… and we’re back to school today, for another year’s fun and games.
Cue all kinds of traffic on Twitter and elsewhere on-line: pre-battle speeches from the veterans; advice sought by the newbies, and given by the self-styled ‘influencers’; new teaching-year resolutions declared; virtue-signalling pictures of classroom displays, and so on …
Have I got anything to add to the Babel? Not really. I’d rather chat about Literature …
One thing I will say, is that you need balls of steel to be a teacher. And teaching Lit is one of a clutch of subjects where this extends beyond the demands of the job into the subject, too. I tend to work on the basis that if one of us I going to get embarrassed, it’s not going to be me.
Every year I end up having discussions with classes about the traditional patriarchal value placed on a girl’s virginity (Gayle Rubin‘s ‘Traffic In Women‘ is excellent when it comes to sixth formers), and the double standards which expect lads to be ‘experienced’ but girls to be ‘pure’ on their wedding nights. Invariably, this leads someone to ask where the men are getting their experience.
This in turn gets us thinking about the two different types of women we see so often in Literature – the ones you want to wed, and the ones you want to bed. I’ve phrased that deliberately, removing the woman’s agency from the equation. It’s everywhere in what I teach – from the most recent stuff, McEwan‘s On Chesil Beach (2007), right the way back to Shakespeare – the Victorian Lit I teach seems riddled with it. The class warrior within me sees how women of the same or higher classes are deified, whilst women of lower classes are fair game. I’ll be starting a new class on JB Priestley‘s ‘An Inspector Calls‘ in just a few days – that’s an excellent example, with, what is more, women complicit in their own subjugation, as Simone de Beauvoir might say: the matriarch’s attitude to women of lower classes and their sexuality is one of the most shocking parts of the piece.
Anyway, after a summer of varying qualities of pulp-historical-fiction, I decided to swap my sunglasses for my academic glasses, and picked up a couple of more ‘serious’ texts at Lancaster’s Oxfam Bookshop (always worth a visit if you’re passing). And the first one deals with women, and gender, in Renaissance theatre.
Stephen Orgell‘s book seems very promising so far (about 25% in). It begins by asking the deceptively simple question, ‘Why was England the only country in Europe to maintain an all-male public theatre in the Renaissance?‘ That’s simply the entrance to the rabbit hole, though.
Elizabethan England, he tells us:
‘did in fact from time to time see women on the professional stage. What they apparently did not see was English women on the professional stage: the distinction they maintained was not between men and women but between “us” and “them” – what was appropriate for foreigners was not appropriate for the English, and women on display become increasingly associated with Roman Catholicism.’ [a]
It reminds me that the City of London had no brothels – the Bishop of Winchester’s ‘Geese’ inhabited the ‘liberties’ south of the river, out of sight and out of mind. We might know that:
these fallen ladies seem to have been viewed as a way of preventing good Christian men falling into even worse practices – like sodomy or masturbation (seen as mortal crimes by the church). From Saint Augustine onwards, there’s a tradition of fulminating tracts about the evils of sex in quite prurient detail. So, prostitution was a kind of safety valve for wicked desire and it had the added benefit of filling the bishop’s coffers. [b]
but that hypocrisy didn’t make its way to the stage. Does that make the depiction of East Cheap a little spicier? What I think it clearly does is extend the ‘othering‘ of women a little further, channeling the religious and xenophobic quarrels of the day. It makes me wonder afresh at the representations of women in a number of otherwise familiar plays.
Marlowe‘s Edward II and Shakespeare’s HIV plays feature a range of French women who are disloyal, scheming seductresses. Then there’s the little additional frisson to situating plays foregrounding women’s legendary tendencies towards infidelity firmly away from England. Neil MacGregor talks entertainingly about the seductive courtesans of Venice, for example – he says that for Shakespeare’s audience, ‘Venice is the place where anything goes‘. [c] That speaks to me not just of reappraising The Merchant of Venice but Othello too.
But I’m also thinking about Verona, and the antics of that terrible Catholic strumpet, Juliet. Or Egypt and that lustful gypsy, Cleopatra. Or Tamora, the wily Goth who tricks an emperor into thinking she’s carrying his child, not a moor’s. Or Measure For Measure, where Vienna seems to be far enough for us to project our sexual fantasies of the secret slattern under the nun’s habit, to a Renaissance ‘Sin City‘ that I suspect Marlowe would have been at home in. Even Lady Macbeth is safely over the border. And God forbid that a Queen would marry her dead husband’s brother, right – that could only happen somewhere like, ooh, say, Denmark (ahem, ahem) …
It’s all projection. These women couldn’t possibly inhabit the same country as Good Queen Bess, as Gloriana, the Virgin Queen … could they?
[a] Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
[b] Tony McMahon, ‘The Winchester Geese’, at TheTemplarKnight.com
[c] Neil MacGregor, ‘Sex and the City’ in Shakespeare’s Restless World, BBC Radio 4 (link here)