May 17, 2013
“Farewell, my love,” I said. “I am for London.”
And then I ran.
Chapter XXV, The Secret Player
I’ve pretty much run through all the topics I’ve been questioned about relating to The Secret Player—except who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Since William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is the resident playwright with the theatrical company Alexander Cooke eventually joins in London, he’s obviously my candidate. My fictional game with history doesn’t relate to the authorship controversy nor to Shakespeare’s love affair with the protagonist: “Shakespeare in Love” covers that theme.
No, I’m more interested in gender. What if Sander Cooke, an historical boy player who eventually became a hired man with Shakespeare’s company, was born female? The intrigue involved is considerably more spicy than is authorship--and more directly related to the plays themselves.
Attitudes towards sex, conventions ruling male and female behavior and relations, and rules about clothing in Elizabethan England were very different from those of today. Some of my posts tell of the outcry against cross-dressing, but there were also detailed sumptuary laws regulating what fabrics (particularly velvet, silk, and types of furs), colors (e.g. purple, red, and indigo from true indigo dye), and decoration were limited to the upper orders.
A very different world, Early Modern England. Yet we recognize the universal impact of Shakespeare’s themes and characters. Last year’s festival, Globe to Globe, brought all of Shakespeare’s plays to London by acting companies from around the world in their many languages. Discussion of the cross-cultural power of these works is endlessly fascinating!
A blog seems to me an overly one-sided platform. I chose topics that provoke debate, and of course comments are welcome. Debate, however, tends to be more enjoyable in person. In my course recently ended, we spent 16 lively hours discussing Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and All’s Well That Ends Well from the perspective of gender and sex. More fun than any blog!
So I’m taking a break from this blog, at least in the form it's taken to date, informal researched essays on topics connected to The Secret Player. There are many more such, beginning with the idea of self-fashioning in the Renaissance, and moving on to other controversial gender or sexual issues of Shakespeare’s day and to the specific plays in which Sander Cooke performs. For the next few weeks I’ll be running my earlier blogposts in order on my Facebook page: Jinny Webber – Author.
Thank you for your interest! Suggestions welcome.
May 10, 2013
“Mistress Barrows is dying. Send to the Justice. Get an order to release her . . . . This is not legal!”
Constable Warren looked towards Gran. “She looks fine to me.”
“Take a closer look. She's dying! Her death will be on your hands.”
“She was accused of witchcraft.”
“Not of treason,” I said. “She cannot be put to death without a court order.”
“She is not being put to death,” Warren said. “Ten men have been pilloried this year; they all lived to mend their ways--or hang for them.”
“Men!” I fairly shouted. “Mistress Barrows is no man!”
Chapter III, The Secret Player
Sent to the pillory for causing harm to a child, Gran’s punishment isn’t intended as a death sentence. The pillory, devised of two wooden boards with holes for the head and wrists, forces an offender to stand (or sometimes kneel) for a certain number of hours bending bend forward in an extremely uncomfortable position. The stocks are similar but entrap the ankles, and occasionally the wrists as well, while the person is sitting.
Public humiliation is a large part of the punishment, so pillories and stocks were set up marketplaces, crossroads, or outside churches. Offenders would be taunted, pelted with rotten food or worse, and could suffer other sentences while so confined, such as cutting off of ears. It was not unheard of for a person to die in the pillory. When two convicted sodomites died in a pillory in 1780, Edmund Burke tried to abolish that punishment. It had lasted into the Enlightenment!
I have not been able to determine which punishments were off-limits to women in medieval and Elizabethan times. Apparently not many: there were cases of the rack being used on women and their suffering the death penalty. The illustration for this post shows a man, but a woman could be pilloried.
The most common punishment for women, however, was carting. Bawds (meaning whores or a pimps or anyone accused of being part of that trade) were driven around town in a cart or tumbrel to public exposure and ridicule. Uncommon in England at the time, witchcraft tortures were developed to a fine art in Scotland during the reign of King James VI, who believed in the power of witchcraft and personally witnessed some of the cruel interrogations of suspected women.
Gran’s unintentional death from her time in the pillory shows the brutality of what was considered a relatively minor punishment (so long as no body part was lopped off in the process.) It illustrates another significant reality of Elizabethan England as well. Women, who were defined as the weaker sex, subordinate to men and requiring them to mediate in religious and political matters, were not protected as dependent beings. If their capacities were so much less than men’s, should not their responsibilities be likewise?
Frequently not. As Reginald Scot points out, many accused of witchcraft were lame and impoverished old women who were denied a bowl of gruel when they came to the door begging.
Weakness could make a woman susceptible to punishment, but so could too much strength. An independent healing woman, traditionally necessary and valued in English villages, lived more precariously as time went on. Her ‘magical’ knowledge could seem the devil’s doing; her powers to help regarded as easily used to cause harm.
In The Secret Player, these women compose a loose secret sisterhood to whom Sander Cooke can turn as she makes her way through the countryside. I call them votaries of Bounteous Nature, women who know the uses of roots and herbs, who possess wisdom and intuition. Like her Gran, they too would be in peril if a villager took against them.
Gran is sentenced to the pillory and dies there. The villagers do not pelt her with anything foul; in fact, that night she has the company of her granddaughter and two other healing women; her grandson and his tutor also take her side. They cannot save her. Kate was suspected of having worn male clothing, also an offense, and this, her Gran's death, and her father’s arranging an unwanted marriage send her from her village—as the boy Alexander Cooke, escaping into a new identity which, despite the risks, she hopes will prove safer.
To purchase The Secret Player in e-book or text form, see www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com
May 3, 2013
"Treason!" Mistress Jaggard shouted. "She must be hung as a witch."
"Only an Assize court can enact the death penalty," Justice Pearce said. "Treason is an act against church and state; in the case of a woman, against her husband, should she commit murder upon him. This does not appear to be a case of treason." I sighed in relief.
He continued, "[Mistress Barrows’s] lesser crime of witchcraft to cause harm to a child shall be punished by a night in the pillory."
From Chapter II, The Secret Player, at the trial of Kate’s grandmother.
The definition of witchcraft was changing in late sixteenth century England. Through the middle ages, healer-women were in general valued members of the community. Their knowledge of herbs and roots, their midwifing and wisdom--and perhaps a touch of second sight, subject for another day--did more good than harm. Sometimes they were called "white witches," but mostly, were simply regarded as healers. Into medieval times, St. Augustine's teaching held: belief in witches is blasphemous, in that it attributes divine power to mortals (despite passages in Exodus and Leviticus demanding the death of witches).
The bubonic plague raging through Europe in the fourteenth century incensed folk to look for scapegoats. With no understanding of bacteria or how disease spreads—in this instance, carried by fleas on rats—there had to be a reason for the devastataing Black Death. Either God was punishing people or someone was to blame. Hence flagellation and other attempts at self-purification and the scapegoating of Jews and, to a lesser degree, ‘witches.’ Think Ingmar Bergman’s "The Seventh Seal." There were no burnings of Jews in England, as they had been officially expelled in 1290, nor were flagellation nor witch trials common.
Not until the Witchcraft Act of 1542 was witchcraft declared a crime in England, punishable by death. This act was repealed 5 years later. Through the sixteenth century, the witch-hunt fever surged and declined, surged and declined. Under Queen Elizabeth, the Witchcraft Act of 1562 made sorcery a crime punishable by death but did not clearly define it. Condemned witches were to be hung, not burned. Understandably the distinction between white and black witches became important: community healers had to be protected from accusations of witchcraft.
Reginald Scot tried to stem the madness in his The Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584, calling witchmongers "faithless." His chief argument echoes St. Augustine: it is blasphemy and idolatry to blame adversity on witches: "neither a witch nor devil but glorious God maketh the thunder." (quoted in the Norton Critical Edition of Macbeth, edited by Robert S. Miola, 132) Scot offers a humane explanation.
Those so accused "are women which be commonly old, lame, blear-eyed . . . poor, sullen, superstitious . . . lean and deformed. . . . . These miserable wretches [begging from door to door] are so odious unto all their neighbors" that although some fear to deny them, they are often refused the sustenance needed for life. (133)
Scot mentions wryly that their persons show no proof of dealing with the devil: they lack "beauty, money, promotion, wealth, worship, pleasure, honor, knowledge, learning, or any other benefit whatever." (134) These desperate women may curse those who turn them away hungry, and as some neighbors do die, children do fall prey to diseases and other adversities strike, the women’s curses are regarded as the cause—even by the women themselves.
In The Secret Player, Kate’s grandmother isn’t beggarly; she has a cottage and a business in herbs and healing. Still, the phenomenon Reginald Scot decries operates in her case. An angry neighbor blames her for causing her child’s illness, and Gran is sentenced to stand in the pillory.
To purchase the e-book: http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Player-Shakespearean-Trilogy-ebook/dp/B008SAL3UA/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1367722000&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Secret+player
Apr 26, 2013
In her first appearance to Charles, Dauphin of France, Joan describes her vision of the Virgin—and then proves herself by matching swords with the Dauphin and winning. I still had far to go in my skill with rapier and dagger, and I envied Jack’s adroit parrying. Joan speaks stirringly of glory and of defeating England and then proceeds to save Orleans and drive her English captives across the stage. Mighty Talbot, England’s hero, can retaliate only with words, calling her a high-minded strumpet, which I thought rather a compliment.
Sander Cooke, commenting on Joan of Arc (played by her friend Jack Wilson), Chapter VIII, The Secret Player
The Warrior Woman archetype extends back to a time where there truly were such, both goddesses and Amazons. The Minoan goddess Britomartis, who appears as the female knight Britomart in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, began as a powerful deity, later subsumed into the Olympian pantheon as a minor figure and model for Artemis.
Warlike women appear in myth and legend and occasionally, in history. The chief examples Shakespeare offers us, not counting the warriors-of-the-tongue Kate Minola in Taming of the Shrew (who resorts to physical violence at times) and Beatrice in Measure for Measure, are found in his early Henry VI plays. Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou are forces to be reckoned with. Joan burns at the end of Henry VI, Part 1, but Margaret lives on until Richard III, where she appears as the widowed queen, lurking in the corridors to watch the downfall of her enemies.
Not all warrior women disguise themselves as men, but most wear some version of male apparel. As I mentioned in earlier posts, female cross-dressing asserts a manly sort of power. The notorious examples in Elizabethan England, Long Meg of Westminster and Moll Frith, carry rapiers and think nothing of taking on, and defeating, men hand-to-hand.
In Twelfth Night, Caesario, who under her male attire is actually Viola, is goaded to fight Sir Andrew Aguecheek, neither of them inclined to battle. It’s a humorous scene in which Caesario is anything but valiant. This is the only time a cross-dressed woman in Shakespeare’s plays is a self-admitted coward. Caesario is no Rosalind, going forth as Ganymede in As You Like It: ‘A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh,/ A boar-spear in my hand; and--in my heart/ Lie there what hidden woman's fear there will--/ We'll have a swashing and a martial outside.’
Britain had its own historic warrior woman: the Celtic queen Boadicea (Boudicca) who led her troops against the Roman occupying forces, pushing her way south to Londonium. The illustration for this post is a bronze of her which stands across from Big Ben on the Thames. Queen Elizabeth I was said to have dressed in armor to cheer on her troops fighting Spain (think Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth: the Golden Age”).
The Warrior Woman is fearsome. Long Meg and Moll Frith had a grand time of it, but the men they faced quaked in their boots—at least when they realized what they were up against. Boadicea won many battles and could have been victorious in the end if the Romans hadn’t burnt their food stores and thus starved out her armies.
Instead of writing a play about her, Shakespeare chose the ambiguous warrior women Joan ‘La Pucelle’ and Margaret of Anjou. We shouldn’t admire Joan; she’s an enemy to the English, calls upon devils, and lists all the French nobleman who fathered the child she’s supposedly carrying. Margaret is as cruel and forceful as a man when she becomes the power-behind-the-throne of her pious husband King Henry. By Part 3 she’s commanding the king’s troops in battle. Dramatically, these women are thrilling in their rage and defiance.
Altering the historical record, Shakespeare shows Queen Margaret taunt Richard of York and then deal him the death blow with her dagger. She revels in York’s calling her a she-wolf and, famously, saying she has a tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide. The worse his words, the greater her pride as a formidable enemy—just like a man. In her decline, Margaret returns from banishment to the court of Richard III (briefly the court of Edward IV) and speaks as a cursing prophetess.
These women’s escape from female role expectations serves as a theatrical commentary on the social explosion of the times. Real-life examples may have been few, but the outcry against the man-woman are fierce in sixteenth and seventeenth century England: the mere idea of women shearing their hair and defying the established order sends commentators into a frenzy.
Disguised as a male in my novel, Sander Cooke becomes a warrior woman of a more subtle variety—except of course when she plays Margaret of Anjou onstage. Her rebellion is to claim male rights and freedoms, preserving her secret woman’s heart but resisting that social role.
To order the e-book of The Secret Player: www.amazon.com or www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com (where the print version may be purchased as well. Bulk order prices for bookstores and organizations)
Apr 19, 2013
Moll Frith now: an altogether different story! I doubted she ever got caught nipping. But how did she manage in her man’s world, made up of cutthroats and cheats and who knows what all mischief? She had to best them at their game and possess something that made her invulnerable. I needed a touch of that invulnerability: many folks viewed actors as not so very far off cheats and scoundrels. No surprise that Moll loved the theatre.
The Secret Player, Chapter IX, after Moll catches an attempted thief, or ‘nipper.’
The Roaring Girl was not published until 1611, although Middleton and Dekker had written it by 1608, when Moll was a well-established figure.
Protests against women wearing male clothing rose to such a pitch in the seventeenth century that King James joined in with what amounted to a declaration of war. In a private letter dated January 15, 1620, he writes that he instructed bishop of London to call together the ‘clergy about this towne . . . and will them to inveigh heavily against the insolence of our women . . . wearing of brode-brimmed hats, pointed doublets, theyre hair cut short or shorne . . . . If pulpit admonitions will not reform them he would proceed by another course; the truth is, the world is very much out of order.’ (quoted by Mary Beth Rose, Norton Critical Edition of The Roaring Girl 232). King James then attempted to follow through with severe punishments.
Soon after, the pamphlet Hic Mulier was published, condemning women’s dressing in male apparel as a sexual and social disaster. Women who wear ‘the loose lascivious civill embracements of a French doublet . . . most ruffianly short locks’ and substitute swords for needles invite ‘a shameless libertie to every loose passion’ (quoted by Rose 234). Besides their sexual looseness, such women destabilize the social hierarchy: one can’t tell a merchant’s wife from a noblewoman when she's dressed as a man.
Haec Vir, also published anonymously, appeared a week later in the form of a debate between the man-woman and the womanly man. The man-woman argues that women are more than ‘static icons’ . . . unjustly confined to [men’s] perpetual fantasy . . . [which] denies them full participation in the adult world. (Rose 237)
The Roaring Girl, King James’s threats against the female fashion for male attire and these two pamphlets appeared some time after the third book of my trilogy ends. Although the publically-aired controversy is still in the future, Moll Frith was a notorious personage by the late sixteenth century. Middleton and Dekker’s plot is fictional, but the real Moll clearly influenced the creation of the stage version. In life and in the play, Moll maintained her independence from social norms and refuses to be subservient to men, sexually or otherwise.
Yet there are men who find cross-dressing seductive, as the outraged rhetoric of Hic Mulier attests. [As I point out in my earlier posts about boy actors and sex, Sander Cooke is in double jeopardy, as a woman if her identity is known; as a pretty boy who wears women’s costumes in her stage persona.]
The Roaring Girl entertainingly explores this theme. When the ‘city gallant’ Laxton makes an assignation with the man-woman Moll, he understands it to be sexual. Instead, she shows up ready to duel him. The rapiers associated with cross-dressed women (Moll has a predecessor in the notorious Long Meg of Westminster, both of whom beat up men who even look at them askance) is, as Simon Shepherd points out, a kind of penis symbol. These warrior women are victorious when they fight men. Men make a big mistake in their assumptions about women, and Long Meg and Moll are quick on the attack. Shepherd quotes Moll addressing Laxton in the play: ‘thou art one of those/That thinks each woman thy fond flexible whore.’ (Norton edition 211).
So yes, cross-dressed women were a destabilizing force in conventional society, which in Elizabethan times was straining at its seams. They broke out of women's traditional subordinate position and asserted themselves in the realms of male privilege and power. Moll Frith is more of a wild card in my stories than the focus, but Sander cannot do without her.
To order the e-book of The Secret Player: www.amazon.com or www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com
Apr 12, 2013
Not two weeks later I met a young woman who acted so audaciously by her own rules that no one dared suggest she should be burnt at the stake—or even thrown in the Clink. Mary Frith was her name, known as Moll and even, I later learned, Moll Cutpurse. . . . I have no doubt that Moll Frith was the most notable woman in London apart from the Queen, to whom she was as opposite as a chunk of red glass to a ruby.
The Secret Player, Chapter VIII
The image in the last line is deliberate: Queen Elizabeth is known for her gems and finery; Moll Frith was known for the paste jewel she wore in her man’s hat.
Moll Frith’s birth date is uncertain; some sources give it as ‘c. 1584,' assuming that she was about 15 when first arrested for stealing in 1600. (See Jennifer Panek’s introduction to the Norton Critical edition of The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cut-purse, Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker's play of 1608-1611). Moll came into prominence in the early seventeenth century, a rare character to be the subject of a contemporary play, and likely also the inspiration of a pamphlet decrying women dressing in male clothing (Hic Mulier, the Man-Woman) and one in reply, Haec Vir, the Womanish Man, both publshed 1620.
Given the doubt about her date of birth and the liberties allowed an historical novelist, I’ve set Mary Frith’s birthday somewhat earlier, making her a near contemporary of Sander Cooke’s in The Secret Player. A woman who blatantly dressed as a man and got away with it cannot be omitted from my stories of cross-dressing!
I picture Moll as an early version of Hubert Page, played by Janet McTeer in the movie Albert Nobbs, confident in her ‘manliness’ regardless of social mores. Hubert passes for male; Moll dresses like a man but is known to be female. Moll ignored or confronted legal codes as well as social: from that first arrest she had subsequent run-ins with the law but persisted nonetheless. Legal records substantiate Moll’s arrests, but she was also a figure of legend and lore even while she was living. She fed those legends by her appearance, by sitting onstage at the second performance of The Roaring Girl, and by having a rollicking good time.
Even though Middleton and Dekker’s play and those pamphlets came out in the seventeenth century, well after the timeframe of my novel, cross-dressing was an issue in the previous century as well. By the mid-sixteenth century, male styles were creeping into women’s fashion, to the horror of preachers and commentators. The epilogue of George Gascoigne’s The Steele Glas of 1572 touches on the topic: “What be they? women? masking in mens weedes?/ With dutchkin doublets . . . and with jerkins jaggde?” (Quoted by Mary Beth Rose, Norton Critical Edition of The Roaring Girl 231)
In 1583 Philip Stubbes published The Anatomy of Abuses (reprinted in 1585 and 1595), which, among other abuses such as adultery and drunkenness, condemns these fashions. He describes women’s doublets and jerkins made ‘as man’s apparel in all respects,’ adding that ‘as [women] can wear apparel assigned only to a man, I think they would as verily become men indeed . . . . ’
Like those who inveigh against stage acting, particularly boys playing women, Stubbes refers to Deuteronomy 22:8, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” The sexes are meant to be distinguishable, Stubbes reminds us; ‘Hermaphroditi’ are ‘monsters of both kids, half women, half men.’ (Stubbes, Norton Critical Edition of The Roaring Girl 118-119)
Female portraits of the late sixteenth century show few if any masculine influences in clothing: the subjects are, for the most part, noble women. However, I did come across a sketch of the outfit which is described in this exchange between Sander Cooke and the seamstress apprentice Frances Field about the styles among ladies of the night:
“Gemma teaches me her sewing tricks. I can conceal men’s breeches in a gown. ‘Tis the fashion, you know—among a certain sort of woman,” Frances laughed, and the crone sitting next to the fire joined in. “Not the sort as you will find at Court, or I wouldna’ expect so, but called for in Gemma’s shop at the end of London Bridge. One of Winchester’s Geese, as these working women are called, asked for a codpiece and a reversible skirt with a false seam down the front to display her hose. And her codpiece!” (Chapter XX, The Secret Player)
Moll Frith was not a prostitute, though later stories called her a bawd. Drunkenness, thievery, a flamboyant personality and male dress were enough notoriety for her.
More on Moll next week.
To purchase The Secret Player in text or e-book: www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com
Apr 5, 2013
“’Tis all a woman can do: rail, be deceitful like Bianca, or submit,” Sander complains to Shakespeare.
“In silence. Kate submits in a pretty speech. Consider yourself fortunate. Many’s the play where the woman says but little: no pleasure for the boy who plays her part. And we perform before the Queen. When has she ever submitted to a man? Direct your lecture to Queen Elizabeth and make her laugh when you say that women have such soft weak bodies that they must yield to man’s ‘rule, supremacy and sway.’ Play to the Queen’s sense of irony.”
Chapter XVIII, The Secret Player
Petruchio’s last speech in Taming of the Shrew: “Come Kate, we’ll to bed. We three are married but you two are sped.” [that is, you two husbands are done for.]
Kate and Petruchio go off for their postponed wedding night, having won a 100-crown bet from the other two new husbands and an added dowry from Baptista of 20,000 crowns for Kate’s willing submission.
What kind of marriage will they have? Those who argue that Kate has been subdued can cite Petruchio’s reply to the question of what her obedience bodes (and this is before she tells the other two wives, “I am asham’d that women are so simple/To offer war where they should sue for peace,/ Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,/ When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.”)
Marry, peace it bodes, and love, and quiet life,
An aweful rule and right supremacy;
And to be short, what’s not that’s sweet and happy.
“Aweful” does not mean terrifying; it means respectful. He does not define 'right supremacy,' but absolute domination would not be 'right.' In some instances the woman may be right. 'Obedience' is the tough one—what sort of obedience is meant? Not domination in their case; Kate and Petruchio have found worthy mates and equals.
That’s my take on the controversy over her 'taming;' Kate has been socialized but her spirit has not been broken. Petruchio loves her spirit, but he cannot live with the bitter and angry woman he first encountered—nor can she live with herself. She’s miserable, as we see from her grief when Petruchio seems to have stood her up at the altar. She wants love and a sweet and happy life, out of reach for her in Padua before Petruchio arrived.
The Renaissance concept of companionate marriage was a union of equals—in mutual respect. Comedies end with marriages; surely not all those strong female characters will lose their voices when married. Rosalind has done well with Orlando in As You Like It: he learned to enjoy listening to her when she was disguised as a boy. Other bridegrooms haven’t proven so worthy of their brides, notably Bertram with Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well. We can imagine a worst-case scenario for them—or Bertram could learn from her as Orlando does from Rosalind.
In The Secret Player, Sander Cooke cannot give up her hard-won acting career for the sake of her love for John Donne. Few women in Shakespeare’s time—I can think of none other than possibly Queen Elizabeth herself—were faced with that choice. A woman who owned property or a shop would be rightly cautious, however: under the law, what is hers becomes his.
Topic for another day . . . .
To purchase The Secret Player: www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com
Mar 29, 2013
Or perhaps The Taming of the Shrew was simply a jest, as Will Kemp claimed. “We men know that no woman can be well and truly tamed!”
Chapter X, The Secret Player
Shrew-taming was the subject of joke and ballad in Shakespeare’s day. “The Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife, Lapped in Morel’s Skin”, originally printed in 1550, is reproduced from the 1580 edition at http://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/jest.html. This ballad was no doubt a source for Shakespeare: the father, like Baptista Minola in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, has two daughters, one with a sharp tongue, one docile. Unlike Shakespeare's widower Baptista, this father has a wife, a curst shrew who’s made his life a hell. He doesn’t wish that on the young man who asks for his elder daughter’s hand, who says he will love her truly, treat her well, and so on.
This suitor hasn’t seen her in action, as Petruchio has Kate in Shakespeare’s play. After their wedding, he discovers that his new wife speaks loud and lewdly and wants to be the master of the house. After he tries again and again to soften her, he beats her with rods (no thicker than a thumb, according to the rule) and wraps her in the salted skin of his old horse Morel. This treatment brings about her capitulation. He frees her—with the threat that he’ll return her to the horse skin in the cellar if she doesn’t behave herself. When her parents come to visit and see the wonder her new husband has wrought, her mother starts mouthing off and he threatens her with the horse skin as well. A merry jest . . . .
How similar is Petruchio’s taming of his bride Kate to this taming? After their wedding where he acts like a madman, Petruchio 'tortures' Kate by denying her food and being rude to his servants and to the tradesmen who bring her a new hat and gown, which he rips to bits. In the final act, Kate calls the sun the moon to please him and delivers a long speech advising wives to treat their husbands as their masters.
Audiences observe that Petruchio denies himself food and sleep as well, and his rudeness emulates Kate’s earlier behavior, unpleasant in man or woman. As for her submissiveness at the end of the play: they’re in cahoots against the other two newlywed couples, where the wives, now won, have turned willful. That’s my take, though not everyone agrees.
What’s pertinent here is the subject of the woman’s voice in the play. Here’s the opinion of the actress who played Kate in the recent RSC production directed by Lucy Bailey, quoted by Maddy Costa in the Guardian, January 17, 2012.
“There remains a difficulty in these ‘torture’ scenes: Katherine barely speaks, whereas Petruchio never shuts up. According to Lisa Dillon, playing Katherine in Bailey's production, this contrasts with Katherine's long final speech (in which she advises wives to be gentle to their husbands), showing how much she has changed. ‘If you look at the language she uses, all the way into the second half, it's odd,’ says Dillon. ‘The verse is staccato, there's lots of saying ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’ You get the feeling nobody ever listens to her. Petruchio gives her the power of speech and language: he gives her freedom to speak. That is not a woman being crushed.’”
More next week. Replies welcome; it’s a controversial topic. There’s a contact email on my website if you didn’t receive this directly from me.
To purchase The Secret Player: www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com
Mar 22, 2013
Master Shakespeare took our hands and regarded each of us in turn. “Which of you lads shall perform Joan De Pucelle, virtuous peasant maid and shameful strumpet, courageous Amazon and demon-praying witch? Who will burn nobly?” He didn’t wait for an answer, simply nodded farewell.
Sander, regarding hers and Jack’s casting in Chapter VIII, The Secret Player
Henry VI Part I, an early play (scholars suggest it was written after parts II and III), gives us Joan of Arc, who takes on the entire English power structure in stirring speeches. Queen Margaret in that play sequence, and in Richard III when she's old and relatively powerless, develops a strong voice. Kate Minola the Shrew speaks less than her wooer Petruchio, but her quick tongue is what has labeled her a shrew and an undesirable candidate for marriage.
A more acceptable way for a woman to use her voice is to disguise herself as a boy. Among Shakespeare's female characters who take on male disguise, only Viola, playing Cesario in Twelfth Night, feels vulnerable. She has words aplenty: it is her wooing of Olivia on Orsino's behalf that makes Olivia fall in love with her as Cesario. But Viola feels at everyone's mercy, chiefly Orsino's because she loves him and cannot reveal it. Members of Olivia's household do not treat Cesario well, Malvolio with scorn and Sir Toby Belch setting up a ludicrous fight between Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the 'effeminate boy'.
The other disguised girls, played by boy actors except for Sander Cooke in my novel, take on power. Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona pursues her lover; Ganymede/Rosalind in As You Like It educates Orlando about love; Imogen in Cymbeline escapes treachery and remains true to her chosen husband, and most striking of all, Portia in The Merchant of Venice when disguised as the lawyer Balthazar conducts Antonio's trial and sets up the ring test of Bassanio's love.
In The Secret Player, Kate's becoming Alexander Cooke frees her not only to act these parts but to befriend Shakespeare and talk frankly about his depictions of women; to gain the patronage of Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke; to drink in low taverns with Moll Frith known as Moll Cutpurse; to have a tête a tête with Queen Elizabeth herself. In short, despite the risks, she can create her own destiny.
It's more complicated for women. Here is Sander in Chapter VIII talking about her role as Margaret of Anjou and her friend Jack’s as Joan of Arc:
"My first plays of Shakespeare’s taught me about women’s power and, when denied, how they counterbalanced, whether by beauty or wiles or witchcraft or playing the man themselves. Apparently audiences love dramas involving women’s dangerous potency—and men’s fears."
Joan burns, though before she's executed she speaks magnificent lines. Over the course of the four plays in which she appears, Margaret of Anjou goes from minor French princess to Queen of England to the power behind the throne. After her mentor (and lover, in Shakespeare’s version) the Duke of Suffolk is murdered, she takes it upon herself to compensate for her husband King Henry VI’s weakness, not merely speaking up but leading her troops to battle in the War of the Roses.
To purchase The Secret Player, see www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com
Mar 15, 2013
Martin had read no Bible, but apparently he had not missed that favorite lesson of Father Jaggard, from the first gospel of Timothy: “Let the woman suffer in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” Because Eve spoke up to Adam in the Garden and convinced him to eat of the apple of the knowledge of good and evil, her daughters must ever suffer in silence. And suffering 't would be, married to Martin.
Kate Collins in Chapter I, The Secret Player
Sermons and the culture in Kate Collins' day dictated that women remain silent. Voice means power: men are the ones entitled to speak out, to take the floor, to hold the scepter.
England, however, was ruled by a woman. Queen Elizabeth's authority over men came not from usurpation but by legal right. Her voice was the one that counted: another sixteenth-century paradox regarding the women's role.
Shakespeare's female characters range from near-silent to outspoken. These are plays; characters must speak. But some roles--I'm thinking of Gertrude, Ophelia, Isabella in Measure for Measure, can be seen as underwritten, hence the debate as to what's going on with them. Did Gertrude have an affair with Claudius before he killed her husband, Hamlet the elder? Does she know about, or indeed is she complicit with, his murder? Had Ophelia slept with Hamlet before he left for Wittenberg? Does Isabella accept Duke Vincentio's hand in marriage at the end of the play? The ladies are silent on these questions; directors and actors must decide.
Yet among the longest roles in the plays--more than 500 lines--are several female ones, according to the list in The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Rosalind, who plays the boy Ganymede in As You Like it, has the most (668 lines). Cleopatra follows with 622, less than Antony in that play but still a juicy part. Then come two more women who spend part of their plays disguised as men: Portia in Merchant of Venice (565) and Imogen in Cybeline (522). Juliet, who takes wooing into her own hands, has 509 lines, fewer than Romeo but not by much.
Kate Collins becomes Alexander Cooke, aspiring boy player, in order to have a say in her destiny. She is not consulted in the matter of her marriage: her father decides. From the moment she puts on male doublet and breeches, she may speak out. As a boy, that is, and as an actor whose lines are written for her. She must keep her female self secret from all but a few intimates. In an earlier posting I quote Lisa Jardine on the dependence of apprentice actors. Yet they stand and speak on the stage and have many freedoms denied a girl, which indicates a fair degree of independence. And in Shakespeare's plays when they play the woman, they often radiate power.
To purchase The Secret Player, see www.ShakespeareanTrilogy.com