William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

At the small community college in Maine where she teaches, Mira, the heroine of Marilyn French’s best-selling novel The Women’s Room, is condemned to an endless round of Fairy Tales and Folklore, Grammar 12, and Composition 1-2. She doesn’t seem able to get her hands on the Shakespeare course. This is probably just as well. Although Mira has come to suspect that “everything” she ever read “was lies,” Shakespeare’s fifth acts strike her as particularly dishonest:

Lear really turned into a babbling old fool drooling over his oatmeal and happy for a place by the fire in Regan’s house in Scarsdale. Hamlet took over the corporation by bribing the board and ousting Claudius, and then took to wearing a black leather jacket and German army boots and sending out proclamations that everyone would refrain from fornication upon pain of death. He wrote letters to his cousin Angelo and together they have decided to purify the whole East Coast, so they have joined with the Mafia, the Marines, and the CIA to outlaw sex….

Mira’s hostility towards Shakespeare is understandable. No other writer challenges the aggressively limited feminist position, the intolerant and rigidly schematized view of human life at which she has finally arrived, with such power. At the same time, disconcertingly, no other writer has created as many memorable and sensitively understood women characters.

Mira’s unwritten but predictable Shakespeare lectures are to be found in Marilyn French’s new critical book, Shakespeare’s Division of Experience. Formalized and somewhat toned down for an academic market, the approach nonetheless remains perfectly recognizable. Ms. French detects fear and loathing of female sexuality in virtually all Shakespeare’s male characters, even the most sympathetic, and in the dramatist himself. She does not actually force her readers to confront Lear in Scarsdale, or Hamlet and the CIA. But by inventing something called “the mythic level of the play”—one on which Hero fatally does lose her virginity before marriage, Diana yields to Bertram and becomes a camp follower while Helena dies of grief, Adriana and Mistress Ford actually commit adultery, and Isabella’s brother Claudio is executed for fornication—she contrives to rewrite many of Shakespeare’s endings along Mira’s lines.

Ms. French is more charitable than Mira in that she implies a sneaking awareness on the dramatist’s part of these less “romantic” conclusions. Although she sees Shakespeare as the prisoner (like all men) of the misogyny upon which Western civilization is based, a supporter of false and distorting “gender principles” and fraudulent male “legitimacy,” she believes that he at least subjected these inherited prejudices to a certain amount of scrutiny. Like Sidney and Spenser, he experimented with various ways of synthesizing the two “gender principles.” But, in common with all his contemporaries, he remained faithful to a Renaissance tradition which “never suggested that any female figure should or could absorb the masculine qualities of power, authority, or right, or should or could claim legitimacy in her own right.” Even if you leave aside the important iconography of the armed Venus, about which Edgar Wind has much to say,1 this seems an extraordinary statement to make about poets writing during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I—and often in her praise. She is never mentioned in this book.

According to Ms. French, Shakespeare began, in the early history plays, by distrusting and misprizing women. Then, with Two Gentlemen of Verona, he came to value what she defines as the “inlaw” feminine qualities of compassion, gentleness, nutritiveness, and harmony: necessary checks to that masculine aggressiveness and obsession with power and rational control which he viewed with increasing alarm. As embodiments of “chaste constancy,” women freely place their moral excellence at the service of men in most of the middle comedies. Much Ado About Nothing, however, is a turning point. Here, “sex nausea” destroys the playful relation between the genders developed in the preceding comedies. In the problem plays (including Hamlet) and in the Jacobean tragedies, “inlaw” feminine qualities are either in abeyance or else powerless and suppressed. Their absence allows Shakespeare to stare with horror at the brutality and barrenness of the unalloyed masculine ideal, but also to shudder at the “outlaw” side of the “unified feminine principle”—female sexuality. Finally, in the romances, “inlaw” femininity, although persecuted and mistrusted, acquires a quasi-divine healing power. As a result, the world of Pericles and its successors regains wholeness and balance, but only at the price of “a gross violation of realistic probability.”

Some risky assumptions about the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays prop up this account, especially with respect to Two Gentlemen of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, and Timon of Athens. They matter less, however, than the simplistic and reductive readings which Ms. French offers of individual plays. Her notion that “stasis of character” distinguishes female figures throughout world literature, making them incapable of the growth and change associated with men, is not easy to defend. She gets into some horrible tangles trying to defend its truth in Greek tragedy and in Spenser. When applied to Shakespeare’s women, the conviction is disastrous. It shuts off important parts of the plays, blinding Ms. French to the real subtlety of the way Shakespeare handles Rosalind, Juliet, or Desdemona as they transcend their girlish selves, Isabella’s painful coming to terms with an imperfect world and with her own sexuality, or Lady Macbeth’s belated comprehension of the meaning of Duncan’s death.


Most distorting of all is Ms. French’s belief that, although Shakespeare had an inexplicable respite from his dread of the “unified feminine principle” in certain plays (notably Antony and Cleopatra), “sex itself was an abomination throughout his career…and because he associated sexuality with women, his hatred for the one is also hatred for the other.” That Shakespeare, like Sidney and Spenser, presents sexual experience as something which both men and women ought to reserve for marriage, is true. This is a point of view with which one may disagree, just as one may reject the notoriously difficult and demanding ideal of constancy in love, without needing to argue that such attitudes must be based on a loathing of sex. Ms. French leans heavily on Measure for Measure to prove her case. In this comedy, she says, “all of the characters agree that sex is a crime.” The claim seems perverse. In Measure for Measure, married love is approved, sex between affianced lovers receives mixed treatment, but revulsion from sexuality, as exemplified in Angelo and Isabella, is shown to be either self-defeatingly hypocritical, or an aspect of emotional immaturity.

The fact is that throughout his career Shakespeare celebrated married sexuality and women’s active participation in it. Even in the last plays, where the chastity of young girls becomes an almost obsessive issue, no one thinks any the worse of Perdita for describing Florizel’s body as “a bank for love to lie and play on,” or imagining him “quick and in mine arms.” Rosalind finds it quite natural to see the Orlando she has just met as “my child’s father,” Desdemona speaks boldly before the entire Venetian senate about being bereft of “the rites for which I love him” if she cannot accompany Othello to Cyprus, and Juliet (in a play which Ms. French sedulously ignores) longs for her wedding night—“Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds!”—with a sensuous explicitness which impelled Dr. Bowdler to excise more than half of the thirty-three lines of her soliloquy.

Nowhere is the stubborn one-sidedness of Ms. French’s view of Shakespeare’s women more apparent than in the reading she gives All’s Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare’s Helena is surely a highly sexed and determined young woman. She is able to banter with Parolles in a quite unembarrassed way on the subject of virginity, and how a girl might “lose it to her own liking.” She dwells lovingly upon the details of Bertram’s physical appearance (“his arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls…”), and even though she is finally obliged to go to bed with him under false pretenses, she feels on the morning after that she has enjoyed “sweet use.” Defying rank and social convention, she sallies forth (twice) in pursuit of the man she wants. Shakespeare sympathizes with her, although he also suggests that in her youth and inexperience she failed to consider the psychological consequences of her initial action. When Bertram rejects her, she does think the consequences through and, as part of a process of growth and change, blames herself for what she has done. She knows, however, that she has gone too far now to retreat. Courageously, she wins Bertram a second time according to the terms he himself has laid down. We don’t know what their marriage will be like.

In Ms. French’s hands, All’s Well turns, bewilderingly, into a play “which pits an utterly powerless inlaw female against a powerful and legitimate and unbending male.” Helena is “antagonistic to sexuality as desire,” as Shakespeare thinks all good girls should be, and suffused with a “proper” sense of her own unworthiness. She puts on black and goes as a pilgrim to St. Jacques le Grand in expiation of her “pride and willfulness in wishing to dispose of her virginity according to her own will.” Her “chaste constancy becomes nearly an annulment of human sexuality,” a matter of “sex as duty” alone. The play as a whole, especially on its convenient “mythic level,” tests the power of submissive feminine “inlaw” values and sees them shattered by the violence and aggressiveness of a male-dominated world. Nothing could be sillier. Except perhaps Ms. French’s belief that Caliban’s mother Sycorax, because she “incarnates the entire (undivided) feminine principle,” is the heroine of The Tempest.


Ms. French is intelligent, nothing if not ingenious, and obviously sincere. There is something very limiting, however, about the assumption upon which all her arguments are based, that “procreation and pleasure” are the true and sufficient ends of life. Although she does grudgingly admit from time to time that rationality, self-control, individualism, and “permanencies” may have some little value, she is distrustful of “civilization,” and of the life of the mind. She also leaves a major contradiction in her position unexplored. On the one hand, she indignantly denies that women are any “closer to nature” than men. She would like to abolish the false “gender principles” invented by men, so that experience could become undifferentiatedly “human”—neither masculine nor feminine. On the other hand, it is clear that the qualities she values, and according to which she would like to see life lived by both sexes, are all—in her terms—feminine.

Coppélia Kahn, in Man’s Estate, avoids simplifications of this kind. Although her underlying position is feminist, she accepts a neo-Freudian view of masculine identity as something necessarily distinct from feminine, and in some ways harder to achieve. It is natural in most societies for children to remain closely attached in infancy to the women who have borne them. On their way to independence of the mother, infants of both sexes follow the same difficult sequence of symbiotic union, separation, and individuation. Femininity, however, at least defines itself in relation to a person of the same sex, whereas masculinity must define itself initially in reaction to a person of the opposite sex.

This factor complicates the male struggle to achieve selfhood in the early years of life. It also creates problems at a later stage. After experiencing “a profound separation from women,” adult men must reunite with them, on a different but equally deep level, in marriage. Patriarchal societies give men control over women. But because mature men are dependent upon the opposite sex for “the validation of their manhood,” they become vulnerable to those they control. Additional difficulties spring from male rivalry with the father and, eventually, the need to come to terms with their own parenthood.

This is the psychological theory upon which Ms. Kahn bases her interpretation of Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis and a representative selection of his plays. One may accept it as a convincing account of gender experience, or one may not. At least it takes into account the crucial part played in child development by the existence of some kind of “permanency” in which the self can establish its individuality in relation to nurturant adults of both sexes. Ultimately, however, it is not revisionist Freudianism that is at stake in Man’s Estate, but the worth of those specific interpretations of Shakespeare’s texts which Ms. Kahn is able to elicit with its help. On the whole, these are rewarding.

Faced with the death of the two Talbots, father and son, in 1 Henry VI, Ms. French could only preach about the sacramental transmission from father to son (bypassing the mother) of legitimacy. Young Talbot “proves his legitimacy—he urges his father not to make a ‘bastard and a slave’ of him by ordering him from battle—by saving his father, and dying in the act.”

According to Ms. French, Old Talbot “dies with him, although not before predicting for himself and his son, transcendence of mortality like that of Daedalus and Icarus.” Ms. Kahn reads texts rather more scrupulously. She picks up something here that no one (so far as I know) has previously detected. Young Talbot does not, in fact, die as a consequence of staying to defend his father. “When his father is safe, he rushes back into battle for no reason, and is slaughtered.” After the boy’s body has been recovered and brought back to Old Talbot, who has now received his own death wound, the father mourns the destruction of an “over-mounting spirit,…my Icarus, my blossom, in his pride.” This lament contains a reproach. Like Phaëthon, Icarus tried to excel his father in striving to be worthy of him—with fatal results. Young Talbot, in a feudal world which stresses identification with the father, has done this too. The final tableau, in which the dead son lies entombed in the dead father’s arms, gains some of its poignancy from its suggestion of a failed attempt to break free into autonomous masculinity.

Ms. Kahn’s Freudian readings are not all equally convincing. She seems to me sensitive and persuasive in her exploration of Venus and Adonis—that quite notoriously quirky, if not kinky, poem—as a study in narcissistic fear of eros combined with unconscious desire to regress to a state of infantile dependence on the mother. I find her provocative and stimulating when writing about twins and father/daughter relationships in Shakespeare, excellent on “coming of age” in Romeo and Juliet, and children in Macbeth, but unconvincing on the two Henry IV plays, and on Hamlet and Coriolanus.

When she goes astray, it is usually because, where Shakespeare has planted ambiguity, she allows her conceptual scheme to push her into a single, falsely definite reading. This is true of her handling of Henry IV’s responsibility for Richard’s murder, as of her argument that because Gertrude dishonored old Hamlet by making him a cuckold before his death, his son cannot avenge him. In her eagerness to sustain a theory, she sometimes distorts or suppresses facts of the play. Juliet appears outside the confines of her father’s household in II.6, not just her last scene in the tomb; it scarcely seems fair to accuse Richard II of being a narcissist “unable to form or sustain bonds with others” in view of what Shakespeare shows us of his relationship with his queen; and the requirement that Coriolanus put on humble garb and display his wounds to the people is not the result of “the recent establishment of tribunes” but an ancient custom in a Rome which Ms. Kahn tends, in general, to oversimplify.

Norman Rabkin, in Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning, is respectful of recent Freudian criticism of the plays. He suggests, however, that “if Shakespeare had had access to a fully worked out psychoanalytic theory of human behavior, he would have employed it theatrically with as much skepticism as he seems to give to other explanatory paradigms.” This caveat seems to me entirely just. Rabkin’s own book is brilliant: taut, concise, beautifully argued, and sensitively responsive to the individuality of particular Shakespeare plays. Ever since the publication in 1979 of Richard Levin’s aggressively polemical New Readings vs. Old Plays, a degree of discomfort and disarray has been visible among Shakespearean critics. Levin’s assault upon thematic interpretation (“my theme can lick your theme,” as he puts it) has proved especially telling. And yet Levin’s diagnosis of the malady is far more impressive than his proposed cure—discussion of drama merely as a “literal representation of human actions.”

In four linked essays on The Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Restoration imitations and adaptations of Shakespeare, and the last plays, Rabkin steers clear of both thematic overdetermination of meaning and the Charybdis of the deconstructionists’ claim that works of art are so self-reflexive as to preclude analyzable significance. He returns to Keats’s negative capability, and finds that an “irritable reaching after fact and reason,” the impulse to resolve “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,” are the worst enemies of the Shakespearean critic. When Dryden and Tate, Cibber, Davenant and Otway rewrite Shakespeare’s tragedies, or construct plays of their own upon them, they simplify and rationalize characters and motivations in ways that consistently point up Shakespeare’s own, deliberate ambiguities. Bad (and not so bad) critics do this as well.

Rabkin argues that the continuing critical squabble over how our sympathies should be distributed in The Merchant of Venice in fact reflects the nature of the play. As it proceeds, the comedy cunningly resists and undercuts a moral scheme which it leads its audience to desire. Henry V offers a different experience. A sort of dramatic rabbit-duck, it invites two incompatible interpretations: as a celebration, and as a devastating criticism of Henry and his war in France. Although the two views are equally valid, they cannot be entertained simultaneously. We need to recognize that a disquieting oscillation, the presence of “two rival gestalts,” is a distinguishing feature of this play.

It is notoriously difficult to write about Shakespeare’s romances. The effort to explain just why they are more than “mouldy tales” seems to impel critics toward interpretative extremes. Rabkin looks with a mixture of admiration and dismay at two of the most influential: the last plays as texts about “the nature of art” (Northrop Frye) and about “the artifice of nature” (Frank Kermode). These remain seductive formulas. (Even M.C. Bradbrook, in her splendid recent survey of Shakespeare’s life and works, is carried away by the notion that in his last years the dramatist became preoccupied by “art” in art.2

Rabkin’s concern not to impose theory upon the ineffable world of the last plays leads to an oblique approach—by way of the late novels of Thomas Mann. The results are mixed. While he does elicit certain interesting correspondences from the comparison, they seem to illuminate Mann more than Shakespeare. In this section, Rabkin largely ignores his own dictum, that critics should read plays sequentially rather than retrospectively, analyzing “the process of involvement [as we read the text] rather than our considered view after the aesthetic event.” He seems, uncharacteristically, to write at too great a remove from Shakespeare’s texts. But as Portia says, it is a good divine who can follow his own instructions. Despite the unevenness of its last chapter, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning remains an important book.

This Issue

June 11, 1981