Review of Fantasies of Female Evil

by Jessica C. Murphy

Cristina León Alfar. Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003. 254pp. $46.50 <http://bit.ly/85ZqyR>

Review by Rebecca Sader

In Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy, Cristina León Alfar convincingly argues that key females characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies are inaccurately labeled as “evil” based on “masculinist fantasies”(29). According to Alfar, Shakespeare uses his female characters to expose the “patrilineal structures of power” that permeate the society and she argues that the tragedies, especially King Lear and Macbeth, demonstrate “the ways in which women do not and cannot perform power” without appropriating masculine traits of violence and domination (29).  The value of this book is not only that it challenges the traditional interpretation of Shakespeare’s anti-heroines, but also that it provides an in-depth study of cultural assignment of evil in females based on the political, economical and social structures of gender in early modern England.

The use of didactic writings, especially the conduct books of Juan Luis Vives and Joseph Swetnam, provides a sociological framework of acceptable female behavior, allowing Alfar to analyze the female characters of the plays based on an early modern model of femininity.  Alfar persuasively argues that the goal of these conduct manuals was to enforce the patrilineal systems of power through the bodies of women and to “produce a virtuous female body for a masculinist economic and moral order” (32). Alfar proposes that, by enforcing the definition of a virtuous woman as passive and domestic, the traits of violence, political ambition and greed must necessarily be viewed as masculine and therefore unnatural and evil in females. In her fascinating discussion of how this gendering of power is demonstrated in Queen Elizabeth, Alfar shows that Elizabeth appropriated the virtuous, virginal persona associated with the Virgin Mary to conform to the accepted definition of femininity, while simultaneously asserting her image as powerful and ruthless through her “continual references to herself as king and prince” (58). Alfar convincingly argues that for Elizabeth as a female to successfully rule she was compelled to assume a male persona because “female power was seen as an abomination, as a reversal of natural and moral order” (58). It is this socio-political based definition of feminine evil that Alfar successfully repudiates in its application to Shakespeare’s “evil” female characters.

Alfar opens her critique of feminine evil in an unexpected way: with a discussion of the presumably “good” Juliet and the reasons why Juliet is not seen as an evil woman. While the argument that Juliet is not labeled as evil because Shakespeare refuses to blame Juliet for acting in her own interest and instead places blame, “squarely on the feud as a ruthless, masculinist competition responsible for wiping out the genetic future of two families,” (76) is interesting, it is based on the assumption that Shakespeare disagreed with the social custom of fathers negotiating marriage contracts; an assumption that Alfar does not support with textual evidence from Romeo and Juliet nor any other play.  The assertion that Juliet’s suicide should be seen as a political act designed to prevent her from becoming a commodity within the masculine economy is an appealing idea that is only briefly discussed. This argument that female suicide is a political and economic weapon against patrilineal structures of power demonstrated by Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and Goneril in King Lear as well as the faked death of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale is an intriguing one, and an expanded discussion of the use of female suicide as social and economic rebellion would only strengthen Alfar’s claim.

The discussions of Macbeth and King Lear provide strong support for the assertion that the female characters of these plays have been labeled evil based solely on the masculinist definition of feminine power as an abomination.  Providing a compelling argument that Lady Macbeth, “provides a parodic inversion of the ideal wife,” (111) Alfar proposes that Lady Macbeth is not acting on her own desires but is instead, demonstrating the socially dictated behavior of a virtuous wife when she encourages Macbeth to murder Duncan. Based on the early modern definition of a virtuous wife as presented in the conduct books, Lady Macbeth must reflect the desires of her husband while repressing her own desires. Since Macbeth wants to usurp Duncan’s throne through murder, Lady Macbeth not only has to reflect his desire, she has to suppress her own feminine characteristics and adopt the masculine characteristics of violence, greed, and political ambition in order to help her husband achieve his desire. Lady Macbeth is compelled to act in a brutal way because to do otherwise would violate her role as a virtuous wife to Macbeth.  Alfar proposes that Lady Macbeth’s “evil” actions, “find their brutal source in both monarchial and gender structures of power already in place” (115).

While Lady Macbeth is forced into her act of violence by her role as a virtuous wife, Goneril and Regan, the older daughters of King Lear are compelled to assume the masculine attribute of violence due to their positions as monarchs. Alfar argues that, “Goneril and Regan must resist their culture’s definition of femininity if they are to take up the crown and rule the nation” (85).  As legitimate monarchs, Goneril and Regan must defend their kingdoms against invasion and treason. When their sister Cordelia and her husband, the King of France invade England in an attempt to restore King Lear to power, Goneril and Regan are forced to act with masculine ruthlessness against this threat to their kingdoms just as Elizabeth responded with masculine aggression to the Spanish armada’s attempt to invade England. The blinding of Gloucester, which is traditionally interpreted as evidence of Regan’s evil nature, is explained as a masculine act of political survival against a traitor to the state. Alfar states that Goneril and Regan move in a masculinist “system of power relations” and cannot rule using a feminine perspective. Alfar asserts that in order to be effective rulers Goneril and Regan must assume masculine characteristics to “subscribe to the brutal nature of kingship.” Based on this definition of kingship, Alfar effectively argues that Lear’s older daughters are not evil but are instead trapped in a patrilineal power structure they cannot change. This forces Goneril and Regan to operate within the existing power structure using the exclusively masculine and violent characteristics of kingship (109).

In Fantasies of Female Evil Cristina León Alfar presents a close and compelling look at the “evil” women of Shakespeare’s tragedies from a new perspective. Alfar’s argument, that Lady Macbeth, Goneril and Regan, Cleopatra, Hermoine and Juliet are not evil but are, instead female characters who voluntarily or involuntarily act in ways that violate the accepted masculine power structure and gender scripts for appropriate feminine behavior of early modern England is an enlightening and valuable analysis of the social norms of Shakespeare’s time and the influence of masculinist perspectives on the assignment of female evil.

Rebecca Sader is a graduate student at The University of Texas at Dallas; she lives and works in the Dallas, TX metroplex.

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