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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.2 (2001) 357-379

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Rape and the Romanticization of Shakespeare's Miranda

Jessica Slights

In 1981, Jean Elshtain issued a plea that political philosophy recognize female agency as a valid focus of study: "The feminist political thinker aims to transform her discipline as well as her social world in important ways. This necessitates locating the woman as subject of political and social inquiry, moving away from the abstracted, disembodied 'product' of social forces featured in much contemporary social science. This female subject, as the object of inquiry, must be approached as an active agent of a life-world of intense personalization and immediacy." 1 Twenty years later, I am taking up Elshtain's call in a literary context in order to suggest that the history of Tempest criticism stands as powerful proof that political criticism of Shakespearean drama has yet to devise a solid theoretical basis from which to approach female characters as dynamic participants in the fictional worlds of which they are constitutive members. Specifically, this paper seeks to account for, and to challenge, Miranda's exclusion from critical discourse. By exploring what happens when Miranda is treated merely as an emblem of a colonialist ruling class rather than understood as an active agent in the life-world of the play, my paper participates in a recent dialogue concerned with evaluating the role a rehabilitated notion of character might play in the development of an ethical--and also historically aware--criticism of Shakespearean drama.

These days, "character criticism," an approach initiated in the eighteenth century and popularized in the early twentieth century by A. C. Bradley, is most often considered synonymous [End Page 357] with the twin sins of essentialism and ahistoricity. I want to join here with a growing number of challenges to this dismissive account and to argue instead that this now-unfashionable approach has much to offer contemporary readers of Shakespeare. Christy Desmet has argued persuasively that it is time for Shakespeareans to stop emphasizing the distinctions between their own interest in the playwright's language and the "naive explorations" of his characters by earlier critics. 2 Rather than insisting on difference, Desmet's work proposes a critical model that depends on layering--in her words "heaping up"--poststructuralist accounts of the relationship between the self and the literary text with early character criticism's interest in exploring the mechanics of a reader's imaginative engagement with fictional characters in an explicitly ethical context. 3 Michael D. Bristol is also concerned with resemblances, and he offers the work of Harry Berger Jr. as an antidote to a postmodern tendency to differentiate too emphatically between an "aggressively historicist" materialism and an older tradition of ethically based criticism. 4 Berger, in turn, challenges materialist criticism's tendency to efface individual human agency by reading dramatis personae as figures for the depersonalized movements of ideological forces, and he proposes a return to a "modified character-and-action approach" as a means of reviving a notion of individual agency. 5 Even the influential cultural materialist Alan Sinfield has been preoccupied, of late, with the issue of character. Identifying character as "one of the major discursive formations" at work in Shakespeare's plays, Sinfield argues in Faultlines that character "needs to be addressed if we are to explore how subjectivities are constituted." 6 Although wary of returning to a character criticism originally based in essentialist humanist values, Sinfield is also unwilling to dismiss character as an "altogether inappropriate" category of analysis. 7 Instead, like Desmet, Bristol, and Berger, Sinfield wants to mediate between "subjectivity and character, between traditional and poststructuralist criticism." 8

That such a diverse group of critics should be returning to character as an analytical category suggests that a new synthesis between "traditional" and poststructuralist modes of criticism is emerging in Shakespeare studies. None of these critics proposes a wholesale return to the essentialism of Bradley; rather, each insists in a different way on the importance of developing an approach to reading Shakespeare that acknowledges that fictional characters...


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