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Volume 1, May 1996

Shakespeare and Gender (1995) and The Weyward Sisters (1994)

Deborah E. Barker and Ivo Kamps (eds), Shakespeare and Gender: A History (London and New York: Verso, 1995)

Dympna Callaghan, Lorraine Helms and Jyotsna Singh, The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics (Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1994)

Feminism, arguably, has generated the most radical re-readings of Shakespeare in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Read these two books in sequence, and you will understand why. At the very least, the diverse and conflicting theoretical positions adopted by those who accept the blazon of feminism open up a refreshingly broad range of applications, each of which is capable of illuminating plays which, at one stage in the early 1980s in the hands of cultural studies' practitioners, had seemed to risk the contempt bred of familiarity, and an imminent obsolescence. It is ironic that the writer who was most firmly entrenched within canonical circles, and who was then the target for ridicule, has now come full circle, epitomising the central debates of iconoclasts and anticanonists. Shakespeare's texts have once again provided the site of struggle between those wishing to appropriate his plays for both conservative and progressive causes, and has been firmly reestablished in a new canon of canon-busters.

The substantial volume edited by Barker and Kamps is not a discursive 'history' of Shakespeare and Gender as its subtitle proclaims, but rather a casebook of essays already published, often on particular plays, which have contributed to such a history. The introduction, while placing Shakespearian studies in the 1980s within a perspective based on the notion that gender is a social construction rather than a universal given, could have usefully acknowledged the non-literary, social debate, out of which this axiom emerged. It is a little bookish in its orientation, locating the debate as one between professional literary scholars, rather than demonstrating the living, political struggles by suffragettes and gay activists, out of which gender criticism emerged. If the "history" of Shakespeare and gender is to be written, it must address this more social context.

However, as a guide to the issues raised in the essays included in the book, the introduction is functional and professional. It is especially useful to be reminded that there are, within the spectrum of those professing gender studies, at least two quite discrete and even opposed groups, one linking gender and eroticism or desire, the other strategically eliminating these volatile and emotionally messy dimensions, choosing instead to be cool and indifferent on subjects like sexual difference and preference, and instead focus on language. The divide lies between those who see gender studies as a way of understanding and explaining the dynamics of sexual chemistry, and those who explode such a notion altogether and argue that it is merely the product of social conditioning and entrenched rhetoric. The collection itself is eclectic and interesting, and most of the essays deserve republication in this new context. For students (and critics) wanting a reliable and quick sense of the field, the book is very valuable.

The Weyward Sisters is a more challenging and original book. Its intention is "to uncover areas of both continuity and change between 'the Shakespearian moment' and our own Postmodern condition" [2]. and it relies on materialist readings of history and literature. There are three long essays, each of which represents and illuminates a different feminist emphasis.

Jyotsna Singh's "The Interventions of History: Narratives of Sexuality" incorporates feminist historiography into the study of Shakespeare. After analysing the difficulties and contradictions that feminists face when they seek to challenge patriarchal history as implicitly elitist with what amounts to a new elitism, Singh places in an historical context Shakespeare's presumed prostitutes. She concludes that the real problem in interpreting these fictional figures, like their "real-life" sisters, lies not primarily in the sphere of redefining moral assumptions, but in disrupting categories of representation. Why, Singh pertinently asks, is Bianca still represented by critics and editors as a courtesan while Desdemona is seen as a loyal wife, when Bianca is clearly not a woman available to all men as a commodity, and is devoted exclusively and passionately to Cassio?

Dympna Callaghan takes "The Case of Romeo and Juliet" as an exemplary one in critiquing "The Ideology of Romantic Love". Shakespeare's play has become iconic of a version of transgressive love which normalises or naturalises a particular myth of desire. This myth particularly suited the purposes of an emergent Protestant, capitalist conception of marriage as an institution which gave priority to privacy and individual passion. Callaghan acknowledges the power of Shakespeare's myth and its cultural consequences, while pointing out that this construction of love is neither inevitable nor transhistorical.

Lorraine Helms's attempt to lay the groundwork for feminist praxis of theatre, a space for resistance where the weyward sisters, the re-imagined mischievously subversive witches of Macbeth, can become jugglers, clowns and dancers, is allusive and playful, but somewhat slighter than the others.

As three distinct essays, these contributions point towards new, feminist directions in which criticism and theatre might follow. The fact that the directions - historical, Marxist and theatrical - energetically pursue different and somewhat conflicting lines, is entirely in the spirit of this rather anarchic and invigorating enterprise. The lists of "Works Cited" at the end of each are comprehensive, and taken together they provide a rough and ready guide to a burgeoning and enriching area of Shakespearian studies.

 

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