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 Shakespeare and Ms. Grundy 

June 1, 2006 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, April 15, 1997]
paragraph indentLloyd 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 Lear’s ruthless daughters, Goneril and Regan; Coriolanus’s fanatical mother, Volumnia; Kate the Shrew; and a few others you wouldn’t want to meet on a blind date. Today's column is "Shakespeare and Ms. Grundy" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.(And Tamora, in Titus Andronicus, is even more terrifying than Bertie Wooster’s aunts.)

paragraph indentBut 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 All’s Well That Ends Well? The whole effect of Shakespeare’s 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.

paragraph indentI don’t 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 man’s expectations of women even more unrealistically than Hugh Hefner. What’s more, even his most ghastly women are sharply individualized. It seems purblind to reduce his amazing genius for characterizing women to a single attitude.

paragraph indentWhy should we have to defend Shakespeare, anyway? What’s the point? Is he on trial for misogyny? If convicted, will he be banned from the stage?

paragraph indentI 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 Grundy of yesteryear has been replaced by the even more censorious Ms.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.

paragraph indentLiving 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 didn’t have to worry, every time he endowed a female or minority character with an unpleasant trait, that he’d 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.

paragraph indentAre we quite as free? Doesn’t 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 don’t, so to speak, meet federal guidelines? It can’t be good for the imagination to work under such conditions.

paragraph indentThink 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.

paragraph indentIt’s 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.

paragraph indentShakespeare obviously knew what it was to adore a woman. But he wasn’t 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 Emilia’s 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.”

paragraph indentA surefire crack like that loses its essence if it’s turned into a manifesto or a “universal truth.” Like most jokes (not that Emilia is joking!), it’s both a recognizable experience and an exaggeration.

paragraph indentIf 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.

paragraph indentCome to think of it, is King Lear fair to senior citizens? But let’s leave it at that. I don’t want to give anyone ideas.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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