Dissertation >

Shakespeare: A Proto-Feminist or a Misogynist

Author WangYuJie
Tutor ShiZhiKang
School Shanghai International Studies University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords Shakespeare Proto-feminist Carnival Patriarchy Misogynist
Type PhD thesis
Year 2011
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This doctoral dissertation aims to make a feminist study of Shakespeare’s eight plays—four romantic comedies and four tragedies. In so doing, it does not want to explore just the role of the females in his plays, but through a detailed analysis of his eight‘paradigmatic’works from the perspective of a female, tries to shape a profound understanding of Shakespeare’s representation of women in a historical context.The last forty years have witnessed a very impressive and influential change in Shakespeare criticism, influential not only because various modernist and post-modernist theories are applied to Shakespeare studies, but that feminist studies of Shakespeare have been assimilated into the main stream. However, though they highlight the role of women in Shakespeare’s plays, they often contradict each other in their conclusions: some of them highly appreciate Shakespeare’s forwardness in depicting a number of distinguished females in his plays and are moved by his‘implicit’sympathies toward females for the persecutions they are subjected to in a patriarchal society. For example, Carolyn Heilbrun suggested that Shakespeare“is the greatest of artist, the most androgynous of men”(Rackin, 2005:72); Still there are some others who go to another extreme that they think Shakespeare’s plays are written solely for men and male performers and the prevailing heterosexual attitude in them have hurt the feelings of women readers and gay readers, not to mention the misogynist ideas suffused in the tragedies. Such a situation, though reflecting the pluralism and diversity of Shakespeare criticism in the modern age, confused readers to a large extent.The title of this dissertation,“Shakespeare: A proto-feminist or a misogynist?—a feminist study of Shakespeare’s female characters”—conveys to us the message that a conclusion will be made on Shakespeare’s attitude on females. To fulfill the heavy task more satisfactorily, the first part of the dissertation introduces to us the basis of the study, that is, why it chooses the eight plays as the object of the study and to what extent it is justifiable that a conclusion may be drawn based on the analysis of the eight plays. The‘Literature Review’in this part briefly combs the history of Shakespeare criticism and puts emphasis on the situation of the feminist studies at home and abroad.The body of the dissertation contains two parts. The first part focuses on the study of the four romantic comedies: The Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, As you Like it, and Twelfth Night. The four plays share a common characteristic that they all depict two completely different worlds. In The Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is the depiction of a realistic world, the patriarchal one under the leadership of the Duke of Athens, and a fantastic one—the green wood, in which many incredible things happen in this visionary world. In The Merchant of Venice, an opposition of two worlds is evidently presented before the readers: Venice the world of males and Belmont the world of females and in the two completely different world people hold different concepts of values. As you Like it resembles The Midsummer Night’s Dream in that they both present to us the realistic world ruled by a Duke (though in As You Like it the Duke is a usurper) and a green world of anti-reality. In Twelfth Night, most scenes take place in the House of Olivia, which is in conflict with the atmosphere of the House of Duke of Orsino. Based on the discovery of the commonality of the four plays, in this part a further exploration is made that in each play the world of anti-reality is a subversion of the realistic world in every respect. The subversion is reflected quite obviously, which may be summarized in Michael Mangan’s words,“a typical pattern of Shakespearean comedy is that there is always an opposition between on the one hand authoritative structure and on the other something subversive, something which will reject or oppose and potentially undermine that authority.”(Mangan, 2005:153) In depicting the two worlds which are just opposite in every respect, Shakespeare tries to present to us another possibility of life style, which is often guided by an outstanding female and with the absence of her‘father’. Take The Merchant of Venice as an example, the patriarchal Venice is first presented, with all its snobbishness, rigidity, hypocrisy, tenseness and selfishness, before the readers, and by contrast, Belmont impresses the readers in a thoroughly different way: It is like a fairy land, with Portia the hostess as the fairy queen. And with her father’s decease, this world seems to be left fully to Portia. Many evidences prove that it serves as a place of‘carnival’opposed to the‘official festival’, or a pastoral retreat from the world of business, lawsuits, politics, and the like.In this part, Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory is applied. His definition of“the official feast”and the“carnival”seems to account so appropriately for the difference shown in the two different worlds in those comedies. And since the word“carnival”refers only to a festival held by ordinary folks, it bears the feature of transience, and the same feature is found in the romantic plays. The world that is anti-reality lasts not long and there is always a restoration to the patriarchal world in the end in each play. In this part post-modernist theory such as deconstructionism is also applied.This part also includes a detailed analysis of the heroines in each play. Those heroines are perfect human beings that assembled in them are the best qualities of mankind. They are rich, beautiful, learned, insightful, benevolent, broad-minded, tactful and courageous. Most of them are like the‘giant’with a true Renaissance spirit. In them are entrusted with Shakespeare’s most beautiful dream of humanism. Then, does this dream really reflect Shakespeare’s feminist ideas? The last part of the dissertation will help solve the mystery based on the comparative study of his four tragedies.The third part of the dissertation engages itself in the study of his four most influential tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. It focuses more on the analysis of the heroines, which, however, contains only a small part of the characterization and places the analysis of the tragedy of the female characters within a larger context. In another word, the analysis is made from the perspective of a female and though it highlights the tragedy of the heroines, it meanwhile tries to indicate the social root of the tragedy and figure out Shakespeare’s ideas hidden behind the text. Take the analysis of Cordelia as an example, her tragedy is imposed on her by a hypocritical and patriarchal court and is the catalyst of Lear’s self-realization. Lear’s final transformation indicates that Cordelia’s philosophy of life prevails, and her death deepens our understanding of the operation of the universe and the meaning of love. As to Ophelia and Gertrude, the analysis puts emphasis on the poor conditions of them in the patriarchal society. Since they are silenced in the world controlled by males in the play, in the analysis they are helped to voice out their helplessness and indignation toward the persecution against them. In the analysis of Desdemona, the racial problem is put to the front stage and it tells that Desdemona’s tragedy is owing to her showing her defiance openly against the patriarchy and the society soon revenges itself on her irreverence. Her tragedy sets off the tragedy of Othello’s, and casts light upon his self-abasement as to his racial condition and social status in a world of others. For Lady Macbeth, she is given a more humanistic treatment in the analysis and washed off the name of‘dehumanized murderer’. There is evidence showing that she is not a born murderer and the‘murdering mother’in her is triggered by both social reasons and domestic problems.In this part there is a chapter titled as“The absent mother in Shakespearian tragedies”, which focuses on the problem brought about by the absence of‘mother’in the four plays. In Hamlet, Gertrude as an unqualified mother is despised by Hamlet, however in his most crucial time of life, he needs a mother who may help him in making decisions. He frequently abuses Ophelia his lover and vents his anger toward the world upon Ophelia and it is in Ophelia’s tomb that he buries all his fragilities and his sentimentalities and becomes a man that is masculine. It is therefore not unreasonable to conclude that Ophelia performs the role of‘mother’in the road of his growth. In King Lear similar problems exist: In Lear’s crucial period of retirement, he considers Cordelia as his‘daughter-mother’and when refused by the daughter, he is so angered and sends her into exile. His final mature realization of himself and the world is also triggered by this event. In this chapter there is the analysis as to the importance of the‘presence’of a mother in constructing a wholesome identity of a human..The third part pays special attention to the misogynist atmosphere of the plays and it lays a foundation for drawing the conclusion. It mainly uses the approach of psychoanalysis.The fourth part is drawn based on the analysis of Shakespeare’s eight plays. It puts forward such a definition as to Shakespeare: in Shakespeare exists simultaneously Shakespeare the Elizabethan and Shakespeare the artist. The Marxist approach to the study tells us that Shakespeare the Elizabethan can not escape the influence of the ideology of the Elizabethan society, Shakespeare the artist knows however how to handle his characters in his plays with his artistic intuition. In this part an analysis is made to explain why his depiction of the romantic world and the‘giant-like’females can not be regarded as an evidence to show his feminist tendency and why the prevailing misogynist atmosphere in his tragedies is not enough to assert that he is a misogynist. That“the artist apparently has a dual personality”gets confirmed in Shakespeare.The last part is the conclusion. It points out that there is a transformation for the images of female characters from Shakespeare’s romantic Comedies to his major tragedies. This transformation indicates Shakespeare’s different meditations on the conditions of human society. It also points out that as the critic of Shakespearean plays, only by removing his prejudices first, can he refrain from any tendency of one-sided exaggeration.

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