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Lisa Jardine "Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare"

Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (1983)

A seminal work of feminist Shakespeare criticism, Lisa Jardine’s Still Harping on Daughters (1983) has become a classic in literary studies and is still found on many undergraduate reading lists and university curricula. A historicist feminist study of the portrayal of women on the Renaissance stage, Jardine’s work was the first of its kind and established new ground in twentieth-century readings of Shakespearean women and Elizabethan theatrical culture. By applying both a historicist lens of analysis and a clear feminist angle to her material, Jardine’s Still Harping on Daughters is clearly interested in crossing the methodological and disciplinary boundaries between history, feminist studies, economics, and literary studies in order to show the relationships between gender, power, and politics in Renaissance theatre. By carefully examining not just the play texts, but also other forms of non-literary Renaissance writing within their political, economic, and legal contexts, Jardine’s critical approach equally attends to careful historicization and textual criticism.

The monograph investigates how female characters are represented in Early Modern theatre by expanding on the contexts and objects that merit scholarly attention. In order to attain a more comprehensive understanding of the multiple factors involved in the cultural construction and mediation of femininity in the Renaissance, Jardine examines the possibilities and contexts determinants from which representations of the feminine could be derived in Early Modern England: she considers, for example, Elizabeth I. and the cult of virginity, Elizabethan inheritance procedures, the distribution of wealth, regulations on fashion and dress, and the careers of boy actors who would portray women on stage to develop new readings of women and womanhood Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Jardine is, first, clearly interested in the relationship between dramatic representation and real-life social and political conditions and, second, in how an in-depth exploration of these conditions sheds new light on our understanding of the literary text and its performance practices with a particular emphasis on women and femininity. At the centre of her discussion is the argument that female characters on the Renaissance stage always point to something beyond themselves: they are not purely dramatic or literary characters, but they denote and reflect some of the changing and shifting social and political conditions of the age and, crucially, society’s anxiety surrounding these changes.

Still Harping on Daughters critically engages with different strands of feminist readings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. From her own historicist feminist angle, Jardine tackles “that most patriarchal body of texts” produced by Shakespeare, Webster, Marlowe and others; but she also writes against some feminist interpretations of Shakespeare that either revere in the playwright’s ability to “transcend the limits of time and sex”, creating “round” female characters (Jardine 1983: 2), or aggressively attack the plays as expressions of an “oppressively chauvinistic” (Jardine 1983: 3) society without historical or socio-economic contextualisation. Jardine, then, takes aim at both lines of argument and presents an alternative approach, a kind of middle way that does make obvious the patriarchal structures apparent in the plays, but grounding this approach in a careful historicisation of English Renaissance society, economics, and politics. Jardine’s discussion of Desdemona in Othello, for instance, suggests that Desdemona would have been viewed as a temptress by Early Modern spectators. Her display of independence and willfulness, according to Jardine, meant that Shakespearean audiences may have viewed Desdemona primarily as a “threat” to normative social order that must be punished and that Iago merely plays “on these traditional fears lurking beneath female ‘mystery’ to rouse Othello to full jealousy, and finally murder” (Jardine 1983: 120).

Jardine, who was a Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London for many years, was a prolific writer and interdisciplinary thinker. Still Harping on Daughters shows her ability to combine her interests in history, economics, politics, and textual analysis. The approach presented here, and also in Jardine’s follow-up Reading Shakespeare Historically (1996), was unique at the time of its appearance and still makes for a thought-provoking reading experience.

Lara Ehrenfried