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Shakespeare’s Distaff Side


ISSUE:  Winter 1983
Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare’s Plays. By Irene G. Dash. Columbia. $20.00.

May feminist criticism soon defeat the temptation to overcorrect an admittedly gross, longstanding prejudice. Irene Dash’s informed, lively defense of Shakespeare’s women is considerable. She discloses and repairs countless injustices enacted against these characters by editors, revisionists, directors, and critics. Nevertheless, her own biases finally restrain the book from achieving the universality one would like to see it reach.

This problem does not result from Dash’s selection of plays, although one may at first wonder why a book subtitled Women in Shakespeare’s Plays neglects so many of Shakespeare’s strong, troubled, and troublesome female characters. Dash sees fit, for instance, to omit the self-possessed, welladjusted artist-figures such as Portia, Rosalind, and Viola, all women who grow themselves as they teach men to mature. Also absent are several of the most notably maligned women: Isabella, Ophelia, Cordelia, Cressida. This last omission is particularly curious; Dash’s continually helpful uses of stage history and her implication that a rich sociological study could spring from exploring the stage history of Shakespeare’s women make us think of Cressida, whose alleged wickedness almost single-handedly kept Shakespeare’s satire off the stage until the 20th century (p. 2). Dash also eschews a prolonged handling of favorites, notably A Mid-summer Night’s Dream, which seems made-to-order for consideration under her title, Wooing, Wedding, and Power, Dream deals overtly with all three subjects. Dash concentrates instead on several less loved, less obviously appropriate choices, such as Love’s Labors Lost and the Henry VI tetralogy. In so doing, however, she demonstrates most importantly that interest in women lies everywhere in Shakespeare but that we often need help in seeing these concerns from someone who has deliberately searched for them and thought hard about them. By limiting her scope, she also keeps the book from tumbling into mere catalogue; she offers whole, well-rounded readings of each play she chooses. Nor does Dash ultimately pass over the most prominent types of Shakespearean women. She simply discusses Paulina instead of Rosalind or Viola (who have received more critical attention) and the royal women in the Henry VI cycle instead of Ophelia or Cordelia. Moreover, in her final chapter she links her subjects to well-known characters, including Beatrice, Isabella, Cressida, Lady Macbeth, Hermia, and Helena.

But Dash attempts too much in another area: she resists identifying with and writing to a particular audience. Appearing to want contact and sway with a general readership, she rarely writes of an historical figure without attaching an epithet to the name. Ellen Terry, for example, is twice “the famous actress” (pp. 3, 84); M. C. Bradbrook is “the contemporary critic” (p. 4); Garrick is “the actor-manager and dramatist” (p. 72); Karen Horney is “the famous psychologist” (p. 150). On one page, we are referred to “the famous balcony scene” in Romeo and Juliet and to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “the great nineteenth-century poet and critic”; yet we are also told that “in the eighteenth century, Gibber eliminated Rosaline” (p. 77). Ironically, the most obscure of these three allusions—that to Colley Cibber—comes unadorned. I believe the book would benefit, however, not by an explanation of who Gibber was, but rather by a thorough deletion of Dash’s numerous, cumbersome endeavors to include in her audience even those readers who have only a bare acquaintance with Shakespeare’s writing. This process would also involve omitting from some of the earlier chapters an excess of plot summary and doing away with terms like “sensitive,” “insensitive,” “insight,” and “the human condition.” Professor Dash’s scholarship and perception are plainly sophisticated; I think she would profit by admitting as much. As Dame Helen Gardner has pointed out, the educated gain nothing by talking down to an audience, and this may be especially true in women’s studies. Whereas Dash’s attempt to reach a broad audience seems egalitarian and thus appropriate to her feminist orientation, it finally proves confusing.

At her best, though, Professor Dash works inside the plays and presents truly original observations. Scrupulously researched and well documented, the book consistently reflects the familiarity with Shakespeare’s text that can evolve only from long and painstaking study. Such commitment empowers Dash to expose many earlier critics’ arguments as the ludicrous claims they are. Scolding male “critics, adaptors, and producers” of Romeo and Juliet for refusing to accept Juliet’s age as 14, Dash asserts that Shakespeare wanted his character to exhibit the traits of an awakening adolescent and thus deliberately made her so young (pp. 68—69). Dash supports this theory with a sharp close reading of Juliet’s responses to adult authority figures and concludes: “Shakespeare’s insistence that Juliet be fourteen, rather than sixteen or eighteen, indicates his wish to catch that wonderful, struggling age before docility begins” (p. 86). Lack of “docility” is key here, since Dash’s view of the entire play centers on Juliet’s praiseworthy, if tragic, rejection of her parents’ wishes: “For while the feud between the families leads to the death of Tybalt and the banishment of Romeo, the decision of the parents to catapult Juliet out of childhood into marriage with little thought of her responses as a person leads to the ultimate tragedy” (p. 100). If Romeo and Juliet fall because they cannot publicly seize upon an unconventional marriage of mutual love, then Othello and Desdemona, Dash next argues, become tragic because they cannot “sustain” such an untraditional marriage (Ch. 5, p. 103). These two theses, though debatable because unconventional in their own right, represent some of the cream in Dash’s work. They are supported and reasoned exceptionally well, as are the provocative chapters on Love’s Labors Lost (Ch. 2) and The Winters Tale (Ch. 6).

Portions that do not work so well seem blocked by two related barriers, the one mechanical and the other ideological. A reader need only glance through the book to discern the author’s eclecticism; Dash repeatedly summons as evidence not only literary criticism and stage history but also feminist writing, fitting presences like John Stuart Mill (“The Subjection of Women”), and contemporary psychology, sociology, and history. As enhancing as this breadth may be in some ways, it leads Dash into organizational problems. Taking plot as her main structuring device, she invariably returns to her major points. Yet along the way she tends to lose focus by ushering in any number of contemporary commentators whose roles in her own interpretation often remain unclear. Some passages read like exercises in free association: names of scholars and their theories about women are dropped in our laps without adequate transition between the play and external material. It is for the reader to piece together Dash’s meaning in these places, and in others we must connect the criticism Dash cites to the issue at hand. In her chapter entitled “The Paradox of Power,” on the first history tetralogy, we are tossed back and forth between a critic’s statement on Gloucester and Dash’s view (p. 172), then between Lady Anne’s critical heritage and Dash’s remarks (pp. 196—97), but never are we told how it all coheres. In fact, exactly in what the “paradox of power” consists here is never explicitly stated; and though one can eventually intuit the title’s significance, it is through something of a fog.

Yet structural difficulties are the least of the dangers surrounding the literary critic/historian who brings today’s theories and phenomena to bear on Shakespeare. This critic runs the greater risk of imposing modern thought on the earlier text. Of this Joan Hartwig recently reminded her audience at the Southeastern Renaissance Conference in Chapel Hill (March 1982). Speaking on “Horses and Women in The Taming of the Shrew,” Professor Hartwig displayed slide after slide she had made at the British Museum of actual Renaissance contraptions designed to control women as surely as horses. Most of these devices consisted of headgear, some even with tongue-depressors for the chronic gossip. Attention like Hartwig’s to what was happening in the Renaissance, as sketchy as our knowledge of it may be, would often enrich Dash’s study of Shrew and other plays more than do comments on what is happening now.

More such limitations lie wherever Dash sacrifices objectivity to promote a single perspective, usually involving the oppression of women. Analyzing Leontes’ jealousy—which most critics agree defies analysis—Dash quotes Karen Horney, who compares a father’s jealousy of motherhood to penis envy (p. 150). Dash thus suggests that Leontes’ rage may result from his envy of Hermione’s pregnancy. But can this theory possibly hold, since this is Hermione’s second child and Leontes has just now begun to doubt his wife? Similarly, Dash indicts Gloucester’s authoritarian behavior toward Eleanor in an effort to excuse Eleanor’s ambitious suggestion that her husband commit treason (2 Henry VI, I. ii; p. 165). Here Dash needs some distance on her subject. Surely Shakespeare’s main interest in this scene and in the histories at large is not woman’s powerlessness, as Dash would have it, but a generally corrupt state where nearly all the characters often selfishly pursue power. It seems that Shakespeare’s women at least enjoy the same opportunities as do his men for overreaching. Witness Lady Macbeth.

This sort of underreading marks especially Dash’s chapter on Antony and Cleopatra. Here she early mentions “the rules of our society,” which “establish a hierarchy within marriage,” a reference that invites us to question just whose society—Shakespeare’s or “ours”—she is scrutinizing (p. 213). Then, determined to have Cleopatra “a woman of genius” whose society fails to accommodate her greatness, Dash smooths over nearly every marvelous ambiguity of the Egyptian’s character until the queen appears as simple as Dryden’s Cleopatra in All for Love (p. 246). Dash quotes Cleopatra’s remembrance of fishing with Antony as proof of her grand, unrequited love for him (II. v. 15—18), yet she ignores the preceding lines in which the gloating Cleopatra compares Antony to her fish, “caught” on her hook (II. 12—15; p. 225). It is extremely hard to assert that Cleopatra escapes all censure for her repeated manipulations and deceptions, but Dash tries to anyway. We must not, she writes, “identify” with Enobarbus’s “point of view” on Cleopatra, but must rather “listen to the characters themselves” (p. 212). But who is Enobarbus if not a character? Likewise, Dash urges that Shakespeare “minimizes audience sympathy for Octavia” by implying an “incestuous bond” between her and Caesar (p. 226). Where? How? Nowhere does Dash consider that Octavia’s split allegiance between husband and brother reflects the play’s larger concern with impossible choice, a concern seen in both Antony and Enobarbus. Only tyrants like Octavius avoid such dilemmas. Dash then argues that Antony, after his last defeat, irrationally accuses Cleopatra of betraying him: “Because she owns herself and is not dependent except when she herself wills a dependency, Antony has great difficulty trusting her” (p. 237). At this point Dash misses the play’s crowning irony: Antony soon again trusts Cleopatra enough to believe she has actually killed herself, a fatal mistake that poignantly recalls Enobarbus’s earlier sarcasm toward Cleopatra’s feigned deaths (I. ii). Furthermore, Dash’s Cleopatra sounds cool and controlled, as she does earlier in the chapter when Dash treats her relationship with the messenger. Dash mentions only that Cleopatra has “threatened” the messenger, who returns to Egypt for “an amusing interlude” in which Cleopatra “quizzes him” about Octavia (p. 227). If one had never read the play, one would think Cleopatra quite a “household dove” from this account. It is unfair and even harmful to see every female, whether Shakespearean or not, as blameless and oppressed by only external factors. Neither Shakespeare nor God has created all women perfect, however inconvenient this may be to the feminist critic. Shakespeare’s style includes an uncanny ability to raise doubts about even his admirable characters, and Cleopatra has her share of flaws mixed in with her virtues. Long live this “infinite variety”!

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