Feminism in Shakespeare

Conventionally, feminism has little correlation with Shakespearean comedies; however, Claire McEachern attempts to address this topic with some degree of success in her article published in the Shakespeare Quarterly entitled “Fathering Herself: A Source Study of Shakespeare’s Feminism”.

The author herself reveals the adversity face by feminists up against Shakespeare’s male-dominated world by admitting, “Certainly, in considering “Shakespeare’s feminism” (a debatable, and surely anachronistic, construction), the prospect of looking to Shakespeare’s sources for the origins of any political understanding of the “woman’s part” seems to offer little promise; behind the critical assertion that finds Shakespeare’s portrayals of women remarkable lies the unarticulated suspicion of the rare if not unprecedented quality of his cultural voice”.

McEachern, while turning to the cultural voice of Renaissance patriarchy, fails to recognize the female community in Much Ado About Nothing within her study of feminism. In her 1988 article, Claire McEachern examines the issue of feminism by utilizing several of Shakespeare’s works, including Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear. Currently a professor at the University of California, McEachern first provides two previous schools of feministic thought prior to proposing her individual criticism.

She identifies “two ideological camps” of criticism generally applied to Shakespearean plays. The first angle encompasses a pioneering first wave feminist critique, which hones in on Shakespeare’s bias towards women through his use of primarily male characters and themes. This unique proto-feminist angle seeks out ‘the women’s part’ in Shakespearean plays, usually characterized by liberated female roles. McEachern points out, however, that subsequent second feminist approaches reject this idea, and tend to focus more on the patriarchal aspects in terms of women.

She mentions such feminist writers as Kathleen McLuskie, who suggests that Shakespeare is an author unable to undermine patriarchal structures; Instead Shakespeare is able only to reinforce a cultural stigma that portrays chiefly subservient women. McEachern departs from previous feminist views by specifically focusing on Shakespeare’s patriarchy through his father-daughter relationships. She writes, “In the plays of Shakespeare that depict a father-daughter relationship, the issue of a woman’s relationship to patriarchy inevitably gains a special kind of prominence. She highlights Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women”, which focuses on the idea that women in Shakespeare cannot simply be examined without also examining the context they are written in-namely the male community. McEachern agrees with Rubins, yet in turn falls short in examining women outside of an exclusively patriarchal context. McEachern’s statement is not wholly false, however, in order to examine feminism fully in this particular play, she should examine a recognizable shift in focus from patriarchal relationships to the female community.

Raveled within Act Three Scene Four, Shakespeare allows the reader insight into an intimate world to which he does not normally unveil. This scene contains exclusively women, which in itself is a rarity for the patriarchal bard. Although this scene is not substantially long in text, it provides an introspective view of the female community in Much Ado About Nothing that is not exposed in any other scene. Act Three Scene Four allows the reader to view Shakespeare’s feminism on strictly female grounds.

The scene opens with Ursula and Margaret, Hero’s attending gentlewomen, preparing Hero for her marriage to Claudio, a young Florentine lord. Hero and Margaret’s initial conversation prior to Beatrice’s entrance reveals Margaret’s notable wittiness, as well as Hero’s presence of opinion that is not observed in either two preceding acts. Hero expresses apprehension of her marriage to Claudio and its impending difficulties while dressing in her gown by admitting, “God give me joy to wear it, for my heart is exceedingly heavy” (3. 4. 24 – 25).

Although it is not clear if Hero is ominously referring to the accusation by Claudio stating that she had a sexual relationship with Borachio, this statement allows Hero to have a voice for the first time. McEachern casts her view of marriage’s difficulty by commenting, “In dramatizing the difficulty of marriage, then, Shakespeare dramatizes the difficulty of negotiating between the rival demands of patriarchy”. McEachern is not successful in distinguishing Hero’s stance in her marriage, and simplifies the marriage in strictly patriarchal terms.

McEachern, rather, concentrates on the father-daughter bond that will be altered by marriage. She states, “When we look at daughters, we see that they, unlike sons, must violate the integrity of the family to forge the political bonds that constitute the greater social order; fathers must sacrifice one authority in order to uphold another. ” Shakespeare’s use of Hero’s attending gentlewoman Margaret should also be recognized as a character with feministic tendencies. Margaret’s bawdy retort to Hero, “‘Twill be heavier soon by the weight of a man” (3. 4. 6-27) is not unlike that of Beatrice’s usual demeanor. Here, Shakespeare creates a second, strongly boisterous female role that is shown outside of any male interaction. Beatrice entrance upon Hero’s request discloses Beatrice’s abnormally subdued mood. Hero enquires, “Why, how now? Do you speak in the sick tune? ” (3. 4. 40). Beatrice laments, “I am out of all other tune, methinks” (3. 4. 41). Margaret chimes in suggesting, “Clap’s into ‘Light o’ love. ‘ That goes without a burden” (3. 4. 43 – 44), which refers back to her previous lewd comment to Hero.

Despite Margaret and Beatrice’s vulgar comments, Shakespeare instills this scene with a sense of affection between the women. It is void of male influence, and shows the compassionate relationship between the three women aside from Margaret and Beatrice’s humor, and Hero’s innocence. The fact that Hero summons Beatrice and her two attending gentlewomen on her wedding morning and expresses her doubts in confidence makes this scene particularly valuable. Shakespeare allows Hero an opportunity to reveal her inner most animosity to her beloved companions.

In McEachern’s conclusion she proposes, “Shakespeare defies his literary fathers as the women of his drama resist patriarchy, and his subversion of cultural authority empowers their own”. Although this may be an accurate conclusion to draw, it limits the scope of feminism that can be uncovered in Much Ado About Nothing. The female community that Shakespeare creates must be examined closely, as well as the patriarchal world. McEachern creates a case for feminism that clearly does not address the entirety of Shakespeare’s time.