Shakespeare and Women

Shakespeare and Women

Shakespeare and Women

Shakespeare and Women

Synopsis

Shakespeare and Womensituates Shakespeare's female characters in multiple historical contexts, ranging from the early modern England in which they originated to the contemporary Western world in which our own encounters with them are staged. In so doing, this book seeks to challenge currently prevalent views of Shakespeare's women-both the women he depicted in his plays and the women he encountered in the world he inhabited.

Chapter 1, "A Usable History," analyses the implications and consequences of the emphasis on patriarchal power, male misogyny, and women's oppression that has dominated recent feminist Shakespeare scholarship, while subsequent chapters propose alternative models for feminist analysis. Chapter 2, "The Place(s) of Women in Shakespeare's World," emphasizes the frequently overlooked kinds of social, political, and economic agency exercised by the women Shakespeare would have known in both Stratford and London. Chapter 3, "Our Canon, Ourselves," addresses the implications of the modern popularity of plays such asThe Taming of the Shrewwhich seem to endorse women's subjugation, arguing that the plays--and the aspects of those plays--that we have chosen to emphasize tell us more about our own assumptions than about the beliefs that informed the responses of Shakespeare's first audiences. Chapter 4, "Boys will be Girls," explores the consequences for women of the use of male actors to play women's roles. Chapter 5, "The Lady's Reeking Breath," turns to the sonnets, the texts that seem most resistant to feminist appropriation, to argue that Shakespeare's rewriting of the idealized Petrarchan lady anticipates modern feminist critiques of the essential misogyny of the Petrarchan tradition. The final chapter, "Shakespeare's Timeless Women," surveys the implication of Shakespeare's female characters in the process of historical change, as they have been repeatedly updated to conform to changing conceptions of women's nature and women's social roles, serving in ever-changing guises as models of an unchanging, universal female nature.

Excerpt

This book situates Shakespeare's representations of women in a variety of historical contexts ranging from the early modern English world in which they were first conceived to the contemporary Western world in which our own encounters with them are staged. In so doing, it also challenges some of the assumptions that currently shape our efforts to understand Shakespeare's representations of women historically.

The last thirty years have witnessed an impressive and very influential body of scholarly work on this subject, but I believe it is time to reconsider the stories that that work has produced. When I use the word 'stories' here, I do not mean it in a pejorative sense to imply that the work produced by recent feminist/historicist scholarship is merely fictional or that it can be replaced by a factual history that could somehow avoid the telling of stories. As Hayden White argued over twenty-five years ago, all history writing is a form of story-telling because it necessarily requires the selection and arrangement of evidence to construct a meaningful narrative. As White explained,

no set of casually recorded historical events can in itself constitute a story: the
most it might offer to the historian are story elements. The events are made
into a story by the suppression or subordination of certain of them and the
highlighting of others, by characterization, motific repetition, variation of
tone and point of view, alternative descriptive strategies, and the like—in
short, all of the techniques that we would normally expect to find in the
emplotment of a novel or a play.

One of the effects that White attributes to this process of emplotment is particularly relevant to our attempts to construct a historical context for Shakespeare's women. Once the story has been constructed, he proposed, whatever historical data it incorporates will become familiarized:

The original strangeness, mystery, or exoticism of the events is dispelled, and
they take on a familiar aspect, not in their details, but in their functions as a
familiar kind of configuration. They are familiarized, not only because the . . .

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