Daily Archives: January 13, 2007

stand up for bastards

For all you Shakespeare fans out there, I just saw a wonderful King Lear at the Folger Shakespeare Library, produced with the Classic Theater of Harlem. It was done in lavish African-style dress with a drummer in the background. Sometimes the actors spoke to the beat of the drums, which brought out the excellence of the language.  Often I see Shakespeare productions and think, “this director just doesn’t trust the play to be entertaining so has added all kinds of distractions.” But in this one, the actors all took it slowly and deliberately. The production also brought out the considerable humor in the text.

I have been thinking a lot about Shakespeare lately, as I am teaching one of those crazy, 3 week, 5 days a week for 3 hours each Winter Term courses on the bard ( didn’t think I could manage the 18th-century novel in this format).  So far we have read Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure for Measure, and Lear (I took them to the Folger production).  I am doing my best to channel Shakespeare appreciation, but at the same time–and maybe it’s just the plays I happened to choose–have been struck by the scary obsession with female sexuality in these plays.  At some level, each of those plays suggests that the project of civilization is to control female sexuality (defeat of the Amazon, marriage of the nun [well maybe], and Lear’s lustful daughters who destroy him.  Not to mention Edmund: the play of course opens with Gloucester telling Kent how much pleasure there was in his making with the boy’s whorish mother.  But even Edmund repents at the last minute, while the “pelican” daughters are relentless.

Johnson, I seem to recall, in some ways prefered Tate’s adaptation, in which Cordelia survives and marries Edgar.  I haven’t taught Shakespeare in many years, but it’s striking to me this time around how different those plays are from the ones in our period. I just so happen also to be reading Jean Marsden’s excellent Fatal Desire , in which she shows how female sexual desire is constantly being punished on the eighteenth-century stage. Nevertheless, the tragedies that do this are actually centered on complex and even somewhat sympathetic female figures (she-tragedies), whereas Shakespeare plays are often about how female sexual transgression ruins things for men.  Thus in Tate’s adaptation, things are screwed up for a while, but not actually ruined. And in Fielding, a bastard can end up all right.  Somehow in the eighteenth century, it seems that civilization can recover from transgressive females (although the women themselves do not necessarily recover).

I guess some of this ground was covered by McKeon: gender really seems to become quite a different matter in the eighteenth century.  Ruth Perry’s Novel Relations offers a wonderful description of what women lost with modernity, but it’s interesting every now and then to confront some of the strange and disconcerting elements of “pre-modernity” as well.

Laura Rosenthal