Shakespeare and Ms. Grundy
Rose, theater critic of
the Washington Post, has asked the arresting question
whether Shakespeare disliked women. After all, he created some of the most
appalling harpies ever to walk the stage: Lady Macbeth; King Lears
ruthless daughters, Goneril and Regan; Coriolanuss fanatical mother,
Volumnia; Kate the Shrew; and a few others you wouldnt want to
meet on a blind
date. (And Tamora, in Titus
Andronicus, is even more terrifying than Bertie Woosters
But how could a man who disliked women have created heroines like Juliet, Cordelia, Beatrice, Rosalind, and Cleopatra, not to mention such endearing lesser characters as Emilia in Othello or the Countess of Roussillon in Alls Well That Ends Well? The whole effect of Shakespeares most powerful scenes depends on our feeling of the infinite pathos of the deaths of women like Cordelia and Desdemona. He, at least, must at least, have cared about them.
I dont know of another author, male or otherwise, who created such a wide range of female characters, or who took such obvious delight in witty women. Shakespeare can raise a young mans expectations of women even more unrealistically than Hugh Hefner. Whats more, even his most ghastly women are sharply individualized. It seems purblind to reduce his amazing genius for characterizing women to a single attitude.
Why should we have to defend Shakespeare, anyway? Whats the point? Is he on trial for misogyny? If convicted, will he be banned from the stage?
I wish these questions could be laughed away. But in this age of crackpot feminism, militant victimology and ideological criticism, not even Shakespeare is safe. The prudish Mrs. Grundy of yesteryear has been replaced by the even more censorious Ms. Grundy of today.
Living in an age of heavy censorship, Shakespeare was still free of certain social oppressions with which we, First Amendment or no, have become all too familiar. He didnt have to worry, every time he endowed a female or minority character with an unpleasant trait, that hed be accused of having the Wrong Attitude toward a whole sex or race. Nobody was keeping score in those days. So he was free to create individuals instead of representatives.
Are we quite as free? Doesnt a writer today especially a white male writer feel, as he dips the quill into the old inkwell, a certain haunting anxiety that he may run afoul of the bigotry patrol if his women and minority characters dont, so to speak, meet federal guidelines? It cant be good for the imagination to work under such conditions.
Think of all the authors of the past who have been brought up on sexism and bigotry raps lately: The list includes Chaucer, Milton, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Kipling, G.K. Chesterton, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Raymond Chandler, not to mention St. Paul.
Its perfectly legitimate to note moral failings and even ugliness in old authors, however great. But too often they are not being judged by valid universal standards, but being arraigned on ex post facto charges that reveal our own parochial mentality, not theirs.
Shakespeare obviously knew what it was to adore a woman. But he wasnt idiotic enough to adore them all, or like them all. He was deeply interested in them, remarkably observant about them and often sympathetic to them. He had a humorous sense of how women feel about men, as witness Emilias earthy remark about husbands: Tis not a year or two shows us a man: / They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / They eat us hungerly, and when they are full, / They belch us.
A surefire crack like that loses its essence if its turned into a manifesto or a universal truth. Like most jokes (not that Emilia is joking!), its both a recognizable experience and an exaggeration.
If the male sex ever gets into organized touchiness, it will have far more complaints with Shakespeare than the feminists do. The tragedies always result chiefly from male flaws, with the woman a contributory factor at most, and more often the victim of male jealousy, self-absorption, or sheer pig-headedness.
Come to think of it, is King Lear fair to senior citizens? But lets leave it at that. I dont want to give anyone ideas.
|Copyright © 2006 by the
Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of Griffin Internet Syndicate
Archive Table of Contents
The Shakespeare Library
Return to the SOBRANS home page.
|FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.|