Unsex me here

John Bayley

  • Shakespeare’s Division of Experience by Marilyn French
    Cape, 376 pp, £12.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 224 02013 7

The trouble with Shakespeare is that he takes the heart out of controversy. Any flat-earther, royalist, republican, anti-abortionist, any Bennite or Thatcherite, will lose whatever fierce exudation it is about them that we hate or love or love to hate, if they are so unwise as to enlist Shakespeare on a regular commission in a systematic struggle against the forces of non-enlightenment. As an ally, the Bard is too co-operative by half. Long ago the Atheist Society were rumoured to have taken as their motto a line from Julius Caesar: ‘There is no fellow in the firmament.’ Anyone else who believes anything strongly could do almost equally well.

So it was only a matter of time before Shakespeare became a feminist. To do Dr French justice, though, she does not exactly claim that: only that he was fully aware of all the issues involved and sorted out psychological and moral experience on that basis. Thus his female characters can be divided into inlaws and outlaws, two categories invented and authorised, it need hardly be said, by masculine decree and custom. Inlaw females like Desdemona, Cordelia, Imogen and Hermione frequently suffer for their orthodoxy, but they never resent it: it confirms their virtue – that is to say, their conformity to ideal masculine requirements. But this hardly explains why the nicest of Shakespeare’s women – that is to say, those most loyal to male ideas – should so constantly be accused of being outlaws, ungrateful, faithless, unchaste, deceitful? Or are men so distrustful of women that they regard the nicest ones with the greatest suspicion?

There is an inlaw and outlaw category for men too, but they can move freely from one to the other, and indeed it may be in the interest of the most venerable institutions of the state that they should do so. King Henry V is all the better for having been Prince Hal, but no woman could propose to imitate the sun (or the moon?) and allow the base contagious clouds to smother up her virtue and beauty from the world in order that her charms should shine out all the more clearly and impressively later. Katharine the shrew is tamed: she does not try out both parts, as it were, and move voluntarily from termagant to submissive wife (in fact, however, the audience may receive just this impression, or something close to it).

Female outlaws who attempt to usurp the masculine principle – Queen Margaret, Joan, Lady Macbeth, Goneril and Regan – are condemned as fiends and witches and the term applied to them is ‘unnatural’. By trying to become male, they also inevitably demonstrate the worst aspects of feminine outlawry: they become lustful and promiscuous, guilty of behaviour reserved by men for themselves. Joan of Arc is not only a witch but a whore. ‘The door between the gender principles opens only one way,’ as Marilyn French observes darkly, pointing out that Jezebel, whose crime was worshipping foreign gods and influencing her husband, is also remembered as a fornicatress. Maybe so, but no one has ever accused Lady Macbeth of infidelity; her reputation is safe even on the lips of Macduff when he speaks of the ‘dead butcher and his fiend-like queen’.

The only way in which females may temporarily enjoy the privileges of masculinity is for them to dress up as men, which will of course by convention lead to their being accepted in that role. Such an acceptance can gravely alarm and embarrass them, as when it involves the idea of fighting a duel, so that ‘they cling almost lovingly to their female limitations.’ This may be true of Rosalind and Viola, but Portia only clings to female limitations in the sense that when she has finished putting the male world to rights she is happy to go home and get married. No one in the play seems surprised either by her ability to sort out the problems in that most masculine arcanum – the Law – or by her preference for submission of herself in marriage to a handsome young bounder. It seems that some women are as inconsistent as they are versatile – which would no doubt be yet another comfortable male conclusion.

Oddly enough, Dr French has not much to say about the possibly interesting implications of role reversal in Shakespeare, which may be because the feminist movement is itself not at all happy about the concept. Does it involve a coming together of the sexes, and should women want this? Or does it, as it may appear to in the plays, serve to accentuate the contrast in gender roles by conferring their potentialities upon either sex? In the context of art and make-believe, the exploitation of the contrast could be said to lead to greater freedom and understanding – or is this yet another masculine ploy, and are women merely being coopted into a scenario of masculine indulgence, in which helpless femininity is revealed more charmingly in male disguise?

One obvious difficulty is that all writers since time began have done very much the same sort of thing as Dr French finds Shakespeare doing, and her best observations usually show a tacit sense of this. She remarks, for example, that ‘stasis of character is found in female figures throughout literature.’ We cannot imagine Antigone as a happy pregnant wife, or Dido getting stoically on with the job of ruling Carthage after the departure of Aeneas. ‘Niobe and Hecuba weep through eternity and Helen is always young.’ Here Dr French touches on an area of real interest for criticism, not least because Shakespeare himself is the great exception to the point she is making. One of the most significant things about the elaborate portraits of women in 18th and 19th-century fiction – Clarissa Harlowe, Emma Bovary, Dorothea Brooke, Isobel Archer, Anna Karenina – is their disconcerting resemblance in this one respect to the heroines of the Classics. Ultimately their authors do not know what to do with them: they cannot be assumed to potter on through life in the free relaxed way that male heroes can be allowed to do. Death or suicide is an obvious solution, taken in a great number of cases. George Eliot can do nothing with a Dorothea Brooke married to the man she loves. Henry James has to fix up Isobel and leave her in the most exalted stasis of all: being a perfect lady in her misfortune.

What it comes to is that male authors present a woman as a ‘case’. In the Classics she is a tableau, like patience on a monument; in the 19th-century novel she becomes a subject for study and reflection, but without changing her status. Arguably the latter treatment places and patronises her more definitively than do the great naive presentations of the past. Had Dr French remarked on this accentuation of the static and excluded role of women in the period of the great novels, she would have made a telling point. But there are exceptions to this treatment of women by male authors, and Shakespeare is surely the great example. Women with him never are a case, or a tableau. As the admirable 18th-century critic Maurice Morgann suggested in his ‘Essay on the Dramatic Career of Sir John Falstaff’, Shakespeare’s art is to make us infer far more material about the nature and potential of his characters than is needed for the action of the play. Cordelia is not pinned to her filial devotion and her demise at the hands of Edmund’s agent. She can easily be imagined in her childhood, or in her maturity as the wife of the king of France and mother of his children. Her individual and domestic potential is effortlessly taken for granted in the circumstances of her unique dramatic function.

‘Stasis’, then, is a singularly unapt way of describing the impression we get from Shakespearean heroines, but Dr French is of course tied to her thesis that they must be either inlaws or outlaws, either ‘utterly good or utterly evil’. It is quite worth while pointing out that the Shakespearean woman does tend to be black or white, if only because of her dramatic role, but it is just because her status is confined to the dramatic role that she can be so free in other respects. It may be only a glimpse, as when Hermione in The Winter’s Tale tells us that ‘the Emperor of Russia was my father,’ revealing a tradition of xenophobic ferocity, an atavistic pride which might well have unsettled her husband and caused him to think her capable of anything. Or what about Gertrude, who is more obstinately amiable than her son can bear to think, and whose love for Claudius, so mutually needful to them, is in the privacy of its truth neither inlaw nor outlaw?

If Dr French’s argument that women in literature tend to be type-cast is a sound one in general, she herself must be said to underwrite the process. Like many feminists, she forces women – in her case, Shakespeare’s women – to conform to her own ideas of what they should be like. Good art works differently, and good intentions count for nothing. No one would deny that Henry James and George Eliot are immensely sympathetic towards women and interested in their predicament, but in terms of art George Eliot in particular takes a detached and Olympian view, as if surveying the predicament of Dorothea or Hetty Sorrel from a position outside both sexes.

Dr French suffers the fate of strong characters and combative views in relation to Shakespeare: as she plods on from assertion to assertion about the way plot, theme or character reveal this or that, her arguments come so seem to unexceptionable that they cease to provoke attention. The Shakespearean world accepts them so equably that they look beside the point. Having myself recently written a book about Shakespeare, I recognise the situation with a slight shudder. The art remains impenetrable: the critic’s lifestyle and point of view are exposed but also neutralised – ‘as with your shadow I with these did play.’ Dr French may have planned a manifesto to reveal the Bard as a sex chauvinist like any other man, but what appears is just another book that shows, at its best, how much the author has got out of Shakespeare.

And this is not inconsiderable. Like most of us in the business, Dr French is most suggestive when most involuntary: because she always sees the same thing the reader may notice something different. For example, the curious laws of the hypothetical in Shakespeare’s world. Though the women are never type-cast, their truth to life is often underwritten by a different kind of social necessity. A Juliet who had already had crushes on other young men and known the fevers of calf love is not feasible in terms of this play’s truth to life: a Romeo who has done so is essential to it. Without swerving from truth by a hair the play subtly defers to the myth that a girl is chaste in her dreams and feelings until Mr Right appears, and authenticates it by showing man as the opposite. Though she does not perceive it, Dr French is continuously betrayed by this Shakespearean duality. The play knows what maids talk of ‘when they laugh alone’, but it also knows that there are such things as purity, virginity and first love. Juliet’s truth of emotion and feeling needs to be complemented by the wantonness of Rosaline and of Romeo’s feelings for her, just as Desdemona’s mythic innocence is authenticated by Emilia’s earthy experience and common sense. All Dr French can see, however – though it was worth seeing – is the palpable injustice of the prejudice, built into the play’s convention, that ‘no Shakespearean heroine could, like Romeo, shift her affections from one male to another even before betrothal and marriage.’

She is good on the often disturbing atmosphere of male obsessiveness in the last plays, which a number of commentators have been at pains to tidy up into some graceful construct. One such is the notion that the marriage of Florizel and Perdita resolves through sublimation the latent and somehow hangdog masculine attraction between their fathers. ‘That is not the way sublimation works,’ observes Dr French tartly, ‘but more important, there is nothing in the text to support such a theory.’ A good deal of boomerang effect there. More important than the text’s always being willing to support, or not to support, any theory is the impression we get from it – a modest term much used by Morgann which recognises our inevitably personal and subjective response to so much in Shakespeare’s art. Dr French is surely right in her impression that the emotionally crippled tyrannical male, a domestic tyrant, is dominant in the last plays, and their beneficent magic lies in subjugating the gender principle into a universal ideal of wholeness and sanity. ‘Leontes’s learned wisdom is that the masculine principle is “more stone” than stone itself.’

She is right, too, about the role of sex in Othello, the only play of Shakespeare’s in which it is required to fuel tragic feeling and produce a catastrophe in the grand manner; and it does so without losing its rank smell of power and disgust. The nastiest thing about sex is that it has been taken over by males, who as part of their solidarity – the world of ‘locker room, the pool hall’ – make a dirty joke of it. They take it over, forbidding it by implication to women, and yet treat it with derision and contempt. It is certainly significant that the most conventionally ‘masculine’ character in any of the plays is Iago, who arguably hates both Othello and Cassio for their femininity. Cassio has feminine weaknesses: he cannot drink like a man, his soldiership is cissy, he likes and admires Desdemona for her gentleness; he has ‘a daily beauty in his life’ which seems to correspond to Iago’s apparently good-natured contempt for women’s business – ‘suckling fools and chronicling small beer’. The portrait of Iago certainly suggests there is no such thing as good-natured masculinity: purely male attitudes and behaviour are odious in themselves.

In fact, Dr French does not take up all these points, but they would certainly strengthen her argument. Othello is virtually a straight case of sex against love, the male against the female, who is his sexual possession but who can show in herself what love is all about. Dr French is chary of this antithesis, which the form of tragedy exploits without synthesising, because she is more or less pledged to the view of ‘love’ as a male invention and convenience, foisted by man upon woman to make her different from him. According to this view, man keeps woman in subordination either by despising sex and her, or by revering her higher capacity for love: the two in practice coming to much the same thing. Being a man, Shakespeare is bound to have taken one line or the other, and of course he took the second; although he does not show his hand, Dr French, like all theoretical critics, is sure she can read his intentions. She asks one particularly pertinent question: would Othello (or Leontes, or Posthumus) have been justified in male eyes if his wife had been guilty? But such hypotheses belong to plays that ‘raise questions’, and where intentions can be seen. With Shakespeare the set-up shows the meaning of the work: further argument or hypothesis is bound to remain outside it.

Like most critics with an axe to grind, Dr French is apt to ignore the one kind of simple evidence that can give a clue to Shakespearean intention: his use of source material. Othello in the Italian story by Cinthio has been happily married for several years. That really does raise problems, and Shakespeare, like Verdi after him, is careful to avoid them by substituting a crisis of the utmost immediacy. At the same time she is excellent on Coriolanus, to whom she devotes her most suggestive pages, and on the significant fact that Shakespeare makes his mother, Volumnia, a much more formidable and important figure than she is in Plutarch. ‘She is a far subtler portrait than Lady Macbeth, of a woman who has absorbed the dominant values of her culture, and upholds them fiercely.’ Not more subtle, for Macbeth is not about culture values. But Coriolanus certainly is. As Dr French intuits, it represents a brilliant historical insight, the most imaginative in the plays. Shakespeare indeed shows that Romanitas at its most vigorous and effective depended on the fervent support and example that women gave to masculine values. Women were not a separated slave caste, as with the Greeks, but a powerful and dynamic element in an integrated ‘all-male’ society. Coriolanus himself is an aberrant exaggeration of the values of that society, in which, again significantly, the male-female antithesis has been replaced by a class struggle – ‘male’ patricians against ‘female’ proles.

In matters like these Dr French’s vision of the way Shakespeare divided experience can make real sense. Shakespeare’s imagination creates drama and many other things beside. It is doubtful if he went about proclaiming culture values and interesting himself in the sex problem, but it seems likely that he preferred womanly emotions and behaviour, however conditioned, to masculine ones. Who doesn’t?