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Shakespeare and the Feminist Manifesto


"Unruly women," "outlaws," "the female Wild," "the Other": these are some of the provocative terms used by feminist scholars in recent years to refer to Shakespeare's heroines. They have helped us to take a fresh look at these characters while we are reevaluating the position of women within our own society. But are Shakespeare's women really unruly? It would be anachronistic to believe that he created rebellious feminists in an age that had never heard the term. Nevertheless, writing many of his plays with Elizabeth I on the throne, Shakespeare created heroines who operate in, rebel against, attempt to rule, or are crushed by a social structure largely determined by men.

            With another queen on the throne in nineteenth-century Britain, both women and Shakespeare were idealized. During Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901), editions of Shakespeare were produced especially with the female reader or listener in mind. Any passage "that might wound a feminine sense of delicacy" was cut.

Books about Shakespeare's heroines, illustrated with their portraits, were used to disseminate ideas of good moral behavior among young women. Mary Cowden Clarke imagined stories about the heroines before they enter their plays in Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines. The book deals with subjects such as sexual assault and postpartem depression that were not readily discussed by mothers of the period. Just as many of the heroines reveal strong personalities in the plays, so many Victorian women were not "Angels in the house," as the poet Coventry Patmore called them.

            The front page of this news magazine for women shows how the nineteenth century reimagined Shakespeare's heroines in the image of their own Queen. Here in this scene showing Lady Capulet sitting by Juliet's bed as performed at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, Juliet's features mirror the face of the young Victoria on the paper's masthead, while Lady Capulet looks like the widow Victoria was to become.

The American actresses, sisters Charlotte and Susan Cushman, premiered as Romeo and Juliet at the Haymarket Theatre, London in 1846. Their success is indicated by the fact that they played these parts over twenty times. Not all reviewers were complimentary, however. One reviewer satirized:"Miss Romeo,--or rather,--Miss Cushman as Romeo, has appeared this week at the Haymarket. The curiosity is not a novelty...Why should not Mr. Charles Kean play Juliet?"

Rosalind has been a favorite role for actresses from Peg Woffington in the eighteenth century to Katherine Hepburn in our own. Audiences, especially in earlier centuries, enjoyed seeing women wear a man's doublet and hose, and actresses enjoyed Rosalind's liveliness and wit. These two hand-colored inexpensive prints of Mrs. Johnston and Miss Walstein as Rosalind were made for a popular audience in the early nineteenth century. Mrs. Johnston was herself an "unruly" woman. After fifteen years of marriage and six children, she struck out on her own in 1811, went through affairs with three other men (always climbing the social ladder), and retired from the stage around 1816.

Lady Macbeth, one of Shakespeare's most "unruly" women, was difficult for the proper Victorian age to assimilate. Generally, they took one of two stances towards her, either placing her in the distant past of the "barbarous" Middle Ages, or seeing her as a Victorian wife, whose ambitions were all for her husband but who was discarded by him after his success, fell into madness, and suffered a lonely death. This picture by the popular artist Kenny Meadows shows Lady Macbeth with the rosebud mouth and fine features of a Victorian young lady, only the frowning brows and clenched dagger indicating her firm purpose.

Cleopatra was the other problematic heroine for the Victorians who had to confront her blatant sensuality in an age that valued women's modesty. The French actress Sarah Bernhardt performed the role both in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and in an extravaganza of costume and scenery created for her by Sardou. Gold and Fizdale, in their recent biography of Bernhardt, recount an incident from the London production: "After watching Sarah as Cleopatra, lasciviously entwined in her lover's arms, an elderly dowager was heard to say:' How unlike, how very unlike the home life of our own dear queen'."


The image of Cleopatra changed drastically during the course of the nineteenth century. This early image by Kenny Meadows from 1839 shows her with arms seductively raised, but fully clothed and corseted like the proper Victorian woman.

By the end of the century, John W. Waterhouse creates this splendid Cleopatra, gazing out from under sultry eyebrows, as she lounges easily on a leopard skin. Uncorseted and bra-less, she is the dangerous, seductive, woman of the fin-de-si&egravecle . Her figure looks forward to the New Woman, already agitating for university degrees, women's suffrage, and a place in the work force.

Every period sees something of its own interests in Shakespeare's plays and characters; the Victorians were no exception, nor are we today. It is gratifying to recognize that Shakespeare dramatized many faces of womanhood -- her "infinite variety"-- for his time and for every age since.

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