Shakespeare Survey: “Shakespearean Tyrannies”
(see fall 2017)
Topics in Shakespeare: “‘Problem’ Women”
Upper Level Undergraduate Course
This special topics course focuses on both Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean “problem” women, by which I mean women whose points of view and/or actions are troubling, not precisely in line with early modern standards of appropriate femininity, but, perhaps, also ethically questionable. However, the plays I have chosen do not only call these women’s actions into question, but they also position women within a space of truth, of justice. I want to explore, then, how these women are troubling and yet also “right,” within a notion of feminist ethics that claims a kind of citizenship on the part of women. How do women emerge as citizens even as they commit unethical or violent acts? In what ways do their acts both defy orthodox views of female weakness of mind by placing themselves in control of their bodies, their minds, and (sometimes) their men, but also somehow fail to elicit sympathy from other characters, audiences, or critics? What makes a woman “a problem?” (We might even ask, what makes a “nasty woman?”) How do women make their troublesomeness into agency? We will grapple with choices women make in response to the circumstances of their lives, choices we may not always admire but which practice a form of parrēsia (or “speaking truth to power”), as discussed by Michele Foucault, that installs a feminist form of citizenship and transforms a play’s ethos. Plays will include:
I have taken to mixing Shakespearean and non Shakespearean plays in classes like this, so that students will begin to read and be interested in more than just the plays of William Shakespeare. Consequently, this class will read All’s Well that Ends Well, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, Titus Andronicus, with Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, and John Webster’s The White Devil. This mixture worked well when I taught a Renaissance Drama (excluding Shakespeare) course in the spring of 2017. I did not exclude Shakespeare, and that drew more students to the class.
Shakespeare: “Female Bonds”
This seminar is interested in bonds among women and how those bonds enable moments of action and agency. Paying attention to female power, often enabled by women’s bonds with women that allow them steadily and increasingly to alter the dramatic direction, energy, and matter of the plays, we will trace the plays’ staging of a discursive shift in the early modern rhetoric on women’s virtue and power. Attending to narratives about female nature and to women’s attempts to seize control of those narratives, we will consider women’s roles in Shakespeare and in the Renaissance in the sense Emily C. Bartels has suggested is a “middle ground” that “allows women to be actors: to speak out through, rather than against, established postures and make room for self-expression within self-suppressing roles.” This is a way of reading that accounts for both women’s subjection to masculinist interests in the early modern period as well as for their undeniable activity as writers, queens, wives and mothers in their households, so that “they could be good wives and desiring subjects, obedient and self-assertive, silent and outspoken” (Bartels, “Strategies of Submission,” 419). Thus the class will question assumptions about female powerlessness to find moments of agency taken by women, mostly in defense of or to assist one another. However, we will also examine how women’s agency in the period is tied to the structures of power that officially demand their subjection. Excerpts from Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power and Excitable Speech and Michele Foucault’s article on “Parresia” will be central theoretical texts to be read alongside historical and critical work by writers such as Laura Gowing, Bernard Capp, Alexandra Shepard, Diana Henderson, Lisa Jardine, and Anne Coldiron. The course is focused on the extent to which female bonds have an effect on our understandings of the plays and of the complex representations of early modern women’s lives. Plays include, Merry Wives of Windsor, Troilus and Cressida, Much Ado about Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale.
Students write a midterm essay based on close reading, a proposal for a research based essay, and a research essay.
“Women, Marriage, and the Law in Early Modern England”
Undergraduate Honors Seminar
This seminar examines a rhetoric of marital betrayal in documents written by both men and women in which their reciprocal accusations compete for narrative authority over their social and legal standing, familial respect, and financial resources. Texts will include letters written by Queen Katherine (of Aragon); Queen Anne Boleyn; Elizabeth Stafford Howard, Duchess of Norfolk; Lady Elizabeth Willoughby; and Mistress Elizabeth Bourne (as well as some written by their husbands, brothers, and fathers). These letters will be read in dialogue with traditional and nontraditional views of women by writers such as Juan Luis Vives, Henry Smith, Jane Anger, and Robert Greene, as well as legal treatises and religious sermons (The Law’s Resolutions of Women’s Rights An Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion and Filmer’s Patriarchia, or The Natural Power of Kings) to round out our understanding of women’s place in the law and the church. Finally the second half of the course focuses on representations of women, who, like our real women, confront inequities in their relationships with men, by poets and playwrights in the early modern period (William Shakespeare, Philip Sidney, Mary Wroth, Amelia Lanyer, Jane Anger, Elizabeth Cary).
Shakespeare Survey: “Shakespearean Tyrannies”
Upper Level Undergraduate Course
This class studies the plays as energized by a socio-political and naturalized hierarchy of power descending, as Robert Filmer explains it, from God, to King, to Man: “If we compare the natural rights of a father with those of a king, we find them all one, without any difference at all, but only in the latitude or extent of them. As the father over one family so the king as father over many families extends his care to preserve, feed, clothe, instruct, and defend the whole commonwealth.” An Homilie Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion agrees, “[God] not onlye ordayned that in families and households the wife shoulde be obedient unto her husbande, the children unto their parentes, the servantes unto their masters, but also, when mankinde increased and spread it selfe more larglie over the worlde, he by his holy worde dyd constitute and ordain in cities and countries severall and speciall governours and rulers, unto whom the residue of his people should be obedient.” This patrilineal Christian and political order, animated by the rebellion of angels against God, forms the crux of early modern political and domestic theory. It would appear inviolable, quite seriously not a system that anyone, male or female would want to threaten. Yet we know it was under constant threat from the political unrest of the Hundred Years’ war, from religious strife throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, from parliament’s growing discontent with King James’s reign and the Civil war that brought an end to his son’s reign, from England’ growing awareness of and contact with the peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas, and from women’s legal actions that circumvented common law’s apparent stranglehold on women’s legal rights. Thus the English system of divine right was in constant tension, making one subject’s legitimate monarch another’s tyrant. We examine the plays through the topic of tyranny—marital, sexual, cultural, racial, religious, and political. Seven of Shakespeare’s plays, a number of documents from the period, and many scholarly essays, address women’s conduct and legal rights, male honor and anxiety, Renaissance conceptions of racial and religious “others,” and absolute monarchy. Plays include, Much Ado about Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Richard II, Henry V, and The Winter’s Tale.