Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tottel's Miscellany, A Disease of Virgins, Macbeth, and Shakespeare after Mass Media

This is crazy long. Sorry.

Tottel's Miscellany (actually titled Songes and Sonettes) was originally published by Richard Tottel in 1557 and is the first published anthology of English poetry. It was incredibly popular and went through many printings, a few of which changed the composition of the book considerably, which has contributed to its being overlooked as a usual inclusion to the period's typically studied poetic canon. The book contains poems by Wyatt, Surrey, and a number of "uncertaine authors." While some of the poems do follow Gascoigne's prescription for the "sonnet" (Fourteen lines broken into three quatrains and a couplet with an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme--what would come to be called the English sonnet), most of them do not.

Helen King's A Disease of Virgins: greensickness, chlorosis, and the problems of puberty uses period and current medical knowledge to explain and disprove myths about greensickness, a Renaissance disease attributed to virgins whose cure was thought to be marriage followed soon after by pregnancy. Though physician Johannes Lange's 1554 description of the disease as "peculiar to virgins" was largely accepted, King argues that this attribution had less to do with the disease's actual characteristics and more to do with a social desire to both medicalize and prescribe femininity (I'm using the word "medicalize" as Rich does in Of Woman Born in order to describe how the female bodily experience is somehow distanced from the woman's physical body through medical procedures). King also notes that using "greensickness" first and "chlorosis" second in the title of her book both privileges the popular over the clinical as well as shows the close diagnostic link between those two categories in the Renaissance. Other important points:
  • Greensickness and the humors - linked to being hyper-sanguine and thought to have a strong connection with the onset of menstruation. When you're greensick, you're too much of a woman (Galen thought that this disease would cause menstrual blood to force itself out of as many pores as possible. I think the French feminists just found their new superpower of choice!).
  • Greensickness and food - Chlorosis was later diagnosed as a type of anemia, the cure for which is a diet heavy in iron, which means eating foods like fragrant dark greens and red meat. These foods are heavy and not feminine. In this way, greensickness has a relative in anorexia nervosa (See my post on Unbearable Weight for more).
  • The progression of greensickness - While first thought to be a digestive disease as the previous note suggests, it becomes strongly tied to virginity with Lange's letter in 1554, which argues that virginity blocks the flow of blood and must be removed (broken hymen, blood on sheets, from marriage to pregnancy, greensickness is cured).
  • Greensickness and Shakespeare - King mentions the disease's widespread literary uses. Were I to be asked to discuss its presence in Shakespeare's plays (I'm sure I will be), I would point to Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra. In the first, Polonius--who I love to hate--calls Ophelia "a green girl." He is literally referring to her inexperience in the ways of romance while trying to learn more about her relationship with Hamlet, but his clear desire for her to be an appropriate woman so he may rise socially makes me think "green" can also be read as "greensick" there. In the second, soldiers refer to the drunk Lepidus as greensick as a way to say that Cleopatra is feminizing (read: ruining) Rome with her ladylike Egyptian influence. In a play that sets up binaries to ultimately question them, I think that's significant.

Macbeth is the second play I'm teaching in my current course on Women in Shakespeare, and I've really enjoyed going through it with my students. It's an excellent text through which to explore how female agency and female embodiment conflict, and that has been a throughline of our discussion of the play thus far. Like Richard III, women are either wives or witches, and there is a since that the former inevitably become the latter. Other than the witches, the only women who figure (semi-?) prominently are Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff. The first instructs her husband to school his face to hide his heart (like Gertrude, she "knows seems"), and the majority of my students see her as the guilty party even though her husband commits the physical acts of murder, because she spurs on the idea of those actions. We've talked a lot about the play's many uses of the word "do," and whether thinking is action or not. For them, thinking seems to be doing more than doing is doing. I've been wondering how this relates to the Cartesian mind/body split, with which Susan Bordo begins her discussion of how the female body becomes culturally subordinate. My students' model reverses this association, making the mind female and the body male, thereby aligning with the standard active male/passive female dichotomy, with a side of "woman as duplicity" thrown in. I tend to agree more with Janet Adelman, who says that both lady Macbeth's fear and her power stem from the way she treats maternity. She knows motherhood and its social position (" I have given suck..."), but she is also savvy enough to recognize that that position and its accompanying feminine norms limit her agency (breasts filled with gall, ripping the hypothetical babe's gums from her breast and bashing in its head in order to be able to commit murder).Though Adelman sees social subversion in this ability to discern and use norms to her advantage and I do also, I'm not sure I agree 100%. I do think Lady Macbeth has a power that men around her cannot comprehend (a power that Cixous or Irigaray would respect for its incomprehensibility, even as they would likely not approve of her negative invocation of bodily fluids), I think the subversion of this power is limited because she enacts it by enforcing an extremely rigid (no pun intended, I swear) masculinity on her husband. She tells him to be a man a lot, saying that he is "too full of the milk of human kindness" and that she must inject her spirit into his ear in order to win him to her point of view. That second thing literally means she wants to convince him by talking to him, but when "spirit" and milk appear just a couple of lines apart, I don't think I'm entirely remiss in reading "spirit" as "semen" as well. Not entirely. Shades of the other meaning are there, at least.

The witches also bend gender, what with their beards and their appearing not of the world. Notably, none of these women have autonomous first names (something that Lady Macbeth's Daughter, the YA adaptation I'm reading for the dissertation immediately remedies in its quest for a female community with both agency and autonomy), so while they play with gender in some ways, they reflect strict patriarchy in others. That brings me to Lady Macduff. She too wishes her husband would man up and protect their child instead of fleeing to England, and she laments her gendered response to the situation in the following passage:
Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world, where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly. Why then, alas,
Do I put up that womanly defense,
To say I have done no harm?
Like Banquo's description of the witches, she is in the world without saying she is of it. She also mimics their comments on the lack of logic to action in their society--"to do harm is often laudable, / to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly" sounds an awful lot like "fair is foul and foul is fair." While it's easy to see how Lady Macbeth's comments on embodiment and her famous "out, out damned spot" speech, with its spell-like commands, link her to the witches, Lady Macduff's passage above proves that even fairly normal, less power-hungry wives are doomed to go the way of the sorceress eventually. This dichotomy with no way out is mirrored in the Ophelia/Gertrude madonna/whore split: the former only avoids the latter's fate (being "a breeder of sinners" in an "enseamed bed") by killing herself. Though some would say this lack of female choices is lessened in Shakespeare's comedies, I would disagree (See my posts on The Roaring Girl and Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies for more on that).

Other topics to discuss in Macbeth: The female role in fate(weird=wyrd=weyard), Why young boys in Shakespeare fare almost as badly as young girls in the character development department

Richard Burt's Shakespeare After Mass Media is a collection of essays (Burt is editor) that aims to discuss the ways "mass media" (what Doug Lanier calls "popular culture"--and with similar Marxist caveats in place) changes Shakespeare as cultural currency. The essays feel well-written and collaborative with the exception of Burt's introduction, which coins the distasteful word "Shlockspeare" for such cultural enterprise. Like Lanier's book, this one touches on all sorts of appropriations (I'm using the loaded term rather than the more neutral "adaptation" here because Burt's book seems to be about "culture wars" whereas Lanier's focus is more general and for a less specialized audience), from Klingon Hamlet to Broadway to the ever-present Branagh. I liked Lanier's book better from a teaching standpoint, but Burt's was more entertaining for me personally. I particularly enjoyed the essay on Branagh's films and British nationhood, which argues that the actor/director's Renaissance Films production company, pretentiously named as it may be, did a great deal to reclaim Britain's place in a list of powerhouses of cultural influence by " making the manners that revitalized Shakespeare for a postmodern audience," and then had the difficult job of defending those manners from everyone who came after. Another favorite was Fran Teague's article (and I'm not just saying that because I've studied with her, I promise, though my teaching persona owes a great deal to hers) on Shakespeare on Broadway, which examines how low and high culture oscillate in such musicals as Kiss Me, Kate and West Side Story concurrently with art common to misunderstood cultural groups (jazz, camp and drag, etc.).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

I read the 10th anniversary edition of Adrienne Rich's 1976 work, and I am shocked (perhaps at this point in my reading list, I shouldn't be; I feel like I say some version of this in every entry now) at how much worse several problems she names are now, thirty-five years later. I'll get back to that later in the post, but first I'd like to discuss the book's title and style of composition, since I think those are what distinguishes it from other books that try to do the same thing. Rich (as the book's title lays out) talks about two kinds of motherhood: the bodily (more-or-less), essential experience, and the medicalized, (more-or-less) socially constructed institution. I say more-or-less here because Rich makes a point in many of the notes that revise the second edition to correct broad assumptions, most of which are based in her own euro-American, cis-gendered, heterosexual experience. Because this is a text that combines theory with experience, and because i realize that i have to struggle to reconcile the privilege i receive as a white, educated, cis, heterosexual woman with the prejudice I feel being a woman in a patriarchal society and a woman with a disability in an often ableist society, I really appreciated both that Rich wasn't shy about discussing the ways the multiple identities we wear as people intersect and the fact that she made sure to acknowledge her own privilege the second time around. A lot of authors of second editions spend a lot of time criticizing their detractors (I'm looking at you, Judith Butler!), so it was refreshing for me to see Rich engage in some mea culpa. No one is the same ten years after a project. Perspectives change. That's life. EDIT: I'm thinking back, wondering if I've noticed male theorists doing this, and how I'd react if I did. I'm not sure I'd like it, or know what to do. Perhaps I myself am stereotyping female expression...

It is this invocation of personal experiences that really gives weight and gravitas to the book, I think. Stats and studies about PPD read less drily when their mise en page is interrupted by Rich's own journal entries recounting playdates in which, with their toddlers toddling in an adjacent room, young mothers discuss the news coverage of a local woman's infanticide, how they connect to her rage, revel in it, and feel ashamed, all at once. Susan Bordo takes a similar tack in Unbearable Weight, which also resonated with me a great deal.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Powers of Horror and Shakespeare and Popular Culture

So I didn't really get Powers of Horror. I understand that the abject is a position between subject and object, and that confronting that you exist in such a social space is a scary thing. I get that Kristeva is responding to Freud and Lacan's views of woman-as-lack, and that she's against collective identity politics within broader feminism. That's really all I've got. After Cixous, Clement, and Wittig, Kristeva was a big letdown for me. I feel like she was taking all of the emotion in the other French feminists' work and covering it up with unnecessary theoretical jargon. Blah. I don't want to talk about that on my exams, and will try not to.

On to more adaptation theory. I really love Doug Lanier's Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture. If I teach my course on Shakespeare and adaptation again, I'm definitely assigning excerpts. I f the course were a specialized Senior seminar, I'd assign the whole thing. He condenses years of trends and scholarly debates into 167 readable, engaging pages that still manage to both highlight important theoretical cruxes (Is popular culture really "of the people"? Why are the anti-Stratfordian debates important? Is "Shakespop" about how we see Shakespeare--and what/who is that?--or about how Shakespeare sees us?) and use specific examples to try to explore those questions. As a teacher, I really like the sections in which he puts on a Marxist hat and questions the goals of the culture industry's uses of Shakespeare. His section on The Compleat Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) is a particularly good example of what we use Shakespeare for and why. In this play, a bardolatrous academic extolling the virtues of proper Shakespeare morphs into a televangelist, this history plays are one long football game, and (my favorite bit) Titus Andronicus is a cooking show. Lanier says that such a critique shows us "what Shakespeare looks like when it is stripped down to its main points" as well as how we feel popular culture allows us to place ourselves within texts we would not have personal access to otherwise. He also covers fan fiction, YA lit, porn, and other genres I'm particularly interested in as "Shakespop" (his term) due to the ways the blend high and low cultures.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Lesbian Body

More French feminism, y'all. Monique Wittig's The Lesbian Body is a series of poems in which she seeks to articulate bodily experience from a lesbian perspective, often invoking images of the Amazon tribe to represent what Adrienne Rich and others have called the life of the "woman-identified woman." The poems in this volume are rich and lovely, and I noticed two important things about the way they are written. First, Wittig never uses the word "I" unquestioningly. She wrote the poems in French, and instead of writing "je" ("I"), she writes "j/e" in order to express what she sees as the naturally occurring fragmentation and multiplicity of femininity. This linguistic choice seems to me to be a visual representation of the philosophy Irigaray articulates in "This Sex Which Is Not One": Though psychoanalytic critics like Freud and Lacan have said that woman's multiplicity or doubleness (her "know[ing] seems," as in Hamlet's accusation of Gertrude) is bad and a mark of her inferiority, we as women should joy in our double selves because they give us complexities that patriarchal society fears and does not understand. These complexities belong to us and us alone, and therefore should be respected and nourished, not shamed and hidden.

The second thing I noticed is thematic. Wittig expresses a joy in the bodily similar to that of Cixous, Clement, and Irigaray, but hers is different in that it is much more visceral. Cixous tries to get messy with her loud, self-interrupting exhortations to "Write!" and her many liquid metaphors of overflowing words and writing with milk ("The Laugh of the Medusa," "Sorties"), but Wittig surpasses her easily. She takes common romanticisms like the desire to get closer to one's lover by crawling under her skin and literalizing them in her poems, peeling back her lover's dermis, exposing vessels and globules of fat inch by inch, and worshiping those parts in an empowering series of blazons that seem anti-Petrarchan in their emphasis on the wholeness of the tiny parts that makes up this beloved woman. If anybody out there is looking for some feminist romance (and you all should be), give The Lesbian Body a read.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Newly Born Woman

Time for a round-up of French feminist texts. First I read Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement's The Newly-Born Woman. It is divided into three sections: The first, by Clement and titled "The Guilty One," examines the two female types--the sorceress and the hysteric--and explores links between them. The link between the sorceress and the hysteric, according to Clement, is that they are "women suffering for women"(4). As in the other texts I read this week, both Clement and Cixous see something in the feminine that is foreign and incomprehensible to those outside of it, and they say that this lack of understanding is what makes women social transgressors. Instead of punishing women for these transgressions (Cf. Freud, Lacan), The French feminists I read this week agree that women should own the things the patriarchal hegemony sees as wrong ir outside their system, should rejoice in them. Clement uses the metaphor of the tarantella (a "spider dance" usually performed by women that is "a monster that brings healing" and a "madness that cures") to describe this process. Cixous echoes this thought in her essay "The Laugh of the Medusa." The last thing that I want to discuss from this section is that Clement says that women's stories, while thematically repetitive (as in the link of the persecution of the sorceress and the hysteric), cannot be seen as ahistorical. We must instead theorize what the sociopolitical changes behind similar feminine diseases (greensickness in Helen King, hysteria in Freud/Lacan, anorexia in Bordo) can tell us about how those societies construct women through diagnoses.

The second part of the book is Cixous' "Sorties," which she begins with a list of binary oppositions like sun/moon, good/evil, white/black, noting that all of them can be replaced with the corresponding male/female, where male is privileged and female marginalized. In this vein, she famously refers to women as "the dark continent," saying, " It is still unexplored only because we have been made to believe it is too dark to be unexplored." The sanity of femininity is all about one's standpoint. My favorite part of the essay discusses what it's like to read as woman (Cixous is well-known for her descriptions of ecriture feminine, or woman's writing). She speaks of the frustration of having to pick and choose traits to emulate from male-created female characters: " I could never be Ariadne, but I longed to be Dido, but she was too passive." This is why, as she says in "The Laugh of the Medusa," "woman must write woman, and man, man."

The third and final part of the book is titled "Exchange," and it is literally a conversation between Clement and Cixous in which the discuss their differing views of what ecriture feminine can and should be. Seeing feminist scholars include readers in such a conversation was so refreshing to me, a real counterpoint to the antagonism patriarchal society (both in literature and in life) seems to often pin to female homosocial relationships. This book has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my prelims prep thus far.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Winter's Tale

I've never liked A Winter's Tale. It infuriates me the same way Othello does, in that there would be no problems if this man who is jealous for no reason at all would just talk to his wife and listen to what she says. I understand that were that to happen, there would be no plot. I'm willing to give Othello a pass and see it as a rich commentary on the impossibility of communication across genders, though, and I just can't do that with A Winter's Tale, for several reasons:
  • Genre - This is a tragicomedy that supposedly transitions from tragedy to comedy when A MAN GETS BRUTALLY MAULED BY A BEAR (If you've heard the famous phrase "Exit, pursued by a bear," this is where it comes from). I do not agree that this is the height of hilarity. I am much more willing to admit that the play is at its funniest during scenes when Jacobean nobility's hypocritical fondness for the pastoral is poked fun at.
  • Chronology - I'm no stickler for the Neoclassical Unities, but the only reason at all that sixteen years need to pass is for small children to grow into marriageable teenagers. Even if it wasn't based on something Robert Greene already wrote, it'd be horribly telegraphed and obvious. I know it's pastoral and fantasy and all that, but COME ON.
  • Gender (obviously) - SO MANY PROBLEMS HERE. Hermione is imprisoned even though she's truthful the whole time, but Leontes is allowed to change the rules of her trial whenever he wants. Paulina is the only person in the whole play willing to call Leontes on his nonsense, and she gets rewarded with disgrace at court and a dead husband (see note on bear above). When she gets remarried at the end, it's to Camillo, who is basically just standing there and also a liar and a spy. Not my kind of happy ending, no siree. That's not even talking about the whole Hermione-as-a-statue plot, which is obviously problematic from a feminist perspective. How does Leontes finally recognize he was a jerk to his wife? He LITERALLY objectifies her. Gross. I also have issues with the fact that Perdita radiates natural high-class vibes or something. How is that a thing?
I do not like this play. Blurgh. Tomorrow, I will be smart and formal again, maybe.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Richard III

There are three major angles from which I need to consider this play, given my current research interests:

  1. Historically - This play completes the tetralogy begun with Henry VI parts 1-3. It is important for me and other Tudor scholars because it lays out the historical beginnings of Tudor rule through the defeat of Richard III by Henry Tudor (who will become Henry VII, marry Elizabeth of York, and give birth to Henry VIII) at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
  2. On Gendered Lines - Like most of the histories, there's not a huge female presence here. Most notably, there's Margaret of Anjou, who is grafted into this play anachronistically (at this point in history, she's already dead) mostly so she can shout really awesome curses at people. The best of these is not in this play, but in 3H6 (the "molehill speech" wherein Margaret captures the usurping York and mocks his pretensions for ruling by placing a paper crown on his head). The other notable woman in the play is Lady Anne, who marries Richard after he has killed her husband and father-in-law ("Was ever woman in this humor woo'd? / Was ever woman in this humor won?," Richard wonders.). While Richard seems to think that Anne is weak and unaware that he is marrying her to broker power, I'm not so sure she's that naive. The last interesting thing about women in this play is that they're either witches or wives (or in the case of Lady Elizabeth, wives who become witches upon the death of their husbands). That's a troubling dichotomy, but one that makes a bit of sense given the history plays' subject matter: nation-building power within a largely patriarchal society.
  3. In terms of childhood: The princes in the tower are Shakespeare's best-written young boys (we get adolescent princes and courtiers who have to reform, like Prince Hal, Orlando, Romeo, etc., but very few little boys that deal with similar pressures). It seems like most of what I read about them treats their death a priori (they're like Ophelia in that way...hmm), but I think that that isn't giving enough credit to the fact that they can participate in Richard's linguistic games, that they are aware of the political machinations going on around them. They are the only characters who are able to respond quickly to Richard's word games.