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
Shakespeare, the females who orbited the monarchs who were their brothers, husbands, or sons. And I wonder what she would have thought of Cleopatra, in a play Shakespeare wrote five years after Elizabeth died.

What are these Shakespearean women like?

Well: they're like women. They're infinitely varied. A lot of them are ballsy. (I still consider that word a universal compliment.) A favorite among my students is Queen Margaret, the dowager queen of Henry VI, who is way tougher than her introverted, philosophical, brooding husband. Margaret flirts with a lover and ultimately puts on armor and fights on a battlefield in defense of her adoptive Lancastrian family (she herself is French) during the Wars of the Roses, which are presented in the last two Henry VI plays. Historically, once Margaret's side was defeated, she took refuge in France. But Shakespeare changed the facts. In Richard III, the last play in his Wars of the Roses cycle, he keeps Margaret hanging around the victorious Yorkist court like a ghost, cursing her enemies, chief among them the evil Richard of Gloucester (soon to be Richard III). Margaret's got a tongue on her. She doesn't care if she's outnumbered. In her best scene she circulates among a family of her foes, hurling choice insults at each of them. She calls the wife of the current king, Edward IV, "Poor painted queen, vain flourish of my fortune! . . . Fool, fool, thou whet'st a knife to kill thyself." As for Richard, he's an "elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog." After sneering at them all, she haughtily exits the stage, after which Lord Buckingham remarks, "My hair doth stand on end to hear her curses." According to theatrical legend, David Garrick, the famous eighteenth-century tragic actor, owned a mechanical porcupine fright wig which he activated to give visual meaning to such lines in Shakespeare.

Women are notoriously absent from most of Shakespeare's other history plays, which feature what the scholar Eve Sedgwick called "homosocial" political relations. You might not even know Henry IV had a wife, although she's briefly referred to twice in the script of the first play that bears his name. As for Henry V, it's about men and war. The women are either left sadly behind (Mistress Quickly) or used as marriage-pawns (the French Princess Katherine), although, impressively, Katherine's royal mother inserts herself into the final peace council, to make sure "a woman's voice" gets heard. (I like that part, which is often cut from performance.) A later Katherine in a later play, Katherine of Aragon, is a bold, defiant figure in Henry VIII. She stands up to that "bloat king" (Hamlet quote). She defies both her husband and the Machiavellian politician Cardinal Wolsey during her divorce hearing, and though she loses her suit, she wins the audience. (Shakespeare's audience, that is, and all audiences since.) To Wolsey's specious accusations of her wifely illegitimacy, she responds, "My lord, my lord, / I am a simple woman, much too weak / T'oppose your cunning. Y'are meek and humble-mouthed, / You sign your place and calling, in full seeming, / With meekness and humility; but your heart / Is cramm'd with arrogancy, spleen, and pride." And that's just the beginning. What a rich opportunity for an actor's irony lies in those first two lines! In a later scene, Katherine is ushered up to heaven by angels. That Shakespeare could make such a heroine of Henry VIII's divorced Catholic queen shows that by 1612, three-quarters of a century after Henry's death, nobody was scared of him or his royal descendants anymore.

There are many, many interesting political women in Shakespeare: well-spoken dames who know the power of rhetoric, irony, and cursing. But this time I'll just mention one more, and that's, again, Cleopatra. She does in fact possess "infinite variety," to the point where she seems, to some, a hysterical shrieking digest of the worst stereotypical images of the female, and to others -- sometimes to the same readers or audience members -- a noble, unconquerable, steel-hearted queen. She's all of it. She chickens out at the Battle of Actium, but then she points out to her lover, Mark Antony, that he didn't have to flee with her just because she felt like sailing away. It's his fault they lost. (To quote Shakespeare's Rosalind in As You Like It, "You shall never take her without her answer.") She's ridiculously obsessed with Antony, but she gets a whole fifth act to herself after he dies, and in it, she appears at her noblest. She kills herself in the high Roman manner, not by swallowing fire, like the noble Portia in Julius Caesar, but by getting herself bitten by a poisonous snake, which a male character calls an "easy wa[y] to die."  But is it really? It's just easier than letting Caesar have the victory over her. She's smart enough not to trust Caesar -- "He words me, girls, he words me" -- and too tough to allow herself to be led in triumph through the streets of Rome, or watch herself be staged in mockery for the public view, to witness "some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness." If you think about that line long enough, and the player who first spoke it on a stage, your brain will explode. Who played Cleopatra? We don't know. But to see the role played now, by the most talented actors of our day, is to see something awesome.

On the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouse scaffolds, women couldn't play women. But Shakespeare's political women show that he himself could imagine them on the boards as well as in life, playing crucial roles on the world's great stage.

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