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To what extent may any two of Shakespeare's political plays be described as 'representations of patriarchal misogyny' (Kathleen McLuskie)?

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Introduction

To what extent may any two of Shakespeare's political plays be described as 'representations of patriarchal misogyny' (Kathleen McLuskie)? Elizabethan and Jacobean society was resolutely hierarchical and patriarchal. Its structure was divinely ordained through the Great Chain of Being, with power emanating from God through to the monarch and the aristocracy, down to the ordinary man, who enjoyed private sovereignty over woman and the home. The dominant ideology was recapitulated in all spheres, the domestic microcosm aligning with the structure of the macrocosm. Although female inferiority was established upon a want of their biological and intellectual capacities, perhaps the most convincing justification for female subjugation was the seminal misogynistic account offered in Genesis. Not only does Genesis identify female moral fallibility with the fall of humanity, but offers the source of unstable and ambiguous interpretations of the woman as 'other'. Eve, created from the rib of Adam, constructs a dual reading of woman as both derivative creation (therefore less than man), and 'yet at once more than man since she is an overspill of Adam, created from a bone which was in excess of his needs'1. A misogynistic hatred of women normatively constitutes itself as a form of naming or categorisation which stresses and maintains gender differentiation by denigrating the female through a range of foul terms. In Renaissance drama, misogyny is manifested as inherent within the malcontent pathology, and often gains a privileged voice within the play because of the particularly intimate and confidential position the malcontent holds with the audience. In Othello2, Iago's frequent asides and divulging soliloquies give his misogynistic slurs a dramatic precedence, whilst his seemingly pragmatic knowledge of shared experience (i.e. with the audience) works to sanction them with some social credibility3. However, the use of the joke is the malcontent's most insidious weapon, as any potential audience censure is dissipated through laughter. During Desdemona and Iago's verbal sparring and witty innuendo in II.i, the atmosphere of humour enables Iago to build a searing misogynistic assault, acceptable only because his sharp words are rounded by a light hearted tone. ...read more.

Middle

Indeed, in Samuel Rowland's succinct reprimand of 'Salomons Harlot', he neatly summarises the marks of the whore as a clamorous tongue, and the liability to frequent public places. She, Is noted to be full of words, And doth the streets frequent, Not qualified as Sara was, To keepe within the tent.18 Rowland's objections appear to mirror precisely what Cassio discerns as distasteful in Bianca. The impropriety of a woman roving the streets is evident in Cassio's reproachful greeting, 'What make you from home?' (III.iv.171). The stigma of the unconfined woman can be seen in Cassio's nervousness about being found 'woman'd' (III.iv.196) in the streets. However, Cassio is compelled to follow the scurrilous Bianca as 'she'll rail i'the street else' (IV.i.159) in an embarrassing public spectacle. At the close of the play Iago attempts to assert the prerogatives of patriarchal marriage to silence and dismiss his increasingly recalcitrant wife, as she attempts to assert his villainy. Iago's complacency in patriarchal imperatives has seemingly unforeseen any conceivable possibility of his wife's insurrection. Emillia's defiance is measured by her escalating articulation, as Iago's effort to quash her speech ('charm your tongue' V.ii.186) is overlaid by a more determined vocal assertion, 'I will not charm my tongue; I am bound to speak' (V.ii.187). Emillia will not be banished to her home but respectfully requests that her voice be heard, ...let me have leave to speak. 'Tis proper I obey him, but not know. Perchance, Iago, I will ne'er go home. (V.ii.198-200)19 However, such undutiful behaviour cannot go so undisguised without a cost. Emillia is eventually silenced, terminally, as Iago 'sends her to her home in the play's second uroxide'.20 In Lear, female silence is rendered increasingly problematic. When required to articulate the degree of devotion they hold for their father, Lear reads only a surging profession of love in Goneril and Regan's speeches as they cover their hypocrisy in florid words. ...read more.

Conclusion

In death, Desdemona's gaze finally bespeaks her purity as Othello reads his wife's judgement, Now - how dost thou look now? ...When we shall meet at the compt, That look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven. (V.ii.272-4) Typically the object of male penetrating and voyeuristic inspection, it is now through Desdemona's dead gape that Othello is compelled to examine himself and conclude that he is damned. Cordelia's death by an off-stage strangulation locates her as the definitive passive female victim, her last breaths taken considerately silently, and tidily removed from the central action. Cordelia's death can be read as somehow redemptive for womankind, however, any final truths are somewhat empty as the three female characters lie dead before us. Cordelia's death is almost figured as an example of patriarchy restored, the final pacification of male outrage at her unorthodox refusal to comply with her father's desires. 1 Dympna Callaghan, Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), p.102. Callaghan goes on to delineate woman as both constituting both an excess category (produced from man's unnecessary appendage) and a category of excess (a superfluity). 2 The Tudor Edition of William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (1951; London: Collins, 1964). All references are from this edition and cited within the text. 3 See Iago's aside about Othello and Desdemona's new-found love, O, but you are well tun'd now! But I'll set the pegs that make this music (II.i.198-9) Although Iago's tone is bitterly cynical, the 'now' suggests Iago has witnessed many blooms and autumns in the cycle of love, and can thus afford to speak with some sceptical authority on their love of 'now' and their love of the future. 4 Callaghan notes this process whereby the audience has the tendency to smile and think ' "Ha, ha. There's some truth in that" ' (p.125). 5 Callaghan, p.125. 6 The Tudor Edition of William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (1951; London: Collins, 1964). ...read more.

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