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Shakespeare and the Women. By The Doktor.

When critics discuss 'Shakespeare's attitude to women' it is not clear what they mean either by 'Shakespeare' or by 'women'. 'Shakespeare' is used, often without the distinction being drawn, both for the attitudes of characters in his plays and for the attitude of the author. This latter 'authorial' position is contentious in the extreme; Shakespeare was a dramatic writer whose art depends on the voicing of a number of viewpoints which cannot all be 'his'.

'Psychologising' about Shakespeare is frowned upon, and while it might be possible to trace a trajectory of attitudes through the pronouncements and actions of his characters it is safer to speak of "Shakesperean" rather than "Shakespeare's" attitude(s). We can come to a view of Elizabethan attitudes through Homilies, pamphlets and manuals of conduct as well as literary sources, but written sources inevitably emanate from the educated classes, usually in the service of power.

Young women (albeit played by boys) feature heavily in Shakespeare's plays, being allowed a considerable freedom of speech and even of action. Juliet and Desdemona both reject parental control of their sexuality and come to tragic ends. This is balanced by the fact that their respective husbands come to tragic ends as well. Shakesperean heroines are given eloquent and intelligent speeches, seeming quite sure of their own minds. Shakesperean attention - male attention - focuses on young women, and mature women find fewer opportunities.

'The Winter's Tale' and 'Pericles' both exile young women and lock mature women in a silence enjoined upon them by contemporary homilies. Marina survives incarceration in a brothel, rounding on potential custom with shaming vehemence. Her Christian morality with regard to sex is brought into high contrast with the low company she has fallen among, her chastity in a brothel a variation on Mary Magdelene, herself an accommodation of two warring stereotypes of female sexuality, the Madonna and the whore. If the appearance of a saint in a brothel causes some a frisson of horror (Empson considers the whole thing in shockingly bad taste) the stance of militant virginity has its counterpoint in the earlier 'Measure for Measure' where Isabella expressly wishes her brother's death rather than her own defilement by the hypocrite Angelo. This is a long way from the equally sexually decisive Desdemona, but cultural attitudes invoked by Iago

'an old black ram is tupping your white ewe'


and unfounded suspicion attached to a woman who marries out of her race and class combine with Othello's capacity for sexual jealousy to bring about her death. The general trajectory here is that sexual activity leads to tragedy, and sexual abstinence, seen in terms of 'purity' and 'virtue' is defended by divine intervention.

Sexual jealousy is a theme to which Shakesperean drama returns again and again. It is the mainspring of the plot in both 'Othello' and 'The Winter's Tale' and suspicion about woman's fidelity also erupts in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' and 'Much Ado about Nothing', and enters into 'Cymbeline'. Lear's madness expresses itself in a powerful sexual revulsion, the counterpart of Shakesperian 'bawdy'. Such a welter of foulness is closely paralleled in other aspects of Elizabethan/ Jacobean writing, pamphlets satirising women were both common and popular, provoking eloquent responses from Jane Anger and Rachel Speght. The paradigm of Eve as seducer was universal, and the madonna/whore dichotomy of Magdelene constantly evoked.

Fear of female sexuality, expressed in Lear's ravings, and uncertainty about sexual relations which pervades 'Troilus and Cressida', 'The Winter's Tale' and 'Othello' is also apparent in satirical writings such as Swetnam (1615), in contemporary woodcuts (mostly from presses in Germany and France) illustrating the theme of the 'Man-Woman', and in folk customs such as the 'Nag's bridle' and the 'Skimmington ride', used to enforce traditional sexual roles. Such a fear also plays its part in the image built around the 'Virgin Queen'. Depictions of women focus on the desirability of 'submissive' behaviour, in the comedies women frequently dress as men in order to gain sufficient freedom of action and expression to influence events. Those like Beatrice or Kate who remain in female dress whilst expressing themselves forcefully are in danger of being subjected to organised, even ritual humiliation seemingly approved by all.

Women, being powerless, have one force at their disposal, the moral force granted the victim who speaks for justice. Intervening from outside and against the male powers Paulina, Marina and Isabella all appeal to justice, and their lack of access to the accustomed powers of patronage or violence gives their appeal weight. They cannot enforce judgement, however, and any action not in line with 'natural' (or cultural) justice risks her condemnation as a) unwomanly and b) typically deceitful and treacherous: just what one would expect of a woman. Portia is a special case.

While in 'Much Ado' the outcome of Beatrice and Bendick's conflict seems roughly a meeting of equals, Kate, in 'The Taming of the Shrew', suffers repeated humiliations at the hands of Petruchio before she is deemed marriagable, and proves willing to assist in the re-education of other women. In 'The Winter's Tale' unfounded suspicion of infidelity against Hermione leads Paulina to transform or conceal her while her daughter grows up in exile. It is more than inconvenient to be a statue for sixteen years, and this strange absence of the mature woman, echoed again in 'Pericles', seems to be the position of women within marriage. Once married, subsumed within their husband's being, women were to bear children and obey. Those upper class women who were left in charge of country estates whilst their husbands performed masculine acts at Court were expected to withdraw into deference on their husband's return, a fact attested to in contemporary diaries. Whilst Shakesperean drama supplies evidence that women are at least a match for men intellectually, the range of comedy decrees that, like the Fairy-Tale, it should end at the wedding. This is where married life begins.

'Troilus and Cressida' shows Cressida as the helpless token in male games of pride and power. While her 'faithlesness' was proverbial in Elizabethan culture, and Troilus is driven to despair by her favour of Diomedes, the play makes it clear that she is surviving as best she may under changing circumstances. The demeaning treatment of the Greeks towards her, pushing her among them for kisses exactly portrays her helplessness. Unable to assert her independence she allies herself to someone able and willing to defend her in the hostile camp. None of it reflects well on anybody, and the play is startling in its lack of solid moral ground; not one fine sentiment is borne out by later action. Hector dies of honour indistinguishable from excessive pride. Achilles is a thug and Ulysses a sly manipulator. The corrosive reductionism of Thersites sums the war up thus

'..all the argument is a cuckold and a whore; a good quarrel to
draw emulous factions and bleed to death upon.'


Submission and acquiescence are desirable qualities in a woman, then, and desirability a useful attribute if one is to survive where one needs the protection of a man (chiefly from other men). Once married, desirability becomes a cause of suspicion. Iago exploits Desdemona's sexuality. There is a huge disparity between the allure of the boy-attired girl/boys and the sparkling wits of Beatrice and Kate and the obedience and deference required of a married woman. Othello's jealousy kills Desdemona and himself. In 'The Winter's Tale' the smallest flirtation between Polixenes and Hermione plunges the Kingdom into years of winter. This is not the fault of women, but of the unreasonable suspicions of men. Denied ownership and power in all but the most exceptional cases, a woman of authority was still restricted in action. Portia triumphs because she both marries and remains chaste. Queen Elizabeth could not marry if her Kingdom was to remain independent, Protestant, and not riven by factionalism. The Duchess of Malfi in Webster's play is allowed no dignity until she repents of what might seem perfectly reasonable acts, if marrying a servant is not unreasonable. Though the married woman is condemned to invisibility, the unbroken spirit of Kate returns in the vengeful if redemptive guise of Paulina in 'The Winter's Tale', drumming into the deluded Leontes the weight of his guilt.

Shakespeare's marvelously intricate and allusive sonnet 129, 'Th'expence of Spirit' which Empson investigates in his essay 'Sense in 'Measure for Measure'' conveys a feeling of sexual weariness and disgust which also permeates - infects - 'Troilus and Cressida' and Lear's misogynist rantings. Lear projects the chaos caused by his own monomania and his bad decision over succession onto all women, as 'daughters'. Hamlet expresses disgust at his mother's new marriage in terms which make us feel there is some incestuous motivation entangled with his Father's ghost.

'Nay, but to live in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
stewed in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty,-


So intense is the focus on Hamlet's point of view that we are never given access to his Mother's perspective on her second marriage; Hamlet sweeps her protestations aside, and the possibility that he is actually mad is rarely explored in production. If Gertrude's repentance is to be taken at face value, her subsequent behaviour is strangely neutral. Sexual tension between the generations is only resolved in the late plays by a notably strong commitment to chastity. Marina is a virgin militant, and Prospero guards Miranda with great care. The sexual desirability of young women makes them a commodity to be fought over, but once obtained they are expected to vanish. Male sexual jealousy might be attributed to the ownership relations that exist within marriage, the wife becoming the property of the husband, and the spread of the 'cuckold's horns' (such a feature of Shakespearean jibes) north from the Italian city states is traced by Williams ('96) and ascribed to the rising mercantile trends within European society. It seems hard to believe that jealousy and capitalism are both Italian imports, but much of Renaissance culture was, the crucial link with Ancient Rome and thus Greece being fostered by connections with Southern Europe and thus Arabia.

If Beatrice represents one type of troubling woman, the 'main' marriage plot in 'Much Ado' is troubling too. There may be various ways of reading or producing this crux, but few of them could fit well with contemporary attitudes. The recent film version treats the whole thing as quite understandable, but what basis for a relationship is it thought to be when the husband-to-be both finds it quite believable that his bride should spend the night before her wedding with another man, and humiliates her at the ceremony, later consenting to marry a stranger in her place ? If his suspicions are plausible then why did he wish to marry her ? How can she, so accused, shamed to apparent death, still seek to marry him ? This is a very uncomfortable moment, not easily washed clean by the happy ending. Claudio sets out the paradox at the heart of this polarising view of women.

'Thou pure impiety, and impious purity.'


It is social forces which give the actions plausibilty, the prestige of the male characters, their intimate involvement with the machineries of power mean their whim is law. Beatrice is entirely accurate in her implicit statement of woman's powerlesness.

'O that I were a man for his sake, or that I had any friend
would be a man for my sake ! But manhood is melted into curtsies,
valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue.....


which displaces her frustration into an assault on current standards of manhood. Sexual politics are thoroughly exposed here. The powerless woman becomes the upholder of a reactionary image of 'manhood' in order to achieve by proxy goals she is forbidden to pursue herself. Thus is the image of the 'manipulative woman' created and sustained. Such a woman is Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus, whose life is restricted to living through the tightly limited experiences of her 'boy'. Lady Macbeth too, although she is additionally accused (and accuses herself) of being 'unnatural' for stepping outside the indirect roles of influence permitted for women, involving herself directly in the power struggle of the male hierarchy.

Dusinberre ('75) seeks to sanctify Shakespeare on the grounds that

'Shakespeare and his contemporaries used the theatre to explore the real nature of women' (p.198), but Shakesperean attitudes towards women are as culturally determined as any. The fact that we speak of 'attitudes towards' indicates that we are not dealing with an understanding from within, and there are reasons for resisting the essentialist notion that there is any such thing as a 'real nature of women'. Perhaps Shakesperean drama provides no more than a range of possible roles for women, and while these roles are generally better written than most, they are not much wider than those of lover, victim and statue. Dusinberre herself seems confused as to whether such essentialism is appropriate

'Femininity is all things to all men.....What a man finds feminine defines not the nature of women, but his own nature.' (p.263)

and again

'The boy actor gave the dramatist more freedom to imagine what women were like without having to accommodate their imagined likeness to the whims and preconceptions of.....a woman actress.' (p.270)

What Dusinberre highlights is the dramatist's freedom to 'imagine', a male imagining which defines what ? 'His own nature', if any.

Clara Claiborne Park (in Lenz, '80) says 'Shakespeare liked women and respected them', and if I am allowed a little 'psychologising' at the end, I would say that Shakespeare not only loved and admired women, he also hated and feared them. Shakespeare makes enough of male sexual jealousy to convince us that he felt keenly the pangs of a thwarted ownership and there are indications in the sonnets which seem to back such a contention. Everyone desires affection. When affection is a gift that may be transferred to another, fear grows in proportion to need. Loathing of woman's 'inconstancie' so often figured in renaissance literature, not least by Shakespeare, and the seemingly related discourse on woman's sexual insatiability combine in the 'pox' to infect the play worlds of 'Troilus and Cressida', 'Measure for Measure' and 'King Lear' with a powerful distrust. My remaining question would be: At what point did Shakespeare acquire syphillis, and did it kill him ?

Shakesperean drama returns again and again to crucial points of cultural debate. To describe any conclusion reached in a cultural negotiation such as popular drama as a final, 'eternal' statement of a 'human condition' is to ignore the inevitable shifting of social reality and to pretend that the past was less alive at the time than the present is to us. To describe one statement within a drama as representing a 'world view' is to ignore the first lesson that drama enacts: there is more than one way of looking at things. Different views lead to different conclusions. What interests us most about Shakespeare now is the questions he opens, not the answers he may provide.

© The Doktor



DUSINBERRE, J., 'Shakespeare and the Nature of Women',

Macmillan, London, 1975.

EMPSON, W., 'Essays on Shakespeare', C.U.P., Cambridge, 1986.

EMPSON, W., 'Essays on Rennaisance Literature (Volume Two)'

C.U.P., Cambridge, 1993.

GREENBLATT, S., 'Renaissance Self-Fashioning',

University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1980.

JARDINE, L., 'Still harping on Daughters', Harvester, Brighton, 1983.

LENZ, C.,(ed.) 'The Woman's Part',

University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1980.

PARTRIDGE, E., 'Shakespeare's Bawdy',

Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1955.

SHAKESPEARE, W., 'Complete Works', Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1914.

SWETNAM, J., 'An arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women', 1615.

WILLIAMS, G., 'Shakespeare, Sex, and the Print Revolution', Athlone, London, 1996.


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