Poetical Women in Shakespeare: A Response to Alison Findlay

by David P. Gontar (July 2017)


Margaret of Anjou, Jane Telford, 2013.             



Come, wait upon him, lead him to my bower.
The moon, methinks, looks with a wat’ry eye,
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforcèd chastity.
Tie up my love’s tongue; bring him silently.


“Do you not know I am a woman? When I think,
I must speak.”


In a paper subtitled ‘The Poetry of Women in Shakespeare’s Dramatic Verse’,1 one might expect to find stanzas from his most lyrical ladies, among whom we would surely number Isabella, Titania, Tamora, Rosalind, the Weird Sisters, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Queen Katherine of Aragon, Juliet, Paulina and Hermione. Instead, we are presented with subalterns Margaret of Anjou, Princess Catherine of France in King Henry V, the Jailer’s Daughter, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth and other roles not customarily associated with Mt. Parnassus. The explanation lies in writer Alison Findlay’s conception of the poetical as a species of the political, e.g., “women in Shakespeare negotiate a space to speak within a poetic discourse that repeatedly defines them as objects.”2


Peering through the topographical jargon—so much in vogue these days—in which literature is cast as a warren of volumetric exercises and ‘deployments’, it may be gathered that Shakespearean women for Findlay expatiate generally in the context of demeaning subordination, and that poetry, a symptom of alienation, lends itself to diagnosis in the form of criticism. Verses born of other sources such as beauty, mortality, love, irony, wit, reverence, honor, musicality, inspiration, joy or exaltation, not fitting the political mold, are scanted. Unfortunately, it is often nearly impossible to recognize the ululations of figures selected by Professor Findlay as anything approaching the stature of poetry, a fact acknowledged with respect to Princess Catherine of France and others.3


Findlay would have us view Princess Catherine’s English language lesson in Henry V as a commodification of her body mirroring Henry’s conquest of the realms of France.4 Reference is made to the “blason tradition” of French poetry which, it is averred, featured allusions to female parts for male amusement. Even if this were a fair analogy, we would need to ask whether Shakespeare meant to promote imperialism and patriarchy or rather subject Henry’s sexual and political grandstanding to critical examination. For it is noted that Shakespeare turns the tables on current theory by frequently depicting ladies who play the blason game, objectifying men.


Three examples come to mind.


1. Juliet


A childish blason may be found in Juliet’s complaint about Romeo’s name in Act 2, Scene 1:


What’s Montague?  It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man.5 


Are these the only masculine members accessible to Juliet’s fourteen-year-old imagination? Not with all those codpieces rakishly parading about the cobblestones of Verona. Her list of features is in fact gender neutral; only a glaring pretermission draws attention to that certain “part belonging to a man” which designates her Romeo as male. Anatomizing Monsieur Montague takes a more alarming turn in the famed ‘Gallop apace’ soliloquy of Act III, Scene 3, when Juliet’s blason culminates in cosmic dismemberment:


Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.6


2. Cleopatra


Findlay undoes her feminist thesis by observing that Cleopatra performs her own blason upon ‘Dolphin-like’ Antony, quoting thus:


“ . . . his face is as the heavens, with eyes like the sun and moon, his limbs reach across earth and sea like a Colossus and his voice resonates through the atmosphere (V. ii. 81-85).”7


These seeming compliments are reductive. From first scene to last, Shakespeare is at pains to show the incoherence of Cleopatra’s behavior: those very virile qualities attracting her are precisely those she seeks to undermine in her man of men through such emasculating devices as dressing him in her robes, wearing his sword, and insinuating herself in his sea battle at Actium. The sheer intensity of her manic speeches effectively mutes him. The most brilliant of orators in Julius Caesar is dumb in Egypt.


3. Olivia


According to Findlay, “Orsino is surprised and annoyed when his role as laureate is outmatched by Viola who ‘dost speak masterly’ (Twelfth Night, II, iv, 21)” and “wins Olivia’s love by articulating her own.”8 “Her male disguise allows a glimpse of the passion and poetry that is usually buried by conventions of female modesty, silenced and fossilized ‘like patience on a monument’ (II.iv.114).”9 But there is no evidence cited to support the claim that Orsino is “annoyed” by Cesario’s eloquence; on the contrary. Viola’s chat with the sea captain in Act I, Scene 1, shows that, even though half-drowned and soaked with brine, she is loquacious and forward. That is her nature, as it is Rosalind’s. And what of Olivia’s desperate love of Cesario? Is that not expressly blasoned before us?


‘Above my fortunes, yet my state is well.
I am a gentleman.’  I’ll be sworn thou art.
Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit
Do give thee five-fold blazon.10


The fact is, neither Olivia nor Viola is silenced and objectified. Viola is a skilled and passionate orator. She might have sought employment at Duke Orsino’s court as a demure, retiring lady-in-waiting, perched with her beads in a corner chair. Instead she talks her way into her lord’s good graces, assertive yet intriguingly modest. Her male guise doesn’t liberate her tongue; if anything, it restrains it. In spite of his woolly-headedness, Orsino instinctively responds to her emotionally as he would a woman, and there is no reason to imagine that he will be displeased with her discourse when she resumes her customary attire. As for Olivia, she appears in her blason to objectify Cesario (Viola), an apparent male. Under the spell of Cesario she marries Sebastian well pleased with his relatively inarticulate discourse.


* * *


The paradigmatic female ‘poet’ in Professor Findlay’s estimation is Queen Margaret of the King Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. Her words, ‘make my image but an alehouse sign’, in 2 Henry VI (III, ii, 81) form the title of the essay and “offer an appropriate metaphor for the female voice in Shakespeare’s texts because they advertise the ways in which female characters strive to speak in a discursive environment that silences them as images and objectifies them as commodities.”11 The ‘alehouse sign’ theme suggests that Henry’s venturesome bride risks being snubbed at court for her language, but bravely carries on. Margaret’s immediate predecessor and prototype in free speech is, of course, the exclamatory soldier Joan of Arc, a French foe who couldn’t quite decide if she was pregnant by the Dauphin, Alençon, or Margaret’s father, Renée, King of Naples.12 


Unfortunately Professor Findlay omits essential background information, leaving the reader unfamiliar with the play to imagine poor Margaret no more than a young ingénue who stumbles into Albion to be made willy-nilly a scapegoat by a hostile English nobility grieving over the loss of French dominions. But Margaret doesn’t wilt. She fairly bristles with ambition, and means to keep Henry squarely under her thumb. As we witness the Earl of Suffolk pursuing her in France ostensibly on behalf of his principal, Henry, it becomes plain that she will be a prize for the agent, who is to enjoy her romantically as he uses her to control a diffident and unknowing monarch.13 By the time the proxy marriage ends and Henry becomes Margaret’s spouse he is already a cuckold. Illicit bedfellows Margaret and Suffolk collude to take advantage of Henry’s infirmities to make him their pawn.


How, then, does the ‘alehouse sign” issue arise? Soon after Henry and Margaret ratify their marital union via a faint kiss,14  a faction forms to permanently eliminate Good Duke Humphrey, the Lord Protector, who has directed England during Henry’s minority and beyond, and who stands in the way of over-reaching satraps Suffolk and Margaret. Conspirators are (1) Margaret, (2) Suffolk, (3) the Duke of York, (4) Cardinal Beaufort and (5) Lord Somerset. On doubtful charges they orchestrate Gloucester’s arrest, much to the dismay of the sensitive and helpless king.15 At this delicate juncture, Henry’s blushing bride, Queen Margaret, proposes to her confederates that they ‘whack’ Gloucester in the manner of feuding mobsters.


Believe me, lords, were none more wise than I,
And yet herein I judge my own wit good—
This Gloucester should be quickly rid the world
To rid us from the fear we have of him.16   


When Suffolk enthusiastically agrees that Gloucester should be liquidated at once,17 Margaret exclaims: “Thrice-noble Suffolk, ‘tis resolutely spoke.”18 Neither poetry nor silence for this Gallic Shakespearean female as she leaps to seal faithful Gloucester’s doom. Cardinal Beaufort, Gloucester’s mortal enemy, offers to handle the dirty work, as Margaret and the others join hands. Suffolk exults:


And do not stand on quillets how to slay him;
Be it by gins, by snares, by subtlety,
Sleeping or waking, ‘tis no matter how,
So he be dead; for that is good conceit
Which mates him first that first intends deceit.19   


As we are viewing this narrative in the context of poetry, note the irony in Suffolk’s use of the term ‘conceit’, a term suggestive of both plot and figure of speech. Margaret’s metaphor is murder.


Following Gloucester’s brutal assassination at the hands of the Cardinal’s thugs (recapitulating the killing of the Duke of Gloucester central to the Woodstock manuscript and The Tragedy of King Richard II), it becomes necessary to break the news to a shocked and devastated King Henry.20 Margaret, much in the manner of Richard III, whom she will later demonize, feigns dismay, as Henry swoons in horror. Regaining consciousness, he points the finger of accusation directly at Suffolk, triggering a chain of events which will lead to the Earl’s own well-deserved decapitation at the hands of pirates in Act IV, Scene 1. The charge of foul play leveled by the King of England against Margaret’s paramour is too close for comfort, prompting her to camouflage and diversions. In an hysterical rant she scorns her pitiful husband, now bereft of his only shield against the perils swirling about him.


Why do you rate my lord of Suffolk thus?
Although the Duke was enemy to him,
And for myself, foe as he was to me,
Might liquid tears, or heart-offending groans,
Or blood-consuming sighs recall his life,
I would be blind with weeping, sick with groans,     
Look pale as primrose with blood-drinking sighs,
And all to have the noble Duke alive.
What know I how the world may deem of me?
For it is known we were but hollow friends,
It may be judged I made the Duke away.
So shall my name with slander’s tongue be wounded,
And princes’ courts be filled with my reproach.
This get I by his death, Ay, me, unhappy,
To be a queen, and crowned with infamy.21


Margaret reveals herself to us as a perfidious dissembler, playing the guileless victim to cover her tracks. Well does she know that, robbed of his Lord Protector, the King her husband is now in mortal jeopardy. A coup d’état choreographed by his own queen is taking shape rapidly. In mock protest she frets that some might even go so far as to lay the blame for Humphrey’s demise at her own door. Shakespeare shows adroitly how confession of guilt seeps through the too-much-protesting lady’s remonstrations. We now approach the pinnacle of irony, the lines cited by Professor Findlay as the token of a woman “silenced” and “objectified.”


Ah, woe is me for Gloucester, wretched man!

Be woeful for me, more wretched than he is.
What, dost thou turn away and hide thy face?
I am no loathsome leper—look on me!
What, art thou, like the adder, waxen deaf?
Be poisonous too and kill thy forlorn queen.
Is all thy comfort shut in Gloucester’s tomb?
Why, then Queen Margaret was ne’er thy joy.
Erect his statue and worship it,
And make my image but an alehouse sign.


Here is Margaret’s duplicitous and hypocritical message in sum: Why think you of Gloucester and neglect me, your dear wife? Am I a leper? Would you put me to death? Have you no regard for anyone but him? If so, you never really loved me. Why don’t you erect a bust of your wonderful Duke and fall down and pay him homage, while your wife is deemed no better than an alehouse sign? What we have here is not so much poetry as bombastic self-pity and sarcasm.


Recall that Professor Findlay portrays Margaret sympathetically, as one trampled under the hooves of patriarchy. Her “poetry” allegedly sounds as a strangled cry rising out of male oppression. This interpretation gains what small traction it possesses only by concealing the actual genesis and meaning of Margaret’s ‘alehouse’ slogan, an engine of rhetorical war designed to browbeat King Henry into submission, channeling his concern in her direction, away from the slaughtered Lord Protector, the man Henry loved and trusted. As Margaret hides her untidy crimes, Professor Findlay is ready to assist, sweeping them neatly out of sight. Even at this early stage of the action in the ‘first tetralogy’ we catch a glimpse of that incendiary viciousness which will explode on the field of battle and earn Margaret the sobriquet of “tigers’ heart wrapped in a woman’s hide,” as she is aptly dubbed by the crucified York in 3 Henry VI, Act I, Scene 4.23 Heedless of her ruthlessness, Professor Findlay doubles down on the idea of Queen Margaret as matron saint of women.


Margaret’s successive parts across the four plays constitute Shakespeare’s most extensive treatment of the growth of an independent, poetic female voice. In 2 Henry VI, the character complains that Henry cheapens her to ‘make my image but an alehouse sign’ (III.ii.81). Margaret repeatedly rejects identity as a passive image. She does not remain silent even as the object of Suffolk’s admiring gaze in I Henry VI.24


Is Margaret a hero? Her concern in the scene in question is not that Henry might smother her words or “cheapen” her, but that he (and everyone else) might discover that she is a conspirator, traitor and assassin. At no time is she ever close to passivity, as her hectic campaign of wrongs rivals that of bustling Gloucester, Richard III. A martial regent who will later command battalions, she is never “silent,” nor likely to become so, as is wonderfully confirmed in King Richard III. Her very volubility contradicts and refutes the strained thesis that the Shakespearean texts “advertise the ways female characters strive to speak in a discursive environment that silences them as images and objectifies them as commodities.”25


Nearing the climax of her story, Professor Findlay glorifies Margaret the artiste, as though nominating her for a literary prize.


After Gloucester’s death in 2 Henry VI, she styles herself a mistress-poet rather than the object of male invention, distracting Henry’s grief and suspicions with an epic narrative that describes her journey to England. This scene’s portrait of the artist as a young woman shows Margaret’s deft manipulation of image and emotion, albeit with crude sentimental effects.26 


“Gloucester’s death” is here referred to abstractly, as though he had passed away of old age rather than being the victim of the Margaret/Suffolk plot. Far from eschewing male invention, Margaret fairly revels in the role Suffolk designs for her as intriguer and subversive power behind the throne. Her “journey to England” shtick is best understood as Hollywood would portray it: slick double talk meant to blur perception, not to yield poetry.


Yes, it’s all “deft manipulation” indeed, which almost succeeds in mesmerizing Henry and making him forget the unsettling specter of Suffolk’s treachery. After cheering Margaret’s victory over the insidious forces bent on reducing her to an alehouse sign, the theme is not abandoned by Findlay but borne aloft as a maudlin badge of woe through the remainder of the article treating other female characters, too many to examine in this setting. A few representative cases may suffice.




Ophelia and the Jailer’s Daughter succumb to “phallocratic power” and take refuge by implicitly “advertising” themselves as alehouse signs27 ( recognizing, of course that since an alehouse sign is an advertisement, to advertise oneself as an alehouse sign is to advertise oneself as an advertisement, no mean feat).


Findlay relates a poignant, childishly simple, tale: the Jailer’s Daughter loses her mind because of unrequited love for Palamon, a male narcissist and stilted Theban warrior far above her station. Madness frees her to find her voice in the expressive anodyne of poetry but, alas, lacking experience and education, the spirit of the Jailer’s Daughter is captivated by sentimental ballads. But is insanity a function of not getting what we want? The dilemma of the Jailer’s Daughter in The Two Noble Kinsmen is treated extensively in Chapter 14 of Unreading Shakespeare,28 where it is observed that she never considers whether Palamon is married or affectively invested in someone else. The fact is that his obsession with Emilia, a comely Amazon, has blotted out all rivals. That is the disposition as the Jailer’s Daughter frees him from his prison cell. When he fails to keep their assignation, it never occurs to her that he is otherwise engaged. The question of his present desires being too painful to confront, it is thrust to the margins of her mind where it continues to nag at her. Not the unpleasantness of failing to seduce Palamon, but prolongation of her self-deception and sequent instability are what drive her into the coil of madness. Findlay’s claim, again, is that Shakespearean females are muzzled and objectified, prompting them to seek sanctuary in the magical topos of poetry. Unfortunately, that theory fails to account for any of the proffered instances. The Jailer’s Daughter is neither silenced nor objectified and at no time becomes any more poetical than Audrey in As You Like It. Rather than demonstrating the cogency of her thesis, then, Professor Findlay prefers to tinker with it as she goes along. The truth is that the Jailer’s Daughter is a not-too-bright girl who cannot tolerate unflattering realities, opting for delusion instead. And despite an allegedly inescapable patriarchy (as is presumed), she is handled with touching kindness and circumspection, particularly by the (male) Doctor, who cares for her and gives her a hopeful treatment and prognosis. She will have the love of her genuine Wooer, and no longer require the dubious services of “poetry.”


This is not good enough for Findlay, however, who objects that the Jailer’s daughter still sees in Palamon a figure “who might reject her for her poverty.”29 The Doctor wants “to confine her to a place where the light may rather seem to steal in than be permitted, and her fears that the wooer will hurt her and make her cry suggest she is still mentally confined.”30


What’s this to the purpose? Has it been shown that the Jailer’s Daughter suffers on account of having been silenced and objectified by malevolent men? No. Does she become any sort of “poet”? Certainly not. Is there something sinister in the fact that it will take some time to recover from what seems to have been a nervous breakdown? What would that be? Working as a triage, the Wooer, the Doctor and the Jailer succeed in introducing this patient to a regimen of love and security which bodes well for a stable future. Telling us that the Doctor wants to confine her to a place where the light may rather seem to steal in than be permitted hardly does justice to what appears to be the inaugural prescription in the history of psychiatry.31 It is centuries ahead of its time. Since Professor Findlay declines to provide a copy of what she chooses to deride, let us furnish the Doctor’s ingenious counsel for inspection.


That intemperate surfeit of her eye hath distempered the other senses. They may return and settle again to execute their preordained faculties, but they are now in a most extravagant vagary. This you must do: confine her to a place where the light may rather seem to steal in than be permitted; take upon you, young sir her friend, the name of Palamon; say you come to eat with her and to commune of love. This will catch her attention, for this her mind beats upon—other objects that are inserted ‘tween her mind and eye become the pranks and friskins of her madness. Sing to her such green songs of love as she says Palamon hath sung in prison; come to her stuck in as sweet flowers as the season is mistress of, and thereto make an addition of some other compounded odours which are grateful to the sense. All this shall become Palamon, for Palamon can sing, and Palamon is sweet and every good thing. Desire to eat with her, carve her, drink to her, and still among intermingle your petition of grace and acceptance into her favour. Learn what maids have been her companions and playfreres and let them repair to her, with Palamon in their mouths, and appear with tokens as if they suggested for him. It is a falsehood she is in, which is with falsehoods to be combated. This may bring her to eat, to sleep, and to reduce what’s now out of square in her into their former law and regiment. I have seen it approved, how many times I know not, but to make the number more I have great hope in this. I will between the passages of this project come in with my appliance. Let us put it into execution, and hasten the success, which doubt not will bring forth comfort.32


In a gentle, reassuring mood the Wooer embraces the Jailer’s Daughter; they will wed and look forward to “many children.”33 But reader take heed: the actual nature of the Jailer’s Daughter’s predicament and its tender resolution are easier to apprehend if one is not beholden to preconceived ideas.


What about Ophelia? Naïve and manipulated? Hardly. She knows perfectly well what brother Laertes will be up to in Paris: in the words of their father Polonius, “gaming, drinking, fencing, swearing, quarreling, [and] drabbing”34 and she feels perfectly free to tease him about the wild oats she knows he carries in his pocket.


[But] good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst like a puffed and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.35 


Such a ribald jab reflects an adult sensibility. Ophelia is at liberty to speak her mind. In light of the complexities of her situation at Elsinore, to try to account for her actions and fate on the basis of rigid a priori creeds or formulae may not be helpful. Like the Jailer’s Daughter, Ophelia has allowed herself to become involved with a peer out of her star.36 Is he likely to condescend to marry her? Her problem is not that she is silenced or objectified, but that she’s made a terrible choice of male consort, as Polonius explains. She is not hurtled into madness on account of “gender,” but because her crazy boyfriend has coldly spurned her and murdered her beloved father. That’s why “Barbary” in Desdemona’s Willow Song loses her wits, for her lover also “proved mad.” It’s Shakespearean mimesis, contagious but instructive. And In this regard one inconspicuous detail shouldn’t be overlooked: she takes too lightly her brother’s warnings about Lord Hamlet:


Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmastered importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, dear sister.
And keep within the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The chariest maid is prodigal enough
If she unmask her beauty to the moon:
Virtue itself scapes not calumnious strokes:
The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before the buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.
Be wary then: best safety lies in fear.
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.37


What is at stake, Laertes implies, is not mere gossip and loss of reputation, or even the prospect of becoming ineligible for matrimony. As she wanders distractedly to that beckoning brook is she not altered? What are the ‘contagious blastments’ he mentions? And why are springtime flowers termed “infants”? The primary risk of intimacy with Lord Hamlet is neither mere disgrace nor even infection, but pregnancy. For what assurance have we, after all, that—taking the text seriously—full physical intimacy between the Prince and Ophelia has not occurred? There is a discernible textual implication that these two have already known one another, and it is the natural and predictable consequences thereof which render their parting so awkward. Prince Charming deserts her at the hour of her greatest need. True literature, then, is not for the squeamish. Shakespeare teaches that madness is not the result of mere happenstance, of meaningless accident, but of personal choices, actions too painful to countenance. Think of Blanche DuBois in Streetcar, an Ophelia prototype. When our self-deceptions collapse and we are brought face to face with what and who we have become the only solution may be to jettison reason—and conclude.


Read then with better eye:


There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream:
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.

There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down the weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.38


Indeed, “too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,”39 i.e., the amniotic fluids within your own body. See how her demise is eroticized by Gertrude throughout. The flowers, symbolic infants in Laertes’ earlier admonition, are now dancing phalluses. “Hoar” plays on ‘whore’. Ophelia’s petticoats, that is, her outward form, “spread wide” as liquids wash about her, dragging her down by their mass, until she succumbs and perishes. Well did Laertes and Ophelia know how common death in childbirth was for women of their era, and that licentiousness might well conduce to life’s very termination. This explains the fuss everyone makes about the burial. Something is amiss and it isn’t “suicide,” which requires intent, obviously lacking in this character.


Contemporary ideology has it that the Jailer’s Daughter and Ophelia, oppressed by stifling patriarchy, silenced and commodified, are impelled to lunacy and end their days chanting scraps of popular ditties which mimic “poetry.” Having been reduced to “alehouse signs” they suffer, and for a brief moment warble their woodnotes wild, then leave us, the experts, to decipher their post-mortem messages of gendered distress. It is in such politicized reductionism that we witness the true “cheapening” of dramatic figures and the undervaluation of the pen which fashioned them.


There is more, much more, that might be said about the travesty that befalls authentic literature when it is shanghaied by intellectual fads. But to do so would tax the patience of readers who have reached this page. Better to return to substance, and the poetry of women in Shakespeare at their best. Bear in mind that women never had a stronger advocate than Shakespeare, who gave us imposing, capable and scintillating females who speak poetry out of their abundance, humanity, and courage. One of these is Isabella, who stands before the magistrate to plead for her wayward brother.


O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would never be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder,
Nothing but thunder.
Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarlèd oak
Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence—like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep, who, with our spleens,
Would all laugh themselves mortal.40


Or take Juliet, previously mentioned, as she awaits impatiently the arrival of her young husband:


Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging. Such a waggoner
As Phaëton would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love performing night,
That runaways’ eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms untalked of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods:
Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle, till strange love grown bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come night, come Romeo; come, thou day in night,
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-browed night,
Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.41


One more illustration before we part. Let Titania be our valedictorian of verse.


Then I must be thy lady; but I know
When thou hast stol’n away from fairyland
And in the shape of Corin sat all day,
Playing on pipes of corn, and versing love
To amorous Phillida. Why art thou here
Come from the farthest step of India,
But that, forsooth, the bouncing Amazon,
Your buskined mistress and your warrior love,
To Theseus must be wedded, and you come
To give their bed joy and prosperity?




These are the forgeries of jealousy,
And never since the middle summer’s spring
Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By pavèd fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beachèd margin of the sea
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge have sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard.
The fold stands empty in the drownèd field,
And crows are fatted with the murrain flock.
The nine men’s morris is filled up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter cheer,
No night is now with hymn or carol blessed.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound;
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiem’s thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mock’ry, set. The spring, the summer,
The chiding autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world
By their increase now knows not which is which;
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension,
We are their parents and original.




Set your heart at rest.
The fairyland buys not the child of me.
His mother was a vot’ress of my order,
And in the spiced Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking th’embarkèd traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind,
Which she with pretty and with swimming gait
Following, her womb then rich with my young squire,
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles, and return again
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake I will not part with him.42    


Such is the imperishable poetry of women in Shakespeare’s drama.


Were we now to roll the calendar back, we’d find the trope of the silenced, objectified woman in Shakespeare was already trending over three decades ago. (See, e.g., “Disrupting sexual difference: meaning and gender in the comedies,” by Catherine Belsey, republished as Chapter 8 of Alternative Shakespeares, John Drakakis, ed., Methuen & Co., Ltd, 1985) The same weary platitudes are still seen hobbling about today. One would suppose that, if for no other reason, our sense of fashion might call for progress. The dirge of ‘woman-as-victim’ is about as timely in 2017 as the Charleston. Reciting litanies of failure perpetuates precisely the ambience of helplessness and despair we leave behind. There are great, vibrant, accomplished women in Shakespeare, just as there are great, vibrant accomplished women amongst us. Their price is still above rubies. Let us find them, and let their own works praise them in the gates.43



  1. Alison Findlay, “’Make My Image But An Alehouse Sign’: The Poetry of Women in Shakespeare’s Dramatic Verse,” Ch. 20, The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry, Jonathan F.S. Post, ed., Oxford University Press, 2016 (356) On Tamora’s strengths as a poet, please see, Titus Andronicus, II, iii, 10-29 (163); 91-115 (164).
  2. 356.
  3. 358.
  4. 357-360.
  5. Romeo and Juliet, II, i, 82-84.  All quotations from Shakespeare are from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (eds), (2nd ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), (379).
  6. III, ii, 21-25 (386), one word altered. See also, “Is Juliet Tragic?” Ch. 3 in Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013, 51-63.
  7. Findlay, 367.
  8. 367.
  9. Twelfth Night, I, v, 280-283 (725).
  10. I, v, 281-283 (725).
  11. Findlay, 356.
  12. 1 Henry VI, V, v, 62-78 (152).
  13. 1 Henry VI, V, v, 1-151 (150-152).
  14. B.J. Sokol, Mary Sokol, Shakespeare, Law and Marriage, Cambridge University Press, 2006  (24).
  15. 2 Henry VI, III, i, 198-222 (71).
  16. 2 Henry VI, III, i, 231-234 (71).
  17. 2 Henry VI, III, i, 252-265 (71).
  18. 2 Henry VI, III, i, 266 (71).
  19. 2 Henry VI, III, i, 261-265 (71).
  20. 2 Henry VI, III, ii, 29 (73) See also, “Woodstock and the Invention of the Human,” Ch. 10 in Hamlet Made Simple, 186-205.
  21. 2 Henry VI, III, ii, 56-71 (73).
  22. 2 Henry VI, III, ii, 72-81 (73).
  23. 3 Henry VI, I, iv, 138 (99).
  24. Findlay, 371, emphasis added.
  25. 356.
  26. 371.
  27. 362.
  28. David P. Gontar, Unreading Shakespeare, New English Review Press, 2015, 361-391.
  29. Findlay, 362.
  30. 362.
  31. Gontar, 361-391.
  32. The Two Noble Kinsmen, IV, iii, 67-98, Taylor & Wells, 1304
  33. V, iv, 94; 1307.
  34. Hamlet, II, I, 20-27; (691).
  35. I, iii, 46-51 (687); Cp. Iago and Desdemona: Othello, II, I, 125-162 (882-883).
  36. II, ii, 142 (693).
  37. I, iii, 29-44 (687).
  38. IV, vii, 138-155 (710).
  39. IV, vii, 158 (710).
  40. Measure for Measure, II, ii, 109-126 (852).
  41. Romeo and Juliet, III, ii, 1-25 (386), modified, line 21.
  42. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I, ii, 64-73; 81-117; 121-137; (406-407).
  43. Prov. 31:31.


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David P. Gontar’s latest book is Unreading Shakespeare. He is also the author of Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.


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