Sex in Shakespeare’s Late Plays (1) Janet Adelman


In her treatment of the late plays Janet Adelman,  the  Shakespearean feminist scholar, expands her thesis that Shakespeare only resolved the dilemmas of woman-hatred that he had exposed in the tragedies by  re-imposing a patriarchal order, founded on the neutralizing and etherealising of female sexuality.  The romances oscillate round positive and negative presentations of this theme:  Pericles  ends with masculine authority reconciled to female powers; Cymbeline  ends with patriarchal authority wholly restored and female power vanquished;  The Winter’s Tale  is again a limited re-assertion of the feminine;  The Tempest,  Shakespeare’s final  word,   presents a mother-figure in the form of Sycorax as negatively as any previous play, even Hamlet,  had done, and locates the source of all power and authority in the paternal order.  But even in the plays which cast a more benign light on the feminine  women are only allowed their curtailed space within the confines of a  re-established, if often benign, patriarchy.   Adelman’s misunderstanding of the romances, and even more her almost total blindness to the implications  of the comedies, is as profound as her  analysis of the tragedies is incisive.  In her version  Pericles  starts with an almost Hamlet-like revulsion to the feminine by locating the blame for the corruption that incest represents in a woman.  Pericles has travelled to the court of Antioch to win the hand of Antiochus’s  daughter in marriage, only to find that she is deeply involved in an incestuous relationship with her own father.  Plot blames the father as much as the daughter –  but it is the daughter who disgusts the poetry – ‘I am no viper, yet I feed/ On mother’s flesh which did me breed’.   For the patriarchal order daughters are safe because they are virginal and absolutely under paternal authority and it is these principles that  Antiochus’s daughter has confused.  Marina restores them, as Adelman  sees it, by enabling Pericles to escape the sexualised female body.  Redemption is only achieved through the de-sexualizing of woman.  Thaissa becomes a nun, Marina’s chastity triumphs over the brothel.  The mandatory marriage betrothal of Marina and Lysimachus at the end carries no sexual weight and there is no mention of children.  So much then for Pericles.


Cymbeline  is ostensibly about the recovery of trust in a falsely accused woman and the renewal of hetero-sexual relations in marriage.  But in fact its two plots enact the ambivalent attitude towards this theme of the late plays as a whole.   The vindication of woman in the Imogen/Posthumus plot is constantly undone by the  myth of male parthenogenesis in the Cymbeline plot.  A patriarchal male order validated by supernatural male guarantees is restored.   Meanwhile in the Cymbeline plot male-parthenogenesis is  the happy ending.   The pastoral idyll in the Welsh mountains, the liminal place of renewal which is the equivalent of the forest in As You Like It or the wood in Midsummer Night’s Dream,  is in this play all-male. Here Averigus lives with Belarius and Guiderius, who are in fact Cymbeline’s long lost sons,  in rural peace far from the doings of court. To enter their world Imogen has to ritually become a male.  Cymbeline’s acceptance of her at the end carries no weight, it is his new-found sons whom he truly loves, and in fact he is more affectionate to Imogen when she is disguised as Fidele.  Shakespeare’s answer to the tragic problem in this play is to banish the Queen of Hell, cut off her son’s head and restore patriarchal order with re-doubled power.



In its portrayal of Leontes’ jealousy in its first act  The Winter’s Tale  presents to us  with astonishing economy the themes that have haunted the male protagonists since Hamlet, ‘the anguish of a masculinity that conceives itself as betrayed at its point of origin’ (222).  The myth of male parthenogeneisis is given to us in Leontes’s image of the two playing lambs  that he and Polixenes were until the coming of women into their lives; and the alternative to this idyll is the ‘standing in a rich place’ conferred by the relationship with the female and the male’s vulnerability to her.  ‘Why then the world, and all that’s in’t, is nothing…..if this be nothing’  (1.3. 293-96)  proclaims Leontes as his suspicions of Hermione’s infidelity grow.  The world is nothing, in fact,  if Hermione is not unfaithful.  Troilus –like, his identity depends on her betrayal.  His fantasy leads him to imagine not only adultery but married sex too ‘to sully the purity and whiteness’ of his sheets.  His words are adult but his emotions are childish. He imagines himself entering Hermione’s body between her legs as if in a fetal position.  Another behaviour betraying his retarded infantile sexuality is  his identification with his son Mamillius.  It starts with anxiety about his own paternity but soon turns into horror of female contamination in his son’s birth.  The imagery of his paternal relationship – more evidence for the thesis of male parthenogenesis – is highly sexual: his son is his ‘bawcock’ and a ‘collop’ of his flesh.  But the strategy of male identification in a united front against women backfires because the sight of his son recalls his own maternal contamination; ‘the trauma of tragic masculinity, the trauma of contamination at the point of origin’. This is the  spider poisoning the chalice of his life which cannot be expunged from his consciousness: ‘I have seen the spider’.


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