Was Shakespeare a Chauvinist?

Shakespeare's Division of Experience

by Marilyn French
Summit Books, 376 pp., $15.95

Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare

by Coppélia Kahn
University of California Press, 238 pp., $17.50

Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning

by Norman Rabkin
University of Chicago Press, 165 pp., $16.00

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…

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