Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism Research Paper:
Within the scope of this research, we will elaborate on the connection between Shakespeare and a feminist argument. For more than a couple of decades, Shakespeare attracts psychoanalytic feminist character critics. One scholar may see Desdemona as a strong, sexually self-assured woman who speaks for her own rights, where another points to the repressed and baffled anger she sings in the’ Willow’ song. A third believes Desdemona encourages her maid Emilia to express the aggression she dares not, and a fourth traces Desdemona’s fatal paralysis to ambivalent idealization of Othello as a father figure. (Schwartz, 1980) That approach which analyses a whole text as a projection of authorial fantasies is an expansion of character criticism.
Feminist criticism begins, according to Kaplan, in the personal response of women readers to women writers, and in the implicit repudiation of any critical stance which claims to be objective. (Kaplan, 1995) It then branches into several paths: revisionary criticism of the canon, the study of neglected or lost women writers, and the articulation of a distinctive female literary tradition. Surveying the attempts of Spacks, Pratt, Moers and Showalter to identify the patterns of influence and common concerns of such a tradition, Kaplan considers the extent to which they ground women’s writing in the cultural moment of its time and place, and she assesses Showalter’s use of the anthropological model of a woman-centred female subculture. (Kaplan, 1995) Kaplan sees the diversity of feminist criticism, its eclecticism and ability to incorporate a variety of critical approaches, as its strength, but she points out the tension between this tendency-Kolodny’s ‘playful pluralism’-and the movement towards a monolithic theory advocated by Showalter. (Kaplan, 1995)
To cite an example from Shakespeare, a fifth Othello scholar might explain Desdemona as one of a series of tragic heroines that assuage Shakespeare’s anxiety about female sexuality through spiritualizing idealization. None the less, the drama expresses that anxiety by equating intercourse and death in the scene in which Othello kills Desdemona on their nuptial bed. Such dramatization allows viewers, too, to re-enact and hence master threatening unconscious material, comforted as the Venetian patriarchs reimpose control.
The feminist Shakespearians, then, exemplify a group of critics who use complementary psychoanalytic and other approaches (Lenz, 1980). They show Shakespeare’s world as a grand dream-like construction, inhabited by men and women with gendered psychologies. They question structure and language in the plays as well as character and plot. And they interrogate the absent as well as the present. Why do so many characters have dead mothers or no mothers at all? Why does the man who is ‘not of woman born’ and whose wife and children have been destroyed emerge as the invulnerable hero of Macbeth?
Of course, Shakespeare did not create his plays from unmediated fantasies. He transformed conventional sources in the literary genres of his period, and these genres affect the plays’ psychological shapes. For example, one recurrent pattern in his plays is that husbands who destroy their brides later idealize them. In each instance, Shakespeare condemns the man’s misogyny and exonerates the woman’s virtue. But Shakespeare alters the pattern to fit the genres of each play. (Schwartz, 1980)
Othello understands that Desdemona is chaste only after he has murdered her, whereas in the comedy Much Ado about Nothing and the romance of The Winter’s Tale the women are not really dead, and so their husbands can renew their marriages. Thus a comedy presents a wish-fulfilment fantasy, while a tragedy, rolling relentlessly towards the major characters’ deaths, expresses similar unconscious material in scenes like nightmares. (Kaplan, 1995)
Some critics evaluate Shakespeare’s sexism by comparing his plays with their conventional sources or analogues. In such comparisons he usually fares well. For instance, suspected wives are truly unfaithful in Renaissance domestic tragedies other than Othello, and Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew gives Kate a psychologically more credible role and treats her less vindictively than his sources do (Schwartz, 1980). However, evaluative criticism does not depend solely on source study, but strives for a broader reading of the way an author typically treats female characters in comparison with male ones. For example, scholars argue over the extent to which Shakespeare empowers his transvestite heroines or reins them into submissive marriages (Lenz, 1980).
Aldous Huxley doubted if Brave New World’s somatized souls could comprehend Shakespearian passion, but he assumed we readers understood Shakespeare as he did. (Schwartz, 1980) Much traditional psychoanalytic criticism assumes that minds have always been as they are now, that psychoanalytic laws are permanent and timeless. From this perspective, all people who were once babies fear engulfment, and it is part of the human condition to rebel against powerful and prohibiting father figures. In contrast, feminist critics, who assume that minds are socially constructed, postulate historical and cultural variations in people’s psychologies.
As critics bring history, politics and psychoanalysis into their literary criticism, they open up new areas for feminist analysis as well. For example, a Marlowe hero’s ‘aspiring mind’ may reflect European imperialism’s outward thrust, and an Elizabethan courtier may charge his love lyrics with anxieties about political success (Lenz, 1980). A feminist critic might read these Renaissance texts looking for distinctive alignments of ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’, of narcissistic investment and sexual desire in the period. The ‘aspiring mind’ may accompany Protestant reinforcement of patriarchy as well as imperialism, and the Elizabethan court lady’s interpretation of honor may be different from her sonneteer’s.
We need to deconstruct the label ‘patriarchy’ to understand how fathers and daughters felt about one another at different times and how economic relations affected those feelings. Lear rages at his daughters’ ‘filial ingratitude’ and at the unforeseen psychological consequences of his own economic dependency. As Lillian Rubin demonstrates through interviews with contemporary Americans, economic and psychological dependencies are closely linked (Rubin, 1983). Whole genres of literature exist, like the women’s courtship novel, to justify what are essentially economic arrangements as emotional choices, providing a rich field for feminist psychoanalytic critics.
Jane Austen opens Pride and Prejudice with the famous sentence: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ (Schwartz, 1980) Much of the novel’s wit consists in showing that men and women have different investments in this ‘universal’ acknowledgement. Often critics have been less sensitive than Austen about what is ‘universally acknowledged’, using the canonical texts to prove that past minds worked just like ours. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is made to prove again the debilitating power of the Oedipus complex. However, texts that fit our preconceptions less well may encourage our historical/ psychological imaginations more. If we cannot decide whether Shakespeare’s sonnets are heterosexual or homosexual, perhaps we can question the historical adequacy of these polarized categories.
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