Printer Friendly

Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women.

Coppelia Kahn. (Feminist Readings of Shakespeare.) London and New York: Routledge, 1997. xviii + 190 pp. $65(cl), $17.99(pbk). ISBN: 0-415-05450-8(cl), 0-415-05451-6(pbk).

The first full-dress feminist account of Shakespeare's Roman histories, Coppelia Kahn's excellent Roman Shakespeare, notes that these works have for centuries been read from a Roman's-eye view, and that for the Renaissance "Romanness is virtually identical with an ideology of masculinity" (2); "virtus - Roman virtue - isn't a moral abstraction but rather a marker of sexual difference crucial to construction of the male subject - the Roman hero" (15). Roman "heroes molded through competitive emulation of other heroes" mapped easily onto Shakespeare's time: "the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts functioned through emulous faction and rivalry" (16). Such rivalry animates Tarquin in Lucrece, who "reverences the sacredness of the Roman community" but is "driven to desecrate it in obedience to a principle equally strong . . . virtus, which depends on rivalry, agon, and conquest" (33). Emulation drives the relationships of Brutus and Cassius, Antony and Octavius, Coriolanus and Aufidius; it informs Cassius's swimming match with Caesar, and explains much about politics in Rome.

Does Kahn fulfill her "central claim" that "Shakespeare's Roman works articulate a critique of the ideology of gender on which the Renaissance understanding of Rome was based" (1)? As so often in Shakespeare, we remain uncertain whether the Roman plays demystify ideological moves or help mystify them. Kahn convincingly attributes tragic events in Titus Andronicus to Titus's overly-rigid adherence to masculine Roman ideologies; but elsewhere her claim that Shakespeare critiqued such ideology is not always persuasive. Also, I regret her downplaying Cleopatra's importance and agency because, while I agree that the Romans exaggerate her power in order to justify attacking Antony, this critical move may foreclose the possibility of our celebrating one of Shakespeare's best female figures. There is that in Cleopatra which exceeds what the Romans have made of her; can't we applaud her at all without falling into the Roman ideological trap? Most of Kahn's readings are wonderful. In Julius Caesar, she explores fruit fully the "association of the public realm with Roman 'firmness' and the private realm with 'the melting spirits of women'" (79) and her reading of Brutus's "it must be by his death" soliloquy and his scene with Portia will transform my teaching of those scenes. Kahn raises many issues certain to provoke fine classroom debates, such as her claim that Antony's "fascination with Cleopatra notwithstanding, she also serves as an alibi for gaining the distance from Caesar that he seeks in order to excel him" (114). If one book on the Roman plays of the last several decades can be called indispensable, this is it.

The aims of the five projected generically-based studies in Routledge's Feminist Readings of Shakespeare series, "to outline the current positions and debates within the field and . . . advance original feminist readings" (xv), while successfully melded by Kahn, appear imperfectly compatible in the second book, Howard and Rackin's Engendering a Nation. The book recycles essays in print in six other venues and specialists seeking original readings may be put off by the "outlining" of already-familiar positions. Also, though efforts to make "current positions" accessible to undergraduates are laudable, it is a little distracting, amidst a sophisticated argument in Engendering a Nation, to be informed what "the first tetralogy" means (15), what guild plays were (31), or who Castiglione was (68-9).

Engendering a Nation attributes to a changing conception of nation and kingship the fact that women are more threatening in the first tetralogy than in the second: the overpowering menace of Joan la Pucelle and Margaret yields to the powerless docility of Hotspur's Kate, Mortimer's wife, and Princess Katherine in Henry V - and already in Richard III, Margaret's power disappears. In the first tetralogy, the authors argue, kingly power is dynastic (on the medieval model), and hence disruptable by cuckolding females: "because the transmission of patrilineal authority could take place only through the bodies of women, it was vulnerable . . . to subversion by female sexual transgression" (26). In Richard III and the second tetralogy, power (in early modern fashion) depends on achievement, rendering women harmless: "because patrilineal inheritance is no longer sufficient to guarantee patriarchal authority, female sexual transgression no longer threatens to subvert it" (138). In the first scenario, cuckoldry's threat to a royal line is all-important; in the second, dynastic marriage is eclipsed.

This argument is problematic. First, the first tetralogy offers no comments on the danger of cuckoldry to a royal line; even with Queen Margaret's adultery, nobody worries about Suffolk's genes polluting the dynasty. (Who would want Henry VI's genes, anyway?) Joan and Margaret are threatening less sexually than militarily. Second, if "kingship is secured less by genealogy than performance" (30) in the second tetralogy, this is also true in the first, where the strongest contender gets the throne. Third, dynastic marriage is not eclipsed in later plays - Richmond in Richard III and Henry in Henry V, "achieving" kings, make crucial dynastic marriages. On pages 115-16, the authors recognize this, and re-instate family ties as central to political power in the second tetralogy, seemingly a contradiction of their earlier argument that if family is central to kingship, women's cuckolding power should still be threatening. And is it true that the first tetralogy represents the medieval state whose "boundaries were fluid, readily changed when dynastic marriage united them or when conquest led to the absorption of one state by another," since "medieval subjects owed allegiance to a feudal overlord" but not to a nation (11-12)? The Henry VI plays routinely essentialize Frenchness as opposed to Englishness. One can't easily reconcile the authors' claim about dynastic borderlessness with their point that "female characters are often inhabitants of foreign worlds, and foreign worlds are typically characterized as feminine" (51). And does the second tetralogy replace borderlessness with firm national separateness and integrity? Tell this to Henry V as he lays claim to France by hereditary right.

Howard and Rackin's argument that "these plays incited patriotic interest in England's past and participated in the process by which the English forged a sense of themselves as a nation" (18) seems subject to the same objection as the venerable theory that history plays reflected a burst of patriotism after the Armada was defeated. Why, if these plays belong to the emerging project of nationhood, do they dramatize troubled reigns and periods of civil war?

Though I have reservations about the book's central theses, individual chapters (one on each play except - an odd omission - Henry VIII) have extremely good things to say. The book is excellent on female characters' defective English, on the truncation of Margaret's part in productions of Richard III, on England and France representating "masculine and feminine force" (54), on the criminalizing of Mistress Quickly (178-80), on Hal/Henry's appropriation of Hotspur's role. The King John chapter is especially good. The notion of dynasty yielding to individual merit modulates gradually during the book: earlier, it refers to kingship, later to "two models of masculine identity" (187). But the concept seems to work better on masculine identity than on kingship.

In Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture, Denise Albanese theorizes humanism, colonialism, and the gendered body, using visual materials from illustrations of Harriot's account of Virginia to Cindy Sherman's "historical" photographs. Laudably, the book is lavishly illustrated throughout, espcially Valerie Traub's substantial essay on early modern anatomical drawings. Traub applies Bakhtin's notions of classical and grotesque bodies to the grotesquely dissected male bodies tastefully displayed in Greek poses among classical ruins; she shows how female anatomical drawings were sometimes modelled on erotic engravings. Also on the opened body, Cynthia Marshall's essay on Coriolanus entertains the idea that wounds are tokens of a "mysterious inner self," but concludes that Coriolanus's wounds, in their sliding signification, provide but illusory entry into a character with no real interiority (100, 110). Rosemary Kegl writes of women's educability, female desire, and racial difference in Margaret Cavendish's Blazing-World. Examining literacy's role in criminal cases involving women, Frances Dolan challenges "narrow, exclusive definitions of literacy" (158), reminding us that many could read who couldn't write, some could read print but not handwriting, etc.

Kim Hall explores the gendering of sugar - the association of sweetness with women, sugar production by female slaves and its consumption by white housewives, and the paradox that cookbooks ideologically committed to home-keeping linked English housewives with a world-wide economy. Hall describes violent (potlatch-like?) destruction of elaborate dessert courses, and shows authors of travel books "master[ing] the landscape of Barbados by drawing on the familiarizing powers of the cookbook" (182). Jyotsna Singh argues that post-colonial re-writes of The Tempest such as Lamming's, Retamar's, or Cesaire's fail to address the play's sexual politics. Singh doesn't persuade me on a couple of points; for example that Prospero is in complete control of Miranda's desire (197), or that Miranda doesn't "love to look on" Caliban because of his "different appearance" (198); doesn't his attempt at raping her contribute to her reluctance to "look upon" him?

Asking, of the opening lines of A Midsummer Night's Dream, "why should Theseus conceive of theater as a means of transforming sexual violence?" (210), Laura Levine concludes that the play shows the theater doing no such thing. (Levine's definition of "sexual violence" at times seems a little loose.) Lindsay Kaplan attributes important Protestant changes in the ideology of marriage to "an engagement with Jewish attitudes on marriage and divorce" (229). Theodora Jankowski writes of non-marrying virgins and female-female desire, especially in Lyly's Gallathea. One unconvincing moment: Jankowski shows men in The Roaring Girl branding Moll sexually loose because she opts for virginity, without acknowledging that the play demolishes them and upholds Moll's choice. Dympna Callaghan contrasts Marlowe's with Cary's Edward II: though "the female-authored Isabel is the plucky victor whereas Marlowe's Isabella functions as the rather stereotypically forlorn queen," her role is still "to consolidate the powers she ostensibly challenges" (293-95).

Except for the irritating lack of an index, this is a useful collection with no weak essays.

LINDA WOODBRIDGE Pennsylvania State University
COPYRIGHT 1999 Renaissance Society of America
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Author:Woodbridge, Linda
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
Words:1671
Previous Article:Poetry and the Realm of Politics: Shakespeare to Dryden.
Next Article:Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories.
Topics:


Related Articles
Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State.
The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594.
Shakespeare's Garter Plays: Edward III to Merry Wives of Windsor.
Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories.
Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects.
Women's Matters: Politics, Gender and Nation in Shakespeare's Early History Plays.
King Henry VI, Part 2.
Shakespeare and Race & "The Tempest" and Its Travels and Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice....
Oxford Shakespeare topics. (Review Essay).

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters