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 

3 responses to “stand up for bastards

  1. David Mazella

    Hello Laura,

    It’s not hard to find really rank misogyny in Shakespeare, but the difference is that such views are expressed by characters with extraordinary powers of expression (it is Shakespeare after all) and whose situations are therefore up for analysis, too.

    S’s Timon (usually taken as an alternate-take version of Lear), for example, is very interesting to the extent that his misogyny, like his misanthropy, is completely overdetermined, so that S makes no attempt to justify those views. They are always treated as excessive, and in some sense as defensive gestures.

    Everybody knows the most popular Shakespeare plays and adaptations in the 18c, right? I know that Othello is up there, because of Desdemona, and I’m assuming that Lear is there, too, but one of the oddities of S reception is that the adapted Timon was pretty popular, in contrast with subsequent eras’ indifference to the play. I don’t have my notes handy, but there were several adaptations, but to confirm your point, the first thing that all these did, as far as I remember, was add female characters and a love plot. That unrelieved old-style misogyny was too much for 18c audiences.



  2. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,
    I guess my point wasn’t just rank misogyny, of which there is lots in all periods, but the relationship between female sexual behavior and the state, which really seems to have changed by the eighteenth century (although one could make a case, as Laura Kipnis has done, that this fundamental relationship is still with us but in a less gendered form).

    And yes, the plays were pretty much all adapted until Garrick, who still adapted but left in more of the original Shakespeare. My favorite is the Dryden and Davenant *Tempest* and the Duffet’s hilarious *Mock-Tempest.*

    I have also noticed that one can see lots of Shakespeare in DC (even before the current city-wide Shakespeare festival going on) and usually not much in New York. Coincidence?


  3. David Mazella


    Your post put me in mind of Timon for precisely the reasons you bring up: its presentation of female sexuality is suffused with fears of its destabilizing potential.

    For example, Timon praises and denounces gold for its feminized, eminently rhetorical powers of moral and political disintegration:

    This yellow slave [gold]
    Will knit and break religions, bless th’accurs’d,
    Make the hoar leprosy ador’d, place thieves,
    And give them title, knee, and approbation
    With senators on the bench. This is it
    That makes the wappen’d widow wed again:
    She whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores
    Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
    To th’April day again. Come, damn’d earth,
    Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds
    Among the rout of nations, I will thee
    Do thy right nature (IV, iii, 28-30; 34-45).

    The interesting thing about this play is that no institution survives when the play ends. The “beasts” really do seem to have taken over at the conclusion. (Marx, for one, loved it for its anticapitalism) But this may be why it has been less discussed than other plays in the canon.


    [reedited to correct some goofy grammar and stray thoughts–DM]