Construction of femininity
Construction of femininity
The very titles of both plays, Gertrude, The Cry and Ophelia Thinks Harder offer the grounds for the presumption that the central theme is related to a woman. Furthermore, in the light of postmodernism one may presuppose to read the revisionary approach on the woman’s question. Now when Gertrude and Ophelia have become the archetypes, their reading in the postmodernist works gives the possibility to understand the principles of the latest tendencies of the literature.
The play expresses the modern understanding of Hamlet by throwing the light upon the subjects that were left enigmatic by Shakespeare. Reading the archetypes in the modern adaptations allow a better understanding of postmodernism. The study’s focus is the representations of Shakespearean Hamlet women in the modern plays. Despite a series of transgressive forms of language in both literary pieces (in particular in Barker’s), the plain-spoken parody on the original play, the focus on the problem and the atmosphere of femininity appear close to original Shakespeare.
The atmosphere around femininity in both plays seem more authentic to the heroes of original Hamlet that for example in the representations of 19th  century when the femininity was a cult and the femininity of Ophelia was the idyllic example. Is it the genius of Shakespeare to create a play that seems to have constantly the necessity to be unveiled? Is it the work of poststructuralist philosophers that influenced the postmodern authors to re-understand the women in Shakespeare’s literature?
Has the urgency of rethinking of the female role through rethinking the femininity finally found its proper reflection in the fiction? Of course, Gertrude and Ophelia represent different and sometimes quite the opposite female types. Gertrude is in her maturity while Ophelia is in her puberty. This difference gives the opportunity to study the whole picture of femininity on different levels. To make the picture complete, both authors introduce new feminine characters.
In order not to eclipse Gertrude, Barker omits Ophelia in his adaptation; however he introduces Isola, Claudius mother and Ragusa, somewhere at Ophelia’s place. As for Betts, there are Maid and Virgin Mary; however the plot is formed in a way that to the end of the play there are more female characters than male. Gertrude and Ophelia characters symbolize the eternal problems that women are facing. Different as they are, they always converge. And the study of both of them is necessary for this course of effort to bring the answers to the questions raised above.
The philosophical debates over essentialism and femininity, the problems of gender, the rethinking of its ontological construction, the post-structuralism and the deconstruction have been largely introduced in the course of the 20th century . Although, they have some differences in approach, commonly they agree that the femininity is to be socially constructed. It is rather clear that both postmodern writings of Barker and Betts could possibly not disregard these approaches when writing on women. Moreover they are industriously participating in the debates.
For example, the plot Ophelia Thinks Harder is explicitly under-wound on gender construction. Barker is focusing more on the relation of femininity and the power. Bett’s claim on Queen: “We have to work at being women… ” (Queen,3,17) highlights the coercive nature of femininity and can recall one the Beauvoir’s famous claim that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman. Femininity construction in the conventional understanding is regarded as the “the art that [all the heterosexual women] must master”(Queen, Scene 3, p. 16). It is quite natural that all the compulsory is to be criticized in the western democratic society.
However the femininity is compelled so slight and subtle that one can possibly not be aware of it. But the outcome of this compelled femininity can be more dangerous to the point that one can believe and can touch all the levels of human being. This is what this study will attempt to highlight in this work. It is sad to mark that this is the prevailing philosophy as for gender problems finds its supporters mainly in the homosexual ranges.  With all my respect for the diversity, in some cases it is like Barker’s Hamlet who “will write the Book of Love whilst having never oh not ever loved” (Hamlet, Scene 13, p. 55).
While the heterosexual women suffer of so many not less urgent problems of no solution. What is the role for example of the philosophy on gender, treating the problems of femininity in the issue of domestic violence. A 1992 Council of Europe study on domestic violence against women found that one in four women experience domestic violence over their lifetimes, 400 hundred women die because of their partner’s violence every year . Generally speaking, the contemporary philosophical orientation is hardly finding something constructive to propose at least for heterosexual women leaving the contradiction unresolved.
Efrat Tseelon criticizes the modern authors regarding the woman’s question in “The Masque of Femininity”: “My claim is that this tradition covers very different theoretical explanations. It ranges from mythological and theological descriptions which define the essence of a woman as dissimulation, to psychoanalytic accounts and contemporary social theory which define the essence of femininity as an inessential social construction”. Majority of the postmodern writers and philosophers, who are focusing on femininity, give the answers principally on the deconstruction of gender.
Some tendencies for internationalized feminism take into consideration the women of the third world situations as highly appreciable . However, similar problems in the western society do not have the sufficient treat. Even if theories exist, they are too difficult to adopt in real life for the heterosexual majority of women as it is proved in Ophelia Thinks Harder. In this context literary works treating questions concerning women again become more important. They are indispensable in understanding femininity in modern terms. Inasmuch as studying them contributes to the working on the consciousness.
And it is due to the quality of the literature independent of the conventional construction or philosophical trends and largely contributing into both, to intersect the theory and the real life. Whereas Howard Barker’s intentions are rather cryptic, Jean Betts provides the both in her work: her work is full of incomparable imagination, she provides the historical and philosophical data from Aristotle to Queen Elizabeth and the outline of Christian thought over femininity and she evokes for the representations of women in all the dimensions.
Of course such approach helps her preliminarily to put some light on the original character of Shakespearean Ophelia by the introduction of the thought on femininity in the period when Shakespeare created Ophelia, the post-Elizabethan period, the beginning of the 17th century. This information in the guise of fiction makes apparent the true reason of Shakespearean Ophelia’s collapse. Women were regarded as physiologically “failed men” – as a product of incomplete development caused by insufficient generative heat in the womb. They were seen as the effeminate man, the aberrations of effeminacy.
Woman’s sexuality was thought of almost a separate organism within the woman, with a will – womb. Calling back to these perversions in the postmodernist frame allows the reader to question the hegemonic cultural discourse of nowadays. Whereas Betts is trying in her own words to help to “dismantle some of the foundations of this deeply buried prejudice against women”, (Writer’s Notes, Ophelia Thinks Harder), Barker is focusing more on the sexuality of the femininity as the power and the tragic outcome of the excess of the femininity and feminine sexuality.
He questions the verity of the sexual feminine liberation and if it really liberates the woman. Undoubtedly a certain sexual feminine liberation has become a part of the conventional construction of femininity. However, there is no seamless category of conventional femininity, no for femininity as there is no seamless category for the woman. “The very subject of women is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms”. The best possible definition for the conventional femininity gives Betts’s Gertrude: “… display her wares… you’ll dazzle them all…
a fantastical cosmetic and corset fitting process; e. g. Eyebrow plucking, leg waxing, arm oiling, nails, garish face mask, fierce corsetry, grossly padded bra, chastity belt, etc… You will delight, but not over-excite. … a pure sweet, submissive little virgin… ” The conventional femininity is double-faced. Having Chaste Mary as an ideal, the feminine best culmination is “to play the cards right”. What Ragusa has actually performed. ”… marriage is the greatest moment in a woman’s life to be a bride the day of all days… ” (Ragusa, Scene 15, p. 63).
Trying her best to construct the feminine self, she married Hamlet and inherited the throne after his death. Ophelia’s Mother suggests: “women are treacherous, sly, scheming, deceitful… ”. Even making children in the conventional understanding of the femininity is corresponded to please or manipulate man: “They want kids, do it. They don’t – well come to me and I’ll help you when the time comes. “; “A woman with a son is powerful. ” (Queen, Scene 3, p. 17; 19) However, in the original version Gertrude had nothing but sufferance and the collapse of her life because of her son, who did not accept her mode of life.
The response is paradoxically given by the same all feminine Betts Gertrude: “-and we are inconsiderate enough not to give a shit what driveling adolescents like you think. ” (Queen, Scene 7, p. 54). Of course, Barker’s power of Gertrude is certainly far from her bearing a son. Unmasking the masquerade Insomuch as the woman’s question is to be read the titles of both plays, the unthought-of before or rethought (thinks harder) and a sore utterance of the extreme feelings (the cry) are manifesting. Shakespearean women thus have a chance to cry out their repressed truths.
It is absolutely normal when taking in consideration the historic-cultural context of the role of gender in the Shakespearean period that women like Gertrude and Ophelia, were shown and identified by their relation to men. It is of the great achievements of Shakespeare to draw the remarried widow as the tragic hero when “for playwrights of the early modern period, a remarrying widow was a subject for comedy”. Today, in the light of deconstruction, what was identified as the feminine can turn to be masculine and vice-versa theoretically . Practically, the process of choosing the gender is not without the desperate torments.
The femininity as the obstruction to the knowledge in Betts version and the extreme feminine sexuality of as the pseudo pluck of the apple of forbidden knowledge in Barkers are the central themes in the plays. Betts’ Ophelia hence thinks harder than the original Shakespearean one. What does this possibility to think or to rethink presents for the female? Shakespearean Ophelia’s life was predicated by what men around her thought. Her father and brother decided how she should behave herself. Hamlet’s refusal of her was fatal. Betts offers Ophelia the choice to think herself for her life, what will it turn to?
As for Gertrude, will her cry hush the desperate attempts of Hamlet to de-sexualize her? Is the cry the horror and sexual pleasure of her femininity or does it stand over female and masculine categories? Modern Shakespeare suggests that Gertrude’s flagrancy, her over sexualized femininity cost the life of another feminine innocent Ophelia . Indeed desire and death go traditionally together as proved above, but what is the place of the femininity in desire? Even if it is true, why should the feminine sexual desire be identified with femininity? And why should the masculine desire excuse itself by femininity?
In Betts rewriting, Ophelia is in the same cultural context, the oppressed woman, the same “mad fool” (Queen, 7, 52) boyfriend Hamlet. It should therefore come as no surprise, that her desperate attempts of thinking meet the terrible attacks from all the members of the society. To condemn these attempts on failure, they take an argument that thinking is not feminine, accusing Ophelia of not being feminine. Throughout the play Betts is proving that the imposed conventional femininity is an instrument to prevent the woman to think. She focuses in particular on why thinking for a woman is so dangerous in the conventional understanding.
The power stands for the explanation and certainly not a “psychotic clown” who sets the rules. The power serves as the relationship between individuals. The one who possesses the knowledge possesses the power. Isn’t after overcoming the conventional femininity and get educated that: “we dress up to learn, to write, to get published… be lawyers, doctors, lead armies, run countries… ” (R&G, Scene 8) that the gender war is foreseen to happen: “I see strife; I see gender war; I see the initial X”(First Woman 4, 26). At first glance, Barker’s Gertrude possesses the power.
She is evidently more delighted with her sexual power than the political one that she posses with her statute of the queen. From her comes out the cry, the extreme point of ever possible desire and pleasure and of horror. The extreme desire is always conventionally associated with sin as well as with feminine. This is evident in the story of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. The first sin has become sexualized with Eve’s violation of God’s specific instruction  The Cry is like the reproduction of the first sentiment that the new sinful world lived: the desire and the horror. Gertrude possesses this cry.
Is the extreme femininity the way to posses the cry or does it come out of the brain that has no binary category? “MY BRAIN IS WHERE DESIRE IS” (Hamlet 5, 28) Where is the place of the intellect in the conventional construction of the femininity? Knowledge and desire go together. As mentioned above was it not for the desire of knowledge that the first sin occurred? Therefore, knowledge is interpreted as unnatural to female. As the epigraph to Ophelia Thinks Harder proposes: “Laborious learning or painful pondering, even if woman should greatly succeed in it, destroy the merits that are proper to her sex” (Kant).
In the course of all these tormenting moments of thinking, Betts’ Ophelia is read as what is in the psychoanalytic terms called bisexual: not feminine, not masculine. At least she is resisting to become feminine. Before getting down on why she is refusing the conventional femininity, one should clearly make the difference between the biological sex and the socially constructed femininity or masculinity. Freud claims that the child is born bisexual and femininity or masculinity is constructed . Following the psychological steps related to his parents the child develops his/her masculinity/femininity.
Then as it is developing it is influenced by the socio cultural frames. Together with the theory of deconstruction they would consider us to read Ophelia bisexual. Indeed she claims that she does not want to be the man, nor the woman (Scene 3, 17). However her bisexuality is also determined by the social frames. She does not want not to be the man, nor the woman because she does not want to be seen like conventional feminine or masculine. The conventional understanding of the femininity does not correspond to her individuality.
Hence, she is refusing the conventional notion of being feminine: “Behavior as instinctive as a cat’s with a bird… ” (Hamlet, Scene 1, p. 3); “… viper… like Eve would arouse in him evil and lust (Hamlet, Scene 4, p. 29) or “The lady doth protest too much”(III,ii,225) She is refusing to be tough and try to corrupt the man she is not. She is refusing to be tough to be overwhelmed with her sexuality as something shameful. “ Hormones, cycles of blood, reproductive turmoil-you are flushed with your female destiny-you are adulated, euphoric-yes-you are clearly in love…
” (Hamlet, Scene 1, p. 3). If choosing gender in the natural way is as impossible as it was in the original version and if we know that the femininity is rooted in the social construction is it left to the society to decide if she becomes a normal woman [feminine]? Is there a solution to stand out the opinion of the society? On one hand Barker’s Gertrude is independent from the society’s opinion, on the other she is strongly dependent on others, as she needs to astonish. The conflict in Ophelia Thinks Harder lies in Ophelia’s resistance to the psychic subordination of the conventional.
Being female, according to the social conventions her body must be superior to her mind, while the masculinity would be gifted with mind and femininity with body. Ophelia is forced to be separated from her mind and to delight and be delighted by her feminine body. She is not abnormal or exceptional. “The thousands of us” (Scene 8, p. 66) had to disguise as men to be disjoined from their minds. Judith Butler is decisive upon Beauvoir proposal that the female body ought to be the situation and the instrumentality of the woman’s freedom, not a defining and limiting essence .
She writes: “In the philosophical tradition that begins with Plato and continues through Descartes, Husserl, and Sartre, the ontological distinction between soul (consciousness, mind) and body invariably supports relations of political and psychic subordination and hierarchy”. While Betts uncovers the diverse and dissimilar states of female’s self-construction, Barker is focusing on the exploration of the body. Helen Cixous is speaking about the writing of the female body . Quite in a similar way, Barker is studying the possibility of “learning to approach their [women’s] own forbidden bodies”.
Indeed one can mark the parallel even in the titles with The Laughter of Medusa and Gertrude The Cry. Barker’s Gertrude claim “I’ve made an instrument out of my body” (Scene 14, p. 62). Gertrude explores and perceives the knowledge through the possibilities of her body. Of course Barker has not invented that Gertrude is exploring her sexuality. Shakespearean theme is also read in Betts: “it may come as a shock, little boy, but quite a lot a lot of people over 30 fondle each other. Oh yes; Claudius and I… HAVE SEX. ” (Queen, Scene 7, p. 54).
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 29 December 2016
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