Monday, 29 September 2014

Should We View Shakespeare's Plays Through Feminist Eyes?

Was Shakespeare a protofeminist?
I received an email today from someone who found my post on Feminism and Shakespeare. He was interested to know more about whether or not we should look at Shakespeare's work with that modern perception, and asked me a few questions on the topic. 

For what it's worth, I don't think there are any definitive answers. But here are my thoughts on the subject.

Applying feminism, or feminist ideas, to Shakespeare is always difficult - partly because feminism as we know it simply did not exist at the time, and also because Shakespeare's women were played by men. 

So, in that sense, you might say it's wrong to even attempt to look at Shakespeare from a feminist angle. 

But the question of whether we should look at Shakespeare's work under a feminist lens is, I think, a superfluous one. 

It is inevitable that our modern perceptions will apply, whether we're consciously doing it or not. We look at The Merchant of Venice through the lens of anti-Semitism; we look at Othello through the lens of racism. Those concepts didn't exist when Shakespeare was writing, but we simply cannot ignore what we know in the here and now.

Of course, we shouldn't cast judgement on the playwright using the same standards we own today. Yet, it is impossible to completely disregard our modern understanding of the world.

Shakespeare work has a lot to say
about gender roles

So, how much of our modern experience can we apply to Shakespeare? 

We're bound to do it, whether it is deliberate or not. We judge everything, including literature, art or the facts of history, by the things we've learned in the meantime. 

My personal opinion is that as long as we remember that the same 'rules' did not apply in Elizabethan and Jacobean (and even later) societies, then it is perfectly acceptable to offer a comparison.

Is it wrong to give feminist views to Shakespeare's female characters? 

I don't think so. Just because the word 'feminism' didn't exist doesn't mean questions could not be asked about a woman's role in society. And gender is such a big part of many of Shakespeare plays. 

The examination of femininity in Macbeth, for example, is fascinating. Are women capable of heinous acts? With the cross-dressing girls like Viola and Rosalind, he was quite literally playing with gender roles; and mostly that was for comic effect, but even comic effect can have something serious to say.

Is it wrong to view Shakespeare
from a modern feminist perspective?

Do you think that there is any appropriate balance between what Shakespeare intended and modern interpretations? 

As I say, to my mind, feel free to take whatever modern slant you want, but it's essential to remember the world in which the plays were created. 

The truth is though, most of Shakespeare's plays haven't aged at all badly, which is what makes them so ripe for adaptation.

The female characters are not so very different from their modern counterparts, and that is why we do tend to think of Shakespeare's work as feminist. After all, we don't expect a four-hundred-year-old play to present female characters that are recognisable and relatable. 

How does cross-dressing influence the way his female characters were intended to be presented? 

My feeling is that the cross-dressing was predominantly a comic device. It causes confusion, and it also allows us to laugh at traditional gender roles. 

In Shakespeare's own time, it was a case of double cross-dressing, of course, because only boys played female roles, which adds another layer of humour that we don't get in most modern productions.

Strong female characters is a
hallmark of Shakespeare's plays

If there is no concept of feminism in Shakespeare's time, what do his strong female roles represent? 

Just that: strong female roles. There were strong women long before 'feminism' came into being. 

What's really interesting to me is that all Shakespeare's women are strong, which may not be particularly reflective of society (although, bear in mind, there was a strong woman on the throne for much of Shakespeare's lifetime). 

But more than anything, I think he realised that strong, gutsy girls made for much more captivating and dramatic characters. 

And, in an anticlimactic way, maybe that was what was at the heart of it all. Perhaps there was no particular statement about gender, it was just making good theatre!

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare, and his portrayal of women, take a look at 'Are Shakespeare's Plays Sexist?'