- What You Will: Gender, Contract, and Shakespearean Social Space by Kathryn Schwarz
Kathryn Schwarz constructs an intricate, tightly woven argument from a variety of threads—early modern rhetoric, social discourse, cognitive philosophy, genealogies of criticism, feminist and psychoanalytic theory, and finally the plays and poems of Shakespeare—to make the case that early modern women could resist and upset the patriarchy simply by doing exactly what the patriarchy expected of them. This is both a beautiful and brilliant argument, especially given that for the past two decades, as Schwarz carefully notes in her introduction, feminist scholarship on early modern women has continually uncovered examples of women working, performing, and writing as active agents. This scholarship has revealed women who resist patriarchal misogyny outright by refusing to conform to its ideals or by finding alternatives to that conformity. Indeed, Schwarz’s previous book, Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance (2000), contributes to that conversation. It is perhaps no accident, then, that Schwarz now turns to women who acquiesce. But what is particularly striking about Schwarz’s argument is not only that she finds countless examples of empowered women who willfully participate in and reshape the early modern patriarchal system (she calls this “volitional acquiescence” ), but also that these examples reveal how dependent the system is upon women’s elective participation. Without this “volitional acquiescence” or without the acknowledgment of the crucial role of women’s wills in accepting, continuing, and [End Page 221] advancing the social contract (as is the case in Schwarz’s remarkable reading of King Lear), the system dislocates and collapses in on itself. By directing our attention to those women who appear to play along, Schwarz challenges an assumption that even feminist scholars may have simply accepted without question: the notion that women and female characters who behave properly and respectably within the early modern patriarchal system—or, to borrow Cordelia’s phrasing, act according to their bond—are products of misogyny. Schwarz scrutinizes these women and the early modern patriarchy from the multiple early modern discourses cited above to show how these women’s active participation reveals early modern English society’s dependence upon the fiction of women’s volitional consent. She thus reorients the approach to three of Shakespeare’s plays (All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, King Lear) and his Sonnets.
Schwarz’s book has two sections: the first on early modern discourse and culture, the second on Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. The first section spans the first three chapters, each of which examines early modern women’s wills from three early modern perspectives: theories of cognition and action (chapter 1), rhetoric (chapter 2), and misogynist discourse (chapter 3). The first chapter demonstrates how the language of faculty theory genders human will as feminine and extends the gendering of human desire and action to a discourse on social contract that depends upon the fantasy of a balance exercised between will (feminine) and intention (masculine), neither of which can ultimately hold. The second chapter finds a similarly gendered discourse in rhetorical treatises. Schwarz locates in metonymy a figure for the complex role of women who are “at once metonyms and metonymic, signs of an order their significance exeeds” (61). Ultimately, the connection between part and whole made by metonymy is as disruptive and threatening as it is descriptive. For Schwarz, metonymy represents the power of women’s volition and its ability to unmake meaning. But rather than unmake meaning from early modern texts, as metonymy purports to do, Schwarz’s own critical metonymies teach us how to read early modern literary culture and discourse, and even our own criticism, in new ways.
Although Schwarz’s chapter on Shakespeare’s final twenty-eight sonnets appears later in the book, my mind places it at the end of this first section because it articulates a perverse poetics of contractual desire between intersecting wills (masculine desire and feminine intention) that “blurs the lines of identity and agency” (135). Schwarz...