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Sunday, July 5, 2015

‘Vanity (Frailty), Thy Name Is Woman’ - How Women Look For Power In All The Wrong Places

Shakespeare never wrote ‘Vanity, thy name is woman’.  The original from Hamlet is “Frailty, thy name is woman”; and therein lies a world of difference. How did one truism get transformed into another?

The correct line is spoken by Hamlet who, frustrated in his incestuous desire to sleep with his mother and frustrated attempts to kill his murderous (Step) Father, blames Gertrude for so quickly and easily bedding Claudius.  She is frail, he says, like all women who fall for power, status, and wealth.  “What was she thinking?”, Hamlet wonders. “Had she no idea who she was sleeping with? Had she no modesty or respect for her dead husband?



Of course he was enraged at his mother for not bedding him; and he mopes through the play unable to face the uncomfortable sexual truth.  A real man would have immediately murdered the usurping king and reclaimed his mother/lover for himself.  Hamlet is more upset by his mother’s imagined promiscuity than he is by his father’s murder; and in a vain attempt to hide his own inadequacy he not only blames his mother but all women.

Hamlet is not the first man in Shakespeare to tar all women with the same brush.  Othello tells his judges tat the end of Act V that they should be happy that he saved them from Desdemona’s perfidy.  Even facing the gallows, he winks at them – “You know what I mean.”

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Posthumus (Cymbeline) who wrongly assumes that his betrothed has betrayed him, throws all women in the same adulterous bin.  Cressida, betrothed to Troilus but traded to the Greeks, makes the best of it and seduces Diomedes in a scene that the lovelorn and cuckolded Troilus watches.

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Shakespeare’s women were anything but frail; and each and every one of them bests if not runs rings around suitors and lovers.  Portia ridicules the royal suitors seeking her hand and fortune.  Men are silly, pompous, and ignorant; and she snickers as each and every one of them boast, strut, and get their comeuppance as one after the other chooses the wrong ‘casket’.

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Rosalind is smart, witty, quick and bored with the prospects of the pedestrian and clueless suitors that seek her hand.  Beatrice makes Benedick jump through hoops before she will even give him the time of day; and Cleopatra makes a fool of Antony, a triumvir of Rome.

Men may think women frail, but the women know otherwise.  There is no poet, playwright, or author who creates strong, determined, and smart women as Shakespeare.

Ibsen and Strindberg were cut from Shakespeare’s cloth.  Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, Rosmersholm, Miss Julie, and The Father are all plays in which men are no match for women.  Hedda is the original Nietzschean amoral character who understands the power of individual will and does not hesitate to use it. Laura emasculates The Captain using a woman’s proprietary knowledge of paternity.  Miss Julie has men literally jump through hoops to do her bidding.

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Christina Mannon in O’Neill’s grand guignol Mourning Becomes Electra murders everyone in her way.  Mary Tyrone rules the roost in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and destroys the men in her family not through aggression, but passivity.  Edmund, James, and James Jr. are her hostages as she plays depression and addiction to her advantage. “Quiet”, says James, “Your mother is trying to sleep”. He tiptoes around the unspeakable subject of her supposed dependency, and defers to his wife’s hysterical manipulation of the family.

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The question of how Shakespeare’s ‘frailty’ got transposed into ‘vanity’ is an unanswered question.  Some have suggested that Dante Gabriel Rossetti is responsible:

Shakespeare never wrote the line "Vanity, thy name is woman." Hamlet's line reads, "Frailty, thy name is woman," in relation to his mother's hasty marriage to Claudius after the King's death. But upon looking at Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lady Lilith, it is impossible not to conjure up Shakespeare's misquoted line. Lady Lilith sensuously reclines in a luxuriant, though decidedly ambiguous, environment. Rossetti's placement of a mirror behind Lilith, reflecting a lush tree in the exterior, complicates the scene both visually and symbolically as the viewer struggles to discern between interiority and exteriority. Yet the focus of the painting is most certainly Lady Lilith herself. She is the consummate image of sensuality and beauty. With heavy-lidded eyes she gazes at herself in the mirror, completely absorbed in her own image (www.victorianweb.org)

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Why Lilith so many centuries after Shakespeare? The more plausible explanation is a psycho-social one. Men have always mistrusted women with good reason. For courtier and commoner alike paternity in Elizabethan times was serious business.  Kings were concerned about lineage, heritage, and succession; and peasants refused to work hard hours for offspring that weren’t theirs. Vanity – the display of feminine allure – was logically associated with infidelity, breach of trust, and cuckoldry.  ‘Frail’ women were sure to be ‘vain’ to attract and seduce sexual interlopers.

Strindberg understood women’s absolute power over men. In The Father Laura preys on her husband’s uncertainty about the paternity of their daughter and literally drives him insane enough to be committed to a mental institution, thus freeing her under Swedish law, to be the sole guardian of their daughter.

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Why, then, so much fuss and bother about the role of women in American society? Why so much hysterical coverage of rape, sexual abuse, and patriarchal obstacles to social status and position?

As far as Shakespeare was concerned women could more than hold their own.  Margaret, for example, wife of the pusillanimous and indecisive Henry VI took to the battlefield to engage the French. Cleopatra sailed with Antony in the Battle of Actium to assure victory and her ascendancy to regent of Imperial Rome.  Tamora, Queen of the Goths, had her sons rape and dismember Lavinia as a show of strength and superiority over Titus Andronicus.  Volumnia, understanding the particular and peculiar dependency of sons to their mothers, manipulates Coriolanus and bests him to her advantage.

It is hard to muster much sympathy for women who continue to cry ‘foul’ after reading Shakespeare, O’Neill, Strindberg, and Ibsen.  Modern women, it seems, want to engage men on men’s turf, and of course will always come out second best; but if they took a lesson from Tamora, Gertrude, Rosalind, and Cleopatra, they would be much better off.  Men are and always have been drooling, dithering, sexual slaves when tempted by women. They cannot resist a seductive look, a sexual come-on, or the promise of ‘more’. Women’s flirtatiousness has always been no more than time for assessment. Is he, or isn’t he worth the bother?  Cleopatra in her scenes with her minions mock Antony – a fish to be reeled in, a bucking bronco to be corralled.


If women, after millennia of negotiating men’s simplistic, direct, unsophisticated, and hormone-driven desires, cannot best them in bed and in the marketplace, then something is very, very wrong.

Why do women need society’s protection? How have they lost the upper hand?  In the quest for economic and social equality they have lost the real battle – sexual superiority. Women in Shakespeare’s day could care less about official status and recognition.  They played by the rules which, if anyone cared to look beneath the surface, were canted in their favor. Men had conniption fits over fidelity, paternity, and wifely honor and respect because they knew that no patriarchy, no male prerogative, no social order could ever trump women’s innate dominance.

Men and women were created equal.  Men have physical strength, hormone-induced aggression, and drive for food-chain dominance; but women have intelligence, intellectual sophistication, and the power of reproduction.  The field of play is even.  Women’s persistent, boring, and ignorant whinging about discrimination, rape, and the glass ceiling have no credence or resonance whatsoever.

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