Yes, I know, it is kind of a strange request: Share with Me a Woman’s Voice on Shakespeare. Moreover, it is one that I cannot necessarily follow up on fully. But let me explain.
The other day, I finished up The Merchant of Venice. I am trying to read a Shakespeare play a month in 2021, and I admittedly got a little caught up in the story. How is it that one of the most empathetic speeches in Western history–“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”–is spoken by one of the most of one of the most unsympathetic villains of Shakespeare’s plays? I must share the brilliant quotation:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?
Of course, I left important bits out there. But still, to create Shylock such as he is and then have him speak these words….
And how did Shakespeare have the courage to put one of the most elegant courtroom drama solutions–“Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh; / But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed…”–in the voice of a person who by birth and education is the least qualified to speak. And listen to this speaking:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Beyond that, I have other questions, having only really read The Merchant of Venice before to think about the antisemitic content. But I want to go further. A spoiler here, is The Merchant of Venice like The Sixth Sence or The Game, where there is a twist, a joke, that once you see it you can never re-watch the film again for the first time? Does the audience know the identity of the Doctor-Judge even if the characters on the stage do not? Does the secret get out in town after the first night of the play being staged, thus changing the audience response? In pubs and up ladders and near cattle troughs, are people saying, “oh wait now for that bit in the end–this Shakespeare bloke has pulled a great joke there!” Or could people go fresh to the play, receive it and enjoy it in that moment?
And cultural speaking, in a different way: You have a man dressed as a woman playing a man. You have an outsider (woman) judging an outsider (Jew). The play is rife with antisemitism without elegance, and it is unclear to me if this racism is the result of Shylock’s villainy or the cause of it. In Elizabethan times, women have been ejected from the stage and Jews long-since exiled from England. Yet here Portia and Shylock play. Was that as profound to that generation as it is to ours? And the Doctor-Judge’s elegant solution: does it matter if it is clearly unjust, even though it might be legally correct and is a brilliant courtroom stunner? Or does the fact that it is an elegant solution and the Jewish bond-holder gets his desert enough?
Well, so, questions on and on. I am no strong Shakespeare reader, having largely grown up with a high-class Canadian education (thus, good teachers walking with us through a curriculum that aims at making us mediocre, well-behaved taxpayers; like the fabled Inuit and their words for snow, Canadians learn 52 ways to apologize). Thus I am stronger in stories about how to survive barren wastelands, lists of French verb paradigms, theories about crop rotation, and numerous certificates in sexual education than I am about useless things like Shakespeare or music, mathematics or physics. But I am a good reader, so 2021 is my chance to enjoy–or suffer through, if it doesn’t go well–some Shakespeare.
It could go either way. I’m sure I missed something in The Tempest and am loving Hamlet. But as I think about The Merchant of Venice, and of Shylock and Portia in particular, I realize that I am a wee bit limited not just in my reading of the bard but in my conversations about his work and world. On Shakespeare, I’ve read Goethe, Coleridge, Shelley, T.S. Eliot (and whoever it was that Eliot wrote that preface for, whom I have forgotten), C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Peter Holland, Peter Ackroyd, Harold Bloom (who never stops talking about Shakespeare, even from the grave), Jorge Luis Borges (in roundabout ways), and Stephen Greenblatt–adding to the voice the mostly Canadian male teachers who brought me Shakespeare. Even the margin notes of my Shakespeare copies are by Dr. Eddie Edmonds, a student of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who began the school of education here in Prince Edward Island. I am grateful for these books and these notes, these teachers and scholars. However, if you notice a theme, they are all men. Nothing against men–some of my best friends are men. But I am wondering if there are other wise and witty voices out there who can help me think about my questions.
Therefore, dear reader, can you share with me great, accessible women scholars who can give me a different voice on Shakespeare?
I want to hear your ideas, but I am admittedly a little limited in how I can respond. I already have all my paper/Kindle reading lined up for the year, and would like to read something next to the texts themselves. So although I want to hear of all kinds of women authors and critics, I am looking for something I can read by ear–a lecture series or audiobook (no abridged versions please). Please add a comment here or tweet me @BrentonDana to get me started on broadening my very limited understanding of Shakespeare’s work.
Besides the limitation of form, I should also add that I’m partly spurred on by Lauren and Hannah at the Bonnets at Dawn podcast. I had a session with them a couple of weeks ago and they recommended Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, which I will read with interest. In one of their podcast, they mention How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, which is also in my queue. I am also going for a 50:50 gender split on reading this year–a difficult task when 10% of my reading is Shakespeare, another 20% C.S. Lewis, and 10% Tolkien and the Inklings (not to mention the fact that I finished my Harry Potter readthrough already, and most of Octavia Butler, and that I’m itching for some good, long Stephen King books). We’ll see. I don’t need to die on this hill, but it is an interesting challenge and so far in 2021, I have succeeded.
In any case, I would appreciate your suggestions. Is there a good, critical, well-written lecture series or audiobook by a woman scholar of Shakespeare that I could bring with me as I walk and do dishes and garden this spring?