Editors: Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts

Publisher: Manchester University Press, 1997


Available here.

It seems apt, in a year that witnesses the Women’s Library’s exile from its beautiful home in East London, to celebrate Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. The 1997 collection, edited by Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, brings to light work that has for the most part been ‘out of print’ and only accessible in ‘specialist libraries’ – libraries that are now hanging on by a thread. Thompson and Roberts have gathered together commentaries on Shakespeare by forty-three women over two centuries, and the resulting anthology will be re-issued as a paperback next month (August 2013). So far, so good: Women Reading Shakespeare is fighting the good fight against a recession that has done for the preservation of knowledge what a can of Lynx and a lighter did for the shell suit.

But about the content? Thompson and Roberts hope that their anthology proves the neglect of so many female critics to be underserved; happily, this is often true. One of the earliest writers featured in the book is Charlotte Lennox, who was mentored and admired by Samuel Johnson. In 1753, Lennox published a detailed study of Shakespeare’s sources that also comments on the success – or otherwise – of his adaptations. Lennox is succeeded by Elizabeth Montagu, who reflects on the dangers of Shakespeare’s increasing deification; this is not something Lennox has to worry about, and she expresses her frustration with the unfeasibility and injustice of Measure for Measure with an acerbic thoroughness that foreshadows its contemporary categorisation as a problem play. Lennox, like most modern audiences, is particularly outraged that the ‘vicious and hypocritical Angelo’ is rewarded with ‘fair and virtuous’ Mariana, and concludes that ‘Shakespeare made a wrong choice of his Subject, since he was obliged to torture it into a Comedy [.]’ This is evidenced by

…the low Contrivance, absurd Intrigue, and Improbable Incidents, he was obliged to introduce, in order to bring about three or four Weddings, instead of one good Beheading…

Delia Bacon (1857) displays a similar critical acuity, despite being dismissed as ‘totally batty’ by Stephen Fry on the QI Shakespeare Special just the other week. Her theory that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Francis Bacon (no relation) may be groundless, but that hasn’t stopped it inspiring a number of rival hypotheses on the “true author” of the collected works – in 2011 one popular offshoot, which bestows The Bard’s ruff on the 17th Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere, even found its way into film (Anonymous, Columbia Pictures). And there’s method in her madness. Bacon’s theory stems in part from a discussion of the conditions of censorship that existed in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and she makes an elegant case for covert political radicalism in Shakespeare’s plays that has more recently been considered at length by the indisputably sane Jonathan Bate (Soul of the Age, 2008).

Other highlights in the collection result from the editors’ decision to include various genres hovering on the margins of criticism “proper” such as educational or juvenile editions of Shakespeare’s plays and memoirs of celebrated Shakespearian actors including Sarah Siddons (1834) and Adelaide Ristori (1888). This decision makes perfect sense given the kinds of writing most accessible to women prior to 1900, and the texts produced for children in particular show us something of the ideological cross-currents that caught up their authors as well as their intended readers.

In 1807, for instance, something curious happens. In that year, two editions of Shakespeare were offered what was commonly called ‘the family circle’: neither carries its author’s name. One is attributed to Charles Lamb, and contains twenty prose versions of the plays together with a long preface. Of these, fourteen ‘tales’ and most of the preface were in fact written by Charles’ sister Mary. The other 1807 text, The Family Shakespeare, was published anonymously but proves to be the work of a Bowdler – not Thomas Bowdler, whose 1818 edition became an infamous bestseller, but his more swingeing sister Henrietta. Lamb and Bowdler are equally insistent that their texts are suitable for ‘the very young mind’ (Lamb), but their ideas of suitability are somewhat different.  While Bowdler ignores Measure for Measure entirely, Lamb faces up to and explains many of the play’s moral ambiguities, including sexual mores, in language that would pass muster with the fiercest governess. In her preface, Lamb appeals directly to ‘young gentlemen’ to help make the literature they have been able to read freely accessible to their less fortunate sisters:

…boys being generally permitted the use of their fathers’ libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book; and, therefore, instead of recommending these Tales to the perusal, of young gentlemen who can read them so much better in the originals, their kind assistance is rather requested in explaining to their sisters such parts as are hardest for them to understand: and when they have helped them to get over the difficulties, then perhaps they will read to them (carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister’s ear) some passage which has pleased them in one of these stories, in the very words of the scene from which it is taken…

It is here that the call for girls’ education is articulated clearly for the first time in the anthology, and the cause is taken up in fine style by Anna Jameson in 1832; the dialogue that prefaces Jameson’s Characteristics of Women: Moral, Poetical and Historical, in which ‘Alda’ argues with a male friend against the prevailing ‘forcing system of education’ that turns young women into ‘full-blown, flaunting, precocious roses’, is more compelling than the character studies of Shakespeare’s heroines that make up the text proper.

If there is a problem with the anthology, it’s with these character studies. There’s just so many of them. Thompson and Roberts comment on this in their introduction, and the tendency to read Shakespearian heroines as role models or moral warnings that is demonstrated throughout Women Reading Shakespeare is doubtless worthy of sociological enquiry. Nevertheless, it is wearing to read veneration after veneration of Desdemona as a perfect wife, or to see the final speech of The Taming of the Shrew praised so often without any hint of irony. These views are so ubiquitous that I found myself cheering when, in 1775, Elizabeth Griffith wondered whether ‘the doctrine of passive obedience and non resistance in the state of marriage [was] carried, perhaps, rather a little too far’ upon Kate’s offer to place her hand under Petruchio’s foot. Clearly the collection aims to represent as many women critics as possible and while this is certainly democratic and probably necessary, the result can be a little repetitive.

It’s also a shame that the Shakespearian scenes by women artists that have been chosen to illustrate the book are not better reproduced. It’s as disappointing to read ‘the original watercolour is very vividly coloured’ under Pamela Coleman Smith’s Macbeth (1898) as it must have been to write.

Overall, though, Women Reading Shakespeare is an invaluable reference. It boasts two indexes, one general (eleven pages) and one play-by-play with separate entries for popular characters. The bibliography contains a mine of information on secondary as well as primary sources, and the editors have also included a table of 9 quick-reference subjects ranging from class distinction to cross-dressing. It is clearly a labour of love, without which most of these texts would be lost to history.    

Public IntellectualBarbara Cooke is an Associate Tutor in Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia where she has recently completed a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing. She is also an occasional reviewer for Fiction Uncovered. You can read about her work at www.barbaracooke.net or follow her @DecafB.