Sunday, November 30, 2008

Shakespeare a feminist?

It seemed like the professor was saying that William Shakespeare didn't like women. He supported that idea with things like, Shakespeare left to his wife only one thing--the second best bed. Everything else he left to one of their daughters and her husband. And he wasn't kind to the women in his plays. But perhaps that's not exactly so. Look at the times in which he lived, the ways that women were treated: They could be educated at home but they couldn't go to school or university. They could work as domestics, but they couldn't be in the professions. They could be artists or writers as long as their work was within women-appropriate subjects like religion. (I guess artists and writers were not considered honorable professions. That's not really a new concept to me.) Perhaps he was protecting his wife from the "Man the Hunters" who would be looking at the wealth rather than the woman and gain control of the Shakespeare fortune. And if he really didn't like women when he was young in his career, his perspectives must have changed as he aged because eventually he "infused women with life," another English professor told me. (I wish I could claim ownership of that because I like it very much..."infused women with life.") He wrote them strong, wise.

When our class viewed the movie Hamlet with Kiera Knightly (sorry, the spelling looks wrong) playing the role of Ophelia, I felt so sorry for the pitiful young woman. But by the time I finished my 10-page essay yesterday I came to write, "Hamlet's Ophelia is the dutiful daughter. There is no mention of her mother. She was raised by her father and brother who told her when to do what. She obeyed, as she was supposed to do in proper society. But both parent and sibling undermined any of her attempts at decision-making, self-determination...Ophelia manages to defy them, for in death she has gained her autonomy, her agency to speak, 'No, I am not a piece of property. I am a human being, an individual in my own right'...There's nothing anyone can do about the choices she finally makes. Ophelia appears weak, but..." it appears she was strong enough to break the bonds of patriarchy, bringing me to remember what so many African-American slaves said, "Better dead than in bondage."

I should explain "Man the Hunter." There is an essay at which discusses "Meat's Patriarchy." Essentially, "meat" is a metaphor. "Meat" is social currency. "Meat" is used to represent anything of value that someone wants to control for their own benefits, that which gives them power, Read it. It is interesting reading. Then read some of Shakespeare's work. I recommend King Lear, Hamlet and The Winter's Tale. Pay particular attention to the "daughter" and "niece" archetypes. Ah, the daughter archetype appears to be Ophelia, the Mouse Trap, who is dutiful and does what she is told because her brother and father know what is better for her than she does. Given opportunity, she will attract the attention of a wealthy man which will provide political advantage for the males in her family. The niece archetype decides for herself what she will do and be. That would be, in my opinion, Perdita in The Winter's Tale. She is a princess, unbeknownst to her. She believes she is the daughter of a poor shepherd. With no wealth to attract a man she is not a Mouse Trap. She can make her own decisions because there is little impact on anyone else. The prince who has fallen in love with her knows he cannot tell his father of her because he will find her unacceptable because she is daughter of a poor shepherd.

OK. As you are reading the plays, take some notes. Jot down concepts that you want to learn more about...patriarchy, empowerment, archetypes, mythology, classical Greco-Roman writers like Aristotle and Sophocles, Machiavellianism. Don't look "just" at Machiavelli. Look for his binary opposite. (Come on, I can't give you ALL of the answers, now can I? Hehehe.) Look at the Elizabethan and Jacobean reigns. Then think about your stories, your current work in progress.

Studying Shakespeare has been one of the biggest challenges of my return to college. I've worked hard to understand and give some semblance of having some intelligence throughout the study, and I've learned how to read Shakespeare. I'm not so afraid of him now. :)

(c) 2008 Cathy L.T. Brownfield

Whew! That's some kind of way to start a Sunday!

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Yes, it's freezing here in NE Ohio today, but the sun is shining. And there isn't a lot of snow on the ground. Other places aren't so fortunate, and I'm glad we live just a tad below the snowbelt. :)

There's a different kind of freezing I want to talk about for a few minutes. What do you do when you freeze up and aren't sure where to go with your novel? I signed on for the NaNoWriMo, but I'm way behind. However, I learned a couple of nights ago that I can write 2,000 words in 42 minutes. And I still think I can reach 50K by Nov. 30 if I write something every day. I'm writing, but not every day...or maybe I am because I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go, even if I have to find a smaller one to tuck into my handbag. (I tend to carry larger handbags.) What else have I been doing?

I once took a large piece of posterboard and outlined a novel on it. I showed it to my writing buddy, Maureen, who looked it over politely then said, "Very nice. Now. Put it away and just write a good story." Um...I had spent a lot of time on that posterboard. Shouldn't she have been impressed? So, OK. I brought it home, lost it, and began to write. And I felt like I needed to go back to school to learn about novel writing because I felt SO lost! And I went back to school.

Why is it that, in some classes, I don't get the drift until we're half way through a semester? And now I'm wishing that I could do the Shakespeare class over again? For me, at the beginning, I was so overwhelmed by Shakespeare. It seemed like there was so much in his plays that I had to absorb. What was I supposed to be looking for? Absorbing? Ignoring? How could I work this study into do-able parts? (Something I learned a few years ago was when I break down a massive project into do-able parts I am more likely to complete things because I'm NOT overwhelmed.)

Ask and you shall receive.

First, there are terms we need to understand. These are some of the things we need to look for when we read a play by William Shakespeare:

* Peripetia--change of fortune, reversal of circumstances.
* Anagnorisis--critical moment of discovery.
* Hamartia--tragic flaw.
* Hubris--pride/arrogance that brings downfall.
* Deus ex machina--a contrived device to stall action; the gods intercede in human conditions.

I was so stressed out trying to figure out this class that I couldn't remember those definitions to save my soul! That's how I knew I was so stressed out. I began a mantra: Calm. I will be calm. I will do what I can do and not stress over it. I will be calm. I can do this. I needed more tools for my Shakespeare toolbox. I went to the Internet. I thought I had written down the URL, but I can't find it, unfortunately, because I'd really like to give credit to the educational resource. It's out there somewhere.

Draw a diagram, a triangle without the line from point A to point E. Label A Act I and E, Act V. Half way up the left side of the pyramid label a dot Act II and on the opposite side of the pyramid label a dot Act IV. At the pinnacle labe a dot Act III. To take the labeling a little bit further, Act I is the introduction of characters and initial conflice, Act II is rising action, Act III is climax, Act IV is falling action and Act 5 is resolution, or denouement.

Voila. You've just had your introduction to the five-act play.

Now, when I pick up any book to read, whether for my studies or for leisure reading, I begin to look for the same qualities I find in Shakespeare's works. What is the tragic flaw of the characters, particularly the villain? How do the philosophies of Niccolo Machiavelli and Sir Thomas More come through the piece? What is it that makes a literary work long-lived? Are the characters "larger than life" or are they "full of life"?

Here I will mention Gloria Naylor's novels, Linden Hills and Mama Day. What is it about her characters that cuase us to fall in love with the characters and their stories? What is it about her work that makes us forget about issues of "color"? Because Naylor is a woman of color, but her stories talk to me, remind me of my ancestors, as Toni Morrison urges us to understand in her essay "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation." We are rooted in our ancestors and we should remember that to give meaning to our writing.

I must also mention the stories of Denise Giardina who writes of families in Appalachia who have been coalmining families for generations, as much enslaved by company stores and housing as slaves on the plantations and farther back in history the serfs of medieval feudalism who were owned by the land and never allowed to leave the land, with no conception of "Who am I?" ever entering their minds until the Industrial Revolution that brought along with it capitalism and the Renaissance thinking that gave them the courage to finally question and rebel against the aristocracy. In effect, good fiction is about the human condition and how we relate/can relate to the words that speak of what we all have in common: human condition.

Now, how does a writer know what to leave in, what to take out, and how to embellish a story to make it publishable? In other words, how do you "just write a good story?"