Friday, July 15, 2011

Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare

Preface: Lisa Jardine acknowledges that she wrote this book before feminist historicism was either widely published or labeled as an academic discipline, that she feels she owes a great deal to conversations with other feminist EM critics like Carol Neely and Coppelia Kahn, and that were she to undertake the book now, it would look quite different due to advances in the field. I was heartened by both her call for a community of feminist critics and her view of her work and the broader field of feminist historicism as ever-evolving. Sometimes I feel like critics are slow to realize the need for both of those things due to built-in academic prejudices that still privilege the model of the universally applicable individual genius.

Introduction: Jardine pinpoints trends in feminist scholarship of Shakespeare:
1. Shakespeare "held a mirror up to nature" in terms of the types of women he wrote. He does not privilege one social viewpoint over another, and his characters are varied in scope and type.

2. Shakespeare was a chauvinistic playwright from a chauvinistic society. There are two forms of this view, "non- aggressive" and "aggressive."
  • Non- aggressive: WS did his best not to be sexist, but was limited by the views and mores of his society.
  • Aggressive: WS was an obvious sexist. The author proceeds to point out instances of sexism in the plays and poems.
Jardine says that both of these views are too simplistic and, ultimately, presentist to accurately represent the scope of feminist historical scholarship. I agree. The first is too close to Bardolatry for my tastes, and the second seems too pat and easy, especially without being accompanied by some kind of examination of other documents of the period.

Chapter One - " As boys and women are for the most part cattle of the same color: Female Roles and Elizabethan Eroticism"

Jardine starts by debunking a myth that most high schools (mine included) are probably responsible for propagating: the fact that boys were playing female parts was not something EM audiences noticed; it was like scenery to them. I agree that this seems absurd, especially given the number of jokes about the practice in EM dramas (Cleopatra's line about "pip-squeak boys [putting her] i'th' posture of a whore," that joke about Helen of Troy in Faustus, and tons more).

She then discusses how crossdressing in theatres related to both sumptuary laws and anti-theatrical pamphlets, finishing the chapter by differentiating between two types of cross-dressing roles: those that are about the maleness of the boy actor, and those that are about the femaleness of the woman character as embodies by boys for titillation of audiences. As You Like It's Rosalind is one example of the former, and the bulk of Jardine's discussion of the latter centers around Portia and Jessica from The Merchant of Venice. She points out the number of instances in both plays where gender is poked fun at and questioned (Rosalind's taking of the name Ganymede and all of its homosexual/homosocial implications in the wooing lessons that follow; Portia's blushing and stammering in men's clothes before her triumphant speech). I had never really though about how the same stage practice reads differently in those plays, so that was interesting to think about.

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