Quote of the Week: 26 February 2018 (#30)

Almost nothing seems to have changed in 400 years … as usual …

BH womans placesubtitled, ‘Food for powder

Matthew Beaumont:  Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (London:  Verso Books, 2015)

My recent article on Gayle Rubin‘s important Feminist work, ‘The Traffic in Women’ touched upon what has been historically expected of women, especially working class ones.  Rubin takes a look at the Marxist position before developing it into a gender rather than class-specific argument:  the commodification of women in the marriage market.  It’s an excellent read.

And we see Rubin’s position everywhere in Shakespeare and the EMP, where women constantly struggle against the social imperative to marry a man who ticks boxes for their family / parents, love coming as an unexpected bonus.  Even comedies such as The Dream feature the tension between ‘kinship‘ and ‘companionate‘ marriages.

To say nothing of the pressures Elizabeth I was under, of course …

In my article, I dipped into Beaumont‘s book for a supporting quotation, but it’s been weighing on my mind.  I think it needs to be considered on its own merits.

Perhaps I wouldn’t/couldn’t/shouldn’t teach English if I’m not interested in words. Their origins; the evolution of meanings and usage; and the connotive nuances of one word over another, – these all fascinate me.  One of my favourite anecdotes when teaching Shakespeare is to point out that in the 16th century a ‘punk‘ was a prostitute (see Measure For Measure) – what is labelled many times in Beaumont’s comprehensive and interesting book as a ‘common nightwalker‘.  So this quote was always going to attract my attention, even without its subject matter.  This is what Beaumont tells us (my emphasis):

BH nightwalkingAt nighttime, women of the poorer classes were expected to reproduce labour in a double sense: on a daily basis, to repair its physical strength, by restoring the labourer’s body; and, in the long term, to propagate the next generation of workers. This is what it meant in the Middle Ages to be an obedient proletarian (from the Latin proletarius, which in ancient Rome signified the lowest class of citizens, who served the state not by owning property but by producing offspring).

Ostensibly, we’re talking about housewives and the ‘woman’s place is in the home’ sophism.  And this applied to women of all classes, I suspect – the notion of keeping your man happy, fit for the ‘day job’ (even if technically there wasn’t one), and producing heirs – preferably male ones, naturally.  And not asking too many pesky questions.  Arguably, even the happier couples in Shakespeare have this sort of arrangement.  A good example is in the sharing of information or secrets with them.

In Julius Caesar, Brutus’ wife Portia implores her husband:

upon my knees,
I charm you, by my once-commended beauty,
By all your vows of love and that great vow
Which did incorporate and make us one,
That you unfold to me, yourself, your half,
Why you are heavy  (Act II, sc i)

and goes to the extreme of self-harming, giving herself a ‘voluntary wound’, to prove her constancy.  Christ: no wonder he ends up in the Ninth Circle of Hell.

Elsewhere, in 1 Henry IV I sense a real closeness in the teasing between Hotspur and his wife, Lady Percy, and yet there is a long exchange where she is kept out of the loop.

LADY PERCY: O, my good lord, why are you thus alone?
For what offence have I this fortnight been
A banish’d woman from my Harry’s bed?
Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure and thy golden sleep?

leading to:

HOTSPUR: I know you wise, but yet no farther wise
Than Harry Percy’s wife: constant you are,
But yet a woman: and for secrecy,
No lady closer; for I well believe
Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know;
And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate.

The message seems to be that being trusted with information is NOT part of the wife’s role.

But what I really want to do with this quotation is in some ways the opposite of Rubin: take something which could be simply Feminist, and throw a Marxist filter over it.

How does Marx define the proletariat?

‘a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piece-meal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.’ [1]

Let’s put these together.  If you work for a living, you are, effectively, proletarian.  Whether you regard yourself as one or not.  The upper classes do not work because they own assets that generate the money for them.  That can and does include the workers who work for them.  Which means that many of you reading probably need to reappraise your relative positions.

The sad truth, I think, about Rubin’s position as it used to apply in the Western world is that one of the things that Feminism has achieved is the erosion of the distinction she complains about:  women in the proletariat are supposed to be workers AND breeders / nurturers of the next generation of workers.  Feminism has partially won the argument about the woman’s place, only to increase her burden.  Congratulations, girls – you now have to have a career instead of looking after the home.  Or, if you choose the wrong man, because those pesky kinship restrictions have largely gone, you’ll have the privilege of a career as well as looking after the home and breeding the next generation …

Let me be a little clearer about that next generation.

Falstaff, in a play I love (1 Henry IV), is a character I love.  Until Act IV sc ii:

HENRY: I did never see such pitiful rascals.

FALSTAFF: Tut, tut; good enough to toss; food for powder, food
for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better:
tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.

Let’s return to Beaumont’s quotation and declare, in words a mile high …

 plus ça change

In a world becoming increasingly polarised between the haves and have-nots, the proletarian’s job – now male or female – is twofold:

  1. make money for the bourgeoisie; and
  2. raise the next generation of workers to look after the next generation of ‘masters’. That could be in terms of work, but as we’ve also seen several times in the twentieth century, at war.  Our current leader of the free world deferred his draft for Vietnam five times. [2]. And incidentally, this week – in the wake of another unconscionable school shooting – derided another man as a ‘coward’. [3]

The logical extension of this – and we see this every single day in the UK as the NHS is destroyed, the retirement age goes up, and the workplace pensions of millions who trusted the system are plundered – is that when we can no longer do either job (make money for others or reproduce new workers) ‘they’ will get rid of us as soon as they can decently arrange it.  Look again at Marx’s definition.  It’s hardly ‘band of brothers’ stuff, is it?

‘For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition’  (HENRY V, Act IV sc iii)

We are ‘food for powder‘ indeed …


Quotations from Shakespeare are taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org

[1]  Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1850), accessed at www.gutenberg.org

[2] Steve Eder and Dave Philipps, ‘Donald Trump’s Draft Deferments:  Four for College, One for Bad Feet’, New York Times, 1 August, 2016

[3] Chris Stevenson, ‘Trump condemns armed Florida officer who didn’t confront school shooter: ‘Coward’, The Independent, 23 February 2018

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