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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare's Women: Performance and Conception
  • Sharon A. Beehler
David Mann . Shakespeare's Women: Performance and Conception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. x + 294 pp. index. append. illus. tbls. bibl. $95. ISBN: 978-0-521-88213-2.

Despite the richness of the theatrical context and the range of critical views provided in this book, David Mann's argument about female characters and their enactment on the early modern stage seems oddly constructed. He begins by stating his intent for the book: it is "about the original performers of Shakespeare's female roles and how they, and the possibilities and limitations of the representational tradition in which they worked, may have influenced conception" (1). Then having critiqued modern feminist approaches, he maintains, "it becomes very questionable whether an all-male company would favor a sympathetic feminist heroine" (11). The implication from the start is that Shakespeare had "scant concern" (22) for the feelings of female characters and that Mann will present evidence to this effect.

Consistent with this expectation, then, chapters 1 through 6 offer a detailed and well-supported survey of the condition of male performance of female roles, covering categories of age, social status, homoeroticism, costuming, performer ethos, stereotyping, didacticism, dramatic empathy, moral ambiguity, and staged sexual violence with an emphasis upon the masculine bias of all-male performance towards these subjects. In each chapter Mann disputes current thinking about these categories, arguing, for example, that female characters were performed by adolescents, not boys under the age of fourteen as has regularly been assumed, and that the prevailing view of the theater as a hothouse of homosexual activity greatly overstates the case. [End Page 1420]

Mann concludes each of these chapters by indicating both Shakespeare's indebtedness to older and contemporary traditions (such as inconsistent and stereotyped female characters) and the playwright's move away from them. He acknowledges "the restrictive polarization of women to which even Shakespeare largely subscribes" (italics mine, 185); yet while attributing this conventional attitude to Shakespeare, he likewise sees Shakespeare as the greatest innovator of his day, citing his shift from depiction of physical violence against women to a metaphorical depiction evident in "verbal analogues and symbolic action" (198). Challenging the view of critics who argue that female victims are largely the focus of audience attention in Shakespeare's plays, Mann describes the "formal techniques" the playwright uses to "distance and contain female suffering" (e.g., madness, sleepwalking, singing), causing the spectator to sympathize instead with the male figures of father, husband, lover. Yet, Shakespeare's treatment of female suffering, Mann contends, differs from that of his contemporaries because "it is almost always visited upon the young, beautiful, well-born—and virtuous" (204); this would seem to suggest that viewer attention has shifted back to the victim. At this point, one might be inclined to believe Mann's view is contrary to those modern views that find Shakespeare either sympathetic to women or strikingly aligned with a dominant misogyny.

The final chapter of Mann's book, however, examines what he calls "positive representations of young women" and here he reveals what he perceives as Shakespeare's most significant break with convention. After again calling attention to Shakespeare's formal techniques, this time by pointing out the energy and excitement of sexual encounter evident in "witty, combative dialogue between his lovers" (222), Mann claims Shakespeare thus "exploited his medium" of "male performers —talking, and interacting with properties, in various physical configurations —on a platform" (222). This leads to his most important point so far —that by utilizing this technique of stressing the build-up of sexual tension, Shakespeare "was moving towards something approaching an acknowledgement of the female point of view" (223).

In the concluding pages, Mann explains how the breeches tradition, instead of calling attention to stereotyped masculine behavior, emphasizes feminine qualities attributed to women by showing cross-dressed female characters inadequately performing expected male behaviors (e.g., swordfighting or bravery). That these roles were played by youths —neither boys nor men —made the portrayals, according to Mann, all the more believable and compelling. Here at the end of his book, Mann also clarifies his contention that companionate marriage and the belief...


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