Tuesday, June 28, 2011

William Shakespeare, Rock Star Feminist

I know what you're thinking: The Twitter withdrawals have her mind all wonky. How is Shakespeare a feminist? Well, he's not exactly. But then again, have you read Much Ado About Nothing? If you haven't, allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite figments of The Bard's imagination: Beatrice.

Beatrice is a bit past her prime as far as marriageable women go. So given the time, she was probably around 18. Spinsterhood by all accounts. She wasn't ugly. She just had opinions, they differed from those of the men around her, and yet she expressed them anyway. Her uncle Leonato tried to encourage her to see reason and someday get married. Her response:

“Not til God make men of some other metal than Earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be over-mastered with a piece of valiant dust! To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?”

What she's saying is that she's not willing to settle for a man who is beneath her intellect and emotional maturity. Until God creates a man who is her equal, all men can sod off.

The Bard's work is among the works that should be held as a literary standard in our language. If you've not read these works, you've been wasting your library card and/or Barnes & Noble Membership. I own a copy of the leather-bound, gold-trimmed pages of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I study this not just because the plays are entertaining, but I learn things about character development and dialog that cannot be learned from the standard fare occupying the YA or even Adult Fiction sections of the bookstore. It's as if it's a dying art to create characters and interactions that require the reader to think without having EVERYTHING spelled out for them. And it impresses the hell out of people when I can quote Shakespeare from memory.

Why is Shakespeare so intimidating for modern audiences? Partially because he wrote using Iambic Pentameter. The rhythm of his work is carefully constructed into a masterpiece of the written word. He didn't just find words he liked and string them together free-form and hope for the best.

Another problem for the Shakespeare-illiterate is word usage. Over time, slang changes and unless you're well versed in the history of your language, the subtle nuances will escape you. Take this exchange, again from Much Ado About Nothing:

Beatrice: The Count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well. But civil, count; civil as an orange and something of that jealous complexion.

Here, Beatrice is trying to convey that Count Claudio is in a foul mood because he thinks his pal Don Pedro poached his girlfriend, Hero. Beatrice explains that Claudio is jealous of Pedro. We miss that because of the orange thing. Nowadays, people are “green with envy”. Not so then, apparently.

Before anyone gets it in their heads that all of Shakespeare's women were these fiercely independent, sharp-tongued she-devils, meet Hero.

This chick does not live up to her name. She falls hopelessly in love with Claudio, and he with her, yet they hardly speak two words to each other. Claudio even has to have his wing man, Pedro, do the proposing for him. And then, in a case of mistaken identity, Claudio calls Hero a slut and leaves her at the altar. I don't know about any of you, but if some little piss ant called ME a whore ON MY WEDDING DAY, you better believe I'm knocking his lights out. But not Hero. She just cries and passes out. Not so Beatrice. She gets angry! She swears that were she a man, she would “eat his heart in the marketplace!” My kind of chick. Sadly, back then, women weren't allowed to duel. So she suckers Benedick into challenging Claudio for Hero's honor.

For those who have read this or (shudder, gasp) seen the movie, yes, I am completely discounting the fact that Shakespeare treats both Beatrice and Benedick as gullible fools who fall in love with each other based on he-said/she-said conspiracies cooked up by their family and friends to while away the time before Claudio and Hero's ill-fated wedding. That's not the point of this blog! The point is, Beatrice was a strong-willed, outspoken woman in a time when such was not tolerated, appreciated or encouraged. Go Shakespeare!

You would think he would have set a trend. If the literary genius that was William Shakespeare could create the kind of women with whom I would go have drinks, why would authors then take a step backward in the feminist movement? I can cite two FEMALE authors who make me ashamed of my gender with the way they've chosen to portray us.

Jane Austen. Love her or hate her, she's an important part of literary history. She wrote in the early 19th century when women were still treated as property. But look at Sense and Sensibility. The Dashwood sisters drive me absolutely crazy! Their only concern in life was finding a man. It reminds me of high school, when the only thoughts that consumed a girl's mind was what to wear and who to date. Granted, in Austen's time, who you married determined your fate. But Marianne and Eleanor were just so.. simpering. Weak. Defeated. Shallow. They fell in love after exchanging two or three words with a handsome fellow. And then were shocked when things didn't work out like the fairy tales.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and you'd expect to see the construct of the DashwoodMargrit Knight, Joanne Walker (C.E. Murphy) and even Stephanie Plum (Janet Evanovich), why would anyone want to go back to reading about weak, pointless women? Then the unthinkable happened. Emerging from the Young Adult section, we have that clumsy teenage girl who moved to Washington and fell in love with the sparkly, emo Pansy-Vampire and suddenly all she needed to make her life complete was a husband and a baby. Never mind an education, a job, a home of her own, or some sense of accomplishment in this life. No, just the husband and baby for her. The author is a genre-ruining hack, but I'm not allowed to say her name or the series I'm complaining about because it's bad form for an unpublished author to find fault with a published author. Screw it. Her little dream sequence set to paper shouldn't have been published the way it was. And she had ample opportunity, as the offers from the publisher came in, to straighten up her main character and give her something to do besides fall down a lot, get hurt and get in the way. She had a responsibility to her young female audience and she blew it. The role model she created is, in my unpublished author opinion, a prime example of what not to do as an author and who not to be as a woman.

The feminist movement outside of literature has come so far since the days when women were sold or traded as slaves or brood mares to the highest bidder. We're enjoying more equality in the workplace, even though there is still some room for improvement. I'm all about equal pay for equal work, but I still want to be seen as a lady. There is nothing wrong with Chivalry. Hold a door open for me. Buy my dinner. Treat me with respect as the fairer sex, not the weaker sex. It is possible to be seen as feminine and still be respected.