- Shakespeare’s ‘Whores’: Erotics, Politics, and Poetics by Kay Stanton
Shakespeare’s ‘Whores’ opens with remarks on how the titular term has endured from the age of Shakespeare through to the twenty-first century as a slur targeted at denying women the free expression of their sexuality, a move that emphatically declares the book’s allegiance to the critical movement of presentism in Shakespeare studies. Kay Stanton’s avowed goal is not so much to reconstruct the sexual politics of early modern culture, an objective undertaken by feminist historicist studies over the past several decades, but rather to intervene in the gender struggles of the present and future by demonstrating how the “[s]tudy of Shakespeare’s works . . . can assist us both in personal self-actualization in our present and in working toward more productive and just social and political structures for humanity’s future” (9). In marked contrast to the mainstream of feminist literary criticism, which has tended to highlight the circumscribed nature of early modern drama’s challenges to patriarchal social structures, Stanton celebrates Shakespeare as a champion of female sexual empowerment who sought “to overthrow phallocentric misogynistic hegemony, to counsel women to recognize the goddess within and assert our rights aggressively both in autonomy and desire” (148).
Stanton argues that, like the author herself, the Shakespearean dramatic and poetic canon promotes the ancient goddess of love Aphrodite/Venus as an [End Page 696] icon of female erotic empowerment, a reservoir of cultural memory that may be enlisted as a counterweight to the misogynistic suppression and denigration of feminine sexuality within Judeo-Christian traditions. In her insistence on the relevance of a goddess cult, not only to Shakespeare but to modern women, Stanton unabashedly invites being labeled an unreconstituted second-wave feminist essentialist. She acknowledges this risk, remarking that in academic circles, to be labeled an “essentialist” is considered worse than the label of “whore.” To support her claims that Shakespeare endorsed the goddess cult, Stanton marshals a wealth of specific allusions to Aphrodite/Venus in the Shakespearean canon. However, she most blatantly ventures into essentialist territory in her identification of a variety of Venus figures in the plays, such as Rosalind in As You Like It, who qualifies as an incarnation of the love goddess on the grounds that she evokes a polymorphous array of human sexual couplings, both in the plot and in her epilogue.
Before turning to Rosalind, Portia, and Cleopatra, the “goddesses” or role models that embody feminine sexual empowerment, Stanton first devotes several chapters to the significance of the word whore as a key tactic in the misogynistic suppression of women’s autonomy. She rationalizes her focus on the word, as opposed to other sexual slurs in Shakespearean drama like strumpet and harlot, on the grounds that whore is the word that has survived over the centuries, remaining very much alive in our own culture. One chapter is devoted to listing and briefly examining almost every usage of the word and its variants in Shakespeare’s plays, with the second tetralogy, Troilus and Cressida, and Othello featuring prominently. As a singular noun, whore appears forty-five times in the Shakespearean canon, voiced by twenty-one male characters and five female characters. Scattered among the array of data in this chapter are a number of intriguing observations. For instance, we learn that the only instance of a male character being called a whore occurs in Troilus, where Thersites identifies Patroculus as a “masculine whore” to Achilles. Othello, the play that contains the most instances of the use of the word, receives about six pages of sustained attention. Stanton’s discussion of Bianca as a “scapegoat” figure for the whore, not only within the world of the play but also in scholarly commentary, represents one of the highlights of this monograph. One wishes that Stanton had devoted an entire chapter to Othello.
Hostess Quickly and Doll Tearsheet—the latter the only Shakespearean character to self-identify as a whore—figure alongside Mistress Overdone and the unseen Kate Keepdown from...