“Evil” Women in Shakespearean Tragedy
I hasten to add that in this rift or drop [denoting the divi
sion of man from woman through reproduction] is the out
line of the ontogenetic lurch by which the male subject
attains a position of vehemently denying the genetic gen
erosity of the primitive mother, good or bad, by masculiniz
ing the life standard, with the result that the new,
neutralized mother, moving from genetrix to mater, is con
demned to signify negation, evil, sickness, and death.
—Jean-Joseph Goux, Symbolic Economies
I INVOKE GOUX'S ANALYSIS OF THE ONTOGENETIC SPLIT OF THE MATErial and paterial symbolic economies to open questions about the nature of woman in Shakespearean tragedy.1 That woman in the period is frequently represented by evil, sickness, and death can hardly be denied. Medical treatises throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries based their understanding of women's physiology on Aristotle and Galen, both of whom saw the female body as imperfect, “mutilated,” and therefore inferior to that of the male.2 Both Edmund Spenser and John Milton used female characters to represent evil in Error and Sin, whose bodies emit disease and death. Conduct manuals agree that if the female body is kept pure, a woman will be regarded as “fair, well-favored, rich, fruitful, and noble,” rather than as a corrupt female body, “a sea and treasure of illness.”3 Bodily virtue reflects mental virtue, so that “inseparable companions ever follow it, … [Such as] demureness, measure, frugality, scarcity, diligence in house, c[a]re of devotion, meekness.”4 Thus the union of a chaste female body and mind constitutes a woman's domestic value, her “all,” and an impure female body and mind renders a woman an “evil keeper” of her chastity, making her “bare and foul.”5
Through the male characters on Shakespeare's stage, a remarkably similar construction of woman is dramatized. Juliet's refusal to marry Paris prompts Capulet to curse her as a “green sickness carrion” and “young baggage, disobedient wretch” (3.5.156, 160).6 According to Lear, Goneril is a “vulture”
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Publication information: Book title: Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy. Contributors: Cristina León Alfar - Author. Publisher: University of Delaware Press. Place of publication: Newark, DE. Publication year: 2003. Page number: 15.
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