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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: October ::
Re: Desdemona
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.2174  Thursday, 31 October 2002

From:           Frank Whigham <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Oct 2002 11:39:14 -0600
Subject: 13.2156 Re: Desdemona
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.2156 Re: Desdemona

>Regardless of how parents
>personally felt about their children, with the exception of the
>privileged, children were the property of others not themselves. The
>child's feelings, wishes and wants generally were not taken into account
>with the wants of their elders or others in power. Equating Desdemona's
>childhood with our so called modern experience is not as simple as
>equating college to marriage for power or wealth, etc.
>
>Thank you,
>Haddon Judson

Of course these are analogies (tuition and dowries), and are not exact
(though how they break down should ideally be specified), and the matter
is certainly not simple. However, your use of the notion of the child as
property seems inaccurate to me, and it certainly does not fit with much
recent historical research.

(1) How parents feel has a great deal to do with how children are
treated and valued and seen (by others and by themselves) to be related
to any supposedly normative calculus of parental rights and obligations.
(Feelings, whether the parent's or the child's, are by no means
ideologically innocent.) In any case, in the matter of marital choice
the child's feelings and wishes were certainly quite often, perhaps even
usually for those below the nobility, consciously taken into account,
along with parent's wishes, in proportions that varied quite a lot. See,
for a highly-respected example with ample citations of data (his own and
others'), Keith Wrightson's discussion of family formation in English
Society 1580-1680: 66-88, esp. 72-76. After discussing the unwisdom of
thinking in terms of "unilateral parental choice" (72), and citing what
he regards as the notable subtlety on this point of such early modern
domestic-conduct writers as William Perkins, he says,

"When we turn to the evidence of actual behavior, it rapidly becomes
clear that the initiative in the making of a match might come from
either parent of child, much as Perkins suggested. What mattered was
less the identity of the initiating party than the securing of the
consent of 'goodwill' of all those concerned . . . . By the later
sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries both child marriages and
crudely arranged matches which took no account of the opinions of the
prospective spouses were largely things of the past" (72).

Wrightson also cites Anthony Fletcher as having found that "among the
leading families of the Sussex gentry the marriages of heirs and
heiresses were usually 'arranged,' subject to the assent of the young
couple to the match" (73). An array of kinds and degrees of negotiation
covers many more cases than a strict "chattel" model.

(2) Much also flows (to return to the Othello discussion) from the
degree of access to other young people that a marriageable child has:
such arrangements as Desdemona's exposure to the "wealthy curled
darlings" might often result in the selection of the one she was most
receptive to as the one the parent might propose: a process of gradual
screening, with room for input from both parents and children, in other
words. (Again, college enrollment, like mandated church attendance,
often serves something of the same structural screening function in our
own culture.)

(3) Besides, it is not only parents who are engaged by the prospect of
familial power and wealth (terms themselves that are often treated as
simple negatives); sometimes (see Portia) children share just such
values with parents, which troubles a clear distinction between choices
for "love" and for these features, whatever language may be used to
voice the choice.

(4) What rights might attach to parents' relations to much younger
children, where more total control over the child's life is usual, is
possibly a separable question. However, there are presumably limits: I
doubt that anyone took very seriously the idea that a parent might kill
or eat an unsatisfactory 8-year-old, as s/he might an unruly pig, so the
notion of "chattel" needs some attention.

(5) Whether other "things" might function partly as components of human
identity, so that property and human identity cannot be simply
distinguished or opposed, or not distinguished as moderns distinguish
them, is part of the subject of the fascinating research of Margaret
Radin, in *Reinterpreting Property* and *Contested Commodities*.

Best,
Frank Whigham

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