The subject of gender relationships within the work of Shakespeare became a matter of lively debate during the last quarter of the twentieth century and continues to be an area that attracts much scholarship and controversy.
Perceptions that early modern society was antithetical to any exercise of power by women must be counterbalanced by the knowledge that, until 1603, a woman, Queen Elizabeth, held the ultimate power in England. Recent research has increasingly revealed that across this society a significant number of women held economic and social power and so the idea that Shakespeare reflects a society in which women area powerless and oppressed group is one which must be treated with somecaution.
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Shakespeare’s work presents a wide variety of female characters and the ways in which they have been perceived has altered over the four hundred years since the plays and poems were written. Play scripts areparticularly susceptible to re-interpretation and in many ways such interpretations reflect as much about their own historical period asabout the one in which the plays were originally written. Each age finds its own relationship with Shakespeare and so it could be arguedthat the question of whether Shakespeare’s women are regarded as strongor weak is inevitably influenced as much by the gender issues of the present time as by the time in which they were originally created. It is important not to assume that we can read Shakespeare’s women characters as ‘examples of how women were treated in the period in which the work was written’ (Barker & Kamps, 1995, 5), but rather to use the information that we have about the early modern period in order to see the characterisation of fictional characters as they relate to the constraints which operated on real women of the period.It is also necessary to be aware that, with any dramatic texts, the interventions of actors, directors and current audience expectationscan radically alter the ways in which fictional characters are judged.
It is the intention of this dissertation to give a brief introduction to the conventional views of women during the early modern period. Some scholars, such as Lisa Jardine (1989), Jean E. Howard (1988) and Juliet Dusinberre (1996), have argued that the way in which Shakespeare created women characters was in part determined by the fact that they were represented by boy players on the stage. However, it is hoped that by including a discussion of the narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, which was not intended for stage production, this dissertation will emphasise a continuity among Shakespeare’s female characters that goes beyond the necessities of the stage. The discussion will also focus on three of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, written during at the peak of his career, when his work had become popular amongst a large audience. The popularity of Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth has enduredover four centuries and these plays continue to reach wide audiencesand have a significant influence on current views of Shakespeare’s women.
In early modern England, notions about female gender roles tended to be constructed by two forms of discourse: the theological and themedical. Theological sermons and pamphlets emphasised the biblicalinjunctions that women should be silent and obedient and that they were subject to the authority of their husbands. Callaghan (1989, 9) arguesthat Renaissance society was ‘profoundly hierarchical’ and that the chain of authority extended from God, via the monarch, to men and women who were expected to conduct their household relationships inconformity with the idea that women were subject the authority of their fathers and husbands. Belsey (1985, 9) emphasises that men and women are not symmetrically defined. Man, the centre and hero of liberal humanism, was produced in contradistinction to the objects of his knowledge, and in terms of the relations of power in the economy and the state. Woman was produced in contradistinction to man,and in terms of the relations of power in the family.
These relationships were worked out in the public and private spheres in the requirement that, in terms of the economy and the state,women should be voiceless, and within the family they should be subjec tto their husbands, fathers and other male relatives. Thus, Newman (1991, 134) argues:
Talk in women then is dangerous because it is perceived as ausurpation of multiple forms of authority, a threat to order and malesovereignty, to masculine control of commodity exchange, to a desiredhegemonic male sexuality. The extent of this perceived threat may begauged by the strict delegation of the talking woman to the carefullydefined and delimited spheres of private and domestic life in which thehusband was exhorted to rule.
In early modern medical texts, the classical theories of Galen andAristotle, in which the female was regarded as in imperfect version ofthe male, predominated. Aughterson, (1995, 42) argues that ‘the Galenictheories of the humours … effectively continued to assign woman aninferior physiological state to that of man’. Howard (2003, 419)observes that ‘men and women were not assumed to be innately different,but rather were viewed as more perfect and less perfect versions of thesame prototype’. From these constructions of physiological theory camethe idea that male and female were so intimately related that they werepotentially capable of transmutation:
Stories exist from the early modern period recording cases in which,when women supposedly became overheated in running or jumping, malegenitalia would erupt from inside their bodies. (Howard, 2003, 419).
That Shakespeare was aware of these ideas and utilised them in hischaracterisations of men and women is demonstrated when Hamlet isconcerned about his feminisation (Rose, 1995, 116), and when LadyMacbeth refutes her femininity: ‘Come, you Spirits / That tend onmortal thoughts, unsex me here’ (Macbeth I.v.40-41).
The term ‘weaker vessel’ originates from the Bible and can beeffectively seen to straddle both theological and the physiologicaltheories about the relationships between women and men, as isillustrated from the following extract from a homily, dated 1562,designed to be the required reading at marriage ceremonies:
St Peter giveth his precept saying: you husbands deal with yourwives according to knowledge, giving honour to the wife as unto theweaker vessel, and as unto them that are heirs also of the grace oflife, that your prayers be not hindered [1 Peter 3). … For the womanis a weak creature, not endued with like strength and constancy ofmind, therefore they be the sooner disquieted, and they be the moreprone to all weak affections and dispositions of the mind, more thanmen be, and lighter they be, and more vain in their fancies andopinions.
(An Homily of the State of Matrimony, 1562, from Aughterson, 1995, 23.)
This essentially conservative and restrictive view of women was held,in spite of, or perhaps because of the upheaval and unrest of Englandat that time. Early modern England was a society in transition and thedisquiet that came with modernisation often led to reactive measuresdesigned to uphold the status quo. The sumptuary laws, in which modesof dress were prescribed in order to maintain class differences, can beread as an attempt to rein back an increasing level of socialmobility. Similarly, the discourse of gender difference has beeninterpreted as an essentially conservative reaction to social change:
Time and again in these plays, we see crucial social problemspresented in relation to a central conflict involving genderopposition. Furthermore, since that opposition entails a fundamentalhierarchy (male superiority and female subordination), its function, interms of the dominant ideology is to reinforce the status quo. Yetthis function is problematic. Female inferiority was not an undebatedcultural given. It was fiercely contested…Callaghan (1989, p.11):
Recent research supports this argument. The discourse of malesuperiority and female subordination must be seen in a historicalcontext in which a significant number of women had influence in thewider society. There were many wealthy women who wielded greateconomic power; some women participated in the workplace through guildmembership; a significant number of households were headed by women;and a number of women in various part of the country also participatedin parliamentary elections (Rackin, 19-20). It is necessary,therefore, to balance this kind of historical evidence against therhetorical evidence that we find in contemporary texts. The attempt toprescribe and define female roles and responsibilities reflects ananxious reaction to social change, an attempt to arrest progress andestablish a conservative status quo. These anxieties and the contestedground concerning the acceptable role of women in early modern societyinevitably affects the presentation of women in the plays and poetry ofthe period. In reading Shakespeare’s texts, it is possible to discoveraspects of the discourse of patriarchal authority as well as evidenceof women’s power as agents in their own destinies. Whilst the notionof woman as ‘the weaker vessel’ often informs the construction ofcharacter in Shakespeare’s work, I intend to argue that a closeexamination reveals that, in spite of the social restraints placed uponthem, these women often reveal a strength that goes beyond anythingthat may be expected.
Shakespeare’s narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, is based onclassical sources in Livy and Ovid and so there are some necessaryconstraints upon the actual ‘plot’ of the poem. For example, Lucrece’ssuicide derives from the source materials and, in the context of Livy’sThe History of Rome from Its Foundation, this event is instrumental inending the reign of kings and instituting the Roman Republic. It isnecessary, therefore, to understand that the classical story primarilyexemplifies the abuse of tyrannical rulers and has a deeply politicalsignificance. While St Augustine later argued that the suicide ofLucrece was, from a Christian theological standpoint, culpable,nonetheless in the classical world Lucrece’s death was celebrated asboth tragic and heroic (Hendricks, 2000). We must, therefore,distinguish between the story that Shakespeare inherited and what hehas done with it as a narrative: to discuss Lucrece’s suicide as thoughit were an optional plot device is to misunderstand the nature of thesource material. It is a given that Lucrece will commit suicide, butthe way in which Shakespeare has constructed the narrative and the waythat he has characterised the participants in this story carries aweight of significance. The poem concentrates not so much on theexternal events of the story, but on the internal experience of thecharacters or, as Maus (1986, 67) comments, the poem ‘concentrates notupon action but upon what happens in the interstices between the“important” moments’ when ‘two people [make] important decisions’.
There are two significant tropes within this poem that are crucial tothe portrayal of Lucrece’s character and are pertinent to the questionof her strength. One of these tropes has been discussed by CoppeliaKahn (1995, 42) where she argues that Shakespeare ‘clearly blames menfor exercising several kinds of unfair advantages over women’ and thathe ‘leans heavily on the traditional conception of woman’s physical,moral and intellectual inferiority to man’. She is referring to thepassage in which men are compared with marble and women with wax:
For men have marble, women waxen minds,
And therefore are they formed as marble will.
The weak oppressed, th’impression of strange kinds
Is formed in them by force, by fraud, or skill.
Then call them not the authors of their ill,
No more than wax shall be accounted evil
Wherein is stamped the semblance of a devil. (1240-1246)
Kahn (1995, 23) argues that Lucrece is the victim of a patriarchalsystem and that Shakespeare uses the patriarchy of the classical worldto ‘mirror’ his contemporary society. The trope of the marble and thewax therefore emphasises the pliability of women and their inability tohave any control over their destiny in a patriarchal society that soseverely restricts their power to act, or even to take moralresponsibility for themselves. In Kahn’s reading, Lucrece does,indeed, seem to have taken a waxlike impression of society’s valueswith respect to her status as her husband’s possession and the way inwhich she sees herself as a de-valued object when she is tainted or’stained’ by rape. However, the poem also proposes an alternativetrope that seems crucial to an understanding of the nature of women.At the pivotal moment when Tarquin has entered Lucrece’s bedroom anddisclosed his intention to rape her, Shakespeare introduces a picturethat may call into question the comparable strengths of men and women:that of the marble and the water.
Until this moment, the poem is constructed to show the readerTarquin’s point of view. One stanza particularly creates a directidentification between the reader and Tarquin:
So that in vent’ring ill we leave to be
The things we are for that which we expect;
And this ambitious foul infirmity,
In having much, torments us with defect
Of that we have: so we do neglect
The thing we have; and all, for want of wit,
Make something nothing by augmenting it. (148-154)
By using ‘we … we … we … us … we …we … we’, Shakespeare removes thespace between Tarquin and the reader, implicating the reader in thekind of rash risk-taking action where Tarquin is shown ‘pawning hishonour to obtain his lust’ (156). Similarly, in Tarquin’s inner debateregarding whether he should carry out his intention to rape Lucrece(181-301) and in his reaction when he sees her asleep (365-441), thereader has full access to his thoughts and emotions, while Lucrece ispresented as an object whose external attributes are described inextensive detail yet to whose inner experience there is no access.The ‘blazon’ description of Lucrece as she sleeps does indeed bear outNancy Vickers’s (1985, 96) assertion that the ‘canonical legacy ofdescription in praise of beauty is, after all, a legacy shapedpredominantly by male imagination for the male imagination; it is, inlarge part, the product of men talking to men about women’. The firstthird of the poem does, indeed, present Lucrece as a silent presence, athing talked about, but apparently without a voice of her own.
Yet the crucial turning point of the poem occurs when she is awoken byTarquin. This act of awakening coincides with the sudden access thatis given to the reader to Lucrece’s inner experience and her voice inthe poem. Until this point, the poem attributes some reported speechto her, but the first time when her words are recorded as direct speechoccurs in the stanza which begins ‘Quoth she…’ (575). From this pointonward, the narrative becomes intensely concerned with Lucrece’s innerexperience, in her perception of the harm done to herself and herhusband as well as in her decision to commit suicide. Hercontemplation of a painting of the siege of Troy similarly enables thereader to identify with her as a person who is imaginatively engagedwith a work of art and as a person who is able to argue about moral andphilosophical issues in her own mind.
It is at this point of apparent transformation in the reader’sperception of Lucrece when Shakespeare introduces his second tropewhich, I believe, is crucial to the portrayal of Lucrece, when thepoem’s narrator comments: ‘Tears harden lust, though marble wear withraining’ (560). Although this is ostensibly a comment on Lucrece’sinability to deflect Tarquin from his course by her tears and pleas, itsimultaneously proposes that even the hardness and permanence of marblecan be worn down by something as seemingly soft as water. The Galenichumoural system opposed the wet, female humour with the dry, malehumour and so this picture of water that eventually erodes marble canbe seen not just as an inversion of the hard = strong / soft = weakequation, but also as a specific reference to the wet and dry humoursof men and women. When viewed in the long term, water is stronger thanmarble and this image is re-iterated, when Lucrece herself takes up theimage: ‘For stones dissolved to water do convert’ (592). AlthoughLucrece’s pleas for mercy are ineffective in this moment, her wordsnevertheless alert the reader to the relative strengths of stone andwater in the longer term and later her realisation that Time can ‘wastehuge stones with little water drops’ (959) leads her to curse Tarquin:
Disturb his hours of rest with restless trances;
Afflict him in his bed with bedrid groans;
Let there bechance him pitiful mischances
To make him moan, but pity not his moans.
Stone him with hard’ned hearts harder than stones,
And let mild women to him lose their mildness,
Wilder to him than tigers in their wildness. (967-973)
Atthis point, then, Lucrece’s line of thought has linked the image ofhearts harder than stones with the reversal of mild women who are nolonger helpless prey, but instead predatory tigers. In the early partof the poem, Lucrece is persistently depicted as a passive victim andthis is emphasised by twin images of predator and prey, such as thenight owl and the dove (360), a serpent and a sleeping woman (362-3), afalcon and a fowl (506-7), a cockatrice and a hind (540-3), a cat and amouse (554-5), a wolf and a lamb (679). Although Lucrece is physicallyunable to protect herself from Tarquin, after he leaves, this imageryis no longer used and Lucrece gains an active voice and a moralpresence that eventually lead her to the act of suicide. Henricks(2000, 115), comments that Shakespeare gives Lucrece ‘a psychologicalcomplexity’, ‘interiority’ and ‘self-awareness’.
The presentation of Lucrece’s moral complexity seems to be at oddswith the men in the narrative. Her husband is depicted as a man who isat fault from his initial boasting of his wife as a materialpossession, thereby exposing her to thieves (29-35), and he is laterdescribed as ‘the hopeless merchant of this loss’ (1659). His finalignominy is the ridiculous squabble with Lucretius over ownership:
The one doth call her his, the other his;
Yet neither may possess the claim they lay.
The father says, ‘She’s mine.’ ‘O mine she is’,
Replies her husband: ‘do not take away
My sorrow’s interest; let no mourner say
He weeps for her, for she was only mine,
And only must be wailed by Collatine.’ (1793-1799)
Brutus takes the knife from Lucrece’s side and ‘burying in Lucrece’wound his folly’s show’ (1810), he begins to admonish Collatine andLucretius. In this way, her death is presented as having a redemptivesignificance, not only for Brutus, but also for Rome itself. Although,within the Christian theological tradition, suicide is condemned,nonetheless Shakespeare deliberately chose as his theme a story inwhich a suicide has a positive political effect and is placed within aheroic tradition.
The Rape of Lucrece depicts a woman in her most vulnerable moment whois unable to resist her enemy. Yet it could be argued that she trulyfinds a way of fulfilling her assertion that ‘I am the mistress of myfate’ (1069). Lucrece, though she is entirely situated within apatriarchal discourse that constructs her as her husband’s possession,is neither silent nor weak. Finally, like water on marble, she has asubtle strength.
In the play, Hamlet, Shakespeare presents the audience with two femalecharacters who are quite unlike Lucrece. It has been noted thatLucrece undergoes a transition from her initial silence and is given avoice and an interior life that dominates more than half of the poem.Yet Gertrude and Ophelia, in contrast, are chiefly characterised byhaving very little to say. Showalter (1985, 78) says of Ophelia:
She appears in only five of the plays twenty scenes; the pre-playcourse of her love story with Hamlet is known only by a few ambiguousflashbacks. Her tragedy is subordinated in the play; unlike Hamlet,she does not struggle with moral choices or alternatives.
Lisa Jardine (1995, 316) makes a similar point about Gertrude, thatshe ‘speaks fewer lines than any other major character in the play’.It is therefore incumbent upon the audience or reader to fill in thegaps for these characters, who say so little for themselves. It may beargued that both Gertrude and Ophelia are presented as conforming to anearly modern stereotype of ‘correct’ feminine behaviour and that theirpresence within a patriarchal society has had the effect of deprivingthem of the opportunity for either action or speech.
It seems that Ophelia is the character who most epitomises theposition of a woman who is controlled by the patriarchal structuresaround her. She is presented as a woman of virtue who is obedient toher father and brother. Her reticence in the first scene in which shespeaks is effectively demonstrated by an extreme economy of words.When Laertes departs for France, her speeches are limited to halflines, single lines and pairs of lines as she receives instructionsfrom Polonius and Laertes regarding her behaviour. Although PhyllisRackin (2000, 22) has recently questioned the ‘scholarly consensus thatrespectable women were expected to stay at home, that they wereeconomically dependent on fathers and husbands, and that they weresubjected to constant surveillance by jealous men, obsessively anxiousabout their sexual fidelity’, it is nonetheless true that both fatherand brother are preoccupied by the risk of Ophelia losing her virginityand thus ruining herself and bringing dishonour to her male relatives.Ophelia has only one speech of longer than two lines in which toexpress her reaction to these instructions, but her initial obedienceturns into a comment upon male hypocrisy:
I shall th’effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But good my brother,
Do not as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles like a puff’d and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede. (I.iii.45-51)
Polonius’s subsequent conversation with Ophelia confirms this view,but he is plain about her responsibilities to him and unapologeticabout the double standards that operate in this society. He begins byreferring to the need for Ophelia to protect her own honour (I.iii.97),but he then moves on to his real concern: ‘Tender yourself more dearly/ Or … you’ll tender me a fool’ (I.iii107-109). Shortly afterwards hestates:
For the Lord Hamlet,
Believe so much in him that he is young,
And with a larger tether may he walk
Than may be given you. (I.iii.122-126)
Ophelia has the last line in this scene and it is – at least outwardly- an expression of compliance: ‘I shall obey, my lord’ (I.iii.136).However, her conversation with Polonius makes it clear that she hasbeen conducting a relationship with Hamlet for which she had not soughther father’s prior permission. This is perhaps an example of thecomplexities of courtship and marriage that existed in early modernEngland. On one hand, there is evidence that ‘arranged marriage wasprobably still the norm in practice, even though marrying for lovebecomes the ideal on stage’ (Belsey, 2002, 129); but on the other handthere is also evidence that a more uncertain situation existed where’preliminary decisions were made by the young people; the parents wereusually brought into the discussion only later'(Amussen, 1999, 94) .Ophelia’s behaviour suggests that the latter was a more accuratedescription of her situation.
Ophelia’s ability to express herself continues to be severelyrestricted throughout the scene in which she is confronted by Hamlet(III.i) and in the Mouse Trap scene (III.ii). However, she doeseventually find a voice, and it is through her madness that she isfinally able to confront the ultimate embodiment of male authority: theking. Ophelia’s use of folk songs as a way of expressing a sexualisedsensibility is in stark contrast to the verbal control of her earlierscenes, yet the meaning of her words carries the same message, asHattaway (2002, 114) comments: ‘what is significant is its exposure ofthe double standard: a man gains honour among his own sex by virtue ofsexual conquests, while by the same activity a woman loses hers.’ Thiscontradiction can be seen as central to the character of Ophelia and itultimately destroys her. Showalter (1985, 91) comments that somefeminists have regarded Ophelia’s madness as a form of ‘protest andrebellion’. ‘For many feminist theorists’, she states, ‘the madwomanis a heroine, a powerful figure who rebels against the family and thesocial order.’ It is also possible, however, to argue that Ophelia’scryptic comments on her plight are ‘contained’ by her madness and thatany attempt to operate outside of the strictures of patriarchy isforeclosed by her death. Ophelia’s madness has proved to be apowerful symbol of female insanity over the last four centuries: ‘wecould provide a manual of female insanity by chronicling illustrationsof Ophelia; this is so because the illustrations of Ophelia have playeda major role in the theoretical construction of female insanity'(Showalter, 1985, 80). With the benefit of four hundred years ofhindsight, therefore, Ophelia’s madness has attained a symbolicsignificance which is a contested site of meaning.
Gertrude’s part in the play has also provoked a great deal of commentand controversy. Jardine (1995, 316) comments upon the phenomenon of’blame’ that has become attached to Gertrude. Hamlet’s apparentobsession with her behaviour has been the subject of muchpsychoanalytical interpretation. However, the recent emphasis onviewing early modern literature within a historicist framework haspresented an alternative to the essentially anachronistic process ofapplying a nineteenth century theoretical framework to a seventeenthcentury play. With a greater historical awareness, it is possible toview Hamlet’s concerns in a different way: the anxiety about hismother’s behaviour that preoccupies him and distracts him from hisostensible duty to avenge the death of his father can be explained byhis mother’s apparently ‘unfeminine’ and inappropriate sexuality.Hamlet describes Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius as hot, lustfuland bestial:
Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty! (III.iv.91-94)
Disgusted by the physical evidence Gertrude’s sexuality, Hamlet hasthree issues with his mother’s behaviour: he has identified that she ishot (a sign of masculinity in Galen’s humoural system), he is concernedat the speed with which she has transferred her affiliation from oldHamlet to Claudius (thus refuting the requirement that women should beconstant); and she also seems to behave with too much liberty. As isclear from Polonius’s rebuke to Ophelia, men could be permitted agreater freedom, but a woman’s freedom to act was severelycircumscribed. Gertrude’s lack of restraint is seen by Hamlet asdangerous, both socially and politically. Hamlet is therefore dismayedby the fact that his mother is behaving in such a way as to go beyondthe conventional requirements of feminine behaviour and that she is, inhis eyes, encroaching onto male territory. Though it is true thatGertrude does not have many lines, her role is crucial to Hamlet’sstate of mind and to his ability to act in a way that he perceives asmanly. In marrying Claudius, Gertrude has also retained politicalpower as queen and this has almost certainly had the effect of barringHamlet from inheriting the throne from his dead father. It can beargued, then, that in her relationship with Hamlet she has a level ofpersonal and political power that is the cause of his inability to takethe action that feels is necessary to avenge the death of his father.
Gertrude and Ophelia, though they have relatively few lines, both havepivotal roles to play in Hamlet. Their influence over the outcome ofthe play is far in excess of the number of lines spoken by them. Bothof them are seen to go beyond what was the conventionally idealisedfeminine roles ascribed to them by early modern society. That theirbehaviour causes anxiety in the male characters in the play is clear:Laertes, Polonius, Claudius and Hamlet are all preoccupied by theirbehaviour, yet are unable to exert the necessary control thatpatriarchal power structures require of them. Although the socialnorms of patriarchy are clearly inscribed into this play, the womencharacters display a level of non-conformity that enables them tosubvert the power structures that seek to restrain them. Shakespearehas inscribed into this play a complexity of characterisation in bothGertrude and Ophelia that denies the simplistic category of femaleweakness into which their society might have tried to fit them.
Ann Thompson (1991, 125) has commented on the difficulties thatthis play creates in that too much critical attention has ‘turned KingLear into a play exclusively or primarily about male power’, butKathleen McLuskie (1985, 103) argues that ‘the text containspossibilities for subverting these meanings and the potential forreconstructing them in feminist terms.’ In the opening scene of theplay, we are presented with what McLuskie refers to as a ‘love test’,based on the structure of a folk tale. The King creates a situationwhereby the fate of his kingdom and his daughters depends upon theirverbal declarations of love. However, if the ideal type of womanhood,as defined in early modern society, lies in its silence and modestrestraint, is could be argued that Lear is tempting his daughters intoerror by requiring such public verbal displays. He exposes hisdaughters to ‘the unseemliness of a living woman conveying her feelingsin a public format’ (Barker & Kamps, 1995, 4). Shakespeare is thusproblematising Lear’s behaviour from the outset: he embarks upon acourse that demands that his daughters prove their love by floutingpatriarchal conventions. The women are thus trapped: whatever they sayor do not say, they run the risk of disobedience, either to theirfather or to the wider requirements of proper feminine behaviour.
In Lear’s three daughters and their responses to this situation, weare presented with alternative types of female behaviour and the playalso focuses attention on their agency as it relates to the patriarchalstructures within which they operate. The play could be said to be anillustration of the weakness and folly of two old men – Lear andGloucester – who, as their physical powers diminish, lose their socialand political powers as well. Just as the source of women’s weaknesscan be traced to their bodies, so it might be argued that a bodilydecline in old men renders them weak and vulnerable. In the subsequentpower struggle, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia all make choices thatgovern their future and that determine the course of the subsequentdrama. Although this leads to the depiction of Goneril and Regan aspredatory adulteresses, whilst Cordelia ultimately becomes a victim whois unable to survive, it is nonetheless true to say that all three ofthese women seize opportunities to make their own choices anddecisions. From the outset, Cordelia is characterised as the pictureof modest womanly constraint, as she punctuates her sisters’ smoothrendition of filial loyalty with comments such as: ‘What shall Cordeliaspeak? Love and be silent’ (I.i.61) and ‘Then poor Cordelia! / And yetnot so; since I am sure my love’s / More ponderous than my tongue'(I.i.75-77). Cordelia’s virtue lies in her observation of duty andobedience and she is aware that every adult woman must divide her dutyand obedience between her husband and her father. Though this stanceis shown to place her in a double bind that leads to exile and thendeath, yet she has exercised her own choice and has resisted pressurefrom her father to take another course. In choosing the path of truthto herself, she has become her own moral arbiter and is the first ofthe three daughters to openly rebel against her father’s wishes,regarding her own conscience as a higher authority that his.
In contrast to Cordelia, Goneril and Regan show themselves to be awareof the political strategies through which power is obtained and theyare willing to flatter their father in order to gain it. The playfollows the subsequent reversal of power in which Lear becomes an’obedient father’ (I.iv.232), while Goneril and Regan become predatorycreatures, as for example ‘detested kite’ (I.iv.260) and’vulture'(II.iv.132). This predatory aspect to their nature is alsoplayed out in their sexual relationships, particularly with referenceto Edmund. Though Goneril and Regan use their strength for evil ends,it is nonetheless clear that they are able to act beyond what might beconsidered as their gendered feminine roles. In the universe of KingLear moral choices have consequences and it is clear that they areultimately punished for their crimes, as they finally prey on oneanother. Nonetheless, before they meet their end, they have beenpresent on the battlefield, a far cry from the domestic sphere in whichit was more normal for women to operate. Goneril and Regan have, in aperverse reversal of patriarchal power, asserted their ability tostruggle to satisfy their own desire for sexual and political power anin doing so have created a model for Shakespeare’s most transgressivefemale character.
In what Zimmerman (2000, 320) describes as ‘the hallucinatory realm ofShakespeare’s Macbeth’, the picture of a society which is in meltdownis inextricably linked with the portrayal of gender categories thatshift and collapse. The women characters in Macbeth – the witches andLady Macbeth – drive Macbeth forward in his course and exercise acontrolling power over his destiny. In that Lady Macbeth is portrayedas the energising and controlling force that impels Macbeth to killDuncan, she is certainly characterised as being stronger willed thatMacbeth. When Macbeth hesitates, she accuses him of cowardice: ‘Artthou afeard / To be the same in thine act and valour, As thou art indesire?’ (I.vii.39-41). Furthermore, she invokes the image ofmanliness and courage in action: ‘When you durst do it, then you werea man’ (I.vii.49). She shows no sign of entertaining the doubts andworries about failure that Macbeth voices. Yet, crucially, she cannotcarry out the murder herself and this is for a very specific reason:’Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had don’t'(II.ii.13). In this moment, when Macbeth is in the very act ofmurdering Duncan, Lady Macbeth identifies the source of power that shecannot overcome: patriarchal power. For all her strength of character,Lady Macbeth is thwarted by the socially gendered role of a womanwithin a patriarchal society. Her attempts to subvert her femininerole are symbolically represented by the presence of the witches, whosepresence on the margin of society demonstrate the destiny of women whochallenge the status quo..
In early modern England, the social exclusion of some categories ofwomen was associated with witchcraft and it is the marginalized natureof feminine power that is embodied by the weird sisters. Newman (1991,56) comments:
Not only were the practitioners of witchcraft in England women, theywere often disorderly or unruly women who transgressed cultural codesof femininity. … Significantly, all those behaviours transgressingtraditional gender roles were conflated – a witch typically was said tobe a scold, a shrew; to ‘live unquietly with her husband’; to be a’light woman’ or a ‘common harlot’ – witches were regularly accused ofsexual misconduct.
Women who were thus identified as transgressive were criminalizedand punished. In Macbeth, the witches are situated outside of thenormal bounds of society, physically located on a heath. Theirsituation with regard to the normal bounds of femininity also placesthem outside. As Banquo comments, their humanity as well as theirfemininity is in doubt:
–What are these,
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’inhabitants o’ th’ earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? Or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.(I.iii.39-47)
Here the utilisation of female characters to reveal what is mostevil and fearful reveals the anxiety of early modern society aboutwomen who refuse to conform to traditional gender roles and usurp thepower which legitimately belongs to men. Thus, Banquo is confounded bythe androgynous appearance of the witches who should be women, but havean appearance that is at odds with normal expectations. Rackin (2005,132) cites this as an example of ‘the prototypically modern assumptionthat the qualities of gentleness and pity are naturally grounded inwomen’s bodies’.
The social unease which these women embody is perhaps indicative ofthe uncertainties associated with the growth in mercantilism of theearly modern period. Literacy increased during the reign of Elizabeth;cities expanded and there was a growing middle class who took advantageof the possibilities of social mobility. These social changesinevitably created uncertainty and the unease appears to have beenparticularly focussed upon changes in women’s behaviour. Sermons andpamphlets of the period attempted to divert the flow of change byrestoring the older certainties and the traditional order. LadyMacbeth embodies the possibility and also the fear that is engenderedby these social conditions. She is strongly motivated by ambition andshe urges her husband to take the necessary action to achieve hergoal. In a society based on order and authority, such behaviour isdangerous. Just as the witches’ femininity has been called intoquestion, so Lady Macbeth’s pursuit of power is seen to reflect anaspect of her gender; her femininity has to be actively suppressed inorder to take action. She calls up the powers of evil to ‘unsex’ her,replacing the soft and nurturing aspects of her nature with cruelty andmurder.
Come, you Spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! …
… Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on Nature’s mischief!(I.v.40- 43, 47-50)
In this overt rejection of the social expectations of femininity, LadyMacbeth allies herself with the witches and it is thereforeunsurprising that the outcome of her action is that her state becomesmarginalized by her descent into madness. As with Ophelia, madness isa state that is associated with existing outside of the normativeboundaries of a socially gendered role. In this state, although LadyMacbeth comes from the aristocracy and is now Queen, her positionbecomes strongly associated with that of the witches, who areoutsiders. Janet Adelman (1995, 105) argues Lady Macbeth’s affiliationwith the witches becomes an embodiment of female power and that theplay ‘becomes … a representation of primitive fears about male identityand autonomy itself, about those looming female presences who threatento control one’s actions and one’s mind, to constitute one’s very self,even at a distance’. The physical distancing of the witches ismirrored in the psychological distance that Lady Macbeth creates byplacing herself beyond the boundaries of normal Christian discourse inher speech ‘Come you spirits’ By articulating a determination thatrejects the constructions of normal maternal feeling, she similarlyplaces herself beyond the normative boundaries of gendered socialdiscourse:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this. (I.vii.54-59).
Lady Macbeth’s ‘direst cruelty’ is a means of refuting the femininerole imposed upon her in exchange for the power of action. Normally,action is considered the prerogative of male characters. When Macbethhesitates before killing Duncan, his manhood is called into question;Hamlet’s hesitation is similarly constructed and so the part of takingviolent action is specifically gendered as masculine. It is necessary,therefore, for Lady Macbeth to adopt the rhetorical device of rejectingher femininity in order to exercise power.
Yet she is unable to sustain herself after the desired action has beeneffected and, ‘while Macbeth projects his fears into hallucinations yetremains fully functional as a warrior, Lady Macbeth breaks down andkills herself’ (Sprengnether, 1995, 13). Although Lady Macbeth hasinitially been portrayed as a character who energises her husband’sambitions and rejects the softer side of her nature in order to gainpower, the ultimate expense of this strategy becomes clear when hercourse towards madness and death is as rapid and decisive asOphelia’s. Although there is an element of ambiguity that surroundsthe question of whether Ophelia and Gertrude commit suicide, it isclear that Lady Macbeth takes her own life. Like Lucrece, she is themistress of her own fate. Although she has, until this point, livedout her ambition through her husband, her death signals a final breakfrom him and she is described as having ‘by self and violent hands /Took off her life (V.ix.36-37). Ultimately, there is no place for herwithin the patriarchal bounds and so no place for her within society.Belsey (1985, 185) expresses the problematic situation of women who donot accept their gendered roles in this way:
The demonization of women who subvert the meaning of femininity iscontradictory in its implications. It places them beyond meaning,beyond the limits of what is intelligible. At the same time it endowsthem with a (supernatural) power which it is precisely the project ofpatriarchy to deny.
In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s power is indeed denied. Though, incomparison with Macbeth, she has temporarily appeared to have asuperior strength, her ultimate destiny is to be symbolicallyconfronted with the body of her sleeping father, whose power she cannotrefute.
During the early modern era, an idealised construct of femininityand masculinity depended upon physiological and theological theorieswhich posited a binary opposition between the male and female and wasdefined in terms of strength and weakness. However, Shakespeare’sfemale characters are never as one-dimensional as these kinds ofdefinitions might suggest. Whilst it is clear that such categoriesoften inform the depictions of gender roles, Shakespeare presentswomen’s strengths as well as men’s weaknesses. Real people are a mixof strengths and weaknesses and Shakespeare creates characters who arecomplex and layered in such a way as to have made their relevanceendure over four centuries. Though many of his female characters playout roles that are circumscribed by social norms and expectations andthough they often they attain their goals through the actions of men,they are not universally passive and disempowered. Neither are theyuniversally stronger or more morally virtuous than men. In The Rape ofLucrece, Shakespeare has created a tragic heroine who does, indeed,seem to have greater moral dignity and strength than the malecharacters in the poem. In Hamlet, however, both Gertrude and Opheliaare more ambiguous presences whose strength, though significant totheir eventual fates, is circumscribed by their inability to controltheir destinies. In King Lear Shakespeare presents three women who, indiffering ways, exhibit the strength of purpose and resolve to maketheir own choices and thereby to affect their own fates. Finally, inMacbeth, we encounter a depiction of women as dangerously transgressiveoutsiders who only have in indirect access to power which is playedout within the boundaries of patriarchal power. Shakespeare’s tragicwomen may be marginalized and victimised, but their often pivotal rolesin Shakespeare’s tragedies offer evidence of the complex and contestednature of gender and power.
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