Saturday, June 26, 2010

Edward III - Women

Gendered beings,

I'm struck in this play by the two women, who I think stand out a bit because there are always so few active women in these history plays. I remember Cindy writing about Constance during our discussion of King John, celebrating the verve both Constance and Queen Eleanor brought to the play.

In her book Shakespeare and Women, Phyllis Rackin writes, "It is interesting ... to compare Shakespeare's treatment of warlike women in his early history plays with their far more sympathetic treatment in the anonymous contemporary play Edward III. This play is sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, and it even appears in recent editions of his collected works, but it has yet to achieve a secure place in the Shakespearian canon, and its female characters are depicted in strikingly different terms from those in the canonical Shakespearian history plays. In Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Joan is both the chief enemy to the English kingdom and a witch as well. In Parts 2 and 3, Margaret is a bloodthirsty adulteress. the more sympathetically depicted female characters in Shakespeare's history plays, such as the victimized women in Richard III and the Duchess of Gloucester and the Queen in Richard II, never go to war, they play no part in the affairs of state, and they seem to spend most of their limited time on stage in tears. Helplessness seems to be an essential component of female virtue in most of Shakespeare's English histories.

"Edward III, by contrast, depicts courageous women warriors who are also models of feminine virtue. The Countess of Salisbury resists the Scots king's siege of her castle and the English king's assault on her virtue with equal courage and resolution. The English queen, equally virtuous, leads her army to victory over the Scots at Newcastle, 'big with child' but still 'every day in arms' (4.2.40-6). In Edward III, warlike English women defend their country against foreign threats. In Shakespeare's English history plays, warlike women embody those threats" (48-49).

I think Constance, and the attributes Cindy discussed, would satisfy Rackin's point about the embodiment of threat. I'm looking harder for a Shakespearean character who is similar to the Countess. Certainly none exists in the history plays. But what about Isabella in Measure for Measure? (I'm a couple weeks away from reading this play for my Folger experience, so if no one has any thoughts, I can revisit the question then.)

And finally, does Rackin's differentiation between the English women in Edward III and the English women in Shakespeare's history plays, ring true?


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