Before the Launch: Women in Shakespeare
by Joe Muchmore
Never have I felt the ache of a male-dominated curriculum more than when I teach my students about women in Shakespeare. Subordinated. Abused. Humiliated. Sold as commodities in a marriage transaction (if they’re lucky enough to feature in a Comedy) and forced to the margins of theatre to quietly commit suicide (if they’re lucky enough to feature in a Tragedy). And yet, all of the various struggles women face on the Renaissance stage are still so clearly present in today’s society. Imagine three Shakespearean characters placed in a modern-day setting:
Act 1: Mrs Macbeth
That woman. There’s one in every company. Already a director in a male-dominated industry and only in her tender early-thirties. She is the admiration of most women and fear of most men in the office. Elusive. Calculating. With piercing and austere glare, she wears exclusively black. She rarely comes to Thursday drinks, but can often be found haunting the office in the midnight hour. She’ll happily interrupt even the most senior of clients mid conference-call and tell them to ‘screw their courage to the sticking place’. She imagines a future where she isn’t alone atop a pyramid, but part of a team of equals in representation, pay, and opportunities. Until one day she overhears the Chief-Exec in the kitchen talking to the head of finance: “How old is Mrs Macbeth now? If she’s not careful she’s going to find herself ‘unsexed’. Don’t worry - I’m sure they’re trying. We’ll have a break from the Lady soon when she’s on mat-leave and ‘knows how tender it is to love the babe that milks her’. Oh, leave the milk out. Would you?”
Act 2: Desde-moaner
‘When he loves me not, chaos is come again’ Desdemona tells herself as she reapplies foundation to cover up the bruises on her neck and face. She has seen the confidential helplines in the GP waiting room. But they’re not for people like her. Othello is a successful and well liked man who only occasionally loses his temper. And when he does he always says it’s because he ‘loves not wisely, but too well’. Telling anyone would ruin his career and their otherwise successful marriage. She is surviving this lie until one day she sees the Women’s March on the news. Swathes of placards cheering down the streets: “The Future is Female” “I’m With Her” “#MeToo”. Her Twitter feed is awash with women disclosing frank accounts of abuse. This could be her chance to speak out, but it is not without risk as her husband checks everything she posts on social media. In a moment of courage, she begins creating an anonymous account to post her story and feels a pang of subversion and hope, until the stream of Tweets turns suddenly: “#MeToo fallacy is now consistently being challenged”, “Moaning feminists”, “nothing but privileged liberal hate-talk”. ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light’. On seeing how quickly the tide can turn, Desdemona quietly deletes the draft of her story and waits for Othello to return from work.
Act 3: Viola Monologues
Yesterday a man on the street walked straight up to me and asked me if ‘thy small pipe is as the maiden’s organ?’ Not a teenager, pushed forward from a cruel and cackling group to approach me for a dare. But an earnest, well dressed, middle-aged man asking me about the state of my genitals as if he were asking for directions to the station. Is it my large and clumsy hands that makes it okay for him to humiliate me in public? Or perhaps the haze of stubble that I should never have shaved when I was still a boy? Or the Adam’s apple that bobs with every gulp of angst when another set of eyes analyses me, looking for cracks in my now female form? My father still calls me Ceasario, rejecting my transition and scorning the name of Viola. I’ve pleaded with him to love me for who I am but he refuses. ‘As I am man, my state is desperate for my master’s love; As I am woman - now alas the day!’ Only time will untangle the web of prejudices that my generation are now battling against. Despite my unfinished appearance, I know that I am a woman. So what gives people the right to tell me I’m not?
When I teach Shakespeare, I think of it as the archaeology of language. We excavate the ancient tools of communication - the words that Shakespeare used to criticise the society around him - and we analyse them. If we’ve done our jobs properly, then our students are then equipped to use these tools to challenge the world around them. Subordinated. Abused. Humiliated. Yes. But after four hundred years, sadly not outdated.
About Joe: Joe Muchmore is an English Teacher based in Twickenham. His favourite female character in literature is Bryony Tallis from Ian McEwan's "Atonement" . Fun fact, he is also married to our LWL Bookclub Editor Phoebe...