10 November 2013

Innocent Adulterers

I've begun a fortnightly column on The Sunday Guardian called The Upstart Crow. Here's the first column, which begins a series on Shakespeare in contemporary context. It first appeared here


‘Why I should fear I know not,
Since guiltiness I know not, but yet I feel I fear.’
(Desdemona, 5.2.37-86, Othello by William Shakespeare)

If Renaissance women were, in general, a fairly adulterous lot, it is no surprise that their adultery is widely discussed in the literature of the time: the incestuous Gertrude in Hamlet, the untrue Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, the iniquitous sisters Goneril and Regan from King Lear, and even the heartless dark lady of the sonnets. We would not be amiss if we were to look upon them as Shakespeare’s realistic portrayal of the women of his time. And certainly, as these plays show, women’s adultery was more than enough cause for reproof and censure.

If Renaissance men were equally adulterous, there is little in Shakespeare to account for it; rather, men are shown to be more fickle than adulterous, more mercenary than lustful. More disappointingly, they are never castigated as vociferously as women. Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, who swiftly shifts affections when it seems profitable, is never fittingly reprimanded; not an eyebrow is raised when Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona flits easily from Julia to Silvia and back to Julia again or when the same Romeo in Romeo and Juliet who eloquently professed love to Rosaline suddenly decides that it is Juliet who is his one true love or when Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night declares himself in love with Viola, the very woman to whom he volubly confessed his love for Olivia. In fact, it hardly seems fair that Julia, who bore such painful, firsthand witness to Proteus’s indiscretions, should forgive him so easily or that Cleopatra should content herself with revenge on a hapless messenger and poor reports of Octavia’s beauty, rather than confronting and indicting Antony when they meet next.

Shakespeare, though, plays for variety. Several of his adulteresses are not adulterous at all. They are falsely accused and, with no proof, denounced far more than men who have actually been unfaithful – Desdemona in Othello, Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, Imogen in Cymbeline, Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Three out of these four plays are comedies and the woman is saved by accident, but in Othello, the tragedy ends with honour killing and suicide. Our worlds, sadly, are more often defined by tragedy than comedy.

A close look at case accounts of slander litigation in early modern England shows that the indiscretions of men were never brought out into the open as often as women’s or even penalised with the same kind of severity. In fact, it often seems as though women were thought of as more capable of these indiscretions than men. Actual court histories show cases in which women accused of infidelity were brought to court and the marriages were terminated with no actual proof, leading, of course, to women being considered naturally perverse and genetically given to adultery. Even female lust is seen as problematic within the idiom of accusation, a phenomenon we frequently bear witness to in the 21st Century.

As the primary targets of insult, women occupy a very particular place in the negotiation of sexual guilt and honour. Insults towards women play on a culpability for illicit sex that is unique to them. The personal, verbal, social and institutional sanctions against “whores” and “bawds” had no counterpart for men in Renaissance vocabulary and this is as true today as it then was. I spent hours trawling through court records in England a few years ago to discover that not only were men less likely than women to be presented (in court) for illicit sex, but also that men’s adultery was never an accepted ground for marital separation, as women’s was. This meant that transgressions could just as well have been fabricated for the purpose of obtaining a divorce for reasons that could include monetary gain, the legalisation of other relationships, and even vengeance.

If men’s transgressions were never made public – in the court and otherwise – and if they were not even considered gross misdemeanours, then maybe there's a backstage story in Shakespeare that we're never told about. One could speculate that his male characters were surreptitiously unfaithful, but that this was neither considered important enough to bring up nor could it be held against them. The likelihood is no less with characters as staunch about their morality as Claudio and Othello (although Iago does indicate the possibility of Othello having had an affair with Emilia at the beginning of the play, but the notion is never referred to again in the play).


These are trifling and pointless speculations that create a meta-fictitious world within well-loved fiction. But it becomes meaningful within the negotiation of female sexuality today to be aware of the heavily discriminatory patterns of our roots. Feminism may have come a long way since the murder of Desdemona, but it is still to wipe her blood from our collective conscience.

1 comment:

Arunkumar Arumugam said...

Shamefully, when a man is attracted to a woman but unable to approach (or lay his hands upon) her, he builds up (cowardly) adulterous fascinations about her and at times goes around talking about it. Looking at the way such fascinations being manifested in literature and the kind of acceptance it has had in Shakespearean era, it seems things were no different then. Well sadly it was and is still a man's world. Nice analysis btw.

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