The Shakespearean Wild: Geography, Genus, and Gender

The Shakespearean Wild: Geography, Genus, and Gender

The Shakespearean Wild: Geography, Genus, and Gender

The Shakespearean Wild: Geography, Genus, and Gender


Socrates is said to have thanked the gods that he was born neither barbarian nor female nor animal. His words conjure up the image of a human being, a Greek male, at the center of the universe, surrounded by "wild" and threatening forces. To the Western imagination the civilized standard has always been masculine, and taken for granted as so until recently. Shakespeare's works, for all their genius and astonishing empathy, are inevitably products of a culture that regards women, animals, and foreigners as peripheral and threatening to its chief interests. "We have been so hypnotized by the most powerful male voice in ourl anguage, interpreted for us by a long line of male critics and teachers, that we have seen nothing exceptionable in his patriarchal premises," writes Jeanne Addison Roberts.

If the culture-induced hypnosis is wearing off, it is partly because of studies like The Shakespearean Wild. Plunging into a psychological jungle, Roberts examines the distinctions in various Shakespeare plays between wild nature and subduing civilization and shows how gender stereotypes are affixed to those distinctions. Taking her cue from Socrates, Roberts transports the reader to three kinds of "Wilds" that impinge on Shakespeare's literary world: the mysterious "female Wild, often associated with the malign and benign forces of [nature]; the animal Wild, which offers both reassurance of special human status and the threat of the loss of that status; and the barbarian Wild populated by marginal figures such as the Moor and the Jew as well as various hybrids."

The Shakespearean Wild brims with mystery and menace, the exotic and erotic; with male and female archetypes, projections of suppressed fears and fantasies. The reader will see how the male vision of culture- exemplified in Shakespeare's work- has reduced, distorted, and oversimplified the potentiality of women.


A story told about Thales (and sometimes about Socrates) reports that he declared himself grateful to Fortune for three blessings: that he “was born a human being and not one of the brutes… a man and not a woman… a Greek and not a barbarian.” (The very order is illuminating—women are above animals but below barbarians.) Page duBois, in discussing fifth-century B.C. Greek society, sees this statement as reflecting a paradigm of early Greek definition of culture. She concludes, “The other—alien, female, bestial—is excluded… from culture and set at the boundaries of the city to define it as a circle of equals.” Although she does not use the term, her picture evokes an image of the peripheral groups as inhabiting a Wild. (I have capitalized the words Culture and Wild to emphasize the special sense in which I am using them.) Culture thus becomes identified with the central “equals,” Greek male humans. DuBois further suggests that this model was threatened by the ambiguous position of women (excluded yet necessary), eroded by the Peloponnesian war, and supplanted by the Platonic/Aristotelian model of the “Great Chain of Being” (4–6). the picture imagined earlier, however, is a forerunner of some current anthropological models of societies and remains extremely useful in analyzing subsequent Western culture.

Shakespeare’s England differs from fifth-century Greece in having a female ruler, in its somewhat more fluid boundaries between male and female, its rigidification of the human/animal hierarchy, and its multiplication of the varieties of potentially invasive “barbarians.” Still, the Cultural center remained . . .

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