Apr 26 2016

Too wise to woo peaceably

(originally published at bibliobuffet.com January, 2010)

“What, really, does Shakespeare have to say to women?”

This question was posed to—or rather, hurled at—a class of young women (including myself) by the radical feminist philosopher Mary Daly one spring afternoon in 1985. I never forgot it. Nor her answer to her own question, uttered with a kind of flat, furious finality; “Nothing.”

Daly, who was teaching a class on feminist ethics and already surrounded by controversy because she wouldn’t allow any men to enroll in the course (and there was always one or two who attempted to get in), was trying to shock us out of our complacency and assumptions about what constituted a “good” woman in our society. She challenged us to question every model, every illustration of female virtue or vice, from Helen of Troy to “Tootsie” (a movie she despised for its unsubtle statement that to be an independent woman you have to be a man).  We in the class all thought of ourselves as feminists. We thought that we were qualified to do anything—that traditional gender roles were antiquated and no longer applied to our place in modern society. Not a woman in the class had any plans on fulfilling her life goal of becoming a housewife with 2.5 kids.  We had all read Sisterhood is Powerful and we all subscribed to Ms. magazine. We thought we were pretty radical.

We weren’t. With a single question Daly managed to undercut everything we didn’t even know we were taking for granted. She wasn’t simply saying that Shakespeare was worthless. “What if,” she was asking, “the whole of western literature is simply invalid for women?” What if it just doesn’t apply?

It is a valid question. Like all young women I learned instinctively to read in a kind of gender-neutral way. It didn’t matter if the story was about a man or a woman, if it was Jay Gatsby or Jane Eyre. (It is a truism among librarians and booksellers that you can convince girls to read books featuring boys, but you can rarely get a boy to read a book that features a girl. Girls are just used to “setting aside” their gender when they read.)The loves and losses, ambitions and drives, they were all part of the “human” condition. Men and women both hoped. They both bled.  It hadn’t occurred to me—at least, until I met Daly—that feminism was not about claiming a place in a patriarchal society, but recreating that society altogether. Questioning all the old models—which, in my case, meant questioning anything I’d ever learned from books.  I’ve read a lot of books.

Paradigm shifts are never comfortable experiences, and I’ll admit that I kicked at the notion that some literature might just be plain bad for women. Especially canonical literature like Shakespeare. I had spent the previous summer preparing for college by reading all the “Great Books” and I had assumed that they were “great” for a reason. That their relevancy transcended their time and place. And presumably their gender.  Nevertheless, the question had been asked and I couldn’t just pretend I’d never heard it. “What does this really have to say to women?” became one of those underlying, fundamental questions I asked—and continue to ask—of every book I read.

I’ll always be grateful to Daly for kicking me out of the garden of complacency.  (I can hear her now—“Adam gave birth to Eve? How fucked up is that?”). She made my (reading) life much more uncomfortable, and much more interesting.  So it was natural that when I decided on a whim last year, to  go through every Shakespeare play, one of the things that would echo through my mind as watched Henry VI tormented on the battlefield, Richard III railing against his enemies, Titus Andronicus mourning his dead sons, was that long ago question (or was it an accusation?) “What, really, does Shakespeare have to say to women?”

Well, not nothing.  Not for me, anyway. Mary Daly might (actually almost certainly does) disagree.  But I’ll admit that as I navigated my way through Shakespeare’s oeuvre—and to date I’m only about a third of the way through—I was starting to wonder if she had been right.  The women in Shakespeare’s plays, at least in the early plays, are not central characters to the drama. They are not motivators; they are acted upon, rather than determiners of their own fate. In keeping with the era the plays were written, women were property, first and foremost, and the pinnacle of their aspirations lay in the advancement of their husbands, and their filial duty to their “lord and master.” Even when women play a significant role in the plot—Tamora, Queen of the Goths, exacting revenge on Titus, for example, or Queen Margaret, raising the troops in defense of the reign of her husband, the bookish and effeminate King Henry VI—they are only mirrors of the ambitions of the men they belong to; Tamora, who is forever manipulated by her lover Aaron. Margaret, who’s fury is set off not by national politics, but by a slight from the other women at the court on the way she dresses. They do not meet events so much as they are caught up in them. Those that dare aspire to self determination meet with brutal punishments and violent ends.

So where are the women in Shakespeare’s plays? Are they only symbolic figures to be fought over, claimed, won and used? Are they all merely devices, rather than characters? I’m not about to launch into a feminist critique of gender roles in Shakespearean drama—I’m in no way qualified and besides, this Shakespearean journey I’ve been on is a purely personal quest. So I only need to have a personal answer. But as I have been making my way through the plays I have been asking myself what Daly once asked of me—what does he have to say to women? And the question became an unavoidable shout when I got to Taming of the Shrew.

This is the kind of play that makes a modern girl either squirm in embarrassment or want to throw things. Heavy things. At Shakespeare. It’s the story of a spirited woman who is married off against her will because of her dowry, and put through systematic physical abuse and psychological torture until she “breaks” so completely that she has no will of her own, but accepts her husband’s decree on the very nature of reality:
PETRUCHIO:     Come on, a’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!

KATHARINA:    The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.

PETRUCHIO:    I say it is the moon that shines so bright.

KATHARINA:    I know it is the sun that shines so bright.

PETRUCHIO:     Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!

HORTENSIO:    Say as he says, or we shall never go.

KATHARINA:     Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:
An if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.

PETRUCHIO:     I say it is the moon.

KATHARINA:     I know it is the moon.

PETRUCHIO:     Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.

KATHARINA:    Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katharina.


But despite the distaste that the whole misogynistic scenario evokes, Taming of the Shrew remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular and best known plays—adapted into literally hundreds of different incarnations, from operas to Broadway musicals to meta-television sitcom episodes. So it must strike a chord with us on some level. Something other, one hopes, than as an appeal to our baser instincts to laugh at the suppression and degradation of an uppity woman.

I had to watch several versions of the play before I finally decided that this particular comedy was satire. Or, as it would have been called in Shakespeare’s day, farce. It was an illustration of romance, courtship and marriage taken to its most absurd and ludicrous degree. Petruchio must be a fool or a madman for the marriage to come off.  He dresses in rags for his wedding and hits the priest. He calls good meat burnt, good bedding dusty. He calls day night, and the sun, the moon.  Even before he ever sees his potential bride, he avows that:

I will attend her here,
And woo her with some spirit when she comes.
Say that she rail; why then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale:
Say that she frown, I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly wash’d with dew:
Say she be mute and will not speak a word;
Then I’ll commend her volubility,
And say she uttereth piercing eloquence:
If she do bid me pack, I’ll give her thanks,
As though she bid me stay by her a week:
If she deny to wed, I’ll crave the day
When I shall ask the banns and when be married.

In short, it is a marriage he can only succeed at if reality is turned upside-down.  Not, one would think, a real recipe for marital bliss. The absurdity of the farce takes some of the sting out of the storyline. Not much, but some.

And oddly enough, it was here, at the first meeting of Petruchio and Katharina, that I suddenly “found” the real women in Shakespeare. The two headstrong and obstinate people meet and Petruchio immediately launches into a rather absurd greeting that begins by accusing Katharina of lying about her own name:

Good morrow, Kate; for that’s your name, I hear.

KATHARINA:     Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing:
They call me Katharina that do talk of me.

PETRUCHIO:     You lie, in faith; for you are call’d plain Kate,
And bonny Kate and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation;
Hearing thy mildness praised in every town,
Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded,
Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs,
Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife.

KATHARINA:     Moved! in good time: let him that moved you hither
Remove you hence: I knew you at the first
You were a moveable.

PETRUCHIO:     Why, what’s a moveable?

KATHARINA:     A join’d-stool.

PETRUCHIO:     Thou hast hit it: come, sit on me.

KATHARINA:     Asses are made to bear, and so are you.

PETRUCHIO:     Women are made to bear, and so are you.

Wait a second, I thought. I’ve heard this before.  This sharp back-and-forth repartee. It was there between Joan of Arc and Talbert in Henry VI Part I, (“Good-bye, my lord. We came but to tell you/
That we are here.”)

Between the Duke of Gloucester and his betraying Duchess in Henry Vi, Part II, (“I am Duke Humphrey’s wife/  And he a prince and ruler of the land:/  Yet so he ruled and such a prince he was / As he stood by whilst I, his forlorn duchess, /  Was made a wonder and a pointing-stock /To every idle rascal follower.”)

Between Richard Duke of York and Anne in Richard III, (Anne: “O wonderful, when devils tell the truth!” Richard: “More wonderful, when angels are so angry.”)

This is where the women speak in Shakespeare. Not on the grand stage of historic events that determine the fates of kings and countries, but in these private, intimate one-on-one exchanges; parrying words and wishes with the men who would be their lovers, husbands, conquerors, and companions.

And here, they spring vividly to the forefront of the stage, often eclipsing the men at their sides.  Even young Juliet (who I can never forget was only fourteen years old when she was to be married to some lecherous ancient lord) stands her ground against her father, her mother, and her paramour, the feckless, whimpering, wavering Romeo. Shakespeare may not have written “feminist” women, but not a one of them could be described as a doormat.

It’s perhaps ironic that it took Shakespeare’s most problematically misogynistic play to finally find “what Shakespeare had to say to women,” or, at least, to this woman. But once I knew what I was listening for, I started to hear the women everywhere.  They don’t duel (much), they don’t fight (much). They don’t challenge or rebel (much). But they speak—with more wisdom and passion than can usually be said for the men in their orbit.  In fact, it is only when a man can equal the lady’s wit that the match—in Shakespeare’s eyes, anyway—has any chance of success.  Admittedly, it is a little disturbing that one of the best-matched couples in all the plays are the murderous Getrude and Claudius in Hamlet.  But then again, there is also the gentler counterpoint to Kate and Petruchio in Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice and Benedict.  Beatrice is no “shrew” (a word that Mary Daly, in act of conquering fury in her book Pure Lust, reclaimed for feminism and turned into a positive term for women who would not be cowed by men. In class she would exhort us to become “Shrewd Shrews.”) She never resorts, as Katharina does, to bashing her lute over the head of an idiotic teacher—but she’s never at a loss for words. And like Kate and Petruchio, she and Benedict trade insults and barbs from the moment they set eyes on each other until the moment curtain falls.

“Thou and I,” says Benedict (I can almost hear the voice of Shakespeare himself behind the words), “are too wise to woo peaceably.”

By and large, that might be said of every woman in a Shakespearean drama who has more than two or three lines altogether. Women in the Elizabethan era were supposed to be docile and obedient. But Shakespeare, I think, more appreciated a woman with witty tongue and a steadfast heart. At least, he knew that such women made for a better story.

Books mentioned in this column:

Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan (Random House, 1970)

Henry VI, part i by William Shakespeare

Henry VI part ii by William Shakespeare

Richard III by William Shakespeare

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Pure Lust by Mary Daly (Beacon Press, 1984)