Monday, May 14, 2012

Snatches of Old Tunes

A former colleague forwarded me (and others) a copy of a somewhat shocking motion filed recently in Texas state court in a family law matter.  The motion seeks sanctions against opposing counsel for a campaign of misogyny against the female lawyers representing other parties in the case. According to the motion, the campaign has involved repeatedly calling female attorneys working on the case names like “cunt,” “flat-chested bitch,” and “dumb shit.” I suppose it is not shocking that, even in 2012, some male lawyer is willing to call female opponents names to try to unsettle them and thereby gain some perceived advantage in an adversarial process.  What is surprising—and, in my view, admirable—is that the professionals who filed this motion were willing to make the behavior a matter of public record. As far as I know, this is not common; and it strikes me that taking the bull by a part of his anatomy in this way—soberly illustrating the cheapness of gender-based ad hominems by spelling out the facts without adding a lot of atmospherics—is a powerful strategy for combating the problem.  Roaches, after all, hate it when you turn on the lights. . . .
But thinking about this rather blatant contemporary display of misogyny prompted me to think about the degree to which that ailment, like racism and homophobia, color the legal profession in more subtle ways, which are always harder to recognize, let alone combat. These thoughts in turn prompted me to realize that I cannot think of many instances of unconscious misogyny in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Sure, Shakespeare created plenty of male characters who treat women as little more than objects to be exploited. See, e.g., the villainous Angelo in Measure for Measure, a play about which I have already blawged obsessively. But in creating characters like Angelo, Shakespeare was simply capturing a fact of life—that such characters exist; moreover, Angelo was the bad guy—and the play amounts to a critique of social systems that empower people like Angelo.
Of course, to further the thesis that Shakespeare was not a misogynist, I’d need to take on Taming of the Shrew at some point. But today I note this: considering the severely limited legal and political rights available to women in Elizabethan England, it should be a source of delight and wonder that Shakespeare created so many complex, interesting female characters—roles like Rosalind, Juliet, Portia, Cordelia, etc.—who were not simply witches, whores, or saintly virgins. Even some of Shakespeare’s witches (Macbeth’s “Weird Sisters”), whores (“Mistress Quickly”), and virgins (Measure for Measure’s Isabella) are quite nuanced. And the fact that the guy created so many fantastic female roles is even more amazing when you consider that all these roles had to be performed by young boys back in the day since the concept of “female actor” would, literally, have been synonymous with “prostitute.”
Sure, there are female characters whom male characters treat with scorn in a way that emphasizes their sexuality. The most obvious example is Hamlet and all the ugly things he has to say about his own mother, Queen Gertrude, such as:
Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on’t! Frailty, thy name is woman!
(Hamlet bemoaning that his mother, who seemed so in love with Hamlet, Sr., married his younger brother shortly after Hamlet, Sr. died at I.2.149-152).

O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
(ditto at I.2.162-163).

A bloody deed—almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
(Hamlet suggesting to Gertrude that the murder he has just committed is not as awful as what she has been doing in bed with Hamlet’s uncle at III.4.33-35).

Even though Hamlet is largely about Hamlet’s perceptions (duh), Shakespeare does not reduce Gertrude to Hamlet’s take on her. Instead, he gives her some decidedly incisive things to say, which suggests a tendency to cut through the bs—as when she succinctly urges the blathering Polonius to use “more matter, with less art” (II.2.95) and when she wryly comments on the Player Queen’s performance, observing that “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (III.2.221). Creating a character who is more complicated than the portrait drawn of her by the play’s principal character is really hard to do. A writer can only do that if that writer respects the humanity of that individual, which, in part, requires seeing that individual as something more than a reductive stereotype.

One could even say that Hamlet is in part about how the Prince gets undone by this misogyny. At least his disgust with being of woman born and having “sullied flesh”—which he wishes would “melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew” (I.2)—is much in evidence.  This disgust prompts him to dwell a bit too much on his mother’s sexuality and to belittle his girlfriend (Ophelia) in highly sexual and degrading terms when he becomes convinced, based on flimsy evidence, that she has betrayed him. And, ultimately, one could say that these attitudes distract him from his real problems and his real enemies—making him ripe for a tragic end.

In short, one could read Hamlet as a cautionary tale about the dangers of misogyny. Certainly, I can go out on a limb and speculate that lawyers probably do a better job of lawyering when they work to see their adversaries, clients, judges, and jurors as complex individuals, not as stock figures that can be controlled by recourse to degrading, knee-jerk reductionism.


  1. And it's no accident that Hamlet's father makes his only stage appearance as a ghost. Hamlet would like to finesse the flesh altogether and be the spiritual son of a spirit. That being difficult among biological creatures, even ones with enormous brains that can imagine not being biological, makes Hamlet not too happy about the constant reminder of the body from which he came.

  2. I'm so not qualified to comment on the Shakespere aspects of your blog. But I enjoyed this particular entry. I especially like this: "Roaches, after all, hate it when you turn on the lights. . . ."

    Keep it up. Can't wait for more!!