Category Archives: gender studies

Cressida as an Empty Space

I read some reposts on the Shakespeare Standard—a website that I ordinarily enjoy—that I have to admit I found a bit disappointing. In “Misogyny, the case of Cressida (part the last–putting her to bed)“, the author takes the perspective that Troilus and Cressida is a misogynistic play. I’m fine with that, on one level: everyone is allowed their opinion.

What I’m not fine with is the dismissive tone taken by author, as if all he has to do is drop the word “misogyny” and quote some bawdy lines from the play, and we can just all “put this one to bed”: no one needs to bother to read this play again. It’s this kind of dismissive, reductionist approach that gives some feminist criticism a bad reputation. There is and will continue to be brilliant critical responses to literature produced by feminist critics; this is not one of those.

Although the author does a fairly decent job applying recent critical approaches to the body and its representation, his primary mistake is assuming that the words voiced by the characters are Shakespeare’s voice or the purpose of the play. To quote the lines of Diogenes and then argue that the play is misogynistic because the character of Diogenes is misogynistic is the sort of basic, entry-level kind of character criticism that went out with Freud trying to psychoanalyze Hamlet, as if he were a real person. Diogenes is a character; criticism of that character is not a criticism of the play. For example, if Othello is a bad play because Iago is a racist, then we can throw out Othello also, and we would never have any meaningful plays about racism, because a play would never be able to include racist characters. Just characters sitting around a table talking about how bad racism is. That would certainly make for good, engaging drama.

What I would recommend is that the author read Bridget Escolme’s Talking with the Audience, which has a chapter specifically about how Cressida’s character functions in the structure of the play, something which the author never discusses. Rather than attacking characters’ lines and assuming they express the viewpoint of the author or of play, the structure of the play is such that Cressida functions as a mirror into which you as the audience can discover for yourself what it’s like to be a woman traded by men as a prize.

Hmm, wouldn’t that be a more thought-provoking response to the play? She invites your response; she never offers her own (why she betrays Troilus). The choice is yours; you can take a reductionist approach to the play, focusing on the lowest common denominator among the characters as proof that misogyny exists (there’s shocking news!), or you can use the play as an experience of how woman are mistreated and determine your own response. The choice is yours; either option is there. I would suggest however, that the writer of Hamlet—or even more to the point, the creator of the characters of Viola,  Rosalind, Beatrice, and Cleopatra—presents the voiceless character of Cressida with the hope that you will fill in a better response than the one she was historically forced to receive.

Ps: for more complex reactions, including feminist interpretations, a simple Google search reveals: Feminist Approaches When Viewing Cressida’s Character

Dangerous Shakespeare

I just finished watching Antony Sher’s Primo; it’s a one-man performance Sher adapted from Primo Levi‘s description of his experience surviving Auschwitz (If This Is A Man).

sher primo

I found it after reading Sher’s biography Beside Myself about his life growing up gay in South Africa and moving to London to become an actor. I had to read it for one of my classes at the Shakespeare Institute, because he’s famous amongst bardolaters for playing Richard III, Macbeth, and Leontes (as well as recently playing Falstaff in last year’s RSC 1 and 2 Henry IV).

What has any of this got to do with Shakespeare? Well, I’m really interested in exploring the idea of “dangerous Shakespeare”; that is, how and in what ways is performing Shakespeare dangerous?

For example, Nazi Germany’s favorite Shakespeare play was Merchant of Venice. Is Merchant an anti-Semitic play? Can we still perform it today? Should we?

Most bardolaters go round and round about Shakespeare being the “universal humanist.” He was 400 years ahead of his time with his characters and his sympathy for them. He wrote great parts for women, sympathized with black and Jewish characters, and wrote about the horrors of colonialism before anyone even knew there were any.

Or did he? What if Shakespeare thought Petruchio should tame his shrew, Othello deserved to die, and/or it was right to force a speechless Shylock to become a Christian? How would our view of Shakespeare, and particularly Shakespeare in performance on the modern stage, have to change?

I wonder if someone would let Sher perform Primo in rep with Merchant. It might make for some interesting conversations.

What do you think?