3
Our Canon, Ourselves

Despite the evidence that Shakespeare's plays were initially designed for the pleasure of women as well as men, modern scholars have often identified them as a site of women's repression—evidence of women's subordinate place in his own world and an influential means of validating that subordination for future generations. Women's roles in Shakespeare's plays are far more limited than men's, both in size and in number, and female power is repeatedly characterized as threatening or even demonic. In fact, Shakespeare's representations of women often seem less sympathetic than those of other playwrights working at the same time. The figure of the witch, for instance, memorably demonized in Macbeth, appears as an amiable charlatan in Thomas Heywood's The Wise Woman of Hogsdon. The title character in Heywood's comedy, although denounced as a witch by dissolute young gallants, turns out to be the agent for effecting their reform and bringing about the desired resolution of the plot. In Rowley, Dekker, and Ford's The Witch of Edmonton, the witch is a tragic figure, driven to witchcraft by need and persecution and explicitly stated to be far less guilty than the respectable gentleman who occupies the highest social rank of all the characters in the play.

These are only two of many possible examples. It is interesting, for instance, to compare Shakespeare's treatment of warlike women in his early history plays with their far more sympathetic treatment in the anonymous contemporary play Edward III. This play is sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, and it even appears in recent editions of his collected works, but it has yet to achieve a secure place in the Shakespearian canon, and its female characters are depicted in strik

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