"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Shakespeare’s and Tennessee Williams’ Women


An article in the 2003 Edition of Tennessee Williams Literary Journal by George Hovis entitled “Fifty Percent Illusion” takes a feminist, anti-historical, and very politically correct position concerning Blanche, Lucretia Collins, and Amanda (I would include Laura and Alma as well).  These women act the way they do, according to Hovis (who I think correctly interprets Williams), because of the repressive mores of the Southern Belle era and the equally repressive nature of the Episcopal Church.

Amanda and Blanche adopt the role of the belle in an effort to survive within a social milieu in which they are disempowered (my italics).  Unlike Lucretia, they both adopt the role as a means of literal survival by securing economic and social stability.  More importantly, in the case of Blanche, she performs subtle transformations in the role of the belle and thereby effects a revolution within the gender consciousness of Williams’ audience.

All these women understand their role as Southern belles and their means for survival (finding a socially acceptable and productive mate); but all three (four if one includes Laura) fail.  Hovis, and more importantly, Williams blame society for their failure and demise.  I understand, but I disagree.  Shakespeare’s women were all subservient to men and in today’s lingo “second class citizens”, but all of them understood that they could achieve great power within this system.  They schemed, they fought, they protected their interests and especially those of their children.  In other words, it is hard to have sympathy for the wilting and shrinking violets of Williams when the women of Shakespeare were heroic.  Think of Margaret who fought for the instatement of her son to the throne of England, despite the machinations of her weak husband, Henry VI.  Think about the mother of Richard III and Edward IV who was strong and outspoken in her virulent condemnation of Richard.  Think of the mother of Elizabeth, the wife of Edward IV; or the mother of the murdered (by Richard) Henry VI.  Think of Cleopatra; Portia, the wife of Julius Caesar; Lady Macbeth; Goneril and Regan; and perhaps especially Cordelia who mounts an armed invasion to vindicate her father although he has spurned her.  And then there is Joan of Arc, La Pucelle.  The list goes on.  These women were all born, raised, reared in a “repressive” society and rather than wilt under its repression, thrived under it.  Whether they were successful or not, they were undaunted in their aims.

We know that Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother was a deeply sexual being, and followed the path of her sexual desires and political ambitions by marrying Hamlet’s uncle.  She was unashamed of these desires, and unashamed of the way she, as a woman, could consolidate power while being sexually gratified.  Hamlet has a problem with her actions, but that is his problem, not hers.  She acted perfectly within the social mores and political structures of the time.  No psychosexual neuroses.  OK, there is Ophelia, but her schizophrenia and suicide cannot be laid to a conflict between morality and sexuality as it often is in Williams.  Her madness and suicide has been the source of much discussion over the decades, but no one, I believe, would compare her to the women of Williams. 

As Faulkner had, Tennessee Williams recognized the psychic damage done to Southern women by this stereotype of the belle and its attendant demand of sexual purity….(Hovis)

First, who said that Caddy and her illegitimate daughter, Miss Quentin, suffered under the same Southern belle yoke?  Neither one had sexual repressions and neither seemed to struggle or suffer under it.  It was the son/brother Quentin who could not bear the changes that were happening in his family and to himself and he was the one who committed suicide.  Was the hatred of  Rosa Coldfield, a spinster, for Thomas Sutpen due to these Southern belle traditions.  No indeed.

The more I read about Tennessee Williams from his memoirs, conversations, and essays, I know that he put a lot of himself into these plays; and therefore I can understand his characters, their motivations, and the consequences of their actions.  Williams’ plays are really about him and therefore have validity, power, and meaning.  I can only say that I prefer Shakespeare.  I learn more from him about the human condition and about human nature from him.

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