Monday, July 1, 2019

Shakespeare's Political Women

Now that a fair number of fair women (okay, three) have entered the presidential race, I thought it might be interesting to consider Shakespeare's political women. The adjective "political" didn't exist in Shakespeare's time, though there was the word "politic," which, when applied to a person, meant covertly self-serving. Certainly Elizabethans had an appreciation of what was (as we would say) political in the social sense, in that members of government were expected to concern themselves with the welfare of the governed, but the word "politic" meant the opposite of that. "Political" as we would use the term -- meaning desirous of power, but, hopefully wanting it for ideological reasons, to do good by one's own lights -- had no exact English equivalent four hundred years ago. But there was the thing, if there wasn't the name. We know, of course, of a very important political woman in Shakespeare's own life, namely Queen Elizabeth I, the strong monarch whose court his company enlivened, on occasion, with stagings of his plays. According to rumor, Elizabeth loved Falstaff. According to fact, she disliked and feared Richard II, with its scene explicitly and brazenly staging the historical removal of a king (one of her ancestral relations) from his consecrated office, by a kingly usurper (another of her relations). That scene made her nervous.

What this shows is that Queen Elizabeth quite rightly saw her reflection in the male monarchs Shakespeare presented in his late-sixteenth-century history plays. Perhaps she also saw her reflection in Titania, the Fairy Queen of the 1595 A Midsummer Night's Dream (who wants power so she can protect a child). But there is little or no record of Queen Liz's reactions to the non-regnant political women of