QotW (#58): 15 October 2018

Can we just stop putting ideas in Shakespeare’s head, please?

BH atent-dead
GNU Sir Terry Pratchett

… just busy.


And increasingly grumpy … when I’ve found no time to blog, other than a single new Golden Dogberry.

Autumn Term is always a log-jam, and my least favourite of the three.  I told my better half today that whilst there had been a LOT of time at home and weekends where I was too busy to see her, there wasn’t really any ‘me time’ in there.  I haven’t read anything for weeks, and obviously, the blog has suffered.  At least our school has finally been inspected now after years of being on ‘DEF-CON2’, and with any luck we won’t see THEM for a while …

Let’s get back to it, shall we?

I’ve many campaigns on the go; many balls in the air.  A recurring theme is Shakespeare’s attitude to women.

In a recent book haul I got hold of Phyllis Rackin‘s book, and dipped into the first ten pages or so.  As the ‘fog of war’ clears, I’m going to dive into it properly.  At this early point – in the shallow water, so to speak – she quotes Valerie Traub:

‘It is by now a commonplace that Shakespeare was preoccupied with the uncontrollability of women’s sexuality; witness the many plots concerning the need to prove female chastity, the threat of adultery, and even when female fidelity is not a major theme of the play, the many references to cuckoldry’ [a]

before going on to say that:

‘female sexual desire, we are repeatedly told, was regarded as threatening.’ [a]

This got me thinking.  Some of the texts I’ve visited in my Ponytail Shakespeare read-through (which also ‘Aten’t Dead’) have undoubtedly featured dangerous, powerful and sexual women:

  • Queen Margaret and Joan of Arc in the Henry VI plays;
  • Tamora in Titus Andronicus

and we’ve yet to meet Cleopatra.

But that doesn’t mean Shakespeare was especially ‘preoccupied’ by an issue that was of his time.  Anxieties about female sexuality are patriarchy’s anxieties, not his, and as related to ideas around genealogy, inheritance and succession as anything else, I suspect.  If so many of the plays wear the cuckold’s horns in one way or another, especially in inter-male teasing, then this is about men ridiculing each other and finding ways of projecting their insecurities.  Again, it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare himself – and maybe that’s my unease with this early stance in the book, finally articulated: it feels like those Romantic critics who felt they had a special insight into his mind.  It comes too close to assuming that his plays were autobiographical …

To assume that women’s sexuality was uncontrollable, or even universally perceived as such, would make freaks out of characters like Rosalind, or Miranda, or Hero, or indeed Juliet:  girls who seem perfectly able to control their sexual desires even once the man is won.  Or Isabella, in Measure For Measure, whose control extended to preferring to sacrifice her brother’s life …

Maybe it’s the grumpiness colouring my reading, or simple tiredness, or pedantry.  I’ll keep reading, certainly, because we shouldn’t refuse to engage with people with differing views.

Maybe Rackin will have changed my mind by the time I finish the book … and if she has, that’s fine.


[a] Phyllis Rackin, Shakespeare and Women, (Oxford University Press:  OUP, 2013)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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