Taking Selfies Seriously

Those who are familiar with Women Are Boring will know that this is the first new research piece to be published on the site since the tragic death of our co-founder, Grace McDermott, on 1st May 2017. If you’re a new reader, and you’d like to learn more about Grace, please take a look here. If you’d like to donate to a charity in memory of Grace, please follow this link.

Taking Selfies Seriously

by Mary McGill

Selfie piece

Stupid. Narcissistic. Annoying. Typing ‘selfies are …’ into Google leaves no doubt as to how the phenomenon is generally regarded. It’s evident in the wry eyebrow arch when people hear about my research, that sniff of judgement suggesting in no uncertain terms that taking selfie culture seriously is a suspicious and fanciful activity.

In Western societies were atomisation is endemic, selfie culture is often used to symbolise our current malaise, typified by rising levels of anxiety, loneliness and intolerance. Young women’s fascination with the phenomenon can be particularly worrying, as sociologist Ben Agger underscored when he described the selfie as ‘the male gaze gone viral’.[1] Concern in these contexts is understandable. Dismissing selfie culture, however, and disparaging those who partake in it, brings us no closer to understanding its appeal. And if aspects of that appeal are unsettling or at worst harmful, dismissal brings us no closer to solutions.

As a researcher, I am drawn to the ‘why’ of the selfie’s popularity. My work explores young women’s (aged 18-30) subjective views on the phenomenon and the ways in which they position themselves in relation to it. It pays close attention to the following questions: if we say that selfie practices are indicative of a ‘culture’, what does that mean? And if this culture holds an appeal for women (as is indicated by research, not just opinion), why is this the case? Key to this is taking culture – specifically popular culture, the soup we swim in every day – seriously.

We use the term ‘culture’ in a variety of ways but it usually refers to popular entertainment, and issues of identity, community, and difference. Cultural studies, in the British tradition, understands culture as political, a site where meaning is made and power is challenged, negotiated and exercised. Central to this is subjectivity, how us human beings, as subjects, come to understand ourselves and the world through culture. As John Hartley succinctly puts it, ‘culture is the sphere of reproduction not of goods but of life.’[2]

Feminist cultural studies, the tradition I work within, began, as so often is the case, to redress an imbalance, namely the absence of women in cultural analysis, both as participants and as a focus. Its arrival on the academic scene contributed to the cultural studies’ axis tilting from arguments concerned with ‘ideology and hegemony to those concerning identity and subjectivity’.[3] While the melding of feminism and cultural studies is sometimes difficult, they do share some key concerns, most notably how power and oppression function, and how knowledge is created and naturalised.

In studying selfie culture, I am interested in how our impressions of this new phenomenon have been formed, especially in popular commentary. Such commentary often draws on disparaging tropes of female vanity and narcissism to explain why it is young women are drawn to the selfie. The more these conversations are had, the more these conclusions are reiterated and the more this perspective becomes accepted ‘common sense’, a process that is often as unhelpful as it is lacking in significant insight.

Now, there is no doubt that narcissism and vanity are critical factors. But failure to ask more complex questions of selfie culture (or to reflect on the social and historical relationship between narcissism and femininity) risks developing understandings of it that are at best superficial and at worst, woefully insufficient for unpacking its appeal. As landmarks of early feminist cultural scholarship showed, the ways in which women and girls engage with culture (specifically in these cases, popular culture like the romance novel and girls’ magazines) are nuanced, complicated and sometimes contradictory. To write such engagement off as frivolous perpetuates sexist attitudes regarding women as consumers and producers of culture. It fails to consider why and how aspects of culture become gendered. It also ignores the richness of women’s experiences and the potential for knowledge distilled from these experiences to challenge injustice.

 

 

As landmarks of early feminist cultural scholarship showed, the ways in which women and girls engage with culture (specifically in these cases, popular culture like the romance novel and girls’ magazines) are nuanced, complicated and sometimes contradictory. To write such engagement off as frivolous perpetuates sexist attitudes regarding women as consumers and producers of culture.

 

 

So, what does all this mean for how women engage with selfie culture? To begin, we need to situate the selfie as part of Western visual culture in which images of women created by men dominate advertising, film, photography, classical art and so on. Since the Second Wave, feminist scholars have sought to denaturalise these images, drawing attention to the power dynamics inherent in their construction and the function of such images as commodity objects in capitalist societies. These scholars also explored women’s personal relationships to visual and popular culture. For example, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan showed how iconographies of wifely domesticity differed from women’s subjective experiences of their lives in Fifties and Sixties suburbia[4]. This dissonance led Friedan to remark, ‘A geiger counter clicked in my own inner ear when I could not fit the quiet desperation of so many women into the picture of the modern American housewife.’[5] Images of women then, characteristically represent idealised notions of femininity which girls and women relate to in complex ways.

Digital technologies have enabled women and other minorities to self-represent online, a welcome disruption to the traditional regime of image production, circulation and reception. While the ability to self-represent in a world were representation for all is still a work in progress is a positive, it is not without issue. As French philosopher Michel Foucault puts it, ‘Visibility is a trap.’[6] Foucault refers to the ways in which the process of being seen, whether real or imagined, can be used to instil discipline. Sensing that they are being watched, human beings monitor their behaviour and the behaviour of others. This dynamic influences the kind of behaviour which is deemed socially acceptable and which must be punished.

In representing ourselves on social media using artefacts like the selfie, we claim space through visibility. In doing so, we simultaneously open ourselves up to new, more intense forms of judgement and surveillance. If you have ever posted a tweet that went wrong or a selfie that got no likes, you will know exactly the kinds of feelings that this digital system of ‘being seen’ can inspire. In this climate, I find myself considering whether selfie culture alleviates the kind of dissonance Friedan describes or presents fresh and potentially even more invasive iterations of the same old dynamics. For instance, images of women have long been used to fuel consumer dreams. Thus, in the age of an internet that is designed and dominated by corporations, we need to remain cognizant of how images of women, even those taken by women themselves, can be utilised as commodities by a system that is as patriarchal as it is neoliberal.

Just as ‘the personal is political’ shapes feminist activism, it also informs feminist scholarship. I am regularly struck by how rarely young women’s perspectives feature in mainstream discussions on their relationship to selfie culture. This is exclusionary and short-sighted. In collecting and analysing data from women themselves, feminist scholars have succeeded in challenging flimsy presumptions while providing nuanced understandings of social phenomena. The young women I interview are no dupes; they are well-aware of how the selfie is regarded because they navigate those assumptions every day. Their relationship to selfie culture is complicated and illuminating, but you would never appreciate that if you wrote it off as narcissistic or frivolous, refusing to take the time to listen.

For better or for worse, be it on Instagram or Snapchat or some new-fangled app, the selfie is here to stay. Taking the phenomenon and its enthusiasts seriously is the first step to unpacking its appeal and learning how best to tackle its challenges. If visibility is a trap as Foucault suggests, it is only through attentive, open-minded research that we will be able to identify selfie culture’s worst effects while also gaining useful insights into that which makes it so compelling.

References 

[1] Agger, B. (2013) Quoted in ‘Putting Selfies Under a Feminist Lens’ by Meghan Murphy, Georgia Straight. 3 April 2013. Online at: https://www.straight.com/life/368086/putting-selfies-under-feminist-lens

[2] Hartley, J. (2004) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts, Routledge, p.51

[3] Franklin, S., Lury, C. and Stacey, J. (1991) Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies, p.6

[4] Shiach, M. (1991) ‘Feminism and Popular Culture’, Critical Quarterly, 33(2), pp. 37–46.

[5] Friedan, B. (1963) The Feminine Mystique, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, p. 29.

[6] Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Pantheon, p.197.

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Literary representations of maternity

Narrative obstetrics: on literary representations of maternity

by Helen Charman, PhD Candidate at Trinity Hall and the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge.

In February— in case you needed reminding— Beyoncé announced that she was pregnant with twins via a heavily symbolic photoshoot that drew on everything from 15th century Flemish portraiture to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Queen Nefertiti. Announced on the first day of Black History Month in America, the pictures figure as a twofold celebration of historically marginalised and objectified physicalities. Amongst the inevitable media furore, the celebrations were countered by predictable complaints from the entire political spectrum of the media, backed up by censorious comments from members of the public. Readers all over the U.K. felt compelled to share that they ‘couldn’t care less’ about the announcement, urging the papers to ‘write about real news’ instead. In fact, many commenters professed to care so little about Beyoncé and her belly that they composed quite lengthy rants about it. Perhaps, as seems to have been the case for one visitor to The Sun online, the photographs were the final straw: ‘Yet another preggie publicly flaunting that ugly bump. Why cant these people wear sensible clothes and cover up, keep the naked pics for their own eyes.’

beyonce P1

A photo from Beyoncé’s photoshoot

The desire to censor the pregnant female body is nothing new, and it goes hand in hand with our inability to discuss things like the menstrual cycle without deferring to the delicate sensibilities of actual or imagined listeners, particularly male ones. Beyoncé’s photographs were accompanied by a poem by Warsan Shire, making the link to Venus— goddess of love— explicit, and reinforcing the sexual aspect of the images: ‘in the dream I am crowning / osun, / Nerfetiti, / and yemoja / pray around my bed’. The photograph that seemed to incense people the most was the one posed sitting on the roof of a car: a hyper-sexualised pose familiar to many from calendars and glamour magazines. Critics were also vocal about the ‘exploitative’ nature of the photographs, suggesting that there was something unseemly about Beyoncé— who, as of March 2017, has a net worth estimated by Forbes to be over $290 million — ‘using’ her pregnancy to contribute to her lucrative personal brand. The announcement illustrated a familiar truth: the intersection of female sexuality and economic power— and its mirror image, commodification— touches on deep-seated societal fears. Although the smattering of tight-lipped comment pieces framing their disapproval of the photograph’s lavish celebration of the pregnant body as concern for childless women were mostly disingenuous— this concern doesn’t usually seem to bother tabloid newspapers who mine ‘fertility’ dramas for exposure— they served to illuminate the paradox of maternity: censorship goes hand in hand with idealisation. Some of the positive responses to the announcement were deceptively conservative in their valourisation of motherhood as a woman’s ‘true’ purpose, something all too easily appropriated by exclusionary and harmful discussions about what ‘real’ womanhood is or should be.

My doctoral research evidences that these conflicting attitudes to motherhood are far from a new phenomenon. I am a PhD student in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, and my doctoral research uses the novels of the prolific Victorian author, translator and essayist George Eliot as a focus through which to explore the changing attitude towards maternity in the nineteenth century. In her seminal study of ‘motherhood as experience and institution’, Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich asks how have women given birth, who has helped them, and how, and why? These are not simply questions of the history of midwifery and obstetrics: they are political questions.’[1] My project contends that by the time Eliot published her last novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876 the political aspects of these questions had become issues of economic and literary production, too: like the furore around Beyoncé’s baby bump, the response to pregnant bodies in the nineteenth century demonstrated subversive power they held over every aspect of society.

george-eliot-0

George Eliot

In the Victorian period the mother was idealised as, in Coventry Patmore’s phrase, ‘the angel in the house’: the pressures of the new industrial age created a divide between the public, masculine workplace and the feminine, domestic domain of the home, which was seen as place of moral stability in a changing world. Yet the domestic idolisation of the mother was closely linked to the rapid economic and political advancements occurring in ‘masculine’ society. From the eighteenth century onwards, childbirth itself had become radically medicalized: rather than midwives attending to expectant mothers in their homes— in exclusively female spaces— lying-in hospitals, male obstetricians and the use of forceps became the norm. Wet-nursing turned mother’s milk— and the lactating breast— into a commodity. Throughout the nineteenth century, the effectiveness of these medical advancements was fiercely debated in publications like the British Medical Journal and The Lancet: these discussions were overwhelmingly dominated by men who linked the debates around childbirth to broader political and moral debates of the time. Ruth Perry, Valerie Fildes and other historians of motherhood have made a persuasive argument that this medicalization, alongside the charitable drives to save infant lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as the establishment of the London Foundling Hospital, links the construction and valourisation of bourgeois motherhood to the Victorian concern with Empire. As Perry puts it,

… motherhood was a colonial form—the domestic, familial counterpart to land enclosure at home and imperialism abroad. Motherhood as it was constructed in the early modern period is a production-geared phenomenon analogous to the capitalizing of agriculture, the industrializing of manufacture, and the institutionalizing of the nation state.[2]

In the nineteenth century, the emergence of the maternal ideal was, rather than a positive or empowering development for women, a means of co-opting the female reproductive body into the service of a patriarchal societal and economic system.

So how does this link to the literature? By the end of the nineteenth century, the novel had become the most prominent literary form in Britain. The revival of serialisation increased accessibility and, combined with the dominance of social realism, meant prose fiction was a highly relevant and reactive art form. In the first half of the century, economists had reformulated traditional concepts of value according to the ability to generate financial returns. As the novel became increasingly concerned with an explicitly capitalist system of value, the figure of the mother became symbolic of these ongoing debates about worth: the commodification of care. The reproductive bodies of the female protagonists in George Eliot’s novels, as well as in the work of her contemporaries like Charles Dickens, are embedded in a complex value system in which their idealized virtue is directly related to their economic function as producers.

Maternal virtue, however, was inconveniently linked to sexuality. The female body was most acceptable when it could be rationalised as fulfilling the function of maternity, but the physical reality of pregnancy was a threat to repressive norms that governed Victorian society. As Carolyn Dever notes, novels of this period were struggling of an impossible reconciliation of ‘a maternal ideal with the representation of the embodied—and potentially eroticized—female subject.’[3] Consequently, the idealised mother loomed large in Victorian fiction, but more often than not these texts feature mothers who are absent, or dead: psychologically overwhelming, but physically absent. Although recent developments in historical thought suggest that the maternal mortality rate in the nineteenth century was not as high as was once assumed, it is true that the medicalization of childbirth brought with it an epidemic of puerperal fever, or ‘childbed fever’. Maternal death in nineteenth-century fiction, however, far exceeded the actual rates of childbed death, which consistently remained well below 1%. Dever and others have linked this trope to Freudian psychoanalysis, and the destabilising effect the idea of the sexual maternal body could have upon the identities of children raised in a culture that linked female sexuality with hysteria and disorder. In nineteenth-century narrative, the tragic death of the mother ensured her virtue: free of the troubling aspects of her embodied existence, she could fulfil the symbolic role society required of her.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

In a letter of 1866, George Eliot referred to her fiction as an attempt to ‘make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh and not in the spirit’. This notion of ‘incarnation’ is undermined, however, by the fact that Eliot largely avoids any engagement with matters of the flesh. Indeed, Eliot seems to want to avoid biological maternity altogether. In her novels mothers either die young— often in childbirth— or are comically incompetent or grotesque and replaced by substitutionary maternal figures who are able to provide moral guidance uncomplicated by the problem of physical maternity. The few female protagonists in her work who do go on to have children have to sacrifice something of themselves in the process: Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch (1871-1872), lives happily with her husband and two children, but we learn in the novel’s final passage that although her husband is an active social reformer, Dorothea’s own ambitions remain unfulfilled. It could be argued that the reason for the dearth of maternal characters in Eliot’s novels is the narrative dead end the circumstances of maternity provided for so many nineteenth-century women. We’ve got a long way to go before we can honestly say that this isn’t still the case for many women today. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich— writing in 1986— comments on the metaphorical resonance that death in childbirth retains:

Even in a place and time where maternal mortality is low, a woman’s fantasies of her own death in childbirth have the accuracy of metaphor. Typically, under patriarchy, the mother’s life is exchanged for the child; her autonomy as a separate being seems fated to conflict with the infant she will bear. The self-denying, self-annihilating role of the Good Mother (linked implicitly with suffering and with the repression of anger) will spell the “death” of the woman or girl who once has hopes, expectations, fantasies for herself—especially when those hopes and fantasies have never been acted on.[4]

The valourised, idealised Good Mother is a trope that works against women, not for them. If we want to change it, we need to understand where it came from, and how inherently linked it is to our economic and political systems, and we need more ‘preggies’ like Beyoncé to ‘flaunt’ their maternity in a way that includes, rather than denies, their autonomous, sexual identities.

[1] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London: Virago, 1976, reissued with a new introduction by the author [1986], reprinted 1992), p.128.

[2] Ruth Perry, ‘Colonising the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England’, (Journal of the History of Sexuality,Vol. 2, No. 2, Special Issue, Part 1: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe (Oct., 1991), pp. 204-234), p. 205.

[3]Carolyn Dever, Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), p. 19.

[4] Rich, p.166.

Commemoration, Inclusion, and Dialogue in 1916 Centenary Drama in Northern Ireland

By: Kayla Rush

The sanctuary of Belfast’s Fitzroy Presbyterian Church buzzed with activity. Friends and neighbours chatted among the dark wooden pews, the columns of the pipe organ soaring high above their heads. The congenial atmosphere felt like the minutes before the start of a church service, save for the Beatles tunes playing softly in the background.

Halfway House

At precisely 7:30, the music stopped, and those assembled fell silent as the lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on the platform in the middle of the sanctuary, turning it into a minimalist theatre stage. A white-haired man walked onto the stage. He introduced himself to us as Philip Orr, the author of Halfway House, the play we had all come to see. He explained that the play is set in 1966, in a snowed-in pub in the Sperrin Mountains. As he described the particular historical setting of the mid-1960s – a time of significant social change in the Western world, and in Northern Ireland the years directly preceding the conflict known as ‘the Troubles’ – the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ began to play softly, and two women joined him on stage, entering from opposite doors on either side of the platform.
In the course of the next hour, we watched as the two women, Bronagh and Valerie, weathered the snowstorm – of which we were occasionally reminded by an audio clip of a howling winter wind – in conversation with one another, a conversation that ranged from congenial and sympathetic to tense and, at times, openly hostile. We soon learned that one woman is Protestant, the other Catholic; one’s father a veteran of the Easter Rising, the other’s father a veteran of the Battle of the Somme.

Parallels and Contemporary Politics

The essence of the play rests in these parallels: both women grew up in Downpatrick, County Down, but due to the divided nature of the community they have only heard of each other’s families, never met – ‘a question of “same place but separate lives”’, as one of the women puts it (Orr 2016: 5).

Both are equally proud of their respective parents’ brief military service in 1916, and both tell stories of national and familial hurts occasioned by the other ‘side’.

Halfway House[i] capitalized on an important historic concurrence: the close proximity of the Easter Rising (24-29 April 1916) and the Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916). The Easter Rising is commemorated each year as an important event in the formation of an independent Irish state, and relatedly with the Partition of Ireland. It is associated with an Irish identity, and thus with Catholicism, nationalism, and republicanism. The Battle of the Somme serves as a sort of opposite: it is commemorated as an important event in British history, and is thus associated with British-ness, Protestantism, unionism, and loyalism (see Grayson and McGarry 2016)[ii].
Commemorations serve the present: they harness the past and shape it in ways that suit the commemorators’ present-day needs. As anthropologist Dominic Bryan puts it, ‘The marking of a centenary is an act of contemporary politics… the commemorative practices are constructed in the present, for the present’ (in Bryan et al. 2013: 66).

Female Voices and Cross-Community Dialogue 

As part of my Ph.D. research, I look at one particular approach to commemoration, in which artists, particularly those working in community arts, engaged with the dual centenary of the Somme and the Easter Rising in their work. Halfway House is one of my case studies.
I would like to draw out two key projects that such artistic endeavours attempt to accomplish, using Halfway House as an example. First, the play mirrors a wider move toward more inclusive commemorations in Northern Ireland in the twenty-first century. Commemorations that recognize both the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising, and the roles of both Catholics and Protestants in each, have become increasingly common (Daly and O’Callaghan 2007: 4; McCarthy 2012: 430-439; Grayson and McGarry 2016: 2-3).

Likewise, Orr’s choice to write women characters reflects a growing desire to include women’s voices in the narratives told during and around commemorations (see Mullally 2016).

While the stories that Valerie and Bronagh tell are still in many ways men’s stories – the stories of their fathers’ involvement in armed conflict, and of their fathers’, brothers’, and uncles’ pride in the respective commemorations – they also speak of the fabric of their everyday lives as women in the Northern Ireland of the 1960s: leaving the workforce after having children, moving to the ‘big city’ of Belfast versus staying at ‘home’ in Downpatrick, caring for elderly relatives, and so forth.

Second, Halfway House represents a desire for increased dialogue, both between individuals and, more widely, between the two main ‘communities’ in Northern Ireland. The two women model ‘good’ dialogue for their audiences: while they may disagree on certain points, they never raise their voices or interrupt each other, and each actively listens and attempts to empathize with her counterpart. They are ultimately respectful of one another, and willing and able to reflect on their own biases. Neither do they shy away from difficult or painful discussions. For example, midway through the play, Bronagh, the Catholic woman, tells Valerie that the Ulster Special Constabulary, known as the ‘“B” Specials’, regularly visit her family’s home to search their barns and house. She reveals a great amount of hurt at this felt invasion of her family’s property and privacy. Shortly after, Valerie hesitantly reveals that her father and uncle both joined the ‘B’ Specials after the war, and we can see her struggling to reconcile her own pride in their service with Bronagh’s experiences of hurt. The following exchange takes place at the end of this telling:

Valerie: But what you also have to realise, Bronagh, was the fear, back then. Uncle Joe still says you could have cut it with a knife.

Bronagh: The town was miles away from the riots in Belfast and it was miles from the border.

Valerie: But we were afraid.

Bronagh: Afraid of whom?

Valerie: Afraid of you. (Orr 2016:22)

Tellingly to the play’s project, the two characters have an equal number of spoken lines, so that neither dominates the dramatic action or dialogue. One reviewer commented on this phenomenon of ‘good’ dialogue, and the way in which it encouraged the audience to participate in similar conversations, writing that ‘the quality of listening on stage was echoed in the venue’s café afterwards as people sat round and discussed the play over a cup of coffee’ (Meban 2016).

A Major Shift: Re-Imagining the ‘Other’ 

This approach to cross-community dialogue in theatre evidences an important shift in the past thirty or so years. Take, for example, Frank McGuinness’s (1986) play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, which dramatizes the journey of eight (fictional) Protestant, Northern Ireland-born World War I soldiers to the Battle of the Somme[iii]. McGuinness, born in County Donegal and hailing from an Irish Catholic background, famously drew his inspiration for this play from living for the first time in a majority Protestant community, while teaching at the (then) New University of Ulster in Coleraine. Grene (1999: 242-245) considers Observe the Sons an exercise in ‘imagining the other’ and encouraging audiences to do the same, as ‘[f]or southern Catholic nationalists Ulster Protestant Unionism is as other as you can get … The play represents therefore a new sort of imaginative reaching out in Irish drama’. Lojek (2004: 77-79) similarly notes that in both the play’s premiere and each of its subsequent stage revivals, Observe the Sons has been heralded as ‘an icon of cross-cultural understanding’, and ‘an indication of increased understanding by Irish Catholics that Irish Protestantism is also part of the island’s culture and heritage’.

What is particularly interesting is the major shift that can be seen between the type of imagining undertaken in Observe the Sons and that found in Halfway House. In the former, the playwright imagines the community that is ‘other’ to him, probing its trauma and writing from a place of empathy. It is indeed a type of dialogue, but much of the work of dialogue is implicit, having already taken place in the experiences of the playwright, though of course as spectators or readers we can choose to dialogue with the play’s material ourselves. In Halfway House, however, the dialogue is physically presented on stage. While we can, of course, choose not to engage with the material in an inner dialogue of our own, we cannot sidestep the fact of the dialogue itself, as it forms the very substance of the play. This great shift, then, is one from ‘imagining the other’ to imagining ways in which oneself – or someone very like oneself – might encounter the other in an everyday situation such as a snowbound pub.

[i] Halfway House and its companion play, Stormont House Rules!, were commissioned by evangelical Christian organization Contemporary Christianity as part of a project entitled ‘1916, a Hundred Years On’ (see Contemporary Christianity n.d.).

[ii] Of course, individual identities do not fall so neatly into these two categories, and plenty of residents of Northern Ireland, including its growing migrant population, do not consider themselves part of either the Protestant community or the Catholic community.

[iii] Dublin’s Abbey Theatre staged Observe the Sons of Ulster as part of its 2016 centenary commemoration programme. This production was staged at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in early July 2016, around the time of the local commemorations of the Battle of the Somme (1 July) and the Battle of the Boyne (12 July) (see Coyle 2016, Hardy 2016).

References

Bryan, Dominic, Mike Cronin, Tina O’Toole, and Catriona Pennell. 2013 Ireland’s Decade of Commemorations: a Roundtable. New Hibernia Review 17 (3): 63-86.

Contemporary Christianity. n.d. ‘1916: A Hundred Years On’. http://www.contemporarychristianity.net/website/1916-a-hundred-years-on/.

Coyle, Matthew. 2016. ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’, Culture Northern Ireland, 30 June. http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/features/performing-arts/observe-sons-ulster-marching-towards-somme.

Daly, Mary E., and Margaret O’Callaghan. 2007 Introduction: Irish modernity and “the patriot dead” in 1966. In Mary E. Daly and Margaret O’Callaghan (eds.), 1916 in 1966: commemorating the Easter Rising. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, pp. 1-17.

Grayson, Richard S., and Fearghal McGarry. 2016. ‘Introduction’, in Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry (eds), Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University, pp. 1-9.

Grene, Nicholas. 1999. The Politics of Irish Drama: Plays in Context from Boucicault to Friel. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Hardy, Jane. 2016. ‘Review: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre’, The Irish News, 5 July. http://www.irishnews.com/arts/stage/2016/07/05/news/review-observe-the-sons-of-ulster-marching-towards-the-somme-at-belfast-s-lyric-theatre-593218/.

Lojek, Helen Heusner. 2004. Contexts for Frank McGuinness’s Drama. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America.

McCarthy, Mark. 2012 Ireland’s 1916 Rising: explorations of history-making, commemoration & heritage in modern times. Farnham: Ashgate.

McGuinness, Frank. 1986. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. London: Faber and Faber.

Meban, Alan. 2016. ‘Halfway House – Philip Orr’s New Play Exploring 1916 from the Vantage Point of 1966’, Alan in Belfast, 19 January. http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/halfway-house-philip-orrs-new-play.html.

Mullally, Una. 2016. ‘Why Women Have Risen to the Top in 1916 Lore’, The Irish Times, 28 March. http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/una-mullally-why-women-have-risen-to-the-top-in-1916-lore-1.2588986.

Orr, Philip. 2016. Halfway House. Belfast: Contemporary Christianity.

The view from here: fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

by Cindy Withjack

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You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés. –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

 

I was wearing an Esmeralda crewneck sweatshirt the first time I heard someone say the President should be ashamed of himself. I was either reading or spinning around in circles, and I liked Esmeralda best because she looked most like me. There were at least three adults, perched like gargoyles on the couch edge and they, along with a sizeable portion of America, were all at once captivated and scandalized; the 42nd President of the United States had brought shame upon all our kettle black homes. I had yet to understand the difference between peaches and impeachment, and in twenty years time I would be an expatriate.

I was an expat before America changed hands, before Bernie Sanders was officially out of the running, before Hillary Clinton was deemed a ‘nasty woman.’ America felt to me considerably far away during my Master’s program in England where I was writing a short story collection and finalizing PhD applications, still trying to decide if it was weird to put milk in my tea. In the postgraduate pub or university café, I was often asked how I was allowing this to happen—‘this’ being the rise of Donald Trump—and I responded, with my significantly less charming accent, that I held much less clout than they assumed. And yet, it was unnerving how guilty I felt, how relieved, to be so far away from America. I busied myself with PhD applications asking that I demonstrate my intentions: my plan to contribute something new and significant to academia and why. This portion of the applications felt timely; in my case wanting to contribute something significant meant being present, from afar, in the matters of America. While the critical and creative aspects of my proposed novel materialized, I returned again and again to that awareness of guilty-relief, which did not add to my work as much as it hindered it.

During my Master’s program, in spite of American news and Brexit, I produced a sizeable portfolio of more than twenty short stories. This output created in my mind, alongside minor paranoia, an almost mystical idea of how my novel would come together. Compared to the struggles I had faced in my life to date, I felt confident in my ability to go into any PhD program with squared shoulders. There was, I believed, a surge in Intersectional Feminism, morality, and accountability. In my belief that I would change the world, I assumed the world was changing with me. Not so quietly, there was a disconnect forming, a disillusionment that would burrow its way into my studies and my writing.

I watched Donald Trump become elected the 45th President of The United States on five screens. Receiving the news this way, five different times, each one on a slight delay with varying accents and facial expressions, was both remarkable and necessary; my brain wanted to understand absolutely, without cushion or crutch, despite the disappointment that followed. America, the grassy place my immigrant parents felt was best, had let down so many of us in just a few hours. As a devoted academic I wanted precise control over the way my brain absorbed and processed the information, which meant having an early morning Q&A with myself: How did we get here? (We were always here.) Who let this happen? (We did.) What happens next? (Go to sleep.) Still, the idea of this particular President dictating what happened next with my freedom, my body, and my future was unfathomable.

My Master’s program had recently ended; I decided on a PhD program, but it was still several months away. I was appreciative that I had nowhere to be, no deadline, no expectations. I allowed myself time to wallow, stayed inside for 24 hours after the election, wondering how long I could go without disclosing my nationality as to avoid being forced into discussing what had just occurred, finally leaving to pick up a pizza. Mumbling as few words as possible while paying, I gave myself away.

            ‘Where are you from?’ asked a man to my right.

            ‘Is it that noticeable?’ I stalled.

            ‘You’re definitely American.’

            I sighed feeling both embarrassed and defensive.

            ‘What a huge mistake,’ he said. ‘How could you let that happen?’

Here I considered laughing, but truthfully I cannot remember how I actually responded. I was sleep deprived and hungry, and in hindsight, I can only imagine all the best possible retorts forming one giant metaphorical middle finger.

What followed were several months of cyclical social media overload followed by social media blackout, before I returned my attention to books, having distractedly cast them aside and, for the first time in my life, I found no comfort there. The abundance of news easily became overwhelming despite my feeling that remaining informed was a requirement. Wouldn’t it be negligent and irresponsible to distance myself from the news, both good and bad, and to potentially find myself ignorant about the state of the world? The anxiety of activism—attempting to quell my resentment by becoming more involved, and sharing important articles, and signing petitions felt at times like two steps forward followed by one very long backslide—left me exhausted and unfocused. Fighting disillusionment proved difficult following Donald Trump’s first week in office, and I went into day one of my PhD program feeling completely derailed.

Roughly two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and a rough two months it has been indeed, I still feel derailed, but I am listening to Purple Rain on repeat. I am writing less but reading more, and since my Master’s graduation I have been skeptical of the idea that I can contribute something of real significance during such a tumultuous time; those twenty short stories seem so very long ago. It is in our nature, people like to generalize about writers, to be self-deprecating and melodramatic, and I totally agree. Writing as a profession is hard all on its own; add to that a complete upheaval of the things a writer holds dear—freedom of speech, reproductive rights, racial justice, issues of immigration, LGBTQ rights—and things get a bit more complicated. However, ‘[t]his is precisely the time when artists go to work,’ Toni Morrison’s words try to remind me. ‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’ The year is only just beginning, so there is still time for me to latch onto Morrison’s words and follow through. I have no immediate plans to return to America, and as my program is the same length as one presidential term, I have at least four years to read, spin around in circles, and write a novel. It only took a year for me to genuinely enjoy black tea. A lot can happen in four years.

 

From The Taming of the Shrew to 10 Things I Hate About You: taming wild women in European culture

Don’t kiss him, Kate: Shrew-Taming Traditions in European Culture

by Dr Florence Hazrat

Before she is allowed to leave the house for a Friday night date, her father makes her wear a plastic apron with a big belly attached to the front. This is how it would be if she became pregnant. And does she want to become pregnant? Never trust boys! She complies begrudgingly, familiar with her father’s peculiar protectiveness. She needs to humour him, the prom is fast approaching, and the hottest guy of the whole high school has asked her out. If only there wasn’t her elder sister! Their father lets Bianca go to the proms upon condition that Kat goes too. But she’s a wild one, and has never had a date in her life. Only that mad boy, Patrick, could perhaps be bribed into asking her out…

This scene stems from the beginning of the 1999 teen film Ten Things I Hate About You, featuring future Hollywood actors Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger in the leading roles. The film, however, is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s late sixteenth-century comedy The Taming of the Shrew in which a recalcitrant young woman, Katherine, is getting married off to a robust character, Petruchio, who starves her high spirits into wifely obedience. But Shakespeare’s piece is itself a spin-off of previous versions of the well-known theme of shrew-taming across diverse cultures, languages, and times. Scholars propose at least 400 of such stories in European literature alone, including oral versions, proverbs and story collections. Shakespeare’s play is among others inspired by an anonymous ballad called ‘A merry jest of a shrewd and cursed wife, lapped in Morrelles skin, for her good behaviour’ in which the husband cowers his wife by beating and wrapping her in his horse’ skin.

katherine_hits_the_music_master

A Louis Rhead ink drawing of Katherine breaking a lute over the music master’s head, from a 1918 edition of Tales from Shakespeare

Modern audiences struggle with the physical and emotional violence of the tale, particularly in the case of Shakespeare whose celebration as moral paragon sits awkwardly with the seeming misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism of some of his plays such as The Shrew, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. Critics either denounce or attempt to salvage the playwright from such charges, arguing he writes within the traditions and genre conventions of his time, indeed  wringing subtlety from them by pushing and pulling their limits. The Shrew, it is said, is a satire on domineering male behaviour, emerging from a social trend towards the romantic companionable rather than arranged marriage. That the inequalities suggested were unpalatable even to early modern sensitivities is, perhaps, shown by a play written as sequel to Shakespeare’s, The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher: Petrucmisohio has bullied Katherine into the grave, re-marrying a supposedly mild young girl who turns out to be a wilder wife than the first. As in Shakespeare’s play, the couple eventually makes peace after many hilarious tricks played upon each other. As in Shakespeare’s play too, we’re left not entirely sure what to think, but that may just be the point.

shrew-caricature

A caricature by Williams from Caricature magazine (1815), entitled ‘Tameing a shrew; or, Petruchio’s patent family bedstead, gags and thumscrews.’

The Taming of the Shrew complicates the difficult business of “are we to take the misogyny seriously?” by setting it apart as play within the play. The piece doesn’t actually start with the shrew story but with a framing device: a drunkard is duped into believing he is a lord for whose amusement the story about wife-taming is being staged. It is introduced as farce, and we are supposed to laugh at what it so obviously proclaims.

        In production as in interpretation, much depends on Katherine’s final speech in which she berates disobedient wives, advertising the complete submission of women to men in marriage.

Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey. (Act 5, scene 2)

What sounds at first as almost intolerably cruel – the speech ends with Katherine’s offer to place her hand under her husband’s foot – may be a beautifully effective piece of subversion when staged: the 1967 Zeffirelli film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton has Katherine storm out of the hall after her earnest speech, leaving Petruchio to run after her, severely casting doubt over just how tamed she is.

hughes

A pre-Raphaelite painting by Edward Robert Hughes from 1898 (‘The Shrew Katherina)

A fascinating response to this particular ambiguity of Shakespeare’s play is a seventeenth-century German version called The Art of all Arts: How to Make an Evil Wife Good. Between the 1590s and 1620s, English acting companies travelled across the continent, carrying with them numerous texts by Shakespeare and contemporaries. Some years later, these texts start to appear in, amongst others, Danish, Dutch, and German, sometimes closely attached to the originals, sometimes adapting them according to the theatrical traditions of the different cultures. There is, for example, the clown-figure called Pickleherring with whom seventeenth-century Germans would have been familiar with, dropping into the tragic Romeo and Juliet adaptation.

It is a mystery how these versions came into being: did the English actors learn German? Did they work with translators, or did they marry German women who helped them translate, or with whom they had children who spoke both languages? What is clear, however, is that these plays are an untapped source for insights into the Renaissance landscape of European theatre, attesting to a much more wide-spread exchange than we are aware of. They also bring us tantalizingly close to performance practices of Shakespeare’s own time, considering their date of printing a mere handful of years after the playwright’s death.

        I am part of a team at the University of Geneva that seeks to make early modern German plays available to an anglophone readership, and am re-translating The Art of All Arts into English. Differing attitudes to gender between the German and the English play are particularly striking: although The Art of All Arts does firmly anchor itself in the shrew-taming tradition (Socrates offers the prologue, lamenting his cursing wife Xanthippe), Katherine is accompanied by a robustly practical maid servant with whom she holds conversations that reveal her thoughts about the situation, a privileged access to her situation lacking in Shakespeare. Her final speech also receives radical treatment in shrinking from some 46 lines expatiating on female obedience to a bare two:

This I want to tell us briefly:

You men, love your wives. And you women, obey your husbands (Act 5).

This ‘lesson’, though ambiguous and performance-dependent it is, shifts the poetic weight onto both men and women in the audience through its memorable parallelism. The translator’s decision to cut a speech that crowns the play, particularly considering the sometimes close verbal echoes to the original, is a stunning circumstance which encourages a revision of charges of misogyny with which we encounter early modern ideas of gender.

Today, it seems, we still have not quite outgrown a taste in shrew-taming: films and musicals, notably Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate, evidence a sustained interest in the subject, if only, perhaps, because it puts under pressure what we think we know about gender relationships. Little known Shrew versions like The Art of All Arts will contribute to complicating and nuancing our notions of marriage in the Renaissance, as well as today.

 

Sitting in the dark: the importance of light in theatre

theatre-light-design
I’ve spent a lot of the past year sitting in the dark – literally. For people who work in theatre, this may come as no surprise. In the eight years I spent working full-time as a lighting assistant/production electrician, I could quite easily go for three or four days in a row without seeing any sunlight. I’ve often thought it odd that the people who “create” light for live performance, people who use light as their primary creative medium, spend so much time in the dark. If you’re unfamiliar with the theatre production process, here’s a (very brief and very simplified!) rundown:
In most regional and London producing theatres, work on a production begins about four to six months prior to the first preview. This can be significantly longer on larger shows, particularly those in the West End. About a week before the first preview, the cast, director, and design team move into the theatre space itself to start technical rehearsals. By this stage, the set has been built, costumes made, lights and speakers rigged, etc. The technical rehearsal is the start of what is called the production week (also known as “hell week” in some American theatres on account of the long days). Technical rehearsals are the only time the entire company is together in the performance space, and they are – as the name suggests – focused primarily on the technical and design elements of a production. Technical rehearsals are often very “stop and start” as cues, scene changes, costume changes, etc. are run multiple times until all parties are comfortable. Once the whole production is worked through in this manner, this is followed by a dress rehearsal (often two or three, plus notes sessions) before the first public performance.

The lighting designer

For a lighting designer, the first day of technical rehearsals is often the most difficult. All of the lighting designer’s pre-production research, the conversations they have had with the designer, director and theatre’s head of lighting, and the plans they have drawn and had implemented by the theatre’s lighting department converge on this day, and there is enormous pressure on the lighting designer to “get it right” – funding situations in most UK theatres are such that time, money and resources are at a premium and at this point there is not enough of any of those to start over or make significant changes. This pressure is compounded by the fact that lighting is the sole visual design element that can only be created in the performance space. During the pre-production period, set designers produce a scale modelbox, alongside technical drawings, sketches and storyboards, and costume designers may use artistic drawings in conjunction with fabric swatches, for example, to help articulate their process and creative ideas. For both set and costume design, the actual product is built over several weeks and can be seen as a work-in-progress during this time. Moreover, the materials of set and costume design are tangible and the work can be observed, commented on, tweaked and refined outside and, crucially, before entering the actual performance space. Similar comparisons and tools do not exist for lighting designers. Computer visualisation software may be used; however, these programs rarely provide the detail needed to fully explain, describe or develop the potential of light outside a performance space.
In addition, these days tend to involve the most negotiation and adjustment as creative teams (especially the lighting designer) learn to navigate the “language” and “grammar” of a production, while also refining the spoken language and grammar they use to articulate it. It is this process that my research focuses on. How do lighting designers use language to articulate ideas about light and lighting, a material and a process that is largely intangible? How do they additionally use language to exercise agency and exert influence in situations of creative collaboration?

My research

To answer these questions, I sit in the dark, behind the lighting designer, armed with two recording devices. One of these records the ambient conversation, usually between the director or designer and the lighting designer. The other records the conversation on “cans” (UK theatre slang for the headsets worn by all members of the design and technical teams to facilitate conversation without having to resort to shouting backstage!).
The darkness provides an ideal environment for conducting my fieldwork. Even though I am acting as an “overt insider” (Merton, 1972; Greene, 2014), the darkness makes it possible for me to fade into the background and remain largely unnoticed by the people I am observing – which is simultaneously useful and disconcerting. There is something anonymising about the dark, but it can also be quite liberating. There’s plenty of interesting research on audience behaviour and fascinating studies on people’s behaviour generally in the dark — but for now, I’ll just say what an illuminating (see what I did there?) experience sitting in the dark has been!
References:
Greene, M.J. 2014. On the inside looking in: methodological insights and challenges in conducting qualitative insider research. The Qualitative Report. 19(How To Article 15), pp.1–13.
Merton, R.K. 1972. Insiders and outsiders: a chapter in the sociology of knowledge.American Journal of Sociology. 78(1), pp.9–47.

Women, Shakespeare, and Ireland: what ish my nation?

by Emer McHugh

Let’s begin with Henry V. It’s the scene where Captains Gower and Fluellen meet with their Irish and Scottish counterparts, Macmorris and Jamy, to discuss the siege of Harfleur. Macmorris and Fluellen have a particularly agitated conversation:

Fluellen. Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation.

Macmorris. Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal? What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation? (3.3.61-65)

Even though he is a relatively minor character, Macmorris’ response there – ‘what ish my nation?’ – has been taken up as the starting-point for approaching issues of national identity in Irish literature and drama, and also as the linchpin for Shakespeare and Ireland studies as well. Of course, Macmorris’ predominance in such criticism does not come without its problems: Stephen O’Neill has drawn attention to how

‘[s]uch privileging [of Macmorris] has as much to do with Shakespeare’s centrality to the canon – stage Irish characters in other plays from the period have not been analysed to the same extent – as it does with the centrality of MacMorris’s questions to a play about conquest, cultural difference and national identity.’[1]

O’Neill is right to advise caution here, but I think that ‘what ish my nation?’ still carries meaning in Shakespeare and Ireland studies, and in 21st century Ireland too. I don’t have far to look: I look at my country’s treatment of its women.

DruidShakespeare

Druid Theatre Company’s ‘DruidShakespeare’

Women and Ireland 

This year alone, I think of the unveiling and removal of the Maser Art mural at the Project Arts Centre. The establishment of the Repeal Project clothing company. #TwoWomenTravel, unflinching in its depiction of what Irish pregnant people are put through should they want to make choices for their own bodies. Brianna Parkins talking about wanting to see the Eighth Amendment repealed on the Rose of Tralee, an unlikely (but nevertheless, welcome) topic to be discussed on everyone’s favourite Lovely Girl competition. ‘We Face This Land’, a two-minute visualisation of Sarah Maria Griffin’s poem that dared to assert ‘The laws of the church have no place on your flesh […] Witches or women – these are our bodies which shall not be given up’.[2] However, Enda Kenny’s words still ring in my ears: ‘The T-shirts may be black and white writing on them but this is about people and people have different views.’ ‘This is about people’: but am I not a person? Are the twelve people who travel to the UK every single day not people as well? If my country does not recognise me as a person, then what ish my nation? (It’s also worth pointing out that his year also marks twenty years since the closure of the last Magdalene laundry in Ireland. I could go on about this country’s treatment of its women over decades.)

This is also a nation where its own national theatre omits – bar one playwright – women from its 1916 commemorative programme: leading to the birth of the #WakingTheFeminists movement, which, over the last year, has tirelessly worked to create change, equality, and equity in Irish theatre. Its work is far from over, but it is incredible to see how it has invigorated the theatrical landscape both in terms of scholarship and practice. (It’s certainly been a huge influence on my own research, as well as leading to the creation of Feminist Theatre Squadron, a podcast which I co-host with my colleagues.) When the movement was in its beginning stages, out of interest I decided to read up on the Abbey Theatre’s stats in performing Shakespeare. How many women have directed Shakespeare for the national theatre? I wanted to find out. And it turned out that, in the theatre’s 110+ years’ history, there had been only one woman who had done so. And she happens to be the incumbent artistic director of the Gate Theatre. (It was Selina Cartmell, by the way: King Lear in 2013.) I understand that Shakespeare may not be an immediate choice for Irish theatre practitioners: yet, as Mark Thornton Burnett cautions, ‘[a]lthough Shakespeare’s work can be seen as an imperial export, it also belongs to a broader dialogue – a system of negotiations, manipulations and imaginative reinscriptions.’[3] Shakespeare performance in an Irish context, then, can be a fascinating site for exploring issues of national identity. I also believe that it can be a fascinating site for exploring gender – for writing women back into the narrative.

Women & Shakespeare

As an intersectional feminist, I find myself grappling with the fact that I work on the most famous dead white man in all of Western literature. Shakespeare’s plays are not inherently feminist. But, the performance of his plays can be feminist. As Kim Solga writes, ‘feminist resistance to the gaze is both visual and structural; it’s a matter of both what is presented on stage, lifted up to audience view, and how that material is presented, the narrative that shapes its presentation.’[4] I also emphasise Sarah Werner’s idea that ‘all performances of Shakespeare engage in localized production of meaning’[5]: which has implications not only for the creative team’s approach to the play, but also audience members’ reception of the production: what I took away from it may not be the same as someone else in the audience that night. Margaret Jane Kidnie suggests that ‘a play, for all that it carries the rhetorical and ideological force of enduring stability, is not an object at all, but rather a dynamic process that evolves over time in response to the needs and sensibilities of its users.’[6] In line with Kidnie’s argument, I’d contend that any given Shakespeare production is one out of many products of an evolving process, that being the chosen play as it has been shaped by shifting cultural attitudes over time. So, in light of that, what I want to offer in this short piece are some examples of Irish Shakespeare performance that explore gender and feminism in interesting ways.

Druid Theatre Company’s DruidShakespeare premiered in May 2015. This was a seven-hour adaptation of the first Henriad into one continuous narrative, and in the three principle roles of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, the Henrys were played by women. Particularly in the case of Aisling O’Sullivan’s performance as Henry V, DruidShakespeare used the performance of gender to subvert conventional ideas and patterns in Shakespeare performance – quite pertinent given the cultural signifiers that Henry V as a character and as an icon of English patriotism produces. O’Sullivan spoke with a guttural County Kerry accent, not only recalling her previous roles for Druid but also throwing into sharp contrast the ghosts of previous Henrys, the majority of these male and having performed at British theatrical institutions that Worthen would describe as ‘institutionalized Shakespeare’: examples such as Hassell at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Kenneth Branagh at the same theatre and on film, Jude Law for the Michael Grandage Company, Adrian Lester for the National Theatre, and Jamie Parker for Shakespeare’s Globe.[7]

Many of the theatres housing these performances are associated with institutionalised ideas of verse-speaking: indeed, some of them ‘have been extremely influential in the establishment of principles of Shakespearean verse speaking on the modern British stage.’[8] Not only that, O’Sullivan’s physical presence cut a distinctive presence. Considering the likes of Hassell, Branagh, Parker, Law, and Lester – all of whom played athletic, muscular, conventionally masculine Henrys – upon her first entrance, O’Sullivan’s Hal was lithe, wiry, and prone to posturing and slouching. Her chief uniform, too, was a large black leather jacket and jeans: contrasting with the royal livery with which we commonly associate Henry: not only a crown and a suit of armour, but the colours of red and blue, the three lions, and the fleur-de-lis (Hassell, Branagh, Law, and Parker all sported variations on this, harking back to Laurence Olivier’s take on the role). O’Sullivan is not the only female Henry in the current theatrical landscape: Lazarus Theatre Company produced an all-female version last year, and Michelle Terry played the role this year for Open Air Theatre.[9] Genderblind Shakespeare may not be innovative, but it is clear that O’Sullivan’s performance in itself is a response to conventions, traditions, and iconographies in Irish and Shakespeare performance practice – conventions that are predominantly quite male.

A feminist approach to Shakespeare

If we return to 2016, the most unexpected place to find an alternative response to this 1916 centenary year – a response which was certainly inspired by #WakingTheFeminists’ efforts – was in a reconstructed Elizabethan theatre on the Bankside in London. Caroline Byrne’s production of The Taming of the Shrew was announced as part of Emma Rice’s first season as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe earlier this year. In a press release announcing its final casting, the production was billed as marking ‘the centenary of the Easter Rising by revisiting 1916 Ireland and remembering the role of women in the fight for independence.’[10]

To be sure (perhaps because of where it was performed), this Shrew deals in commoditised Irishness – on the night I saw the production, the musicians played their jigs and reels on the bodhrán, tin whistle, fiddle, and guitar for the crowd’s pleasure. The production’s Irish Catholic context was brought to the fore: during her wedding, Katherina (Aoife Duffin) sat on top of two staircases that folded together to display a neon-light cross, whereas Petruchio’s (Edward Mac Liam) admission to Gremio (Raymond Keane) that ‘me father dead’ was met with numerous members of the cast blessing themselves with the sign of the cross. The text, too, was edited to add elements of Hiberno-English and Irish, such as ‘Jaysus’, ‘mo chara’, and ‘go raibh mile maith agaibh’.

But more pertinent in relation to the production’s feminist approach was the inclusion of additional songs, with lyrics written by the production’s dramaturg Morna Regan. A most notable example is the song ‘Numbered in the Song’ which, in Byrne’s words, ‘[remembers] all the women unsung by Irish history’, and was ‘in part inspired’ by Yeats’ poem Easter 1916, ‘where only the men are “numbered in the song”.’[11] This song, sung by Aoife Duffin as Katherina in a thick Dublin brogue, acted as an ongoing theme throughout the production: as Byrne simply states in an interview, ‘[i]t is a motif in the production, to be numbered in the song.’[12] The production also dispensed with Christopher Sly and the Induction in favour of Duffin performing the song after the musicians had left at the beginning, and Katherina’s singing closed the first half and also concluded the show. Again, this is part of this Shrew placing women – more specifically Katherina and her story – at its heart, and it is interesting that it did so through an appropriation of a male Irish writer’s words. With lyrics such as ‘The nation promised equality’, the song also threw into sharp relief the ongoing struggle for women’s rights in Ireland over the last hundred years.

From the get-go, the production was sympathetic to Katherina’s plight, and suggested that her taming by Petruchio was unnecessary and cruel. From Katherina’s spoken-word songs, to her newspaper being ripped out of her hand by her own father, to the production refusing to shy away from the psychological and emotional abuse Petruchio subjected her to (she spent the second half in her torn wedding dress, sleeping on a bed with only Petruchio’s cowskin cape as a duvet) – this Shrew emphasised the implications of a patriarchal Irish Catholic society on the lives of women. In doing so, it did not provide easy answers: Katherina delivered her final speech in resignation, anger, and frustration at the world she was forced to inhabit, and her relationship with a troubled-looking Petruchio was left up in the air.

Additionally, it emphasises these women’s voices: instead of Petruchio, Katherina was given the production’s final words through song, telling Petruchio that ‘I will not go to war with thee | Dulce et decorum est’ – the melody following the traditional tune ‘The Parting Glass’.[13] In addition, Amy Conroy’s Widow had an expanded role to play in this production: hovering in the background, quietly horrified at the misogyny unfolding on stage, providing quiet counsel to Katherina throughout. This relationship between the Widow and Katherina was built to the point where the final scene appears to be a battle between the former and Petruchio for the latter’s soul. (A Pyrrhic victory for Petruchio is implied here.) As Byrne comments, ‘[i]t’s not a play about the Easter Rising, but it attempts to chime with the experience of Irish women. The promises made in the [1916] Proclamation were not kept in the decades that followed and Irish women are still seeking equality to this day – much in the same way that Katherina is in Shrew’.[14] However, I am not sure if all of this was in the mind of Globe audiences throughout the production’s run. This is judging by the ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’ chant Petruchio encouraged the crowd to partake in very early on in the evening, as well as the cheering and whooping that greeted a later kiss between the two. Both times, Duffin’s Katherina was uncomfortable and unwilling to participate. This is perhaps illustrative of Werner’s idea of ‘a performance of Shakespeare that reflects the individual viewer’s perceptions and desires as much as it does those of Shakespeare or the director’[15]: indeed, performance reception is always a composite of individual and collective responses.

Writing last year for the Irish Times and reflecting on the very first #WakingTheFeminists public meeting, Lian Bell commented that ‘[d]uring the past weeks, through the voices of a multitude of women and men speaking up as feminists, this word came to life for me. I realise how important exposure to a spectrum of stories is – next year more than ever.’[16] Bell’s idea of ‘exposure to a spectrum of stories’ is crucial here: not only in our commemoration of 1916, but also in the year of commemorating Shakespeare’s death and the constant reinforcing of his dominance in world culture. (I’d also argue that it’s crucial in the context of recent world events, as well.) Feminist Shakespeare performance should not be the only intervention to make, but at least it should be one of many: specifically in the case of Irish women as we attempt to rewrite what ish our nation indeed.

[1] Stephen O’Neill, ‘Beyond MacMorris: Shakespeare, Ireland and Critical Contexts’, in Celtic Shakespeare: The Bard and the Borderers, ed. by Willy Maley and Rory Loughnane (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), pp.245-57 (p.247).

[2] ‘We Face This Land’, YouTube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=571vnkdrWC0 [accessed 27 November 2016].

[3] Mark Thornton Burnett, ‘Introduction’, in Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture, ed. by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), pp.1-5 (p.4).

[4] Kim Solga, Theatre & Feminism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p.30.

[5] Sarah Werner, Shakespeare and Feminist Performance: Ideology on Stage (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p.19.

[6] Margaret Jane Kidnie, Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p.1.

[7] Worthen, p.41.

[8] Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Shakespearean Verse-Speaking: Text and Theatre Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), p.1.

[9] See <https://openairtheatre.com/production/henry-v> and <http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Theater/production/stage/3410/> for more information on these two productions.

[10] ‘Globe Theatre Press Release – Shakespeare’s Globe announces full cast for Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew’, shakespearesglobe.com, http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/uploads/files/2016/04/12.04.16_shrew_casting_release_final.pdf [accessed 18 October 2016].

[11] Caroline Byrne and Danielle Pearson, ‘Confronting the Shrew’, programme for The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2016), p.9.

[12] Byrne and Pearson, p.9.

[13] ‘Adopt An Actor: Katherine Played By Aoife Duffin: Performances 2’, shakespearesglobe.com, http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/discovery-space/adopt-an-actor/archive/katherine-played-by-aoife-duffin/performances-2 [accessed 18 October 2016].

[14] Byrne and Pearson, p.8.

[15] Werner, p.102.

[16] Lian Bell, ‘Lian Bell: #WakingTheFeminists still waiting for the Abbey’, Irish Times, 16 December 2015, http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/lian-bell-wakingthefeminists-still-waiting-for-the-abbey-1.2467408 [accessed 3 October 2016].

Women in Irish Ghost Stories

Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Clodagh Tait, looks at women in Irish ghost stories, and is the second in our two-part Hallowe’en series (read the first one, on the origins of Hallowe’en, here).

In 1937, Mrs Maggie Gallinagh told Mary Anne Gallinagh a ghost story.

One evening round about Halloween, one of the Harvey sisters of Inver, Co. Donegal, was putting in her ducks at twilight, when she saw a woman dressed in grey ‘looking through the kitchen’. When Miss Harvey spoke to the woman she vanished, but then appeared to the other sister the next evening. The sisters sought the help of Fr George Kelly, parish priest of Inver, who advised them to carry holy water, and when the apparition returned on the third evening the sister who saw her addressed her with the question Fr Kelly recommended: ‘In God’s name what is troubling you?’ The woman replied ‘I am your mother and I am twenty years dead, I am on my way to heaven, and I want three Masses said one from each of you. You three [the girls and their brother] are the only ones living belonging to me, and I want you to pray for me and I will keep you out of danger…when you are on your death bed I will come down and bring you up into the glorious kingdom of heaven, where we will live happy for ever.’ The woman then disappeared, and was never seen again.

It may come as a surprise that ghost stories like this one can be taken seriously by historians. The fact that they are usually written at a distance from their supposed occurrence, passing meanwhile by word of mouth, means that the researcher will look in vain in them for objective ‘facts’ (even if that researcher believes that such events could have happened in the first place). But to dismiss such tales as hearsay, fiction or delusion is to miss the point. People in the past have always reported sighting of ghosts and other supernatural beings. Therefore it is the historian or folklorist’s role to attempt to understand what work such stories did in communities, and to listen for what they express about ideas held about the relationship between the dead and the living and about ‘world-views’ more generally.

The beliefs of Irish people in the past

From my point of view, the tale of the ghostly Mrs Harvey reveals several things, about the beliefs of Irish people in the past and other aspects of their thinking. We learn something, for example, about expectations of the behaviour of the returning dead and interactions with them. It seems to some degree that actions performed by ghosts, the circumstances in which they were encountered, and reactions to them, were gendered. Female ghosts often appear in or near domestic spaces, and female percipients of ghosts likewise tend to encounter them in familiar places close to home. Due to greater restrictions on their movements, especially at sunset and after dark, women were less likely than men to report meeting the returning dead further afield. When they saw the ghost of their mother, the Harvey girls were engaged in the routine activity of putting the ducks into their house for the night; the ghost appears at a widow of door ‘looking through the kitchen’.

The episode of ‘haunting’ (if we could even call it that) in the Donegal story is limited. While nowadays we seem to expect ghosts to be trapped endlessly – and usually mutely – in a specific place to be encountered again and again, Mrs Harvey’s ghost reflects the kinds of revenant who tended to be more commonly reported prior to the twentieth century. Those ghosts usually returned in a purposeful way to deliver a single message, and their haunting was limited in duration. The appearance of Mrs Harvey’s ghost is also notable. She arrived dressed in grey, and until she disappeared the first percipient seems to have believed her to be real. This solidity of appearance is quite common in Irish ghost stories: ghosts can be touched, and touch (even hit) others; they need to open gates to pass through; they even eat and drink.

We might also remark on the way the Harvey girls react to the ghost. While clearly initially somewhat afraid, they stand their ground and challenge her. This would have been a usual course of action in medieval and early modern accounts of haunting, when it was believed that ghosts brought messages, but could not speak until they were spoken to. In cases of ghost-seeing in the Irish past, we find percipients did not usually need professional intermediaries like exorcists or mediums to communicate with ghosts on their behalf: while the Harvey’s consulted a priest, they did not require his aid, though it does seem that in the cases of some particularly troublesome spirits the special skills of a priest might be called on.

Ghosts and Irish christianity

The story of Mrs Harvey very definitively places ghost belief in a Christian framework: Fr Kelly arms the girls with holy water and holy words. The ghost is on her way to heaven but needs the intervention of the church to get there – three masses for her soul, in return for which she offers her own prayers and the promise of heaven to her children. Such a story thus performs a dual purpose: to grapple with the possibility of returning spirits, but to house them securely within Christian teaching. For this reason, the Catholic church in particular was happy enough to accept stories of haunting. Sightings of ghosts fitted in with the doctrine of souls working off the penalties due for their sins in Purgatory, and the possibility that their time there might be shortened by the prayers and other assistance of the living.

ghost-early-modern

Another underlying theme of Mrs Harvey’s story is motherhood and women’s domestic roles. Supposedly twenty years after her death, the deceased Mrs Harvey continues to exhibit care and concern for her children. Very many Irish stories of the supernatural describe female revenants visiting their own homes, caring for children and carrying out domestic chores. In one Co. Roscommon story , an aunt charged with taking care of an infant whose mother had died experienced a shape passing her at the door and found that the baby would not drink any of the milk she prepared for her. The next day in the bedroom ‘whom did she see sitting on the bed but the dead mother and she combing her hair. She faded away out of sight.’ The mother in this tale is definitively dead, but often similar revenants are patently not actually ghosts, but women who had been stolen by the fairies. One the informants cited in Lady Augusta Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland stated ‘I believe all that die are brought among them [the fairies], except maybe an odd old person’. However, others seem to have believed that only a certain category of the supposedly dead were with the fairies. Numerous stories told of how young women stolen by the fairies could be rescued by their husbands and loved ones, or recalled those who had been released after a period of time and returned to their families.

 Lady Gregory’s informants told several stories of mothers either returning from fairy captivity or appearing as ghosts, including this unsettling one supplied by Mrs. Farley:

‘One time myself I was at Killinan, at a house of the Clancys’ where the father and mother had died, but it was well known they often come to look after the children. I was walking with another girl through the fields there one evening and I looked up and saw a tall woman dressed all in black, with a mantle of some sort, a wide one, over her head, and the waves of the wind were blowing it off her, so that I could hear the noise of it. All her clothes were black, and had the appearance of being new.’

Her companion could not see the spirit which so frightened Mrs Farley that she did not attempt to question it and fled ‘and the woman seemed to be coming after me, till I crossed a running stream and she had no power to cross that.’

This revenant, implicitly identified as the Clancy children’s mother, was so ‘present’ to Mrs Farley that she could assess the quality of her clothes – they have the appearance of mourning rather than grave clothes – and even hear the sound of her headdress flapping in the wind. Perhaps Mrs Farley’s terror responded in part to the rawness of the dead mother’s mourning for the children to whom she had been lost. After all, one of the things we learn from ghosts, even if we believe that they are only figments of imagination, is about emotion: about grief, anger, disappointment, remorse, and compassion. Most of all we recognise the longing for the loved dead – and the mingled hope and dread that they might in some way long for us – that persists as strongly now as it ever did at the Halloween firesides of the past.

Select bibliography:

Irish Folklore Archive, Schools Folklore Collection: www.duchas.ie

  1. Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (Basingstoke, 2007).

A.Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (Gerrards Cross, 1992 [1920])

  1. Narváez (ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (Lexington, 1997).

 

 

 

Women: ruling Hallowe’en since forever

Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Lucy Ryder, is the first in our two-part Hallowe’en series (the second is coming on Monday). Read on and learn all about where Hallowe’en originated, and how women have always been central to the festival.

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We love you, Lisa Simpson

Where does Hallowe’en come from?

Hallowe’en is one of the most secular of religious festivals, and possibly the most misunderstood. Deriving from the considerably more ancient Samhain (first recorded in the Irish tale Tochmarc Emire meaning ‘When the summer goes to rest”) the current fright night we now experience is a long way from its very ancient, but decidedly muddled, origins.

From an archaeological viewpoint, the period around Samhain (stretching from 31st October to, in some traditions, November 2nd) is difficult but not impossible to trace for the landscape historian. The communities and settlements where these rites are played out become the stage for interconnecting stories, beliefs, and tradition.

Add folklore and oral history to what Tolkien called the “soup pot of history” (or should that be witches brew?!) and we begin to see a potent narrative where women are well and truly in the heart of the Samhain festivities – both in terms of driving the activities and also the balance of power.

The Hallowe’en traditions of ‘trick or treating’ and dressing up in scary clothing for sweets is the latest in a tradition to mark the end of autumn. There are many ideas as to the origin of Hallowe’en, and in some respects which is nearest to the truth has become less of an issue. However, what is consistent is that women are central to the theme.

Cailleach: the Old Crone

The Gaelic goddess Cailleach (or Old Crone) presents a strong image of the woman and landscape intertwined to end the autumn and bountiful seasons. It is suggested (Mac Curtain, 1980: 27) that the name ‘cailleach’ had a double meaning in primitive Irish; the word ‘caille’ meant a veil, and no later than the fifth century AD ‘cailleach’ is recorded to mean both a nun and, almost simultaneously, becomes in secular mythology the word for ‘an old hag’.

Said to be closely associated with the dead and hostile to the living, Cailleach Bhéarra marks the end of autumn and the start of winter in the most vigorous of fashions by crossing the Irish landscape with a hammer pounding the fertile ground to solid rock. Cailleach was said to dwell at cave sites and prehistoric standing stones and megalithic tombs across Ireland, (Champion and Cooney, 1999: 200; Dowd, 2015: 251-2) and was thought to be such a malignant force that her suspected presence in Badhdh’s Hole in County Waterford causes local communities to be uneasy about archaeological investigations of the site (Dowd ibid.). Her presence at these locations brought spirits to her. (Editor’s note: Badhbh is pronounced ‘bibe’. This is another word for ‘banshee’, and the word is still in use in Waterford today: generally used to describe a contrary or nasty person – usually a woman!)

Interestingly, many hillforts and megaliths in England and Scotland are associated with fairies that are supposed to roam freely on Hallowe’en. Clay Hill, near Warminster, is a hot bed of little folk, and folklore tells of large fires and strange-talking people revelling in the darkness of the 31st October. Maybole in Ayrshire is also known for fairy activity within the archaeological remains.

Spooky sites in Ireland

The archaeological importance of the change in the seasons can be found particularly in Ireland, and the folklore echoes the evidence. The Mound of the Hostages (Duma na nGiall), a passage tomb in the Tara-Skryne Valley in County Meath, is thought to be illuminated by the ‘Samhain sunrise’ in early November, and reinforces the tie (in a narrative at least) between Cailleach the Crone and the ancient communities that constructed the tomb between 4,500 to 5,000 years ago (between 2500 and 3000 BC).

Many of the symbols we now associate with Hallowe’en seem to derive from Cailleach; the Crone’s Cauldron, said to collect the souls of the dead, was also thought to represent the earth mother’s womb ready for reincarnation. Her association with the dead certainly seems to be the link between the festivals, marking the end of the autumn and the long winter to come, and the spookier Hallowe’en that we celebrate now.

In many neo-pagan and Wiccan accounts, Cailleach is thought to be the goddess of Samhain, but she has competition from another powerful Gaelic woman – in this case, the daughter of the druid and sun god Mog Ruith. The fort is at Tlachtga, also in County Meath (currently under archaeological investigation, which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/ExcavationsatTlachtga/) is said to be named after Tlachtga, a druidess who was also the daughter of Mog Ruith and the original site of Samhain festivities. Presiding over her temple, all fires in the kingdom were extinguished and were relit from the sacred flame at Tlachtga on the eve of Samhain (Evans, 2014). The Anglo-Saxon tradition for Samhain refers to ‘need-fire’, where fires held magical properties – this was carried on into later traditions, as we’ll see below.

How did modern Hallowe’en begin?

The ancient traditions and Catholicism collided when Pope Saint Boniface’s festivity to honour dead saints was moved from May to coincide with the Samhain celebrations on November 1st  (generally thought to be sometime after Pope Gregory the III, around the end of the eighth century (Roy, 2005: 95)), when communication with the deceased was thought to be the most convivial.

The Abbot of Cluny Saint Odilo was attributed to bringing All Souls Day remembrance to the party sometime between 962 and 1049 AD, and therefore, the blurring of practices laid the road to the Hallowe’en we know today. Within this new order, outside of the religious practices of the Catholic Church, women, already so pivotal in the origin of Samhain/Hallowe’en, once again became fundamental in its next phase.

Women and Hallowe’en

Women were central to the home and its protection, and during the days leading up to All Souls Day on the 2nd of November, a number of protective methods were implemented to keep those within the home safe from anyone, or anything, wandering about in the darkness. Fundamental to this was protecting the boundaries, and additional care to bring plants. Women were primarily charged with ensuring the living and the dead were kept at a safe distance from each other, and this included putting bent nails in doors and salt in keyholes (which also worked the rest of the year), and bringing in plants from the natural world. Elderberry branches above lintels were thought to protect homes from malevolent spirits and witches, and crosses made of rowan twigs were carried for protection. Food needed to be prepared and left on the doorstep to appease witches. Strands of hazelnuts (either worn or kept in the home) also brought protection to the home, and were used and carried by young women to ensure fertility for the coming year.

This is crucial to our narrative of women in Hallowe’en, as this period was also seen by women as a time to harness the spirits around and put them to good use – in the form of both divination (seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means) and catopromancy (divination with mirrors). Hallowe’en was the time to predict and safeguard the future; Apples, echoing back to Pomona, were used for divination for future and the longevity of life, and were included in cakes made with coins (wealth), rings (marriage), or marbles (single/childless). inside, whatever you ended up with was your future (Editor’s note: a similar practice continues in Ireland today with the barmbrack [‘báirín braic’ in Irish],  a sweet fruit loaf which contains a number of different objects,including a ring, and which is traditionally eaten around Hallowe’en. Learn how to make your own barmbrack here.). The protecting hazelnuts were placed into fires with single girls reciting love spells such as “if you love me pop and fly, if you hate me, burn and die” in order to establish future suitors.

The practice of catopromancy (divination with mirrors) is most associated with Hallowe’en, and used by women to predict their future, be it wealth, health, or partners. In particular, this tradition was popular during the Victorian period where women would call to the mirror to show their future husband over their shoulder! Catopromancy also assisted communication with the dead, which undoubtedly lead to the game of calling “Bloody Mary”, who would be summoned with the threat that she would curse someone to die before the year was out.

As children born on Hallowe’en were thought to have the gift of communication with both the dead and fairies (or other fey like creatures) the act of women undertaking communication with the spirit world shows another blurring of traditions surrounding the festival.

Throughout the history of Samhain/Hallowe’en, women have had a pivotal role to play. From changing the seasons, and changing the earth, to calling the spirits, relighting the fires and protecting the home, to helping communities through the winter, their role is imprinted on the natural and archaeological landscape around, and accessible through folklore and material culture. And all this without once mentioning riding on a broomstick….

References:

Dowd, M. 2015. The Archaeology of Caves in Ireland Oxford: Oxbow Books

Evans, K. 2014. Tlachtga: The Birthplace of Hallowe’en? http://digventures.com/2014/10/tlachtga-the-birthplace-of-halloween/

Gentilcore, R. (1995). The Landscape of Desire: The Tale of Pomona and Vertumnus in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” Phoenix, 49(2), 110-120. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1192628 doi:1

Mac Curtain, M. (1980). Towards an Appraisal of the Religious Image of Women. The Crane Bag, Vol. 4, No. 1, Images of the Irish Woman pp. 26-30

Roy, C. 2005 Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO Ltd

Society & the female voice: Shakespeare’s Singing Madwomen

‘Enter Ophelia distracted’: Shakespeare’s Singing Madwomen

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Ophelia, singing before she drowns in a river, by Sir John Everett Millais.

by Florence Hazrat.

She is noisy and uncontrollable, a nightmare at polite dinner evenings. She annoys everyone with her stories, it’s only always about doom and gloom! She is the embarrassing sister, the unmarried daughter, the taker, the trickster. She is the woman who withheld sex, she is Cassandra.

Cassandra, a princess of Troy, who predicts the city’s fall, but no-one believes her. Cassandra, favourite of Apollo, given the gift of prophecy in exchange for her body. Cassandra who accepts the one, but refuses the other. Cassandra the seer, punished by Apollo with the curse of disbelief — you may speak the truth, but if no-one trusts you, it sounds like babbling, like nonsense. It sounds like madness.

This classical myth of the prophetess who was never believed is described by Homer in his famous poem on the war of Troy, and it puts its finger on a knot of issues pervading culture then, as much as in the Renaissance, and perhaps even today: there’s something about women who speak – sing even – that makes people nervous, that slips through barriers of (male) control, and that has a privileged access to truths, and uncomfortable ones, too. Shakespeare taps into these perceived connections when he stages Cassandra in his play on the Troy story. It’s something he returns to throughout his dramatic career, exploring singing women on the stage, mad perhaps, but with a powerful instrument: their voice.

Society and the female voice

Apart from Cassandra there were other female prophets among the Greeks, notably the Sybils and the Pythia at the Delphian oracle, infamous for the puzzling nature of her pronouncements which the askers needed to interpret, and did, though catastrophically wrong most of the time. Being an oracle, etymologically, means to speak. How can one speak, though, in societies that prize silence and reservation as female virtue? From Socrates to Shakespeare, a voice ‘soft/ Gentle and low’ was seen as ‘an excellent thing in woman’ (King Lear, 5.3). My research investigates the link between female singing on (and off) stage, as well as women’s use of song to fashion and assert their identities in the sixteenth century. I’m excited about the implications of this for what we think about women speaking in public and private today, from me and you to Lady Gaga and Hilary Clinton. Might our own concepts of talkative or loud or simply outspoken women be coloured by the past more than we might be aware of, and like to admit?

Much like us, Renaissance playwrights inherited a mixed bag of attitudes towards, and explorations of, gender. Women who did not conform to a role subservient to men needed to be controlled, which meant imposing silence, a restricting and disciplining of speech by husbands, brothers, fathers. This process is documented in Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew which sets our teeth on edge today (and perhaps also those of some Elizabethan Londoners? Who knows.) It seems women had little chance of expressing themselves in more than prescribed and pre-scripted ways, but there appears to be one way, albeit a risky and tragic one, to claim independence of words, and that was madness. Not any kind of mad behaviour, but one whose symptom (or cause?) is music, a wild eruption into song, violent, disturbing, and disruptive.

Ophelia: Shakespeare’s first singing madwoman

Shakespeare’s first singing madwoman, perhaps even initiating a trend for such types and their representation in the theatre, is Ophelia, a young gentlewoman at the Danish court, and Hamlet’s sometime lover. Owing to his unaccountable rejection of her, as well as (more grievously) his murder of her father, she loses her mind, bursting onto the scene ‘distracted’, the stage directions tell us. More precisely, as one of the text versions from 1603 specifies, she is ‘playing on a Lute, and her haire downe singing.‘ Public performance of music, even just within the story’s own court setting, was an inconceivably forward attention-seeking gesture for a gentlelady, clearly labelling Ophelia as out of her wits. She then launches into a cascade of fragments from songs popular at the time, some bawdy, some mournful, and sacred even, and it is precisely this mixed nature of her songs, which is problematic for the Renaissance playgoer: Ophelia’s songs are broken up into snippets, and randomly stitched together, a seemingly disconnected medley whose meaning we can only guess at — but therein lies exactly her powerful threat against the authorities. Interpretation. Ophelia’s songs make us interpret, and consciously so, as suggested by a nervous courtier who prepares the audience for her first entry in another version of the play text a year later:

Gentleman. She speaks much of her father, says she hears

There’s tricks in the world, and hems, and beats her heart,

Spurns enviously at straws, speaks things in doubt

That carry but half sense, her speech is nothing,

Yet the unshaped use of it doth move

 The hearers to collection, they yawn at it,

 And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts,

Which as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them,

Indeed would make one think there might be thought

Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.

Horatio. It were good she were spoken with, for she may strew

Dangerous conjectures in ill breeding minds.   (Hamlet, 4.5).

‘Her speech is nothing’…Yet it is something enough to engage her listeners, to encourage them to figure out less which songs she is pasting together but why. Primed by the courtier to read deeper meaning into her supposedly random associations, we become complicit in Ophelia’s possibly political public music. Is she suggesting her father’s killing was murder? Does she mean there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark? Are we, perhaps, those ‘ill breeding minds’ in the end…?

Music: at the heart of the issue

By claiming the right to speak, Ophelia transgresses limits of aural female presence, more even, by lifting her speech into song, she offends twice, but it is precisely music which both enables and attenuates charges against her crime of song: are these truly her words, or are they just lyrics belonging to everyone? Or no-one? We have all sung these songs at one time or another; does that make us culpable of inciting rebellion against the king and queen? Does Ophelia, perhaps, become the avenger that Hamlet ought to be whose father was also murdered? And does music mean anything anyway? It’s just sound after all! Music, it seems, is both a screen and at the heart of the issue of the female voice, ambiguously “there” and self-effacing at the same time.

More singing madwomen were to follow Ophelia and Cassandra, such as the Jailor’s Daughter in Shakespeare’s late play Two Noble Kinsmen, but also in works by other playwrights. The Renaissance stage was a network of players and writers who knew each other intimately, and cooperated more often than not, circulating and recycling ideas from each other. In the pieces of these dramatists, madwomen use pre-existing words to speak about their own situations, like oracles to speak truths which their environment tries to suppress as well as interpret. Being forbidden a voice of their own, they make the voice of everyone theirs, turning collective into individual identity. Music, almost beyond good and evil, offers women a means to carve out an independent, a noisy self. In a tragedy, that outspoken (outsung?) self often perishes, either by her own or at others’ hands, and yet: the claim to presence and acknowledgement of female personhood has been made. The silence has been broken, and phenomenally so, when Cassandra, rocked by a vision, bursts out like a vocal volcano:

                             Cry, Trojans, cry! practise your eyes with tears!

                        Troy must not be, nor goodly Ilion stand;

                         Our firebrand brother, Paris, burns us all.

                             Cry, Trojans, cry!

She is greeted by her brothers as ‘our mad sister’, but… every single one of these brothers will be dead soon, as much as the fortress city will have crumbled into dust and ashes. Then we will mingle our voice with Cassandra’s, having nothing else to do but mourn and cry.

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Cassandra, by Frederick Sandys.