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Thursday, October 12, 2023

Chaucer, Shakespeare, And The Treachery of Women - Are Their Lessons Still Valid?

 Chaucer may not have been the first to write about the duplicity and treachery of women, but he was the first to write about it so eloquently.  In The Wife of Bath’s Tale, he is quite explicit.

Lo, here plainly of woman may you find
That woman was the ruin of mankind.
Then read he out how Samson lost his hairs
When sleeping, his mistress cut them with her shears;
And through this treason lost he either eye.
And nothing escaped him of the pain and woe
That Socrates had with his spouses two;”
“Of Clytemnestra, for her lechery,
Who caused her husband’s death by treachery,
He read all thus with greatest zest, I vow.
“Of Livia and Lucia told he me,
For both of them their husbands killed, you see,
The one for love, the other killed for hate;
Then did he tell how one Latumius
Complained unto his comrade Arrius
That in his garden grew a baleful tree
Whereon, he said, his wives, and they were three,
Had hanged themselves for wretchedness and woe.
‘Dear brother,’ Arrius said, ‘and did they so?
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Of course women acted like this.  In the face of patriarchy, male supremacy, chauvinism, and a social system designed to keep women in their place, what other recourse did they have?  The idea that there is something inherently treacherous in female nature is ridiculous; and only an expression of persistent, puerile male fantasies.

Shakespeare was eloquent when it came to strong women.  His Volumnia, Dionyza, Tamora, Lady Macbeth, Goneril, and Regan not only outdid men at every turn but neutered them.  These women were not content with acceding to the throne (e.g. the wives of Henry II, Richard II, and Henry VI, and Cleopatra) but unmanning them.  One can either read Shakespeare’s plays as hymns to strong women, or thinly-veiled expressions of male mistrust of them. 

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Volumnia could have both promoted her son, Coriolanus, and achieved her ambitious ends without sending him to his death and claiming all credit and honor for herself.  Tamora, Queen of the Amazons, needed not to provoke her sons to the rape and dismemberment of Titus Andronicus’s daughter to regain his favor.  Dionyza need not have plotted to murder Marina, daughter of Pericles. 

Lady Macbeth was a succubus, intent on engineering the murder of the king, challenging her weak husband to show what little manhood he had. Goneril and Regan were ambitious harridans who would do anything for power, wealth, and empire.  Cleopatra toyed with Antony, had little respect for him, led him to humiliating defeat at the Battle of Actium, and never thought twice about him when pleading her case before Augustus.

The women of the Comedies are less brutal but no less dismissive of men.  Rosalind, Viola, Portia and others toy with their suitors, unhappy with all of them, consigned to live with the best of a bad lot.  The scenes in The Merchant of Venice where Portia discusses the ridiculousness of the men courting her with her servants is as catty and dismissive as Cleopatra with Mardin.

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More than half of Shakespeare’s Sonnets are written to ‘the lady in black’, another devouring vixen who challenges the young man’s sexuality, manhood, and desire.

Ibsen and Strindberg created strong female characters – Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, Hilda Wangel, Laura, and Miss Julie – but their strength was at the expense of men.  Perhaps the best example of such misandry was that of Laura, wife of the Captain in Strindberg’s The Father.  To gain full control of her daughter in patriarchal Swedish Victorian society, she uses women’s most potent weapon – doubt of paternity.  The Captain, infected by her innuendoes and suggestions that their daughter is not his, goes mad and institutionalized, thus granting her full  rights over their daughter.

Were these playwrights champions of women in a highly repressive Victorian age, acknowledging treachery as an armament of sexual war? Or were they convinced of women’s castrating nature?
Shakespeare seemed to leave no doubt when he created Othello who, at the end of the play, having been convicted of the murder of Desdemona, says that he did a service for his prosecutors and indeed for all men, ridding life of a lying, deceitful, treacherous woman.

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Flaubert was equally eloquent about women’s treachery when he created Emma Bovary, a woman, like others of her age, bound by male patriarchy but who angrily and determinedly refused to subject herself to it.  Emma, however, despite her understandable frustration, is not an admirable woman.  She is just as treacherous, duplicitous, and destructive as the heroines of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Strindberg.

The unmanning, dominant, woman has been a staple of popular culture well into the 20th century.  Double Indemnity, Body Heat, and a hundred other noir films show women at their treacherous worst – using their sex, allure, charm, and intelligence to not only get what they want but to destroy men while getting it.  The Kathleen Turner character in Body Heat kills the one person who can expose her and sends the other to life imprisonment while she leaves the country with her murdered husband’s millions.

Men would probably have not kept women in such bondage if they did not fear their sexual power.  In the old days the concern was paternity – confirmed fatherhood was not only a matter of pride but economics. Why would a Medieval peasant or royal courtier agree to work and risk his life for a son which might not be his? So bondage, imprisonment, and enslavement of women were not surprising. 
The Saudis are a visible example of the inescapable suspicion on women’s fertility.

Can this doubt have persisted to this day and is it responsible for men’s continuing suspicion of women? Of course.  Whether a K Street lawyer or a member of the court of Louis XIV, paternity is always an issue; and as long as only women can know the paternity of their children, they will continue to rule.

Despite ‘inclusivity’, multicultural tolerance, feminism, and the woke culture of today, the paternity of children still does matter.  Paternity, heritage, heredity, social sanction, and position have not disappeared with love and compassion.

Even when paternity, Victorian oppression, and systemic male supremacy are put aside, there is still the question of genetic gender difference.  No matter how many trucks are given to little girls in the playground, they still prefer dolls; and no matter how stringently non-violence is enforced on the playground, boys will still shoot each other with carrots and sticks.   Men are, by nature, genes, and conditioning the pursuers of women who, in turn, must choose mates and prospective fathers to assure genetic superiority.  

That natural diffidence, selectivity, and standoff-ness, so necessary for the future of the species, is also a potent weapon in the gender wars.  Except for the most confident, alpha males, most men put up with classic female opera - women who look like and act like divas to attract as many men as possible, then dismiss all but the most promising.  Darwin was accurate and prescient for the entire animal kingdom.

D.H. Lawrence wrote persuasively about sexual dynamics.  He understood that regardless of Victorian social mores, the fundamental attraction and antagonism between men and women would ensure conflict; but that such conflict was not a bad thing, for out of it could come epiphany – a sexual union with implications far beyond simple satisfaction or ‘love’.  He took for granted the differences between male and female, wrote that such differences would never be resolved, but that parity of wills – a balance of dominance and submission – would be liberating and final.

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In other words, sexual nature – male and female – does have its inevitability; but such polarity can lead to epiphany.  There is no problem with female ambition, duplicity, or even treachery; nor with male aggressiveness and desire for control – if sexual parity, sexual equilibrium, can be achieved.

Edward Albee understood this when he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, perhaps the most explicit work about sexual dynamics since Lawrence.  George and Martha 'flay each other to the bone’ to rid themselves of duplicity, lies, and pretension and to return to a more complementary and stable marriage; but their marriage has been nothing bu duplicity and resentment.  It has been the classic, universal, perennial marriage of sexual wills; and nothing in the play suggests that the future will be otherwise.  We are hardwired, said Albee, destined to play out our sexual destiny in a discouraging repetitiveness. No epiphanies in Albee.

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The war between the sexes – or to put it more objectively, the solution to Lawrence’s and Albee’s quadratic sexual equation – shows no sign of truce; and if they are to be believed, nor should it.  Only out of sexual dissension and resolution comes sexual resolution.

Easier said than done. Men continue to cheat on their wives; wives continue to take their pound of flesh from unrepentant husbands; and  the battle of sexual wills continues in bathrooms, bedrooms, and playgrounds.  No signs of truce, accommodation, or compromise. 

The progressive solution – the creation of a gender spectrum where male-female sexuality gives way to sexual fluidity – is fanciful at best.  Millennia of human society have confirmed sexual bi-polarity.  Old and New Testaments, the Koran, the Ramayana, and the Tao have been expansive in their confirmation of it.  If Lawrence, Albee, Shakespeare, the Kama Sutra, the Song of Solomon, and common sense are right, such hopeful philosophical meanderings are temporary distractions at best.

So, Albee rules – fight until we get past the bone to the marrow.  Accept sexual predicates.  Given in to Darwin, Lawrence, and inevitability.

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