Shakespeare’s heroines: A room of their own
Reviewed by Rumina Sethi

Women in Shakespeare: A Post-Feminist Review.
Ed Bhim S. Dahiya Viva.
Pages 282. Rs 895

Women in Shakespeare: A Post-Feminist Review.Feminist perspectives have been around for a few decades in English studies, attempting to expose the site as well as the mode of enunciation of dominant ideologies such as patriarchy, colonialism and nationalism that masquerade as the social and political consciousness of the state. Women in Shakespeare ventures to move beyond the traditional critical approaches we have used in our analysis of Shakespeare to the feminist critical practice of unmasking patriarchal values, thus challenging the fashionable concepts of the 1950s and 1960s that focused on the text, aesthetic domain, and the "patterns" residing therein.

There is an unmistakable exploratory character to the essays with the pointed focus on difference, debate and multiplicity. This, indeed, was the case in Shakespeare's writing that thrived on reciprocal exchange, assertion of the self, and non-finality of answers. At a time of unquestionable patriarchy, R. S. White maintains, Shakespeare presented his comic heroines, like Rosalind and Portia as "proto-feminists in taking a strong and active role in a public world traditionally reserved for men, although it is conspicuous that in order to do so each must take on the disguise and identity of a man". Lisa Hopkins is forthright in her assertion that "Shakespeare's plays insistently suggest ... that women are not merely bodies, but have minds and souls", dreaming of a room of their own, or as in the last plays "not a room of their own but a room shared with other women, and one in which they are not cloistered but able to move freely in the life of a world poised on the brink of an unguessable future of expansion and exploration."

Interestingly, some of the issues raised in the chapters of the book are well described by their titles: The Women's Room by Lisa Hopkins, Shakespeare's daughters so incisively dealt by R.W. Desai, Lineaments of Nature by Anand Prakash, Lear's warrior daughter (Carina Sulzer), Women ahead of their time (Monika Sethi), and Cleopatra, historical or romantic (Hema Dahiya). This serves as a reminder that Shakespeare studies has made tangible inroads into contemporary issues of gender and class. As Professor Dahiya, the volume's editor, writes, "literary criticism has given all along an excessive attention to male protagonists and a comparative neglect of the role and significance of female characters, especially in (Shakespeare's) tragedies and histories."

Lyn Collins as Portia in Merchant of Venice
Lyn Collins as Portia in Merchant of Venice

A number of essays in the collection are remarkable for their frankness of tone and courage to underscore the ambit of sexual politics in Shakespeare. Monika Sethi exposes the element of gender sensitivity and points out "the paradox of men and women as distinct from one another in their masculinity and femininity, yet connected to each other in their common humanity, despite the wedge driven between them by cultural constructions of gender." Likewise, Preeti Singh takes a dig at Howard Barker's Seven Lears, one of the modern-day adaptations of Shakespeare's King Lear, and points out the gap between the intended attempt and the actual outcome. "In Seven Lears," she writes, "the mother's body becomes a site for the engrafting of repressed male desires, the same desires which in Shakespeare's King Lear turn back and leave a violent trace on the bodies of the men."

The essays are selected out of more than 200 presentations at The Shakespeare Association’s 5th annual international conference held at Kota (Rajasthan) in 2012, an annual event that draws Shakespeare scholars from across the globe. As argued by Dahiya: "Without making his presentations polemical or contentious, Shakespeare effectively puts across the plight of women in history through the spectrum of changing civilisations, and shows their potential, clearly asking for a better deal for them, promising that the imagined environment of a more respectable status for women will ensure a better world for mankind, making our homes more harmonious, our social life more sweet, and our political order more sensitive."