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Kathryn Schwarz, What You Will. Gender, Contract, and Shakespearean Social Space.

Kathryn Schwarz, What You Will. Gender, Contract, and Shakespearean Social Space. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Recent feminist Shakespeare criticism has been particularly interested in the relationship between history and historicism--that is, between historical materials and the contemporary politics that shape interpretations of those materials. Of course, political concerns have always been at the fore of feminist criticism. But now, as Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (the landmark text of twentieth-century feminist Shakespeare criticism) approaches its fortieth anniversary, feminist critics find themselves in a better position to apply a metacritical lens to feminist historicism. (1) According to Phyllis Rackin, one critical assumption that needs to be reexamined is Renaissance misogyny: "With the turn to history in literary studies generally, and especially in the field of the Renaissance, feminist Shakespeare criticism has been almost completely shaped by the scholarly consensus about the pervasiveness of masculine anxiety and women's disempowerment in Shakespeare's world." (2) One way to puncture this totalizing view of Renaissance women is, as Rackin demonstrates, through archival research that produces materials complicating the coherent narratives critics have retrojected into Renaissance texts.

Kathryn Schwarz's What You Will: Gender, Contract, and Shakespearean Social Space offers a different kind of corrective to a priori assumptions critics have made about misogyny and patriarchy. Whereas Rackin and others have pondered how narratives change when different female voices are allowed to speak, Schwarz asks, "[W]ith what agency, and to what effect, do feminine subjects occupy the conventions of femininity?" (9). Or to put it another way, why do women who follow social conventions pose a threat to the social order? Drawing upon an impressive array of primary materials and theoretical works, Schwarz examines the consequences of taking masculinist institutions such as heterosociality and patriarchy at their word and to their logical extremes. Focusing on problems arising from volitional acquiescence, Schwarz interrogates the central paradox of heterosociality: feminine will is simultaneously intrinsic and antithetical to the ideologies that maintain the heterosocial order. As Schwarz convincingly argues, Renaissance texts acknowledge feminine will as both participating in and recoiling from the maintenance of patriarchy and patrilineality; this acknowledgment compromises fantasies of masculine authority and autonomy, revealing them to be part of a complex contractual system negotiated by masculine and feminine subjects. This system of precarious heterosociality constitutes the "livable space" that interests Schwarz.

Schwarz divides her book into two parts--the first on discourses that deliberate heterosocial hierarchy as both a concept and a social practice, the second on Shakespeare's engagement with these discourses. In the three chapters that make up the book's first section, Schwarz delineates ways in which each discourse of heterosociality "feminizes the faculty of action, and entangles the condition of mastery in an intimate association with the object it would govern" (16). Chapter one focuses on faculty theory, which associates reason with men and will with women. Although heterosocial logic claims that reason is the superior faculty, its reliance upon will in the enactment of virtue suggests that feminine volition plays a decisive role in the maintenance of heterosociality. Chapter two looks at the gendering of language. Building on the premise that femininity and metonymy share a capacity to create and destabilize meaning, Schwarz argues that feminine will has a metonymic relationship to heterosociality: "The twofold work of that [i.e., feminine] will verifies and mystifies principles of association, cross-coupling the natural ties and synthetic attachments, organic orders and deliberate methods, that accumulate to the compromise of heterosociality" (55). Like metonymy, feminine will makes associations only to exceed them. Chapter three explores feminine subjectivity within the conceptual framework of misogyny. Emphasizing that misogyny is a response to feminine choice, Schwarz proposes that misogynist discourse is structured by conflicted, even defensive formulations of gender and desire. As she presses these formulations, Schwarz finds that misogynist prescriptions are often designed to conceal negotiations between women and men. In at least three discourses, then, feminine will is a vital, volatile force in the preservation of heterosociality.

The second part of Schwarz's book comprises close readings of Shakespearean texts that explore the force of feminine volition in heterosocial institutions. In each case, Schwarz's close attention to the paradoxical functions of volitional acquiescence yields crucial insights into Shakespeare's deployments of gender. Chapter four takes up the problem of constancy in AlEs Well That Ends Well. As Schwarz rightly notes, Helena's behaviors have elicited a range of visceral responses, even though she acts in accordance with the tenets of feminine constancy. Ironically, feminine will becomes problematic when it adheres to, and indeed restores, heterosocial hierarchy. Chapter five rereads the cluster of sonnets on will as an example of misogyny as masquerade. Though the sonnets deploy conventions of misogyny, Schwarz argues that expressions of volition cross, and therefore annul, boundaries between masculine subjectification and feminine objectification. Willful beauty, for instance, might belong to the speaker, the addressee, or the culture. "Misogyny," Schwarz explains, "is not a system but a symptom, of an eccentric--both unreasoned and decentered--surfeit of wills" (150). Chapter six returns to the problem play, as Schwarz discusses Isabella's intervention in Measure for Measure in a state fractured by the absence of effective will. Unmooring sovereignty from masculinity, Isabella repairs the damage caused by the Duke's absence and Angelo's tyranny. However, whereas Helena in dll's Well restores a heterosocial hierarchy to which she then subjects herself, Isabella remains detached from the structure she reestablishes. In this way, she shows that the will to virtue exists independent of heterosociality's hierarchical configurations. Chapter seven is concerned with the wide-ranging effects of Lear's decision to divide his realm. This decision allows feminine will to "circulate on its own terms, cut free from masculine absolutism and animated by independent intentions and desires" (182). This alienated will puts feminine subjects in conflict with patrilineal futurity, and the misogynist discourse that drives the homosocial separatism realizes its logical conclusion in the barren realm at play's end. In stark contrast to the other chapters on Shakespeare, this reading of King Lear illustrates the devastation that accompanies the evacuation of feminine will.

What You Will makes an important contribution to feminist Shakespeare criticism. In addition to calling into question sweeping generalizations critics have made about Renaissance conceptualizations of gender, Schwarz's innovative approach to discourses of heterosociality provides a useful theoretical framework for rethinking even the most perennial debates about the formation and expression of gendered subjectivities and the institutions they negotiate. Zhroughout the book, Schwarz demonstrates how drastically different such familiar concepts as misogyny and patriarchy look when we reexamine them as reactions to, rather than preemptive strikes against, feminine volition. Of course, the framework Schwarz provides has obvious applications to myriad other Renaissance discourses, making What You Will an important book not just to feminist Shakespeare critics but to any critic interested in the salient debates of Shakespeare's day.


(1.) Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975). The book is now in its third edition, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2003.

(2.) Phyllis Rackin, Shakespeare and Women (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 15.

Reviewed by David L. Orvis, Appalachian State University
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Author:Orvis, David L.
Publication:The Upstart Crow
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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