The Misogyny of Shakespeare’s Theater?

A while ago, College Humor, I believe, produced an interesting video about our age-old desire to go back to the “better days” of the past (not to get too political, but the Daily Show with Trevor Noah did something similar at a Trump rally). In this video, Girl #1 entered a room in a different period costume and said, “It would be so great to live during [insert past decade of the 20th century here] because [x,y,z]!” At which point Girl #2 would aggressively agree with her about how fantastic Decade X was. Then we finally hear the voice of reason: Boy starts to list everything wrong with Decade X: sexism, racism, syphilis, the great depression (let’s ignore for a second that it’s the only man that is the voice of reason while the two women are frivolously focused on fashion or the “free spirit of the 60s”).

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Perhaps we should remember these things every time we think: “If I could go back in time….” The best decade so far is probably the present one, and that may always be true. Yet, knowing this, I find myself thinking, “Wow, how great would it be to see Shakespeare produced for the first time?” I still think it would be absolutely incredible to see Romeo and Juliet performed for an audience that didn’t already know how it would end. But, then I remember the smell, and the plague, and the fires, and, yes, the misogyny.

Oh, the misogyny. Yes, it would be absolutely terrible to live during the Renaissance and be a woman, a commodity, a walking womb, and an “irrational creature.” Thank goodness that we have progressed. It was worse on the stage in Elizabethan England: women couldn’t be actors. I’ve heard the removal of women from the stage at the end of the Middle Ages had to do with the Catholic Church, the Puritans, etc. I’m not entirely swayed by either of those arguments because the Catholic Church was more prominent in Spain and Italy, yet they had female actors, and the Puritans were rarely given the time of day in England until the later Jacobean period (a bit of an overstatement)–they were kicked out (and came to the US, for good or ill).
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So, does the exclusion of women from the stage, and also from production, playwriting, and design make the theater practice sexist? Yes. There was a distinct lack of representation in the theater for women. Does the social exclusion make the plays sexist? Not necessarily.

Recently, I read this fascinating article by Dr. Sue-Ellen Case, a pioneering feminist theater scholar at UCLA, for class. In the essay, she argues that Elizabethan plays presented women as commodities and that this presentation hinged on the practice of casting boys to play female characters. This essay got me thinking and caused to once again take a close look at the female characters in the Shakespearean corpus.

In the plays of Samuel Johnson, Francis Beaumont, or John Fletcher, yes, I’ve seen some one-dimensional female characters. But in Shakespeare? Even the characters that are not advancing feminist causes, i.e. Goneril, Regan, Desdemona, Miranda, aren’t necessarily misogynistic representations or examples of the commodification of women (okay, maybe Miranda), even when we take into account the fact that every single woman was played by a man.

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Dr. Case argues that Renaissance society had some crazy ideas about women’s sexuality, namely that women were fundamentally sexual creatures while men were celibate by nature. According to her, men avoided the danger of women’s sexuality on stage by the young boy actor. Then she raises the important question: is the dangerous sexuality alleviated? Or is it simply transferred onto the young boy, to become an equally dangerous homoeroticism? As she points out, the Puritans certainly thought so. But, did this androgynous cross-gender casting involve the association of maleness with eroticism and all thereby relegate the fantastic female characters to silly, misogynistic caricatures of women? Where Dr. Case sees “powerful misogyny” in Shakespeare, I find opportunistic gender-bending.

We need to make a key distinction here between the misogynistic society, which prevented women from being on the stage, and Shakespeare’s manipulation of this society in his work. Forced to adhere to the strict rules about actors, he created conscious characters that play with gender and sexuality, not stereotypes of women that he could mock with his boy actors.

Dr. Case believes that Renaissance audiences would be particularly aware of the strangeness of men playing women.

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They would certainly be acutely aware of the fact that there were no women on stage, but they were accustomed to this convention. There are records of comments that play-goers made in letters, lauding the young actors for playing women better than women. Therefore, we must assume that there was a set of conventions for portraying a woman. Renaissance audiences did not demand realism the way we do. Thus, when Rosalind in As You Like It plays with gender in the forest of Arden, this is not a quadruple insult to women by a character created to allow a boy to flirt with a grown man, but rather a character created to solve the social ills of the Court, which requires the breaking of gender boundaries. The androgyny from the quadruple gender-bend plays a larger role in the “Green World”of the comedy. One has to remember that Shakespeare did not create characters or make choices unless it was to advance the plot or a larger theme or a metaphor for the play.

Dr. Case argues that the dependency on the boy “maintained the female sex object as one without any real power or danger” and that “women could only woo, play and engage in sexual games as boys.” However, let’s consider Antony and Cleopatra or Taming of the Shrew, which have incredibly obvious references to female sexual power and sexuality without noting the presence of a boy actor. For the latter, as she argues with the cross-dressing within some of Shakespeare’s plays in mind, I ask her again to look at Taming of the ShrewAntony and CleopatraMuch Ado About NothingHenry VII, and Romeo and Juliet, for examples of flirtation and sexual games without involving young men.

And as for her final assertion that “women did not escape the role of merchandise in the world of male exchange,” I would argue that, while I generally agree that women are still commodified, Shakespeare’s plays distinctly involve pushing against this commodification, and society in general. Keeping in mind that cross-gender casting females roles were not exceptional, and therefore unremarkable to an Elizabethan theater-goer–evidenced by the fact that Shakespeare felt the need to draw attention to the androgyny in order to make a point, there are many Shakespeare characters who fundamentally represent social revolution and the breaking down of gender stereotypes.

  1. Juliet gets married in secret, representing not only passionate, romantic love (only briefly involving the “dangerous “female sexuality) and fights against the hierarchy of gender and age. Her tragic death is not a condemnation of her behavior and the solution to resurrect the social order, but rather a condemnation of the social order and a demand for it to change. The fact that she was played by a young boy is not addressed in the play, but falls into the background, as the audience is used to the stage conventions.
  2. Lady Macbeth desexualizes herself and basically runs the whole political system and single-handedly takes control of the kingdom from behind the scenes. Yes, she dies, but she’s fantastic and evil, and in her androgyny, we find a breakdown of gender norms. This is a deliberate collapse of the character and her young actor, but her sexuality does not become masculine, rather she becomes asexual in her search for power.
  3. Viola is never commodified through her marriage, but rather offers herself without a dowry. The cross-dressing is key in her disguise in order to maintain her independence, which does remind the audience that her actor is male, but, like Rosalind, this connection relates a story of the power granted by androgyny, not by a surrender of the female to the male.
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  4. Rosalind woos Orlando in the mystical space of the “Green Space” and carries these values back to the Court, which includes her intellectual prowess and power over Orlando. We’ve discussed already how this isn’t misogynist.
  5. Antony and Cleopatra is a story of reclaiming the narrative about a woman’s love story. Cleopatra rejects her Roman classification and has herself dressed like an Egyptian queen to avoid having a “squeaking actor boy [her]” like a Roman prostitute. The figure of the boy actor is key in her reclamation.
  6. Desdemona…well, I’ll give you that one. But Othello is a play about giving in to the monstrosity of the racist social order.
  7. Portia in Merchant of Venice begins the play as a commodity, clearly under her merchant_of_venice03father’s power waiting to be married off, but through the casket test and her clever rhyming with the word “lead” to tell Bassanio which one is the right casket, she wins the day and choses her own husband. YES, technically she’s still a commodity at that point. But then she takes control of the court and, again, through androgyny, regains the power she had over Bassanio (I’ll be clarifying this in a later post).
  8. The Taming of the Shrew, which, granted is a problematic play, does start off with Kate being sold to Petruchio like a cow–to which she is compared later on. However, it tells the story of a transformation from a commodity to a member of a loving couple unbounded not only by the material interests of the world, but also the rules of language as set up by the Patriarchy. Also, the fact that the actor would have been a boy, a fact that Shakespeare draws attention to in the prologue, undermines what the audience could read as misogynist in the script of the play.
  9. Helena from All’s Well that Ends Well, while you can argue that the play does not represent women–or relationships, or royalty well–clearly steps outside the bounds of a gender role not only in cross-dressing, but also in the “bed-trick” that she pulls on her husband, reclaiming her sexuality on her own terms for her own ends. The character, like her boy actor, is granted a certain freedom by the cross-dressing from the collapse of gender boundaries. She lives the life that she proclaims: “our remedies oft in ourselves do lie/Which we ascribe to Heaven: the fated sky/ Doth give us free reign and only backwards/ Pulls our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.”
  10. In Henry VI and Richard III, Queen Margaret–and Q.M. in her weird, ghost-like state in the second play, distinctly undermines stereotypes about gender roles and women’s sexuality by essentially taking control of the throne from the ineffectual Henry VI. She raises an army to fight York, and later stabs him to death. She is cursed repeatedly by her enemies for being such a “masculine” woman, but she is the strongest inspirational force. Instead of undermining her strength, the character draws strength from her male actor in this transformation. She is a woman imbued with stereotypically male characteristics.

So, in the end, I strongly agree with the esteemed Dr. Case when she asserts that Elizabethan theater practice was strongly misogynist, because women were banned from the stage for reasons ultimately based in misunderstanding and fear and hatred of women. However, I disagree with her when she extends it to Shakespeare’s plays.  I gotta defend my man.

But, with that said, Dr. Sue-Ellen Case is one of the most important feminist scholars of theater and her ideas are fundamental in understanding the cannon of theater literature and questioning the historic underrepresentation of women in the theater. Something that is, thankfully, finally changing.  Thanks, Dr. Case!!!

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Meryl Streep rehearsing for the Shakespeare in the Park production of “The Taming of the Shrew” which co-starred Raul Julia. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)
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