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  Shakespeare: Listening to the Women  

Shakespeare's Infinite Variety

Shakespeare's women's voices ring out as clarion calls across the ages for women to express intelligence and spirit. Innumerable women have spoken through dramatic parts to voice their own need for integrity, justice and moderation of men's domination in their lives. Much of the panoply of women's experience is represented in Shakespeare's range of characters; indeed, he managed to extend the roles of women well beyond what was officially permitted them in English society between 1590 and 1610. Were his women just imaginary constructs, even freaks, or was Shakespeare a better listener than the male historians who presumed that law and custom successfully restricted women? Shakespeare: Listening to the Women provides actual women's voices and experiences to measure whether Shakespeare matched his Cleopatra's "infinite variety" of womanhood. It looks at a range of character predicaments in eight plays, four plays each side of the James I (1603) watershed, demonstrating that contests of dominance were written earlier, extremes of virtue and vice written later. For the most part, women were successful in their endeavours in Queen Elizabeth I's reign, unsuccessful or overruled in King James's reign. Queen Elizabeth avoided marriage closure herself, but plays in which women of spirit concluded marriage bargains with some manoeuvring power were popular. Misogynist King James may have enjoyed women's plotted disastrous ends while missing a subtext of women's ability to interact in political affairs at the highest level. The thriving playwright and company had an ear for audiences' concerns.

While Shakespeare and his contemporaries often started from a popular plot or convention, interest in Shakespeare's plays was enlivened when he moved beyond convention and plot necessity, developing his characters to become delights, social statements and psychological verities in themselves. We see the range from innocence to degradation and perversion, from sprightly display to procuring, from frustration to subservience, all the while becoming aware of the paradoxes which caught women. The purest woman cannot know enough of the accused sin in order to defend herself; the woman who is willing to sacrifice the nurturing part of herself to gain power has no children to whom she can pass the power.

Because a woman's nature and role were defined by the always male religious leaders and a legal system which upheld a male hierarchy, women's abilities to define an acceptable identity and to write about it were severely limited. Although Shakespeare's plots showed much greater latitude and humour than was proper, he returned his women to the necessity of marriage and making the best of the bargain. Women of the Renaissance were primarily voiced by men playwrights and portrayed by boy actors, and one must listen to subsequent women to gauge how successful they felt a man's portrayal of women was. Women's response to Shakespeare's versions of them have been varied, and are discussed in the final chapter, "Women to Women".

Women who were Shakespeare's contemporaries had a great deal of difficulty in being published and remaining uncensored in print; fortunately some of their writing has been reprinted over the past few decades, and comparison with their voices enables further evaluation of Shakespeare's accuracy in voicing women; these are discussed in "Listening to Women's Voices". There has been a burgeoning interest in women's writing of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Publications of women's writings and serious consideration of the perspectives they offered have made possible an increasingly informed feminist appreciation of women, showing that occasional women, with difficulty and subtlety, jumped out of the submissive role which men assigned to them. The issue then was how representative these aberrations could be of womanhood. Plays and poems by women give insight into the predicaments which women faced, providing analogues we can hear as generic voices, allowing us to place Shakespeare's women among their contemporaries, thus adding to the evaluation of just how much Shakespeare understood about women's imperatives.

Over the centuries of English literature, there has been a consistent undercurrent of reaction and analysis by women of their own experience, despite patriarchal suppression of non-subservient roles as wicked in women. Women faced a system which was, in effect if not intention, hypocritical towards them. For women were told that they were being protected by men who claimed love, duty and responsibility to justify their power, whereas the women were constrained, limited, even owned and abused. There was an unholy threesome, with the churchmen, the legal men and the husbands united to maintain the supremacy and comfort of men by ensuring the subservience of women. The law served to maintain property ownership primarily in the hands of husbands, enforcing financially the loss of status which the churches claimed God had ordained for women. Religious cross-currents have swept over women's experiences, changing their designated roles little, reign to reign, from persecution to inquisition to purge, but women have talked to women. While some men wrote what they thought they might have heard women say, we have too little surviving of what women wrote themselves, but some court records survived, Jane Anger's pamphlet survived, some diaries survived. All the way back to Heloise seeking Abelard's recognition that she grieved continually for their lost love, we can hear women's voices expressing more than they were supposed to feel and understand. Notably, the women wrote less of lascivious sexual congress than did men constructing women's dialogue, and women's interest in affairs of the world was greater and more influential than was acknowledged.

One of the pervasive influences on Shakespeare would have been the Geneva Bible. The sort of movement that has brought modernised 'everyday language' versions to the twentieth-century churches to make the Bible 'relevant' had, in the sixteenth century, produced that pinnacle of the English language, translations of the Bible into English. Rich with imagery, expressive in phrasing and cadenced with poetry, the Bible would have opened the young Shakespeare to the full flow and significance of speech. With the form came the message: the guiding perspective is ultimately moral, and we shall be measured by the trueness of our understanding as well as by faithfulness in our obligation to other people. That Shakespeare understood the power of earthy pulls we can see in all his plays, but appreciators have paid greatest tribute to the sense of overarching intelligence, compassion and judgement which we find as a moral envelope, an external frame of reference.

It is not so very surprising that the playwright who presented a wide vision in his perspective of struggle towards a moral world amid political turmoil should also frame a wide view of the gender wars in contests of love and power. More than any other male playwright, Shakespeare gave good lines to each side of the gender divide and showed the possibility of balance and union between women and men. It is his ability to create and voice characters around the circle of being which we admire, and the inclusivity of a wide range of beings reassures us that we are experiencing humanity on stage....


© Copyright Alice Arnott Oppen 1999
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