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

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hedda Gabler–Ibsen’s Strong Women

I have always been a fan of Shakespeare’s strong women.  Tamora, Queen of the Amazons is one of my particular favorites.  She defiled and mutilated Lavinia, Titus Andronicus’ daughter, out of spite and revenge in a show of power and determination.  She had her comeuppance when Titus had his own revenge and chopped up her sons, baked them in a pie, and served them to her for dinner.

Dionyza is another determined woman who sent her henchman to murder Pericles’ daughter, her ward, but a rival to her own plain, lackluster offspring.  My favorite is Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus who destroys her son to gain unmatched power in Rome.  Lady Macbeth was no slouch, controlling, commanding, and emasculating her weak husband until she lost her nerve. Cleopatra ran rings around poor, besotted Antony, tricking and deceiving him until he was destroyed, then in a last moment of theatrical glory committed suicide with an asp.  Margaret, wife of pious, bookish Henry VI took up arms against the French to secure his – their – kingdom.  Joan of Arc bested just about everyone in the English camp, but then caught, went through her own charade of self-serving lies and excuses.

The women of the comedies – Beatrice, Rosalind among them – are canny, manipulative women who get what they want, although their prize is men far beneath them in intelligence and wit.

All these women had a Nietzschean quality.  They all had the conviction  to carry out their wishes, and some had an indomitable will beyond good an evil.

None, however, can match Hedda Gabler, who in her ability to control, manipulate and destroy men simply for the sake of showing that she could was pure Nietzsche.  She is temporarily derailed as her scheme to send Lovborg off to kill himself and to show the world that he, like her, had a sense of willful purity, fails.  Lovborg gets sidetracked in the home of his former mistress, and instead of killing himself with a clean shot to the temple, accidently discharges his pistol and shoots himself in the bowels (balls).  Hedda on the other hand, showing everyone how it should be done – that one should choose the time and place for right action - she shoots herself quickly and efficiently with her own bullet to the brain.  If Lovborg was weak and cowardly, she would never be.

Hedda is marvelous. She marries Tesman for money and position, soon finds out that for all his promises he is a weak and unambitious man. She treats him with scorn and disdain, and he is too stupid to realize her power and his impotence.  She toys with her erstwhile friend Thea, also a lover of Lovborg, and has every intention of destroying her as well. 

Hedda, in a great moment of disdainful power, burns Lovborg’s manuscript, a work that all have acclaimed as the next great book of Norway.  She deliberately ‘kills their child’ – the work that he and Thea have worked on together – intending to drive Lovborg to suicide. She hopes that he will see that now that his great opus, the defining work of his life, is gone, he will man up, show resolve and courage, and do the right thing.  Life without glory is worth nothing, says Hedda.

Hedda Gabler is usually portrayed as a villain – a vixen, succubus, and evil woman; but she is far from that. She is brilliant, and understands that only a few stand out from the herd.  Only a few have the force to express the most vital and essential of all human characteristics – will - and Hedda feels she is one. As a woman – just like those in Shakespeare – she knows that in a man’s world such an expression of will and power can only be had through men; and her greatest feat must be the molding of another in her own immaculate image of purity.

Cleopatra comes the closest to Hedda in her single-mindedness of purpose and in her desire to end it all on her own terms and avoid the humiliation of being paraded through the streets of Rome; but she does not have the Nietzschean amorality of Hedda. She may actually care for Antony in her own way, and unlike Hedda, has a concern for someone else, and is therefore impure.

Nora, the heroine of Ibsen’s A Doll House is not a strong woman but becomes one.  She comes into her own only at the end of the play when her husband, always a pompous fool, outdoes himself and betrays his selfish, small-minded, petty, and ignorant ways.  She has borrowed money from an unscrupulous moneylender only to save Tesman and to pay for a trip to Italy so that he can recuperate from a serious illness.  She keeps this from Tesman, feeling that it would hurt his male pride; and thus until the end acts like a traditional woman.  Finally, regaled by insults and misogynistic rage when he finds out, she snaps.  She’s done with being everyone’s doll and goes off to find herself.  While her final soliloquy is remarkable for its candor and its remarkable perspicacity (most women today would be proud to have had the gumption to be so honest and determined), she is a Johnny-come-lately.  She has spent years under the yoke of father and husband.

Hedda Gabler put up with Tesman, but led her own life with Lovborg and undoubtedly many others.  She only bided her time until she found the right moment to express her frustrated but always indomitable will.  The irony of it all is that at the end she falls under the power of Judge Brack who has always wanted her sexually, and sees that she must suffer the fate of all women yet again.  She refuses and kills herself.

Ibsen’s women are compelling and his plays are dramatic tours de force.  He has all the dramatic power of Shakespeare, and never falls into the grand guignol melodramas of O’Neill’s early works (Mourning Becomes Electra).  Hedda Gabler is one of a kind – unforgettable, remarkable, and brilliant.  

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