Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare
Shakespeare the Director
The Artist and Society in Shakespeare’s England: The Collected Papers of Muriel Bradbrook, Volume I
The Book Known as Q: A Consideration of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Troilus and Cressida
Troilus and Cressida
The Taming of the Shrew
From time to time one hears somebody asking how it can be that the output of Shakespeare studies actually increases Shakespeare studies actually increases every year; why don’t they exhaust the subject? Nothing could more clearly reveal the questioner as a layperson. Within the clerical institution that concerns itself with these matters, Shakespeare remains a privileged text. A few weeks back the British playwright Trevor Griffiths said to me on a television talk show that there were at least thirty (or was it three hundred?) British dramatists alive today who were better than Shakespeare. It was his way of establishing his status as an extreme heretic. We all respect Mr. Griffiths, of course, but if he wants to change anything he will have to do better than that. He might as well walk down Piccadilly with a placard announcing The End.
Because very large numbers of people are compelled to study Shakespeare, or to go through the motions of doing so, many thousands of pastors are gainfully occupied in helping them to do so, or seeming to be doing so. A proportion of these workers must get tenure and improve their position in the hierarchy; they can do so only by writing books. These books must at least appear to say something new, and there is an endless sequence of new fashions, each generating the next, which develops or challenges its predecessor. The mode of the Seventies was predominantly feminist; the first two books under review offer a corrective response to extremist versions of that fashion; I can now comment on the revisionist position, and anybody who wants to can comment on mine. This is known in the profession as a Shakespearean Research Opportunity, and it helps to explain why people who wonder why we never exhaust the subject are simply working with the wrong model.
Linda Bamber’s book Comic Women, Tragic Men begins with a brief history of feminist criticism since Kate Millett’s breakthrough in 1970, and runs through the list of feminist Shakespeareans since that date. Lisa Jardine does the same thing, for each wishes in her own way to qualify and correct the work of the pioneers. Both take issue with Juliet Dusinberre, whose Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (1975) discovered that the myriad-minded one was deep into “Renaissance feminism,” and Coppelia Kahn, who found that Shakespeare’s maleness inescapably affected his drama, which is nevertheless worth attention as a representation of his masculine anxieties about identity (Man’s Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare, 1981). Between the extremes of a feminist Shakespeare and a male chauvinist Shakespeare there is obviously much room for maneuver; and the existence of this new critical tradition also means that one need not dig very deep into the bottomless deposits of prefeminist criticism. Bamber’s allusions to the androcentric era before 1970 tend to be selective and cursory; it seems symptomatic that she attributes John Holloway’s excellent book The Story of the Night (1963) to John Hollander, an entirely different poet-scholar. It is as if, over millennia, the frailty of paper or of scribes had merged into one the identities of two remote scholiasts.
Bamber’s revisionism takes the following form. She sees Shakespeare as “a man who takes the woman’s part” in comedy but not in tragedy, an apparent incoherence she is ready to explain away. Of course all the plays have a masculine perspective; but that doesn’t mean they must be sexist. Although “men must write as men and women as women,” they can do so without assuming superiority over the opposite sex. This seems sensible, and will not bring demonstrators onto the streets; it becomes critically useful only when expressed as a requirement that authors of either sex must grant to their opposites “the privileges of the Other.” Shakespeare granted women the privileges of the Other in comedy, but not in tragedy. He wasn’t a feminist, for to him the Self was male, but feminists ought to like him because he respects gender Otherness. When the opposition of Self and Other can be called a “dialectic” you get a new critical approach. On this subject Bamber is candid. She is very much against “projection,” the idea that the Other is a mere “projection of that which has been repudiated by the Self,” because if that were so she would have very little to say: “It offers me too short a ride. The idea of dialectic simply takes me further.”
This is a bold and lively book whenever it is dealing with something that will take the author further. Thus it is true of some of the tragedies that there is a “firm connection” between self-hatred and misogyny. When this connection is harder to spot, or harder to develop, as in Macbeth and Coriolanus, there must be something wrong with the play. Thus Hamlet resents the loss of the old world he was comfortable in, and his misogyny is his anger against the Other for taking it away. “The sexual atmosphere of Hamlet improves” when Hamlet, on his return to Denmark, ceases to doubt his own “manliness.” Coriolanus, however, “loses our interest” precisely because he has no such moment. (That “our,” I must suppose, issues from my Other.) Incidentally, Hamlet purges his sexuality of aggression at the moment when he steals into the cabin of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and makes off with their royal commission: “in the dark / Groped I to find them, had my desire, / Fingered their packet….”
Here are a few more revelations offered by the dialectic of Self and Other. “The flip side of [Antony’s] romanticism is his Roman instinct to limit relations with the Other.” In marrying Octavia he is choosing “a limited relation with the Other,” whereas Cleopatra, though of course she also represents the Other, represents more of it. Bamber is most energetic when confronting difficulties which had not been thought to exist until she arrived with her dialectic. For instance, in the “Romances” you can say that “the feminine Other is lost and found or dies and is reborn.” Yes, but The Tempest is usually thought of as one of the Romances, and it contains no Return of the Feminine. There is no suggestion that Prospero’s wife, only glancingly alluded to in the play as a necessary condition for the existence of Miranda, is going to show up. The answer to this brand new problem is that the mother’s absence is “a central fact in the world of the play.” It makes for a very unhappy sexual atmosphere, and puts Prospero in some danger of committing incest with Miranda, but his desires are displaced onto Caliban. For him, the Other is irredeemably lost.
The play in which all this is going on is said by Bamber to have a geographical location “near Bermuda” and a perpetually mild climate. Since in Shakespeare’s play the island is obviously in the Mediterranean, and the weather over the three hours of its duration includes the terrible storm from which it derives its title and much collecting of firewood, Bamber is talking about something as absent as Prospero’s wife; but between absence and presence there are well-known dialectical possibilities.
Lisa Jardine is a historian of longer reach, and what bothers her about recent feminist criticism of Shakespeare is that it is insufficiently careful about the ample historical record of the position of women in Shakespeare’s time. So she provides a vigorous report on this matter; in due time it is bound to qualify any feminist hypothesis that is at all susceptible of historical control. She lends no support to either of the extreme positions—that Shakespeare’s “vision of women transcends the limits of his time and sex,” or that he was entirely chauvinistic. She doesn’t think Shakespeare was holding up a mirror to the condition of women, or that he had strong views about the need to change it. Very generally she supposes that the drama of the period shows a persistent interest in female character because of “the patriarchy’s unexpressed worry” about social change in general.
Still Harping on Daughters starts, however, with an amusing and important essay on the use of boy actors in female roles, a custom attacked by the Puritans as conducing to perverse lust of various kinds, and also as forbidden by Scripture. These divines were probably right on both counts; the playwrights exploited the possibilities of the double meanings implicit in “the woman’s part,” wrote up “the wanton female boy,” “the lovely garnish of a boy,” and so on. Shakespeare gave his boys dressed as girls dressed as boys gay names like Ganymede and Sebastian (the nom de guerre of Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona). Observe also that the best stage image of the master-mistress is the confrontation of the twins Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, boy-girl and ephebe.
These charming ambiguities were honored in the metropolitan culture of Jacobean London, which is more than can be said for ordinary women. Since the only free choice they had was in sex, all stepping out of line was likely to be represented as evidence of sexual rapacity, which is why there are so many insatiate women in the drama of the time. Jardine makes the interesting and possibly controversial point that social change had the effect of constricting women, not, as the books more usually say, of liberating them. The suppression of Roman Catholicism cut them off from the cult of the Virgin and the female saints. The vaunted humanist education offered to women of high rank was only an adornment, and prevented them from taking up forms of study that might have equipped them to seize the opportunities that were opening up for social and political emancipation. They tended to learn Greek, rather than the still useful Latin; it kept them out of mischief. They must not display eloquence: “The woman of fluent speech is never chaste.”
The need to keep women down engendered the myth of their dangerous sexuality. Thus, says Jardine, a Jacobean audience would certainly start by thinking Desdemona’s desire for Othello was an indication of “driving sensuality,” and their suspicions would not be allayed by the scene in which, waiting for the return of her angry husband, she remarks with apparent irrelevance that “This Lodovico is a proper man”; we might think it a characteristic naiveté, but they would see at once the marks of “sensual strain,” so that Iago’s reading of her propensities was after all not far from the right one.
The almost superstitious Jacobean fear of female sexuality has of course been noticed before, but Jardine is, so far as I know, the first writer to relate it firmly to a substantial reduction in the liberty of women. She demonstrates with much legal detail that they became more and more the mere instruments of patriarchy. The priority of financial interests tended to diminish what we should think of as normal family affection, and the implications for widows and children were sometimes cruel. She thinks Hamlet’s disgust at his mother’s remarriage derives from the consideration that it virtually disinherited him—if Gertrude had another son, as in the absence of contraceptives she very well might, he would lose everything. And indeed Hamlet was so offended by his mother’s going to bed with Claudius that it might not seem unreasonable to argue that a little brother would upset him even more.
Perhaps his reason for not saying so was that the notion of Gertrude “honeying and making love over the nasty sty” was so disgusting that he shirked following out all of its consequences. However, he does not say so, and he does have the king’s assurance, for what it is worth, that he would get the nomination for the elective kingship next time. The first task of historical scholarship is to attend to what the text invites us to attend to, and it doesn’t invite our attention to Claudius, Junior.
There are a few similarly dubious points. Can All’s Well be used as evidence of a general belief that one night of love was enough to secure conception? Shakespeare’s source story prudently allows for quite a few. But the odd quibble with Jardine doesn’t alter the fact that in all manner of ways—in discussions of contraception, pregnancy, perinatal mortality, clothes symbolism, etc., hers is a more than useful book. The large question why increased oppression of women took place under a female monarch is left to the end. We are told that Elizabeth, like Mary Queen of Scots and Lady Jane Grey, was “a pawn in the English royal inheritance struggle,” and that the elaborate symbolism that surrounded her made her sex insignificant, reducing her to a mere “token woman.” Much might be said against this view and others here expressed, but this is a book that ought to have beneficial effects.
Lydia Pasternak Slater clearly believes that a woman can write about Shakespeare without being a feminist. She ingeniously follows up on an idea itself not new, namely that to know what was actually done on the Elizabethan stage one should not only look at existing stage directions but infer directions from the dialogue; and, her strongest point, look closely at Bad Quartos. These were unauthorized editions of the plays, usually put together from actors’ memories. They tended to put in remembered moves as well as remembered lines (“Enter Juliet somewhat fast, and embraceth Romeo,” or “wounded, with an arrow in his neck”) and one can often suppose that these details were in the original.
Working with these editions, and scanning Shakespeare’s sources as well as the canonical texts, Ms. Slater makes some shrewd inferences about performance, as when she deduces from the dialogue the necessary facial expressions of Angelo at the dénouement of Measure for Measure: relief, a smirk, rising confidence, anger. She sometimes seems to use too many documents, sometimes dwells on the obvious, and occasionally is too speculative (it seems unlikely that the reason for making silence a female virtue was the uncertain voices of boy players, who had large parts as well as small ones). But Shakespeare the Director is, in its intellectual style, quite a dashing book, though its passion for facts may make it seem old-fashioned—more akin to the work of the veteran scholar Muriel Bradbrook, whose papers are about to appear in several volumes, of which the first is The Artist and Society in Shakespeare’s England.
Braddock’s essays here fill the interstices of her major books in the field. They have range of reference rather than depth of interpretation. Her essay on The Taming of the Shrew contrasts rather poignantly with the sort of reading given it by younger women, for her concern is not to argue that the piece is chauvinist or ironical, but to relate it to the tradition of Shrew literature, to see it in what is offered as an illuminating literary context. Thus there are sixteenth-century plays in which women dominate feeble husbands: “I carry the whip,” says one of them. Shakespeare’s play is indeed a novelty in that it makes the husband the tamer. A further measure of her disregard for fashion is her treatment of Jacques Derrida, rather mysteriously described as “not a literary critic but an anthropologist,” and of Paul Ricoeur, whose theory of metaphor is with equal obscurity made responsible for John Barton’s The Greeks. Those who reject the fashionable in toto rarely think it worth their time to find out what it is they are rejecting.
Nothing could be more traditional than a layman’s book on the sonnets. Robert Giroux, a well-informed layman, offers an autobiographical interpretation and a facsimile edition of the Quarto of 1609. He writes as a publisher with much experience of poets, some of it painful. People who are cautious about treating the sonnets as referring to the poet’s life in just the same way as the poems in, say, Robert Lowell’s Notebook refer to his, are described as “absurd.”
Giroux has a go at most of the cruxes in which these poems abound. For him, all save the “mortal moon” sonnet (107) were written about 1594-1595, and they are more or less in the right order. Southampton is the young man. Of the opening sequence of “marriage” sonnets it is maintained that they began as a commission, but that around no 10, where the poet first refers to himself as “I,” there is a great change of tone, the young man now being his “love.” Giroux does not ask why the “thou” of the opening sonnets changes to “you” at no. 13, and in nos. 15-17, yet it is an oddity, for Shakespeare was normally careful about tutoyer; and it is even odder that “you” should coincide with calling the addressee “my dear love.” It is one more tiny obscurity in a sequence that remains a good deal more obscure than Giroux admits.
These early sonnets, in Giroux’s view, were meant to persuade Southampton to marry Lady Elizabeth de Vere. They failed, but got Shakespeare a generous patron. Giroux rather likes the story, as old as Nicholas Rowe’s edition of 1709, that the nobleman gave the poet £1,000 to make a purchase, assessing the modern equivalent as £20,000; actually it must be about eight times as much as that, and the story is no more probable than many other eighteenth-century tales of Shakespeare.
As to the identity of the Dark Lady, he rejects A.L. Rowse’s Emilia and G.B. Harrison’s Lucy Negro, saying that somebody called Rosaline is at least as likely (because of Love’s Labour’s Lost). Since Chapman was a bad poet, he can’t be the Rival; it must be Marlowe. (But Chapman, one might be allowed to believe, was not a bad poet.) Some of Giroux’s lesser inferences are idle or simply wrong. “Speak of my lameness and I straight will halt” would lose its force if Shakespeare was actually lame. The argument that “a widow’s eye” in Sonnet 9 refers to Southampton’s mother is absurd, since the point is to ask whether the young man is determined to remain unmarried in order never to leave a widow, not in order not to have a mother.
Some of the finest sonnets escape all mention (“They that have power to hurt” has given autobiography hunters a particularly bad time). The magnificent no. 138 is avoided, except for a reference to its early publication in 1599. In that year Shakespeare was thirty-five, and could plausibly admit that his “years were past the best,” a claim that might seem a little more affected in a thirty-year-old, as Giroux conceives him to have been when writing all save the “mortal moon” sonnet to celebrate Southampton’s release from prison on the accession of James I. I suppose books of this kind are meant for a specialized kind of addict, who will not mind the omissions, the forced readings, and the lack of genuine interest in the poems themselves. Readers who have such an interest are referred to Stephen Booth’s Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and his edition of the sonnets, works of which Giroux unfortunately has little good to say. *
Another branch of Shakespeare publishing seems to flourish even in the hardest times: editions of the plays. Kenneth Palmer’s Troilus and Cressida has been on the way for many years, once destroyed by fire, once imperiled by flood, but now it is published as almost the last of the new Ardens, the first having appeared more than thirty years ago. Some early volumes show signs of wear, and in any case all are not equally good, but this is obviously the best multi-volume edition in existence, and Harold Jenkins’s monumental Hamlet, published last year, should, along with some others, maintain its preeminence for another generation. The style has changed a bit since 1950, when it wasn’t even known, for instance, that Jacobean compositors cast off their copy. Textually the Ardens grew more and more refined. Palmer has a vexatious text, and deals with it urbanely, without disputing the conventional wisdom but looking at everything with due care.
By a coincidence this belated Arden is met head-on by the first three volumes of the new Oxford Shakespeare. Troilus and Cressida is in the practiced hands of Kenneth Muir. He does not differ from Palmer on textual principles, dates, or indeed anything of importance, though there are, as there must be, different preferences when an editor has to choose between variants and the copy text is suspect. Muir’s introduction is terser, and his annotation scantier, but a keen student might conceivably wish to use both of these editors. The Taming of the Shrew also issues from an old hand, H.J. Oliver, and is properly gone into, though with no surprises.
These come with Gary Taylor’s Henry V, a lively and adventurous volume which, because it takes a part of its text from a quarto generally deemed to be without authority, offers a text different from any other. Taylor is a skillful bibliographer, and his reasons for novelty seem good; no doubt they will be ruthlessly examined in the specialist journals. Meanwhile the ordinary reader will hardly notice any difference. It is reasonable to ask who needs another edition of this kind and on this scale, especially as Cambridge University Press has yet another in preparation. Every edition, I suppose, will add something; and a few may even make more substantial contributions. But for the most part, the novelties will be few and small, especially in editions of relatively uncontroversial plays. The case for complete editions is not primarily a scholarly one; it is the need or desire to share the market. But there is this secondary consideration: it is important that experts should be given opportunities to disagree; how else can we provide subjects for yet more experts? They will adjudicate between old views and think up new ones, all in the privacy of their college studies. Occasionally they will descend into the classroom to instruct the draftees who make all this possible, but who will probably pass out into the world in total ignorance of the difference between Q and F, if not of that between Self and Other.
Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets (Yale University Press, 1969); Shakespeare's Sonnets (Yale University Press, 1977).↩
Shakespeare & Co. June 16, 1983
Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale University Press, 1969); Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale University Press, 1977).↩