Search This Blog

Monday, October 27, 2014

Powerful Female Characters

One of the irritating things is how famous and popular Shakespeare is. Because he is so damned popular, a lot of people think they know what these plays are about when they really don't. People throw around stuff like, his female characters are merely decorations to the male characters, which is a clear sign that they have not actually read any of the plays except maybe Hamlet. Of all the Shakespearean plays I've read, Hamlet is the only one about weak women with two parallel characters in the Queen and Ophelia, a mother and a daughter, fucked over by men and just taking it dumbly. The rest, uh, not even close.

Funny how "strong female characters" are suddenly a "thing" these days. When people talk about this, they usually mean Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games. Not that I want to knock Hunger Games, but come on. What does this say about women's place in society in our time? I'd hardly regard such a cliche as great assurance for a thoroughly free mind.

Male authors tend to write women into stereotypes, a more polite term is "archetypes." The most prominent types are the virgin and the whore, or the mother and the femme fetale. Whatever. With impeccable insight, Catholicism tells us that the virgin and the mother are the same woman (at least to men): a de-sexualized female who is infinitely loving and accepting and omnipotent to our every wish and need. The whore is the woman he both wants and fears. Anyway, Carl Jung might have better explanations about all this. All I'm trying to say is that male writers tend to write female characters that are not too real or diverse and rather tend to fall into these categories. (I'm not trying to be completely one sided about it. Female writers cast male characters in the stereotypical images of their father figure and greatest fear too.)

Incidentally, the two female archetypes are exactly the two female characters in Hamlet, except the roles are somewhat twisted around. The mother is the whore, whose sexuality has contributed to the destruction of the kingdom. The lover is the virgin, who is too weak to bear the leading man's complicated needs and desires and baggage. Therefore, neither provides quite enough fulfillment of the male audience's fantasy for the perfect partner. I am finally at an age where I can imagine how instinctively disturbing Queen Gertrude is to men. Ophelia, on the other hand, is a perfect tragic virgin lover to a lot of men. Again it has taken me a long, long time to sympathize with this fantasy.

Outside of Hamlet, however, the women rarely fall into these types. In fact they are often very scary, and their scariness often do not come from their seductive sexual power over the male characters. In fact, Shakespeare seems to be especially fond of a type of women who are, for lack of a better expression, headstrong. The good ones, the bad ones, they are all so damned willful!

For example, Juliet of Capulet runs away with the guy she is supposed to hate, in open defiance of her parents. Do you think that's easy for a thirteen-year-old aristocratic girl? Then Desdemona runs away from home to that guy who is no match for her family, in the middle of the night, when her dad is asleep. Anyone who thinks Desdemona is just another victim should go read the play. From the first to the last scene, she is sometimes confused and sometimes retreating from madness, but she is no weakling. In the last moments she is screaming that she's never had an affair with Cassio and she is not guilty of anything. Her husband overpowers her with brute strength but never gains any psychological upper hand. See also Portia (Merchant of Venice), Isabella (Measure for Measure), Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia (King Lear), Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra), Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Queen Tamora (Titus Andronicus), Volumnia (Coriolanus); each is tougher than the next and every single one of them knows what she wants and grabs it with no apology. In other words, they are powerful.

A lot of men, including male writers, don't like women who are too powerful and would never write them. Perhaps just as many women are equally uncomfortable with powerful women. That is why headstrong female characters are uncommon and widely disliked or misunderstood. Look how public perception of Juliet, Desdemona, and Cordelia is softened from their original shapes to become more palatable as good women. The funny thing is that not only did Shakespeare write a whole of tough cookies, but they can be both good and bad. They are a force of nature that, like the crashing waves, can kill you or carry you to the heavens (or both). They are sometimes terribly destructive. This is something that today's writers are unable to deal with. So powerful female characters have to be good and stay good and be the perfect mother figure, so as not to threaten the sensibility of readers and writers themselves. But if we never acknowledge and accept the destructiveness of power, we will never be real.

Then there's one of my favorite female characters of all time, Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing). When asked how he can write so many interesting and believable female characters, GRRM said he just puts himself in their shoes and treats female characters like male characters, ie, like human beings. The fact that Beatrice is such a meticulous mirror image of Benedick is proof that Shakespeare takes the same approach. If you can treat them all like human beings, you won't need stereotypes.

Stuff That Stays With You

After Othello is informed of the truth, it's perfectly reasonable and expected to say things like these to express his regret and lay down some sort of defense of his actions. 

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme;

And lines like these below fit the context and serves to conclude the play.

I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this;
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss. 

Yet between these lines comes something weird, an intrusion of a memory of violence and sudden death, something like, "Many years ago in a foreign land, there was this guy who was talking trash about Venice and I just went up to him and stabbed him in the heart, just like this."
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

The image is so sudden and so vivid and so violent that I don't understand it at all. I can't understand it in a rational, intellectual sense. It's just a brick that hits me between the eyes and leave me blinded and stunned.

I keep thinking about this strange insertion. If I were to write an academic analysis on this ending, I'd get an F. But then if it makes perfect sense, I would not be haunted by it now, would I? It drives me crazy trying to imagine what's going through Othello's mind in that moment, right after he has made up his mind to punish himself with death. It goes something like, oh well, I hate myself, I cannot bear it to live another moment with my guilt and shame and without her, so here we go, I'll just stab myself right there and make it quick, because I know where the human heart is, and that's because all those years ago when I was a hot-blooded young man I grabbed a guy by the throat and stabbed him, and he died instantly, his confused and vacant eyes staring at me. The sun was scorching like a nightmare, I remember, and the streets were full of people; they all looked at me with horror and shock and disgust, just like these Venetians who are staring at me now ...

This is the kind of shit that stays with you: weird but true, shocking but makes sense, out of nowhere but deep down honest. Who can do this? Almost no one.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places is perhaps bleaker than Gone Girl, and much less playful or, uh, meta. The men are despicable and desperate, basically irredeemable. The women are slightly better, even though some of them are pretty cringe worthy, too. At least they seem to have more life in them than the men.

The poverty she describes is grotesque. It makes everything and everyone in the story grotesque, even those who supposedly have money. I must admit I did want to know what it's like, egged on by a morbid curiosity, so it would not be fair for me to complain about it now. It's not easy to read. No wonder people want escapist entertainment. Lousy, pathetic lives like a puddle of mud. Can't they have a bit of color and dignity too? Ugh. 

Sometimes I feel I've always had a bit of princess tendencies. Now I am just terribly grateful for it.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shakespeare and GRRM on HBGoT

At the invitation of the host of the marvelous History Behind Game of Thrones Web site, I am writing several articles about the similarities between Shakespeare and A Song of Ice and Fire series.

The first entry comparing Petry Baelish (aka Littlefinger) to Iago is published today. (Whoohoo!)

Monday, October 20, 2014


I was discussing Macbeth and supernatural elements with a friend yesterday and something occurred to me. How did the weird sisters and their weird black magic go down so smoothly with the realistic side of the story?

Most of Shakespeare's plays are pretty realistic. Magical elements are used more often in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Tempest, and this. Old Hamlet made just one appearance. With today's terminology, his works were "low magic."

Then I realized that everything that happens in Macbeth could happen without the magic. There is nothing in the plot that conflicts with human nature --- greed, ambition, murder, paranoia, conscience. Take out all the eerie "weird" stuff in the play, the story could very well happen exactly the way it does. The "blessings" the witches give Macbeth at the start of the play can be nothing more than the ambitions that have been brewing in Macbeth's mind for some time.

Funny, isn't it? If the witches come to him and say instead, "We know you are plotting to usurp Duncan's throne, but we're telling you it will all end in tears for sure," do you think Macbeth would agree, "OK, you're right, I will abandon my ambitions and be content with what I already have"? Do people really do this naturally? In a sense the witches played fair. They told Macbeth that, although you will be the next king, Banquo's offspring will take over for the next eight generations (BTW, Banquo's son does not become king by the end of the play, which might have been a slip-up). He knows this from the start. Then he goes on to do what he would do anyway, prophecy or not. Isn't this how people behave? They do what their nature dictates, not what is best for them. Not rationally.

Hence this is the difference between Greek tragedies and Shakespearean tragedies. I'm not saying either is superior to the other. Rather, Greek tragedies focus on the futility of people's intentions and plans in the face of much more powerful forces of nature beyond human control, such as coincidences, the tide of time, and what the rest of society does. You want to be a good person or a hero, but the world and fate have other plans, and you are just too small to change that. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is talking about the externalization of human motives. We project our hidden desires and socially unacceptable motives onto the people and world outside ourselves to escape the guilt and shame. It is the struggle between id and superego projected onto witches and magic.

Yet again, one has to admit, Shakespeare basically invented psychoanalysis!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Shakespeare Notes

I've decided to read all Shakespearean plays, maybe the sonnets too, in the next year or two or three.

First, taking an inventory of the plays I have read recently:

Julius Caesar
Anthony and Cleopatra
Henry V
Henry IV (Part I)
King Lear
Titus Andronicus

The next play I want to read is Macbeth. Knock on wood for good luck, given its reputation.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Starting From the End

I don't know what triggered this realization but it occurred in the shower. I was thinking about Othello again --- yes, Shakespeare and GRRM are two things that tend to pop into my head randomly during the day without particular reasons. 

Obviously, it had been decided from the start, that Othello has to kill Desdemona and then kill himself. The play opens with a trial, in which D's father accuses Othello of using witchcraft to seduce Desdemona, and end with another trial, in which Othello accuses and sentences his wife to death for the crime of adultery, and then pronounces her guilty and carries out the execution himself. He is mistaken. Once he discovers the truth, he kills himself.

From Point A to Point Z are a series of events. If I scrutinize these events, it is clear that they are all intricately linked. If any of the events go wrong (for Iago), the ending would be unlikely to happen: If Othello did not believe Iago's innuendo, if Desdemona did not drop her handkerchief, if Cassio did not get himself drunk at Iago's bidding, if Emilia were slightly more suspicious of her husband's strange request to steal the handkerchief from her mistress, if Desdemona weren't so oblivious to her husband's bizarre reactions to her pleas for Cassio, if she weren't so fond of Cassio, if Cassio had not got the promotion that Iago coveted ... Or one could dig deeper and suppose if Othello weren't black or had not risen from the bottom and therefore didn't have a repressed inferiority complex, if Desdemona weren't such a strong-willed, somewhat-spoiled aristocratic girl from the most prominent Venetian family and therefore a bit oblivious, if Iago were not in love with Othello/Desdemona/whatever his hidden motive, if the Turkish army weren't threatening to take Cypress, if Othello confronted her earlier rather than stewing in his suspicions, if he did let her vehement denials shake his belief just a tiny bit, if Emilia came with her explanations five minutes sooner ... If anything in these elements goes wrong, Othello and Desdemona would not have come to their demise.

Shakespeare was playing a very tenuous, high-risk game here. His chain of events could have easily lost credibility with the audience and appeared excessively manipulative if he had not plotted these events and characters carefully. The only reason we do not feel his hand of manipulation (only Iago's) is how he crafted these people and events with the utmost believability. Even without Iago, Othello and the audience would spontaneously wonder, even if subconsciously, why the most eligible girl in Venice would marry him --- old, black, not very rich, with no aristocratic family background. Well, no, not marry, but running away from her father's house into his arms with no regard for the marriage contract. Why wouldn't she be attracted to the dashing young lieutenant who is of her age with a reputation of a ladies' man? Iago only needs to verbalize what Othello himself is already thinking and give him the gentlest nudge. It is also what we, with our own notions of well-matched couples, have already been thinking as well. This is what Shakespeare uses --- the snake in our own heart that Iago merely awakens. That is why the whole chain of events seem so fucking convincing.

If anything goes wrong, of course they would not die. But they have to die, from the moment Shakespeare put the first word on paper. It wouldn't have been a tragedy if they don't die --- it would be "Much Ado About Nothing" instead. The key is to make us forget about the inevitability of the ending and create the illusion that, at any moment in the process, a slight "what if" could have reversed the course and saved them. That's why it is so fucking irresistible.

This is the crucial part that makes and breaks a story. You have a beginning and an end. Can you make the end seem heartbreakingly inevitable? Can you set up a chain of causes and effects that convince the reader? Is your hand both deft and invisible? How the middle leads naturally and inevitably to the doom is what separates masterpieces from mediocre ones and stupid ones. Masterpieces build the middle on human truths and universal flaws. Lesser ones use cheap tricks. Romeo and Juliet may have been undone by Friar Laurence's messenger, but the familial feuds and cycle of revenge loom larger. We can tell what are true deficiencies we are all guilty of and what are convenient coincidences dreamed up by the author.

GRRM does the same thing. Ned Stark has to die. It was decided before the first book began. Robb Stark has to die, too. This was decided before the first book was finished, although it does not come until the third novel. The whole magic is about how to get there without a whiff of cheap trick and lazy plotting. Of course they are all authors' manipulation, but the hand must be invisible, and the only way to stay invisible is a test to the authors' insight into the truth, the human truth. If you can't keep the middle real, the end would come out looking like crap. 

The Last Jedi as a Spiritual Descendant of ESB

I was about 9 or 10 years old when I made my first contact with Star Wars. It was the novelization of "Empire Strikes Back," ...

Popular Posts