Shakespeare's Dark Lady and Emma Watson's #HeforShe Campaign

When the Harry Potter books first emerged I was about the same age as the young wizards and witches in the series and, there were no two ways about it, I was Hermione! I think a lot of people my age were. So when the books came to the silver screen and Emma Watson took on the role of Hermione, we couldn’t help but identify with her as well. As we have grown up and got jobs unconnected with the wizarding world, Emma Watson has too, becoming a film and fashion star. Despite her glamour and beauty, all wrapped up in couture, in a sense she’s still one of us, because she started off as Hermione. For this reason, my friends and I felt a sense of pride, as well as admiration, when Emma Watson made her UN speech on feminism. Launching the #HeforShe campaign, Watson argued that misogyny and narrow gender stereotypes were damaging to both genders, and that men as well as women had to take action to produce a positive change.

While this articulate and intelligent speech gained applause from many quarters, there were also those who chose to attack Watson online, calling her a “whore” and threatening to leak nude hacked images of the actress. This explosion of misogyny only proves Watson’s point that something has to change. Three hundred and ninety three years ago, Mary Wroth became the first English woman to write and publish a sonnet sequence (Pamphilia to Amphilanthus). She published her poetry alongside an ambition work of prose, a romance called The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania.  The public response to the publication of Mary Wroth’s accomplished and remarkable work was outrage because she was a woman. Like Emma Watson, Mary Wroth was accused of promiscuity. She was called a whore, a drunkard, and a fool for attempting to be viewed on an equal footing with her male contemporaries. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. Back in the Seventeenth century women like Mary Wroth attempted to make a change by defying convention to showcase their skill as writers, which were on a par with those of many of their male contemporaries. Yet women alone, despite trying for so many years cannot make a change without the help of men. That is why the #HeforShe campaign is so important.

Why is it, then, that articulate and talented women like Emma Watson in 2014 and Mary Wroth in 1621 are attacked in specifically sexual terms for daring to have a public voice? Back in the early modern period an explicit link was made between female speech and sexuality, and it is was widely believed that both needed to be controlled by men. Anatomically and ideologically women were considered to be malleable and unfixed in both their minds and bodies. We see this often in Shakespeare’s work (Shakespeare and Wroth probably knew one another, and some have conjectured that she is the Dark Lady of the sonnets). Viola in Twelfth Night exclaims “How easy it is for the proper false / in women’s waxen heart’s to set their forms!”, and Hamlet rails “Frailty thy name is woman!” Women’s weakness was considered to be specifically sexual, and all their misdemeanours are blamed on their uncontrollable sexual appetite. For example, rather than concentrating on the ungratefulness of his daughters, or their betrayal, King Lear rages against female sexuality:
“The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above.
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend's.”
The daughters transgress the boundaries of their role within the patriarchal order, which is no more than filial duty to their ageing and tyrannical father. Goneral and Reagan wish to exercise the power they have been given and therefore they are presented as sexually voracious homicidal maniacs. There is a strange lack of congruity between the crime and the response. It is clear that then as now, displays of power from women are undercut by insinuations about female sexuality or sexual threats. Sex is being used to curb women’s power.

The question is, why has nothing changed? Shakespeare with his presentation of women detailed above (and elsewhere on this blog) is a mainstay of the school syllabus, while writers like Mary Wroth are consigned to a couple of pages in anthologies read only by keen undergraduates and specialist academics. What if, alongside Emma Watson’s #HeforShe campaign, we gave more space in our education system to women like Wroth, who have been there all along? 

A sexist cartoon from 17thC suggesting women preachers are promiscuous


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