Linda Bamber differentiates between Shakespeare’s treatment of women in comedy and tragedy. In tragedy his women are strong because they are coherent – ‘certainly none of the women in the tragedies worries or changes her mind about who she is’ – and the attacks which are made on them are the product of male resentment at this strength – ‘misogyny and sex nausea are born of failure and self doubt’ . The comic feminine on the other hand, is opposed not to men but to a reified ‘society’: ‘In comedy the feminine either rebels against the restraining social order or (more commonly) presides in alliance with the forces which challenge its hegemony: romantic love, physical nature, the love of pleasure in all its forms’ . Bamber also writes ‘ the comic heroines laugh to see themselves absorbed into the ordinary human comedy; the heroes rage and weep at the difficulty of actually being as extraordinary as the feel themselves to be’ . These moral characteristics ascribed to men and women take no account of their particular circumstances within the texts, nor indeed of their material circumstances and the differential power relations which they support.
When men are approved of they are seen as embracing feminine principles whereas women are denied access to the male and are denigrated when they aspire to male qualities. Marilyn French suggests that Shakespeare divides experience into male (evil) and female (good) principles and his comedies and tragedies are interpreted as ‘either a synthesis of the principles or an examination of the kinds of worlds that result when one or other principle is abused, neglected, devalued or exiled’ .
Shakespeare’s plays invite the audience to make some connection between the events of the action and the form and pressure of their own world. In the case of sex and gender, the concern of feminists, a potential connection is presented between sexual relations as an aspect of narrative – who will marry whom and how? – and sexual relations as an aspect of social relations – how is power distributed between men and women and how are their sexual relations conducted? The process of interpretative criticism is to construct a social meaning for the play out ifs narrative and dramatic realisation. However this is no straightforward procedure: the positions offered by the texts are often contradictory and meaning can be produced by adopting one of the positions offered. The critic can use historical knowledge to speculate about the possible creation of meaning in the light of past institutions and ideologies but the gap between textual meaning and social meaning can never be completely filled for meaning is constructed every time the text is reproduced in the changing ideological dynamic between text and audience.
In Measure for Measure, the women characters define a spectrum of sexual relations from Mistress Overdone, the elderly bawd, through Juliet who is visibly pregnant, to Isabella whose denial of sexuality is contained in the...