Containing the (M)Other: Gendered Implications of the Shakespearean Carnivalesque

Chip Badley


            Although it is never explicitly announced, the anxiety of a powerful woman lies at the heart of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth [c.1606] and The Winter’s Tale [1610]. Implying that a woman could exist without a man, this anxiety threatened the predominantly patriarchal structure of early modern England. Terry Eagleton explains:  “From a phallocentric viewpoint a woman appears to have nothing between her legs, which is as alarming for men as it is reassuring. On the one hand, this apparent lack in the female confirms the male’s power over her; on the other hand, it stirs in him unconscious thoughts of his own possible castration, reminding him that his own being may not be as flawlessly complete as he had imagined. The sight of an external lack may stimulate a sense of vacancy within himself, which he can plug, paradoxically, with the woman idealized as fetish: if woman has nothing between her legs then she is a desexualized Madonna, whose purity of being can protect him totemically against the chaos which the female nothing threatens.”  This idealized and fetishized woman was often channeled into two identities – the passive virgin (Ophelia) or the power-hungry grotesque (Gertrude). This paper will focus on three female identities in Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale – the witch, the female tyrant, and the passive wife. While the three identities don’t perfectly conform to the binary of virgin/grotesque, they do pose the same threat that stems from such a binary – the exposure of male impotency. The women of these plays lie within the same realm of transgression by seeking power in a patriarchal society that assigns power based on gender. This anxiety about female power theatrically manifests in supernatural characters: in particular, the witches of Macbeth and the statue of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. But ultimately defeated, the symbols of female power are effectively banished from narratives resigned to the reign of the (male) monarch.  . . .

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