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 press.princeton.edu/books/stanford/chapter_7.pdf 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, authority...agency. 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!