Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Was "Shakespeare" a woman? (The Atlantic)

​The Atlantic, 5/12/19); Dhr. Seven, Pat Macpherson, Wisdom Quarterly

On a spring night in 2018, I stood on a Manhattan sidewalk with friends, reading Shakespeare aloud.

We were in line to see an adaptation of Shakespeare's play Macbeth and had decided to pass the time refreshing our memories of the play’s best lines.

I pulled up Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy on my iPhone: “Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,” I read, thrilled once again by the incantatory power of the verse.

I remembered where I was when I first heard those lines: in my 10th-grade English class, startled out of my adolescent stupor by this woman rebelling magnificently and malevolently against her submissive status. “Make thick my blood,/Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse.” Six months into the #MeToo movement, her fury and frustration felt newly resonant.
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Pulled back into plays I’d studied in college and graduate school, I found myself mesmerized by Lady Macbeth and her sisters in the Shakespeare canon. Beatrice, in Much Ado About Nothing, raging at the limitations of her sex (“O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace”).
Rosalind, in As You Like It, affecting the swagger of masculine confidence to escape those limitations (“We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,/As many other mannish cowards have/That do outface it with their semblances”).
Isabella, in Measure for Measure, fearing no one will believe her word against Angelo’s, rapist though he is (“To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,/Who would believe me?”)
Kate, in The Taming of the Shrew, refusing to be silenced by her husband (“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,/Or else my heart concealing it will break”).
Emilia, in one of her last speeches in Othello before Iago kills her, arguing for women’s equality (“Let husbands know/Their wives have sense like them”).
California Shakespeare (
I was reminded of all the remarkable female friendships, too: Beatrice and Hero’s allegiance; Emilia’s devotion to her mistress, Desdemona; Paulina’s brave loyalty to Hermione in The Winter’s Tale; and plenty more. (“Let’s consult together against this greasy knight,” resolve the merry wives of Windsor, avenging themselves on Falstaff.)

These intimate female alliances are fresh inventions: They don’t exist in the literary sources from which many of the plays are drawn. And when the plays lean on historical sources -- Plutarch, for instance -- they feminize them, portraying legendary male figures through the eyes of mothers, wives, and lovers.

“Why was Shakespeare able to see the woman’s position, write entirely as if he were a woman, in a way that none of the other playwrights of the age were able to?” In her book about the plays’ female characters, Tina Packer, the founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, asked the question very much on my mind.

Doubts about whether William Shakespeare (who is thought to have been born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and  to die in 1616) really wrote the works attributed to him are almost as old as the writing itself.

Alternative contenders -- Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and the 17th Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere [Wisdom Quarterly's working hypothesis], prominent among them -- continue to have champions, whose fervor can sometimes border on fanaticism.

In response, orthodox Shakespeare scholars have settled into dogmatism of their own: Even to dabble in authorship questions is considered a sign of bad faith, a blinkered failure to countenance genius in a [poorly educated] glover’s son.

The time had come, I felt, to tug at the blinkers of both camps and reconsider the authorship debate: Had anyone ever proposed that the creator of those extraordinary women might be a woman?

Each of the male possibilities requires an elaborate theory to explain his use of another’s name. None of the candidates has succeeded in dethroning the man from Stratford, England. Yet a simple reason would explain a playwright’s need for a pseudonym in Elizabethan England: being female [or the earl of Oxford].

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