The Book Princess Talks Shakespeare, Guest Post 3: Tragedy and Girl Power

Winter's Tale, Act II, scene III, (engraving a...

Winter’s Tale, Act II, scene III, (engraving after Opie for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the Book Princess talks about women’s power to avert tragedy in Shakespeare’s plays:

In most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the women are usually passive or barely present – it is the men who act, often foolishly and destructively, but acting nonetheless. Women like Desdemona and Ophelia fail to fight injustice towards themselves until it is too late, and even Juliet, who does have some agency, chooses not to fight her parents and her society by making her relationship with Romeo public until it is too late.

When women are active in the tragedies, their power is usually destructive, seducing the men away from the proper course – Lady Macbeth berates her husband for not wanting to betray and kill his king for his own ambition, telling him, “yet do I fear thy nature;/It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness”(Macbeth, 1.5.16-17), convincing him kindness and loyalty is weakness and thus unmanly; Cleopatra convinces Antony to stay with her for love, not to do his duty in Rome, and thus allows the politics of Rome to destroy both of them. Hamlet, berating himself for inaction, compares himself to “a whore [who] unpack[s] my heart with words” (Hamlet, 2.2.585), telling us that he believes that women’s power, if they have any such, only lies in their words, and that he, a man, should be an actor, a doer.

It is almost exclusively in the comedies where women have power – even the part of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is powerful follows comic patterns, until the duel that turned it into tragedy, and Lady Macbeth, after her moment of evil persuasion, goes mad and loses even the power to know her own mind. As we’ve discussed before, it is only in the comedies that women dress as men, freeing them to flout societal norms, to be themselves and shape events for good and happiness. But comic rhythms are different, so one might dismiss the relationship between powerful women and averted tragedy in most of these cases. There is one comedy, However, A Winter’s Tale, in which I think it is fair to say that a woman with power is the primary cause of averted tragedy.

A Winter’s Tale begins with a condensed and slightly modified version of Othello – Leontes becomes convinced his wife Hermione is unfaithful to him with his friend Polixenes and, burning with jealousy, Leontes decides to kill her (though he convinces himself it is just). Unlike Othello and Desdemona, however, Leontes and Hermione have a son, and Hermione is expecting a second child. Hermione, sent to prison for a crime she did not commit – though she argued her innocence eloquently – has a baby girl, and her friend Paulina brings the child to Leontes, hoping he will relent, but he rejects the baby, saying she isn’t his. Paulina does not listen quietly. Though he is the king, though he is ignoring logic, mad with jealousy, and might do anything to her, she tells him exactly what she thinks of what he is doing, saying,

It is a heretic who makes the fire,
Not she who burns in’t. I’ll not call thee tyrant;
but this cruel usage of your queen
(Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hing’d fancy) something savors
Of tyranny, and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world. (AWinter’s Tale, 2.3.115-121)

Leontes forces her out, and, despite her words, sends a man to leave the child to die – then he rejects the oracle’s announcement of Hermione’s innocence and would have sentenced her to death, but for the news that his son had died for fear of his mother’s fate, which sent Hermione into a swoon.

Thus far, tragedy – but again, Paulina steps in. She tells Leontes that Hermione is dead and that it is his fault, not allowing his attendant lords to coddle him – he accepts her rebuke and accepts her counsel. Sixteen years later, the lost child, Perdita, makes her way back to them, and when her identity is revealed, Paulina unveils the living Hermione, whom she had hidden until some forgiveness were possible – when Hermione’s child was restored. While an unusual comedy, it is without a doubt Paulina’s presence that saved this play from tragedy – it is women’s voices that redeem this play.

Sometimes circumstance creates tragedy – sometimes people do. But it is only when individuals, particularly women, stand up against the force of tragedy for what they know to be right, that tragedy has a hope of being overcome.

The Book Princess Talks Shakespeare — Guest Post 2: The freeing mask

Frederick Richard Pickersgill painting of Orsi...

In part two of the Book Princess’s series on Shakespeare, she talks about how Portia and Viola, two of Shakespeare’s women disguised as men, react to the mask of maleness:

In my last guest post, I used both Portia and Viola as examples of women who, dressed as men, are freed from convention to be themselves, more powerfully than when they are dressed in women’s garb. But the truth is a bit more complex than that – they feel differently about their disguises, and thus, are freed in different ways.

The quote that I began the last post with, “Conceal me what I am,” (Twelfth Night, 1.2.50), makes clear what Viola feels about her disguise – it hides an essential part of her. Even in disguise, Viola acts fully as herself in the play: she confesses her love for Orsino more or less openly (so that when she is revealed as a woman at the end, he has no doubt about her acceptance of his proposal), and she refuses to pretend she is unafraid of a fight, telling Olivia, in a line that echoes Iago, “I am not what I am” (Twelfth Night, 3.1.141). Still, she feels that her disguise negates her in some way. Iago is the mask – he is an anti-person, a “not what I am,” and Viola feels that her disguise makes her not herself as well, a lie personified. Even when the truth comes out and she is revealed to be a woman, she cannot see herself as such while she wears men’s clothing – and neither can the others, as is clear when Orsino says, “Cesario, come — /For so you shall be while you are a man” (5.1.385-386). Freed by her disguise to be herself, she has created another identity, as a charismatic and powerful young man whom she cannot see in herself as a woman. Societal rules and norms of passive womanhood told Viola that women cannot be powerful, so when she is powerful, she believes there is something wrong, that she is not herself.

In contrast, Portia has no problem with her own power. Living in Belmont, with no living parents and no men to tell her she is inferior – for the only men she knows are wooing her – she is only constrained by her father’s written will. Though she formally grants Bassiano rule over her when they marry, she never really is subject to it. Almost immediately, she dresses as a male lawyer to help him and his friend, Antonio, and is herself again – unfettered, brilliant and eloquent, used to command. While in her disguise, she has Bassanio return the ring with which she granted him power over herself and her house, and thus becomes her own mistress again even when she resumes her women’s clothing.

Portia (Merchant of Venice)

While both Viola and Portia are more powerful, more free, and more themselves when dressed as men, Viola, who believes in women’s frailty and her own impotence even as that belief clashes with reality, and who wants only to return to women’s garb and marry Orsino, does not threaten the social order. By contrast, Portia, who is happy and at home with her power and her public role, who feels no need to be subject to male rule, very much does.

Girl Power

Madame Yucca, The Female Hercules, The Stronge...

Madame Yucca, The Female Hercules, The Strongest Woman on Earth (Photo credit: Vintaga Posters)

Shannon Hale recently had a fascinating blog post, on the continued perception that strong female characters are some kind of aberration, or that writing them is a political statement. She points out that she tries to make her characters realistic, that is, having both strengths and weaknesses, and that strength is not the default male position. I agree with her that we left that behind several years ago. Certainly I grew up reading about strong females, and I know my kids did. But I think the question reflects not so much the doubt that women and girls can be strong as much as the suspicion that society somehow isn’t ready to acknowledge that in public. Heroines from Antigone onward have been strong and even assertive, but the reaction to that assertiveness and strength in the context of the story’s society is very different than it would be to a man’s. Antigone’s on my mind because the Castle Builder is reading it in school. And Antigone is a fascinating character because she asserts herself and dies for it. Historically, that is actually the more typical prototype of strong female characters. She’s morally right, she’s the heroine, but she dies because society can’t accommodate her assertive strength. Shakespeare’s Juliet is another one. She defies her father’s wishes and ends up dead. Now, we all know – and even Elizabethan audiences surely agreed – that her father was wrong and Juliet was right. But who’s left standing at the end of the play? The Book Princess once pointed out that Shakespeare’s females are often only able to be powerful when wearing boys’ clothing. She offered Portia in Merchant of Venice, Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night as examples. (More on that, I hope, in an upcoming guest post from my resident Shakespeare expert.)

So we’ve always had “strong female characters.” But what happens to them? Are they considered, in the context of their world, anomalies? Sinners? Martyrs? Or are they, again in the context of their own worlds, unremarkable? I think in Shannon Hale’s books, they’re unremarkable, and that is likely what prompted that question in the first place.