Iconography: Shakespeare and Silence
Between high school English and having spent half my life treading one set of boards or another, a large chunk of my brain is devoted to Shakespeare. For whom isn’t that the case, really? There’s the deep horror of Macbeth, the lovely gender mix-ups of Twelfth Night, the… no, I really didn’t like The Taming of the Shrew. But the thing is that Shakespeare’s plays are largely about the men. My having gone to drama school has to be good for something, so let me take you through the theatrical manipulations rendering so many Shakespearian women more silent than they could be (and, arguably, more silent than the stories could do with).
Hamlet is the story of a Danish prince who ponders, and eventually exacts, revenge on the uncle who killed Hamlet’s father, took the throne and married the queen. Oh, Hamlet. In the course of all this contemplation, he comes to view his mother as faithless, and treats his lady love, Ophelia, with the greatest of contempt. After making her the subject of the famous “get thee to a nunnery” speech, Hamlet kills Ophelia’s father, by mistake but without regret. She goes mad and ends up drowning. Ophelia has become synonymous with the idea of the tragic, mad, desperate heroine, but she hardly gets to be a heroine. She’s only allowed to be an obedient, virginal embodiment of goodness. Ophelia’s experiences, her madness, are always standing in for something else, where Hamlet gets to spend a whole play grandly teasing out ethics and the human experience.
The Tempest follows the results of Prospero causing members of the Italian nobility to be shipwrecked on his island. While he plots to reclaim his position of Duke of Milan, his daughter, Miranda, falls for Prince Ferdinand. The narrative is controlled by Prospero, but, if you pay attention, you can catch him in his manipulations of events. Miranda is, no question, more plot device than character, acting in accordance with Prospero’s version of the truth (“Dost though hear?” Prospero asks her, making sure of it). The one woman character, her voice mysteriously disappears from the action after she meets her future father-in-law. At least she ends up happy, restored to Italy and about to be married to her true love–even if he is the first man she sees apart from her father and Caliban, the “monster” he enslaved after having killed Caliban’s mother, a witch. But Prospero is a storyteller, and one wonders if we only think of the witch as evil, and her son as a monster, because that’s the narrative Prospero has built up. She, and any possibility of a positive legacy, have been silenced.
It goes on and on like that: think of Desdemona’s murder in Othello, and Oberon’s manipulation of the desires of the women of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s a lot of martyrdom and direction of desires for women in Shakespeare, but too few full characters like Lady Macbeth. The thing to keep in mind about Elizabethan England is that women weren’t allowed on the stage. Between the male playwright, actors and other theater practitioners, there wasn’t exactly a lot of room for fully realized women characters, let alone women’s imaginations. The Tempest is popularly thought of as Shakespeare’s reflection on his time in theater, and Prospero as his own voice. Taking this as so, Shakespeare is as much about the silences he renders as the stories he unleashes.
Luckily, the thing about theater is that it is a fundamentally collaborative process. As time goes on, and as Shakespeare continues to wend his way around the globe, there are ever more interpretations across hundreds of productions. That’s a lot of opportunity for women to jump off from the source texts and make theatrical worlds according to their own ideas. Ophelia, Miranda, and their fellows, therefore, are living out all kinds of lives on many stages and in many heads.
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