Shakespeare Quarterly 54.3 (2003) 336-338
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A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare. Edited by Dympna Callaghan. Oxford and Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Pp. xxiv + 384. $27.95 paper.
A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare aims less at comprehensiveness than at producing a snapshot of the state-of-the-field. Each of the nineteen essays brought together by Dympna Callaghan powerfully measures what other scholars have done with a particular topic (Molly Smith's essay on Richard II is excellent in this way), moving skillfully between more traditional feminist readings and the integration of theoretical or editorial models whose relation to feminism hitherto has not been imagined. A mark of the volume's collective usefulness is the extent to which all the authors offer convincing solutions to problems whose mere acknowledgment, ten or fifteen years ago, had counted as an advancement. What the collection lacks in cohesion it gains through the exemplarity of its parts: the range of critical interests engaged within the essays themselves, their intimate knowledge of past scholarship and Shakespeare's texts, and their suggestions for the direction of future studies.
Callaghan's introduction sets the tone for the entire volume in its candid and jargon-free approach to the issue of how important it is to reassert the presence of a feminist approach to Shakespeare. Although it may seem to diminish the value of attending to the writings and activities of early modern women, the project of reexamining the canonical writer, Callaghan explains, is as crucial to the field today as it ever was. Unlike psychoanalytic critics or new historicists, feminists seem to be under threat of disappearing from view. The only essay that matches Callaghan's in its ambitiousness in critiquing feminist aims and methods is Phyllis Rackin's "Misogyny is Everywhere" in Part I, "The History of Feminist Shakespeare Criticism." In calling for "a revitalized feminist criticism" (53) at the end of her essay, Rackin reminds readers to be careful about what versions of history they rely on. By repeating the old saw that women were meant to be chaste, silent, and obedient, for example, feminist scholars not only focus on prescriptive as opposed to descriptive writings about women but also distract us from compelling evidence that women's activities in public and political arenas, including playgoing, were more widespread than we would otherwise believe. But Rackin exposes this evidence to further scrutiny by admitting that she "found it because I was looking for it. Historical evidence . . . is subject to selective citation and motivated interpretation" (51). The other essays in Part I—Juliet Fleming's "The Ladies' Shakespeare" and Katherine M. Romack's "Margaret Cavendish, Shakespeare Critic"—emphasize the conservative effects of conflating women, Shakespeare, and poetry itself in early Shakespeare criticism. Fleming notices the striking similarities between the editorial theory of critics such as Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass, who acknowledge the competing authorities of multiple texts, and the nineteenth-century female Shakespeareans who also recognized that editions are adaptations. Romack's essay, a detailed analysis of Cavendish's views on women, warns of the dangers of trying to mold an early female Shakespearean into a feminist. [End Page 336]
There are three essays in Part II, "Text and Language." Laurie E. Maguire observes how editorial glosses, dramatis personae, and other features of recently edited texts can sometimes reinforce gender biases within the text and the early modern period, and usefully shows how to make these issues matter for undergraduates. Kay Stanton examines the recurrence of the word whore in the Shakespeare canon, noting its extensive use in the tragedies (Othello has the most instances) and asserting that it displays Shakespeare's exposure of male anxieties about female sexual desire. In her essay "'A word, sweet Lucrece': Confession, Feminism, and The Rape of Lucrece," Margo Hendricks argues that the poem charts Lucrece's transformation of racial meaning through rape, confession, and suicide, and encourages work on the poem's reception by women affected by English colonialism. The versions of female agency here are especially sensitive to the rhetoric of contemporary scholarship as well as to that of...