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"Why I Had To Write Honour Killing in Shakespeare"

by Loraine Fletcher

 

A publication by Shakespeare comes out every hour or so somewhere in the world: a programme note or a short review, a popular book or an article in a learned journal. The Shakespeare industry uses up a lot of trees. A large proportion of these publications are academic works about Shakespeare’s women. So why am I adding to the glut?

 

Not because I’ve discovered anything new about his life and times, certainly. Writers who take the historical approach can be gripping. Nobody who’s read James Shapiro’s 1599 could forget the opening description of Shakespeare’s acting company, himself among them, converging warily on a disused playhouse in Shoreditch called The Theatre. They dismantled it and nicked the rafters to build their own theatre on the South Bank, The Globe. Fascinating.

 

But then Professor Shapiro goes on to argue that this new playing-space saw an upsurge of greater artistry in its principal writer, saw a radically new and more profound style of drama. He wants his historical research to have some bearing on the evaluation of Shakespeare’s work. I question that. I find Henry IV part 1 or A Midsummer Night’s Dream as profound and riveting as anything written after The Globe went up.

 

People tend to assume that knowing the context will necessarily shed light on the text. But in general, I don’t believe that knowing what people said or did back then is the best way, let alone the only way, to understand the plays. Shakespeare wasn’t a 1590s Mr or Mrs Average, Lord Average or Bishop of Average, though we have to understand something about these people to register how extraordinary his mind was.

 

I think there’s still much to discover through close readings of the plays, by immersing ourselves in them. They give up something new to each new generation. When I saw how consistently his plots focus on women investigated and condemned by men, I knew I had to write Honour Killing. I didn’t have a choice.

 

This pattern --- you could call it obsessive --- runs through comedies, tragedies and histories. Think Hero, Desdemona, Joan, Lavinia, Katherine of Aragon, Cordelia, Imogen, Hermione. These are just the principal ones. As well as the women tried by men threatening their lives or freedom, there are many others who’re dismissed by men as not worth bothering with. But if Julius Caesar or Harry Hotspur had listened to their wives, they would have lived to a ripe old age.

 

His analysis of misogyny is at the core of Shakespeare’s narratives. His women are highly intelligent, truthful and kind, but wasted in a male-dominated culture. There are notable exceptions, Lady Macbeth and Lear’s elder daughters for instance, but they’re relatively few.

 

This isn’t just an impression we can draw from his plays because we’re living in times of feminism and the metoo movement. This is what his plays show us now, but it’s also what they showed his contemporary audiences. He saw long before Theresa May that there’s no honour in honour killing, or in any of the assumptions it’s based on. His plots demonstrate that vividly: his men wreck themselves, their families and whole countries through their stupid mistakes about women.

 

So that’s what Honour Killing is about. Nobody else, I think, has traced Shakespeare’s attacks on misogyny as fully as I have, through all the plays apart from Timon of Athens (the only one I never fancied, for some reason).

 

While I was writing it, new readings I wasn’t looking for came up and hit me between the eyes. I’ll be brief here, as few people know the obscurer plays. Titus Andronicus is seldom produced because it’s enough to put anyone off their tea, though very funny, but it’s like A Midsummer Night’s Dream turned inside out, with the dark side showing. The same actors could play very similar parts in each. Perhaps they did, once.

 

In The Winter’s Tale, Antigonus threatens to ’geld’ his three young daughters if Queen Hermione is proved guilty of adultery. He’s plainly talking about female genital mutilation. This is one of the places where I’ve been accused of attempting to be trendy.

 

But FGM is what the speech is about, and it’s not being trendy to notice that. Antigonus agrees to expose Hermione’s baby daughter to be eaten by wild animals. But Nature, now thoroughly sick of the way women are treated

 

in this play, sends in the bear (a real polar bear, apparently, not a man in a funny bear suit). Antigonus exits, not quite fast enough to escape Nature’s vengeance.

 

Other readings clarify through a shift in focus. When women in Shakespeare go on trial, we in the audience already know they’re innocent, so we don’t need to waste any time wondering about that. Instead, we’re free to wonder what makes his men act as foolishly they do.

 

One reason is that they all know the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. They expect women to be deceitful Eves who’ll go off with a snake at the first opportunity. It’s in the Bible, so it must be true: women are like that. Or they read fashionable poets who idolise women as angels, so when they marry a real one it’s a bit of a shock. Or they don’t know anything about women at all, because their only education has been about men and battles. Some of them survive their mistakes to understand women better in the future.

 

I’ve had a lot of pleasure writing Honour Killing. It comes out of a lifetime’s reading and teaching Shakespeare, and it’s good to get some of that down on paper at last. If you can find the time to read it, I hope you’ll like it --- or at least, think it’s worth arguing with.

 

Loraine Fletcher

 

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