Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy

Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy

Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy

Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy

Synopsis

In light of cultural materialist, psychoanalytic, and feminist theoretical investigations of literature, history, and culture, Cristina Leon Alfar examines what has been left out of a western scholarly tradition on William Shakespeare's "evil" women. Focusing on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter's Tale and drawing on early modern historical texts and documents such as Juan Luis Vives' The Instruction of a Christian Woman, Barnabe Rych's the Excellency of Good Women, Joseph Swetnam's The Arraignment of... Women and political commentaries such as The Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion, King James I's Letter, to the Parliament at Whitehall, and letters of Queen Elizabeth I, she argues throughout that by attending to the sociopolitical basis of the tragedies, the women characters traditionally identified as evil might instead be read as pressing against early modern popular beliefs about female nature, so that the tragedies stage a complex interrogation of the dynamics of gender and power. Cristina Leon Alfar is an Assistant Professor of English at Hunter College, CUNY.

Excerpt

I hasten to add that in this rift or drop [denoting the division of man from woman through reproduction] is the outline of the ontogenetic lurch by which the male subject attains a position of vehemently denying the genetic generosity of the primitive mother, good or bad, by masculinizing the life standard, with the result that the new, neutralized mother, moving from genetrix to mater, is condemned 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. 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. 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.” 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.” 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.”

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). According to Lear, Goneril is a “vulture”

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