Finding Shakespearean Agency
I have a love-hate relationship with the Bard. Some people are firmly in the anti-camp. I just stay along the fringe.
I love the characterizations, but oftentimes I get mired in the dark cynicism of destructive power. Think about Lady Macbeth. Here’s a woman determined to rise in society, to follow her husband’s glory, and a refusal to stop at anything to make that happen. Pretty easy to see the blueprint for most high society dramas, right? It’s like Aaron Spelling just read a lot of Shakespeare and adapted the work.
Can’t you see Alexis Carrington Colby as a modern day Lady Macbeth? Joan Collins did a fabulous job combining Katharina with Lady Macbeth, I think. And adaptions can be amazing things. Heck, 10 Things I Hate About You made me like Taming of the Shrew—a play I absolutely hate, to the point I refused to act the part in a class project. Shrew should have been my kind of work: mentally capable virago with a sardonic observant side. But the way Kate was treated as a chess piece, handed over to a man while simply demanding equality in the beginning leaves a bitter taste.
Only Julia Stiles has made me love the character in that setting because I understand the strongly independent person on the screen. This Kate does not go easily, making him fight for a place in her life. Actually, Stile’s version is a bit more Much Ado About Nothing than Kate. Thank goodness. Though Elizabeth Taylor played the part well.
Now give me Lady Beatrice and we’re good. In fact, we’re golden. I watched Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation on television over 20 years ago and was captivated. I understood Beatrice, even then. Her brazen words and gumption hid a pretty vulnerable center. In a man’s world, you have to be able to volley and serve those comments back even harder. There are no prisoners when establishing credibility for rights. The fact it’s been over four centuries and women still struggle with the ability to be all sides and not only one persona is a sad state of affairs for humanity.
‘did not hate him’
Shakespeare seems to like a devil to take hold a fishwife theme, though.
In a bout of succumbing to social requirements, Kate capitulates with Petruchio’s “come on, and kiss me Kate.” A victory for men everywhere, to tame such a shrew when she holds little ability to move beyond a too narrow role and box. But Beatrice is not like this. She remains aware of society’s demands and eventually falls to Benedick’s courtship but she doesn’t do so easily. She demands action and proof of his true affection and love.
Don Pedro summarizes the constant emotional volley best: “if she did not hate him deadly, she would love him dearly.” As her equal, Benedick must to be facing the same affliction of conscience. Love is not equal to hate, but it does offer a complementary edge. Hate is too harsh a word, really. She hates the situation that her gender places her in, especially when blasting Claudio, but not the male gender.
But I don’t always want to be embittered by the world’s willful ignorance of inequality. I like being happy, I like being able to laugh at funny lines. Benedick’s a good match for Beatrice as he has to learn to reroute social thinking to really be her equal. I’m not entirely happy with the “Peace! I will stop your mouth” line at the end. It seems a bit too Shrew-like for a changed Benedick. A man who is no longer supremely confident in his ability to conventionally woo a lady of interest.
Outside of Emma Thompson’s amazing portrayal that defines who I see in the role, it is Beatrice’s love of family that earned my loyalty. When Beatrice learns of Claudio’s accusations, of the underhanded plot, she is more than a cousin or sister: she is a Lady looking to mete out righteous, true Justice in Hero’s stead.
But Hero and Claudio dampen my love of Shakespeare in the play because once again a woman must be used to motivate male plot points. Heaven forfend a woman’s chastity, reputation, and honor remain intact while manpain is found in other ways. Hero is very one-note with no ability to move on.
See? Even my absolute favorite piece has down notes that disrupt my love of a truly amazing play.
Every modern script has a bit of Benedick and Beatrice in it—the couple that seems to push-pull beyond Shrew. Think about When Harry Met Sally. Their entire relationship is verbal foreplay. Or The Cutting Edge, which admits that it’s all about the climax. Both Harry and Doug are stereotypical men for the most part, except during minor emotional breakdowns, and Sally and Kate are much more Beatrice than Katharina. Even outside the idea that Kate is pretty much named after Shakespeare’s character and ‘shrewish’ with a need to be tamed. Because in the end the two women keep their agency and Hollywood’s Kate is bitter over professional not private breakdowns.
A nice change from many Shakespeare plot lines.
‘he was a frantic fool’
Think about Miranda, Prospero’s daughter and caged chattel to be given to a man at will. Young and completely naïve of society, she holds little care in the dark, twisted world of court politics. Prospero looks at her as a chess piece instead of his only child, charged entirely of her care.
Like Kate’s father, women in the family are simply steps in climbing social ladders. Prospero wants revenge for what was forcibly taken at the cost of livelihood and status. In the meantime, Miranda learns of society’s graces through her cousin-turned-lover Ferdinand. There’s a lot to unpack in The Tempest, but ultimately, the will of a father cages a spirit, a slave, and a daughter until his “crimes would pardoned be” as he retakes the rightful place as Duke of Milan.
It is all about power.
Both Kate and Prospero look at their daughter as prizes to secure the future. Baptista, Kate’s father, finds a way to gain Bianca’s desires through Kate’s unwilling submission into a world that is required but unfulfilling. Beatrice faces her inner demons, falling into a marriage. Yet unlike Kate and Miranda, the marriage is one she chooses by courting Benedick as much as he courts her. The foundation is there. Unfortunately, Hero is little more than chattel to the story. Even her own father falls into the gossip lies and turns away from an innocent victim. Victim-shaming, a tradition since the dawn of ages.
Beatrice is an outlier of Shakespeare women.
She is one of the few who holds strong on her desire and does not let men overrun her need. This is why I love Shakespeare. In turn, I hate him for how he devises women as little more than plot points when there’s so much to interpret. Julie Taymor’s gender-bending Prospera was inspired; however, the act also earned Miranda no freedom and respite from a troubled plot line. It would been more interesting to have Antonio be forced into the role of bartering a son from the beginning and Prospera allowing Miranda the chance to find herself. The story can be told without sacrificing another woman in the fridge.
After all, it is in Shakespeare’s eyes that a woman must be plied with lies, as if unable to understand reverse psychology, in order to be wooed. Petruchio disarms Kate by calling her out of name and pretending to be malleable. She becomes a plot point in the game of men as the couple scratches at the other’s egos in attempt to win the match. This would be great if she was not meant “to give [her] hand opposed against [her] heart” for a man without a deep respect for her individuality.
Yet one of the best things about Shakespeare is the nuggets of adaptation available. Think about the interpretations like 10 Things. You can change niggling points and open up a new view of the same story. Ultimately, that ability manages to alleviate some of the annoyance about women’s agency since transformations and homages combine the best elements with new spins.
Still hate Shakespeare’s need to villainize women for wanting equality. That won’t change. “Out damn spot,” indeed.