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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: September ::
Re: Isabella - and Feminist Criticism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1978  Thursday, 26 September 2002

[1]     From:   Ted Dykstra <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 24 Sep 2002 20:20:55 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1947 Isabella - and Feminist Criticism

[2]     From:   L. Swilley <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 25 Sep 2001 13:54:52 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1962 Re: Isabella - and Feminist Criticism

[3]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Thursday, 26 Sep 2002 03:39:54 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1962 Re: Isabella - and Feminist Criticism

[4]     From:   M. Yawney <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 25 Sep 2002 15:29:50 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1947 Isabella - and Feminist Criticism

[5]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 25 Sep 2002 17:35:24 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1957 Re: Isabella and the quality of debate

[6]     From:   Anna Kamaralli <
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        Date:   Thursday, 26 Sep 2002 17:32:33 +1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1947 Isabella - and Feminist Criticism


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ted Dykstra <
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Date:           Tuesday, 24 Sep 2002 20:20:55 EDT
Subject: 13.1947 Isabella - and Feminist Criticism
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1947 Isabella - and Feminist Criticism

Ms. Karmaralli writes,

>A primary aim of feminist criticism has always
>been to redress an existing unacknowledged imbalance. Its point is not
>that only aspects of a play that pertain to women are important, but
>that discussions that ignore the role of women are inevitably
>incomplete. It is not trying to tell the whole story, but to fill in
>missing pages.

If there IS an imbalance in a play or work of any kind, to attempt to
"redress" it (perhaps the wrong word was chosen? I hope so!) is
ridiculous.  Write your own plays, paint your own paintings. Don't try
and put into others works what isn't there!

Ted Dykstra

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           L. Swilley <
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Date:           Tuesday, 25 Sep 2001 13:54:52 -0500
Subject: 13.1962 Re: Isabella - and Feminist Criticism
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1962 Re: Isabella - and Feminist Criticism

The lady with the lovely name writes,

>I would be thrilled to think that "serious, respectful works of
>criticism always addressed male and female characters equally as
>*persons*" but I don't generally believe it for several reasons. First,
>even if people don't mean to be dismissive, they will naturally spend
>more time on things/people/situations like than unlike them, and praise
>them more highly too.

[Is that true of those who deal with "Antigone" or "Madam Bovary" or
"Hedda Gabler"?]

>Second, for many centuries, the works themselves
>were not providing equal treatment of women and men. Women usually fill
>the roles that only a woman can fulfill (heterosexual love interest,
>mother), and men fill all the other roles. So women are less available
>to be discussed.

 [Lady MacBeth?  The Wife of Bath?]

>In addition, feminist criticism doesn't just deal with the characters,
>but looks at the edges of the work, the dark or blank spaces of what
>isn't said, or is ignored. This is where I find feminist criticism most
>interesting and useful.

[Please instruct me on some of the feminist-critical observations on the
"edges, etc." of, say, Nora of "Doll's House"]

>I have to say I'm a bit saddened by your hierarchy of value. "Are not
>feminist critics turning from that deeper concept of *person*, and
>therefore from the unifying, philosophic, essentially artistic/literary
>and universal elements of literature to pursue the lesser aspects of
>politics, psychology and sociology?" I don't believe that the best thing
>I can do with a text (or any work of art) is to see it as perfectly
>complete and unified/universal.

[Universals, as I am using the term, should not be conceived of as
complete in the sense in which you, I believe, mean; they are
abstractions like courage, charity, humanity, doors or ways into an
ever-deepening appreciation of their meanings and moral significance to
us. They are unlike the definitions in the sciences of politics,
psychology and sociology, those definitions arising from more or less
scientific investigation; for example, a *psychological* view of a
character is as that character is an example of, for instance, a
Freudian type; our estimate of the character begins and ends our tagging
the fictional character as this or that kind of specimen in the science.
On the other hand, an examination of the literary/philosophic quality of
the character, the *person* I say,  invites us to reconsider and expand
our understanding of the universal.  There is further, and above all
this, the invitation to examine the literary *art* of presentation of
*person*, something the sciences otherwise applied to the work care very
little about.  I can certainly see that the use of fictional characters
as helpful examples of scientific theories is legitimate; but such
tagging would seem to be a function of the various departments of
science, rather than that of the department of literature. (Is that not
as you see it the matter?).  I lament the loss of *focus* in the field
of literature; it seems that everywhere in that field, anything whatever
but the *art* of literature (which I conceive to be the beauty of the
humanity that produces and views it) is brought forth as proper to that
field. ]

>I find that I learn more from the
>fissures and ambiguities, and in contemplating the questions brought up
>by politics, psychology and sociology. If every great work is universal
>and deep, in the end, every work is the same (otherwise how could they
>be universal?)

[See my remarks above.]

>I want my art to reflect my life - complex, knotty,
>multicultural, confusing, rich, ambiguous and worth investigating again
>and again.

[I want mine to be so, too; but I want it be art as well, a quality it
loses when its parts are merely scientifically or historically tagged. ]

           [L. Swilley]

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Thursday, 26 Sep 2002 03:39:54 +0800
Subject: 13.1962 Re: Isabella - and Feminist Criticism
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1962 Re: Isabella - and Feminist Criticism

Annalisa Castaldo, in a defense of feminist criticism, asks,

>If every great work is universal
>and deep, in the end, every work is the same (otherwise how could they
>be universal?) I want my art to reflect my life - complex, knotty,
>multicultural, confusing, rich, ambiguous and worth investigating again
>and again.

The argument of the first sentence doesn't quite follow.  Nobody said
that there was only one universal, except in the broadest terms, that
could be investigated and would be the object of our investigation.
Looking at texts in ways that are "deep" can still bring up an enormous
range of possible readings.  An existentialist Lear would be very
different from a Christian one, to choose an obvious example, but
neither would be reducible to illustrations of social and political
forces.

Note that this is not to say that such readings might not impact on
political and social issues.  They might and I would even say that they
inevitably will.  Our anger at injustice, for instance, will ultimately
proceed from philosophical judgements, concerning justice or the dignity
of persons or whatever.  To make our readings ultimately or exclusively
political and social would, however, tend to turn literary criticism
into a social science of non-extant societies, something even more
strange than making it into psychoanalysis of non-existent persons.

Where feminist criticism is really interesting, in my mind, is where it
intersects with philosophical issues, when it moves from how women are
treated in a particular play or period to how we treat other persons and
how we ought to.  How do we perceive them and how are we able to?  How
do we define or delimit the human so as to exclude women?  More to the
point, are such definitions right?  These are social and political
issues, of course, but they are also (and more fundamentally, IMHO)
questions for phenomenology, ontology and theology.

Yours,
Sean.

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           M. Yawney <
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Date:           Wednesday, 25 Sep 2002 15:29:50 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 13.1947 Isabella - and Feminist Criticism
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1947 Isabella - and Feminist Criticism

L. Swilley <
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 > writes,

>Haven't serious, respectful works of criticism
>always addressed male and
>female characters equally as *persons* with problems
>understandable to
>both men and women?

The answer, even to someone unsympathetic to feminist criticism, would
seem to be be an obvious "No."

While critics usually try toward some universality, they like the works
they discuss are products of their own culture. How could it be any
other way? Rather than knocking critics for their limitations, feminist,
post-colonial, queer, etc criticism at their best simply try just to
broaden the range of views heard.

>Am I incorrect in estimating
>that the feminist
>critics tend to abandon the appreciation of that
>deeper, common humanity
>of both men and women, that emphasis on *person*
>that every great author
>seeks and displays in his/her characters (one of the
>chief beneficial
>effects of great literature being the sexes' deepest
>appreciation of and
>sympathy for  one another ).  In their attention to
>women *as women,*
>then, are not feminist critics turning from that
>deeper concept of
>*person*, and therefore from the unifying,
>philosophic, essentially
>artistic/literary and universal elements of
>literature to pursue the
>lesser aspects of  politics, psychology and
>sociology?

I guess my question would be why do you think that looking at a woman as
woman is a move away from the universal? If I make a study of kingship
in Shakepeare's history plays, is that a move away from universality
since not everyone is a king? Or if I examine the Ghost in Hamlet in
light of Christian belief or the Duke in MforM as a savior figure, are
these moves away from the universal, since not all of us are Christians?

I suppose I am advocating a broader view of what is universally human.
Is not having a gender part of the universal human condition? Is not the
way men treat men, women treat women, and men and women treat each other
part of human experience that has profound philosophical and aesthetic
meaning. Can we not have our own individual perspectives, yet still be
part of one universal truth?

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Wednesday, 25 Sep 2002 17:35:24 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 13.1957 Re: Isabella and the quality of debate
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1957 Re: Isabella and the quality of debate

Anna Kamaralli has been rebuffed in her attempt to raise a very valid
point. I actually think that the point she was trying to make has been
bifurcated when in fact, her two points are both part of a serious
questioning of Brian Vickers's criticism of modern criticism.

Indeed, he, and Anna in turn, are raising very serious issues about the
nature and quality of debate that appear specifically on this listserv
and in the academic realm at large.

To summarize: Anna raises two serious issues with Vickers's criticism of
current approaches to academic debate. The two issues are thus: Vickers
basically calls modern approaches reductive and redundant, and yet takes
those same approaches to task for merely reiterating the past two
hundred years of debate. How is that possible without contradicting
himself?  Secondly, he specifically calls feminist criticism reductive.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a huge fan of most feminist
academics, but nonetheless I think we are misunderstanding what the best
feminist critics are attempting to do. They are filling in the spaces
that exist in four hundred years of debate regarding the place of women
in a society that has until very recently viewed them as domestic
creatures and procreative vehicles (Isabella being a great focal point
since her character rebuffs both of those misdirected assumptions). I
think the most important aspect of feminist criticism is that the
authors are themselves women who are filling a void of female
perspectives in the history of Shakespeare academia.

Now of course, in my humble opinion, I think that a good deal of those
critics reach drastically in the opposite direction. L. Swilley is quite
correct to point out that this sometimes means creating an imbalance not
unlike the one feminists wish to erase.  Nonetheless, is this truly
reductive and redundant at the same time?

Vickers is raising serious issues about the very points we raise on this
listserv. I do agree with Vickers that we sometimes impose modern
agendas on the play, but that is all the more reason to assert that we
still have plenty to say about these plays. Anna's point is that
feminism, whether one agrees with its tenets or not, is one of those
strands and that Vickers is wrong to assume that those critical
approaches are necessarily redundant or irrelevant.  The criticism is
merely as sharp and insightful as the critic. Perhaps we have merely
been accepting feminist, historicist, materialist, etc. critics as
relevant because they are the current trend in academic debate rather
than actually insightful or good? (But a completely different issue...I
can hear angry posts being typed already). :)

As for the assertion that the views expressed here and elsewhere could
have been stated anytime in the last 200 years, I find that a bit harsh
as well. Sure, we do repeat interesting ideas we heard or that, say,
Pope or Johnson might first have raised. But because a valid point or
issue is raised, does it mean that the issue must be dropped in future
debate? And how can we fail to recognize Shakespeare's goals were
different if we are supposed to ignore issues of authorial intention?

I find it incredibly hard to write this since I do actually agree in
authorial intentions, cultural materialism (to an extent), and
discussion of the text. I am turned off by modern critical approaches by
and large and could easily find myself asserting some of what Vickers is
saying myself. But I think that Anna is absolutely correct to raise
questions about his criticism since it dismisses those approaches
outright. I may not agree with an approach but I can not invalidate. And
I am afraid that sometimes we do the same here, often with dismissive
gestures and scoffs rather than genuine debate of an issue through
textual analysis or cultural studies.

What we should do is what Anna suggests Isabella does: pierce through
seeming and appearances to get to the truth that lies underneath. Every
critical approach offers interesting perspectives underneath their
rhetoric, if we can be receptive enough to their viewpoints and see
through their -and our - built-in filters. That approach is neither
reductive nor irrelevant; it is expansive and exhilarating.

Brian Willis

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Anna Kamaralli <
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Date:           Thursday, 26 Sep 2002 17:32:33 +1000
Subject: 13.1947 Isabella - and Feminist Criticism
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1947 Isabella - and Feminist Criticism

>Haven't serious, respectful works of criticism always addressed male and
>female characters equally as *persons* with problems understandable to
>both men and women?

I only wish this were so, but alas, criticism that thought it was doing
this very often marginalized, trivialized or over-simplified female
characters. You just have to look at the number of serious, published
critics who wrote of how Cressida is "merely" a whore. I don't recall
any of them writing that Macbeth is "merely" a murderer. Or, now that I
think about it, that Valentine is merely a whore.

Also, many men (and women who wanted to be taken seriously by men) who
thought they were writing "from the unifying, philosophic, essentially
artistic/literary and universal elements of literature" were very often
writing from what was unifyingly, philosophically, essentially male.
Analysis of Isabella's position is a case in point. The many writers who
seem to think that it's a sign of sexual repression to refuse to be
sexually blackmailed by a vicious lecher have obviously no experience or
understanding of the realities of sexual coercion.

>Am I incorrect in estimating that the feminist
>critics tend to abandon the appreciation of that deeper, common humanity
>of both men and women, that emphasis on *person* that every great author
>seeks and displays in his/her characters (one of the chief beneficial
>effects of great literature being the sexes' deepest appreciation of and
>sympathy for  one another ).  In their attention to women *as women,*
>then, are not feminist critics turning from that deeper concept of
>*person*

On the contrary, it is generally the more conventional criticism that
tends to regard female characters only in their role as women, and
feminist criticism that insists they be taken in their own right, as
complete individuals. I don't just want to know what Cleopatra is to
Antony, I want to know what she is to Cleopatra.

Please note that I've included lots of "oftens" and "generallys" in the
above - I wouldn't dream of arguing that there haven't been insightful
comments made about female characters throughout the history of critical
discussion of the plays. Only that there is material yet to be tapped.

Thank you for your attention, anyone who has made it to the end of this.

anna.

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