Boys Will Be Girls

Shakespeare's plays have always appealed to women. Many believed that Shakespeare had an uncanny ability to enter into women's minds and hearts and to express their deepest feelings. In the seventeenth century, as we saw in Chapter 3, Margaret Cavendish declared, 'one would think that he had been Metamorphosed from a Man to a Woman'. Three centuries later, Carolyn Heilbrun suggested that Shakespeare 'because the greatest of artists, was the most androgynous of men'. Women have often identified with Shakespeare's female characters and with their predicaments. Many of those characters seemed to offer encouraging role models; many of their stories seemed to imply protests against women's oppression. Shakespeare, according to Mary Cowden Clarke, his first female editor, 'has best asserted women's rights'. Generations of women have found a source for their own empowerment in the power of Shakespeare's writing and in the cultural authority it carried.

In recent years, as we have seen, the validity of these enthusiastic responses has been called into question by arguments that mobilize the authority of history to insist that the original productions of Shakespeare's plays—written by a male author to be performed by an exclusively male company of players—expressed an overwhelmingly masculine point of view. The most compelling of these arguments rest on the fact that the presence of a male body beneath the costume of a female character was never far from the awareness of Shakespeare's original audiences. As Thomas Heywood remarked in his Apology for Actors (1612),


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Shakespeare and Women


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