Shakespeare Feminist Debate Essays

His argument, which reflects sentiments held by many other traditional critics, is that the feminists, in putting the role of sex above all else, are sifting through Shakespeare's plays in search of echoes of their own political beliefs. The main belief is that male domination itself and the suppression of feminine influences are the root cause of tragedy in both theater and real life. In the process, Professor Levin says, the feminists ignore a great deal of contrary evidence in the plays, evidence supporting a more traditional notion of Shakespeare: that the plays are about individuals making fateful and fatal errors as they confront such immemorial issues as ambition, greed, vengeance, vanity and jealousy.

An Attack on the Attacker

Things move slowly in the world of academic journals. Professor Levin's essay was published nearly two years ago. A few months later, P.M.L.A. published an angry collective response from 24 feminist critics (including 4 men). They defended their ideas, asserting that Professor Levin distorted them. They also attacked Professor Levin, saying among other things that they were ''puzzled and disturbed'' that such a person as he ''has made a successful academic career.'' They called his essay ''tired, muddled and unsophisticated'' and argued that it should not have been published in P.M.L.A. in the first place.

The exchanges continued last fall with more letters in P.M.L.A., some of them censuring the 24 feminist critics for their ad hominem assaults on Professor Levin and their suggestion that his essay should not have been published at all. Then, at the convention of the Modern Language Association, held in Washington two months ago, Professor Levin squared off face to face with some of his detractors in a public discussion that most likely did not put an end to the debate.

Professor Levin's original essay came amid a proliferation of feminist criticism, including much that seems to have made the work he attacks seem almost obsolete. He does not mention at all, for example, the present critical vogue of concentrating on the portrayal of the body as a literary key. For many feminist critics the treatment of the body provides a kind of guide to the sexual roles being depicted, and the sexual roles are central to the meaning of a work.

Making a Woman of Caesar

This idea was applied to Shakespeare in a recent essay by Gail Kern Paster, published in Shakespeare Quarterly, a scholarly review. Ms. Paster argues that the bleeding body in Shakespeare's day was associated with female weakness and absence of control. And so when Caesar is stabbed, she argues, his murderers, as depicted by Shakespeare, effectively reduce him to the low level of womanhood. ''The conspirators,'' she says, ''cause the fallen patriarch to reveal a womanly inability to stop the bleeding.''

Professor Levin, speaking in a telephone interview, said that some of these later critical ideas are far less kind to Shakespeare than the earlier work that is the subject of his article. Earlier criticism - including that of Virginia Woolf - tended to see the playwright as transcending the sexual stereotypes imposed by the surrounding social order.

''There is a corrective now,'' said Catherine B. Stimpson, a feminist critic who is the president of the Modern Language Association. ''There's a more austere regard.''

Ms. Stimpson said earlier feminists viewed Shakespeare as ''nicer'' to women, especially in the comedies, than other playwrights. His plays have many strong female characters, and he wrote during the era of Queen Elizabeth and was thus, presumably, mindful of the way he portrayed women in general.

The Intentions of Shakespeare

This generally pro-Shakespeare feminist criticism tends to see the playwright as consciously fashioning works, particularly the tragedies, that illustrate the evils inherent in a patriarchal society whose oppressiveness and latent violence were evident to him.

As an example, the critic Robert Kimbrough wrote in a 1983 essay that the tragedy of ''Macbeth'' lies in Macbeth's fear of allowing ''the tender aspects of his character to check those tough characteristics which are celebrated by the chauvinistic war ethic of his culture.'' Macbeth, in short, is convinced by Lady Macbeth - who divests herself of her feminine characteristics for the purpose - that if he is really a man he will kill Duncan, the king.

Similarly, in an essay on ''Romeo and Juliet,'' Prof. Coppelia Kahn of Brown University argues that Shakespeare used the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets to depict the cruelty and destructiveness of the male-dominated order, one that subordinated love to masculine pride. The feud, Professor Kahn writes, was a ''peculiar expression of patriarchal society'' that led youths to commit acts of ''phallic violence,'' following the authority of their fathers.

When Romeo duels with Tybalt and kills him, an act that leads to his own and Juliet's destruction, he is, Professor Kahn writes, forsaking the feminine influence that is his love for Juliet and obeying the brutal requirements of patriarchy.

Wishes and Perceptions

Professor Levin's argument against the feminist critics is that they are seeing both in the plays and in Shakespeare's own attitude those elements that accord with their wishes, while they ignore a great deal of contrary evidence.

He describes himself as a supporter of feminist goals and says he is a member of the National Organization for Women. But in his scholarly life he nonetheless supports the more traditional fashion of Shakespeare criticism, seeing the main characters of the tragedies as individuals struggling with their fate, not as actors in an overall drama of sexual conflict.

Professor Levin argues, among other things, that the actions that bring about the tragedies in each play are presented by Shakespeare as atypical, as aberrations. Thus, patriarchy itself as it normally functioned did not cause tragedy.

In addition, he points out, Shakespeare also wrote plays with happy endings, the comedies. ''It seems evident, then,'' he says, ''that patriarchy cannot have any necessary causal connection to misery, when it is just as capable of producing happiness.''

The Opposition of the Patriarchs

The feminist critics, he writes, simply leave out the evidence from the plays that contradicts their theories. He says, for example, that Professor Kahn's stress on the feud in ''Romeo and Juliet'' fails to explain the play for the simple reason that many of the major upholders of the patriarchal authority are ''vehemently opposed to the feud.''

Professor Levin's deepest disagreement with the feminists turns on their blindness, as he sees it, to the sense of ''resolution and catharsis'' that he believes is essential to the genre of tragedy. For tragedy to work, he says, the tragic hero must discover the cause of his unhappy ending in some fatal flaw in himself. But this, he says, is impossible in the feminist readings of Shakespeare, because none of the heroes ''seem to learn what these critics insist is the thematic lesson of the play - namely, that the concept of masculinity itself is to blame for the tragedy.''

Not surprisingly, the feminist critics disagree. ''The tragic heroes represent the values and contradictions of their societies,'' they say in the letter signed by 24 critics in P.L.M.A.. Their interpretations show ''that abnormal behavior in crisis is always an intensification of tendencies present in 'normal' behavior, that the tragedies repeatedly and poignantly ask what it is to 'be a man,' that the heroes often fantasize 'a very serious provocation by a woman' when there is none, that self-knowledge, catharsis, and the restoration of order are vexed in many of Shakespeare's plays.''

The debate will no doubt continue. New schools of feminist criticism are emerging frequently and Professor Levin has already written a critique of some of these later ideas, which, he said, he expects to be published in P.M.L.A. this year.

Continue reading the main story
Feminism is a 20th Century
Concept: The "We Can Do It!"
Poster Known as Rosie
the Riverter (1942)

There is, of course, one significant problem with exploring Shakespeare’s plays from a feminist perspective: Feminism is very much a 20th century concept.

Nevertheless, we are often drawn to viewing Shakespeare’s women from a modern angle. Why? Well, partly, because many of them don’t seem to conform to the social and gender conventions of their own eras.

Boys Who Play Girls, Who Play Boys Like They’re Girls

Firstly, my apologies to Blur.

Secondly, it’s easy to forget that when Shakespeare wrote his plays, there was no such thing as a female actor. Women were not allowed to perform, so all female roles were played by boys or young men - something the audiences were, obviously, well aware of.

So, whenever you’re exploring the portrayal of Shakespeare’s female characters, it is worth keeping this at the back of your mind. It adds an additional layer of humour to the comedies, particularly the cross-dressing plays, Twelfth Night and As You Like It,for example.

I Don’t Give a Damn ’Bout My Bad Reputation

Othello and Desdemona Painted
by Theodore Chasseriau

However, the added humour of men playing women, can’t account for the regularity with which Shakespeare gives his female characters pluck, mettle and power; the likes of which would not necessarily be associated with femininity, during the 16th and 17th centuries.

There are precious few female Shakespearean characters who don’t go against the grain in some way. But it’s not always in an overt way, like the ‘shrewish’ Kate from The Taming of The Shrew.

Oh, no. Even the more docile girls, such as Juliet, Jessica and Desdemona, are ‘unruly’ in that they disobey their parents and elope with their respective beloveds.

Was Shakespeare a Feminist?

Well, no. We can’t call Shakespeare a feminist, because the concept didn’t exist in his lifetime, or for approximately three hundred years following his death.

On the other hand, did he demonstrate an understanding of women’s subjugation by men, a realisation that women were not necessarily the “weaker sex” and create characters that could be described as protofeminists? Yes.

However, there is a school of thought which suggests that Shakespeare’s championing of disobedient, cunning, wilful women was merely for the benefit of comic effect, just as the cruelty towards an ‘outsider’ like Shylock was all in the name of comedy.

Now, you could, of course, fall on either side of this debate - because there really is no way of knowing exactly what Shakespeare had in mind. But for my money, it is the former rather than the latter.

Uncomfortable Mix of Tragedy and Comedy

My reason for saying that is two-fold. Firstly, I don’t think that Lady Macbeth, Portia (from Julius Caesar), Regan, Goneril, Volumnia, Desdemona, Queen Margaret, and a whole string of other Shakespearean women, are meant to be funny.
Goneril and Regan from
Shakespeare Illustrated (1902)

It can’t be denied that there are uncomfortable shifts between tragedy and comedy in many of the Bard’s plays. However, if these women are intended to be figures of fun, then it drastically alters our commonly held perceptions of the plays.

Secondly, it is very clear that not all instances of disobedience, wilfulness or empowerment are designed to make the female character in question appear foolish.

For example, Cordelia’s refusal to play the “who loves Dad most?” game is clearly not intended to turn her into a comedy foil. Instead, it demonstrates that, despite the significant amount she stands to lose, she is more concerned with being truthful. Now, some people might call that foolish, but I wouldn’t.

What About the Women Who Win?

There are also many instances of a female character’s wilfulness winning out. Portia in The Merchant of Venice for example, or Maria in Twelfth Night. In both cases, these women outwit their male counterparts. In the case of Portia, saving Antonio’s life and, in the case of Maria, outfoxing the pious Malvolio.

But, then these spunky girls have a habit of deferring to their husbands (although, for Portia, not before she teaches Bassanio a lesson).

What About the Women Who Submit?

 One of the main culprits where ‘submission’ is concerned is Kate from The Taming of the Shrew. And you might use her closing soliloquy, which extrapolates on the virtues of conforming to the label “fair sex”, as a decisive blow to argue that Shakespeare was, surely, no kind of feminist.
Ada Rehan as Katharina in
The Taming of The Shrew (1887)

However, what isn’t clear and, therefore, completely open to interpretation is whether or not Kate is sincere or sarcastic. Moreover, it’s worth keeping in mind that she gives as good as she gets and, you could say, she tames Petruchio, just as much as he tames her.

So, in fact, the two have a pretty equal relationship from the moment they meet.

It is possible and, in my opinion, likely that her closing soliloquy is done with a nudge, a wink and her tongue firmly in cheek.

0 thoughts on “Shakespeare Feminist Debate Essays”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *