Thursday, 12 November 2015

"I Grant I am a Woman" | Are Shakespeare's Women Really Women?

I received an interesting, and very lovely, email from a student who's writing her dissertation on the representation of women in Shakespeare.

She asked me a few questions, and we tossed a couple of ideas back and forth, and she caused me to think about Shakespeare's women in a way that I hadn't (and perhaps should have) done before.

Are Shakespeare's women real women? Is the representation of women in Shakespeare's plays grounded, in any sense, in the reality of female experiences of Elizabethan and Jacobean eras?

Shakespeare's Strong Female Characters

Okay, so there's no denying that I adore the women Shakespeare created. I don't think a single one of them is two-dimensional; they are not window-dressing; and they are wonderful characters to watch, to read, and to play.

I've mentioned before that one of the characteristics universal to Shakespeare's women is that they refuse to do as they're told. And I believe there is a case to be made for some of Shakespeare's characters to be deemed proto-feminists.

I'm not going to take any of that back now. But...and there is a big but (and I cannot lie, nor can you other brothers deny)...there's a different way of looking at it.

Shakespeare's Women aren't Representative of Women

Portia's stronger than her sex
The very thing I love about Shakespeare's girls is the very thing that means they're not really representative of the rest of their gender. 

Mould-breakers? Definitely. 

Unruly? No question. 

But they're very atypical women. Lady Macbeth literally wants to renounce her femininity - or believes she has to anyway. Viola and Rosalind mask theirs by dressing as men. 

And perhaps it's Portia in Julius Caesar who explains it best.

"I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex...?"

Shakespeare's women all, to my mind, have this in common. They are stronger than their sex. Or, at the very least, stronger than their sex is 'expected' to be. And, in many ways, that's to be applauded. Unlike some of Shakespeare's contemporaries, he didn't write insipid, weak female roles. 

Yet, unfortunately, this means he's not telling 'real' women's stories, either. These are girls who are breaking men's rules in order to play in a man's world. But what about all of those women who couldn't do that? Well, the fact is, their stories wouldn't have been anywhere near as entertaining!

The Sexism of Shakespeare's Era

In Shakespeare's day, it would have been
men playing women, Miss Bernhardt!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suddenly changing my tune and decrying Shakespeare a sexist. I don't think he was. He did, however, live and work in a sexist era. And he had to make his plays as popular as possible. 

Of course, there were plenty of women in Shakespeare's audiences, but then, as now, women seemed/seem perfectly happy to enjoy male-centric stories, while men were/are not as readily willing to enjoy female-centric stories. So, to appeal to the bigger crowd, you would quite naturally incline to male-centred plots. 

There's nothing wrong with that, but it is worth remembering, despite all the kudos Shakespeare unquestionably deserves for his female characters, there are no plays were woman are at the centre - Twelfth Night is close, but it is very much an ensemble affair. Likewise, As You Like It.  

And, as the lovely, dissertation-writing, Anto, pointed out, Shakespeare was not only writing to appease as large an audience as possible, but he was also writing roles for male performers. 

These may be female characters, but they were played (for a long time) by men. And these men would probably prefer a good juicy role, like Portia from The Merchant of Venice, to sink their teeth into!

So What's the Point of All This?

Well, I think the point is that trying to decide whether Shakespeare's work is feminist or sexist is complex. 

Partly because those concepts are so far removed from the era he knew. And partly because it depends how you look at it, and exactly what you're looking for. 

If we're looking for women who refuse to capitulate to the patriarchal system into which they were born, then we'll find them in spades. And that could be deemed proto-feminist.

However, if we're looking for a representation of what it actually was to be an ordinary woman of the Elizabethan or Jacobean era (or any of those earlier periods Shakespeare wrote of), then, I fear, we're out of luck. 

Whether that's a good or a bad thing isn't easy to decide. Would the plays have been as entertaining if Shakespeare had given us 'real' women? Or do we still, to this day, need the women written for our entertainment to be "stronger than [their] sex" in order to be worthy of our time and attention?

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Why Did Shakespeare Use Iambic Pentameter?

Most of Shakespeare famous lines are in
iambic pentameter, but why did he use it?
I've written about Shakespeare's iambic pentameter before, but I only discussed what it is, what the variations of it are and why it's important to be aware of the rhythm when reading the plays or poems. What I didn't delve into is why Shakespeare used it in the first place.

Well, there are a few possible reasons, and Shakespeare's reason was likely to be one or a combination of all these things.

The Power of Poetry

As you might have already noticed, not every line in Shakespeare is written in iambic pentameter. Often you'll find text in ordinary prose. 

However, for the big speeches, and almost all of his most quotable of quotes, Shakespeare strays into poetry. Why? Well, because poetry is powerful. 

Just as musicals and operas focus on heightened emotions, poetry taps into a level of emotional expression that isn't available to us with 'ordinary' speech. 

So, when Hamlet is contemplating suicide and the meaning of life, he strays into the poetic. When Richard III is waxing lyrical about his plans to seize power, he literally waxes lyrical. When Othello is about to kill the woman he adores...yep, you've guessed it, he uses poetry, too.

But why iambic pentameter rather than any other form of poetry?

What's Special About Iambic Pentameter?

The English language naturally inclines
to iambic rhythm
Well, one reason might simply be that it is a very natural pattern of speech in the English language. 

Most of the time we don't even notice which syllables we're placing emphasis on, but there is a rhythm to all languages and English has iambic leanings. 

So, Shakespeare's words sound poetic, but, at the same time, they don't sound so poetic as to seem unnatural. "If music be the food of love, play on." It doesn't sound stilted, but it's got that wonderful iambic rhythm that lends it more power. 

Another reason might be a practical one: text written in iambic pentameter is easier to learn and memorize, making life easier for Shakespeare's actors.

It's more likely, though, that Shakespeare was attracted by the fact that there's something about iambic pentameter that just 'sounds' dramatic. 

It's difficult to discern exactly why, and maybe it's more magical for not knowing, but there is a grandiosity to that rhythm that perhaps doesn't exist in any other poetry. And that is unquestionably why even modern writers and speech makers use it. An example is when Churchill spoke of, "The greatest days our country has ever lived."

One final and less interesting reason is that it was what everyone else was doing. Because we quote so much Shakespeare, and he's the most famous playwright of his generation (or any other generation for that matter), it's easy to think that he invented this way of writing. 

But he didn't. He was far from the first; he was following in the wake of countless others before. There was no trail to blaze with iambic pentameter.

But one thing that can't be debated was he used it exceptionally well, which is why parts of his verse are so often quoted as examples of the iambic rhythm. 

To read more on Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, check out:

Saturday, 2 May 2015

What Makes a Strong Shakespearean Woman?

What is it about Shakespeare's
women that makes them so
In As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson's character is asked how he writes such convincing female characters. His response? "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability."

As far as I recall, the film never gives us an opportunity to judge for ourselves whether Melvin really does write women "so well". But the fact the question was asked is interesting.

We, on the whole, don't expect someone of the opposite sex to write our own gender well. Women can't know how a man thinks and feels. And men can't know how a woman thinks and feels. We believe, in order to really understand how a female brain works, we need to have one.

I'm not sure that's true. I can think of many men who have written tremendously good female characters: Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Miller, Willy Russell - these are just a few off the top of my head.

Yet, arguably the best was Shakespeare. Shakespeare created some of the finest female characters not just of his generation, but of any generation. And I might be wrong, but I don't think his approach was anything like Mr Udall's.

What is it About Shakespeare's Women?

So, what is it about Shakespeare's women that works so well? Why, centuries later, do his female characters still seem so thoroughly rich, full of truth, and abundant in strength?

Shakespeare never approached
his writing from a simplistic point
Well, I tend to think it's that Shakespeare wrote them as people. I'm not being facetious when I say that, well, all right, maybe a little.

But what I really mean is, Shakespeare's characters; male or female, rich or poor, goodies or baddies, human or fairy, kings or clowns, are all fully-rounded people. Nothing about any of them is one-dimensional.

Even the butt of a joke, like The Rude Mechanicals, have some depth of character.

Shakespeare never seems to approach any human being from a simplistic place. His women are, therefore, just as complex, contradictory, funny, tragic, ambitious, virtuous, loving, loyal, jealous, smart or silly as any of his men.

There is one very simple facet of all of Shakespeare's women, though, that makes them stronger than the average gal of their era. And that is, almost without exception, they refuse to do what they're told.

Whether it's the rules of society, the orders of their husbands, or the instructions of their fathers, Shakespearean women ignore them. And it's this, I think, that makes them so timelessly fascinating.

Unruliness in Shakespeare's Female Characters

Brutus' Portia refuses to let it go, when he says, "I don't feel well, just leave it woman." (I'm paraphrasing)

Desdemona angers her father and much of Venetian society by marrying her choice of husband.

Lady Macbeth won't be told what femininity
forbids her to do
Lady Macbeth goes against everything we think we know about femininity to participate in a murder most foul.

Hermia elopes with Lysander when given the choice between marrying Demetirus, marrying Jesus, or death.

Rosalind goes against social convention and poses as a man - she, of course, isn't the only Shakespearean lass to do so.

Even Cordelia, who is an incredibly loyal (and forgiving) daughter, refuses to go along with Lear's 'who loves me most?' game.

Isabella's a well-behaved lass, but she doesn't submit to her brother's pleas to let Angelo have his wicked way with her and, thereby, save his life.

The point is, all of these women, and many others I haven't listed, are very much in charge of their own person. They do not allow themselves to be constricted by gender roles, by society or by the demands of the men in their lives.

There are the odd exceptions, like Anne in Richard III, whose sudden agreement to marry Richard is inexplicable - and even she is not without some chutzpah. But, by and large, every Shakespearean woman is a 'damn right, I'm not going to be told what to do' kind of girl.

And it's this that makes them fascinating. It's this that makes them strong. It's this that makes them vibrant, complicated characters.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Why Anti-Semitic Language in The Merchant of Venice is Important

Should Shakespeare's 'problem'
plays be censored?
Earlier this month, David Schajer of Shakespeare Solved debated whether the very talented Mark Rylance is right in saying that, since the Holocaust, certain anti-Semitic phrases in The Merchant of Venice carry more resonance and should, therefore, be cut from performance. 

I disagree with Rylance for two reasons.

Before a dive headlong into them, though, I will just preface by saying I am not Jewish and accept that people who are may feel differently about this than me.

However, the crux of what I'm about to ramble on about is that, in my opinion, it is doing a disservice to Jews to remove the anti-Semitism from The Merchant of Venice.

The Past Cannot be Altered

My first reason for feeling that anti-Semitic remarks are important is that to censor them is, it seems to me at least, a troubling exercise in sanitising history. 

There's a danger in sanitising history
It is inarguably uncomfortable to come face to face with our racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and barbaric past. 

But does that mean we should gloss over it; pretend that it didn't exist? Are we doing Jews a favour by sweeping the hatred they faced in 16th century Europe under the rug? 

And if we do think that 16th century anti-Semitism is unpalatable, should we not also see anti-Semitism from all centuries (including the 20th) removed from literature, theatre and film?

George Santayana told us, "Those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it."

To my mind, it is essential that we acknowledge anti-Semitism as part of human history. To pretend it was not there, and to deny it's existence, is to deny the suffering of scores of people. 

Shakespeare wasn't an Anti-Semite

The second reason that I believe anti-Semitic language to be crucial in The Merchant of Venice is that, although several of Shakespeare's characters are unapologetic in their hatred of Shylock and his religion, Shakespeare himself is not.

That could not be made any clearer than in one of his most famous passages:

"He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge."

David Suchet as Shylock (Hath not a Jew eyes?)

We know that Shylock is the wronged party in the play. He is a victim rather than a villain, and that fact is obvious thanks to the abusive vitriol he receives from the Christians, in particular Gratiano, Antonio, and Salanio & Salarino. 

Keep in mind, at the beginning of the play, Shylock has done nothing to any of them. Still Antonio not only thinks it's okay to void his rheum on Shylock's beard, but freely admits he's like to do so again!

There is nothing Christian about the way the other men treat Shylock. Spitting on him, calling him a dog, their glee when he is forced to convert, Gratiano wishing him hanged - none of these things are Christian behaviours. These men are not 'nice' characters. 

Henry Goodman is Shylock
If we take away the proof of their unpleasantness, what are we left with? 

Well, Shylock's distress and anger don't make anywhere near as much sense. His speech above loses at least some, if not all, of its power. His desire for revenge doesn't ring true. And then we have a man who's bent on hurting Antonio good reason. 

Take away the anti-Semitism he's been victim of and you make him a villain. 

Now, don't get me wrong, Shylock isn't all sweetness and light, and perhaps his desire for revenge is wrong. But it's understandable in the context of the play.

However, take the context away, and we not only turn him into a baddie, but also make him a two-dimensional, pantomime villain. 

I'm not going to deny there are facets of the play that are uncomfortable; the upbeat end probably the most disturbing thing of all. I've seen productions that close on a rather more sombre note though, like Trevor Nunn's Royal National Theatre production. I tend to think, if you're going to edit the play at all, that's one of the places to do it. 

It is, unquestionably, a problem play, but I don't believe we make it unproblematic by removing lines that are offensive. I don't think taking vile things out of the Christians' mouths makes The Merchant of Venice a 'better' or more palatable play.

In fact, I feel the complete opposite is true. 

Ignoring the anti-Semitism of the era, and the horrific abuse that is so fundamental to why Shylock acts as he does, makes for a much poorer play; with far less complex characters and a Jewish character whose demand for a pound of flesh is seemingly motiveless.

But what do you think?

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in a Nutshell

Because I don't post here nearly as often as I should, I'm making my rather belaboured way through putting all of Shakespeare's plays into nutshells; whittling the plot down to its most simple elements in order to explain what the play is about.

And on this occasion, it's the turn of The Merchant of Venice.

A wealthy merchant who's borrowed money on behalf of his friend, learns that his ships have been lost. Unable to repay the usurer he has abused in the past, he faces the prospect of paying the contract's specified penalty: a pound of his flesh.

Now that's the gist of the plot, but it's not really what The Merchant of Venice is about. And, in keeping the nutshell as concise as possible, I've left out two important strands of the plot - Portia's love trial (and her subsequent part in the Venetian trial), and the romance between Lorenzo and Jessica.

Ironically, though, I'd say what the play is actually about is much simpler than the logline I've given it above. It's about love; in various forms, including romantic, friendship, paternal and fillial. It's about prejudice, and the things hatred can engender. And it's about the law.

For more on The Merchant of Venice, take a look at:

A Quick Overview of The Merchant of Venice
The Casket Trial
Clever Portia and The Quality of Mercy
Is Shakespeare Anti-Semitic?

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Does Shakespeare Pass The Bechdel Test?

Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's finest
female creations.
Shakespeare's women are some of the most memorable and feisty gals in literature/theatre. But do any of his plays pass the Bechdel test?

Perhaps it's unfair to apply a concept coined in the mid 1980s to four-hundred-year-old literature, but, given how many strong women exist in Shakespeare's work, I think it's a valid question.

What is The Bechdel Test?

In case you're not familiar with it, the Bechdel test is a very basic measure by which to gauge gender bias. Originally, in Alison Bechdel's comic, Dykes to Watch Out For, she was referring to films, but the test is now used in evaluating all kinds of fiction.

The Bechdel test sets a very low bar for female presence in a film/play/book by asking three simple questions.

1. Are there two named female characters?
2. Do these female characters talk to each other?
3. Is their conversation about something other than a man?

Gender Bias in Shakespeare

Shakespearean women, like Portia, have an
important function in the plays
I think there can be no doubt that there is gender bias in Shakespeare's work.

Not a single play features a female lead (I was tempted to consider Viola the lead in Twelfth Night, but that's actually very much an ensemble affair), and men outnumber women considerably in every play.

I'm not knocking Shakespeare for that.

He was a man, so it's natural that he would incline to tell men's stories. He also had an all-male cast, so writing a play with a large number of women would pose problems - not every one of his actors had the youthful face and unbroken voice to do drag.

Besides which, male-centric plays or not, his female characters have one thing in common: they're all strong. Not one is there for titillation or window dressing; they're not plot devices. Instead, they have agency.

But back to the question at hand...

Does Shakespeare Pass The Bechdel Test?

Do Shakespeare's women talk to each
other about something other than a man?
Now, let me first preface this by saying I haven't read/watched every play specifically with this question in mind - that would be quite a time-consuming effort.

So, if you can think of a play that does pass, which I've missed, feel free to let me know.

With the exception of The Tempest (some people consider Ariel female, but that's very much debatable. And if we have to resort to counting non-humans, then the answer is surely, 'no'), every other of Shakespeare's plays passes the first of Bechdel's requirements: they all have more than one named female character.

Do they talk to each other?

Of the 36 plays still in the running, we now have to dismiss a further three: Julius Caesar, Henry VI Part 1, and Henry VI Part 3. In all three of these plays, the women are kept separate and never utter a word to each other.

Do the women who do talk to each other talk about something other than a man?

So far, The Bard isn't doing too badly.

But here's where the Bechdel wheels start to fall off a little. The tragedies are male-centric, the comedies are predominantly romance-centric. And so, when the girls do get together, it's often to discuss men.

Shakespeare's responsible for some of the
most feisty girls in English literature
There are a several plays that are borderline; offering only a few very brief lines that are about something other than a man. For example, one of the fleeting conversations in Much Ado About Nothing concerns a wedding dress.

The women in Love's Labours Lost and All's Well That Ends Well also spend much of their time talking about men, but there are brief instances of other topics.

Helena and Hermia have their wonderful blazing row in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is not about a man, but it is over men, so it's a woolly one.

Viola and Olivia have several conversations in Twelfth Night, but Olivia thinks Viola's a man and, much of the time, they're talking about Orsino.

In As You Like It, Rosalind and Celia discuss running away, but that's mixed with some drooling over Orlanda, agreeing to take Touchstone with them, the possibility of finding Rosalind's father, and the benefits of donning the disguise of a man - so it too is up for debate.

All right, so what about the plays that definitely pass muster? 

Do the witches in Macbeth count as women?
Despite talk about men dominating Portia and Nerissa's scenes, there is the wonderful, "How far that little candle throws his beams!" chat about the nature of goodness in a bleak world in The Merchant of Venice.

In Henry V, Katherine is being taught English by her lady's maid, Alice.

Mistress Quickly tells Doll Tearsheet that she's looking pretty chipper despite having over indulged, in Henry IV Part 2 - it's brief, but I guess it counts.

In Macbeth, the witches fill each other in on what they've been doing since they last met, although you could argue their status as 'women'. (ETA: As a reader kindly mentioned, the witches don't actually have names. So, even if we do count them as women, alas, they do not pass!)

What Does All This Prove?

Maybe what they talk about is much less important
than how complex their characters are
Well, first it demonstrates that Shakespeare doesn't do too badly - certainly better than you'd assume a four centuries' old playwright to fair when placed under modern feminist scrutiny.

In fact, with almost half of Hollywood movies failing the Bechdel test, it suggests Shakespeare was ahead of his time...but we knew that anyway.

However, the Bechdel test is limited (nobody's suggested otherwise), because even the Shakespeare plays that fail it have thoroughly corking females characters in them.

Just because the women of Othello or King Lear, for instance, talk about men doesn't mean they're not wonderful, strong and full characters in their own right.

It simply means most aspects of their lives are affected by men, which sort of goes without saying in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, doesn't it?

The far more important and impressive thing is that Shakespeare's women are all complex, interesting and unique.

For more on Shakespeare's women, take a look at:

Monday, 9 February 2015

Would You Choose One of Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes as a Valentine's Date?

Which of Shakespeare tragic heroes would you
go on a date with?
Shakespeare wrote some great lovers, but would you really want any of his heroes for a Valentine’s date?

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, those of us who are dateless might still be looking for a special someone to spend the ‘most romantic’ night of the year with.

Of course, if you’re looking here, you won’t have much luck - partly because I’m not convinced they’d make good dates, but mostly because they’re either entirely fictional characters or long-dead historical figures.

Nevertheless, if you had to choose one of Shakespeare’s heroes to be your Valentine, which would you pick?

Titus Andronicus 

Anthony Hopkins as Titus Andronicus 

To be honest, Titus is past the point of having much interest in romance.

However, you might think he’d make a good companion. Well, frankly, he wouldn’t.

Showing a distinct lack of interpersonal skills and not much sympathy, he’s a grizzled old soldier through and through.

And, of course, if you cross him, it’s not just your words he’ll make you eat.

Romeo Montague

Romeo is exciting, but
his affections are fickle

Energetic, fun-loving and demonstrative, on the face of it Romeo could show you a good time.

However, he is as impetuous in his affections as he is in his actions.

So, you’ll need to have him on a tight rein and, most importantly, keep his eyes away from beautiful young members of the Capulet family.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar by Reubens
He’s married, for goodness sake!

But, if the thought of Calpurnia’s wrath doesn’t put you off, bear in mind that we’re just over four weeks away from the Ides of March.

So, it’s probably best not to get too attached.


Keep in mind, Freud thought he had
an Oedipus complex

A prince, but not always ‘charming’, Hamlet is intelligent and witty. However, he’s deeply troubled and can be moody and brooding.

He also has a habit of procrastinating and spends a lot of time talking to himself.

While some girls may relish the challenge this disturbed man poses, it’s enough to drive others crazy.


Othello's a decent guy; shame
about his friend

A big, strong hunk of a man, Othello is a General in the Venetian army.

However, he has a softer side. Romantic, affectionate and loyal, Othello seems like the perfect man.

But his choice in friends is troublesome, and if he believes you to be unfaithful, you might not survive the night.

King Lear

Ian Holm as King Lear

Here’s one for the more mature lady or, perhaps, those looking for a sugar daddy.

However, he’s not going to keep those riches for long.

A fiery temper can be indicative of a passionate nature, but, in this case, anger management is a serious issue.

Say the wrong thing or nothing at all, and you risk being ditched like yesterday’s collar’d beef.


Lady Macbeth's a woman you don't
want to scorn

Another married man and, this time, you definitely wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of his other half.

Moreover, he’s pretty focused on advancing his career and doesn’t really have time for romance.

Mark Antony 

No, not the guy who used
to be married to J-Lo.

Word to the wise, girls: steer well clear.

Very fond of the booze, Mark’s more in love with material things than he is with any one woman.

So, when his wife dies and he has an opportunity to make an honest woman of Cleopatra, he’ll break the poor girl’s heart by marrying Octavia…all for money and status.

He’s a wrong ’un, ladies.

Timon of Athens 

The too trusting Timon
He seems like a wonderful guy: intelligent, articulate and generous to a fault. Literally, generous to a fault.

When his friends neglect him, it’s all going to go horribly wrong.

However, Timon might make the perfect mate for a woman who loves the quiet solitude of nature.

Caius Martius (aka Coriolanus) 

Well, if he's Tom Hiddleston, the appeal is obvious

Another soldier and married man, Coriolanus is a guy who communicates largely with violence.

He can be a bit cocky, which some girls may view as healthy self-confidence.

Worryingly though, his allegiances are swift to change if people don’t agree with his point of view.

But, in his favour, he does still listen to his mother!

So, which of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes would you want to be wined, dined and romanced by?