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Shakespeare's female icons: doing and embodying.

When Francesca Royster asked me to write the afterword for this special edition of The Upstart Crow, I jumped at the chance, but not because I had something canned to say. Rather, I was stymied by what the phrase "Shakespeare's Female Icons" actually signified and excited by the challenge of unpacking it fully. I had a sense that an icon is a "person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, especially of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect," and that iconic designates "a person or thing regarded as representative of a culture or movement; important or influential in a particular (cultural) context." But I did not fully appreciate that these are relatively recent uses for the words (e.g., from the late twentieth century); nor did I realize that these definitions are only twenty-first-century "draft additions" to the Oxford English Dictionary. (1) To address the iconic, then, one must recognize the relational (i.e., icons only signify in specific and particular cultural contexts), and one must consider these relations in particularly twentieth- and twenty-first-century contexts: scholarly positions that I welcome and value.

Nonetheless, it was the combination of Shakespeare + Female + Icon that gave me pause. Like many, I have been to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon and walked through the "Shakespeare Hall of Fame," which is lined with thirteen images of Shakespeare's "icons." The images in the bannered hall seem to impart the message that it is easier to become a Shakespearean icon if one is male, as only two women have been inducted into this hall of fame: Ellen Terry and Judi Dench. (2) While their eleven male counterparts are poets (Ben Jonson), playwrights (David Garrick), novelists (Charles Dickens), filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Sam Wanamaker), and actors (Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Stewart, Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul Robeson, and David Tennant), the two female icons in the Birthplace Trust are both actresses, leading one to speculate as to whether female iconicity comes from being gazed upon like the now iconic John Singer Sargent painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. (see figure 1).

Sargent's 1889 oil painting captures the power of Lady Macbeth as she usurps the crown for herself, "a bit," Stephen Orgel reminds us, "that Terry and Sargent had added to the play: it appeared in neither the text nor the production." (3) Terry's Lady Macbeth in Sargent's painting is powerfully tall, elongated by the vertical flow of her "costume covered with beetles' wings" (4) and the two parallel "magenta hair" plates that descend below Terry's knees. (5) Yet her power is rendered as self-delusional through Terry's deranged askance gaze. With lips in the now-iconic pornographic position of openness, Terry's light blue eyes search forever into some unreachable and distant horizon. While the crown hovers above her head, her gaze demonstrates that she will never possess the power to place it securely there; her usurpation will be fleeting at best. Lady Macbeth may be an icon of power and action, but Sargent's portrait of Ellen Terry captures a Lady Macbeth over whom the audience, the gazer, has all of the power. The viewer's power comes precisely from that fact that we know something this Lady Macbeth does not: she desires power but cannot own it. The tension between defining icons as ones who do, who are agents and active participants in their worlds and cultures, and ones who embody their worlds and cultures, is perfectly emblematized in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Hall of Fame: the male icons do--they write, discover, and create--while the female icons perform and embody.


The tension between doing and embodying lies at the heart of this special edition in which women are positioned squarely in the center of the flame of analysis and their iconicity is fully interrogated in the light of "new discourses on the interlocking identities of sexuality, race, class, and nation," as Royster puts it in her introduction. Enabling us to think about the ways identities are constructed in multiple and sometimes incongruent terms, Royster invites an intense dialogue about what it means to be and to do as a female icon. The two essays that address Julia Stiles, for instance, reach radically different conclusions about Stiles's iconicity because they read the power of embodiment differently. For Natalie Jones Loper, Julia Stiles becomes iconic of a quiet girl's intellectual power because she reads the polysemy of Stiles's performances as accruing meaning not only through each new performance, but also through each new interview and public declaration (whether creative or journalistic). For Dee Anna Phares, on the other hand, the desirability of Julia Stiles's iconicity as Shakespeare's teen queen is debatable because her Desi in 0 becomes one of the many silenced "zeros" in the film. While Phares does not engage with polysemy in the explicit way that Loper does, Phares does imply that the polysemy of Stiles's intelligent vocality gets invoked in the negative; Stiles could speak because she repeatedly performs her ability to do it effectively, but she chooses to embody a character that does not speak, thereby tacitly accepting Desi's zero-sum position. Despite the fact that both Loper and Phares contextualize the common perception of Stiles's intelligence in terms of the implicit hierarchies of interlocking identities (Stiles is white, middle-class, Ivy League-educated, and frequently outspoken), they read the meaning and significance of her iconicity in radically different ways.

Yet, I wonder if Julia Stiles's actual vocal quality, with its deep and velvety timbre and crisp enunciation, which is quite exacting, is a type of aural embodiment that literally speaks volumes about her identity and helps to give voice to her iconicity. Do we hear her voice even when she is silent? If so, does her voice register as a type of agency? If so, for whom and at what moments does it do this? Of course, icon comes from the Greek EIKWV, which was an image or a portrait, a likeness or a semblance, (6) but I think it is important to add vocal quality and vocal memory to our list of elements that make up the modern sense of iconicity. Yes, Stiles looks the part of an empowered teen icon (a wealthy, white athletic blond), but she also sounds the part (authoritative in pitch, tone, and accent). Her iconicity would be completely different, for example, if she sounded like Beyoncd Knowles, Jennifer Lopez, or Paris Hilton. While these three women are considered by many to be twenty-first-century icons in their own rights, I do not believe Stiles would be a Shakespearean icon with any of their voices. (7) In other words, we must consider the complete (moving and sounding) image of Shakespearean iconicity.

The strength of this special collection, then, is that it demonstrates just how many layers and facets there are to cultural icons. While the original sense of the Greek EIKWV was one defined solely by visual rhetoric, this collection forces the reader to consider the icon as something that lives, breathes, talks, remembers, and forgets on its own. As W. J. T. Mitchell suggests, certain images have "lives" of their own. (8) These icons have lives that accrue meaning through repetition, revision, and restaging: the polysemy discussed by Loper; the intertextuality discussed by Thomas; and sounds discussed by Leonard. The focused consideration of the embodied aspects of performance move this collection beyond the typical focus on the playwright's, director's, or even actor's intentionality. Instead, these essays force us to consider what Mitchell calls "the relationality of image and beholder." (9)

It is with this in mind that I would like to circle back to the dilemma performed by the "Shakespeare Hall of Fame" in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: male Shakespearean icons act while female Shakespearean icons embody. Niamh O'Leary's and Francesca Royster's essays touch on the issues of action and embodiment in rich and thought-provoking ways. O'Leary's reading of Feng Xiaogang's 2006 film The Banquet poses fascinating questions about how to read gendered actions in foreign adaptations of Shakespeare. O'Leary does an excellent job not to naturalize the Chinese film even though it is an adaptation of Hamlet, and she does an equally excellent job not to de-naturalize (or Other) the film too much. The film's rewriting of Gertrude as an explicitly independent and self-governed character is neither read as a rejection of Western values nor as being predetermined by its Chinese Otherness. Instead, O'Leary reads Feng's Gertrude as an icon for female agency ("She pushes the limits of power and ambition, but in the end is cut off in her prime"), and asks us to consider if such a revision is based on modern sensibilities (are they universal?), the desire to destabilize the Hamlet myth (has this become universal in the twenty-first century?), or a critique of individual ambition in general (is this culturally specific? to China?). Whatever the answers to these troubling questions, O'Leary claims that Feng creates a new icon for female ambition, one that is located equally in action and embodiment (doing and being).

And Francesca Royster's essay beautifully problematizes what it means to want to be like Cleopatra. Although one might assume that being like Cleopatra means being powerful and in control, Royster demonstrates how Condoleezza Rice's appropriation of this subject position serves to erase, deny, and evade responsibility: it serves to deny agency even as one wields it destructively. Royster's questions about the roles that race and gender play in iconicity and the methodological tools we can use to unpack them remain. We need new theories, methodologies, and terminologies to discuss Shakespeare's female icons in all of their relational variability.

To conclude, I want to analyze a photo from a 2009 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production; a photo that was used on their official promotional poster for the year (see figure 2). The photo shows a powerful black man (played by Peter Macon) crouching over a white woman (played by Robin Goodrin Nordli) who is lying on a bank of steep and winding stairs. In the photo the black man's right hand is fore grounded holding the woman down. The woman, however, has her neck arched, pointing her chin toward the man, and she is smiling. There is violence in the image, but it is mutual and participatory. On the poster, the image has no title; it simply advertises the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.


I have had this poster hanging outside of my office for two years, and students and colleagues frequently remark that the image must be from a production of Othello. And, in fact, the black actor in the image starred in Othello at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival the previous year, 2008. This image stems from OSF's nontraditionally cast production of Macbeth. While OSF was clearly attempting to challenge traditional narratives about race, sex, and power in this production of Macbeth (which was incredibly successful), I could not tell what work the poster was attempting to accomplish. And I think the trouble I have reading this image stems from the iconicity of doing and embodying in Shakespeare. While I want to read both our black Macbeth and our white Lady Macbeth as enjoying a moment of shared agency and power (he holds her down, but she holds the letter and him), the traditional ways of reading the icons for black masculinity and white femininity clash with this interpretation. In the performance, this clash was productive and the audience was invited to move beyond those assumptions. The poster, however, is completely decontextualized from the performance, especially for my students and colleagues at Arizona State University, who naturally did not see the production in Oregon. While I argued above that in Julia Stiles's silences one could hear her voice, this is only accomplished because she is a film star, whose talents are shared by the many (and in repeatable fashion). The stars at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, however, do not usually have recognition outside of the festival. I do not think that the casual viewer of this image will have a voice memory for either this performance or these particular performers.

So I end back at the critical role relationality plays in defining Shakespeare's female icons. If I see an image of the Gertrude figure from Feng Xiaogang's film The Banquet, I may not read the image as being iconic of action; just as the people outside my door may not read Robin Goodrin Nordli's image in the OSF poster as being iconic of action. Absent the context, these women remain bodies that may not do anything. As Francesca Royster so aptly warns, even postcolonial frameworks, which seem to be more attentive to issues of race and gender, can fail to acknowledge the complexity of the power networks that construct agency. Our critical task is to find ways to let these icons literally move and speak beyond embodiment.


(1.) Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "icon," 2nd ed., 1989; online version September 2011, accessed December 1, 2011,

(2.) For more details see

(3.) Stephen Orgel, Irnauning Shakespeare." A History of Texts and Visions (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 63.

(4.) Ibid., 62.

(5.) Sargent to Isabella Stewart Gardner, January 1, 1889, in the John Singer Sargent Letters Online in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, http:/

(6.) "Icon" etymology, Oxford English Dictionary.

(7.) For more on aural quality, race, casting, and theater reviews see a discussion of Peter Sellars's 2009 stage production of Othello in Ayanna Thompson, Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 168-77.

(8.) When I refer to images as having "lives," I am, of course, borrowing this phrase and notion from W. J. T. Mitchell's What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

(9.) Ibid., 49.

Ayanna Thompson, Arizona State University
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Author:Thompson, Ayanna
Publication:The Upstart Crow
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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