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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: July ::
Re: Female Birth-Order
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1409  Monday, 17 July 2000.

[1]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Friday, 14 Jul 2000 12:34:05 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1401 Re: Female Birth-Order

[2]     From:   Clifford Stetner <
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        Date:   Sunday, 16 Jul 2000 18:57:47 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1397 Re: Female Birth-Order


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Friday, 14 Jul 2000 12:34:05 -0400
Subject: 11.1401 Re: Female Birth-Order
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1401 Re: Female Birth-Order

As I read him, Shakespeare seems generally to have felt that a monarchy
inherited by primogeniture was the most realistically stable form of
government. The main alternative he saw, election by the nobles, he
thought (I think) invites a splitting into factions and a controversy
over who's the best man that elections would not settle. The most
obvious way to choose the best man as king is to choose the best
warrior, but it's one of Shakespeare's recurring themes that the virtues
of a warrior and a king are not the same.

In Macbeth, Duncan is moving toward the "better" system by naming his
heir, and short-circuiting, or destroying, the tradition of elections.
That move comes as a shock to Macbeth, who has just proved himself the
best warrior.  Duncan is so removed from the fighting he doesn't even
know his own soldier--"What bloody man is that?" Duncan, as Macbeth
knows, has been a good king, despite this aloofness from battle--partly
because of it?--but he's one of those slightly too-good-for-this-world
kings who can't see "the mind's construction in the face." That's why
Malcolm has to demonstrate a corrective ability to lie to, to be
suspicious of, Macduff. But Shakespeare, it seems to me, felt that
Duncan's move away from elections toward primogeniture, despite the
problems it causes here, which a wiser king would have foreseen, was in
general the wiser course, as shown, I think, by the way the play ends
with Malcolm inheriting. Not that I think Shakespeare saw no problems
with primogeniture, including all those mentioned by Abigail Quart; I
just think he saw it as the best alternative in this not-best of all
possible worlds.

Larry Weiss's alternative motives for Lear, that he loved his daughters
equally, and wanted to insure a comfortable retirement by giving each a
portion in case one later betrayed him, don't seem plausible to me. I
feel there are at least two Lears in the play, the old and the new, or
the good and the bad. The old loved Cordelia most because she was
better, and he wanted to hold onto her--this motive unleashed the bad.
The bad pretends to himself, in part--how much a part is a delicate
question--that he's being wisely and magnanimously egalitarian. Larry
seems to accept this judgment, but as I read the play I feel there's
something false about it.

David

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Sunday, 16 Jul 2000 18:57:47 -0400
Subject: 11.1397 Re: Female Birth-Order
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1397 Re: Female Birth-Order

I think David Bishop raises an important point about reading Shakespeare
when he says that: "...Lear is partly about primogeniture."  When Hamlet
says that dramatists are a brief chronicle of the times, he means of
their own times.  The myth of Pyrrhus **** and the Murder of Gonzago do
not directly chronicle the current events in the Danish court, but they
show how a dramatist uses both myth and current events to reflect and
address matters of immediate political concern.  Shakespeare's selection
of the myth of Lear is like Hamlet's selection of Pyhrrus in that he
looked for a myth whose basic structures could be worked up by adding
some speeches of some 12 or 14 lines here and there to point the already
existing narrative structure of the myth towards relevence to the issues
that he felt to be of most concern to his audience.  In Hamlet's
discourse on the art of drama, Shakespeare gives us a manual for the
reading of his plays.  And so I agree with David Bishop that Lear is at
least partly, and I would say, primarily, about primogeniture.

I would also add that primogeniture as an essentialist principle, that
is, one that is claimed by its proponents to be established by divine
and natural law, carried resonance beyond the simple question of who
inherits within an aristocratic family.  As I discussed in an earlier
post, the rise of the middle class to positions of status equal (but not
quite) to that of the landed aristocracy under the Tudor dynasty and the
principle of "true noblesse" that was used to support it can be seen as
an extension of the rejection of primogeniture to the national level.
Furthermore, the entire Protestant Reformation in which the first born
church of Christ, holding title of succession from Peter, is superseded
in religious authority by a younger daughter (?) yet to be completely
established can be seen as the primogeniture vs. ultimogeniture issue
that most impacted on the lives of everyone present at the play.

While most of the audience saw Lear as dumb shows and noise, the small
segment of educated and politically powerful people whom he worked
hardest to address might have made these leaps to higher orders of
magnitude naturally.

Clifford Stetner

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