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.
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...e 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-siècle . 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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