In Let Your Mind Alone! And Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces James Thurber tells the story of a small-town Ohio high-school teacher who “for years had read to his classes a line that actually went ‘She was playing coquette in the garden below’ as if it were ‘She was playing croquet in the garden below.’ ” Finally one day, “a bright young scholar raised his hand and pointed out the mistake” but the teacher grimly replied, “I have read that line my way for seventeen years and I intend to go on reading it my way.” Thurber’s response is, “I am all for this point of view.” 1 The anecdote is interesting as an illustration of textual conservatism—the deep-seated need on the part of scholar and public alike to have our literary works in the form we have grown comfortable with, even if that form can be shown to be inaccurate by any reasonable standard of perception. But it is also, perhaps, an illustration of textual avoidance. To what extent might the schoolteacher’s truculent unwillingness to read “coquette” rather than “croquet” relate to the subtle allure emanating from “coquette” by comparison with the safety of “croquet”? The received meaning of a given work can alter markedly in accordance with gender-based expectations we bring to it, some of which can be predicted in terms of broad cultural norms and some of which (like the schoolteacher’s response) may appear more idiosyncratic.
As psychoanalytically inclined critics have long contended and many of the rest of us have also observed, reader anxiety about the subject matter of a text can be projected onto the text so that the text, not the reader, is perceived as disturbed and full of perturbation. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, strong women in Shakespeare have tended to arouse in editors just such anxiety, which translates into the judgment that scenes (or even whole plays) containing such figures are corrupt, probably not genuine Shakespeare. In the late nineteenth century, F.J. Furnivall expressed a fervent hope that Shakespeare was not responsible for “all the women’s rant” in Titus Andronicus, the Henry VI trilogy, and Richard III. The portions of Henry VI, Part I that featured the appearance of Joan la Pucelle took longer to be accepted as “Shakespeare” than did the scenes featuring battles and