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).

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