Sunday, October 9, 2011

Shakespearean women and archetypes

As I was reading Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines: Characteristics of Women Moral, Poetical, and Historical, I was struck by the similarities between that 1832 text and Diane Dreher's 1980 book Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare. Both books organize women into strict archetypes that, while they make studying for endeavors like this one easier, also erase a certain degree of variance and complexity that limits the gender roles the texts seek to examine. Jameson's earlier text is much more bardolotrous than Dreher's--in the introduction to the second edition, Jameson notes that she re-inserted quoted passages she thought extraneous to the first edition due to the emotional response they would elicit in readers who "recognized and loved them as they would dear, domestic faces." To sacrifice narrative and critical concision for the readers' emotion in this case is to say that Shakespeare as an author creates characters that we are to know rather than to analyze, that he understands the universal human experience (I'm ventriloquizing here--I don't think such a thing exists) in ways we cannot do ourselves.

This attitude towards authorial timelessness both does and does not apply to Shakespeare's women in Jameson's text. She identifies four types of female characters in Shakespeare: Characters of Intellect, Characters of Passion and Imagination, Characters of the Affections, and Historical Characters. I'll return to the first three momentarily, but the last category seems particularly strange. Though Shakespeare himself is allowed to transcend his existence as a historical person of a specific place and time, the characters he based on living women are not, despite being from many different times and places (Cleopatra, Margaret of Anjou, and Lady Macbeth are examples). This double standard seems to give Shakespeare an almost godlike power while erasing the complex humanity of the women discussed. Indeed Jameson repeatedly refers to Shakespeare as "our author," a phrase which carries connotations of divine auctoritas.

The three other character types, while also broadly drawn, don't seem as blatantly hypocritical in their viewpoints. Portia and Beatrice are two examples of Characters of Intellect, and in her discussions of them, Jameson notes that it is often difficult for women to be considered smart in male arenas (Portia at trial) and that some types of female intelligence seem to be about ultimately submitting to male authority (Beatrice is the only one who can verbally spar with Benedick, but such a show of independence is to lead to normative patriarchal marriage). The fact that Jameson makes a criticism similar to Mary Wollstonecraft's in discussing ideological prejudices built into modes of educating women makes me a bit more willing to listen to her.

The Characters of Passion and Imagination, not coincidentally, are mostly Shakespeare's younger girls: Juliet, Perdita, and Miranda are among them. This section is where Jameson is most obviously a writer of her time. There are numerous addresses to the reader as "dear," "gentle," and "kind," as well as lots of interjections of "O!" and "Hark!" when Jameson gets to a particularly romantic or exciting bit of one of the girls' stories. As I was reading this section, I noticed that Jameson's attitude toward these girls mirrors my own as a younger person, as well as that of most of my students whose only previous experiences with Shakespeare have being in either high school classes or personal reading. Juliet and Miranda are lovers trapped by circumstances and their journeys are fraught and romantic. While this view is an entertaining one, it overlooks both the youthful ignorance and the social machinations that contribute to those characters' situations. I'm not sure where this commonality in view point comes from, whether it's somehow natural to read female characters as a woman as vessels for vicarious experience, or whether this view is transmitted without attribution early in our educations, much like A.C. Bradley's readings of Shakespeare.

Older tragic and semi-tragic heroines make up the Characters of the Affections (Desdemona, Cordelia, and Hermione among them). They are women who we are to pity because they seem to meet ends they do not deserve. It is here where Jameson is most pro-feminist, even as she assumes a natural propensity for empathy in her female reader. She repeatedly says that these women are forsaken by male power systems that, though they purport to exist for the women's protection, actually serve to oppress them without letting them defend themselves (Lear's misunderstanding of Cordelia's answer to who loves him most, Desdemona's answer of "Nobody, I myself" at the end of the play, and Hermione's unfair trial).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

And now, Amazons!

I'm pretty positive I'm going to get a prelims question about Amazons, so I'm going to use this space to work out how I would answer that. I read Kathryn Schwarz's book Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance, and the main thrust of her argument is that, while the academic party line about Amazons has always been that they represent a militant alternative to femininity, the way in which these women are presented in literature almost always includes them occupying a role typically coded as traditionally feminine (wife, mother, person that is concerned with beauty standards, etc.), thereby making their feminine position more complicated than popular belief would suggest.

The primary texts on my reading list that deal with Amazons are Spenser's Faerie Queene and Fletcher and Massinger's The Sea Voyage. FQ's Amazon is Radigund. She's actually queen of a tribe of Amazons, and the poem sets her up as a foil for its other female warrior, Britomart, Knight of Chastitie and hero of Book III. The poem seems to delight in have women fight inverses of themselves (Una and Duessa and Britomart and Malecasta are other examples of this) in order to prove how thin the line between appropriate and inappropriate femininity is. This also makes me think of Virginia Woolf's comments on how patriarchal literature triumphs when female characters hate each other. In addition to both being women warriors, Britomart and Radigund pass as men in various ways. Britomart's gender is ambiguous when she is dressed in armor and other trappings of knighthood (this is why Malecasta must "feel if any member move[s]"), and Radigund defies physical femininity because of the myth of Amazons removing one or both of their breasts in order to be better bow hunters. For this reason, they are linked and one must defeat the other. When they fight," they hackt and hewd their privy if such use they hated." The poem makes the point of saying that these women are wounding each other genitally, and of comparing the spots of blood to the menstrual cycle--these women are not fulfilling their roles as they should, and this is reflected easily in how they treat their physical bodies. Britomart's potential for transgressing gender norms is undercut later, however, when she defeats Radigund and only rules the Amazons long enough for the men to arrive and the appropriate order of patriarchy to be established. Indeed, her entire quest of knighthood is actually a quest for heteronormative marriage, as her ultimate goal is to marry Artegall. Like Shakespeare's Viola and Rosalind, Britomart's crossdressing is not the rebellion it seems to be.

Schwarz reads Britomart's role in FQ as within the Lacanian mirror stage (she doesn't perform a Lacanian reading of the character; she uses the mirror stage as a jumping off point). When Britomart sees Artegall in the magic mirror, Schwarz says, she sees an object of agency and "takes on the armor of alienating identity in order to obtain what she desires." This fits within the path of the mirror stage Lacan articulates, but unlike the Lacanian model, the individual agency Britomart seeks is within someone else, not herself. In this way, Radigund also acts as a similar agency-filled mirror. In order to become one with the image of the first, Britomart must defeat the second.

Though Schwarz does not cover The Sea Voyage, I think her mirror theory could work there as well, though in a slightly different way. The play covers activities on two islands: One inhabited by Portuguese Amazons, and one recently occupied by British fortune hunters. The men who are looking for gold left England because, being younger sons, they needed to find a way to survive outside of the system of primogeniture. Thus, their masculinity is doubly threatened by the Amazons' sexual appetites since it was already challenged by their home country. The foreign mirrors the familiar. The islands also mirror each other. One is dominated by men, the other by women female. One is bare, and the other is rich in food. The Amazonian women have a sexual appetite that mirrors the English men's appetite for gold, and the play does not shy away from depicting this brazen female sexuality. In one scene, Clarinda dominates Albert and talks of riding him like a horse. The play is also interesting due to its depiction of the female homosocial. In addition to being sexually frank about their exploits when they are talking together, the women make a deal with the men that they will have sex with them in order to continue their tribe, and that they will keep any female children that result and leave the male ones with their fathers. This is yet another mirror--like their fathers, some of these children will be without their families in satisfaction of strict gender roles.