- Shakespeare And Gender: A History, and: Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender
The recent publication of two anthologies focusing on constructions and performances of gender in Shakespeare’s works attests to both the centrality of Shakespeare in modern literary criticism, and how that centrality is itself questioned by recent gender studies. The essays in Shakespeare and Gender: A History have been selected “to make available for classroom use a single volume charting the recent history of feminist critical practice since the late 1970s” (3). The “history” here, then, is not so [End Page 386] much the history of constructions of gender in Shakespeare but rather a selection of feminist interpretations of Shakespeare over the last twenty years. Because the development of feminist critical thought is not the main focus of the essays themselves, the introduction by editors Deborah Barker and Ivo Kamps provides a historical overview of feminist criticism and how these essays—previously published but for the most part not anthologized—characterize changes in theoretical, critical, and methodological approaches as feminist criticism has developed into gender studies.
While the selection of essays is intended to invite comparisons between critical approaches to Shakespeare, it is the insight of the individual essays, rather than an overarching historical survey of feminist approaches to Shakespeare, that would make this anthology useful in a graduate seminar. The editors’ presentation of these essays in roughly chronological order exemplifies the early interest in how the representation of women in Shakespeare can be read “in a psychosexual context which takes account of sex roles and cultural attitudes towards sexuality” (22), as in Coppélia Kahn’s article “The Rape in Shakespeare’s Lucrece.” Lucrece’s shame despite her lack of agency in the rape committed against her is the result of patriarchal social codes that demand chastity and subservience, even when these traits are at odds with one another.
Exemplifying the critical move to consider historical study in analyzing literary texts, Marianne Novy’s essay “Shakespeare and Emotional Distance in the Elizabethan Family” contextualizes the volatile familial and romantic relationships in Shakespeare’s work in contrast to the cool and distant ones identified by historian Lawrence Stone as characteristic of this period. Later essays in this volume continue to question what theoretical and historical issues should be brought to bear on questions of gender in Shakespeare. The use of language as not merely descriptive but definitive of gender is explored by Carol Cook, who asserts that “Much Ado sets up a complex chain of association among the word, the sword and the phallus, marking off language as the domain of masculine privilege and masculine aggression” (76). Valerie Traub attempts to historicize Cook’s psychoanalytical approaches, agreeing that “while dramatically exploring masculine anxieties, and even presenting the tragedy of masculinist values, Shakespeare none the less perpetuates defensive structures of dominance instituted by men” (137).
Joseph Pequigney, in his examination of the two Antonios in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, marks the expansion of gender studies to consider heterosexuality, homosexuality, and homoerotic friendship, as does William Van Watson. Watson reconsiders Laura Mulvey’s heterocentric theory of the gaze, observing that Franco Zeffirelli’s Shakespeare films employ a homoerotic gaze that moves the “axis of power . . . from the male-female polarity to the more Oedipal older male-younger male” (243).
Of special interest in this anthology is Leah Marcus’s analysis of how editorial decisions dividing The Taming of the Shrew from The Taming of A Shrew serve not only to illuminate Renaissance ideas of gender but modern ones as well; the incorporation of A Shrew in modern performances of The Shrew carries Shakespearean textual studies “out of the search for a single ‘authentic’ point of origin and into the purview of post-structuralist criticism, where the authority of the author loses its élan and the text becomes a multiple, shifting process rather than an artifact set permanently in print...