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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare and the Performance of Girlhood by Deanne Williams
  • Catherine Belsey
Deanne Williams. Shakespeare and the Performance of Girlhood. Palgrave Macmillan 2014. xii, 280. $79.99

Most studies of Shakespeare and childhood centre on boys: little boys feature prominently in the plays; we know something about boy actors; we know a good deal about boys' schooling. Girls are a neglected topic, not least because we have so little to go on. In the plays they are infants or virtually speechless; in life, our knowledge of their education is mainly confined to the elite.

Deanne Williams fills the gap by focusing on a selection of young women whose ages, when we know them, range from nearly fourteen to sixteen: Shakespeare's Joan of Arc, Julia, Silvia, Katherine, Bianca, Juliet, Ophelia (or, rather, Ofelia in the First Quarto), and the heroines of the late romances. They all turn out to be less docile than Victorian stereotypes might lead us to expect. Instead, these so-called girls are variously independent, self-possessed, wayward, willful, or downright aggressive. Unusually, Williams reads Richard II in line with history and treats his queen as the ten-year-old child she historically was. Outside fiction, she has interesting things to say about the young Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth Stuart, and others.

Despite recent assertions of girl-power, most feminists would probably not think of young women preparing for marriage as girls. But Williams justifies her classification on the basis of the texts. Juliet is a girl to her exasperated father and her infantilizing Nurse; Miranda is a girl to the proprietary Prospero; women servants are girls to their mistresses. Shakespeare's girls, Williams maintains, are trouble; they reject the hierarchies implied by the term; they disobey their fathers, challenge authority, and grow up to be strong and forceful. [End Page 255]

This argument both expands and narrows the meaning of the word. Although girl can evidently identify a young woman who defies the norms (The Roaring Girl), in Shakespeare it also differentiates the period of innocence before love intervened to complicate the picture. Idealizing his boyhood, Polixenes records that temptations came later: at that time, his wife was a girl, he says. Williams does not discuss Hermia and Helena, best friends in their childhood but termagants when they quarrel over men. Once courtship is the issue, I am not sure girl is always the word we need.

In the plays, girl can be an endearment, claiming intimacy, as well as irritation: Pandarus refers to his niece Cressida as a girl; Celia addresses her cousin as "sweet girl"; Antony improbably calls Cleopatra a girl. But it is also patronizing: people do not call themselves girls. The only instance I can think of in Shakespeare is self-deprecating, ironic: "We are wise girls to mock our lovers so," the Princess jokes with her ladies in Love's Labour's Lost. Williams herself quotes the young Elizabeth in 1563 explicitly distancing herself as a princess from "some wretched girl."

The effort to reclaim such a nuanced word as an affirmative way of isolating obstreperous young women does not in the end work for me. And neither, I am afraid, does the proposition that girlhood on the stage is no more than performative. If Judith Butler's case for gender as the effect of reiterated speech acts is too simple to register the range of possible matches and mismatches between anatomy, hormones, chromosomes, and culture, it proves reductive when brought to bear on plays, where everything is performative. In one instance, Julia, played by a boy, adopts the dress of a boy to follow the lover who has abandoned her but, eager to thank her rival for rejecting his advances on her behalf, admits to a resemblance between herself and the lad she impersonates: he (she) once wore Julia's gown in a play to impersonate the betrayed Ariadne. The claim that this exemplifies the easy slippage between boys and girls erases the layers of dramatic irony and pathos in Julia's grateful fiction designed to protect her disguise.

I have learned a lot from this book which includes some very astute readings and a wide range of reference. Williams...


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pp. 255-256
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