Papers by SHAKSPER Members Seeking Critical Advice
As a service to its members, SHAKSPER makes selected papers for which the author would like comments available for a short time on the SHAKSPER server.
The following paper is currently available: pdf Women Birds Ecocriticism (89 KB) (Click on title to the left to download a pdf copy.)
ABSTRACT: “Shakespeare’s Women, Birds, and Ecocriticism"
Shakespeare’s plays show him to be a proto-feminist. He may depict some women negatively—Jessica, Lady Anne, and Desdemona, to name a few—but he does so to criticize his culture’s demeaning attitude and behavior toward women. Moreover, Shakespeare contrasts the negatively-appearing female characters against those who are strong, motivated, and independent, like Portia, Katherine, Rosalind, and even Lavinia. As Phyllis Rackin points out in Shakespeare and Women, Shakespeare’s ladies represent the women who actually lived in early modern England. For instance, some women worked equally as well in the fields with men, in addition to taking care of the household; others handled the estates when husbands were away, and many approached the court on their own behalf to sue for their inheritance and/or to apply to maintain both ownership and control of their own property. In 1528 Lady Tailbois wrote to Cardinal Wosley requesting he disallow her son more control over the estate Sir George, Duke of Richmond, left her.
When depicting women in his plays, Shakespeare employs a variety of methods. He contrasts the treatment of women against the treatment of men, thereby highlighting the lack of respect many women endured during the period. But Shakespeare also uses one other technique; he borrowed from nature. A proto-ecofeminist himself (Clearly the term “ecofeminist” is anachronistic.) he saw the forests disappearing due to building homes and businesses, witnessed the pollution from chimneys in London, and observed the depletion of animals due to hunting, gaming, and poaching. One aspect of nature that Shakespeare drew upon are birds, nonhuman beings the early modern English viewed as the Other. Women were also often placed into that category—as nonhuman—as the Other. Ecofeminist Patrick D. Murphy argues, though, that the nonhuman should be referred to as Another, rather than the Other. The nonhuman and the human, or the animal species, are dialogically interdependent. Shakespeare demonstrates this interdependency when his characters refer to birds in one manner or another to draw attention to the women in his plays. Although not all the birds he specifically names in the plays refer to women, at least 50 of them do, such as the dove, the rooster, and of course, the cuckoo. Shakespeare’s more general references include bird flight, bird feathers, bird habitats (fields, nests,etc.), and even bird songs. Shakespeare’s citations appear in all his plays, except Julius Caesar and Timon of Athens. The mention of birds and women appears only once each in King John, Richard II, and 2 Henry IV. The comedies contain the most representation of birds and women.
This paper will investigate which of Shakespeare’s characters speak more often of birds, the male or the female and what that suggests; will determine whether gender and class appear in the manner in which Shakespeare relates birds to his female characters; will analyze how the characters’ more general allusions to birds (flight, nesting, gaming) define more certainly women’s roles versus their duties in Renaissance England; and, among other points of interest, will suppose Shakespeare ‘s proto-ecofeminist position on nature and women.
NOTE: These papers are in PDF format; the free reader is available here.