Gender Principles

Reviewing the reviewers is a pretty second-hand business, rather like eating chips with gloves on or listening to a George Shearing version of a Beatles hit. It is to writing what Marks and Spencer is to fashion; full of good intention but never quite the real thing. But just occasionally, even at this distance from Literature Proper, I get a squint at something which is thought-provoking and generous in its spirit, and though I know that the Review is only second cousin once removed to the Novel or the Epic Poem, I can still raise my voice a little and say ‘go away and read that’.

John Bayley’s comments on Marilyn French’s book Shakespeare’s Division of Experience, written in the London Review of Books is a case in point. Marilyn French’s book is Shakespeare considered from the feminist point of view. Briefly, her thesis is that the plays are based on two polar principles; the masculine principle concerned with domination and killing and legitimacy and the feminine principle which involves both passive virtue and simplicity as well as magic, subversion, wildness and dangerous sexuality. In applying the litmus test of gender to the plays Dr French reaches the conclusion that the mature Shakespeare ceased to be on the side of energetic masculinity and saw the need for its tempering with the ideal feminine virtues. Dr French is an American. Her book was written in a year on a research grant made by the Mellon Fellowship from Harvard University. I say this only to give you some clue as to the kind of line taken by critics who have not the good fortune to be John Bayley.

David Williams, for example, writing in Punch, is very far from being John Bayley. He is positively unBayleyesque. He begins his review with the most wizened old chestnut of them all – What would Will Shakespeare, the old rogue, the old rascal have made of all this clever stuff then? Would he turn in his grave? No, in this case the fetching picture we are given of the dead Bard is of him on some Olympian height talking to Ben Jonson before going off for a quick one in the Heavenly Mermaid tavern. Williams is the kind of critic who is willing to dust off his hands about Shakespeare’s genius by pronouncing it ‘unanalysable’ and rely instead on a view of the man as a hurried theatrical hack with one eye on the clock and the other on takings at the box office.

French thinks that as he aged Shakespeare got to think that the balance of gender principles was becoming undermined: the masculine was becoming out of hand, so he turned to a new mode (A Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline). There’s a less esoteric reason why Shakespeare tried his hand at something new. Masques were getting fashionable. Inigo Jones and/or partners wanted script writers. Shakespeare watched the market as intently as a hungry lioness stalks down wild gazelle.

Apart from the unpleasantly jungly ring of this last image Williams is wrong to make an Ayckbourn out of Shakespeare, and would, presumably, go along with the view that King Lear was only written because the King’s Men had a surfeit of wigs for dotty old celtic kings’?

If it is the scholarship, phoney or otherwise, that David Williams finds difficult to manage, it is Dr French’s feminism which sticks in the critical gullet of Anthony Burgess. Burgess isn’t John Bayley either of course, but he is trying a lot harder. Burgess begins his review in the Observer in rather a twitchy way:

In 1980 I was awarded, by the Association known as Women in Publishing, a pink marzipan pig as one of the sexists of the year. In 1981, I was informed that I was on the short list for yet another pink pig, but to my slight chagrin I did not win it.

Burgess’s main point is that Marilyn French’s views on Shakespeare are in a vacuum, made without reference to other dramatists of his time. He concludes that if the French thesis works with Shakespeare it ought to work with everybody:

In Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, masculinity goes to extremes of control, but hell awaits. It is all too easy to see the hellmouth as the vagina dentata and Helen of Troy as its portress. In music the dominant seventh may be female and the full close male, but musical syntax is anterior to musical accidence. Dr French is playing with metaphors which, following the feminist vogue, she converts to very shaky plain statements.

Burgess, you could say, reads Dr French’s book not wisely but too well and he is not concerned, as JB is, to extend and explore the argument – merely to unthread and scatter it amongst subjects where it makes less sense.

So much for the also rans. To be fair I must say that John Bayley’s review has the advantage of length. In the London Review of Books he is not limited to the Sunday paper format where no review must last longer than the time taken to eat a single piece of toast and Oxford marmalade. In the section of the review where Bayley considers (and he does consider) what Dr French says about Othello his skill as a critic is most evident:

She is right too about the role of sex in Othello, the only play of Shakespeare’s in which it is required to fuel tragic feeling and produce a catastrophe in the grand manner; and it does so without losing its rank smell of power and disgust. The nastiest thing about sex is that it has been taken over by males, who as part of their solidarity – the world of locker room, pool hall – make a dirty joke of it. They take it over, forbidding it by implication to women, and yet treat it with derision and contempt. It is certainly significant that the most conventionally ‘masculine’ character in any of the plays is Iago, who arguably hates both Cassio and Othello for their femininity … In fact Dr French does not take up all these points but they would certainly strengthen her argument. Othello is virtually a straight case of sex against love, the male against the female, who is his sexual possession but who can show in herself what love is all about.

What is so refreshing about Bayley’s writing, apart from its easy lucidity is that it is the greater understanding of Shakespeare’s plays which is his true subject. If Marilyn French has raised a point but swerved from the logical conclusion, he sees it as his business to try to close the circle, to stand alongside her and steer the difficult course of meaning. And in doing this he will, by implication, reveal to the reader the limitations of the book without having to make a song and dance about chauvinism or feminism or scholarship, and certainly without juggling any pink pigs in front of our eyes.

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