- Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy
In Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy, Cristina León Alfar challenges both traditional and feminist views of the "evil" woman characters in Shakespeare. Her central thesis is that Shakespeare exposes rather than reinforces "masculinist fantasies of female evil" (29). This claim is particularly persuasive for Macbeth, although not for King Lear. In all cases, the book offers an interpretation of the socioeconomic basis for these fantasies that is far more nuanced than any proposed to date. Alfar argues that Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth should be analyzed alongside Juliet, Cleopatra, and Hermione, and that Shakespeare uses these characters to make visible the violence of "patrilineal structures of power" (29).
The project is especially valuable in its determined effort to consider gender in the light of early modern social and political formations. For example, Alfar demonstrates [End Page 110] that conduct books of the period portray the loss of female chastity as treason. The power of the husband and father reproduces the power of the monarch because all three have the ability to use or destroy the bodies of their subjects. Therefore, when women begin to exercise political power in the plays, their cruelty is another manifestation of the political system that usually victimizes them.
According to Alfar, critics who have labeled characters like Lady Macbeth as evil have ignored the complexity of their motivation. In fact they are tragic heroines whose corruption displays the ruthlessness of state power. The interpretation of Lady Macbeth is a compelling new view, and the analysis of Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter's Tale quite convincing. But Alfar gives too much credit to Shakespeare, in my opinion, in her estimates of both his knowledge of the structures of power she describes and his sympathy for the women caught within them. Nevertheless her readings of how these systems operate in the plays are always fruitful.
Alfar uses theorists such as Jean-Joseph Goux, Elizabeth Grosz, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Derrida to consider women as commodities transformed into specters, created by fantasy and "haunting" the patrilineal order (32). The "evil" woman is conjured up by the economic need to control women's bodies. Although Shakespeare escapes blame for this conjuration, Alfar finds many other authors contributing to it, including Juan Luis Vives in his conduct books and Joseph Swetnam in the pamphlet wars of 1615–20. Contemporary feminist critics are seen as complicit in a modern version of this conjuring process, reproducing gendered binaries of good and evil through their horror at Lady Macbeth, Goneril and Regan, Cleopatra, and others like them. This horror not only obscures the tragic dimension of these characters; it also reinforces the beliefs that a "natural" woman is domestic and passive, and that political self-interest, violence, and greed are masculine traits. However, I don't think it is accurate to say that feminist critics of Shakespeare have reproduced gender binaries. Their goal is not to denounce Lady Macbeth as monstrous but to explore why Shakespeare creates her as such. They can finally be criticized only for misinterpreting Shakespeare's purposes, if in fact they have done so.
Alfar makes the best case for Shakespeare's violent women as tragic heroines rather than evil monsters in her chapter on Macbeth. This chapter develops a critical perspective that could significantly revise traditional views. According to Alfar, Lady Macbeth's ruthlessness stems not from her unnatural desire but from her decision to adopt a masculinist culture of violence already revealed as bloodthirsty on Duncan's field of battle. Alfar argues convincingly that it is problematic to blame Lady Macbeth for a murder that her husband proposes before he sees her, a murder that is not inherently different from the brutal acts of revenge ordered by Duncan against Macdonald and the thane of Cawdor. Lady Macbeth's invocation to the spirits to...