Saturday, July 23, 2011

"Shakespeare as the Girl's Friend"

The tradition of using shorter, bowdlerized versions of Shakespearean plots as didactic tools for children is a long one, but one that does not reach its apex until the Victorian period. Katherine Prince details how children's periodicals helped construct rigidly gendered identities in this period: identities that encouraged “embracing adventure, exploration, and conquest for boys [and] self-sacrificing daughterhood—and eventually motherhood—for girls” (153). This gendering was made evident in the titles of the periodicals themselves, the most prominent of them being The Boy's Own Paper and The Girl's Own Paper. The latter published a special issue, The Girl's Own Shakespeare, in 1888. In addition to several short stories with Juliet, Ophelia, and other Shakespearean girls as protagonists, the issue reprinted an essay by Mary Cowden Clarke originally published the previous year entitled “Shakespeare as the Girl's Friend.” In it, Clarke extols Shakespeare as not only a great moral teacher, but also as a confidant whose understanding of a young girl's troubles extends beyond the boundaries of time:

To the young girl...Shakespeare's vital precepts and models render him essentially a helping friend. To her he comes instructively and aidingly; in his page she may find warning, guidance, kindliest monition, and wisest counsel. Through his feminine portraits she may see, as in a faithful glass, vivid pictures of what she has to evitate, or what she has to imitate, in order to become a worthy and admirable woman. Her sex is set before her, limned with utmost fidelity, painted in genuinest colors, for her to study and copy from or vary from, in accordance with what she feels or learns to be supremest harmonious effect in self amelioration of character. (Clarke 562)

The use of the word “essentially” in the first line of this passage suggests that for young girls, the deepest, most natural use of Shakespearean drama is not for entertainment or social commentary, but as a “helping friend” who serves a varied didactic function. I say that that function is varied because the advice described seems to come from both positive (“guidance” and wisest council”) and negative examples (“warning” and “kindliest monition”). The variance of tone lessens considerably when the division of power within the passage is examined, however. The repeated use of superlative adjectives (“kindliest,” “wisest,” “utmost,” “genuinest,” etc.) seems to paint Shakespeare as the pinnacle of wisdom from which the girl in question has everything to learn. Furthermore, the small amount of autonomy she possesses during this molding of self (“to study and copy from or vary from in accordance with what she feels or learns”) is immediately undermined within the space of one sentence whose ultimate goal is “self amelioration of character,” suggesting that the young girl's essential self is somehow bad or wrong and needs to be ameliorated in favor of a more acceptable femininity, a femininity best not only described, but created, by a man.

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