“I never gave you ought”: The Nunnery Scene Across Texts

There are three versions of Hamlet that have a rightful claim to be an “original” copy of the version written by William Shakespeare. All three legitimate claimants to an esteemed placement in literary canon have great similarity in plot and content, and all three were published during or immediately following the playwright’s lifetime. This multiplicity has been a major contributing factor to the presentation of the singular Hamlet most people imagine to exist. By looking at the 1603 Quarto (Q1), the 1604-5 Quarto (Q2), and finally the First Folio (FF) copies[1], there emerges a way of examining a text potentially in flux. This study examines a portion of one scene across the texts: Act III Scene i, specifically the confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia[2]. This scene was chosen for specifically its nebulousness across the texts, and the potential interpretations for the critic, director, actor. By examining the changing and shifting nature of this scene across texts, there is the possibility to lift out a deeper understanding of the pathos and motivations behind the words. Also, the examination gives the slightest window into a potential working process for the playwright, as he negotiated his intentions and the demands of performance.

Structurally, the lines being focused on within this study follow the infamous “To be or not to be…” speech[3], but the placement of this scene in the plot of the play varies among the three versions. Q1 places the scene earlier in the play, before Hamlet begins working with the acting company on his trap for his uncle. Q2 and FF place the scene in the midst of the working action, possibly because the placement of the scene in the midst of the setting of the trap creates more tension. The audience has seen Hamlet for a longer length of time, and is more aware of his internal plotting with the setting of this scene at a chronologically later point. Q2 and FF have the best chances of showing an “edited” text[4], with the evidence of their later publication dates and substantial changes from Q1. The scene is also markedly shorter in Q1: 61 lines to Q2’s 73. The scene itself is structured differently among the texts, with lines being moved around more than being changed. Sections of dialogue are moved or lifted into different orders.

Hamlet notices Ophelia, and greets her in verse at the tail end of his soliloquy. “Soft you now, / The faire Ophelia? Nimph, in thy Orizons/ Be all my finnes remembred” is the FF version, while Q1 has the much simpler “Lady, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered”[5]. Q2 is virtually identical to FF’s version, and it seems the length is to make a greater emphasis when Hamlet shifts to prose in his exchange with Ophelia. In Q1, Ophelia immediately sets about trying to return Hamlet’s “Remembrances” or letters. However, in Q2 and FF she asks how he has been. In Q2 he responds with “I humbly thank you, well” while in FF he says “well” thrice. The repetition of the word gives it a mocking tone, signifying that in the FF version he has likely immediately re-affected his madness. Q2 gives a chance for Hamlet to be sincere in his response. This is an instance where the texts represent divergent attitudes and affects for an actor to undertake. The shift to prose that is present in all texts for Hamlet’s dialogue suggests several things. First, prose allows for a quicker pace. It also is juxtaposed with Ophelia’s constant use of verse. Hamlet’s use of prose brings him down a level, and changes him textually. In a way, Ophelia is more consistent in this exchange, and is in the “higher” form as she sticks to verse. She is measured as Hamlet lacks meter. Hamlet’s responses and questions in prose bring him down as he brings Ophelia’s character down. However, she retains her lofty position, and remains in the position of offering up her “orisons”—throughout Hamlet’s ranting, she prays for heavenly intervention for his sanity. This masking of speech from Hamlet separates the two and enforces the possibility that performance is the true conflict between the pair.

In Q1, Hamlet immediately begins interrogating Ophelia with “Are you fair?” after the attempted return of his letters. In contrast, Q2 and FF have him deny giving her “ought”. This is the biggest variation in structure among the texts within this particular scene. Q1 seems to give Hamlet immediate suspicion upon the return of the letters; Q2 and FF seem to indicate a sort of shock with his quick denial. Hamlet, later in the play, will proclaim that he loved Ophelia more than anyone. The brevity of Q1 takes away from this proclamation of love. Q2 and FF, rather, give the sense that Hamlet is genuinely taken aback by the return of his letters. His denial could be a form of shock, and the fruit of true affection being spurned. Ophelia’s pressing of Hamlet and her insistence that “Rich gifts wax poore, when giuers proue vnkinde” provokes Hamlet greatly. Q2 and FF seem to have a natural crescendo, more harmonized than Q1’s version. It seems likely that the rearrangement of the scene shows Shakespeare at work in some way, that he recognized the pacing of the scene required shifting and additions to be believable. The edits, if they are thus, show a greater pathos than their earlier kin.

Hamlet’s rant about honesty and beauty might reveal a true interior of his character within the scene. Hamlet has projected his mother onto Ophelia, and is unable to distinguish them as separate women. The difference between Q1 and the other texts is that Hamlet never makes any claim to have once loved Ophelia to her face in Q1. He only insists “I never gave you nothing” (7.153-4) where he claims “I did loue you once” in FF. Within Q1, his proclamations are confined to his letters and her grave. In Q2 and FF it becomes possible Hamlet’s insistence that Ophelia get to a Nunnery may well be his harsh attempt to preserve her from the corruption he sees in marriage as a result of his parents’ failed marriage.

Affectation and acting have a great impact on this scene’s tension. To a degree, both Ophelia and Hamlet are acting parts in front of each other, and the affectation is the conflict. How much sincerity is each character utilizing within the scene? More validly, at which point for each of the pair do their masks go on and off? It is possible that the scene begins with Ophelia masked and Hamlet open, then ends with Hamlet masked and Ophelia forcibly unmasked by Hamlet’s performance. Ophelia is aware that her father and the king are listening to the pair. If Hamlet realizes he is being watched, when does he make the realization? Textually, the easiest answer in all three versions would have to be when Hamlet asks Ophelia “Where’s your Father?”, but various points indicate that he may be aware of the eavesdroppers. It’s possible he is aware from the very beginning, as an explanation for his treatment of Ophelia. When Hamlet discusses the dishonesty of men, and tells Ophelia “beleeue none of vs”, this indicates an accusation directed toward the men who are dishonestly listening. Hamlet is already suspicious of Polonius as a spy for his uncle; he would naturally now associate his daughter with this suspicion[6]. At the very least, the texts seem to indicate that he must know by the end of the encounter, because his lines “Thofe that are married already, all but one fhall liue, the reft fhall keep as they are” indicate the king as the “but one” doomed to death.

Ophelia’s epitaph to this encounter[7] is different among the three texts, giving various inlets to her reaction to Hamlet’s exterior appearance and behavior. The biggest difference is in Q1, where she gives a quick four-line prayer[8]:

Great God of heaven, what a quick change is this!

The courtier, scholar, soldier, all in him,

All dashed and splintered thence! O, woe is me

To ha’ seen what I have seen, see what I see!

Meanwhile, here are the Q2 and FF versions side by side:

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!

The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword,

Th’expectation and rose of the fair state,

The glass of fashion and the mould of form,

Th’observed of all observers, quite, quite down.

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,

That sucked the honey of his musicked vows,

Now see that noble and most sovereign reason

Like sweet bells jangled out of time and harsh—

That unmatched form and feature of blown youth

Blasted with ecstasy. O woe is me

T’have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

O what a Noble minde is heere o’re-throwne?

The Courtiers, Soldiers, Schollers: Eye, tongue, fword,

Th’expectanfie and Rofe of the faire State,

The glaffe of Fashion and the mould of Forme,

Th’obferu’d of all Observers, quite, quite downe.

Haue I of Ladies most deiect and wretched,

That fuck’d the Honie of his Musicke Vowes:

Now fee that Noble, and most Soueraigne Reafon,

Like fweet Bels iangled out of tune, and harfh—

That vnmatch’d Forme and Feature of blowne youth,

Blafted with extafie. O woe is me,

T’haue feene what I haue feene: fee what I fee.

Q1 appears to be a gutted version of the Q2 and FF versions, but the better hypothesis is that the later versions were edited for more gravity. Q1’s simplicity takes away from the inner turmoil Ophelia faces following the conversation. There is more that Ophelia needs to say following Hamlet’s abuse of her person and the apparent resolution of their romance. It also serves to make Ophelia’s later madness more jarring. She approaches Hamlet’s madness with solemnity and reasoned observations about the impact this madness has not only on her, but also on the whole of Denmark. Ophelia is firmly sane in this scene, and that firm sanity makes her later losses more noticable[9].

The majority of differences between this speech Q2 and FF are spelling and grammar conventions, which were unreliable at best at this point in printing history. These variations, though, give a lot for an actress to consider in performance. After all, punctuation kept could give great insight. Could the capitalization of certain words give them a different emphasis in performance? For an immediate example, the speaking of the second line would alter considerably when using the FF version, because it has a colon that breaks things up[10]. The lines are slowed down by the addition of so much punctuation, which is conventionally seen as a pause. The first line has a question mark rather than an exclamation point in the FF version. In fact, there are no exclamation points in the FF version. The FF version is then slower, more considerate than Q2. Q2 seems to be said in breathless passion, while FF might be said in measured shock.

Then there is the issue of “time” and “tune” in the ninth line of the epitaph. Both work in the context of music and the metaphor, and both could easily be mistaken from a handwritten manuscript for each other. “Out of time” suggests the cacophony of music not ordered by time. Anyone with the experience of hearing a band or orchestra warm up would be familiar with the sensations associated with the lack of “time”. The snatches of melody and scales intermingling with general noise as musicians warm up and prepare for performance is loud and at times painful[11]. This suggests a familiarity of sound, but a lack of order. “Out of tune” suggests the order is present, but the sound is wrong. In some ways, the two lines are inversions of each other, and each has a significant impact on meaning. Both highlight the “wrongness” of what Ophelia has heard; although she can recognize aspects that are familiar to her within Hamlet, she can also detect disorder. The choice of “time” or “tune” might then be informed by what type of performance Hamlet gives, and what the director of a performance may wish to convey unto his audience. The contrast could be unintentional, but a decision on which to use could prove to have a larger impact on the play than thought possible in the hands of a skilled director.

What emerges for consideration from the bodies of Q1, Q2, and FF are several choices and possibilities. How much of the scene is performance on the part of the characters? Careful consideration of the text gives possibility to the pathos of conflicting performance, and even the possibility that Hamlet and Ophelia hurt each other deeply in the act of trying to spare each other from the dangers each perceives for the other. Ironically, Ophelia falls victim to precisely what she sees as a danger to Hamlet: madness will have her reason jangled out of tune, and she will drown singing her own music. This scene, then, has the capability to set the tone for the rest of the play. It can lend sincerity or falsehood to Hamlet’s proclamations of love at Ophelia’s grave; it can add poignancy to Ophelia’s madness. Thus, careful consideration of all available texts makes a single performance or reading more textured and rich. These convergences and divergences serve to make the play multi-faceted and empowered, and should be looked at with enthusiasm rather than trepidation. Variety and alternate viewpoints are what makes the multiplicity of this play so unique, even among other plays written by Shakespeare.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies. : Published according to the true originall copies. “The tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke”. Printed by Isaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount [at the charges of W. Iaggard, Ed. Blount, I. Smithweeke, and W. Aspley], 1623. Web. 5 July 2014. <http://firstfolio.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/download/pdfs/F-ham.pdf&gt;.

Shakespeare, William, and Ann Thompson. Hamlet. Reprint. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2006. Print

Shakespeare, William, and Ann Thompson. Hamlet, the texts of 1603 and 1623. . Reprint. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2007. Print.

[1] Q1 and Q2 are being sourced from the Arden 3 series, while the FF is being sourced from the Bodleian’s First Folio facsimile. Spellings and punctuations are kept true from the facsimile, while Q1 and Q2 are copied as shown in the Arden 3 versions.

[2] Q1 7.137-98, Q2 3.1.87-160, FF pages 265-6.

[3] This speech alone would warrant its own study, which is why it has been omitted here.

[4] Presuming the validity of Q1.

[5] “Nymph” gives an otherworldly quality to Ophelia, and maybe even signifies that she is something of nature, foreshadowing her return to it via drowning. Also, it seems likely that Hamlet is acknowledging Ophelia as being lost to him as a result of his father’s vengeance.

[6] Yet another way the pair is separated by outside forces.

[7] And presumably an epitaph to Hamlet’s sanity.

[8] Another orison to remind us of Hamlet’s sins?

[9] This scene, in particular, seems a good argument against the idea Ophelia is prone to madness. Rather, it suggests that she is obviously driven to insanity.

[10] Presumably to show possession of the “Eye, tongue, fword”.

[11] Especially painful with a lack of expertise in the musicians’ ranks—out of time and out of tune is probably the most painful to witness.

“Here Lies Dobby, a Free Elf”: The Function of Slavery in the Wizarding World

Note:  This is a much older work from when I was an undergraduate.  Thus, it’s not perfect or anywhere near as polished as some of my more recent work.  However, I really like some of the ideas underneath, and might revisit them.

Within the halls of Hogwarts, something sinister lurks. Centuries old, it is a wicked power that has been present in the world since the first civilization. It is not a basilisk or Lord Voldemort. It is the slavery of sentient, intelligent beings. House-elves, within the Harry Potter novels, are intelligent and capable creatures. They display emotions, and have magical powers equal to that of wizards. They are capable of relating to their fellow house elves, and wizards, on personal and intellectual levels. House elves can be alcoholic, neurotic, obsessive, self-sacrificing, noble; they have the same pitfalls and virtues as human beings.

So, why are the house-elves not free, if they function in the same manner as humans? What is J.K. Rowling claiming by creating a race of sentient beings who have been enslaved for centuries?

The claim is somewhat troublesome. It seems that Rowling’s claim is that slavery is necessary for society to work. However, Rowling’s apparent claims are very evident when looking at the journey of one house elf: Dobby.

Dobby initially appears in Chamber of Secrets. He is filled with good intentions, attempting to protect Harry (against his will) from his master’s dangerous plot to unleash Lord Voldemort and a basilisk upon the school. However, Dobby is acting against his master’s wishes and this forces him to inform Harry through riddles, between being forced by his life of brainwashing to cause himself serious bodily harm. At the end of Chamber of Secrets, it is Dobby, not Harry who bests Lucius Malfoy without the use of a wand. Dobby is liberated at the end of the novel, but really only as a reward for having proven himself to Harry.

The moral implications here are severe. The history of elf abuse is so strong that Dobby administers his own punishment. He beats himself over the head with a lamp, irons his hands, and shuts his ears in the oven. Harry is alarmed by Dobby’s behavior, but Dobby says, “‘… Dobby is always having to punish himself for something, sir…. Sometimes they reminds me to do extra punishments…” (Chamber of Secrets, 14). Punishment of disobedient slaves is a common theme in slave narratives, and more than likely the ingraining of self-punishment within the house-elves comes from centuries of abuse.

We do not see Dobby again until the fourth book, Goblet of Fire. In this book, Dobby is working in the kitchens of Hogwarts. He has acquired wages and time off, and his liberation has given him the power to express himself through his clothing. While Hermione launches into a campaign for abolition of house elf slavery, it becomes evident that she and Dobby are anomalies in their world. Most house-elves do not want liberation, and most wizards are not willing to give it to them. It is an old institution, upon which the wizarding society rests.

Deathly Hallows brings the end of Dobby’s journey. On their hunt for the Horcruxes, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are captured, and brought to Malfoy Manor. Dobby arrives to save the day. However, in the ensuing battle, Dobby is fatally stabbed by Bellatrix Lestrange.

These events are very alarming. Dobby, upon returning to the house of his enslavement, suffers a violent and painful end at the hand of the sister of his former mistress. He is buried, but the inscription upon his grave is fading within weeks. The implication is that slavery is inescapable, and an attempt to leave brings about death and anonymity. Only Harry and his friends know Dobby’s story.

Why must Dobby die?

Because he has violated the laws of wizarding society. By being a liberated slave, he has upset the balance, and he has nowhere to belong.

Who then, will speak against this injustice?

A teenage girl. Hermione Granger has a serious problem with the enslavement of the house-elves. She rallies around their cause, even as they refuse to help themselves. Upon witnessing the mistreatment of Winky by Barty Crouch, Hermione is mortified. “’You know, house-elves get a very raw deal!… It’s slavery, that’s what it is!… Why doesn’t somebody do something about it?” (Goblet of Fire, 125). However, Hermione stands alone. Almost everyone else, including Harry, sees Hermione’s attempts at freeing the house-elves to be “misguided idealism” (Lyubansky, 244). Nonetheless, there are several considerations to be made. It is entirely possible that after centuries of enslavement, house-elves would internalize the belief system of their oppressors. “… It is possible to imagine that the much more severe oppression of enslavement could, after several centuries, produce the unwillingness to make free choices that the house-elves espouse… the house-elves’ preference for enslavement is a product of oppression rather than an exercise of free will” (Lyubansky, 244). This means that Hermione is correct in her pursuit of house-elf liberation, although she does seem to underestimate the difficulty of such an action.

So, what is Rowling trying to tell us about slavery? Is she trying to claim that slavery is a necessary facet of society? Surely, a series of novels that seems to rest upon exposing the wrongs of racial discrimination would not make such a claim. This is cause for a look at the overall purpose of Harry Potter.

The books serve as a satire in several aspects. The wizarding world, while separate from the Muggle world, is a reflection. Politicians are not infallible, the media is not always to be trusted, and slavery still exists, despite abolition having occurred over a century ago in Britain and the United States.

When observing the books through the eye of satire, the purpose becomes clear. Slavery in the wizarding world is ludicrous. Why would a society that possesses the capability to transform into animals, to travel instantly and invisibly, and change a teapot into a turtle need slavery? The answer is that they do not, and neither does Muggle society. The charge is for us to reexamine our lives and society, and move to remove slavery. It is unnecessary, especially in this day and age.

The charge of ridding the wizarding and Muggle worlds of the chains of slavery is not easy, and would take serious societal change. As Hermione quickly realized, boycotts are not the way to bring about abolition. Rather, active political action is needed. Hermione’s goals upon forming SPEW are actually very relevant. “‘Our short-term aims… are to secure house-elves fair wages and working conditions. Our long-term aims include changing the law about non-wand use, and trying to get an elf into the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, because they’re shockingly underrepresented” (Goblet of Fire, 224-225). Hermione then does what many actual anti-slavery workers do- she goes into the kitchens to talk to the house-elves. As Hermione matures, it is very likely she could enact the change that is needed within the wizarding world. It will not be easy, as house-elves are the primary workforce behind Hogwarts, and in the homes of the wizarding elite. It will take education and patience to eventually convince the house-elves that they do have a right to free will and autonomy, just as it will take education and patience to liberate the house-elves.

Mary and Mary on Milton: Maternal Bonding via Discourse

From Shared Experience’s Mary Shelley:[1]

She goes to stand before the portrait, and stares up at it.

Godwin glances up.

Godwin You have grown more like her.

Mary Have I?

Godwin A little in your looks. A great deal in your stridency of expression.

You went away a girl, and have returned a young woman.

Mary I still look like you though, don’t I? Everyone says so.

Godwin Oh, yes. You will never be rid of that nose. The Gods are not entirely benign.

He continues with his work.

Mary Is it a good likeness?

Godwin Very.

Mary How old was she then?

Godwin About thirty. She was pregnant with Fanny.

Mary She looks happy.

Godwin finishes his work and sets his pen down.

Mary Are there more books about my mother which I can read? Or can I read the other books she wrote?

Godwin Hum. I can’t remember what you’ve read already.

He goes to the bookshelves.


In the National Portrait Gallery in London, a room is devoted to the figures of the Romantic Movement. On one wall, a later portrait of Mary Shelley[2] is on the left hand side of the elaborate oil painting of George Gordon, Lord Byron[3] on whose opposite side rests a simple portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary’s portrait gazes directly across the room, to the opposing wall. On the opposing wall hang the soft portrait of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and a harsh portrait of her father, his gaze seemingly directed away from his daughter. It’s a masterpiece of curation, simple placement conveying the tumultuous tale of a family and a movement. One cannot escape the obvious paradoxes drawn, especially those drawn by Mary Shelley’s direct gaze upon her distant mother, unreachable and strikingly younger than her daughter’s portrait.[4]

Mary Wollstonecraft never knew her greatest pupil: Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to her. A young Mary Shelley, who intensely studied the writings of both her parents, must have keenly felt the absence of Wollstonecraft. In the publication of Frankenstein, Shelley’s writing is profoundly bound up in her mother’s discourse—and in a clear relationship to John Milton’s Paradise Lost.[5] These two influences are inextricable from each other. Rather, it is the combination of interactions that created a masterwork the likes of which Mary Shelley could never replicate in her lifetime. Mary and Mary come together across the years to converse about Milton, an iconoclast whom both felt compelled to envelop in their work and lives. In discourse on Milton, Mary Shelley gained an audience with her mother by joining the voices of women readers across the centuries. A distinction emerges when one compares the allusions made by Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft’s allusions tend to stay within the garden, while Shelley’s allusions in Frankenstein are constantly in the fires of Hell. The effect of this contrast is the capability to see how Shelley was casting her eye toward what her mother’s criticism would have become. Wollstonecraft was challenging the authority of Adam over Eve; Shelley was challenging the ultimate patriarch, God, over His authority over all Creation. In this model, Victor Frankenstein is God, while his Creature represents Adam, Eve, and Satan at various points of the narrative. Thus, the point of this study is to trace the sutures connecting mother and daughter, utilizing Miltonic discourse in order to show a conversation and a continuation stretching over the years.

In order to understand why the dichotomy between mother and daughter is relevant in the discussion of both of their works and treatments of Paradise Lost, one must understand the relationship between the two.[6] Certain events in the life of Mary Shelley, née Godwin, have become mythologized in the reading and teaching of Frankenstein. The estrangement from her father, a strange summer of creativity on the lake in Geneva, the miscarriages and tragic deaths of her children… Mary Shelley offers opportunities for biographical criticism, and these opportunities have been seized: her life is as well read as her texts.[7] One moment, among all of the moments of young Mary’s life, is the precursor and possible catalyst toward all of these events. As Mary Shelley was torn forcibly and gruesomely from her mother’s womb, her birth was a morosely ironic moment: one of the key[8] feminist theorists struck down by an ultimate act of femininity. Considering Shelley’s later difficulties with this act of femininity, the event must have hung in her subconscious for years. In turn, Mary Wollstonecraft became an absence in the lives of her daughters, and an untouchable figure in the Godwin household.[9]

The weight of the inheritance from Wollstonecraft is oft discussed, and is even the topic of Shared Experience’s biographical play, Mary Shelley. The play actually begins with Mary Shelley reading of her mother’s suicide attempt, and several scenes deal with how the ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft is a spectre the younger Mary’s life. The play traces the creation of Shelley’s novel, deftly weaving the influences that bore Frankenstein into the world. The texts that most occupy the play are not Frankenstein though, but rather the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s thoughts on Paradise Lost can be found repeatedly throughout her work. Milton’s shadow falls repeatedly on Vindication of the Rights of Woman. He serves as a defining patriarch, both igniting her indignation and enriching her prose of her prose. Wollstonecraft was a close reader of Paradise Lost, and she not only critiques his work, but utilizes his language to illuminate her own. In Vindication, Eden becomes the land of discourse and subversion at once. Wollstonecraft wrestles with Milton’s text, especially in “Chapter II: The Prevailing Notion of a Sexual Character Discussed.” Wollstonecraft takes Milton to task for his description of Eve:

Thus Milton describes our first frail mother; though when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless, in the true Mahometan[10] strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience[11], to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation.

Wollstonecraft’s writing is filled with ire, and it is little wonder that she preferred the Hell scenes, as the mere description of Eve and its implications in the context of a patriarchal system that utilizes Milton’s language in a way that enhances and justifies male privilege is enough to fuel such distaste. The seeds of contemporary feminist critique of Paradise Lost are contained within this single sentence. Of note, though, is that Wollstonecraft still considers Milton a “great man” (85).[12] She engages with and utilizes his language in support of her own beliefs, so it is of great import to not dismiss the reverence and respect Wollstonecraft had for Milton and his work. Consider Wollstonecraft’s emphasis on lines 634-8 of Book IV:

‘To whom thus Eve with perfect beauty adorn’d,
My Author and Disposer, what thou bidst
Unargued I obey; so God ordains;
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is Woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.[13]

“These are exactly the arguments that I have used to children” Wollstonecraft remarks, while adding, “but I have added, your reason is now gaining strength, and, till it arrives at some degree of maturity, you must look up to me for advice—then you ought to think, and only rely on God” (85). Wollstonecraft’s emphasis is to show the lack of independence allotted by such sentiments. Her key issues with patriarchal values became encapsulated herein.   Wollstonecraft finds such treatment infantilizing and demeaning.

As Steven Blakemore states, “Wollstonecraft hence makes a series of condemnatory connections between Milton’s prelapsarian Eve and the postlapsarian women who are argued into debilitating ignorance by males using Milton’s authoritative language” (452). These “connections” serve to show how Milton’s language has been morphed into a language of subjection. However, it is important to note that Wollstonecraft was a revolutionary[14] who co-opted Milton’s language[15] to defend revolutionary sentiment. The writer to whom Wollstonecraft responded to in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Edmund Burke, “equated what [he] envisioned as an epistemological revolution with Satan’s revolt- the satanic presumption, pride, and lust for forbidden knowledge inscribed in the textual falls of rebellious angels and postlapsarian people”. This was in opposition to the “subversive allegory that revolutionary readers were writing: Satan as revolutionary liberator or… Eve as feminist rebel” (Blakemore, 451-452).

In Joseph Wittreich’s Feminist Milton, he points out a key passage from Wollstonecraft’s The Female Reader (1789), where she has copied from Books IV and V of Paradise Lost. According to Wittreich, Wollstonecraft “reminds us through the words of others that she is ‘sick of hearing about the sublimity of Milton’ always from those who ‘could not enter into the spirit’ of Milton or understand him” (35).   Fittingly, Wollstonecraft’s daughter was one who fully grasped and understood Milton. According to Sandra M. Gilbert, “endlessly studying her mother’s works and her father’s, Mary Shelley may be said to have ‘read’ her family and to have been related to her reading, for books appear to have functioned as her surrogate parents, pages and words standing in for flesh and blood” (223).[16] Mary Shelley not only comprehended the “spirit” of Milton, but also, much like her mother, saw how the language of Paradise Lost could be used to subvert authority.[17]

It is specifically through Miltonic language that the Creature articulates his struggle to his creator. Throughout the genesis of Frankenstein, Shelley repeatedly records in her journal that she and her husband were entrenched in a reading of Paradise Lost, wherein Percy Bysshe Shelley would read aloud from the epic as his wife composed her novel. Interestingly, like her mother, Shelley “with conscious dignity, or Satanic pride, turned to hell for sublimer subjects” (Vindication, 91). Victor Frankenstein and his Creation are denizens of a burning hell, constantly alluding to their lapsarian states—and to Paradise Lost. “I bore a hell within me nothing could extinguish”, Victor laments, upon the demise of Justine Moritz for a crime he knows to be committed by his creation (113).[18] This line corresponds with line 467 of Book IX in regard to Satan, which is part of a whole that truly translates into the text of Frankenstein:

But the hot Hell that always in him burns,

Though in mid-heaven, soon ended his delight,

And tortures him now more, the more he sees

Of pleasure not for him ordained: then soon

Fierce hate he recollects, and all his thoughts

Of mischief, gratulating, thus excites.

This is the Creature who enacts his vengeance on Justine Moritz, and his assumption that she would reject him. In fact he comments, “thanks to the lessons of Felix and the sanguinary laws of man, I have learned to work mischief” (168). Similarly, Book IV contains language that reverberates into the theme of Frankenstein, such as the famous line “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell” (75) or earlier in the same Book when the narrator remarks “His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir/ The hell within him, for within him hell/ He brings…” (19-21)

Gilbert points out that “Frankenstein answers the questions posed by Milton through explicit or implicit allusions to Milton, retelling the story of the fall not so much to protest against it as to clarify its meaning” (225). To clarify meaning is more than authorship, it is criticism. It is this sentiment that gives credence to Mary Shelley’s critical importance as a reader of Paradise Lost. In her journals, there are repeated mentions of Shelley reading Paradise Lost as she is actively writing Frankenstein. Shelley was immensely invested in reading Paradise Lost—probably in no small part because her parents both wrote critical materials on the work.[19]

Where Wollstonecraft attempted to negotiate Eve’s prelapsarian role, contemplating how to “rouse [her] sex from the flowery bed, on which they supinely sleep life away” (198), Shelley was reaching beyond to interpret the ramifications of postlapsarian existence and to comprehend the nature and meaning of the fall. This is the continuum, the critical point upon which the discourse of mother and daughter rests. In casting her discourse to the depths of hell, Shelley was conducting an extension of her mother’s work. As stated by Joseph Wittreich, “Mary learned from her mother that the book men believe educates them into submission actually educates them otherwise—into truth and gentleness, dignity and wisdom” (81). Raised to be literate and literary, as an intellectual companion and equal to the powerful men in her life, from Godwin to Shelley, Mary Shelley was the realization of the hopes and wild dreams of her mother. And in this realization, a true matriarchal lineage is carried out in Miltonic discourse.

Works Cited

Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The William Blake Archive. Library of Congress. Web. 2 Jul 2013. <http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/copy.xq?copyid=mhh.b&java=no&gt;.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Shelley, Mary (with Percy Shelley). The Original Frankenstein. Ed. Charles E. Robinson. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2008.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A vindication of the rights of woman [electronic resource]: with strictures on political and moral subjects. London: J. Johnson, 1792.

Blakemore, Steven. “Rebellious Reading: The Doubleness of Wollstonecraft’s Subversion of Paradise Lost.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 34.4 (1992): 451-480.

Gilbert, Sandra “Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton’s Bogey,” PMLA 93, 1978, 368-82; rpt. Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 1979, 187-211.

Shawcross, John T. John Milton: The Critical Heritage Volume 1 1628-1731. London & New York: Routledge, 1972.

Shawcross, John T. John Milton: The Critical Heritage Volume 2 1732-1801. London & New York: Routledge, 1972.

Wittreich, Joseph Anthony. Feminist Milton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

[1] Shared Experience is an Oxford-based theatre company, which utilizes a very interior look at authors and texts.

[2] For clarity’s sake, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley will be referred to as “Mary Shelley”.

[3] In resplendent attire.

[4] Mary Shelley is 43 in her portrait, while her mother is 38.

[5] The influence of Percy Bysshe Shelley is of import to the writing of Frankenstein, but is not the primary focus of this paper.

[6] It should be noted that there is no matriarchal line in Paradise Lost, which only serves to make this matriarchal inheritance of Miltonic discourse even more striking.

[7] This is in doubt partially due to the obsession with the activities of the Shelley circle among the press and gossips back in England in the summer of 1816.

[8] Some would argue that Wollstonecraft was the original feminist theorist.

[9] Fanny, Wollstonecraft’s first daughter, felt the pressures of her mother’s legacy, which may have contributed to her suicide.

[10] Referring to the common and incorrect belief among Christians in the eighteenth century that Islam did not permit women souls.

[11] This echoes Dr. Samuel Johnson’s interpretation of Milton’s life and works in his Lives of the English Poets: “His family consisted of women; and there appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females, as subordinate and inferior beings. That his own daughters might not break the ranks, he suffered them to be depressed by a mean and penurious education. He thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.” (157).

[12] This may be Wollstonecraft’s difference in how she approaches Milton criticism in comparison with Dr. Johnson’s work. Johnson seemed to reprimand Milton the man instead of taking his writing in a separate vein.

[13] Wollstonecraft’s emphasis is retained.

[14] Wollstonecraft’s barricade adventures are well documented, as she supported French revolutionaries until it became unsafe for British expatriates, and she was forced to leave.

[15] Wollstonecraft, of course, knew that Milton was himself a revolutionary.

[16] This is a key concept in Shared Experience’s Mary Shelley.

[17] And, in her close reading of her mother’s text, she learned just how to do so.

[18] By extension, this crime is Victor’s. Had he not abandoned his Creature, his brother would be alive.

[19] Godwin’s An Enquiry concerning Political Justice from 1793 contains Godwin’s thoughts on Satan as virtuous, compassionate, and sympathetic.

Eve’s Daughters and God’s Sons: Power and Inheritance in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder

Eve is a complicated figure in Paradise Lost. In trying to sort out modern from seventeenth century concepts of subjugation and oppression, it is helpful to look at Milton’s epic through the lens of one of his female contemporaries.   Lucy Hutchinson wrote her own retelling of Genesis in Order and Disorder and only recently has the poem been credited to her and been published in full. Originally, the work was published anonymously in 1679 with only the first five cantos—twelve years after the initial publication of Paradise Lost and five years after the extended second edition. David Norbrook, the complete poem’s modern editor, thinks it likely though uncertain that Hutchinson wrote the poem after reading Paradise Lost. For several centuries the poem was attributed to Hutchinson’s brother, Sir Allen Apsley. The five-canto Order and Disorder has the same essential storyline of Paradise Lost, but there are several indications that the rest of the text was in circulation during the early eighteenth century.1 Because Hutchinson and Milton were both Puritans and supporters of parliamentary rule in the English Civil War, they prove an appropriate pairing—in no small part helped by their choosing of the same material. Notably, because Hutchinson may have written or revised her version after Milton, it’s likely she was responding to his work. In comparing the Eves of these contrasting poems it becomes possible to test whether or not accusations of misogyny lobbed at Milton are justified.

Hutchinson makes for a good testing ground because there are many striking concordances between her and Milton. This includes the fact (indicated by David Norbrook in his contextual work that accompanies his edition of Order and Disorder) that both Milton and Hutchinson entrusted sensitive manuscripts into the care of a mutual friend, the Earl of Anglesey, which suggest that they were aware of one another. Hutchinson and Milton have an interesting political and religious background, with concurrences and differences in their beliefs in predestination.2   Both faced great difficulty after the Restoration of Charles II. Colonel John Hutchinson was one of the signers of the death warrant for King Charles I, and was nearly executed. He escaped execution and detainment with his wife’s assistance for this charge, but still was detained and died in prison after an uprising a few years later. Hutchinson’s Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson was her bid to protect the memory of her beloved spouse from castigation. Milton narrowly escaped execution for his role as the writer of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and his general role in the Protectorate as Secretary for Foreign Tongues—his escape was probably due to his blindness and to friends such as Andrew Marvell. Hutchinson and Milton would have both been very familiar with the same doctrines regarding Genesis and the theological topics approached in their respective works. These commonalities make for a solid background for comparison. Norbrook points out that there are “several apparent parallels” in Hutchinson’s writing to Paradise Lost that are not reliant on a common source text like Genesis, indicating that Order and Disorder is written after and in conversation with the Milton’s work (p. xvii). Some of the parallels are the similarity of the narrative structure (with the obvious omission in Hutchinson’s version of Satan and the war in Heaven) and correspondences in language choice— several lines and many scenes in Order and Disorder echo Paradise Lost. In what follows, I assume that Order and Disorder responds to Paradise Lost, recognizing that there can as yet be no certainty in the matter.

In Order and Disorder, there are several moments in which Hutchinson seems to be admonishing Milton for his grandiose scale and style. Hutchinson begins her narrative by stating that she has no intention of deviating from the scope of her source material—both an admonishment of Milton and a humbling of herself in relation to her past translations of Lucretius’s atheist text.4 The first of these admonishments occurs in Canto One, lines thirty-eight through forty-two (emphasis mine):

What dark Eternity hath kept concealed
From mortals’ apprehensions, what hath been
Before the race of time did first begin,
It were presumptuous folly to inquire.
Let not my thoughts beyond their bounds aspire.

What Hutchinson cites as Milton’s “presumptuous folly” is in believing himself beyond mere man when he claims, “I may assert eternal providence,/ And justify the ways of God to men” (I.25-6). Hutchinson disapproves of his extensive and extra-biblical descriptions of the war in Heaven, and Milton’s “director’s cut” approach to a biblical story, as seen in the following lines:

But circumstances that we cannot know

Of their rebellion and their overthrow

We will not dare t’invent…5

… Let us in its own blazing conduct go

And look no further than light doth show

(4.43-5, 4.59-60)

Milton’s grand scope and vision are practically blasphemous to Hutchinson, who is taking a humbled route to her interpretation. Hutchinson is clearly pointing out that “what hath been/ Before the race of time did first begin” is not even fit for human interpretation—a possible indictment of Milton.

In her work, Hutchinson almost seems to be taking Milton’s work to put it back into the proper order. The proof for such interpretation is how careful Hutchinson is about her own presentation of the material. Hutchinson goes so far as to justify her use of poetry, reminding her audience “a great part of Scripture was originally written in verse” (5).6 A writer so conscious of how her work is perceived is very likely one who has thought through many of these arguments about other works. Hutchinson’s purpose and intent mean that she “tremble[s] to think of turning Scripture into a romance” (5).7 Hutchinson even takes a moment to write a line of her epic to strike down the belief God created the world on the basis of a pre-planned Idea when she writes “… let’s waive Platonic dreams/ Of worlds made in Idea…” (I. 173-4). This is in opposition to Milton’s lines “… it showed/ In prospect from his throne, how good how fair,/ Answering his great idea” (VII. 555-7).

Instances where Hutchinson is fearful of stepping out bounds and speaks almost straight to Paradise Lost are plentiful. Line 312 of Canto III states, “Whether [Adam] begged a mate it is not known”—contrasting with lines 357 through 367 of Book VIII of Paradise Lost:

O by what Name, for thou above all these,

Above mankinde, or aught then mankinde higher,

Surpassest farr my naming, how may I

Adore thee, Author of this Universe,

And all this good to man, for whose well being

So amply, and with hands so liberal

Thou hast provided all things: but with mee

I see not who partakes. In solitude

What happiness, who can enjoy alone,

Or all enjoying, what contentment find?

Thus I presumptuous…

Hutchinson is almost rebutting the embellishments of Milton by pointing out specific instances where she deviates from his visions.

Hutchinson encompasses all of Genesis, which is a key difference between the two texts. This difference gives Eve the textual company of other virtuous females (Sarah, Rebecca, and the rest of her progeny) who are in constant communion with God throughout the text.8 Starkly, Milton’s Eve is only in the company of Sin, Satan’s monstrous daughter. Sin is the only female to give birth within Paradise Lost, to the incestuous and rapacious Death. Sin’s womb is a place of horrors, not a place of sacred creation. Milton’s description of the Sin and Death’s eternal dance of terror turns unseen motherhood into a den of horror. This is then a foreshadowing of Eve’s future pains in childbirth, and a point of tension for female readers. The counterpoint would naturally be that rather than monsters, Eve’s line will eventually give birth to Christ, so there is a redemptive purity foreshadowed by the promise of children to Adam and Eve.9 Here the universal reader sees evidence of the variations not only in structure, but also in purpose and their effect on Eve. It is still important to note the consistent references to Eve as the mother of mankind and her progeny eventually begetting Christ in Paradise Lost. The variation is that in Order and Disorder, the reader sees the line begin.

Of course, concessions must be given in the variations in style and purpose between the two writers. Hutchinson admits to a “weak sense”, and hopes that the source material shall “Quicken my dull earth with celestial fire,/ And let the sacred theme that is my choice/ Give utterance and music to my voice/ Singing the works by which thou art revealed” (1.34-36). Hutchinson’s style is nowhere near as epic and cinematic as Milton’s, and she intends to justify her personal and political beliefs within a biblical context. Milton takes on the elevated position of justifying the ways of God to men as he “pursues things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (I.15-6). Norbrook points out that “Hutchinson could be deeply suspicious of the powers of poetry to corrupt” (xxi), which is why she treads so gently in her writing, and why she pins in so many admonishments that seem to apply to Milton and his style. These motivations mean that the overall method of comparison should focus on the places in the texts where there is probable conversation occurring between Hutchinson and Milton in a study of scenes which are similar.

Milton’s Eve is far more developed as a character. She is placed in lavish Ovidian context, and her nativity retells the tale of Narcissus.   While Eve is saved from Narcissus’s fate by divine intervention, nonetheless the episode demands a closer look. Is Eve’s self-love mere feminine vanity,10 or is there something deeper beneath the surface? Her image in the water has “answering looks of sympathy and love” (IV.464-5, emphasis mine). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘sympathy,’ within the parameters of this line, means “The quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other; the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another or others; fellow-feeling.” The significance of this definition and the specific usage of the word ‘sympathy’ highlights that Eve is the only autonomous female figure in Paradise:11 the only place she will find feminine sympathy and understanding is with herself. Eve’s femininity brands her as an outsider in Eden, making her pining a “vain desire” (IV.466) in its futility.

In criticism, Eve has often been seen as liable to a fall even in her pre-lapsarian state because of her origin. Her isolation and Ovidian roots define her as an outsider. However, according to Diane McColley in her book Milton’s Eve, “Milton has fashioned an Eve who in all the prelapsarian scenes is not only sufficient to stand and able to grow, but who while standing and growing, however vulnerably, is a pattern and composite of active goodness and a speaking picture of the recreative power of poetry itself” (4). Milton may not have given Eve paradise and creation, but he gave her a voice and desires of her own. Milton’s Eve conveys a longing for communion with God that is at once tragic and admirable. One could argue that her distance from God, imposed by the hierarchy of her innate subservience to Adam, not only explains but necessitates how easily she is seduced by the thought of being on the same level as God, to be “A goddess among gods” (IX.547).12 In stark contrast, Hutchinson’s Eve is simpler, but she is not alone in her text. She accepts her fate far more willingly in her post-lapsarian state, with humility rather than desolation. This Eve lacks because her descriptions are bound so tightly by biblical context. The lack of Ovidian influence may make her less “vain”, but it robs her of the depth and repentant sorrow of Milton’s Eve. Hutchinson’s Eve through her simplicity does in turn become less culpable than her counterpart. She escapes a fate of possible condemnations to vanity and selfishness, because the moment of her creation is brief and without much invention. Hutchinson’s long meditation on the need for human companionship and the purpose of marriage in Canto 3 reflects Adam’s dialogue with God in Book VIII of Paradise Lost. She seems, in this segment, to even engage with Paradise Lost (“Whether he begged a mate it is not known” (312)). Also, by creating Eve the prohibition of the fruit, Hutchinson reframes a bit of the Genesis narrative. Hutchinson keeps it simple, stating:

And of the bone did a fair virgin frame

Who, by her maker brought, to Adam came

And was in matrimonial union joined,

By love and nature happily combined.


Admittedly, Hutchinson’s Eve does not require nearly so much seduction to her fall as Milton’s Eve. While Milton’s seduction takes up an entire two hundred and fifty lines in Book IX, Hutchinson’s Satan works far less industriously than Milton’s Satan in seducing Eve, and takes approximately thirty lines to facilitate the downfall of man. Hutchinson might argue that so much invention is a defect in Milton’s work, but it is much more poignant a Fall in Milton. The simplicity inherent in Hutchinson’s style truly robs Eve of her distinctive voice. This particular instance is one where Milton’s epic is more firmly rooted in Eve’s favour.

The two Eves moreover differ in their marriages, bringing up discussions of consensual marriage and its place in Eden. Milton distinctly frames Eve in a mythical context. If one were to trace other mythical implications in Eve’s narrative, there comes the issue of Eve’s flight, seizure, and submission by Adam’s hand. In Classical mythology, flight and chase are a constant trope in scenarios of rape or attempted rape. That Eve “fly’st” from Adam, who pursues her with the words, “I seek thee, and thee claim” (IV.487) initiates a tension of consent. The contemporary reader, having been oriented by Eve’s awakening within the realm of Classical mythology, would be able to have images of the flights of nymphs and goddesses such as Daphne and Proserpine within their immediate vocabulary. Like Proserpine, Eve has been given before her capability to consent to Adam, for he has laid his “claim”. ‘Claim’ is defined in the OED as “A demand for something as due; an assertion of a right to something”, which is precisely how Adam sees the situation—to him, Eve’s duty is to be his companion and he shall claim her as his. The episode is not without merit for Adam, for it is his right, according to God. It also is powered in part by Adam’s love for Eve, one that strikes him upon first sight as “… into all things from her air inspired/ The spirit of love and amorous delight” (VIII.476-7). It is a pre-arrangement that tests how much free will and consent actually plays into the scenario, but is not devoid of romantic love.

Most alarming is the usage of “seized” in lines 488-9: “with that thy gentle hand seized mine, I yielded…” The word “seize” is a complex word, whose definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary range from “to be in possession of” to “To take hold of with the hands, claws, teeth, etc.; in mod. use, to take hold of suddenly or eagerly, to clutch”. Opposed to “take” or “held”, the word has connotations of violence. “Seized”,13 then, has a more forceful turn, which is then accompanied by Eve proclaiming, “I yielded” in the same line. Paired together, the words bring about a more violent connotation of battle, as likewise from the Oxford English Dictionary, “yield” has the meaning “Surrendered, given up, granted”. Thus, Adam and Eve’s union becomes one of taking and submission, finalizing the relationship as one founded upon ownership, although an ownership that is loving.

Hutchinson’s clear-cut dealing with consensual marriage offers a contrast to Milton’s troubling narrative. In Hutchinson, Adam and Eve are immediately enraptured with each other. Hutchinson makes much of “We, late of one made two, again in one” (3.405, emphasis mine) in order to not only establish consent,14 but also a sense of equality in the marriage. In marriage, according to Hutchinson, man and woman are a whole. This emphasis takes away Eve’s isolation in the Garden, because there is no tension when there is a balance in the marriage of man and woman. Most telling in how consensual marriage is negotiated by the two writers is how the ownership of Paradise itself is distributed. In Paradise Lost, dominion is Adam’s inheritance, and he is given supreme rule over all of creation. For political reasons,14 Hutchinson distributes dominion between husband and wife as one. This emphasizes not only Hutchinson’s belief in marriage as a balance, but furthermore subverts the claim of divine-right kingship and the monarchy. In Order and Disorder, God grants creation as a dowry to the newly married couple upon recognizing their union, stating to them as a pair, “I give you right to all her fruits and plants,/ Dominion over her inhabitants… Are all made subject by your command” (3.421-22, 426). Shannon Miller aptly indicates “that the status of marriage was inextricable from political debates about the relationship of a monarch to his people” (355). Considering the precarious political position of Hutchinson and her husband with the return of Charles II, it is worth reminding that this argument is more political than feminist.

There follows the issue of variations in female power in both texts. Hutchinson’s Eve is less culpable than Milton’s Eve and never has to undergo the sheer excess of Adam’s litany against his wife. This is not to say Hutchinson’s Adam does not blame Eve for his fall, as told by the moment Adam cries, ‘’Twas the woman that thou gavest me’” (5.39-40). However, Adam’s lament to Eve is poisoned with vitriol in Milton’s text in Book IX. In fairness, this seems to be more of an observation of how Adam has fallen than an actual indication of Milton’s predisposition toward women. This is a moment where Milton and Hutchinson are in agreement,15 as they both can see the malevolence in Adam’s outburst. In fact, the vehemence in Milton’s text almost seems even more radically in Eve’s favour, a reading supported by Christ’s chastisement of Adam when he demands, “Was she thy God, that her thou didst obey/ Before his voice…” (X.145-6). There obviously is a certain allowance of power in Milton’s text to Eve. In her essay “Milton and the Sexes” McColley comments that:

[Milton] broke the stereotypical scapegoating of Eve as essentially a temptress and uniquely gave her responsible motives for her independent movements on the morning of the Fall: her sense of responsibility for the Garden, the epitome of the whole natural world, that flourishes in response to her maternal but unmanagerial attention, and her refusal to let the existence of evil destroy the processes of a free community. Problematic as her departure may be, these motives are not proleptic of the Fall, but of human responsibility to repair both the human community and the Earth… (179)

So, thus, Milton does give Eve some power, which does not seem nearly so clear without close reading of the text by the universal reader of Paradise Lost.

Also of importance is how the two poets work with the puzzle of Genesis’s dual creation story. Genesis tells how “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). This is the first telling of Creation, which makes no distinction between the order and manner of creation—an equal creation. However, Genesis doubles up and changes the chronological order of Creation. According to the second book of Genesis, man is created the day God “made the earth and the heavens” (2:4). This contrasts with the earlier account where man is created on the sixth day. Hutchinson avoids this ambiguous and confusing narrative structure, and sticks to the garden creation, commonly known in theological terms as “the J tradition”. By contrast, Milton has Adam adhere to the J tradition, while Raphael relates the Priestly account of 1.1-2.3.

What is most striking is how much closer Hutchinson’s women are to God in Order and Disorder. Milton’s only woman is deprived of heavenly discourse, which serves to fuel most arguments of misogyny. Hutchinson’s collective women are often conduits of God’s will.16 This seems to be more of an effect of the variations in structure, as opposed to misogyny. Milton does not take the chance Books 11 and 12 give him to highlight the strong women of Genesis and their communion with God. His narrative scope is only a small portion of Genesis, which never goes outside Paradise physically. Even for the entire discussion of humanity’s future between Adam and Michael, Eve is asleep, and the focus is on a patriarchal lineage. Hutchinson’s Eve is in the company of her daughters, while God’s sons surround Milton’s Eve.

Order and Disorder goes a fair distance to show how a woman has dominion over her children. Milton’s Eve never gets to have her children in the narrative, thus we do not get to see her come into her ownership of her place as mother of mankind. Hutchinson shows us a succession of mothers, all of whom are subjugated to their husbands, but yet conduits of God’s will over their children. According to Shannon Miller, “when [Hutchinson] represents mothers such as Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, maternal control becomes linked to the expansion of government and empire” (347). Hutchinson is able to negotiate a form of female control by extending the reach of her narrative. “Eve emerges as a central agent in the poem” (Miller, 361). Because darker forces in the text “hoped death would prevent the dreaded womb/ From whence their happier successors must come” (4.158-9), Eve is given a large sum of power in her generational capabilities. Miller does excellent work with this concept, explaining:

The generative identity, and power, of Eve causes their fear; as her ‘dreaded womb’ emerges in the narrative, Eve’s body becomes a site of power… In striking contrast to Milton’s generative imagery of what is ‘to come/ Out of [Adam’s] loins’ (XI.454-5) all males ‘come’ from Eve’s womb’. (Miller, 361).

It remains that Hutchinson’s account does benefit the women characters, in giving them a balanced rule over all creation in contract with their spouses. There furthermore is a necessity to give Milton his due at the end of the day. McColley reminds readers “in Paradise Lost subordination is not inferiority, and that Milton’s Eve is equal to Adam in sanctitude while remaining… in allegiance” (Milton’s Eve, 35).17 Milton isn’t concerned with the politics of consensual marriage for a multitude of reasons. He is more removed from Hutchinson’s political sphere, and devotes himself to more religious pursuits at this time.18 In many ways, Milton is progressive, a midpoint between ancient anti-feminine doctrine and modern feminist readings of religious text, and perhaps what makes his seeming subjugation of the female so evident is the fact that he is in a transitory point between the two. While there are differences in each text’s treatment of Eve, many of those differences are prompted by structure and purpose, rather than a malevolent or misogynist attitude on Milton’s behalf. Hutchinson’s engagement with Milton is to chide him for reaching beyond religious propriety.

[1] For an in depth look at the publication and circulation of the text, please see David Norbook’s “Note on the Text and Editing” in the Blackwell Edition of Order and Disorder.

2 Norbrook notes the differences: Hutchinson is a strict Calvinist who asserts double-predestination; Milton is an Arminian who believes that human choice is involved in salvation.

3 Hutchinson explicitly refers to a necessity to atone for this in her preface to Order and Disorder, stating, “I found it necessary to have recourse to the fountain of Truth, to wash out all ugly wild impressions, and to fortify my mind with a strong antidote against all the poison of human wit and wisdom that I have been dabbling withal” (3). How successful she was in purifying her mind is difficult to tell, as some critics have argued that there is a fair amount of influence from Lucretius in her style.

4 Norbrook notes in his footnote on this line that Hutchinson’s “refusal to go beyond scripture here strongly contrasts with [Paradise Lost]”.

5 Milton makes a similar point in his The Reason of Church Government.

6 In 1674, Andrew Marvell wrote “On Paradise Lost” as a prefix to the second edition. The first stanza, describing Marvell’s initial reaction to the poem, may have informed or at least described Hutchinson’s emotions upon reading. Marvell goes on to admire the poem, but this first stanza is printed here for context:

When I beheld the poet, blind yet bold,

In slender book his vast design unfold,

Messiah crowned, God’s reconciled decree,

Rebelling angels, the forbidden tree,

Heaven, Hell, Earth, Chaos, all—the argument

Held me a while, misdoubting his intent,

That he would ruin (for I saw him strong)

The sacred truths to fable and old song

(So Samson groped the temple’s posts in spite)

The world o’erwhelming to revenge his sight.

7 Because these portions are beyond the scope of what I would consider in direct conversation with Milton, they are not investigated in depth. Much can be said, perhaps in another investigation, about the amount of power and autonomy these women are given in contrast to their biblical counterparts.

8 This redemption does come in Paradise Regained by Mary’s virgin birth.

9 A common trope of ridicule in the Restoration on the stage in regards to overly vain behavior.

10 While all of the other autonomous figures, including Adam and the divine beings, are implied to be gendered masculine even when they are sexless.

11 Milton would argue that Eve has a partner in Adam, but the famous line, “He for God only, she for God in him” (IV.299) create a distance that is difficult to reconcile in regards to Eve’s relationship with God. It seems as though her outsider status makes worship more removed for her, although she does pray and engage in worship—but only with Adam.

12 Admittedly, “seized” is qualified by “gentle”—this claim is not intended to be violent, but the term still has the meaning ascribed to it, therefore bringing in power exchanges.

13 A valuable political element of marriage, especially considering the Civil Marriage Act of 1653. Consent has always been integral to marriage in England, dating back to the days of the Middle Ages, where verbal consent was a legal necessity for establishing a marriage.

14 After her husband’s death, Hutchinson was fairly active in her political writings, which were distributed among family and friends. She maintained that her husband’s actions were right, and that divine retribution would be served upon those who believed in the divine right of kings.

15 There are points where both poets are in agreement about the status of their literary charges. Each expresses a chiding of sorts to Adam and his maltreatment of his spouse, as well as an admiration for Eve’s repentant nature that seeks to carry the blame as penitence for Original Sin.

16 The most valuable example of this is Rebecca, wife of Isaac, leading the reader to see how her plot to have Isaac recognize her younger son Jacob as heir over Esau is her working God’s will. This is an instance where the wife is more receptive to divine will than the husband, which makes for a fascinating counterpoint against Paradise Lost. This also fits into Hutchinson’s outlook that marriage is a conversation and partnership.

17 In fact, subordination is an incredibly important element to Puritan life; neither Milton nor Hutchinson saw a wife’s subordination to her husband as bad thing. To be subservient was to obey God’s will.

18 Not that Paradise Lost is not political; it is simply political in different ways.

Works Cited

Hutchinson, Lucy, and David Norbrook. Order and Disorder. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2001.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

McColley, Diane. Milton’s Eve. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Wittreich, Joseph Anthony. Feminist Milton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Charlotte Brontë’s Visions of Paradise Lost: Ire and Passion Encapsulated

Charlotte Brontë’s reading not only of Milton’s Paradise Lost but also of criticisms and readings of the work that preceded her lifetime—especially those readings by Dr. Samuel Johnson and the Romantics—dramatically influenced her work. The Brontë family, as a whole, were prolific readers of Milton as Reverend Brontë considered Milton essential. For the Brontë siblings, the ready availability of Milton meant they read his work often alongside other masters of poetry and prose. Jots of Milton infuse the writings from when Charlotte, Anne, Emily and Branwell were children and give their juvenilia an air of epic intent. Branwell[1] was often borrowing heavily from Milton for his writing, and the Brontë siblings were known to scribble on their books—their marginalia are well known (Barker, 185).[2] Charlotte and her siblings’ reading habits are well documented, thanks to their love of writing a variety of materials, marking and translating text, and the letters they wrote to others. Charlotte’s close friend Ellen Nussey[3] was the one who received a veritable reading list in a letter dated 4 July 1834:

You ask me to recommend some books for your perusal… If you like poetry let it be first rate, Milton, Shakespeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will though I don’t admire him) Scott, Byron, Camp[b]ell, Wordsworth and Southey…

Naturally, Milton is on the list. In Brontë’s personal letters and correspondences, she frequently alludes to Milton’s works, and often refers his works to her dearest companions. Charlotte’s personal copy of Paradise Lost has some light marginalia in it.[4] She doesn’t make many notes, but does underline certain passages that she finds of note. Intriguingly, the first such passage is Book I, lines 169-170: “But see the angry victor hath recalled/ His ministers of vengeance and pursuit”. Most of Brontë’s notes are corrections—her personal copy has several spelling and wording errors, as though she has a correct copy (borrowed, obviously) that she is comparing side by side. This leads one to infer Brontë used her copy of Paradise Lost often enough to necessitate its correctness. The second passage that she has marked off is in Book XII, toward the end at lines 621 through 623, the final words of Eve: “I carry hence; though all by me is lost,/ Such favour I unworthy am vouchsafed,/ By me the promised seed shall all restore.” Brontë seems to bookend the work with the two selections that best complement the tensions in her work.

Shirley comes after Charlotte Brontë’s success with Jane Eyre, and is a decidedly different novel from its predecessor. Set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, the primary conflict comes from one man’s attempt to bring modern machinery to his mill in a small Yorkshire town. The man, Robert Moore, sees marrying young Shirley Keeldar as a way of financing his ambitions– despite her refusal to have him, his regard for Caroline Helstone (which is mutual), and Shirley’s obvious attraction to her former tutor. Shirley is passionate and headstrong, hallmarks displayed in her sudden speech on the topic of Eve.

“Milton tried to see the first woman; but… he saw her not,” Shirley laments to Caroline.   Shirley’s insistence that Milton could not see Eve is based in an insistence that he somehow missed out on the sublime nature of Eve, that all he saw was “his cook”. But then, Shirley’s vision turns dramatic, envisioning a “woman-Titan”. Caroline complains that Shirley has “such a hash of Scripture and mythology into [her] head that there is no making sense of [her]” (270). Caroline brushes off her reading, as best she can, and once Shirley descends into her own imagination comes to imagine a “gentle human form—the form she ascribed to her own mother; unknown, unloved, but not unlonged-for” (271). It appears that this mother-Eve is really what Brontë pictures, for a few reasons. First, Charlotte told Gaskell that she based Shirley on “a portrayal of Emily [Brontë] as she might have been had she been placed in health and prosperity” (Barker, 612), which indicates the wild flight of fancy Shirley has is more a reflection of remembered sentiments about her recently deceased sister.[5] Second, Shirley’s descriptions of her Eve border on the ridiculous, amalgamating multiple sublime images into the flight of fancy. Third, the fantasy altogether evokes more of the imagery of the Romantic poets than anything else.[6] The fixation on Eve as Nature could be more to align the novel with the era in which it is set—the height of the Romantic period.

Travelling a bit deeper into the chapter of Shirley’s presentation of Eve as preternatural Titan, there is an exchange with the character Joe Scott about his beliefs about the place of woman—specifically in regard to Eve. “’Adam was not deceived; but the woman, being deceived was in the transgression,’” Joe informs Shirley and Caroline, expressing the age-old justification for male supremacy—the ultimate transgression against God was a woman’s transgression, so she bears the blame for Original Sin (277). This exchange is an echo of Adam’s Fall in Book IX of Paradise Lost, where Adam is “not deceived,/ But fondly overcome by female charm” (IX.998-9). We are to understand Joe Scott’s parroting of Scripture and religious doctrine as a comment on the role of women in a religious context—and Milton is implicated by being the source of Joe Scott’s argument. However, the vitriol of his argument does not contain the pure love and bind between Adam and Eve in Milton’s work. Shirley’s problem isn’t really with Milton or his Eve. It is rather with the patriarchal powers that interpret the Bible and Paradise Lost similarly to Joe Scott. Consider Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets and its section on John Milton:

His family consisted of women; and there appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females, as subordinate and inferior beings. That his own daughters might not break the ranks, he suffered them to be depressed by a mean and penurious education. He thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion. (157).

Johnson’s biographical work was and still is at the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth as a part of the family’s collection of books. Considering the voracious reading appetites of the Brontë children, Charlotte must have read the work and its implications about Milton’s character. The edition is a 1797 edition, indicating the book was constantly in the home through Charlotte’s life, and in fact “among the books mentioned in the Brontë’s juvenile writings [is]… Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets” (Barker, 148). Johnson’s “Life of John Milton” shaped how all readers approached the work, and this effect seems to have quite sharply resounded in Charlotte Brontë’s mind, much as it did for Mary Wollstonecraft half a century earlier. Each of Johnson’s charges can be heard in Shirley’s accusations. “Milton was great; but was he good?” Shirley laments, echoing the overall sentiment of Dr. Johnson’s biography. When she reads Eve as a domestic “cook”, she is encapsulating Johnson’s proclamation that Milton “thought woman made only for obedience”, with a “contempt of females”.

It seems that rather than an independent reading of Milton; Brontë is relying on the readings of Dr. Johnson and William Blake in Shirley’s position. “He saw Heaven: he looked down on Hell. He saw Satan, and Sin his daughter, and Death their horrible offspring” Shirley proclaims on page 269, aligning herself with Blake’s famous claim “Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it”. Though a frequent reader of Paradise Lost, as evidenced by her multiple allusions and use of it in all of her works, Brontë can’t divorce her line of thinking from the criticism that precedes her. This creates a misreading for her character.[7] Shirley’s Eve could not have existed without Blake and Johnson, and Brontë’s relationship with other people’s thinking about Milton becomes more and more entangled as evidenced by her earlier work in Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre was Charlotte Brontë’s greatest success. It became what her other novels would be measured by in terms of creativity and story. Jane Eyre does not talk specifically about Paradise Lost, but the language and imagery is clearly Miltonic in origin. Some of the most interesting use of imagery from Paradise Lost is found in Chapter Thirteen, when Rochester surveys and questions Jane about her three paintings. The images are intriguing, and it is easy to have the same astonishment as Rochester about their origin. The first painting has a cormorant present, “dark and large, with wings flecked with foam” (107). In Paradise Lost, Satan is described thusly:

Thence up he flew, and on the tree of life,

The middle tree and highest there that grew,

Sat like a cormorant…


It is in this position that Satan first witnesses Adam and Eve, and surveys Eden in all of its glory. Brontë’s choice to evoke such an image is uncanny. It lends an air of disquiet, a hint that perhaps the Eden of Thornfield Hall has a Satan figure looming over it. This image is an indication of the danger in Thornfield Hall, as though Jane subconsciously has detected the approaching spiritual turbulence.

In the third painting is a more direct alignment to Paradise Lost:

… Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.” (107)

The echo to Paradise Lost is to lines 667 through 673 in Book II—the description of Hell (the italics are mine, for emphasis):

…The other shape,

If shape it might be call’d that shape had none

Distinguishable in member, joynt, or limb,

Or substance might be call’d that shadow seem’d,

For each seem’d either; black it stood as Night,

Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,

And shook a dreadful Dart; what seem’d his head

The likeness of a Kingly Crown had on.

To describe Death as Satan encountered him is a fascinating choice—earlier in Jane Eyre, Jane has an exchange with the Reverend Brocklehurst when she is a child and is about to enter the Lowood School. He inquires whether she knows what Hell is, and she answers that it is “A pit full of fire”. Brocklehurst refers to the possibility of Jane’s damnation, and she responds that she “must keep in good health and not die” (27). Could this exchange have set Jane’s mind onto such topics and thoughts? Much has been said of Jane’s propensity to be aligned with fire and burning, and there’s a seeming inversion of Paradise Lost’s dynamics—as though Jane and Rochester are Eve and Adam undoing the Fall. They seem to be moving from Hell to Eden by the end of the novel, into an egalitarian marriage with virtue and love.

Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote some of the most memorable Milton criticism in the nineteenth century, and the latter was quick to adhere to Blake’s reading of Paradise Lost. The ideas that a young Charlotte would have encountered in her favourite publication, Blackwood’s Magazine, would have been infused with Romantic ideologies about the state of Pandemonium. Coleridge compared Napoleon[8] to Satan in his “Table Talk” of September 4, 1833, and Shelley venerated the grace with which Milton handled Satan in his essay from circa 1819 entitled “On the Devil, and Devils”. “The Devil owes everything to Milton… Milton divested him of a sting, hoof, and horns, and clothed him with the sublime grandeur of a graceful but tremendous spirit,” Shelley wrote on the topic.[9] These readings would have impacted the way Paradise Lost was read by those who encountered the critical materials. Given the increasingly patriarchal society as the Victorian era commenced, Charlotte Brontë would have been witness to a great shift in how the epic was read—and would have been interacting with those movements as a reader of Milton herself.

Why place these pictures in the text? Brontë evokes dark images of Satan and Hell, rather than of Heaven and Eden. The images create a sense of spiritual danger for Jane and Rochester. It is no coincidence that Rochester is drawn to these images—later in the narrative, he becomes a temptation to Jane, one she must escape from to preserve her soul. But most intriguingly, these paintings show that Brontë may well be guilty of also seeing Hell far better than Heaven. Her heroine paints images of Hell, and Rochester resembles Satan far more than Adam. Rochester is persuasive, dark, and aligned with Satanic imagery. Brontë is being influenced not only by Milton’s writing, but also by his critical heritage, embodying the Romantic and dark visions of Paradise Lost.

Works Cited

Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The William Blake Archive. Library of Congress. Web. 2 Jul 2013. <http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/copy.xq?copyid=mhh.b&java=no&gt;.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

Brontë, Charlotte. Shirley. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Table Talk.” Ed. Timothy C. Miller. The Critical Response to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. 158.

Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the English Poets. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905. 84-200.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “On the Devil, and Devils.” Ed. Timothy C. Miller. The Critical Response to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. 148-9.

[1] Branwell was a profound influence on Charlotte specifically, as their worlds of Glasstown and Angria were a co-writing exercise between the two.

[2] Charlotte’s personal copy of Paradise Lost resides in Haworth, complete with her marginalia.

[3] Ellen was no stranger to directives from Charlotte. Charlotte often involved her friend in intellectual feats, such as corresponding in French or recommending she read or do particular things.

[4] I am indebted to the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, who were able to send me copies of Charlotte Brontë’s notes via mail.

[5] Emily died in 1848, and Shirley was published in 1849.

[6] Considering Charlotte’s love of Lord Byron, it would be unsurprising for her to be drawn to other Romantic writers.

[7] This misreading is confusing, because it becomes hard to separate how much of the argument belongs to Charlotte, Emily, or just the character of Shirley.

[8] The Napoleonic Wars were a point of great interest to the Brontë siblings, so such an analysis would only have excited Charlotte’s mind.

[9] Shelley’s reading of Paradise Lost can be a little confusing, as he admits to know nothing of Milton’s life, and seems to not care about the lack of knowledge. However, the sentiments are there, and are fascinating.

Inaugural Message

Welcome to my humble corner of the internet.  This particular spot is intended to host my musings, reflections, and insights.

You may call me Ashley, Renée, or (as I am often addressed) “Miss”.  Only don’t really call me “Miss” if you’re over the age of fourteen.  By day, I am a humble middle school teacher.  By night, I am an internet denizen and lurker.  Until now, I have neglected curating my online presence with a face.  This is something which I seek to change, as I am starting to stagnate.

In this spot I hope to share on a deeper, more intrinsic level than may be found in my other social networking outlets.  Twitter, obviously, does not enable great verbosity.

I will be setting up a feed of some of my literary analysis scribblings (which I seek a home for now that I find myself drawn from traditional academia and into the museums and digital realm).  Feel free to peruse, vehemently deny, or just enjoy as it passes.

I have already posted a work pondering the performance outcomes of suicide in Shakespeare’s works.  Don’t worry, I have lighter topics to share.

Yours Affectionately,


Subversive Deaths: Shakespeare’s Women and Mortal Agency

[Shakespeare’s] characters combine history and real life; they are complete individuals, whose hearts and souls are laid open before us: all may behold, and all judge for themselves.

Anna Brownell Jameson

Whether I swim or sink
That’s no concern of yours now
How could you possibly think
You had the power to know how
To keep me breathing
As the water rises up again
Before I slip away…

Emilie Autumn, “Opheliac”

Can death be a subversive act? Suicide and murder are common among Shakespeare’s works, and this study endeavors to look at the death of women in the plays as acts of agency rather than submission. Rather than being defined by death, these women define their deaths for themselves and their audiences. According to early critic Anna Brownell Jameson, the heroines of Shakespeare’s work were “in truth, in variety, in power, equal to his men” (67), and this mode of relating to the female characters of Shakespeare’s work gives a more open gateway to a modern analysis. The power dynamics between the characters in this study are about death and how death is affected—when a female character dies, what happens to the power balance of the play? What effect does the death of the character have on her characterization and representation? This study is not meant to psychoanalyze or moralize the plays’ usage of these tropes, but to analyze in depth their affect on the stage space in the realm of character.

Motivation is necessary for the development of modern dramatic space, therefore the pathological turns female characters take toward suicide or acceptance of their death is then more defining than the physiological act of dying. Traditionally trained actresses[1] are encouraged to think in depth about the interior psychological turns their character takes over the course of a play. Therefore, the stage space also encompasses the space of characterization. Performance defines the stage space as more than physical location: it also functions as a psychological location or the interior/mind turned exterior. The passions affected served to make the audience present and somehow complicit, driving a strong case for audience (and reader) understanding of these actions. Dramatic space encompasses the real and the performed, and demonstrates that “inbetween” which is theatric.

Of Shakespeare’s fifteen textual suicides[2], many are linked to an honorable death to avoid shame or future abuses. Only Ophelia and Lady Macbeth can be considered insane by clinical terms at the time of their deaths[3], all other characters possess some sort of autonomy that might prevent suicide or at least see their suicide as more than just the extension of depression or mental illness by modern definition. They are bound by desperate circumstance or a form of ethics that enable their deaths to be considered outside the realm of mental illness and into the realm of staged power dynamics.

Character analysis has only recently re-entered the stage of Shakespearean studies, and in re-entering has shifted the field. Paul Yachnin and Jessica Slight’s 2009 collection Shakespeare and Character suggests “character is the organizing principle of Shakespeare’s plays… character is the principal bridge over which the emotional, cognitive, and political transactions of theater and literature pass between actors and playgoers or between written texts and readers” (6-7). If this is so, how can the interiority of character (so valued by the actor and director) expose tensions and spaces in the text for the literary critic?

Desdemona: Innocence in Execution

Desdemona is a difficult character to comprehend, especially on the modern stage. In the first half of the play, she falls in love with Othello for his skill and valor, and triumphantly earns her place as his wife—she seems to see past the cultural constructs of race to the good and honorable side of her husband. Othello tells that “She loved me for the dangers that I had passed,/ And I loved her that she did pity them” (I.iii.166-7). The play starts with a loving, balanced marriage, if done in secret and against the wishes of Desdemona’s father, Brabantio. Desdemona begs to go with her husband to the war, as she states “if I be left behind,/ A moth of peace, and he go to the war,/ The rites for why I love him are bereft me…” (I.iii.251-3). Desdemona loves Othello for his capabilities as a warrior and leader of men. Her description of herself left behind, “a moth of peace”, shows that she does not wish to blend in and hide in the safety of a home front, but wants to be visible and present at her husband’s side[4]. She loves her husband for his actions, and will be his partner in all possible ways.

Desdemona is not, then, pure submission. The pair is loving and affectionate, Othello calling Desdemona “my fair warrior” (II.i.173). This pet name may well reflect how highly Othello values his wife: he calls her what others value in him. He is valued, even as a person of less privilege, for his battle acumen. Thus, calling Desdemona warrior has a deeper meaning for Othello than it may have for others. It is a word with positive connotations and recognitions. Judith Cook quotes Suzanne Bertish (who, according to Cook, “played the part as a very strong girl”), who played Desdemona at Stratford in 1979:

… There were certain lines I picked out in the text. They refer to her as our captain’s captain, they say our general’s wife is now the general. Then twice in the play she speaks like a lawyer… It’s brilliant. Her father was a senator, there’s no talk of her mother, and she must have listened to this kind of jargon since she was a child, it’s part of her life.

Before Desdemona’s death, she seems to know death is upon her, and sings “a song of willow” which “will not go from [her] mind” (IV.iii.30). She misremembers a lyric “Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve” (line 49), but then says that it’s the wrong lyric. However, the utterance of this phrase is not a mistake in the text. Desdemona seems to be aware of her demise’s approach, and is prepared to shelter her husband from the inevitable consequences. Emilia, in the same scene, delivers the line, “… Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them…” (lines 89-90). There is a code of knowing between the two women, but Desdemona knows her husband better, and can see the shifts and changes in his countenance. By the same light, Emilia knows her husband is not all good, but cannot fathom the depths of his deception[5]. The two women of the play are murdered by their husbands, but their deaths represent differences in the characters and their husbands. Desdemona dies protecting her husband, Emilia dies exposing her husband’s evil. This bookending of murder may serve to show how the audience might relate to the husbands’ deeds and characters. Perhaps through their wives’ deaths, we may be able to see the husbands.

Rather than point out her murderer, Desdemona takes the blame on herself:

Emilia: O, who hath done this deed?

Desdemona: Nobody, I myself. Farewell.

Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell! She dies.


Desdemona owns her death, taking Othello’s agency of murder from the act of her death. She dies on her terms, resolutely seeing the good in him as we see her destroyed by him. Desdemona takes ownership of a part of Othello that neither the audience nor the society of Venice can see at that moment. Othello’s condemnation comes from executing the innocent, who even obediently goes to the gallows. Othello’s failures are in judgment and justice, and Desdemona’s acceptance of his execution only serve to highlight her innocence. Variations in staging can highlight this in various ways. Fanny Kemble, when playing the part, decided to struggle when most Desdemonas “acquiesce with wonderful equanimity in their assassination”. In her performance, she “got up on my knees on my bed and threw my arms around Othello’s neck… that being my notion of the poor creatures last appeal for mercy” (Hankey, 274). The same Othello, W.C Macready told Helena Faucit she “added intensity to the last act by ‘being very difficult to kill’… I would not die with my honour tarnished… I felt for him as well as myself—for I knew what remorse and misery would overwhelm him” (Hankey, 274). The motivation, even in struggling, for these nineteenth century Desdemonas was the preservation of honor for both the victim and the murderer.

Desdemona is loyal to a fault, and her death is her expression of her loyalty. To defy her husband and his wishes would go against Desdemona’s very being. The tragedies of the play, and the crimes of Iago, become even more terrible in the face of Desdemona’s unflinching honesty and devotion. In many ways, Desdemona’s inaction to save herself undoes all the accusations against her character and sets her morally above her accusers. As she states, “A guiltless death I die” (V.ii.123).

From early on, many women have struggled with Desdemona’s seeming submission. In her letters, Helena Faucit expressed some surprise at the stage convention of having Desdemona played as submissive:

A being so bright, so pure, so unselfish, generous, courageous- so devoted in her love, so unconquerable in her allegiance to her ‘kind lord,’ even when dying by his hand… Of course I did not know in those days that Desdemona is usually considered a merely amiable, simple, yielding creature, and is also generally represented so on the stage. This is the last idea that would have entered my head (191).

Somehow, Desdemona’s unshaken allegiance does not read as subservience or simplicity. It seems more the actions of a devoted warrior, protecting a sovereign.

The affect of Desdemona’s death, when her innocence is affirmed, serves to undo all of Iago’s machinations. Desdemona’s innocence lays bare his handiwork and exposes his villainy. Emilia, so devoted to her mistress, cannot hold silence for her husband in the same manner. Only when Desdemona is dead does anyone speak plainly about the situation, and speaking plainly is the surest way to unravel a tragedy’s framework.

Juliet: A Bounty Preserved

In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s death is often read or acted for sheer romance and dramatics, but what of the nuances present in the character’s trajectory to demise? Why does Juliet kill herself, if not out of grief for the death of her beloved?

Pragmatism might well be the answer. Throughout the play, Juliet is the logical of the pair, the agent of her marriage[6]. Juliet organizes her marriage to Romeo, their rendezvous, and her escape from an unwanted marriage. The play gives Juliet more power than may seem present initially, especially when noting that it is Juliet who provides contact for the arrangement of their nuptials and conveyance for the consummation of their marriage. Juliet is concerned with time and place; she wants specific details over Romeo’s poetry (“By whose direction found’st thou out this place?” [II.ii.79]) or the convoluted mocking of the Nurse (“Here’s such a coil! Come, what says Romeo?” [II.v.64]). Action and reaction seems determined by her needs and desires. It is revealed, in her desperate exchanges following the climax that Juliet does not fear death; she fears loss of agency. Juliet presents herself as an excess of passion, “bounty as boundless as the sea” (II.ii.133). Once fixated upon her desire she gives unflinchingly and shows readiness to undertake any action. We know from her father that she has had agency in her romantic choices[7] (perhaps even all of her choices) until her cousin’s death gives her father a change of heart.

Forced to marry although already married, Juliet’s instant response is to threaten self-destruction:

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,

From off the battlements of any tower…

… Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble—

And I will do it without fear or doubt…


Turned into commerce, Juliet is willing to nullify her worth in order to avoid the use of that worth for the imperatives of others. She also knows that her worth will be reduced if she reduces herself to bigamy. Suicide becomes a reclaiming of oneself from outside forces and desires. Juliet uses her agency over her life as a bargaining chip for assistance from the Friar: “If in thy wisdom thou canst give no help,/ Do thou but call my resolution wise,/ And with this knife I’ll help it presently” (IV.i.52-4). Juliet recognizes the worth of her life and the power of her control over said vitality[8]. Her vehement denial of Paris speaks to her self-possession and personal honor.

When the sleeping potion plot goes awry, the Friar’s only suggestion (before running off in a terror) is that Juliet must run away to a nunnery. This is another unwanted marriage, which Juliet must use her nearest way of conveyance to escape. Juliet is in a constant battle to never give up her bodily space to any but that who she chooses. With both potential husbands dead beside her, Juliet is past marriageable at this point in the narrative.

Juliet kills herself because there is no other space that accommodates her in the text besides a nunnery, and Juliet is not made for a life of piety and submission. If Juliet were designed for religious orders, she would not have so directly defied her parents wishes or been so open in her teenage lust. So though she may display the red lips of the living, Juliet belongs to death and consummates the pairing in her last breath[9]. Therefore, Juliet’s death might be seen as the same vein of the great Roman warriors and heroes—suicide to avoid invasion or usurpation.

Notably, the play ends with a couplet that inverts its title: “For never was there a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” (V.iii.309-10). Possession is given to Juliet in the inversion, interestingly giving her a further prominence in the relationship. This shift in balance shows that Juliet has been the agent of her marriage all along, and it is now recognized in the conclusion of the play.

Cleopatra: Immortality in Death

Cleopatra is a queen, a Pharaoh of Egypt. Shakespeare imbues within the character of Cleopatra deep richness and diversity. The emotional range and control necessary to embody Cleopatra is enormous, and her character is really the centerpiece and focus of Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s suicide is the righteous suicide of the usurped, and is completely defined by her unwillingness to be subjugated. Antony and Cleopatra is the play with the most suicides (five, in all), and perhaps this is because the play is concerned with power exchanges in the realm of Roman tradition. Passion and excess are balanced with a fear of shame or lack of freedom.

Cleopatra is self-possessed from the first, though fickle and suspicious—but she has reason to fear Antony’s insincerity, for he is insincere to others over the course of the play (especially women). Cleopatra is no fool, and will not be used as such. Antony remarks “She is cunning past man’s thought” (I.ii.141), and this is true. Cleopatra’s strategems have the power to shake the world, and as noted by the nineteenth century critic Anna Brownell Jameson:

“Her mental accomplishments, her unequalled grace, her woman’s wit and woman’s wiles, her irresistible allurements, her starts of irregular grandeur, her bursts of ungovernable temper, her vivacity of imagination, her petulant caprice, her fickleness and her falsehood, her tenderness and her truth, her childish susceptibility to flattery, her magnificent spirit, her royal pride, the gorgeous eastern colouring of the character; all of these contradictory elements has Shakespeare seized, mingled them in their extremes, and fused them into one brilliant impersonation of classical elegance…” (78-9).

Cleopatra’s theatricality most likely best defines her death, as she has had many dress rehearsals. In some ways, Cleopatra knows the power of her death too well: she’s always pretending to be dead in some way or form[10]. Enobarbus remarks that he has “seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment. I do think there is mettle in death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying” (I.ii.137-40). This tendency to counterfeit death manages to undo Antony, and kill him with the tidings of action. Cleopatra’s death, and even the affectation of the state, has the power to slay Rome’s most powerful men. Bridget Escolme, in her book Emotional Excess on the Shakespearean Stage: Passion’s Slaves, notes “Cleopatra’s love, the more notoriously excessive, ends in death and is matched in excess and in death by Antony’s” (112).

Cleopatra stands against Octavius alone once Antony falls, and therein lies danger to her agency. Being conquered, Cleopatra has lost control of Egypt, and therefore herself. Cleopatra has been addressed by Antony multiple times by the title “Egypt”. When one is conquered, so is the other. And Cleopatra knows what it means to be conquered, what indignities and losses will be hers and her kingdom’s. Cleopatra and Juliet are similar in that they are both know their worth as commodities, and Cleopatra’s worth is more than Juliet’s because she represents the entirety of a nation. Cleopatra knows from the moment of Antony’s death what she plans to do, and makes herself clear in this exchange:

Antony: One word, sweet queen.

Of Caesar, seek your honour, with your safety. O!

Cleopatra: They do not go together.

Antony: Gentle, hear me.

None about Caesar trust but Proculeius.

Cleopatra: My resolution and my hands I’ll trust,

None about Caesar.


To Cleopatra, there is no honor in surrender. She bears too much similarity to her Roman lovers, who would die rather than be overtaken by a foe. She plans to die “after the high Roman fashion,/ And make death proud to take [her]” (IV.xv.92-3). Cleopatra talks of death as an honorable partner, personifies it as one worthy of taking “a queen/ worth many babes and beggars” (V.ii.46-7).

Cleopatra also seems to know that her death shall make her immortal, set her above Octavius in some way. The theatrical undertaking of her death is all power and eternity, set on a higher stage of the ages:

Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have

Immortal longings in me. Now no more

The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip.

… methinks I hear

Antony call. I see him rouse himself

to praise my noble act. I hear him mock

The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men

To excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come.

Now to that name my courage prove my title.

I am fire and air; my other elements

I give to baser life…


For Cleopatra, her death is victory. She sees herself above Octavius in her moment of ascension. The afterlife is a promise of greatness, and by denying Octavius her power, she becomes greater, stronger and more than her usurper. Cleopatra writes her own history, rather than see it played out to Octavius’s personal tune. “Cleopatra fascinates… because she is an embodiment of passion’s excess, fainting and sighing for love of Antony, and the consummate performer of her love, absolutely in control, completely resourceful” (Escolme, 141).

On the stage space and in the realm of the page, these are moments to challenge and relish as a moment for power to move fluidly. When a woman dies in a tragedy, the presentation of her death is natural to the genre “tragedy”, but is not natural to the affects of living and vitality. Therefore, a character’s use of death may bring forth considerations about the state of the play.

A vocational death, chosen by the character for herself signifies an importance to the act. Thus, these women’s deaths are more than the affects of death; they are defining moments that utilize a feminine claim of autonomy and agency in the text and on the stage. Each woman claims her own “death right”: Juliet claims her passion and consent, Desdemona her innocence and loyalty, Cleopatra her immortality and liberty.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Antony & Cleopatra. Ed. Stanley Wells. William Shakespeare, the complete works. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.

________________________. Othello. Ed. Stanley Wells. William Shakespeare, the complete works. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.

________________________. Shakespeare in Production: Othello. Ed. Julie Hankey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

________________________. Romeo & Juliet. Ed. Stanley Wells. William Shakespeare, the complete works. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.

Autumn, Emilie. “Opheliac.” Opheliac. Chicago: Trisol Music Group GmbH, 2006. Audio recording.

Cook, Judith. Women in Shakespeare. London: Virgin Books, 1980. Print.

Escolme, Bridget. Emotional Excess on the Shakespearean Stage: Passion’s Slaves. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2014. Print.

Cavendish, Margaret. “Letter CXXIII.” Ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts. Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997. 11-14. Print.

Faucit, Helena. “On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters: By One Who Has Personated Them.” Ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts. Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997. 184-195. Print.

Jameson, Anna Brownell. “Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical.” Ed. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts. Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997. 66-80. Print.

[1] And actors.

[2] Romeo, Juliet, Cassius, Brutus, Portia, Othello, Gertrude, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Goneril, Timon, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras, Eros. Italicized suicides are in question.

[3] Notably, both take place off-stage, and others define these deaths for the audience.

[4] And, likely wishes to enjoy the more physical rites of marriage.

[5] To her credit, no one in the play is able to sniff out Iago’s deception until it mechanizes into murderous events.

[6] Laura Stubbs: “In Romeo and Juliet the wise and brave stratagem of the girl wife is brought to fatal issue by the reckless impatience of her husband” (247).

[7] “My will to her consent is but a part,/ And, she agreed, within her scope of choice/ Lies my consent and fair-according voice.” (I.ii.16-8)

[8] To illustrate Juliet’s understanding of the worth of her passion: “O, I have bought the mansion of a love/ But not yet possessed it, and though I am sold,/ Not yet enjoyed…” (III.ii.26-8).

[9] Figuratively and literally.

[10] It is particularly amazing that Antony believes any report of her death, if he knows the feigning of her demise is one of her favorite strategies.