Use Your Grey Matter: Was Shakespeare a Feminist?

AAAAAAND it’s time again! It’s another theme week. Last time we did one of these we celebrated the amazing Meg Cabot, this time around we’re switching gears (and centuries) and talking about William Shakespeare.

So we’ll be upfront here: we love Shakespeare. Between the two of us we have four degrees in theatre, and we’ve read a whole lot of his plays and talked them to death. And it’s no secret that there have been about a million Shakespeare adaptations over the years, setting his plays in all kinds of times and places. And since a good number of these adaptations have been YA, we thought we’d tackle his work on the blog. So we’re starting the week off with a Grey Matter post. Because as much as we might like reading Shakespeare, dealing with him on this blog means that we have to address some big questions. And one of those questions, that we hope to start a dialogue about here, is this one:

Was Shakespeare a Feminist?

Honestly, we’re not sure. And it’s a bigger question than we can tackle in just one post. But we want to start the conversation here, as an instigating question for the reviews we have going up throughout the rest of the week. We came to no decisions, but we came up with a couple of reasons for and against the argument, listed after the jump:

For:

  •  Writing during the 16th century, William Shakespeare wrote many heroines who did a lot more than take to their fainting couches. As former theatre majors, it was inspiring to tackle the challenge of playing women like Viola, Beatrice, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth or Joan of Arc. All of the characters we just mentioned, and many others, would fit the definition of “slatebreaking” as we have previously defined it on this blog.
  •   Gender bending is a frequent device in Shakespeare’s plays, and one that generally brings up fascinating questions of identity, capability and gender politics. Interestingly, women often gain power by disguising themselves as men in these plays (who, in the original days, were being played by young men anyway). Could Shakespeare’s fascination with this topic been a commentary on the politics of the day? Gwyneth Paltrow probably thinks so…
  •  Shakespeare’s plays are best associated with the Elizabethan age, when England was under the rule of an incredibly powerful woman. History tells us that many of his later plays were written and performed for her court. Could writing under the influence of a powerful female patron have impacted the work that was ultimately created?

Against:

  •  The Taming of the Shew. It’s hard to get past that one. Katherine starts as a heinous bitch and becomes a docile servant to her husband. And then there’s that speech at the end. No matter the quality of the production, it’s always uncomfortable to sit through this play.
  •  Back to the actors. In Shakespeare’s day, his entire creative team would have been comprised of men and historically, he probably only saw his wife a couple of times each year. There can’t have been much actual female perspective in the creating or performing of any of these scripts.
  •  Shakespeare is a product of his time. When he was writing plays, women were thought of as property, as wives and mothers and not often much else. The mindset of the day is inevitably and frequently present in his writing. Certainly, we can’t hold someone accountable for the time in which they lived but is it really possible to put the modern label of feminism onto an artist who was writing before that term existed?

What do you think? Was Shakespeare a feminist? Can we consider his work feminist, even if he wasn’t? As feminist readers, what do you think when you read Shakespeare? Tell us in the comments!

Coming up this week: reviews of recent YA Shakespeare adaptations All Men of Genius and Falling for Hamlet and another film viewing!

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One Response to Use Your Grey Matter: Was Shakespeare a Feminist?

  1. Christina says:

    I found this while researching a little more about other peoples feelings about Taming of the Shrew. My 10 year old son will be participating in a production of it soon, and, while he has picked up his love of Shakespeare from me, this is one I had never shared with him, mostly because it does make me uncomfortable… Even more so than MacBeth and Titus Andronicus. I have always wanted to find a femenist twist, but all of the the ones I can find are somewhat lame. My own personal fantasy is that he created Beatrice (my favorite of all of his characters) with an Idea that he had screwed Katarina and wanted to make amends. Interesting to bring up the partonage of Elizabeth, because my son’s drama teacher maintains that a huge amount of his material was influenced by whomever was patronizing him at the moment. Do we know for whom he wrote Taming of the Shrew?

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