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Friday, April 3, 2015

The Heroines of Shakespeare
The Speaker, October 26, 1901

SHAKESPEARE'S HEROINES. By Mrs. Jameson. London: J. M. Dent

Mrs. Jameson's book on "Shakespeare's Heroines" is deeply interesting: assuredly there is no more profoundly typical and interesting subject. In no other point was Shakespeare so Elizabethan: in no other point was he so Shakespearian. Mrs. Jameson follows the delicate outlines of these great figures with great patience and tenderness: she follows them from scene to scene with the most detailed symbolism. This is probably right enough in dealing with women, in whom the detail which appears to mean least generally means most. If a certain abysmal sympathy were all that women needed, if the whole essence of Shakespeare’s heroines could be, if I may so express it, coaxed out of them, if a woman were not only womanly, but womanly and nothing else, then we could hardly ask anything sounder in the way of Shakespearian criticism than Mrs. Jameson's sketches of the Shakespearian heroines. But Mrs. Jameson has, to my mind, made one great and disastrous omission. She has fully realised and quite correctly realised that Shakespeare's heroines were very delightful and warm-hearted women, with whom men very naturally fell in love. But she has, I think, entirely forgotten one thing about Shakespeare's heroines: she has forgotten that, among other things, they were heroines.

It is an odd thing that the words hero and heroine have in their constant use in connection with literary fiction entirely lost their meaning. A hero now means merely a young man sufiiciently decent and reliable to go through a few adventures without hanging himself or taking to drink. The modern realistic novelist introduces us to a weak-kneed young suburban gentleman who varies dull respectability with duller vice, and consumes three thick volumes before he has decided which woman he will marry. And by the strange, blasphemous perversion of words, he is called "The Hero." He might just as well, in reason, be called "The Saint," or "The Prophet," or "The Messiah." A hero means a man of heroic stature, a demigod, a man on whom rests something of the mystery which is beyond man. Now, the great and striking thing about heroines like Portia and Isabella and Rosalind is that they are heroines, that they do represent a certain dignity, a certain breadth, which is distinct from the mere homely vigour of the Shakespearian men. You could not slap Portia on the back as you could Bassanio. There may or may not be a divinity that doth hedge a king, but there is certainly a divinity that doth hedge a queen. To understand this heroic quality in the Shakespearian women it is necessary to grasp a little the whole Elizabethan, and especially the whole Shakespearian, view of this matter.

The great conception at the back of the oldest religions in the world is, of course, the conception that man is of divine origin, a sacred and splendid heir, the eldest son of the universe. But humanity could not in practice carry out this conception that everyone was divine. The practical imagination recoils from the idea of two gods swindling each other over a pound of cheese. The mind refuses to accept the idea of sixty bodies, each filled with a blazing divinity, elbowing each other to get into an omnibus. This mere external difficulty causes men in every age to fall back upon the conception that certain men preserved for other men the sanctity of man. Certain figures were more divine because they were more human. In primitive times of folklore, and in some feudal periods, this larger man was the conquering hero, the strong man who slew dragons and oppressors. To the old Hebrews this sacred being was the prophet: to the men of the Christian ages it was the saint. To the Elizabethans this sacred being was the pure woman.

The heroic conception of womanhood comes out most clearly in Shakespeare because of his astonishing psychological imagination, but it exists as an ideal in all Elizabethans. And the precise reason why the heroines of Shakespeare are so splendid is because they stand alone among all his characters as the embodiments of the prirnal ages of faith. They are the high and snowy peaks which catch the last rays of the belief in the actual divinity of man. We feel, as we read the plays, that the women are more large, more typical, belong more to an ideal and less to a realistic literature. They are the very reverse of abstractions; considered merely as women they are finished down to the finest detail. Yet there is something more in them that is not in the men. Portia is a good woman and Bassanio is a good man. But Portia is more than a woman: Portia is Woman and Bassanio is not Man. He is merely a very pleasant and respectable individual.

There are Elizabethan plays so dark and frightful that they read like the rubbish from the waste-paper basket of a mad-house. No one but a prophet possessed of devils, one might fancy, could produce incidents so abrupt and so sombre, could call up scenes so graphic and so unmeaning. In one play a man is forced to watch the murder of those he loves and cannot speak because his tongue is nailed to the floor with a dagger. In another a man is torn with red-hot pincers; in another a man is dropped through a broken floor into a caldron. With horrible cries out of the lowest hell it is proclaimed that man cannot be continent, that man cannot be true, that he is only the filthiest and the funniest of monkeys. And yet the one belief that all these dark and brutal men admit, is the belief in the pure woman. In this one virtue, in this one sex, something heroic and holy, something, in the highest sense of that high word, fabulous, was felt to reside. Man was natural, but woman was supernatural.

Now, it is quite clear that if this was the Elizabethan view of woman, Mrs. Jameson misses an essential point in dealing with Shakespearian women as purely womanly. Portia is not only the most splendid and magnanimous woman in literature. She is not only the heroine of the play, she is the play. She is the absolute heroic ideal upon which the play is built. Shakespeare had conceived, with extraordinary force, humour and sympathy, a man to express the ideal of technical justice, formal morality, and the claim of a man to his rights: the man was Shylock. Over against him he set a figure representing the larger conception of generosity and persuasion, the justice that is fused of a score of genial passions, the compromise that is born of a hundred worthy enthusiasms. Portia had to represent the ideal of magnanimity in law, morality, religion, art, and politics. And Shakespeare made this figure a good woman because, to the mind of his day, to make it a good woman was to ring it with a halo and arm it with a sword.

Nor can I agree with Mrs. Jameson's very patronising version of that glorious heroine, Beatrice. She seems to resent those very manifestations of pride and satire and vivacity which make Beatrice what she is. At times I fancy that Mrs. Jameson was a victim of that strange notion which believes that the New Woman is new. The thing is a delusion. The notion of the new sphere of women is to be found in dusty chronicles and obscure illuminations: the revolt of the daughters may be traced in mouldering stones and battered wood carving. The notion that the grey mare is the better horse is probably the oldest joke in the world. If Beatrice was witty and fierce, if Beatrice was strong and self-contained, if Beatrice was the heiress of an eternal rebellion against the grotesque vanity of men, Beatrice was not less of a woman, but more so.

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