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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: January ::
Re: Questions
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.016  Friday, 3 January 2003

[1]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Thursday, 2 Jan 2003 13:59:19 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.011 Re: Questions

[2]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Thursday, 2 Jan 2003 16:20:11 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.011 Re: Questions

[3]     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Thursday, 2 Jan 2003 12:44:12 -0500
        Subj:   SHK 14.011 Re: Questions


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Thursday, 2 Jan 2003 13:59:19 -0000
Subject: 14.011 Re: Questions
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.011 Re: Questions

>Thomas Larque writes:
>
>>A feminist reading is rather too modern to be likely to have
>>occurred to a Renaissance author, who - even if he had
>>proto-feminist sympathies - wouldn't have thought in terms
>>of women winning over a "patriarchal society" at all.
>
>Does anyone really "know" Renaissance authors and what they would
>NOT think of?

We can never be absolutely sure, of course, anymore than we can "know"
the intentions of any author - even a living modern one.  However it
seems to me that it is a lot more reasonable that in attempting to
produce "historical" readings of plays (when we are attempting to
reconstruct the author's intention rather than overtly producing a
modern reinterpretation based on our own feelings, ideas, and culture
rather than the period of the text) we try not to project our own
culture backwards in time.

As far as I know, the idea of a "patriarchal society" and the feminist
theories that accompany such an idea simply did not exist and had never
been expressed in that form in Shakespeare's time.  In Renaissance
proto-feminist fictions (like "The Tamer Tamed" by John Fletcher) women
could win over particular male individuals (such as a domineering father
or husband) or over all men (in a battle of the sexes - see Lysistrata
for an earlier version of this), but there was no concept of a reified
masculine culture for a woman to defeat without doing down real male
individuals.

Shakespeare clearly understood that a Juliet might oppose her demanding
father, and a Hermione her tyrannical husband, but he is unlikely to
have believed that even a perfect and much wanted lover could be part of
a system of "patriarchal" oppression of women by men, over which the
woman could finally triumph by a mutual suicide with her lover.  We
could probably all name modern texts which advanced this sort of idea -
somebody has already suggested Thelma and Louise for the feminist
suicide to win against male culture - but I have never seen any such
thoughts or storyline in Renaissance drama.  Given that feminism and the
concept of a "patriarchal" society can be shown to have grown up in the
late-19th early-20th centuries, and these particular ideas seem not to
be reflected in Renaissance texts, there seems no good reason to believe
that the necessary ideas were circulating in Shakespeare's time.

>Sounding parochial here, to make a point: Until Nancy Pelosi or Hillary
>Clinton or both, or Elizabeth Dole, etc. have been elected President of
>the USA in five or more consecutive 90% landslides, few readers in my
>native land can imagine what Shakespeare's life was like.

I live in Britain, where we have had a reigning Elizabeth for fifty
years (albeit only a figurehead), and a female Prime Minister for 11
years (albeit Margaret Thatcher).  I don't think either of these events
has greatly increased the insight of modern British scholars into
Shakespeare's time (although it has allowed the occasional comparison).
Anybody who thought that living under a female ruler in the 20th Century
felt anything like living under Elizabeth I is likely to have made more
not fewer mistakes in their scholarship.  Similarly, anybody who
believes that living in a "patriarchal society" in the 20th and 21st
Centuries gives any real insight into what Shakespeare thought of living
in a "patriarchal" society in the 16th and 17th Centuries (when the
concept of "patriarchal society" did not exist) is likely to be led
astray.  There were pro-female and anti-male-supremacy thoughts and
feelings in the Renaissance, as there have always been, I presume.  But
you cannot fling modern feminist ideologies randomly back into the 16th
Century, anymore than you can apply them without modification to modern
Afghanistan.  At least modern Afghans have the opportunity to
communicate with cultures that do have modern feminist ideologies and so
may really be affected by these ideas, Shakespeare's community did not
have this opportunity, and is therefore still less connected to our own
perception of reality.

>The head,
>undisputed, of the body politic/society in his formative and early
>creative years was a woman. We must struggle mightily to begin to get
>near his "sympathies."

As I have pointed out, Britain had not one but two female "rulers"
simultaneously between 1979 and 1990.  Elizabeth II as Queen and
figurehead, Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and genuine source of
power.  Having lived through these times, my observation was that most
people put aside the femininity of their "rulers" and behaved towards
other women much as they would have done in any case.  Margaret Thatcher
was regarded as a sort of man in a skirt by many, and probably did less
for the position of other women in politics than subsequent male Prime
Ministers.  The greatest influx of female ministers came under a male
Labour Prime Minister almost a decade later.  Elizabeth I, like Margaret
Thatcher, seems to have had her major influence by convincing people
that she was not like other women and should be considered an honorary
man.  This "masculinisation" of the female ruler can certainly be seen
in Elizabethan texts, including some very famous ones - "I may have the
body of a weak and female woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a
King".

Thomas Larque.

"Shakespeare and His Critics"
http://shakespearean.org.uk

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Thursday, 2 Jan 2003 16:20:11 -0000
Subject: 14.011 Re: Questions
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.011 Re: Questions

"I may have the body of a weak and female woman".

Doh!  I mean feeble.  A Freudian-typing-slip.

Thomas Larque.

"Shakespeare and His Critics"
http://shakespearean.org.uk

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Thursday, 2 Jan 2003 12:44:12 -0500
Subject: Re: Questions
Comment:        SHK 14.011 Re: Questions

Kezia Vanmeter Sproat makes the point that 'few readers in my native
land can imagine what Shakespeare's life was like.'

We can be much more radical than that.  Nobody who's alive right now can
ever genuinely capture, or come to grips with, what life was like for
those who lived over 400 years ago. Our whole sense of the past is
determined by, and dependent upon, the unavoidable imperatives of the
present. All history, says Croce, is contemporary history. This is
certainly not a matter for regret.

Terence Hawkes

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