Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.11 - Germaine Greer on Lovers in Shakespeare's Plays

 Germaine Greer, Australian feminist and academic

Germaine Greer's session on Shakespeare's Lovers was an exploration of the romantic and erotic charge of the playwright's masterpieces such as Romeo and Juliet. In her talk on the lovers in Shakespeare's plays she made two radical observations

(1) all the winning instances of love occur between young lovers; mature love among married protagonists is non-existent, and

(2) among young lovers the woman is always older, and more commanding. 

 Germaine Greer after the talk

Greer pointed out that the Lover is the third of the seven ages of man in the famous speech by Jacques in As You Like It,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow.


But the Lover does not grow a beard until the next stage, that of a soldier. 

Germaine Greer said Shakespeare was not in a bad marriage

Greer narrated how in the Lover's Complaint Shakespeare has an older woman lamenting the loss of a youthful lover. It's a boy-seducer: 
His browny locks did hang in crooked curls;
And every light occasion of the wind
Upon his lips their silken parcels hurls.

...
Small show of man was yet upon his chin;
His phoenix down began but to appear

Like unshorn velvet on that termless skin 


Joe taking notes in the front row as Greer speaks


Greer asserts that Shakespeare is unique in revealing little about what's on his mind. He has left no evidence, and gave no interviews regarding his own views on things. Not even in the sonnets does he speak for himself, but for others and through others. He is the embodiment of a plenitude that transcends individuals. 

Asked whether her book, The Female Eunuch, changed the world, Greer replied her book did not change the world but women who read her book had done so.

To read more of what Greer said, click below ...


Australian feminist, writer and academic Germaine Greer's session Shakespeare's Lovers; it was an exploration of the romantic and erotic charge of the playwright's masterpieces such as Romeo and Juliet. Greer, who is a professor the University of Warwick, also spoke on the feminine aspect of Lord Krishna's dancing, of his androgynous nature. In an interview with The Mail, Greer said that listening was the most important aspect in a man-woman relationship. "As heterosexual women, we love men more than they love us. It's very difficult being a man," Greer said.


In her talk on the lovers in Shakespeare's plays she made two radical observations
(1) all the winning instances of love occur between young lovers, and mature love among married protagonists is non-existent, and
(2) among young lovers the woman is always older, and more commanding.

Ms. Hrdayakumari, Principal of Women's College in TVM, leaned and said to me that Greer's second observation is not borne out.

Marriage in Elizabethan times was a negotiation by friends, and parents. But parents could not choose mates who were not lovable by their daughters, said Greer. When it came to wooing women boys were batter at it than men in the plays of Shakespeare. Consider the Duke of Anjou who at age 24 wooed Queen Elizabeth I aged 50, she who could flirt in eight languages but remained a virgin and a notorious heartbreaker. 

Greer pointed out that the Lover is the third of the seven ages of man in the famous speech of Jacques in As You Like It,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow.


He does not grow a beard until the next stage of a soldier. 

Take a contemporary case: all young women are in love with Justin Bieber, the boy singer aged 13. Think about Krishna. A foreigner saw a picture of Lord Krishna and thought it was of a nautch girl. Krishna is never depicted as an adult man, but as a slender irresistible boy, sporting with gopis. Greer made a pun with the word 'groupie', giving rise to laughter.

Boys are screen idols in the West too. Greer confessed she had been kissed four times by Shah Rukh Khan (where she did not tell), the Khan of the six-pack midriff. She wished SRK would stop exposing his abdomen at the slightest provocation.

Greer quoted from a conversation between Portia and her confidant, Nerissa, in The Merchant of Venice, when Portia proposes that they should disguise themselves as young men who will be courted by older ladies:
How honourable ladies sought my love,
Which I denying, they fell sick and died;


Greer narrated how in the Lover's Complaint Shakespeare has an older woman lamenting the loss of a youthful lover. It's a boy-seducer:
His browny locks did hang in crooked curls;
And every light occasion of the wind
Upon his lips their silken parcels hurls.
...
Small show of man was yet upon his chin;
His phoenix down began but to appear
Like unshorn velvet on that termless skin 

Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's contemporary in one of his poems (Charis) tells what a woman looks for:
I will tell what Man would please me.

Young I'ld have him too, and fair …
Eye-brows bent, like Cupid's Bow,
...
Chin as woolly as the Peach;


Shakespeare in Two Gentlemen of Verona provides some hair detail as Julia and Lucetta pine for their lovers:
I'll knit it up in silken strings.

In the same play you see heroines easily giving up their hearts. In Love's Labour Lost you see Shakespeare recording the changes as England turns from a rural society to a more commercial one. King Navarre is a boy in the play:
For he hath wit to make an ill shape good,
And shape to win grace though he had no wit.


Greer asserts that Shakespeare is unique in revealing little about what's on his mind. He has left no evidence, and gave no interviews, regarding his own views on things. Not even in the sonnets does he speak for himself, but for others and through others. He is the embodiment of a plenitude that transcends individuals.

In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio is only after money in courting Portia, to restore the fortune that he has gambled away; it is Portia who has true love. Master Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a similar case. Anne is in love with Master Fenton, but Fenton comes as a suitor only for the money, having squandered his fortune. In All's Well That Ends Well, Helena is in love with Bertram, but he takes her for granted. She wins him in the most extraordinary way as a prostitute in war, winning him bodily without his being aware who she is.

In Much Ado About Nothing Benedick and Beatrice keep sparring with each other. It's like a Hindi movie, according to Greer. Benedick has his beard shaved, for Beatrice says, “I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face.” Accordingly Benedick goes to a barber who ensures “the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis balls.”

In a Hindu household, Greer opined, it is common for a new wife to take up a joking relationship with the younger brother of the husband. So too in Twelfth Night Olivia falls in love with Cesario, not Orsino who is importunate and asks Viola the intermediary to represent him for,
She will attend it better in thy youth
Than in a nuncio's of more grave aspect.

Plays are vehicles to be filled by people in the audience, not filled by Shakespeare's ideas only.

In answer to a question about married love Greer said there are no examples in Shakespeare. Lady Macbeth is not a creature of love, but of ambition, for herself through her husband. “You don't have a depiction of harmonious married love in Shakespeare's works.”

In the Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff takes one woman after another. “It is up to us to write a play where women are unworthy of their men,” Greer said amid laughter. She talked of the Freudian view of narcissism, of women needing it to defend themselves. Women are modest and diffident.

Regarding Juliet giving her heart to a masked Romeo, Greer said, “That act of huge generosity is profoundly self-destructive.” The play makes clear that “Marriage is a public act, not a private act. You have to carry others with you. Else it becomes a disaster – at least in Shakespeare's time.”

Romeo and Juliet is the first time Shakespeare write heroic blank verse, and it is in the lips of a 14-year old. It's full of lines like:
the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.

And abounds with the crazy self-immolation of teenagers. To a question whether her book, The Female Eunuch, changed the world, Greer modestly replied her book did not change the world, but women who read her book did. The book was generously acclaimed. She said she herself is an old-fashioned Marxist.

2 comments:

paul said...

Wonderful exposition. I learned about marriage, love and lovers through Shakespeare, Germaine Greer and Joe Cleetus!

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