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Theater 32.2 (2002) 82-84

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Shakespeare's Genders, Then and Now

Jonathan Shandell


Shakespeare and Masculinity by Bruce R. Smith 2000: Oxford University Press
Enter the Body: Women and Representation on Shakespeare's Stage by Carol Chillington Rutter 2000: Routledge

These two new examinations of gender and Shakespeare could not be more different. Bruce R. Smith takes us back to Renaissance England: surveying Shakespeare's canon within its original context in order to outline various Elizabethan ideals of masculinity and manliness for the contemporary reader. His goal is textual illumination from a historical perspective. What did it mean to "be a man" in Shakespeare's time? What values did men share, reject, strive toward, or fear? How do these ideals and behavior patterns become visible within Shakespeare's drama?

Carol Chillington Rutter, on the other hand, begins squarely in the here and now: revisiting and deconstructing late-twentieth-century Shakespearean stage and film productions. She looks backward from the present, analyzing and questioning inherited patterns of dramatic representation for Shakespeare's female figures. How does the work of certain directors, designers, and critics overlook, marginalize, or simplify some of Shakespeare's women? In what ways do recent productions reveal modern prejudices toward certain female characters? What new readings emerge from familiar texts when we envision more enlightened stagings and filmings? In these two recent works of Shakespearean criticism, each author's strength stands as the other's weakness, and vice versa.

What a Piece of Work Is Man

Smith's Shakespeare and Masculinity travels securely and carefully across its scholarly terrain, building a complex understanding of Renaissance male identity from a variety of critical vantage points. Each chapter takes a distinct angle on early modern masculinity and its contexts. The section called "Persons" explores the dramatic significance of Elizabethan theories of human physiology and biological gender difference; "Ideals" identifies various iconic masculine social types—the Chivalrous Knight, the Herculean Hero, the Humanist Man of Moderation, the Merchant Prince, and the Saucy Jack—that "offer themselves for emulation in Shakespeare's scripts"; "Passages" takes a Joseph Campbell approach, focusing on those transitional identity-changing phases in life that mark the boundary between youth and young manhood, or between adulthood's prime and old age; "Others" looks at the various Lacanian "opposite selves" against which the Shakespearean man might form his self-image: women, foreigners, superiors, inferiors, and sodomites. In his final chapter, "Coalescences," Smith fuses his various lines of inquiry into a new understanding of how character and identity are formed, one that transcends the familiar opposition between "essentialism versus constructivism . . . as an all-or-nothing proposition." In Smith's reading, masculine identity becomes a coalescence of internal and external forces, a dynamic dialectic between individual essences and larger social or historical constructs. Though his writing is often too [End Page 82] formal, more like a scholarly catalogue than an energetic critical narrative, Smith clearly draws a number of different axes of masculinity within which he locates characters as diverse as Macbeth, Falstaff, Prospero, Prince Hal, Shylock, Brutus, and Malvolio.

If only this author had followed more resolutely some of the many avenues suggested by his own writing. Though he constantly points his reader toward fundamental problems and anxieties at the heart of male identity- formation in Shakespeare, he never actually provides a new reading of a play that might bring the dramatic impact of these paradoxes into sharper focus. For instance, while "medical" theories posited men as excessively hot-blooded and passionate, social mores demanded that he always "be reasonable" in his actions; Coriolanus is a tragedy that springs directly from this dissonance. And while "money-based capitalism (the emergent culture) was replacing land-based feudalism (the residual culture)" in English life, men consistently felt a profound tension between the new economy and entrenched socioeconomic prejudices. Viewed through this lens, The Merchant of Venice emerges as more than just anti-Semitism. The line between camaraderie and homoerotic desire was always dangerous territory for any sociable Elizabethan male to negotiate: "What a Renaissance man most desires to be is another man's friend; what...


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pp. 82-84
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