women. Macbeth sees her driving ambition as masculine: "Bring forth men-children only, / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males" (I.vii.72-74). But she goads a man into action rather than acting herself. Volumnia's life of action is accomplished vicariously through her son, Coriolanus, whom she imagines fighting, bleeding; when he returns from battle she counts his fresh wounds to keep her tally up to date. "Thou art my warrior," she reminds him; "I holp to frame thee" (V. iii. 63-64). When she is accused of being mannish, she considers it a compliment: "Aye, fool, is that a shame? … / Was not a man my father?" (IV.ii.17-18). Cleopatra, too, is frustrated by the narrow sphere of action allotted to her sex. She imagines Antony riding his horse, commanding his troops. She reports having tried on his sword. Her outburst to Antony, "I would I had thy inches" (I.iii.39), is telling; given her propensity for suggestive remarks, it is unlikely to refer solely to his height. Her one foray into battle is prefaced by a cool verbal sex change: she says she will "appear there for a man" (III.vii.19). The exercise is disastrous. But then Cleopatra has had little experience being a man.

Both the fact that in the 1590s Shakespeare took pains to assert through his transvestite heroines that despite appearances to the contrary, women have a fixed and immutable nature that will declare itself eventually, and the fact that during the early Jacobean years he interested himself in women who try to step out of that feminine nature, showing how such attempts invariably eventuate in failure, death, and/or authorial disapproval, suggest that Shakespeare had caught a whiff of the winds of sexual change blowing in his own culture. The idea that sex roles might alter was apparently an aroma which seared his nostrils.

Catherine Belsey (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies, in Alternative Shakespeares, edited by John Drakakis, Methuen, 1985, pp. 166-90.

[In the following excerpt, Belsey maintains that the spectable of women dressing as men in Shakespeare's comedies generally has the effect of challenging commonly perceived distinctions between traditionally "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics.]

Meaning depends on difference, and the fixing of meaning is the fixing of difference as opposition. It is precisely this identification of difference as polarity which Derrida defines as metaphysical. In conjunction with the common-sense belief that language is a nomenclature, a set of labels for what is irrevocably and inevitably there—whether in the world or in our heads—this process of fixing meaning provides us with a series of polarities which define what is. These definitions are also values. In the oppositions 'I/you', 'individual/society', 'truth/fiction', 'masculine/feminine' one term is always privileged, and one is always other, always what is not the thing itself.

The insistence on meaning as single, fixed and given is thus a way of reaffirming existing values. Conversely, those moments when the plurality of meaning is most insistent are also moments of crisis in the order of existing values. A contest for meaning disrupts the system of differences which we take for granted, throwing into disarray the oppositions and the values which structure understanding. The contest for the meaning of the family which took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries disrupted sexual difference, and in the space between the two sets of meanings, the old and the new polarities, there appear in the fiction of the period shapes, phantasms perhaps, that unsettle the opposition defining the feminine as that which is not masculine—not, that is to say, active, muscular, rational, authoritative … powerful. Women are defined precisely as the opposite sex, and the 'evidence', the location of this antithesis, is the process of reproduction. The family as the proper source of that process, the place of reproduction, is thus among the major determinants of the meaning of sexual difference itself. A radical discontinuity in the meaning of the family, which is not in any sense an evolution, produces a gap in which definitions of other modes of being for women are momentarily visible. The period of Shakespeare's plays is also the period of an explosion of interest in Amazons, female warriors, roaring girls and women disguised as pages.

An interest in female transvestism is not, of course, confined to the Renaissance. It stretches at least from Ovid's story of Iphis and Ianthe (Metamorphoses, IX, lines 666-797) to twentieth-century pantomime. But it is hard to think of any period when the motif is so recurrent. It appears in five of Shakespeare's comedies of love and marriage. And in turn Rosalind and Viola, Portia, Julia and Imogen are the direct descendants of a long line of English and European Renaissance heroines of prose and drama, Neronis, Silla and Gallathea, Lelia, Ginevra, Violetta and Felismena, who are disguised as men in order to escape the constraints and the vulnerability of the feminine.

The great majority of these fictions are romances, narratives of the relations between women and men. It was the love stories of Hippolyta and Penthesilea, rather than their battles, which were commonly recounted. In The Faerie Queene romantic love leading to Christian marriage is personified in Britomart, the female knight, who does physical battle with Radigund for possession of Artegall. Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Lelia, Silla and Violetta disguise themselves specifically to follow the men they love. Perhaps the most remarkable instance is the story of Frederyke of Jennen, known in Germany and the Netherlands in the fifteenth century and translated into English in 1518. Another edition appeared soon after this, and a third in 1560, testifying to the story's English popularity. A merchant's wife whose husband mistakenly believes that she has been unfaithful to him flees from Genoa to Cairo in male disguise. There she is made in rapid succession the king's falconer, a knight and then a lord. Left to govern the realm in the king's absence, she leads the army in a great victory against an invading force, and finally becomes protector of the realm until, twelve years later, in possession of evidence of her innocence, she reveals the truth of her identity and is reunited with her husband. Love and marriage are saved by the transgression of the opposition they are based on.

The redefinition of marriage entails a redefiniton of the feminine. It is not easy to imagine Griselda as a source of apt and cheerful conversation. She is the antithesis of her husband, not his like in disposition. It is as if in order to find a way of identifying women as partners for men, the romances of the sixteenth century draw on the old heroic and chivalric tradition of friendship between men—Palamon and Arcite, Damon and Pithias, Titus and Gisippus. Diguised as boys, Julia, Rosalind and Viola become the daily companions of the men they love and, paradoxically, their allies against love's cruelty. Portia fights Bassanio's legal battle for him—and wins. The two conventions of love and friendship appear side by side in Two Gentlemen of Verona, where by loving Silvia Proteus betrays both his friend, Valentine, and his mistress, Julia (II. vi). If the symmetry between love and friendship is disturbed when Julia disguises herself as Sebastian, it is thrown momentarily into crisis when Valentine offers Silvia to his friend as a token of reconciliation between them. But Julia's presence, possible only because she is disguised as a boy, and her swoon, which simultaneously reaffirms her femininity, are the means to the full repentance of Proteus and the reinstatement of both love and friendship, leading to closure in the promise of a double marriage (V. iv. 170-1).

The effect of this motif of women disguised as men is hard to define. In the first place, of course, it throws into relief the patriarchal assumptions of the period. 'Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold' (As You Like It, I. iii. 106): that women are vulnerable is seen as obvious and natural. It is not, on the other hand, seen as essential or inevitable, but as a matter of appearance. Rape is a consequence not of what women are but of what men believe they are. Rosalind tells Celia,

We'll have a swashing and a martial outside, As many other mannish cowards have That do outface it with their semblances.                  (As You Like It, I. iii. 116-18)

Not all men are equally courageous, but they are all less vulnerable then women because they look as if they can defend themselves. Similarly, Portia's right to exercise her authority depends on her lawyer's robes, and the episode can be seen as making visible the injustice which allows women authority only on condition that they seem to be men. Even while it reaf-firms patriarchy, the tradition of female transvestism challenges it precisely by unsettling the categories which legitimate it.

But I want to propose that a close reading of the texts can generate a more radical challenge to patriarchal values by disrupting sexual difference itself. Of course, the male disguise of these female heroines allows for plenty of dramatic ironies and double meanings, and thus offers the audience the pleasures of a knowingness which depends on a knowledge of sexual difference. But it can also be read as undermining that knowledge from time to time, calling it in question by indicating that it is possible, at least in fiction, to speak from a position which is not that of a full, unified, gendered subject. In other words, the plays can be read as posing at certain critical moments the simple, but in comedy unexpected, question, 'Who is speaking?'

As she steps forward at the end of As You Like It, Rosalind says to the audience, 'It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue' (V. iv. 198), and a little later, 'If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me' (lines 214-16). The lady is not a woman. In a footnote to the second of these observations the Arden edition reminds modern readers of the answer to the implied riddle: 'a boy-player is speaking'. Here in the margins of the play, when one of the characters addresses the audience directly and, by acknowledging that what has gone before is a performance, partly resumes the role of actor (though only partly, of course: the epilogue is a speech written by the dramatist for the actor to perform), the uncertainty about the gender of the speaker in a period when women's parts are played by male actors is part of the comedy. A male actor is speaking, but the joke is that he is simultaneously visually identifiable as a woman, the lady, dressed for her wedding ('not furnished like a beggar', as she insists, line 207), and that he/she will curtsey to acknowledge the audience's applause (line 220). A male actor and a female character is speaking.

The comedy of uncertainty about whether a character is speaking from inside or outside the fiction is evident as early as Medwall's Fulgens and Lucres (c. 1500), where the servants, A and B, come out of the audience at the beginning of the play and assure each other that they are not actors. The epilogue of As You Like It simply compounds the uncertainty and therefore the comedy by confusing the gender roles, so that the question 'Who is speaking?' elicits no single or simple answer. But the comedy of the epilogue owes its resonance in its context to the play's recurrent probing of the question, 'Who is speaking when the protagonist speaks?' And here the uncertainty depends not only on the fact that a male actor plays a woman. Even in the most illusionist of modern theatre, members of the audience live perfectly comfortably with the knowledge that the actor is not really the character, that they have seen the actor in other roles and the character played by other actors. The convention that female parts are played by male actors is presumably equally taken for granted on the Renaissance stage. Within the fictional world of the play, the question 'Who is speaking?' is complicated not so much by the extratextual sex of the actor as by the gender of the protagonist.

It is not that Rosalind-as-Ganymede becomes a man or forgets that she is in love with Orlando. On the contrary, the text repeatedly, if ironically, insists on her feminine identity: 'I should have been a woman by right' (IV. iii. 175); 'Alas the day, what shall I do with my doublet and hose?' (III. ii. 215); 'I would cure you, if you would but call me Rosalind and come every day to my cote and woo me' (III. ii. 414-15). But at other moments the voice is not so palpably feminine and the pleasure of the audience is not a product of irony. When they arrive in the Forest of Arden, Celia-as-Aliena is too exhausted to go any further (II. iv. 61). It is Rosalind-as-Ganymede, therefore, who negotiates with Corin for accommodation: 'Here's a young maid with travel much oppress'd, / And faints for succour' (II. iv. 72-3). We have seen the psychological transformation of Rosalind into Ganymede earlier in the same scene: '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; therefore courage, good Aliena' (lines 3-7). The audience's pleasure in the comedy here is the effect of Ganymede's escape from the limitations of Rosalind's femininity.

In Cymbeline when Imogen disguises herself as Fidele, Pisanio tells her,

You must forget to be a woman: change Command into obedience [she is a princess]:   fear, and niceness (The handmaids of all women, or, more   truly, Woman it pretty self) into a waggish   courage                                  (III. iv. 156-9)

Fear and niceness (fastidiousness, daintiness) are the essence of the feminine, the text insists, 'Woman it pretty self, her identity. But the verbs contradict the notion of a fixed essence of womanhood: 'You must forget to be a woman; change.…' It is the mobility implied by the verbs which characterizes Imogen's reply: 'I see into thy end, and am almost / A man already' (lines 168-9). The scene is not comic; there are no distancing dramatic ironies to point to the absurdity of the claim. To be a woman, the text proposes, means to be nice and fearful; but it also means, as the play demonstrates, to be capable of a radical discontinuity which repudiates those defining characteristics. Imogen concludes: 'This attempt / I am soldier to, and will abide it with / A prince's courage' (lines 184-6). The context in which Imogen takes on the characteristics of a soldier and a prince is a journey which is to lead her to her husband.

Rosalind-as-Ganymede reproduces the conventional invective against women for Orlando, and shocks Celia:

You have simply misused our sex in your loveprate. We must have your doublet and hose plucked over your head, and show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest.

(IV. i. 191-4)

Who is speaking when the protagonist mocks women? The question is more or less eliminated in the process of reading the text by the speech prefixes, which identify the speaker as Rosalind throughout, and in modern performances, where Rosalind-as-Ganymede is played by a woman. No wonder that most of the standard twentieth-century criticism treats the disguise as transparent and stresses Rosalind's femininity. But if we imagine the part played by a male actor it becomes possible to attribute a certain autonomy to the voice of Ganymede here, and in this limited sense the extratextual sex of the actor may be seen as significant. Visually and aurally the actor does not insist on the femininity of Rosalind-as-Ganymede, but holds the issue unresolved, releasing for the audience the possibility of glimpsing a disruption of sexual difference.

The sixteenth-century narrative source, Lodge's Rosalynde, is illuminating in this context. The third-person narrative, compelled, as drama is not, to find appropriate names and pronouns to recount the story, normally identifies the disguised heroine as Ganimede and uses the masculine pronoun. This leads to a good deal of comedy which depends on our acceptance of the dis-continuity of identity:

You may see (quoth Ganimede) what mad catell you women be, whose hearts sometimes are made of Adamant that will touch with no impression; and sometime of waxe that is fit for everie forme: they delight to be courted, and then they glorie to seeme coy … And I pray you (quoth Aliena) if your roabes were off, what metall are you made of that you are so satyricall against women? Is it not a foule bird defiles [his] owne nest? … Thus (quoth Ganimede) I keepe decorum, I speake now as I am Alienas page, not as I am Gerismonds daughter: for put me but into a peticoate, and I will stand in defiance to the uttermost that women are courteous, constant, vertuous, and what not.

Of course this is as absurd as it is delightful, but the delight stems from the facility with which RosalyndeGanimede can speak from antithetical positions, transgress the norms of sexual difference. What is delightful is that, in becoming Ganimede, Rosalynde escapes the confinement of a single position, a single perspective, a single voice. The narrative calls its central figure a 'Girle-boye', and celebrates the plurality it thus releases.

In As You Like It Rosalind is so firmly in control of her disguise that the emphasis is on the pleasures rather than the dangers implicit in the transgression of sexual difference. Other heroines are not so fortunate. In The Famous History of Parismus by Emanuel Forde (1598) Violetta disguised as Adonius disrupts the story's pronouns when she spends the night sleeping between Parismus, whom she loves, and Pollipus, who loves her:

the poore soule lay close at Parismus back, the very sweet touch of whose body seemed to ravish her with joy: and on the other side not acquainted with such bedfellowes, she seemed (as it were) metamorphosed, with a kind of delightful feare … early in the morning Adonius was up, being afraid to uncover her delicate body, but with speed soone araid himself, & had so neatly provided al things against these two knights should rise, that both of them admired his behaviour …

Barnabe Riche's Silla, disguised as Silvio, is compelled to reveal the truth when she is accused of being the father of Julina's child. The double danger implicit in concealment and exposure similarly unsettles the narrative:

And here with all loosing his garmentes doune to his stomacke, and shewed Julina his breastes and pretie teates, surmountyng farre the whitenesse of snowe itself, saiyng: Loe, Madame! beholde here the partie whom you have chalenged to bee the father of your childe. See, I am a woman …

What happens in these instances is not like the case Barthes identifies in Balzac's 'Sarrasine', where the narrative is compelled to equivocate each time it uses a pronoun to identify the castrato. Nor is it that the reader does not know what is 'true', as in a modernist text. It is rather that the unified subjectivity of the protagonist is not the focal point of the narrative. It is not so important that we concentrate on the truth of identity as that we derive pleasure (in these cases a certain titillation) from the dangers which follow from the disruption of sexual difference.

In Twelfth Night these dangers, here romantic rather than erotic, constitute the plot itself—which means for the spectators a certain suspense and the promise of resolution. Viola, addressing the audience, formulates both the enigma and the promise of closure:

What will become of this? 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? O time, thou must untangle this, not I, It is too hard a knot for me t' untie.                                          (II. ii. 35-40)

Of all Shakespeare's comedies it is perhaps Twelfth Night which takes the most remarkable risks with the identity of its central figure. Viola is just as feminine as Rosalind, as the text constantly insists (I. iv. 30-4; III. i. 160-2), and Cesario is as witty a saucy lackey as Ganymede. But it is only in Twelfth Night that the protagonist specifically says, 'I am not what I am' (III. i. 143) where 'seem' would have scanned just as well and preserved the unity of the subject.

The standard criticism has had few difficulties with the 'Patience on a monument' speech, identifying the pining figure it defines as Viola herself, and so in a sense she is. But it is by no means an unproblematic sense. The problems may be brought out by comparison with a parallel episode in Two Gentlemen of Verona (IV. iv. 108 ff.). Julia disguised as Sebastian is wooing Silvia on behalf of Proteus. The ironies are clear, sharp and delightful. Sebastian asks Silvia for her picture for Proteus: Silvia says a picture of the neglected Julia would be more appropriate. Sebastian offers a ring: Silvia refuses it, since it was Julia's, and Sebastian, to her surprise, says, 'She thanks you'. Is Julia not 'passing fair'?, Silvia asks. She was, Sebastian replies, until, neglected by Proteus, she in turn neglected her beauty, 'that now she is become as black as I'. 'How tall was she?' asks Silvia, and Sebastian replies:

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.                                   (IV. iv. 156-70)

In these exchanges the irony depends on the series of identifications available to the audience which are not available to Silvia. Julia looks like Sebastian, her clothes fit Sebastian, Sebastian plays Ariadne lamenting betrayal in love so convincingly, and Sebastian feels Julia's own sorrow, because Sebastian is Julia and Julia is betrayed. The audience's pleasure here consists in recognizing the single speaker who momentarily occupies each of these identities as Julia, and the speeches as an elaborate invention rehearsing what we know to be true within the fictional world of the play.

But this is not so clearly the case in the (roughly) corresponding episode in Twelfth Night. Orsino is telling Cesario that men's love is more profound than women's:

Viola        Ay, but I know— Duke What dost thou know? Viola Too well what love women to men may              owe:      In faith, they are as true of heart as we.      My father had a daughter lov'd a       man,      As it might be perhaps, were I a       woman,      I should your lordship. Duke                And what's her history? Viola A blank, my lord: she never told her             love,      But let concealment like a worm i' th'              bud      Feed on her damask cheek: she pin'd in             thought,      And with a green and yellow melancholy      She sat like Patience on a monument,      Smiling at grief. Was not this love             indeed?                                  (II. iv. 104-16)

How do the identifications work in this instance? Cesario is Viola and Cesario's father's daughter is Patience who is also Viola. But the equations break down almost at once with, 'what's her history?' 'A blank'. Viola's history is the play we are watching, which is certainly not a blank but packed with events. Nor is it true that she never told her love. She has already told it once in this scene (lines 26-8), and she is here telling it again in hints so broad that even Orsino is able to pick them up once he has one more clue (V. i. 265-6). In the play as a whole Viola is neither pining nor sitting, but is to be seen busily composing speeches to Olivia and exchanging jokes with Feste; and far from smiling at grief, she is here lamenting the melancholy which is the effect of unrequited love.

How then do we understand these fictions as telling a kind of truth? By recognizing that the Viola who speaks is not identical to the Viola she speaks of. If Viola is Patience, silent like Patient Griselda, it is not Viola who speaks here. Viola-as-Cesario repudiates the dynastic meaning of the feminine as patience, and yet that meaning is as present in Cesario's speech as the other, the difference which simultaneously defines Cesario as Orsino's companion and partner in suffering, and Viola as a woman.

In reply to Orsino's question, 'But died thy sister of her love?', the exchange ends with a riddle. 'I am all the daughters of my father's house, / And all the brothers too: and yet I know not' (lines 120-2). At the level of the plot the answer to the riddle is deferred to the end of the play: Viola doesn't die; she marries Orsino. But to an attentive audience another riddle presents itself: who tells the blank history of Viola's father's pining daughter? The answer is neither Viola nor Cesario, but a speaker who at this moment occupies a place which is not precisely masculine or feminine, where the notion of identity itself is disrupted to display a difference within subjectivity, and the singularity which resides in this difference.

It cannot, of course, be sustained. At the end of each story the heroine abandons her disguise and dwindles into a wife. Closure depends on closing off the glimpsed transgression and reinstating a clearly defined sexual difference. But the plays are more than their endings, and the heroines become wives only after they have been shown to be something altogether more singular—because more plural.

In an article first published in French in 1979 Julia Kristeva distinguishes between two 'generations' (though the term does not necessarily imply that they are chronologically consecutive) of feminism. The first generation has been concerned with public and political equality for women (votes, equal opportunities, equal pay). The danger here, she argues, is that feminists who succeed in these terms come to identify with the dominant values and take up positions as guardians of the existing order. The second generation has insisted on an irreducible feminine identity, the opposite of what is masculine, accepting the theoretical and ideological structure of patriarchy but reversing its values. This leads to a radical, separatist feminism. The distinction does not, I suspect, stand up to historical analysis, but it does offer models of two kinds of feminist commitment from which Kristeva distinguishes a third generation, or perhaps a third possibility which, she says, 'I strongly advocate, which I imagine?', in which 'the very dichotomy man / woman as an opposition between two rival entities may be understood as belonging to metaphysics'. There can be no specifically feminine identity if identity itself does not exist. In the post-structuralist analysis subjectivity is not a single, unified presence but the point of intersection of a range of discourses, produced and reproduced as the subject occupies a series of places in the signifying system, takes on the multiplicity of meanings language offers. Kristeva's third possibility proposes the internalization of 'the founding separation of the socio-symbolic contract', difference itself as the ground of meaning, within identity, including sexual identity. The effect will be to bring out 'the multiplicity of every person's possible identifications' and the relativity of his or her sociosymbolic and biological existence.

The fragmentation of sexual identity in favour of this fluidity, this plurality, deconstructs all the possible metaphysical polarities between men and women. It is not a question of bisexuality, though the heterosexual 'norms' based on the metaphysics of sexual difference lose their status in the unfixing of sexual disposition. Nor is it a balance between extremes which is proposed, the 'poise' or 'complexity' which criticism has often found characteristic of Rosalind and Viola. The point is not to create some third, unified, androgynous identity which eliminates all distinctions. Nor indeed is it to repudiate sexuality itself. It is rather to define through the internalization of difference a plurality of places, of possible beings, for each person in the margins of sexual difference, those margins which a metaphysical sexual polarity obliterates.

One final instance may suggest something of the fluidity which is proposed. A Midsummer Night's Dream gives us on the periphery of the action a marriage between a warrior and an Amazon: 'Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries' (I. i. 16-17). The text here proposes a parallel where we might expect an antithesis. None the less, apart from their shared commitment to blood sports, Theseus and Hippolyta take up distinct positions on all the issues they discuss. Where Theseus is cynical about the moon, Hippolyta invokes conventional poetic imagery (I. i. 4-11); when Theseus sceptically supposes that the young lovers have been deluded, Hippolyta counters cool reason with wonder (V. i. 2-27); but when Hippolyta finds the mechanicals' play 'the silliest stuff that ever I heard', it is Theseus who invokes imagination: 'The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them' (V. i. 207-9). A criticism in quest of character, of fixed identities, might have difficulty here, since the stereotypes of masculine rationality and feminine imagination are now preserved, now reversed. As a kind of chorus on the edges of a play about love, which in many ways relies on stereotypes, Theseus and Hippolyta present a 'musical discord' which undermines fixity without blurring distinctions. Difference coexists with multiplicity and with love.

My concern in this essay has been with meanings and glimpses of possible meanings. Fictional texts neither reflect a real world nor prescribe an ideal one. But they do offer definitions and redefinitions which make it possible to reinterpret a world we have taken for granted. Post-structuralist theory liberates meaning from 'truth', 'the facts', but it implies a relationship between meaning and practice. New meanings release the possibility of new practices.

It is not obvious from a feminist point of view that, in so far as they seem finally to re-affirm sexual polarity, Shakespeare's comedies have happy endings. It is certain from the same point of view that the contest for the meaning of the family in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not, though on this there is a good deal more to be said. What I have been arguing is that that contest momentarily unfixed the existing system of differences, and in the gap thus produced we are able to glimpse a possible meaning, an image of a mode of being, which is not a-sexual, nor bisexual, but which disrupts the system of differences on which sexual stereotyping depends.

Whether the remainder of the story of the relations between men and women ultimately has a happy ending is, I suppose, for us to decide.

Phyllis Rackin (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Historical Difference/Sexual Difference," in Privileging Gender in Early Modern England: SixteenthCentury Essays & Studies, Vol. XXIII, 1993, pp. 37-63.

[In the following excerpt, Rackin probes the role of gendered spaces and languages in Shakespeare's history plays.]

The first wave of twentieth-century feminist Shakespeare criticism focused on the comedies, especially the ones with cross-dressed heroines, to theorize a theater in which female spectators could find liberating images of powerful, attractive women who violated gender restrictions and were rewarded for those violations with admiration, love, and marriage—a Utopian moment when gender identity was as changeable as the theatrical costumes that transformed boy actors into female characters. The romantic comedies were doubly satisfying to modern feminists, for at the same time that they empowered their female characters, they also celebrated the love between men and women that culminates in marriage. Shakespeare's transvestite comedies satisfied the desires of feminist readers for personal liberation without disturbing the dominant gender ideology of our own time; for they also celebrated the heterosexual passion that provides the basis for the ideal nuclear family, held together by the love between husband and wife, the avenue for personal self-fulfillment and the foundation for the good order of society.

Shakespeare's history plays, however, tell a very different, much less optimistic story. In a recent survey of feminist Shakespeare criticism, Ann Thompson remarks that feminist critics have tended to neglect the English history plays ["'The Warrant of Womanhood': Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism," in The Shakespeare Myth, ed. Graham Holderness, 1988]. Given the roles of women in those plays, this omission is not surprising. Female characters and heteroerotic passion, both central to the comedies, are marginalized or vilified in the histories. The hierarchy of dramatic genres was also a hierarchy of social status: the subjects of history were kings and the great noblemen who opposed them; women and commoners occupied only marginal places in historical narratives.

To move from comedy and history is to move up the generic hierarchy, into the exclusions of the dominant discourse, which was also the discourse of patriarchal dominance. If theology was the master discourse of the middle ages and biology and psychology those of our own, the discourse that authorized the social hierarchy in Shakespeare's time was that of history. Tudor historians produced fables of ancient descent to authenticate a new dynasty's claim to the English throne. Tudor subjects provided a thriving business for the heralds who constructed the genealogies by which they attempted to secure their places in an unstable social hierarchy. The patrilineal genealogy that organized the structure of Tudor history and Tudor society alike required the repression of women and of heteroerotic passion as well because the invisible, putative connection between fathers and sons that formed the basis of patriarchal authority was—as Shakespeare's cuckold jokes endlessly insist—always dubious, always vulnerable to subversion by an adulterous wife. In the case of a king, however, cuckoldry was no laughing matter: not only a source of personal anxiety, it was also a threat to royal succession and therefore the worst possible crime against the state.

In the few cases where heteroerotic passion appears in the histories, it is represented as a dangerous, destructive force, even when it leads to marriage. The comedies look forward to the emergent bourgeois ideal of the loving nuclear family, but the histories look backward to an older conception of marriage as a political and economic union between feudal families—a model that did in fact last longer at the higher levels of the social hierarchy and one that persists to this day among royalty. Shakespeare's Henry VI and Edward IV both reject prudent dynastic marriages in order to marry on the basis of personal passion; both marriages are represented as disastrous mistakes that weaken the men's authority as kings and destabilize the political order of their realms. The desirable marriage between Richmond and Elizabeth, by contrast, the foundation of the Tudor dynasty, is totally uncontaminated by any hint of romantic love—or even by any appearance on stage of the bride-to-be.

Even in their own time, the history plays were understood as a specifically masculine, hegemonic genre. Both the gendered opposition between history and comedy and the ideological uses of the history play can be seen in sixteenth-century debates about the theater. Thomas Nashe, for instance, based his defense of theatrical performance on the masculinity of the English Chronicle play. The "subject" of plays, he claimed, is "(for the most part) borrowed out of our English Chronicles, wherein our forefathers valiant acts … are revived … than which, what can be a sharper reproofe to these degenerate, effeminate dayes of ours." Conflating Englishness with masculinity and both with a lost, heroic past, Nashe opposed the masculine domain of English history to the degenerate, effeminate world of present English experience in order to defend theatrical performance as an inspiration to civic virtue and heroic patriotism. He also invoked the masculine purity of English acting companies. "Our Players," he boasted, "are not as the players beyond Sea, a sort of squirting baudie Comedians, that have whores and common Curtizens to playe womens partes."

It is important to remember, however, that Nashe's argument that the plays would inspire their audiences to patriotism and manly valor represents only one side of a hotly contested debate. Nashe appropriated the authority of English history on behalf of theatrical performance, but in the eyes of its opponents, the theater was associated with the same destabilizing and effeminating forces of social change that the English chronicles were designed to oppose. Antitheatrical invective focused obsessively on the sexually corrupting allurements of bawdy comedies, the immorality of boys in female costume, and the contaminating presence of women in the theater audiences. As Stephen Orgel reminds us, "the English stage was a male preserve, but the theater was not. The theater was a place of unusual freedom for women in the period; foreign visitors comment on the fact that English women go to the theater unescorted and unmasked, and a large proportion of the audience consisted of women."

The opposition between the authoritative masculine discourse of history and the disreputable feminized world of the playhouse is clearly marked in Shakespeare's history plays. Aliens in the masculine domain of English historiography, the women in those plays are often quite literally alien. Beginning with I Henry VI, where all the female characters are French, the women are typically inhabitants of foreign worlds, and foreign worlds are typically characterized as feminine. Moreover, both the women and their worlds are repeatedly characterized as comic and theatrical. The marginal status of women in Shakespeare's historical sources is reproduced in his history plays by a process of geographical and generic containment, which also marks the boundaries between the idealized masculine England of historical narrative and the feminized scene of present theatrical performance. In Henry IV, for instance, women are completely excluded from the English historical action, but they play dominant roles in two places—the unhistorical, lowlife world of East-cheap and the foreign world of Wales. Both Eastcheap and Wales are separated from the central scenes of English historical representation, and both are associated with the illicit powers of female sexuality and theatrical performance. This geographical marking also replicates the situation in the theaters of Shakespeare's time; for although English women never appeared on stage, French and Italian companies, which included women, did occasionally perform in England.

The Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap is a plebeian, comic, theatrical, anachronistically modern world that mirrors the disorderly push and shove of the playhouse itself (the Boar's Head, in fact, was the name of at least six real taverns in Shakespeare's London, one of them used for a theater). Shakespeare represents his Boar's Head as a kind of theater as well. Frequented, like the playhouse, by a disorderly, socially heterogeneous crowd, it is also the scene of play-acting. Falstaff pretends to be Hal, Hal pretends to be Falstaff, and both degrade the dignity of royalty by playing the part of the reigning king. The pleasures of the Boar's Head are illicit, and they are also dangerous. The disreputable crowd the tavern attracts is given to every sort of transgression, from drunkenness and brawling to thieving and prostitution. Here, as in the antitheatrical tracts, the dangers of the playing house are most prominently represented by women and sexuality. Like the prostitutes who looked for customers in the theater audiences, Doll Tearsheet infects her customers with venereal disease; and at the end of 2 Henry IV, when Doll and the Hostess are arrested, we learn that "there hath been a man or two lately killed about her." (V.iv.5-7) Whether "her" means Doll or the Hostess and whether "about" means "concerning" or "near," clearly the women are a source of danger. A. R. Humphreys, the editor of the Arden edition, glosses this line with a quotation from Dekker's Honest Whore: "O how many thus … have let out / Their soules in Brothell houses … and dyed / Iust at their Harlots foot." (III.iii.77-80)

It is significant that the proprietor of the Boar's Head is a Hostess, not a Host, and that she speaks in malapropisms, disrupting the King's English just as the fictional scenes in her tavern disrupt—as they interrupt, retard, and parody—the historical action. The Hostess's economic power, as Jean Howard has observed, recalls the economic power of the women who were paying customers in the playhouse. Her linguistic deformities bespeak her exclusion from the dominant official discourse. Just as the fictional scenes in Eastcheap have no basis in history and no place in the historical action, neither do the women they contain.

It is also significant that although the tavern is clearly marked as a feminized, theatrical space, the character who dominates that space is not the Hostess, or any other woman, but Falstaff. Physically a man and a womanizer, Falstaff is plainly gendered masculine in terms of the binary logic of modern thought. The analogical patterns of Shakespeare's discourse, by contrast, place Falstaff in a feminine structural position. His incompetence on the battlefield, his contempt for honor and military valor, his inconstancy, his lies, his gross corpulence, and his womanizing all imply effeminacy within the system of analogies that separated aristocrat from plebeian, man from woman, and spirit from body. Contemplating what he thinks is Falstaff's corpse at the end of the battle of Shrewsbury, Hal asks, "What, old acquaintance! could not all this flesh keep in a little life?" (V.iv.102-3) Falstaff himself, in a usage that would have been clearly intelligible to Shakespeare's audience, refers to his fat belly as a "womb" (2 Henry IV, IV.iii.22 : "My womb, my womb, my womb undoes me"); and he compares himself to a "sow that hath overwhelm'd all her litter but one." (I.ii.12) Moreover, 1 Henry IV ends with the spectacle of Falstaff mutilating Hotspur's corpse. (V.iv. 128) Wounding the dead hero's thigh, he reenacts the female threat to manhood and military honor symbolized in the opening scene by the report of the Welsh women's mutilation of the corpses of English soldiers (I.i.43-46).

The parallel between the two veiled references to castration suggests an analogical relationship between the world of Eastcheap and that of Wales, both associated with the loss of masculine honor. Analogy, however, is not identity. Although both settings are clearly marked as comic and theatrical and thus as opposed to history, the low comic scenes in the Boar's Head Tavern recall the disorderly scene of present theatrical performance, while the scene in Wales, with its emphasis on magic and romantic love and its exotic setting, recalls the Shakespearean genre of romantic comedy. The women in the tavern are too familiar to enter history, too much like the disorderly women in the theater audience. The woman in Wales, by contrast, is marked as an exotic creature from another world, like the French and Italian actresses who occasionally appeared on the English stage, or the heroine of a narrative romance or romantic comedy.

Or, perhaps, like Queen Elizabeth herself. In this connection, the epilogue to 2 Henry IV is revealing. Despite the absence of women in the preceding scene, the representation of the great historical moment when the wild Prince Hal of popular legend takes his historical place as Henry V, the epilogue contains two references to female presence. One recalls the world of Eastcheap as it acknowledges the presence of women—and of sexual transactions between men and women—in the theater audience: "All the Gentlewomen here have forgiven me," he says, and "if the gentlemen will not, then the gentlemen do not agree with the gentlewomen, which was never seen in such an assembly." The other acknowledges the presence of a woman on the English throne, kneeling "to pray for the Queen."

The matter of Wales, like the presence of a woman on the English throne, haunts the borders of the historical world that Shakespeare constructed in his Lancastrian histories. Both evoked powerful, and related, anxieties for the genealogically obsessed patriarchal culture ruled by Queen Elizabeth—a female monarch who traced her patriarchal right to a Welsh grandfather who had turned to the dim mists of Welsh antiquity to buttress his tenuous genealogical authority, incorporating the red dragon of Cadwallader in the royal arms and giving his eldest son the name of Arthur. Located at England's geographical border, Wales represents a constant military threat, but it also represents the unspeakable realities of female power and authority that threatened the idealized England of masculine longing constructed by Shakespeare's historical myths.

At the beginning of 1 Henry IV, the Earl of Westmer-land comes to the English court with bad news from a Welsh battlefield: Mortimer's army has been defeated in battle, Mortimer captured by Owen Glendower, a thousand of his soldiers killed. Westmerland also reports that after the battle, the Welshwomen committed some "beastly shameless transformation" upon the bodies of the dead English soldiers—an act, he says, "as may not be without much shame retold or spoken of (I.i.44-46). Refusing to describe the act, Shakespeare follows Holinshed, who anxiously reported, "The shamefull villanie used by the Welshwomen towards the dead carcasses, was such, as honest eares would be ashamed to heare, and continent toongs to speake thereof." In Shakespeare's historical source as in his play, Wales is identified as the scene of emasculation and female power—and also as the site of a repression in the English historical narrative.

The shame that narrative represses is clearly intelligible to modern readers—the threat of castration, the founding event in Freudian myths of gender differentiation, but a symbol that proliferates in Shakespeare's play in ways that cannot be contained within the binary logic of modern gender ideology. Veiled references to castration reappear not only in Falstaff's desecration of Hotspur's corpse but also in Kate's playful threat to break Hotspur's "little finger" (II.iii.87) and, for playgoers well-acquainted with Holinshed, in the description of Douglas's capture after the battle of Shrewsbury. Shakespeare follows Holinshed in reporting that the Douglas was captured in flight after the battle because "falling from a hill, he was so bruis'd / That the pursuers took him" (V.v.21-22); but Holinshed specifies the nature of the bruise: "falling from the crag of an hie mounteine, [he] brake one of his cullions, and was taken." In neither case, however, does the wound appear to be a cause for shame; in fact, both Shakespeare and Holinshed immediately add that the Douglas was, because of his great valor, at once set free. Because of his "valiantnesse" (Holinshed), "valors" and "high deeds" (Shakespeare), the Douglas is honored as a noble man, a status unaffected by the genital wound.

Moreover, although Westmerland's veiled reference to female savages who intrude on the masculine space of the battlefield to deprive the English soldiers of their manhood and honor characterizes the Welshwomen in terms that signal "masculine woman" to us, that characterization appears to be completely reversed in Act III, when Shakespeare moves beyond the boundary of English historical narration to stage a scene in Wales. Mortimer is happily married to Glendower's daughter, and the castrating savages of Westmerland's report are nowhere to be seen. The only Welshwoman we see is perfectly feminine—Glendower's weeping daughter, who is so devoted to her husband that she cannot bear the thought of his impending departure. The lady cannot speak English but her father translates. She also expresses her love in tears, in kisses, and in singing "the song that pleases" Mortimer. Music, as Shakespeare's Orsino tells us, was considered the "food of love." Philip Stubbes, well known for his warnings against the dangerous consequences of theatregoing, also warned that music could corrupt "good minds, [making] them womanish and inclined to all kinds of whoredom and mischief." In fact the spectacle of a woman singing was widely regarded in Shakespeare's time as an incitement to lust.

Suffused with luxurious sensuality, the scene in Glendower's castle replaces the horrified report of Welsh barbarism with the glamour of Glendower's poetry and his daughter's singing, the castrating savages of the battlefield with the seductive allure of the lady in the castle. What makes this replacement baffling to modern consciousness is that Glendower's daughter is associated with the castrating women of the battle-field. Unwilling to part with her amorous companion, she resolves that "she'll be a soldier too, she'll to the wars." Moreover, Mortimer's passion for his wife does indeed seem to emasculate him. Although Shakespeare emphasizes Mortimer's lineal claim to the English throne, Mortimer himself prefers what he calls the "feeling disputation" of kisses with his wife to military battle in pursuit of that claim. "As slow as hot Lord Percy is on fire to go" to join the battle that will decide the future of the English kingdom, Mortimer has lost his manhood to female enchantment. Hotspur's male "heat," by contrast, makes him eager to leave his wife for battle.

Shakespeare's Welsh interlude replaces the unspeakable horror of castration with the theatrical performance of seduction. A similar displacement seems to characterize Shakespeare's relation at this point to his historical source. The love scene has no historical precedent, but its structural position in Act III of the play is similar to that of a passage inserted by Abraham Fleming in the 1587 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles (the edition Shakespeare used). Fleming interrupts the account of a later battle to insert a detailed account of the act Holinshed had refused to describe:

The dead bodies of the Englishmen being above a thousand lieng upon the ground imbrued in their owne bloud … did the women of Wales cut off their privities, and put one part thereof into the mouthes of everie dead man, in such sort that the aillions hoong downe to their chins; and not so contented, they did cut off their noses and thrust them into their tailes as they laie on the ground mangled and defaced.

Fleming seems delighted with the grisly story, introducing it with numerous references to gory atrocities committed by women against men in classical times, but he also feels constrained to defend his decision to write the problematic material into the English historical record. He notes the precise location in Thomas Walsingham's Latin chronicle where he found it, and he explains,

though it make the reader to read it, and the hearer to heare it, ashamed yet bicause it was a thing doone in open sight, and left testified in historie; I see little reason whie it should not be imparted in our mother toong to the knowledge of our owne countrimen, as well as unto strangers in a language unknowne.

Fleming's belated account of the atrocities performed by the Welsh-women seems to lie behind Shakespeare's deferred Welsh scene, but Shakespeare transvalues the terms of Fleming's gruesome description. Fleming's account of bloody corpses lying on the ground, their organs of bottom and top horribly transposed, becomes the lady's seductive invitation to Mortimer to lie down upon the "wanton rushes," his head luxuriously resting in her lap, while she sings "to charm his blood with pleasing heaviness," a delicious languor like the state "twixt wake and sleep." The strange tongue from which Fleming translated his gruesome story becomes the sweet babble of the lady's Welsh, a sound that Mortimer calls "ravishing," and compares to a song "sung by a fair queen in a summer's bow'r" and that Shakespeare represents by repeated stage directions, "The lady speaks in Welsh. "

Like the historical record of the Welshwomen's barbarism, and like the French that Katherine speaks in Henry V, Glendower's daughter speaks in a language that requires translation. Departing from theatrical convention to write the women's lines in foreign tongues, Shakespeare excludes them from the linguistic community that includes all of the male characters—French and Welsh as well as English—along with his English-speaking audience. The difference, however, is that while Katherine learns English in order to communicate with Henry, Mortimer proposes to learn Welsh. Bewitched and enthralled in Wales, he proposes to abandon the King's English, the discourse of patriarchal authority, in order to enter the alien discourse of a world that lies beyond the bounds of English historical narration.

Shakespeare's representation of Mortimer in Wales interrupts the progress of the English historical plot to depict the dangerous allure of a world that is feminine and effeminating, and also theatrical. It enacts Renaissance beliefs that excessive sensuality would make a man effeminate, and it recalls the antitheatrical arguments that the theater encouraged idleness and lechery. It also reveals the difficulty of writing sexuality into history. Geographically and dramatically isolated, the Welsh scene of sexual seduction anticipates modern conceptions of love and war as alternative activities, linked in gendered antithesis: the romantic interludes that interrupt the military action in modern war movies; the poignant juxtaposition of idealized love and dirty war in novels like Hemingway's Farewell to Arms; and the famous rallying cry of the 1960s, "make love, not war." But it is difficult to find modern counterparts for Shakespeare's conflation of heteroerotic desire with the loss of sexual identity. The closest modern analog I can think of is boys in a schoolyard, afraid to play with the girls because having a girlfriend will make a boy a sissy. But the analogy shouldn't be pushed too far. By the time those boys are eighteen, they'll boast about "scoring" to prove their manhood. It really was different. On Shakespeare's stage, the Welsh lady herself was a boy. Unwritten, the incomprehensible language that masks the lady's meaning changes with every performance. All we have is her father's translation.

Jean R. Brink (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Domesticating the Dark Lady," in Privileging Gender in Early Modern England: Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, Vol. XXIII 1993, pp. 93-108.

[In the following essay, Brink investigates Shakespeare 's portrayal of powerful women within patriarchal systems, using examples from selected sonnets, Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus.]

Theoretical models are frames through which we examine the particular events and specific individuals inscribed in documentary and literary texts. At their best, frames, like genres and literary conventions, suggest questions to be addressed; at their worst they obscure our vision, relegating to the periphery or concealing entirely anything that does not square with our assumptions. Since frames must select and focus, they render more abstract the complex texture of the material we examine.

Surely this selectivity explains at least in part the phenomenon of diametrically opposed theoretical conclusions about whether Shakespeare supported or subverted patriarchy. In examining Shakespearean criticism on gender, we are repeatedly confronted by oppositions that are very difficult to resolve. In [Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, 1989], for example, Carol Neely traces in his works a disturbing masculinist ideology that women are dangerous, while Shirley Garner finds Shakespeare maintaining the view that women are divinely forgiving.

Descriptions of the culture offstage are also far from transparent. The same kinds of contradictions are en-countered when we look at historical responses to the question of whether women did in fact have a Renaissance. While it is true that some literary scholars have uncritically inferred the social context from a formalist analysis of Shakespeare's texts, we need to be aware that "historical contexts" are themselves constructed. In order to address the question of whether women had a Renaissance in early modern England, scholars have had to develop from surviving records a set of assumptions about what life was like in medieval English society and then to juxtapose this construct with an equally hypothetical set of postulates about the position of women in early modern England. At its most fruitful, the dialogue that has emerged has increased our awareness of the complexities of the intersection of political, legal, economic, and cultural status. When we encounter the scene between Hotspur and Kate in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, we not only see a domestic interchange that puts Hotspur's character in a more attractive light (and that serves as foil for the tavern parody in which Falstaff and Prince Hal construct Hotspur's domestic personality), but we also recognize that we are not dealing with a single culture, either on or off stage. From Hotspur's teasing ridicule of Kate, we learn that social class complicated linguistic codes. Hotspur teases his wife Kate for saying "in good sooth" (III.i.244), telling her to "swear me, Kate, like a lady as thou art, / A good mouth-filling oath, and leave 'in sooth,' / And such protest of pepper-gingerbread, / To velvet-guards and Sunday-citizens" (III.i.251-54). He ridicules the linguistic delicacy of a "comfit-maker's wife," leaving no doubt that considerations of social class affected codes of conduct for women.

Although we live in a poststructuralist theoretical environment in which scholarly discourse about sexuality has become fashionable, the surprised reaction of students to Shakespeare's bawdy puns should remind us that ours is also a post-Victorian society. Our linguistic codes of what is acceptable to say in "polite company," i.e., groups including women, are probably more "gendered" than were those of the Elizabethans. The conduct manuals, whether Elizabethan or Victorian, do not reflect a value-free culture in which women and men are perceived as individuals unencumbered by mores of class and gender. Even though Elizabethan conduct books advocated that a virtuous woman be "chaste, silent, and obedient," we have no way of knowing how effective this advocacy was.

For this reason, I want to limit my analysis to a few selected women who were—or are—threatening to patriarchy, to an established social order in which male dominance and female subservience are assumed. I propose to use the literary archetype of a female figure who is promiscuous, assertive, and unruly—the Dark Lady of the Sonnets—to interrogate the patriarchal structure of two of Shakespeare's Roman plays Titus Andronicus and Antony and Cleopatra. My purpose is not to offer formal analyses of these plays or even character studies of the women themselves, but to examine how they fare in the intensely patriarchal world of Shakespeare's Roman plays. Then, I will look at secondary scholarship on Coriolanus, principally as a means of suggesting how the unexamined gender stereotypes of critics influence perceptions of patriarchy. Post-Victorian criticism, I will argue, sets out to "contain" powerful women, because it habitually sentimentalizes the feminine. This literary and cultural analysis will shed light on why critics have reached such contradictory conclusions regarding Shakespeare's strategies for representing women.

One of Shakespeare's most troubling but perennially fascinating literary archetypes is the Dark Lady of his Sonnets. The Dark Lady has so intrigued his readers that speculation regarding her historical identity has generated shelves of books devoted to literary detection. An archetype, as I shall use the term in this paper, invites, but rejects being flattened into a conventional bad woman—whore or shrew. It is precisely this resistance to placement that characterizes and generates the power of the Dark Lady. Shakespeare's sonnet mistress, moreover, is but one of several Dark Ladies who resist domestication in their respective literary contexts: to describe their fortunes in his plays is hardly to chart the history of sixteenth-century women, but analysis of their representation can assist us in understanding and confronting the interpretive politics that prompts the investigation. It is too simplistic to suggest, as Constance Jordan has [in Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models, 1990] that "the image itself—of a woman who is the virtuous equal of the man—is always an image of the culturally alien. The figures of Hippolyta, Semiramis, Dido, Camilla, and Artemisia, among others, are united not only by their virility but also by their barbarism." In fact, the critical reception of Shakespeare's Dark Ladies affords us a particularly illuminating record of how interpretive politics operates. Changing political ideologies and gender stereotypes can reconstruct heroines as monsters or aliens as romantic figures.

Although not an entirely coherent group, Shakespeare's sonnets numbered 127-152 depict a woman "colored ill" (144, 4) whose dark hair and eyes reflect an inner darkness that Shakespeare describes "as black as hell, as dark as night" (147, 14). The sonneteer is both attracted to and repelled by this woman whom he characterizes as leading him to expend his spirit in "a waste of shame" (129, 1). If the narrative of these sonnets is construed literally, an intriguing story emerges in which the sonneteer's dark-haired mistress has seduced a young man "right fair" (144, 3), whose patronage and affection are important to the sonneteer. In one of many types of attempts to "domesticate" the Dark Lady, readers of Shakespeare have persisted in identifying her with actual women such as Mary Fitton or the Italian musician Emilia Lanier.

Shakespeare's Dark Lady, unlike Daniel's Delia, an anagram for Ideal, or Drayton's Idea, is highly sensual. She is untrustworthy and promiscuous, but her very promiscuity renders her powerful. Not only can she reject the poet, she can betray and humiliate him. The Dark Lady of the Sonnets dominates men, controlling her relationship with both the poet and the young man. She is "the bad angel," who will "fire … out" (144, 14) the "man right fair" (144, 3). In her relationship with the sonneteer, she exercises mastery, acting as a sovereign. When the poet begs her to "Use power with power, and slay me not by art" (139, 4), he hopes that she will use her sexual power with authority, that she will not tease him into submission and then deny him.

Sonnet 143 offers the most revealing example of the male sonneteer's helplessness when faced with female potency. In this sonnet, the Dark Lady is imagined to be a "careful housewife." The term "housewife" could be used for a prostitute and had connotations retained in our word "hussy." The housewife is a mother who puts her child down in order to pursue "one of her feathered creatures." The sonneteer describes himself as "I, thy babe" and imagines his mother/mistress catching the creature that she pursues and then returning to him. He invites her to "play the mother's part, kiss me, be kind."

Freud has taught us to be very sensitive to the potentially sexual overtones to the relationship between mother and son, but cultural mores, possibly more resonant in early modern England than in our own day, further problematize this relationship. In a patriarchal system, a mother's honor insures that her son will be "legitimate," recognized as a lawful participant in the patriarchal state. To call into question the chastity of a man's mother remains to this day a value-laden insult in our slang. Further, as more than one critic has pointed out, in a patriarchal system, when a woman marries, her honor, like her property, passes into her husband's keeping. We have only to reflect upon the profound suffering of Othello when he believes that Desdemona has betrayed him to recognize the emasculating and humiliating threat of female promiscuity.

The taboo against female promiscuity seems also to have extended to sexual relationships occurring outside marriage. Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing has not yet married Hero, but he responds to the threat of her infidelity as though he had indeed been betrayed and cuckolded. In the archetype of the Dark Lady, Shakespeare forges powerful psychic links between mother and mistress, between the female as a source of nurture and sexual gratification and the female as a powerful "other," capable of subverting male honor and threatening patriarchal order.

The Dark Lady of the Sonnets demonstrates a remarkable affinity with the villainous Tamora of Titus Andronicus and Cleopatra, the dark temptress, whose wiles enslave Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. Analysis of these parallels enables us to probe the gender politics of these fictional constructs. Titus Andronicus, written early in Shakespeare's career, portrays Tamora as a Dark Lady, not only alienated from, but in opposition to the dominant patriarchal culture. Few plays illustrate so vividly the way in which patriarchy and patriotism can combine to crush the Dark Lady and so to eradicate any threat posed by female power.

As a brief summary of the events in the opening scene suggests, Tamora, the barbarian queen, is represented sympathetically by Shakespeare at the outset of the play. Titus, who has conquered the Goths, is introduced as the spokesman for patriotic values. He hails Rome as "victorious in thy mourning weeds" (I.i.73) because his victory over the Goths has been won at the price of his sons' lives. His piety has led him to carry their bodies back for burial in Rome. At the burial site of his brothers, Titus' son Lucius urges the sacrifice of the highest ranked among the captured Goths. Since Titus has captured Tamora and her three sons, leading them as captives to Rome, the eldest of her sons has the highest rank among the prisoners. When Tamora's son is selected to be dismembered and sacrificed to appease the shades of the slain Romans, among them Titus' sons, she appeals to Titus as a father to respect her maternity. She asks him to pity "[a] mother's tears in passion for her son." (I.i.109) Imploring Titus to value familial bonds over political allegiance, she cries out:

O, if to fight for king and commonweal Were piety in thine, it is in these.                                        (I.i.117-18)

Within the framework of the play, Tamora is allowed this one moment of humanity in the opening scene before she comes to epitomize inhuman cruelty. Titus, however, brushes aside Tamora's appeal to maternal and paternal values and authorizes the religious rites in which her son will have his limbs "lopped" (I.i.146) and entrails fed to the "sacrificing fire." (I.i.143-45)

In revenge Tamora sets out to destroy Titus and his family. Her position as a barbarian queen, her lust for the black Aaron, her politic deceptions, and her gleeful savagery intensify our awareness of the threat she poses to the patriarchal structure. In Titus Andronicus patriarchy is linked to the patriotic issue of Rome's future government. The city is in the process of choosing a new emperor, and Titus, who is offered the throne, becomes an arbitrator. Owing to Titus' belief in the hallowed patriarchal tenet of primogeniture, Saturnius is elected the emperor and offers to make Titus' daughter Lavinia his empress. No sooner has Saturnius committed himself to the fair, "lily-like" Lavinia, than he expresses his preference for Tamora: "A goodly lady, trust me, of the hue / That I would choose, were I to choose anew." (I.i.264-65) Tamora's "hue" or complexion is never explicitly identified as dark, and a surviving contemporary illustration depicts her as white, but Saturnius' preference for her "hue" over that of the pale Lavinia allows us to infer that her character, like that of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, may be "colored ill." Her erotic involvement with the black Moor Aaron, who holds her "fett'red in amorous chains" (II.i.15), further associates her with dark passions. Like the Dark Lady, she dissembles, pleading with Saturnius to pardon Titus while she plots to massacre his family and faction. After the opening scene, the maternal values, which Tamora so poignantly expressed when she begged for her son's life, are overshadowed by her fierce pride in her rank as queen and unremitting lust for revenge against

The cruel father, and his traitorous sons, To whom I sued for my dear son's life; And make them know what 'tis to let a queen Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain.                                      (I.i.455-58)

When Lavinia, faced with rape, appeals to Tamora for pity and asks her to sympathize as a woman and mother, Tamora disclaims any knowledge of tenderness.

The contrast established between the alien and promiscuous Tamora and the fair-haired Lavinia illustrates the pervasive authority of patriarchy and its power to marginalize women. In the first scene, Tamora pleads for motherhood as an important human bond, calling into question the patriarchal and patriotic values which Titus espouses. Within the paternal structure of this play, her challenge to these values seems to require that she be discredited and denigrated. By the end of the play, she is portrayed as a "ravenous tiger" (V.iii.195), consumed by her ambitious pride and lascivious, adulterous passion. Tamora ceases to be a woman, even to be human: she metamorphoses into something akin to the bloodthirsty allegorical Revenge of The Spanish Tragedy.

If Tamora comes to embody Revenge, Lavinia figures as the quintessential female victim. Lavinia exists only as a cipher for the male honor of her brothers and father. When Titus insists that Lavinia be restored to the emperor, her brother Lucius says, "Dead, if you will." (I.i.300) Later, she dies by her father's hand because she "should not survive her shame" and by her "presence still renew his sorrows." (V.iii.41-42) Before killing his daughter, Titus asks if it were "well done of rash Virginius / To slay his daughter with his own right hand, / Because she was enforced, stained, and deflowerd?" (V.iii.36-38) In the best-known Elizabethan versions of the story, Virginius kills his daughter to prevent her rape, but Titus kills Lavinia because her loss of honor, however involuntary, shames him. Raped and mutilated, Lavinia is sentenced to death by the emperor and then killed by her father. Her death sentence is delivered with no indication that her life matters except insofar as her mutilated body may give pain to the paternal custodian of her honor. In contrast to the victimized Lavinia, whose speechless body alone pleads her case, Tamora openly challenges patriarchal justice. For challenging the system, Tamora is condemned to lose her humanity; her life is "beastly" and, as Lucius adds, "devoid of pity." (V.iii.199) Although Tamora is excluded physically from the play's conclusion, and indeed from the human community, the last scene of the play in which Lucius sentences her to be eaten by birds remains troubling.

How seriously are we to take the patriarchal justice administered? Are we expected to view Tamora's end as a kind of poetic justice, in which she gets what she deserves for failing to accept her son's death? The new ruler of Rome will be Titus' son, Lucius, and it is the very same Lucius who first proposed that the noblest of the Goths be sacrificed upon the altar of Roman dead. Lucius savors how he will "hew his limbs and on a pile / Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh." (I.i.100-01) After announcing that "Alarbus' limbs are lopped," he triumphantly exclaims that the smoke consuming his flesh "like incense doth perfume the sky." (I.i.148) Lucius lauds human sacrifice at the beginning of the play; at the end he has been acclaimed emperor. He delivers the last speech, which sums up the justice to be dispensed to those responsible for the tragedy.

We should note that his justice is far from blind to gender. Saturnius, the dead Roman emperor who actually killed Titus Andronicus, is forgiven for his role in bringing to pass the tragic events and will be given "burial in his father's grave." (V.iii.192) The male figure of authority is allowed honorable burial because he was deceived and dishonored by the Dark Lady. No funeral rites are allowed to Tamora. Queen of the Goths and erstwhile Empress of Rome, Tamora will be "thrown forth to beasts and birds to prey." (V.iii. 198) Lavinia is sacrificed to patriarchal justice while Tamora is betrayed by that same justice and then excluded from the patriarchal rituals that she has dared to challenge. To privilege gender in a reading of Titus Andronicus is to valorize patriarchy.

In turning to Antony and Cleopatra, a later and more complicated study of the Dark Lady in conflict with a Roman world, we find the same endorsement of patriarchal values in the action of the play. Nevertheless, the complex function of gender in Antony and Cleopatra has been repeatedly sentimentalized in secondary criticism in order to explain away the patriarchal politics of the play. In early psychoanalytic studies of Shakespeare's works, critics elaborated a scheme in which issues of gender were resolved in the tragedies in order to prepare for the late romances where they were understood to be fully transcended. In his study of Antony and Cleopatra ["Shakespeare through Contemporary Psychoanalysis," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytical Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn, 1980], Murray M. Schwartz, for example, claims that the dialectic between male and female, Rome and Egypt, duty and pleasure, reason and passion is transcended. Antony, he argues, is no less a man for breaking out of the mold of the Roman soldier into Cleopatra's realm. Those are certainly not the views of either Enobarbus or Octavius.

Even in studies focusing on Shakespeare's women, Cleopatra has been treated as a happy blend of lover and political person, and her relationship with Antony has been described as one which "mutuality nourishes" their development. Shakespeare's characterization of Cleopatra, however, supports the view that female power and sexuality cannot be reconciled with patriarchy and patriotism. Only by committing suicide in "the high Roman fashion" (IV.xv.90) does Cleopatra win from Octavius a tribute to her royal status:

Bravest at the last, She levelled at our purposes, and being   royal, Took her own way.                                     (V.ii.333-35)

Octavius does far more than conquer Cleopatra; he judges her. To him, she seems beautiful even in death, "like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace." (V.ii.344-46) Although Octavius orders that she be buried with Antony in a "solemn show" (V.ii.364), he observes that she has not in fact died in "the high Roman fashion." Cleopatra, Octavius notes, has "pursued conclusions infinite / Of easy ways to die." (V.ii.353-54) Her choice of death by an asp, "[her] baby at [her] breast" (V.ii.309), pre-serves her beauty; her crown and robes serve as the costume that she will wear during the "solemn show" of her funeral. She will be buried in one grave with Antony, a grave which will "clip in it" (V.ii.299) a famous pair. The use of the word "clip," meaning embrace, has sexual connotations that remind us of Cleopatra's dark and emasculating passions even while paying her tribute.

Cleopatra, like the Dark Lady and Tamora, violates the behavioral norms specifying that virtuous women should be chaste, silent, and obedient, but she never exhibits power except through her sexuality and never achieves recognition as a political figure. Her complexion is dark: she is "with Phoebus' amorous pinches black / And wrinkled deep in time" (I.v.28-29). Charmian counsels Cleopatra to please Antony, to give way to his whims and moods, but Cleopatra rejects that accommodating role, commenting that Charmian "teaches like a fool." (I.iii.10) She challenges and provokes, rejecting the traditional wisdom that female influence can best be secured by subordination and acquiescence.

In Act III, Cleopatra does assume the mantle of authority, informing Enobarbus that she will participate in the battle as "the president of [her] kingdom" and "appear there for a man." (III.vii.17-18) In this instance in which she might have been depicted as exhibiting judgment or courage, she is portrayed only as insuring Antony's defeat. Cleopatra's influence over Antony and his enslavement to passion result in the flawed decision to fight on sea rather than on land. Enobarbus comments that "his whole action grows / Not in the power on't" (III.vii.68-69); their leader Antony is being led, and they have been made into "women's men." (70) Antony, who blames Cleopatra's "magic" (III.x.19) for his defeat, obligingly follows her from the sea battle "like a doting mallard." (20) She is described even by Antony as having "full supremacy" (III.xi.59) over his spirit and as his "conqueror." (III.xi.66) Enobarbus, queried as to who was to blame for the defeat, assures Cleopatra that it was Antony. Antony, he tells her, ought not to have let his will conquer his reason nor to have allowed "the itch of his affection" to nick "his captainship." (III.xiii.7-8) Cleopatra does not achieve heroic stature by acting as "the president of [her] kingdom" and appearing at the battle as a "man" (III.vii.17-18), but she succeeds in turning Antony into a woman. In terms of sexual politics, it is the final touch of irony for her to be portrayed as accepting Enobarbus' easy assurance that the defeat is Antony's fault because as a man—naturally superior in responsibility—he should have known better than to let himself be overruled by a woman.

Octavius says that "[w]omen are not / In their best fortunes strong" and that "want will perjure / The ne'ertouched vestal" (III.xii.30-31), a misogynist observation that Cleopatra's behavior in this play largely justifies. She immediately concedes to Octavius' messenger that her honor was never "yielded" to Antony (III.xiii.61), agreeing that she was "conquered." (III.xiii.62) She sensually flirts with Caesar's messenger, flaunting her sexual promiscuity with erotic allusions to her affair with Julius Caesar. When Antony suspects her of treason with Octavius, she feigns death. Too craven to leave her monument to bid farewell to Antony, she insists that her dying lover be drawn up to her on a pulley.

After she resolves to die in the "high Roman fashion," she conceals a large portion of her fortune from Caesar. It is when she becomes convinced that she will be led captive to Rome and mocked on the stage that she reconciles herself to dying by her own hand. Significantly, she describes her decision to preserve her royal honor as banishing the woman from her:

My resolution's placed, and I have nothing Of woman in me; now from head to foot I am marble-constant; now the fleeting moon No planet is of mine.                                   (V.ii.238-41)

For Cleopatra, to be resolute, "marble-constant," is to banish the "women in [her]." To be female is as weak and fickle a state to Cleopatra as it is to Octavius. Earlier, when Octavius comments on Antony's Egyptian debauchery, he describes him as "not more man-like / Than Cleopatra," adding that the "queen of Ptolemy" is not "[m]ore womanly than he." (I.iv.6-7) Octavius sneeringly insinuates that Cleopatra has emasculated Antony, and the action of the play validates his judgment.

In Titus Andronicus, Tamora is expelled from the human community, denied even burial. Twentieth-century critics agree that it is death that confers nobility on Cleopatra, but it is a death that she chooses only after she has expunged her gender. When Cleopatra says "I have nothing / Of woman in me," she means that she has the courage to choose death over dishonor. The power that Cleopatra exhibits is sexual, and she uses it to "tie up [Antony] in a field of feasts" and "prorogue his honor." (I.v.23,25) Octavius, who judges Cleopatra principally on her sexuality and treats her as a pawn in power politics, describes her as beautiful in death, but does not fail to observe that she chose an easy death. Shakespeare's Tamora and Cleopatra, like his Dark Lady, are powerful "others," whose female sexuality threatens male hierarchy. Even though Shakespeare's Dark Ladies are sensual, promiscuous, deceitful, calculating, untrustworthy, and emasculating, moral retribution alone does not bring on their catastrophes. Death is the price that the Dark Lady pays for challenging or subverting the patriarchal order, and, in the case of Cleopatra, we, like Octavius, regret her loss. The quality of life has been impoverished by the triumph of Octavius and the restoration of patriarchy has been costly.

The world of the Roman play Coriolanus, like that of Titus Andronicus and Antony and Cleopatra, is informed by a strongly patriarchal system, but the action in this highly political play portrays the threatening woman as triumphant. Volumnia, however, differs from the Dark Lady because she is chaste, albeit far from silent and obedient. Her passionate rhetoric led Furnivall in his 1877 Introduction to the Leopold Shakespeare to celebrate her virtue: "from mothers like Volumnia came the men who conquered the known world and have left their mark for ever on the nations of Europe … no grander, nobler woman was ever created by Shakespeare's art." The Furness Variorum of 1928 offers equally strong endorsements of Volumnia. Mrs. Jameson celebrates her "lofty patriotism, her patrician haughtiness, her maternal pride, her eloquence and her towering spirit," adding that "the truth of female nature is beautifully preserved, and the portrait, with all its vigour, is without harshness." In the same Variorum collection, Hudson remarks that "Volumnia is a superb figure indeed, yet a genuine woman throughout, though with a high strain of what may be called manliness pervading her womanhood." And, Grace Latham observes that "To this day Volumnias are not by any means uncommon in England, especially in periods of national struggle and danger, combining with great pride of place an intense devotion to their country, to which they will sacrifice not only their pride, but the family ties which are yet dearer to their women's hearts." Latham then describes Virgilia as Volumnia's foil, observing that she "is one of those quiet, gentle, persistent women with whom we often meet, who seem all submission, but who in the long run mostly get their way." Commenting that Coriolanus' wife Virgilia was "an irritating daughter-in-law," she notes that Volumnia is "too large minded to make petty quarrels" and that "she puts [Virgilia] forward to walk first in the procession which goes to implore mercy for Rome." To Latham, Volumnia's silence at the conclusion of the play is fully in keeping with her character: "She has made the greatest of all sacrifices for her country; and just as she would not show her anxiety when her Marcius was at the wars, so now she hides her pain and goes home to weep." Furnivall, Jameson, Hudson, and Latham appropriate Volumnia as their heroine, treating Coriolanus not as the product of an unnatural mother, but as an independent agent responsible for his own unwise choices and final catastrophe.

To understate the shift in perspective, Volumnia's stature as a noble, powerful, and respected female figure has come under attack in the latter part of the twentieth century. Just short of a hundred years after Furnivall, in 1967, G. R. Hibbard in his introduction to the Penguin Shakespeare anatomizes her flaws: "To Volumnia the fulfilling of her ambitions for her son is more important than any principles. The honour she has held up before him proves to be a tainted thing. She advises him to practice lying and dissimulation, to cultivate the art of flattery, which he has always despised, in order to recover the power he is in such danger of losing. There is, in fact, nothing to choose between her and the Tribunes." In contrast, Virgilia is lauded by Hibbard as "'the gracious silence' at the heart of this stormy play" on the grounds that she does "acknowledge her own feelings and is not afraid of them."

Harold Bloom's recent statement [in his Introduction to Coriolanus, 1988] that "Volumnia hardly bears discussion, once we have seen that she would be at home wearing armor in The Iliad" represents a late-twentieth-century critical consensus. Not surprisingly, Bloom includes in his recent collection of essays offering critical perspectives on Coriolanus, a highly influential essay by Janet Adelman, who views Volumnia's nurture as cruel and suggests that Coriolanus channeled his need for nourishment into phallic aggression:

When Volumnia triumphs over his rigid maleness, there is a hint of restitution in the Roman celebration of her as 'our patroness, the life of Rome' (V.v.l). But like nearly everything else at the end of this play, the promise of restitution is deeply ironic: for Volumnia herself has shown no touch of nature as she willingly sacrifices her son; and the cries of 'welcome, ladies, welcome!' (V.v.6) suggest an acknowledgment of female values at the moment in which the appearance of these values not in Volumnia but in her son can only mean his death.

The crucial point in this summary is reached when Adelman claims that the play is unsatisfactory because it is Coriolanus who exhibits the "female" values assumed to be lacking in the unnatural Volumnia.

Late twentieth-century critical perspectives on Volumnia are thus highly revealing. Volumnia violates the modern codes of femininity and maternity held by female and male critics. Her "nurturing" is most frequently described as "cruel" because her behavior does not accord with sentimental stereotypes of the mother as the natural source of nourishment and nurture. In her final plea to Coriolanus, she describes herself as a "poor hen, fond of no second brood" who has "clucked him to the wars, and safely home / Laden with honour." (V.iii.162-64) Even a critic who is sympathetic to Volumnia [Christina Luckyj, "Volumnia's Silence," Studies in English Literature 31, 1991] has written of this passage:

The bathos of Volumnia's presentation of herself as a 'poor hen, fond of no second brood' (V.iii.162-63), in its absurd incongruity comes close to domestic comedy, but may also suggest her clumsy approach to new feelings.

Like Shylock, representations of Volumnia on the stage vary radically, ranging from the fierce virago to Jewish-American mother. The reviewer of a 1972 Royal Shakespeare Company production describes her as "an exultantly bourgeois matriarch seen at her most typical when computing the number of her son's battle wounds as if they were cricket runs." It is enlightening to imagine the reaction of late-nineteenth-century critics who appropriated Volumnia as the noblest of Shakespeare's heroines to these representations of her as a comic and bourgeois mother.

Similarly, the nineteenth-century critic who described Virgilia as an "irritating daughter-in-law" would be surprised to learn that she is now most frequently perceived as the "gracious silence" whose gentle and obedient temperament constitutes an implicit critique of her fierce and unnatural mother-in-law. Is it possible that post-Victorian stereotypes of female behavior coincide more than we recognize with those of the Elizabethan handbooks? For some critics the appropriately female behavior of the chaste, obedient, and, above all, silent Virgilia appears to redeem her from any hint of complicity in the death of Coriolanus. Still, she walks first in the procession to beg Coriolanus to have mercy on Rome and listens to her mother-in-law appeal to the love of Coriolanus for her and her son. When Volumnia says that he will be treading on her womb if he assaults his country, Virgilia echoes her: "Ay, and mine, / That brought you forth this boy to keep your name / Living to time." (V.iii.127-28) But Virgilia is forgiven.

What is especially troubling in many of these recent formulations is the Freudian determinism underlying the assumption that Volumnia can be held responsible for the violent catastrophe that overtakes her son. Over and over again, critics have maintained that it is she who shaped him into a figure who would be slaughtered by the Volscians. Late-twentieth-century defenses of Volumnia do not so much attempt to vindicate her as argue that she is merely the mouthpiece or conduit of Roman patriarchal values. When she delivers her splendid plea for mercy, supported by the presence of the wife and son of Coriolanus, she is asking him to place love of country and family over his personal code of honor and his pride in being "absolute." Her success in moving her son, however, is also held against her. Shakespeare is silent concerning whether Volumnia realizes that she is sending Coriolanus to his death, but late-twentieth-century critics have not been. Northrop Frye calls Volumnia a "white goddess … whom death it is to love." Volumnia may—or may not—be Robert Graves' white goddess, but she figures as a Dark Lady in late-twentieth-century literary criticism.

In Titus Andronicus and Antony and Cleopatra, a patriarchal order is established at the conclusion of each play. In the case of Titus Andronicus, Tamora is vilified and denied honorable burial for challenging the patriarchal system. Cleopatra, although hardly relegated to the status of a villainess, succeeds in subverting male hierarchy but remains unsatisfactory as a heroine. Given the flaws in her character, admiring nineteenth-century tributes to her as the quintessential woman are unsettling. Her death ennobles her, but both she and Octavius see her achievement of heroic stature as possible only because she has overcome her gender. In Coriolanus, Shakespeare inverts gender expectations by portraying a female figure as the preeminent spokesman for the patriarchal state: Volumnia's private feelings are eclipsed by her civic responsibility. Her son, faced with the dilemma of choosing between affection for family and public honor (his word to the Volscians), chooses the affective bonds even at the price of his life.

Like Tamora and Cleopatra, Shakespeare's Volumnia resists domestication. She may be constructed as a noble patriot, as she was by nineteenth-century critics, or reconstructed as a monstrous inversion of the feminine. In Coriolanus, Shakespeare destabilizes gender expectations, calling into question stereotypes frequently voiced in twentieth-century discourse on patriarchy. Aufidius, reflecting upon the character of Coriolanus, says, "So our virtues / lie in th'interpretation of the time." (IV.vii.49-50) His statement holds equally true for the powerful Volumnia, a figure whose nobility, depending upon "th'interpretation of the time," earned her a place in catalogues of female worthies.

Performance Issues

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10915

Michael Jamieson (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Celibate Stage," in The Seventeenth-Century Stage: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Gerald Eades Bentley, University of Chicago Press, 1968, pp. 70-93.

[In the following essay, Jamieson explores ways that ihaving young male performers enact female role affected Shakespeare's presentation of women characters.]

The Characters of Women, on former Theatres, were perform'd by Boys, or young Men of the most effeminate Aspect. And what Grace, or Master-strokes of Action can we conceive such ungain Hoydens to have been capable of? This Defect was so well consider'd by Shakespear, that in few of his Plays, he has any greater Dependance upon the Ladies, than in the Innocence and Simplicity of a Desdemona, an Ophelia, or in the short Specimen of a fond and virtuous Portia.

Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian

Much could be said for the restoring of the celibate stage; but the argument, one fears, would be academic.

Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare

A discussion like the present one, which is concerned less with literary values than with stage practice, has to be conjectural in its method and tentative in its conclusion. The theatre is—notoriously—ephemeral, a fact on which certain of its chroniclers and remembrancers have improvised that slow, sad, eschatological music which is typified by these generalizations of Maurice Baring's:

The actor's art dies with him; but the rumour of it, when it is very great, lives on the tongue and sometimes in the soul of man, and forms a part of his dreams and of his visions. The great of old still rule our spirits from their urns.…

The most enduring monuments, the most astounding miracles of beauty achieved by the art and craft of man, are but as flotsam, drifting for a little while upon the stream of Time; and with it now there is a strange russet leaf, the name of Sarah Bernhardt.

The art of the Elizabethan boy-actresses, unlike that of Bernhardt, may not have been "very great," and the rumours which have been preserved, both of their art and of their lives, are confused and scanty. My purpose is to discuss the effects, as far as they are still discoverable, which the enforced presence of boy-actresses in the Lord Chamberlain's/King's Men had on Shakespeare's presentation of women in three plays—As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra and The Winter's Tale. I am not concerned with the child-actors, who played all the parts—boys, women, and old men—in such companies as the Children of the Chapel, but with those few boys in the adult companies who specialized in women's parts and for whom Granville-Barker coined the useful term "the boy-actress." To speak at this stage of Shakespeare's "accommodation" to the boy-actress would be to beg the question, and I make no such initial assumption. What my approach does assume—and it is no longer revolutionary—is that William Shakespeare, as house-keeper, company-sharer, actor, and dramatist-in-ordinary to his company, planned his plays with his fellow-actors constantly in mind for the parts he was writing, and that his views of their capabilities conditioned the parts as they survive today.

Plays are complex mechanisms, and a speech, a device, or a situation which seems, at first glance, to have a theatrical origin may, in fact, owe its existence to a literary tradition or may have been present already in Shakespeare's source. C. E. Montague, for instance, showed theatrical perception when he wrote [in A Writer's Notes On His Trade, 1930]:

In the "seven ages" speech in As You Like It you see Shakespeare meeting the technical difficulty that Orlando has just gone off to fetch Adam, and that something or other must be done to give him time to reach Adam and come back; you see Shakespeare timing the action, watch in hand as it were …

So far, excellent; but Montague proceeded:

and possibly giving man an extra age or two, lest Orlando and Adam should seem to come incredibly soon.

These last words altogether overlook the fact that the Seven—not Five or Six—Ages of Man was a common-place of medieval philosophy. In trying to discover what effects the presence of boy-actresses had on Shakespeare's presentation of his women, a critic has to be cautious. As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter's Tale represent three Shakespearian genres, comedy, tragedy, and romance, and between them they give a wide range of Shakespearian women, but a further reason for selecting these plays is that each has a single and unusually full source in Thomas Lodge, Sir Thomas North, and Robert Greene, respectively. Shakespeare can thus be glimpsed in the process of adapting material for the stage, and one aspect of his dramaturgy, his presentation of women, can be studied in detail.

It would be possible to proceed directly to the three plays and make (rash) deductions about the boy-actress from them, but, mindful of Miss Bradbrook's warning [in Elizabethan Stage Conditions, 1932] that "there is little that can be directly inferred from the plays about the style of acting at the Globe," I find it necessary to decide, at some length, from slight contemporary references, quaint rumours, and sound scholarship, just which assumptions can legitimately be held about the boy-actress as the only solid basis for further deductions from the text.


What assumptions are we justified in making about the qualities of the boy-actresses who played Shakespeare's women? One set of notions was uncompromisingly stated by Sir Sidney Lee who, in 1906, wrote [in Shakespeare and the Modern Stage]:

In Shakespeare's day boys or men took the part of women, and how characters like Lady Macbeth and Desdemona were adequately rendered by youths beggars belief. But renderings in such conditions proved popular and satisfactory. Such a fact seems convincing testimony, not to the ability of Elizabethan or Jacobean boys—the nature of boys is a pretty permanent factor in human society—but to the superior imaginative faculty of adult Elizabethan or Jacobean playgoers.

The Toryism of this Boys-will-be-boys view was challenged by George Pierce Baker in these words [from The Development of Shakespeare as a Dramatist, 1907]:

Much of the current wonder that Shakespeare's heroines could have been adequately represented by boys and youths vanishes if one knows the contemporary evidence as to their exceeding skill and realises how long, thorough, and varied the training of an Elizabethan actor could be.

Certainly Professor Baker, by directing students to contemporary testimony, is more illuminating than is Mr. Ronald Watkins, when, in an attempt to be helpful, he remarks [in On Producing Shakespeare, 1950]:

Anyone who has seen Poll de Carotte, … Shoe Shine or The Fallen Idol will be ready to believe that the acting of the Globe boys was not the least moving part of the performance … ,

a modern analogy which is false on at least five counts, since in these films (a) young boys were playing boys of their own ages within (b) a convention of realistic acting and in (c) a non-continuous performance later given continuity in a cutting-room, with (d) directors of genius—Duvivier, de Sica, Reed—constantly at their sides engaged in (e) the most mechanised and easily-faked medium of artistic expression. Filmgoers who imagined in 1948 that young Master Bobby Henrey was consciously acting in The Fallen Idol should consult his fond mother's record of Sir Carol Reed's directorial chicanery, A Film Star in Belgravia. In recent years schoolmaster-producers like Mr. Watkins and Mr. Guy Boas have published records of their own successful productions of Shakespeare's plays with schoolboy casts, tacitly suggesting that these performances have more nearly recaptured Shakespearian acting conditions than those of the professional theatre. But it is one thing for a schoolboy Lady Macbeth to hold his own with a Macbeth from the Sixth Form, quite another for a trained boy-actress to play, on a weekly roster, the great women's roles of Shakespeare and of his fellow playwrights for the King's Men, professionally harnessed to a star-actor, Burbage, who was thirty-three when he created Macbeth in 1605-6 and who relinquished the part only at his early death. I do not mean to disparage school performances of Shakespeare, but I suspect that their real purpose is to broaden the children's interests rather than to enable the masters who direct the productions to make scholarly points. Occasionally, of course, a gifted boy may give a performance of Portia or Katherina which is striking enough to refute as jaundiced a view of juvenile acting as Sir Sidney Lee's. Of Master Laurence Olivier's performance as Kate in a school production of The Taming of the Shrew in 1922, when he was fifteen, Dame Ellen Terry wrote in her diary:

This gives us an idea of what the boy-actors in Shakespeare's time were like, yet people assume they were clumsy hobbledehoys.

In general, however, to accept the phenomenon of juvenile amateur acting as anything but a shaky analogy for Elizabethan practice would be to ignore the essential issues of long training, established acting style, and professional disciplines which are involved.

It is not only the attitude of boys to acting which has changed, but that of an audience to the notion of such acting, so that where, by some trick of stage history, professional boy-actresses made a late survival, the Elizabethan attitude could never be recaptured. In 1788 Goethe saw a performance in Italy of Goldoni's La Locandiera in which men played the women's parts. Professor Nagler, in reprinting his reactions [in Sources of Theatrical History, 1952], suggests an analogy with the responses of Shakespeare's audience:

After the initial strangeness had disappeared, Goethe experienced the unique aesthetic pleasure which Elizabethan playgoers must have felt when they watched boys playing Juliet and Cressida.

It is significant, however, that the performance prompted Goethe to this philosophical discussion on the nature of theatrical illusion:

I found [at the Roman comedies] a pleasure to which I had hitherto been a stranger … in the particular kind of representation we witnessed, the idea of imitation, the thought of art was called forth vividly, and … only a kind of self-conscious illusion was produced.

We … experience a double charm from the fact that these people are not women, but play the part of women. We see a youth who has studied the idiosyncrasies of the female sex in their character and behaviour; he has learned to know them, and reproduces them as an artist; he plays not himself, but a third, and in truth, a foreign nature.

The performance was analogous to an Elizabethan one, but Goethe's attitude was sophisticated; he was overconscious of "the thought of art." What he enjoyed was akin to the Brechtian alienation-effect. That "initial strangeness" differentiates him from the Elizabethans; and one wonders if what worked for comedy would, in Goethe's late day, have worked for tragedy also.

The Elizabethan practice of casting boys in women's parts was a theatrical convention like any other; more serious, for instance, than that of British pantomime, where the Principal Boy is a strapping and obvious girl and the Dame is a red-nosed comedian in skirts, less rigid and rarefied than the dynastic mysteries of female impersonation practised by gentlemen of Peking like Mr. Mei Lanfang. The measure of a convention is that it goes unquestioned, so that Thomas Coryat recorded the shock, both moral and aesthetic, of seeing this convention shattered by foreigners. Of a Venetian theatre visit of 1608, he wrote:

Here I observed certaine things that I never saw before. For I saw women acte, a thing that I never saw before, … and they performed it with as good a grace, action, gesture, and whatsoever convenient for a Player, as ever I saw any masculine Actor.

Coryat seemed quite content with the way things were ordered in England: his highest praise of Italian actresses is that they were as good as English boys. This impression of the quality of Shakespeare's boy-actresses is reinforced by such stray allusions as Ingine's speech in The Devil is an Ass in which he mentions the boy Richard Robinson passing as a woman at a gossips' feast, but critical comments on boy-actresses came at a later, better-documented period of stage history. In two passages Pepys refers to female impersonations by the last of the boy-actresses, Edward Kynaston (born 1640?), the only boy-actress whose portrait survives:

  1. August 18, 1660. [Saw] "The Loyall Subject," where one Kinaston, a boy, acted the Duke's sister, but made the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life, only her voice not very good.

(Some scholars who have reproduced this passage have omitted the last six words to avoid the question of Kynaston's poor voice, but by Miss McAfee's reckoning, Kynaston, whose training in the clandestine theatricals of the interregnum must have been spasmodic, would have been around twenty by this time, and, in more normal circumstances, would have graduated from women's parts by then. There is no reason for supposing Elizabethan boy-actresses' voices were poor, or that they habitually acted women's roles once their voices had broken. Hamlet and the players threatened by the Closing of the Theatres knew the value of a boy-actress's voice.)

  • January 7, 1660-61. Among other things here [in The Silent Woman], Kinaston, the boy, had the good turn to appear in three shapes: first, as a poor woman in ordinary clothes, to please Morose; then in fine clothes as a gallant, and in them was clearly the prettiest woman in the whole house, and lastly, as a man; and then likewise did appear the handsomest man in the house.

Praise of Kynaston appears more authoritatively in a passage by John Downes in which that retired prompter attributes "several," and by name four, women's parts to Kynaston who (he adds):

… being then very Young made a Compleat Female Stage Beauty, performing his Parts so well, especially Arthiope and Aglaura, being Parts greatly moving Compassion and Pity; that it has since been Disputable among the Judicious, whether any Woman that succeeded him so Sensibly touch'd the Audience as he.

It is tempting to take at face value a passage from a play of 1676 which contains the line "Besides I can never endure to see Plays since Women came on the Stage; Boys are better by half," but, in the context of the play, it is clear that the speaker Snarl (an "old pettish fellow, a great Admirer of the last Age and A Declaimer against the Vices of this, and privately very vicious himself) is a fault-finding hypocrite whose nostalgia is meant to carry no critical weight.

There is one kind of contemporary evidence which suggests that the Jacobean boy-actresses were effeminate. Puritan pamphleteers unleashed unambiguous accusations of homosexual relations between the boys and the adult players, but gossip, to be credited, must have proven grounds, and such hysterical statements by Zeal-of-the-Land Busies cannot be checked at this date.

What we know of the organization and training of Elizabethan boy-actresses is sufficient to indicate that Kynaston was no solitary phenomenon. Boys joined the company under arrangements analogous to apprenticeship from the age of ten upward; they probably played first children's, then women's parts; each was boarded out with a company-sharer or hiredman who was responsible for the boy's further training. Thus, although the acting life of each boy-actress must have been relatively short, each was highly trained in speech, movement, music (if he had a voice), and in such arts as fencing which would equip him for an adult career, should he prove worthy, in his company. The stiff, brocaded, highly decorous costume of the Elizabethan lady may have contributed to successful female impersonation, but boy-actresses also had to play less decorously clad women like Doll Tearsheet and Dol Common. This is not the place to review scholarly debate on the nature of Elizabethan acting. The Elizabethans freely mingled extreme conventionalism and extreme realism in dramatic writing. Doubtless they did so in their acting, though it is safe to say that Elizabethan acting would seem formal by present-day standards. Indeed Professor Harbage has found in the success of the boy-actresses a further clue to Elizabethan acting style:

My explanation of the apparent adequacy of the Elizabethan boy-actor is simply formal acting ["Elizabethan Acting," PMLA 54, 1939].

The qualities Coryat commended in the British boy-actresses—grace, action, gesture and whatsoever [is] convenient for a player—may seem odd alongside truth to life, spontaneity, conviction, or the concepts of Stanislavski or Mr. Lee Strasberg, but they were probably among the criteria by which Shakespeare's boy-actresses were judged in the parts he wrote for them. Shakespeare's one revealing comment on the problem of the boy-actress's short career, Hamlet's lines—

What, my yong Lady and Misstris? Byrlady your Ladiship is neerer Heauen then when I saw you last, by the altitude of a Choppine. Pray God your voice like a peece of vncurrant Gold be not crack'd within the ring—

chime exactly and sympathetically with the old stagers' professional concern voiced, at the time of the Closing of the Theaters, in The Actors Remonstrance:

Our boyes, ere wee shalle have libertie to act againe, will be growne out of use, like crackt organ-pipes and have faces as old as our flags.

In the three plays themselves, the basis for deciding the questions of Shakespeare's accommodation to his juvenile interpreters must be this image of the boy-actress as a youthful, highly trained, assured, and valuable performer, who, in stature and still-unbroken voice, would contrast effectively with the adult members of the Shakespearian company.


Of the three plays The Winter's Tale makes the simplest demands of the boy-actresses and, disregarding chronology, I take this late play first. The play has one star part, Leontes, whose 682 lines went possibly to Burbage, and a group of important subsidiary roles, three of which, Paulina (325), Hermione (207), Perdita (128), required boy-actresses. The divided action of the play made doubling peculiarly feasible. Mamillius and the ladies of the court could be doubled with Mopsa, Dorcas, and other shepherdesses; it is possible that Mamillius and Perdita, in the interests of a family likeness, were played by one boy, and that the boys who played Hermione and Paulina "walked on" as shepherdesses in the sheepshearing interlude. Thus the play met the basic requirement of the King's Men—it did not tax the numerical strength of their boy-actresses. Of the important characters not in Greene's novel—Antigonus, the Young Shepherd, Autolycus, Paulina—only one is a woman, and this new character was not a dramatic indulgence on Shakespeare's part, but the second character in the play and the one through whom Shakespeare effected and made credible the one significant deviation from his source, the resurrection of Hermione from cold storage which closes the play.

The genre to which this work belongs was indicated by John Donne, who once spoke in a sermon of the Book of Job as "a representation of God in a Tragique-Comedy, lamentable beginnings comfortably ended." Shakespeare, by plunging straight into such lamentable beginnings, seems to have required of the boy-actress playing Hermione the simplest effects, which—on a stage dominated by the insanely jealous Leontes—would have been the more telling in dignity and calm:

I must be patient, till the Heauens looke With an aspect more fauorable. Good my  Lords, I am not prone to weeping (as our Sex Commonly are) …

a speech which would have helped the boy-actress unemphatically to establish Hermione's womanliness. The hobbledehoy theory is belied by Hermione's advanced pregnancy which (though Elizabethan costume might preclude its representation) is graphically pointed out by Leontes:

… and let her sport her selfe With that shee's big-with, for 'tis Polixenes Ha's made thee swell thus,

in lines which would have defeated an inadequate boy-actress. All that is asked of Hermione in the Trial is ringing sincerity ("Sir, / You speake a Language that I vnderstand not":) and a spectacular faint at the news of Mamillius' death. She does not reappear until, in the play's "comfortable ending," the boy-actress, made up as an older woman and splendidly dressed, was ceremonially revealed in a statuesque silent pose well within his abilities.

The part of Paulina, that female Kent, is spiritedly conceived along outspoken lines. Her function is primarily that of observer, commentator, and critic. It is Paulina who opposes Leontes, who refuses to be silenced:

Pau. Let him that makes but trifles of his eyes Firs* hand me …

who too accusingly announces Hermione's death ("Alas, I haue shew'd too much / The rashnesse of a woman: He is toucht / To th' Noble heart"), who brings the king to repentance, and who, in a double sense, stage-manages the ceremonial reconciliation:

Pau. Musick; awake her: Strike: 'Tis time: descend: be Stone no more:   approach: Strike all that looke vpon with meruaile,

an invocation which demands impressive delivery by the boy-actress, just as her would-be exit line demands graciousness:

… I (an old Turtle) Will wing me to some wither'd bough, and  there My Mate (that's neuer to be found againe) Lament, till I am lost.

Paulina, despite her occasional shrewishness and even violence, personifies loyalty and commonsense, and the part would have fitted the capacities of a boy.

Perdita, the play's romantic heroine, is no realistic shepherdess. She makes a late and highly formal entrance, symbolically dressed as the goddess of flowers and fertility, to this accompanying speech of Florizel's:

Flo. These your vnvsuall weeds, to each part   of you Do's giue a life: no Sheperdesse but Flora Peering in Aprils front.

The love-plot is presented, not through amorous action, but in such poetry as this transfiguration of the original meeting in the novel:

Flo. I blesse the time When my good Falcon, made her flight   a-crosse Thy Fathers ground.

or Florizel's:

 When you do dance, I wish you A waue o' the Sea, that you might euer   do Nothing but that.

Perdita's formal distribution of the flowers is part of a design through which the flowerfreshness of the heroine is suggested. Here, as so often in Shakespeare, the verse when well-spoken does its own work upon an audience, and a trained boy-actress would have paired well here with an older boy as Florizel.

In Bohemia, Perdita and Florizel dominate the serious action. In the reconciliations and recoveries of the final act Perdita is mostly silent and an onlooker (which explains how a nineteenth-century stage beauty contrived to play Hermione and Perdita, with a stand-in for Act V), while Paulina controls and directs the scene in which the statue of Hermione warms to life.

Shakespeare's presentation of this trio of women, the two mature ladies of the court and the foundling-princess, accords well with the conventional assumptions of vivacity, skill, and subordination to an adult male player which are made about Shakespeare's boy-actresses.


A reading of As You Like It, however, forces a reconsideration of this conception of the boy-actress's task as subordinate (a) because in Rosalind Shakespeare gave the boy-actress twice as many lines (747) as any other character in the play, and made the part, moreover, twice as long as that of Viola, and markedly longer than either Macbeth (704) or Prospero (665); and (6) because the virtuosity of Rosalind's two-fold impersonation within the play seems to have assumed a virtuosity in the original boy-actress.

Rosalind and Celia belong, with Portia and Nerissa, Beatrice and Hero, Viola and Olivia, to a series of paired heroines in which the first, the taller, takes the initiative while the second is placid and conventional. The text of As You Like It, following Lodge's novel, confirms this physical contrast, on which indeed, is based the disguise—the woman as page—which Rosalind adopts for most of the play's action:

Ros. Were it not better, Because that I am more then common tall, That I did suite me all points like a man …

This led Granville-Barker to point out what has become a cliché in discussions of this play, that "through three-parts of the play a boy [as opposed to a modern actress] would have the best of it." This judgment I accept with considerable reserve. If, as commentators more ingenious than Barker imply, Shakespeare's frequent recourse to this device of disguise was dictated by a need to put at ease his inadequate boy-actress (whose daily business, I would object, was female impersonation), how was the boy-actress first to impose himself on the audience as a great lady? Certainly a boy Rosalind would have made a more credible Ganymede and have justified Phoebe's infatuation, but Shakespeare did not use this device for purposes of credibility. Rosalind's essential femininity is revealed through (not in spite of) this disguise with such delicacy and dramatic skill that, in his fully documented examination of forty contemporary English plays containing the female page, Dr. Freeburg did not seem to find a subtler exploitation of this then-prevalent device. Shakespeare and the boy-actress had therefore a technical problem which no woman Rosalind would have, for, the moment an audience accepts Ganymede as a boy, instead of as a credibly disguished woman, the drily romantic irony of Rosalind's scenes with Orlando evaporates. A convention of fairly formal acting and the unquestioning acceptance of the boy-actress (by which a regular playgoer could presumably say to himself "That's the woman" just as, looking at Kempe, he could say "That's the funny man") made this evaporation less likely, but, once Rosalind was disguised, Shakespeare's concern was constantly to stress that femininity breaks through Rosalind's strident (and on the Elizabethan stage possibly too manly) pose.

This femininity Shakespeare stressed in three ways. First, he made a comic theatrical point of Rosalind's falling short of that pose in such speeches as this:

Ros. I could finde in my heart to disgrace my mans apparell, and tocry like a woman: but I must comfort the weaker vessell, as doublet and hose ought to show it selfe coragious to pettycoate; therefore courage, good Aliena.

Or the dialogue following Rosalind's faint at the sight of the napkin stained with Orlando's blood:

Oli. Be of good cheere youth: you a man? You lacke a mans heart.… Well then, take a good heart, and counterfeit  to be a man.Ros. So I doe: but yfaith, I should haue beene  a woman by right.

Secondly, Shakespeare fully exploited the passive Celia as confidante—Rosalind's scenes with her are revealingly girlish, and in them she constantly speaks of herself as a woman:

… dost thou think though I am caparison'd like a man, I haue a doublet and hose in my disposition?

Later in this scene Rosalind, on learning of Orlando's presence, stresses her assumed boy's clothes four times in some seventy lines of the First Folio text:

  1. Ros. Alas the day, what shall I do with my doublet & hose?
  2. Ros. But doth he know that I am in this Forrest, and in man's apparrell?
  3. Ros. Do you not know I am a woman, when I thinke, I must speake.
  4. Ros. I wil speake to him like a sawcie Lacky, and vnder that habit play the knaue with him.

And after the mock love-scenes, it is to Celia that Rosalind's genuine involvement is revealed in the excited and infectious speech:

Ros. O coz, coz, coz: my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathome deepe I am in loue: but it cannot bee sounded …

Thirdly, the essentially feminine Rosalind was depicted in those scenes with Orlando in which the complex theatrical situation was that of a boy-actress playing a girl, Rosalind, who, while disguised as a boy, Ganymede, openly mimics herself in his character. Shakespeare at the outset cunningly suggested to his audience the close association of boys and women ("for the most part, cattle of this colour") and contrived to show both Ganymede's impersonation of Rosalind and the real woman:

Orl. But will my Rosalind doe so?Ros. By my life, she will doe as I doe.

A Bradleian critic would argue (rightly) that such glimpses of the female in the male as Rosalind's faint are psychologically true. They are also, in the acted context of the play, theatrically necessary. They represent a conscious, and successful, attempt by Shakespeare to ensure that Rosalind's virtuosity steadily advances the play's romantic action. In scenes of comedy, confidences, and unorthodox courtship, Shakespeare anticipated, and compensated for, a boy's short-comings and, by exploiting his advantages, planned the part so that it could be played by a boy and yet not lose its womanliness. The other women in this play are conventional and minor characters, but of all the Shakespearian women who disguise as pages, Rosalind, more than Viola, more than Imogen, more even that Portia, is Shakespeare's gesture of faith in the boy-actress. What happens at the end of As You Like It confirms this view. Nothing comparable happens elsewhere in Shakespeare; and I do not recall parallels in other plays of the period. The play ends on a daring break with tradition, as Rosalind comes forward:

Ros. It is not the fashion to see the Ladie the Epilogue: but it is no more vnhandsome, then to see the Lord the Prologue.

And her farewell to the audience reveals that essential pretence on which all boy-actresses' performances were based:

If I were a Woman, I would kisse as many of you as bad beards that pleas'd me, complexions that lik'd me, and breaths that I defi'de 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 curt'sie, bid me farewell.


It is the cue for the boy-actress, as star of this comedy, to take a solo "curtain."


If depicting Rosalind in terms of the boy-actress's ability was a challenge to Shakespeare, what of Cleopatra? His handling of this great part might itself be the subject of a single paper. Once more there is the simple problem of sheer length—Cleopatra's 670 lines come second only to Antony's 813, which makes her part formidable, but the disposition of the scenes makes the part more demanding than is Antony's since (a) within the divided worlds of Rome and Egypt Cleopatra has no physical part in the Roman scenes, and (b) once Antony is dead, the whole of Act V with the great climax of the play's ending—the high-water mark of Shakespeare's dramatic poetry—had to be borne by the boy-actress alone, a signal assumption of authority in that unknown player. Yet critics have expressed their amazement, not at the theatrical assumptions which lie behind such apportioning and emphasis, but at the very idea that any boy-actress ever attempted the part. Sir Sidney Lee recorded his incensed feelings on this matter thus:

It seems almost sacrilegious to conceive the part of Cleopatra, the most highly sensitised in its minutest details of all dramatic portrayals of female character,—it seems almost sacrilegious to submit Cleopatra's sublimity of passion to interpretation by an unfledged representative of the other sex.

It was with overcoming prejudices such as these that Granville-Barker was concerned in that part of his preface in which he developed the following argument:

Shakespeare's Cleopatra had to be acted by a boy, and this did everything to determine, not his view of the character, but his presenting of it.

This antithesis of view and presentation is admirable, but, it seems to me, that Barker, who saw the play as "a tragedy of sex without one single scene of sexual appeal" containing a maximum of three embraces, a play in which "the best evidence … of Cleopatra's physical charms" is "a description of them by … the misogynist Enobarbus—given us, moreover, at a time when she has been out of our sight for a quarter of an hour or so," took minimal account certainly of both the attested competence of boy-actresses and the formalism of their acting, and possibly also of Shakespeare's complex response to Plutarch.

The part of Cleopatra, in variety of mood, makes exhausting demands on its interpreter. Even within the conventions of Elizabethan acting, the part must have demanded temperament in its performer. Cleopatra is not merely regal. She must be, by turns, ferocious ("Ile vnhaire thy head"), bawdy ("I take no pleasure/ In ought an Eunuch ha's"), brilliantly malicious (the superb, instantaneous dismissal of Octavia as "dull of tongue, and dwarfish"), utterly feminine in impulse ("If you finde him sad, / Say I am dauncing"). She must both match Antony's "You haue been a boggeler euer" and rise to the great keening speeches at his death:

Oh wither'd is the Garland of the Warre, The Souldiers pole is falne: young Boyes and  Gyrles Are leuell now with men: The oddes is gone, And there is nothing left remarkeable Beneath the visiting Moone.

Cleopatra, as Granville-Barker has shown, is frequently presented through the speeches of others (notably Enobarbus), but, in overstating the inferences from this fact, Barker suggested, perhaps unconsciously, that tact is Shakespeare's most conspicuous accommodation in this play. If physical embraces were embarrassing—through it is impossible now to know what Burbage did on the words, "the Noblenesse of life/Is to do thus …"—how was a boy-actress expected to bring off the scene in which Cleopatra seems to smother the dying Antony in kisses:

Dye when thou hast liu'd, Quicken with kissing: had my lippes that  power, Thus would I weare them out.

The boy-actress had to back up the poetic allusions to Cleopatra's allure ("this great Faiery") not contradict them. What Plutarch—or North—called Cleopatra's flickering enticement is suffused throughout the speeches of the play, as is Antony's god-like stature, in images which, with the persistence of a leitmotif in opera, raise the standing of Antony and Cleopatra as persons tragically involved in the play's action. These allusions to the legendary Cleopatra are both a booster to the boy-actress and an indication of how greatly Shakespeare, engaged in the necessary compressions of dramatizing his source, was imaginatively stimulated by Plutarch. They are dramatically necessary because Cleopatra is uniquely incapable of a full representation on the stage, as Miss Tallulah Bankhead, Miss Vivien Leigh, Miss Katharine Hepburn, and other glamorous actresses have discovered in our own day, not because an embarrassed boy-actress was basically inadequate.

The inspired solo of the play's end reinforces this. Shakespeare clearly had great confidence in his boy-actress to have given him, in the deeply serious scene in which Cleopatra resolves on suicide, the daring lines:

… and I shall see Some squeaking Cleopatra Boy my greatnesse I'th' posture of a Whore.

While the psychology of the Elizabethan playgoer was such that the boy-actresses were accepted without question, this deliberate reminder, which has no precedent in Plutarch, would, on the lips of an inadequate or awkward boy, be a fatal preparation for the ceremony of purification which follows:

I am Fire, and Ayre; my other Elements I giue to baser life.

And how (to overstate the case) could a blushing, embarrassed, flat-chested boy carry that penultimate speech:

Cleo. Peace, peace: Dost thou not see my Baby at my breast, That suckes the Nurse asleepe.

Shakespeare used devices of imagery and rhetoric in an essentially dramatic way, seizing on every suggestion he found in Plutarch, to make Cleopatra playable on the Jacobean stage, but, in accommodating himself to the boy-actress, he did not sacrifice a single emotional effect.


Shakespeare's texts, as they survive, are a guide to his theatrical intentions and to the artistic effects which were available to him, but playscripts, especially those in which stage-directions are few, can be a tantalizingly incomplete record of the original performances. A discussion like the present one is really concerned not only with what Shakespeare did as a writer, but what he did as a producer also—not only with the words he gave the actors of his company (over whom he had, for a dramatist, special authority) but with how he wanted them to speak, to move, to express emotion. Since our knowledge of the Elizabethan theatre, and of techniques of acting and of presentation there, is incomplete and based in part on conjecture, conclusions have to be tentative. What effects, then, of the presence of the boy-actress are still discernible in the women's parts as they survive today?

These three plays do not give a fully representative cross-section of Shakespearian women, but a reading of them allows some valid generalization on the question of accommodation to the boy-actress. Shakespeare kept his cast of women small. He often planned women's parts to be brief also, less because his boy-actresses were inadequate than because the whole drift of Elizabethan drama, particularly in the history plays which were Shakespeare's dramatic apprenticeship, was virile. Ophelia and Lady Macbeth are supporting parts, not in accommodation to the boy-actress, nor even in deference to Burbage, but in accordance with Saxo-Grammaticus who was concerned with Hamlet and with Holinshed whose theme was Macbeth. It is true that there are aspects of female character which Shakespeare did not ask his boy-actresses to explore, but I cannot agree with Miss Margaret Webster who believes:

It is easy to see what Shakespeare refrained from doing because of this limitation [the boy-actress], if such he considered it, but not so easy to define what positive effect it had on the great women's parts [Shakespeare Without Tears, 1942].

The first part seems dangerously mistaken, because no one can ever know why Shakespeare chose not to do the things he did not do, or even that the question of choice arose. The lesson of Antony and Cleopatra is that when Shakespeare decided to tackle a tragedy of sexual infatuation, he achieved his aim within the capabilities of the boy-actress. It is difficult to define the positive effects of the boy-actress's presence, because a particular play so often shatters our limiting assumptions, but chief among these positive effects in the depiction of young women is an exploitation of the boy-actress's natural qualities of youth. In comedy, where Rosalind is the exemplar, Shakespeare drew on the boy's resources of gaiety, impudence, high spirits, fresh, ringing tones and youthful self-confidence and swagger. In tragedy or romance (Perdita is an incomplete example) he drew on complementary resources of innocence, openness of disposition, and an elusive selflessness. Such an explanation of the character of these women has been condemned by Professor Stoll [in Shakespeare's Young Lovers, 1937] as too mechanistic and materialistic; it is not meant as a complete explanation.

Each of the women's parts, particularly the unconventional ones (which are never the first that the generic term "Shakespearian Women," with its feminist overtones of Mrs. Jameson, brings to mind), posed its own problems in technique, exposition and accommodation, but the inference from Rosalind and Cleopatra is that once Shakespeare was aware what problems the boy-actress would have to face, his view of the character remained unaltered and he denied himself no single legitimate effect in presenting his great succession of women on the celibate stage.

Lorraine Helms (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Playing the Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism and Shakespearean Performance," in Theatre Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2, May, 1989, pp. 190-200.

[In the following essay, Helms explores the possibilities of feminist reinterpretation to transform the Shakespearean text in performance.]

Feminist film theorists have revealed ways cinematic representation constructs the female as the object of the male spectator's gaze. 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 [in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, eds. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, 1985] 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."

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.

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. 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 theatrically 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." 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." 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."

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 allumale 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.


Shakespearean verse, as John Barton remarks, gives the actor "stage directions in shorthand." He offers examples throughout Playing Shakespeare: mono-syllables demand more rapid delivery; shared lines tell the actor to pick up the cue. 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.

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!" (III. 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 [in The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies 32, No. 1, 1988], a Brechtian practice which would "foreground those moments in a playtext in which social attitudes could be made visible."

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 mimetically 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. 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 the 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 [in The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, eds. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether, 1985] 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.

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." 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.


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. In 1985, Richard Abrams further questioned the play's sexual politics, noting [in Drama, Sex, and Politics, ed. James Redmond, 1985] 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." 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 ailtoo 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."

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!                                  [II. iv. 1-7]

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. 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 flagpole 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 [in Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy, 1985], "something an actor does." 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.

Further Reading

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Adelman, Janet. "'Born of Woman': Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth." In Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, edited by Majorie Garber, pp. 90-121. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, 216 p.

Explores the tension in Macbeth between male fear of "a virtually absolute and destructive maternal power and the fantasy of absolute escape from this universal condition." In this play male identity is lost when men are faced with powerful maternal characters and regained only when women have been eliminated.

Andresen-Thom, Martha. "Thinking about Women and Their Prosperous Art: A Reply to Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women." Shakespeare Studies XI (1978): 259-76.

Examines the issue of whether Shakespeare's women characters are either idealizations or relatively realistic depictions of the women of his era.

Barton, Anne. "The Feminist Stage." Times Literary Supplement, No. 3841 (October 24, 1975): 1259.

Review of Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women that finds fault with her method of argumentation and assumptions about the existence of feminism in the Renaissance.

Case, Sue-Ellen. Feminism and Theatre. New York: Methuen, 1988, 149 p.

Includes discussion of Shakespeare's treatment of women characters in his plays in a larger context of gender issues in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater.

Dunn, Catherine M. "The Changing Image of Woman in Renaissance Society and Literature." In What Manner of Woman: Essays on English and American Life and Literature, edited by Marlene Springer, pp. 15-38. N.Y.: New York University Press, 1977.

Argues that Shakespeare's presentation of female characters represents a progressive change in Renaissance perceptions of women.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975, 329 p.

In-depth study of Shakespeare's presentation of women informed by the theory that the ideals of modern feminism were prevalent in the society for which Shakespeare wrote his plays.

Fitz, Linda T. "What Says the Married Woman?': Marriage Theory and Feminism in the English Renaissance." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature XIII, No. 2 (Winter 1980): 1-22.

Traces the foundations of modern feminism to the English Renaissance by examining changes in the institution of marriage during this period.

Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983, 202 p.

Examines cultural and social issues associated with the portrayal of women on stage in Shakespeare's England.

Jamieson, Michael. "Shakespeare's Celibate Stage." The Seventeenth-Century Stage: A Collection of CriticalEssays, edited by Garald Eades Bentley, University of Chicago Press, 1968, pp. 70-93. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983, 202 p.

Explores the impact on Shakespeare's presentation of women characters of having male performers enact female roles.

Kirsch, Arthur. Shakespeare and the Experience of Love. London: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 194 p.

Applies both Christian and Freudian interpretations of love relationships between male and female characters in Othello, Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well, and Cymbeline.

Kolin, Philip C. Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism: An Annotated Bibliography and Commentary. N.Y.: Garland Publishing, 1991, 420 p.

Evaluates the major topics in feminist commentary on Shakespeare, including the question of the extent to which Shakespeare appeared to either challenge or adhere to commonly held contemporary beliefs about women.

Lenz, Carolyn Ruth Swift, Gayle Green, and Carol Thomas Neely, eds. The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983, 348 p.

Collection of essays on a range of feminist issues of scholarly interest relating to Shakespeare's plays.

McLuskie, Kathleen. "The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure." In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, pp. 88-108. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.

Feminist, psychoanalytic study that focuses on the issues of patriarchy and misogyny in two representative Shakespearean texts.

Orgel, Stephen. "Shakespeare and the Cannibals." In Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, edited by Majorie Garber, pp. 40-66. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, 216 p.

Includes discussion of rape, sexual relationships, imperialism, and exploitation of women within the context of colonialism as treated in The Tempest.

Peyre, Henri. "Shakespeare's Women—A French View." Yale French Studies 33 (December 1964): 107-119.

Examines Shakespeare's presentation of women as seen from a non-English perspective.

Rackin, Rhyllis. "Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage." PMLA 102, No. 1 (January 1987): 29-41.

Investigates the "changing conceptions of gender, androgyny, and theatrical mimesis … in the representations of five English Renaissance comedies," including Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.

Speaight, Robert. "Shakespeare's Heroines." Essays by Divers Hands 39, No. 3 (1977): 146-62.

Overview of the broad range of characteristics found in Shakespeare's female characters.

Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London: Routledge, 1992, 182 p.

Examines issues of gender, heterosexuality, and homoeroticism in Shakespeare's plays.

Wayne, Valerie. "Refashioning the Shrew." Shakespeare Studies XVII (1985): 159-87.

Contrasts the traditional literary and dramatic role of a shrewish or scolding woman as an agent of discord with the way such characters function in several plays of Shakespeare's. In The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and The Winter's Tale, Wayne maintains, shrewish women characters act as agents of concord by revealing important truths even though they are bid to be silent.


Shakespeare's Representation of History