Insanity and Rest Cure in The Yellow Wallpaper

“John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall. But I don’t want to go there at all.”[1] Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is the semi-autobiographical short story describing a woman’s descent into madness during the course of a confinement intended to cure her of an initial “temporary nervous depression”.[2]  Gilman herself had previously encountered Silas Weir Mitchell, a distinguished neurologist, after being unsuccessfully treated by him for a bout of depression following the birth of her daughter. His solution was rest cure:

I was put to bed, and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed, and responded with the vigorous body of twenty-six. As far as he could see there was nothing the matter with me, so after a month of this agreeable treatment he sent me home with this prescription: “Live as domestic a life as possible…Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.”[3]

It was after following this advice that Gilman’s mental health deteriorated rapidly, resulting in a breakdown. The Yellow Wallpaper is a study of institutionalisation in a domestic setting, serving as a warning to the danger of employing confinement as a treatment. It was intended “not to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy.”[4]


“John laughs at me, but one expects that in a marriage…He scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.”[5] The narrator’s husband is immediately aligned with what Elaine Showalter calls a “moralistic, domineering, and masculinist generation of doctors”[6], characteristically “rational, not emotional; deliberate, rather than impulsive.”[7] The narrator astutely speculates that perhaps it is because of John’s clinical approach to her illness that she has not yet recovered and acknowledges that she is in a helpless position because as both a doctor and her husband, John’s medical and masculine authority undermines the narrator.  The fact that her brother is also a physician compounds her powerlessness. Forbidden from work in any form, the narrator secretly keeps a journal as she feels “less opposition and more society and stimulus”[8] would improve her condition. Like Gilman, the narrator is being confined in order to cure her of depression. We are given no specific information as to what her illness is but there are hints throughout the story of a recent childbirth, indicating post-partum depression, an illness which was not recognised until later in the twentieth century. During the early stages of her confinement, the narrator experiences typical symptoms of depression such as crying, weariness and loss of appetite though she tries to hide the extent of her illness; “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time. Of course I don’t when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone.”[9]  Forced to conceal her journal from her censorious husband, the narrator continues to write in secret, though the choppy and sometimes incomplete sentences reflect the agitated state of her mind.

Initially developed for Civil War soldiers suffering from neurasthenia, Mitchell’s rest cure evolved into a highly regimented treatment based on the main principles of “seclusion, massage, immobility and excessive feeding.”[10] Typically patients were confined to bed, isolated from friends and family, forbidden from any physical and intellectual activity and put on a rich diet during which they were fed enormous amounts of food.  In his essay Fat and Blood, Mitchell devotes a chapter to diet and its importance as an aspect of rest cure.


Darwinian psychiatry attributed female biology, specifically the reproductive system, as the cause of perceived female intellectual inferiority. The Descent of Man presented persuasive scientific ‘evidence’ to prove men to be “superior to women in courage, energy, intellect, and inventive genius, and thus… art, science and philosophy.”[14]  In Principles of Psychology, Herbert Spencer reinforced this doctrine further by arguing that “human development depended on the expenditure of a fixed fund of energy. Since women depleted, or sacrificed, their energy in the reproductive process, they were heavily handicapped, even developmentally arrested, in intellectual competition.”[15]

It was this belief, so ingrained in nineteenth century medical discourse, which influenced the principle of immobilisation as an essential aspect of Mitchell’s rest cure. Any mental or physical activity was considered a waste of vital energy which detracted from proper reproductive function, therefore patients were permitted from reading, writing, sewing and even feeding or bathing themselves. To counter atrophy, massage was implemented to ensure the stimulation of muscles in lieu of exercise.  Women’s reproductive health was a measure of her progress according to Mitchell, whose examples of successfully treated patients consisted of those who had resumed regular menstruation, carried full term pregnancies or married. Henry Maudsley also considered disrupted reproductive function as the root of nervous conditions, noting that “a sudden suppression of the menses has produced a direct explosion of insanity.”[17]

In The Yellow Wallpaper the narrator is prevented from writing, “He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency.”[18] “Forced mental training” as Thomas Laycock named it, “greatly increases the irrationality of the brain.”[19] A century earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, warned of the danger of female suppression.

I am fully persuaded that we should hear of none of these infantine airs, if girls were allowed to take sufficient exercise, and not confined in close rooms till their muscles are relaxed, and their powers of digestion destroyed.[20]

Wollstonecraft’s advice here directly conflicts with the fundamental concepts of Victorian psychology and the principles of Mitchell’s rest cure which was borne from the rationale that, “the woman’s desire to be on a level of competition with man and to assume his duties is, I am sure… making mischief.”[21]  Rather than being beneficial however, Wollstonecraft believes inactivity to be destructive to a woman’s physical health, negatively affecting their muscles and digestive system. She also states that if women are treated like children, they will then act like children, a self-fulfilling prophecy that leaves women dependent on men. The narrator has the same view, stating at the beginning of the story, “personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.”[22]However her opinion is ignored as her husband dismisses her opinions and ideas.

Victorian psychology attributed sexual repression as a cause of a variety of nervous disorders, which “if not indulged, becomes greater and greater, until it induces a derangement of various functions and hence… insanity may be the result.”[23] Thomas John Graham elaborates

Marriage removes a vast number of diseases incidental to both sexes. Hippocrates, Hoffman, Boerhaave, Esquirol, Elliotson, and many other physicians, state that it is the best cure for hysteria… One of its excellent effects is pregnancy, which often produces the happiest changes in women.[24]

Of course this is not the case for the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper, whose illness occurred after the birth of her child. Since the belief was that mental health was connected to a woman’s reproductive system, Victorian psychiatry rationalised that giving birth was the natural order of a woman’s life and therefore contributed to a healthy mind. Graham asserts that married women lived longer than those who remain unmarried.[25] Medical discourse offers no explanation as to what has caused the narrator’s illness, instead diagnosis conflicts with her experience. The narrator is married and childbirth seems to have initiated her illness rather than prevent it.  In fact, as her confinement progresses, her mental state deteriorates further as opposed to improving.


Seclusion was a vital component of rest cure, playing a social as well as scientific role as it was used to break up the “whole daily drama of the sick-room, with its little selfishness and its craving for sympathy and indulgence.”[26] Considered to benefit the patient as well as her family, seclusion prevented “the selfishness which a life of invalidism is apt to bring about”[27] Mitchell regarded the nervous woman to be self-centered and inconsiderate of the effects her illness had on those around her, as though it were a conscious decision of the patient. John seems to adopt this attitude when he declares, “Bless her little heart… she shall be sick as she pleases”.[28] His approach lacks sympathy towards his wife’s illness, instead suggesting it is self-inflicted and avoidable, further isolating the narrator as her opinions are consistently dismissed until she too begins to see herself as a burden.[29]

Her sanity slipping, the narrator becomes progressively obsessed with the wallpaper in her room, exhibiting characteristics of monomania, which according to Esquirol, “manifests itself by joy, contentment, gayety, exaltation of the faculties, boldness.”[30] As her mental health deteriorates, her description of the wallpaper becomes more frequent and progressively animated, invigorating her with a sense of purpose which she was previously lacking. In a bare, barred room, constructed essentially to imprison her, the narrator has become fixated with the wallpaper, finding shapes and movements within its pattern. As the only stimulus available to her, she is endowed with renewed energy when discussing the wallpaper, in contrast to her previous weariness, “Life is much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch.”[32]  She also exhibits signs of paranoia, “The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John.”[33] During her initial observations of the wallpaper, the narrator was still in possession of her faculties, is coherent in her thoughts and appears to be improving in the eyes of her husband. This, according to James Cowles Prichard, is a characteristic of monomania, which he calls “partial insanity”.

The understanding is partially disordered or under the influence of some particular illusion, referring to one object, and involving one train of ideas, while the intellectual powers appear, when exercised on other subjects, to be in a great measure unimpaired.[34]

However this changes when, what were initially monomaniac observations of the wallpaper develop into hallucinations, another facet of insanity; “the woman behind shakes it… and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over… I’ve seen her!”[35]  The narrator believes the woman to be trapped and identifies her shaking of the paper as a desire to escape from it. Esquirol wrote that “there exists a certain for of delirium in which individuals believe that they perceive, sometimes by one sense, sometimes by another, and sometimes by several at once, while no external object is present to excite any sensation whatsoever.”[36]  In an effort to free the trapped woman, the narrator rips the wallpaper from the wall. It is clear at this point that the narrator’s sanity has completely deteriorated and what began as a nervous depression has deteriorated into insanity. Upon seeing his wife deranged and ‘creeping’ about the room, John faints. The narrator asks wryly, “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”[37]

The unnerving image of the narrator crawling over her husband’s lifeless body represents her triumph over him and by extension, over paternal medical authority.  She has finally escaped the confines of rest cure but has paid for it with the price of her sanity. Shuttleworth writes that, according to Esquirol, psychological normalcy is predicated on a condition of concealment[38], that it is “not the naked display of the insane, but rather the artful concealment and dissimulation of the social creature.”[39] John had frequently reminded his wife to exercise self-control, blaming her illness on her inability to control her emotions.[40] Consequently the narrator’s madness is simultaneously her freedom, supporting Showalter’s notion that hysteria was a mode of protest for the repressed Victorian woman, deprived of social, intellectual and expressive outlets.[41]

Rest cure, like the illnesses it was used to treat, was explicitly gendered, deemed effective only for women as “men do not take to the recumbent position for any considerable length of time with equanimity. The fact of their being in bed constitutes an aggravation; and irritation is what we wish to exclude.”[42] The hypocrisy of this and the experience of the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper suggest that confinement was used to commit women to the domestic sphere during a time of burgeoning protest borne of widespread female discontent. Oppenheim proposes that Victorian psychology was an agency through which men could control and suppress women under the guise of scientific and biological dogma.

At the very time when groups of middle class women were organising to claim the right to vote, to hold public office, to enjoy equal property rights to men, to gain economic independence, through professional training and university education… evolutionary theory seemed to furnish undeniable reasons why the status quo should not be radically altered in response to these demands.[43]

In an era when feminist movements proposed improving conditions for women, nineteenth century psychology, a field dominated by men, employed scientific validation and method to domesticate them. Later psychological discourse promoted the sedentary, passive and dormant lifestyle embodied by the rest cure; medical advice adapted to societal changes. John Stuart Mill denounced the “nature of women” as an “eminently artificial thing”[45], a construction of patriarchal society disguised as scientific doctrine.

In contrast to the narrator, John’s sister Jennie seems to embody the Victorian ideals of femininity, “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!” Jennie is content with her role and possesses no aspirations beyond domesticity. The narrator’s need for expression through her writing is at odds with society’s expectations of her and thus it is the inability to reconcile creative thinking with domestic passivity which precipitates her breakdown. A combination of medical ignorance towards her initial nervous disorder and the harmful effects of her rest cure exacerbate her mental health until she experiences a nervous breakdown, madness being her only refuge.

Gilman too struggled to reconcile her intellectual and domestic life, resolving the “long tiresome effort to satisfy the demands of two opposing natures in myself”[46] by divorcing her husband. Fortunately, Gilman eventually made a full recovery from her breakdown, acknowledging that it was by ignoring Mitchell’s advice that her mental health improved, reinforcing Gilbert and Gubar’s analysis that “the cure, of course, is worse than the disease”[47]


[1] Gilman, C.P. The Yellow Wallpaper. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p.8

[2] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.3

[3] Gilman, C.P. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Unites States of America, University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. P.96

[4] Why I wrote the yellow wallpaper

[5] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.3

[6] Showalter, E. The Female Malady. London: Virago Press, 1987, p.121

[7] The Female Malady, p.117

[8] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.4

[9] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.9

[10] Gilman, S. Hysteria Beyond Freud. United States of America: University of California Press, 1993, p. 297

[11] Weir Mitchell, S. “Fat and Blood” [1877] [online] [accessed 02/01/2015]

[12] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.10

[13] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.11

[14] The Female Malady, p.122

[15] The Female Malady, p.122

[16] [accessed 04/01/15]

[17] Taylor, J. and Shuttleworth, S. Embodies Selves. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p.206

[18] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.7

[19] Embodied Selves, p.188

[20] A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and a Vindication of the Rights of Men, p.147

[21] Becker, D. The Myth of Empowerment: Women and the Therapeutic Culture in America. Unites States of America: NYW Press, 2005, p.66

[22] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.4

[23] Embodied Selves, p.188

[24] Embodied Selves, p.188

[25] Embodied Selves, p.188

[26] [accessed 04/01/2015]

[27] [accessed 04/01/2015]

[28] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.12

[29] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.6

[30] Embodies Selves, p.256

[31] Esquirol, J.E.D., Treatise on Insanity. Great Britain: Forgotten Books, 2012, p.19

[32] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.14

[33] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.13

[34] Embodies Selves, p.252

[35] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.15

[36] Treatise on Insanity, p.14

[37] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.19

[38] Shuttleworth, S. Charlotte Bronte and Victorian Psychology. London: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p.38

[39] Charlotte Bronte and Victorian Psychology, p.38

[40] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.4

[41] The Female Malady, p.147

[42] Hysteria Beyond Freud, p.299

[43] Shattered Nerves, p.182

[44] Embodies Selves, p.204

[45] The Female Malady, p.124

[46] The Yellow Wallpaper, p.xvii

[47] Gilbert, S. and Gubar, S. The Madwoman in the Attic. United States of America: Yale University Press, 2000, p.89

Ambiguity in The Turn of the Screw

“The story won’t tell… not in any literal, vulgar way.”[1]

Published in 1898, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw has since been the subject of an enormous range of literary criticism as critics try to answer the novella’s most compelling question: are the ghosts real, or a figment of the governess’s imagination? Critic Edmund Wilson first proposed that the ghosts did not exist and were rather the result of a nervous hysteria afflicting the governess; the novella is not “a ghost story, but a madness story.”[2]

A pre-Freudian reading of The Turn of the Screw relies on the governess’s supposed sexual repression, that her actions throughout the narrative are driven by her hidden passions for her master. She only accepts the position because of her attraction to him, in fact she succumbs to his persuasiveness during the job interview, initiating the story. As her employer and a gentleman of higher social standing, a romantic relationship is ill-suited and Wilson claims this is the basis for the governess’s insanity. Victorian psychology supported this theory, with Thomas Laycock writing that stifled sexuality caused a variety of mental disorders:

The appetite for love is seated in the cerebellum, at the base of the brain; and when excited by any cause, it does, under certain circumstances, if not indulged, become greater and greater, until it induces derangement of various functions… Hysteria, in nine cases out of ten, arises from continence. [4]

Harold Goddard elaborates on this concept by proposing that the governess, in a desperate attempt to gain her master’s attention and affection, creates the ghosts in order to perform deeds of “extraordinary heroism or self-sacrifice”[5]. Her master had provided the stipulation that under no circumstance must he be contacted about the children so the governess requires a legitimate reason to contact him lest she appear incompetent in duties.  In order to meet the criteria of a heroine, and to perform some act of unexampled courage, the governess requires a villain, some form of evil which will threaten the safety of the children: thus her determination to absolve the children from the corruption of the ghosts is conceived.

According to Goddard, the governess’s youth and inexperience, her self-confessed feelings of agitation and the weighty responsibility of two young children constitute enough basis for a psychological breakdown, and he observes that the arrival of the letter informing of Miles’s unexplained dismissal from school is just “the touch of objectivity needed to set off the subconscious of the governess into an orgy of myth-making,”[6] noting that she ignores the more practical route of making enquiries into why he has been expelled in order to create scenario with enough significance to attract the attention of her employer. He makes explicit that although the ghosts do not exist, the governess does believe them to be real, in accordance to Esquirol’s research into the psychology of hallucinations:

There exists a certain for of delirium in which individuals believe that they perceive, sometimes by one sense, sometimes by another, and sometimes by several at once, while no external object is present to excite any sensation whatsoever.[7] 

Robert B. Heilman in ‘The Freudian Reading of The Turn of The Screw’ states that the affection the governess feels for her master is not repressed and therefore undermines the very foundation of Wilson and Goddard’s argument. He points out that Douglas reveals her feelings in the opening chapter, “she was in love”,[8]  and that the governess herself alludes to her feelings openly in conversations with Mrs. Grose. James’s choice to emphasise the governess’s dedication to her employer is a pragmatic one: her eagerness to please him by complying with his requirements keeps him away from Bly; his intervention would interrupt the narrative.  While contemporary medical discourse substantiates sexual repression as a cause of nervous disorders, Wilson and Goddard seem to neglect the fact that unrequited love is not the same as repressed love.

The governess is the only adult character who can see the ghosts, and a pre-Freudian analysis of The Turn of The Screw interprets this as evidence of their existence as a figment of her imagination.  However, Heilman explains this is a result of the governess’s perceptiveness, not insanity.  After seeing the ghost of Miss Jessel on the lake, the governess expresses her confusion and doubt, “the more I go over it the more I see in it, and the more I see in it the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see, what I don’t fear!”[9] While Wilson interprets this as a sign of her unreliability as a narrator, Heilman perceives it as testament to her astuteness. Mrs. Grose does not possess these qualities, and as a result she cannot see the ghosts for herself. Heilman brings attention to the significance of the characters’ names – Mrs. Grose embodies blissful ignorance; the governess, knowledge and tutelage. Mrs. Grose is the slow-witted foil to the governess’s acute sensitivity.


Heilman adds that neither Wilson nor Goddard’s arguments account for the children’s strange behaviour. While they defend the actions of the children as acting out of fear and confusion, they cannot explain their night time activities, their unusually sophisticated evasions when questioned by the governess, nor how Flora – a five-year old child – managed to row across the lake alone. This is “James’s subtlest ways of ways of suggesting moral disorder.”[10] Enendowing the governess with a hysterical disorder not only undermines the character’s noble attempts to absolve the children, but also labels her a murderer. In this interpretation, she is the cause of Miles’s death.

Elaborating on the work of Ernst Jentsch, Freud published Das UnHeimliche in 1919, opening up the scope of ways to interpret and read The Turn of The Screw. The uncanny “belongs to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread.”[11] The uncanny evokes a feeling of unease, repulsion and fear in a situation which is familiar. These feelings then convert that which is familiar into something unfamiliar, and that fright is caused precisely because it is both unknown and familiar.

The essential condition for the emergence of a sense of the uncanny is intellectual uncertainty. One would suppose, then, that the uncanny would always be an area in which the person was unsure of his way around: the better oriented he was in the world around him, the less likely he would be to find the objects and occurrences in it uncanny.[12]

As a young, inexperienced, middle-class girl from the country, the governess is an outsider thrust into the unfamiliar and intimidating domain of Bly estate. This lack of familiarity with her surroundings thus provides the disorientation Freud states is a condition necessary to invoke the uncanny. Upon meeting Flora and Miles, the governess is overwhelmed with how beautiful the children are, perfect in both appearance and behaviour, “I felt…that I had seen in him on the instant without and within, in the great glow of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity, in which I had from the first moment seen his little sister.”[13] Over time, their behaviour changes from that considered endearing to invoking a feeling of unease. Miles and Flora exhibit none of the boisterousness or playfulness of children so associated with children, so it is the contrast of their outward innocence with their measured speech and noislessness which evokes the suspicion of an evil within them.


Silence is one factor Freud attributes to causing a sense of uncanny: the absence of noise transforms a familiar scene into an unfamiliar one by depriving an auditory stimulus which is almost permanently present in all situations. Silence is employed effectively by James to invoke a sense of eerie, and usually precedes the appearance of a ghost. The first presence of the sinister occurs in the first chapter, “in the fading dusk the first birds began to twitter, for the possible recurrence of a sound or two, less natural and not without but within, that I had fancied I heard. There had been a moment when I believed I recognised, faint and far, the cry of a child.”[14] The effect of silence in this scene, according to Virginia Woolf, is that it “accumulates; it weighs us down; it makes us strangely apprehensive of noise.”[15]A scene where the use of silence elicits highly sinister tension takes place during the first encounter between the governess and the ghost of Peter Quint, “It was the dead silence of our long gaze at such close quarters that gave the whole horror, huge as it was, it’s only note of unnatural.”[16] It is the description of the silence, not the ghost, which provides the terror in this meeting.

Freud cites ‘the double’ or the ‘doppelganger’ as another feature which creates a sense of uncanny, “A person may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self; or he may substitute the other’s self for one’s own… The self may thus be duplicated, divided and interchanged.”[17] On an uneventful afternoon at Bly, the governess suddenly feels a compulsion to take a seat at the bottom of the staircase. She soon realises this is the very spot that she saw the apparition of her predecessor, “I had the extraordinary feeling that it was I who was in the intruder.”[18] This act of doubling, of mirroring Jessel in action, elicits a sense of uncanny from both the governess and us as the reader.

The framing of The Turn of the Screw in itself creates a sense of uncanny; by having a narrator recount the events at Bly years after they occurred- to an audience who were not there, uninvolved- places the reader at a distance, both in time and space. The story-within-a-story model and the ambiguity of the existence of the ghosts simultaneously distances the reader and draws them in closer. In order to interpret the story, the reader must become involved:

The most scandalous thing about this scandalous story is that we are forced to participate in the scandal, that the reader’s innocence cannot remain intact: there is no such thing as an innocent reader of this text. In other words, the scandal is not simply in the text, it resides in our relation to the text, in the texts effect on us, its readers: what is outrageous in the text is not simply that of which the text is speaking, but that which makes it speak to us.[19]

Tzvetan Todorov’s uncanny requires the supernatural and ghostly occurrences to have a rational justification. Thus Wilson and Goddard’s reading of The Turn of The Screw fulfils this prerequisite by providing a psychological explanation- the ghosts, while wholly existent in the mind of the governess, does not exist in the world she is inhabiting. However, Todorov’s criteria for a Pure Marvellous text is also qualified by the events in the novella, therefore it can be read as fitting the model of both. It is this straddling of the categories that ultimately places The Turn of The Screw in to the category of the Pure Fantastic, one of the few examples of literature Todorov provides due to the impossibility of “deciding between the possibilities of the narrating governess or the ghost-seeing children being mad.”[21]

Elaborating on Sartre’s assertion that “The fantastic is an entire world in which things manifest a captive, tormented thought… In this world, matter is never entirely matter, since it offers only a completely frustrated attempt at determinism, and mind is never completely mind, because it has fallen into slavery and has been impregnated and dulled by matter…”[22], Todorov stipulates three conditions which, in order to qualify as a Pure Fantastic, a text needs to meet. The first is that reader must hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events described. The second condition is that the character must also experience this hesitation; the governess, in expressing self-doubt and questioning her sanity, meets this criteria. Lastly, the reader must “adopt a certain attitude with regards to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations”.[23] The reason for the last stipulation, according to Jackson is because the fantastic “resists both the conceptualisations of the first and the metaphorical structures of the second.”[24]

Todorov’s classification of The Turn of The Screw is a neat solution for the ghost versus madness debate as interpretations for either case are abundant and effective in their argument. As it is impossible to decide conclusively due to the infuriating, or ingenious (depending how you read it) ambiguity of the text, Todorov’s model allows us to assign a label to a novella which has no definitive genre. It is worth noting, however, in a letter to Bernard Shaw, James’s own opinion on a rationalistic approach to his text:

“You don’t allow this adventurous and speculative imagination its rights. You simplify too much… when you limit the field of interest to what you call the scientific…it, I confess, confounds and bewilders me.”



Bourne Taylor, J. and Shuttleworth, S. Embodied Selves. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Esquirol, J.E.D., Treatise on Insanity. Great Britain: Forgotten Books, 2012.

Freud, S. The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Jackson, R. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998.

James, E. and Mendlesohn, F. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

James, H. The Turn of the Screw.  Edited by Deborah Esch & Jonathan Warren. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.

[1] James, H. The Turn of the Screw.  Edited by Deborah Esch & Jonathan Warren. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, ‘Preface to the Second Edition’, p.xi

[2] The Turn of The Screw, ‘Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice’, p.199

[3] The Turn of The Screw, p.5

[4] Bourne Taylor, J. and Shuttleworth, S. Embodied Selves. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p.189

[5] The Turn of The Screw, ‘A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw’, p.163

[6] The Turn of The Screw, ‘A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw’, p.162

[7] Esquirol, J.E.D., Treatise on Insanity. Great Britain: Forgotten Books, 2012, p.14

[8] The Turn of The Screw, p.2

[9] The Turn of The Screw, p.30

[10] The Turn of The Screw, ‘The Freudian Reading of The Turn of The Screw’, p.181

[11] Freud, S. The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books, 2003, p. 123

[12] The Uncanny, p.125

[13] The Turn of The Screw, p.9

[14] The Turn of The Screw, p.7-8

[15] The Turn of The Screw, ‘Henry James’s Ghosts’, p.159

[16] The Turn of The Screw, p.40

[17] The Uncanny, p.141

[18] The Turn of The Screw, p.57

[19] The Turn of The Screw, ‘Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice’, p.199

[20] The Turn of The Screw, ‘Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice’, p.202

[21] James, E. and Mendlesohn, F. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.102

[22] Jackson, R. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1998, p.20

[23] The Turn of The Screw, ‘The Fantastic’, p.193

[24] Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, p.41

[25] The Turn of The Screw, ‘From a Preface’, p.103

Women and Madness in Victorian Literature

Victorian Literature is rife with female characters who suffer, or at least appear to suffer, from a variety of mental illnesses. The condition of Hysteria and other related illnesses was specifically gendered as a female affliction, literally stemming from the womb and thus contemporary medical science methods of treating such disorders were focused on repressing her sexuality and regulating her monthly cycles.

Darwinian psychiatry attributed female biology, specifically the reproductive system, as the cause of perceived female intellectual inferiority. The Descent of Man presented persuasive scientific ‘evidence’ to prove men to be “superior to women in courage, energy, intellect, and inventive genius, and thus… art, science and philosophy.” In Principles of Psychology, Herbert Spencer reinforced this doctrine further by arguing that “human development depended on the expenditure of a fixed fund of energy. Since women depleted, or sacrificed, their energy in the reproductive process, they were heavily handicapped, even developmentally arrested, in intellectual competition.”

Victorian codes of social conduct required a passivity of women, heavily restricting their freedom in order to behave in a way deemed respectable and befitting of a genteel lady. Since contemporary medical science defined women in biologically terms as inherently and naturally inferior, an ostensibly legitimate basis was provided to ensure that women be assigned to the home with no life beyond that of marriage, child rearing and household duties. Any woman who transgressed this domestic role either through artistic self-expression, intellectual pursuits or by demonstrating an enjoyment of sex, found themselves vulnerable to being diagnosed as “mad”. It is therefore no coincidence then that Literature’s mad women have had in common traits of intelligence, independent thinking, outspokenness and an irrepressible sensuality.

In 1979, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar made a breakthrough in feminist criticism with their work The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. The authors use the figure of Bertha Mason as the so-called “Madwoman in the Attic” to make an argument about perceptions toward female literary characters during the time period. According to Gilbert and Gubar, all female characters in male-authored books can be categorized as either the “angel” or the “monster.”

The “angel” character was pure, dispassionate, and submissive; in other words, the ideal female figure in a male-dominated society. Interestingly, the term “angel” stems directly from Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem “The Angel in the House,” in which he described his docile and virtuous wife. In contrast to the “angel” figure, the “monster” female character was sensual, passionate, rebellious, and decidedly uncontrollable: all qualities that caused a great deal of anxiety among men during the Victorian period.

This limiting paradigm left women with only two choices: to act as “the angel in the house”- domestic, passive, placid or to deviate from such expectations and be “bad” or “mad”. Since a woman who cannot be contained within the bounds of what was considered “proper” femininity was labelled as such, you could argue that she was actually left with no choice.


Cleopatra is a woman with status: she commands others and is sovereign over herself. However, she lives in a man’s world and is therefore still limited by the stereotypes of female behaviour and subject to the codes of femininity valued by society in spite of her position as Queen of Egypt. Using Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes as his main source for Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare continues to articulate the reductive Roman view of Cleopatra as a whore. To illuminate her position as a woman, Shakespeare uses characters such as Enobarbus and Philo to express these views; they derisively challenge her right to self-sovereignty, suggesting that she thereby dominates a man, and forget her role as a political person. A sense of superiority permeates Enobarbus’s speeches, and his objectification of Cleopatra is evident when Antony despairs “Would I had never seen her!” (I.ii.138) to which Enobarbus responds, “O Sir, then you had left unseen a wonderful piece/ of work” (I.ii.139-40). In a scene abundant with crude references to sex, Enobarbus objectifies Cleopatra in spite of her status as a monarch. There are numerous references to Antony’s prowess as a fighter as he is referred to as “General” and “Mars”-Cleopatra, on the other hand, is never dignified with the title of queen.

The play opens with Philo describing Antony’s “dotage” (I.i.1) to Cleopatra and how it is causing him to abandon the masculine behaviour displayed in Julius Caesar. The use of the word “dotage” implicitly suggests Antony’s position of submission to Cleopatra, a humiliating relegation for one of the most powerful men in the world. He is abandoning his “captain’s heart” in order to “become the bellows and the fan/ To cool a gipsy’s lust” (I.i.9-10). The implication here is that Cleopatra is somehow weakening Antony by extinguishing his masculinity via the agency of her own sexuality.  To illustrate the extent of Cleopatra’s powers of effeminisation, Shakespeare continues with the imagery of the fan by introducing her being fanned by eunuchs- she is surrounded by men who have been symbolically and literally unmanned. Egypt itself is aligned with the feminine, represented as being warm and sensuous, in contrast to Rome’s cold, hard masculine.

Several characters in Antony and Cleopatra acknowledge Antony’s military ability and it is established that he was once the embodiment of the military ideal. As with Macbeth, Antony’s “valor” is praised. However, that very valiance is dissolving at the hands of Cleopatra and his passion for her is a sign of his weakness. In Rome, Caesar persuades Antony to marry his widowed sister Octavia by goading him with the insinuation that he is under Cleopatra’s control. Responding to Agrippa’s suggestion for the politically shrewd partnership, he mocks “Say not so Agrippa/ If Cleopatra heard you, your reproof/ Were well deserv’d of rashness.” (II.ii.125-8). Octavia is only described in conjunction with men, being identified as “Caesar’s sister. The wife of Antony” ( She also represents what Cleopatra is not: the model woman; submissive and apparently sexless, considering the short-lived union between her and Antony. Antony acknowledges the difference between the women when he soliloquises “though I make this marriage for my peace/ I’th East my pleasure lies” (II.iii. 38-9). Aristocratic marriages were organised to strengthen political allies and for economic gain, thus Antony’s subsequent abandonment of Octavia in favour of Cleopatra serves to demonstrate the loss of his political acumen previously displayed in Julius Caesar.

An anonymous pamphlet Hic mulier published in early seventeenth century condemned transvestism by attacking “Masculine-women”- women who don male attire and subsequently threaten to undermine patriarchal authority. There is an emphasis on the foreignness of these “monsters” who have “cast of the ornaments of their sexes to put on the garments of Shame”[4] with Egypt, in particular, being identified as a source of such immorality. This attitude contributed to the notoriety of the stage; lacking the respect of the classics of Greece and Rome, the status of Renaissance drama was insecure in the early seventeenth century and was frequently attacked for its “licentiousness, subversive role-playing, and social impropriety”.[5] Kim F. Hall writes that Shakespeare, in language typical of orientalist discourse, describes Cleopatra as having a “tawny front” (, because “Cleopatra is Egypt. As such… she embodies everything that is not English according to the nationalism that developed under Elizabeth.” This deepens Cleopatra’s otherness as well as the Romans’ anxiety towards her as she continually transgresses the codes of femininity to which she is expected to conform.

In contrast with Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra does not feel the need to “unsex” herself in order to wield political power, but rather embraces her sexuality and acts with the confidence of a self-assured woman.  It is the men in the play, representing the attitudes of patriarchal society, who cannot accept her. Harold Bloom notes that she is able to “reconcile both political authority and sexual independence without changing her true self.”  The fundamental core of Cleopatra’s power, beyond her beauty, charisma and self-assertion is her theatricality. Enobarbus describes how he once saw her

Hop forty paces through the public street,

And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,

The she did make defect perfection,

And breathless, pour breathe forth. (II.ii.235-38)


The strength of the effeminising power of her theatricality is demonstrated when she reminisces about the night she drank Antony to his bed and assumed his sword after dressing him in her female clothing

…That time? O times!

I laugh’d him out of patience; and that night

I laugh’d him into patience; and next morn

Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed;

Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst

I wore his sword Philippan. (II.v.18-23)

In wearing Antony’s clothes she is neither unsexing herself nor trying to be masculine but instead accomplishes androgyny. She combines both masculinity and femininity to represent an all-inclusive potentiality with no one side dominating the other.Cleopatra is unabashedly sexual, aggressive and quick-witted, demonstrating her wit when speaking with Octavian and displaying military bravery by participating in the battle at Actium. But she is at the same time girlish, sensuous and prone to fits of histrionics. Claire Kinney makes the point that Antony is not obliged to flee the battle at Actium to follow Cleopatra, but rather does so due to his refusal to consider her as a fellow soldier but as a bewitching woman in need of protection.[7] Bloom reinforces this by claiming “Antony does not lack courage, just judgement and erotic self-control.”[8]

In a world where swords are phalluses, Antony recognises his weakness and identifies Cleopatra as the cause

With half the bulk o’th world played as I pleased,

Making and marring fortunes. You did know

How much you were my conqueror, and that

My sword, made weak by my affection, would

Obey it on all cause.  (III.xi.63-7)He continues in the same vein later in the play; “O, thy vile lady!” he exclaims to Mardian, “has robbed me of my sword” (IV. xiv. 23-4). He, along with the other men in the play have failed to see Cleopatra as anything but a seductress as the combination of political and sexual, though acceptable in a man, is unforgivable in a woman. Yet Shakespeare created her as more complex, providing the audience with “an enigmatic range of possibility in judgements and interpretation”[10]. Her final act is to thwart Octavius’s plans by committing suicide, refusing to be reduced to “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/ I’th posture of a whore” (V.ii.216-217).

[1] Singh, J. “The Politics of Empathy in Antony and Cleopatra: A View from Below”, p.413

[2] Dash, I. “Union of Roles: Antony and Cleopatra”. Bloom, H. Major Literary Characters: Cleopatra. New York: Chelsea House Publications, 1990, p.134

[3] Levine, L. Men in Women’s Clothing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.46

[4] “Hic mulier” or “The man-woman: being a medicine to cure the coltish disease of the staggers in the masculine-feminines of our times.” Shakespeare, W. Edited by Loomba, A. Antony and Cleopatra. London: W.W. Norton, 2011, p.164

[5] Roberts, S. “Reading Shakespeare’s Tragedies of Love in Early Modern England”. Dutton, R. and Howard, J.E. A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Tragedies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006, p.110

[6] Levine, L. “Antony and Cleopatra and the story of the dissolving warrior”. Levine, L. Men in Women’s Clothing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.49

[7] Kinney, C. “The Queen’s Two Bodies and The Divided Empire”. Haselkorn, A. The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print. Boston:University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, p.179

[8] Bloom, H. “Antony and Cleopatra”. The Invention of the Human. London: Fourth Estate Limited, 1999, p.556

[9] Deng, S. “Healing angels and ‘golden blood’: money and mystical kingship in Macbeth”. Cunningham, J. Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Modern Critical Theory. London: Associated University Press, 1997, p.163

[10] Bloom, H. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. London: Fourth Estate Limited, 1999.

Goneril & Regan

Despite their secondary role to the male protagonists of Shakespeare’s tragedies, women play a crucial role as they serve as the source of the hero’s downfall. The chaos of King Lear begins when his daughters refuse to comply with the codes of femininity. The paradox then is that “the masculinity of the tragic heroes is vulnerable, dependent on women’s confirmation and approval.”[1] When their masculinity is challenged, as when Cordelia refuses to comply with Lear’s demand for a show of devotion, characters descend into rage, tyranny or madness.

Lear displays his inadequacy as a King is by choosing to divide his kingdom amongst his daughters. In a service culture, focus is on collective good in the public sphere as opposed to the personal gain in the domestic, thus Lear’s disregard for the effect this decision will have on his kingdom is a sign of his effeminacy. The True Law of Free Monarchies, written while he was still King of Scotland, was a treatise written by King James I containing his ideals of kingship and possibly influenced Shakespeare when writing King Lear. It presents the monarch as the “father” of the kingdom, with his subjects being his “children”. King Lear can be seen as an exalted version of the domestic tragedy, serving as a warning to wives and daughters of the consequences of disobedience.

Again, gender roles within the play are blurred. Both Goneril and Regan are “assertive, nonnutritve, uncompassionate, interested in power, prowess and status.”[2] They refuse to be passive and instead act in order fulfil their desires, both in public and private spheres. The sisters surpass Lady Macbeth in violence as they physically commit murder, and demonstrate adulterous lust in their desire of Edmund. Misogyny is evident throughout the play, usually accompanying sexual disgust. Upon reading Goneril’s letter to Edmund, Edgar exclaims “O distinguishe’d space of woman’s will!” ( French observes that the association of powerful women with a sexuality felt to be abhorrent and terrifying is “characteristically Shakespearean.”[3]

Albany chastises Edmund as a traitor, yet reserves his most severe admonishments for Goneril who he calls “Most monstrous!”(V.iii.160) and “A gilded serpent” (V.iii.85). No male is condemned as Goneril is condemned since “a woman who refuses to uphold the feminine principle topples the natural order and plunges the world into chaos.[4] Women threaten the world in a way men do not- their misdeeds are always interpreted as supernaturally evil or fiendish. Goneril berates her husband and calls him a “milk livered man” (IV.ii.50) and, by casting her father out of her home, emasculates him by stripping him of power and dignity. After reducing his retinues of knights, Lear tells Goneril “That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus” (I.iv.280). Lear feels impotent as his status as King defined him as a man; in response, he calls upon nature to curse Goneril in the worst way possible for a woman

Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! (I.iv.258-64)

Since a woman’s social economy was based on her fertility and eligibility as a wife, removing her of her reproductive function equated to rendering her powerless.  Lear believes nature is his ally, a “divine justice”[5]He blames his eldest daughter’s malice on sexual promiscuity by likening her to some sort of venereal disease

We’ll no more meet, no more see one another:
But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;
Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil,
A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood. (II.iv.29)

Lear fails to accept the possibility that his shortcomings as a father may be responsible for his daughter’s behaviour and instead lays fault at the girl’s mother- the source of the “corruption” in his blood. The same imagery is used later in the play

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above; But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’;
There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit,
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah! (

Lear is consumed by a fear of effeminacy and observes of his own impending hysteria, “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!/ Hysteria passio, down thy climbing sorrow,/ The element’s below” (II.iv.54-6). Contemporary medical discourse considered hysteria to be a feminine disease, physically stemming from the uterus. Lear associates his uncontrollable rage with the emotional excess of a woman. The fool misogynistically, yet accurately, assigns the beginning of Lear’s madness as the moment when “thou mad’st thy/ daughters thy mothers; for when thou gav’st them the rod/ and put’st down thine own breeches” (1.iv.154-156).

As with Scotland in the world of Macbeth, King Lear’s England is thrown into disarray, as “nature… pursues a murderous revenge against patriarchy.”[6] The model of the family has broken down and as a consequence, the world in which the play inhabits has been thrown into disorder.

[1] Traub, V. “Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare”. Grazia, M. and Wells, S. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p.135

[2] “The Late Tragedies” p.254

[3] “The Late Tragedies” p.259

[4] “The Late Tragedies” p.256

[5] “The Late Tragedies”, p.246

[6] Gilbert, S. and Gubar, S. The Madwoman in the Attic. London: Yale University Press, 1979, p.296

Lady Macbeth

The world of Macbeth is violent: he is introduced when King Duncan asks “What bloody man is that?” (I.ii.5). In a culture that values butchery, power is equated with the ability to kill and thus Macbeth is esteemed for his prowess as a soldier, especially by King Duncan who refers to him as a “Valiant cousin, worthy gentleman!” (I.ii.24), and “valour’s minion” (I.ii.19).

Macbeth’s first act upon hearing the witches’ prophecy is to write a letter informing his wife of the encounter as he considers her his “dearest partner of greatnesse” (I.v.9-10). However, it is his devotion to Lady Macbeth and the influence she exerts over him that lead to his downfall. Robert N. Watson writes that

She will abandon her maternal role in the nursery in favour of the phallic role in the bedroom. To engineer their rebirths as monarchs, she and her husband will perform a forbidden deed on the paternal Duncan, under a blanket that leaves us uncertain whether the deed is essentially sexual, or essentially violent.[1]

Lady Macbeth anticipates that her husband will hesitate to kill King Duncan as he is innately “too full o’th milk of human kindness” (I.v.14). To convince him to commit murder she must deploy her own weapon: the “valor” of her “tongue” (I.v.25). Macbeth’s “valor” lies in is his talent as a soldier; his wife’s is the ability to manipulate and scheme.  Macbeth’s reluctance exposes Lady Macbeth’s determination and resolve to go through with their plan. Jean Howard explains that

It was commonplace of early modern thought that mannish women- that is those who assume the prerogatives of men… emerge when men are womanish and fail to assert control over their wives and daughters.[2]

By questioning his manhood, “Are thou afeard/ To be the same in thine own act and valor/ As thou art in desire?”(I.vii.39-41), Lady Macbeth shames her husband into action by belittling his masculinity, equating his lack of resolve as the behaviour of a woman: “When you durst do it, then you were a man” (I.vii.56). It is clear from his reluctance that Macbeth could be dissuaded from regicide yet his failure to disregard his wife’s judgement is his ultimate weakness.

In preparation for the murder they are planning in pursuit of power, Lady Macbeth compels the spirits to “unsex” her (, to “make thick” her blood ( 41) and to exchange her “milk for gall” ( She wants to eradicate her femininity in order to steel herself against the “compunctious visitings of nature” ( lest she be deterred from murder by the milk- the feminine attribute- of human kindness.[3] Lady Macbeth’s womanhood hinders her: it is a weakness in a land where manliness is the highest standard of behaviour. Watson suggests that Lady Macbeth specifically requests for her menstruation to cease, that the “visitings of nature” ( refer not only to feelings of compassion or guilt but also to her monthly menstrual cycle.[4]  Her rejection of femininity is compounded by a complete lack of maternal instinct, as revealed by her admission that

…I have given suck and know

How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me;

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums

And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this.  (I.vii.54-9.)

The Macbeths stand alone as a childless couple amongst families and we discover that their childlessness is not due to an incapacity to bear children on her part, as we have discovered she has previously mothered a child. Therefore their childlessness point to a sense of abnormality since childbirth, for women, was the ultimate “accomplishment of the law of nature”.[5] Harry Levin proposes that part of Lady Macbeth’s power is rooted in her sexuality, as “the closeness of their complimentary relationship seems strongly reinforced by the sexual bond between them. Three of their exit lines emphasise their going to bed together.”[6] Like Gertrude to Claudius, she is the sexual prize for committing regicide. Their sexuality serves to make their childlessness even more unnatural, especially when Lady Macbeth is contrasted to Lady Macduff who is the prototypical woman: she is a mother first and foremost, nurturing and self-sacrificing. Unlike Lady Macbeth, her sexuality is not menacing as “the production of children is not seen as the result of multiple sexual acts, but as a duty and function of a wife.” Female sexuality is acceptable so long as it takes place within a marriage and results in childbirth: it is the sexuality of the childless Lady Macbeth; the flagrant Cleopatra, and the adulterous Goneril and Regan that is problematic.

Though it is Macbeth and not his wife who commits murder, in Shakespeare’s eyes it is Lady Macbeth who is “fiend-like” (V.vii.99): Macbeth has violated moral law; Lady Macbeth has violated a natural one. Her crimes are more atrocious as she disrupts her expected social role to uphold the feminine principle. For her, “this failure plunges her more deeply into a pit of evil than any man can ever fall.”[8] This is made explicit after the murder of King Duncan which is described as “a breach in nature” (II.iii.111) and consequently unnatural events follow: a falcon is attacked by a female owl and King Duncan’s horses are out of control. Equilibrium is only restored when the Macbeth’s plans ultimately fail and they are punished with deaths appropriate to their gender. Lady Macbeth is tortured with guilt and deteriorates into insanity which was perceived as a woman’s disease. During the scene in which Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost, his erratic behaviour prompts Lady Macbeth to ask, “Are you a man?” (III.iv.59) and it is only after Banquo’s ghost exits that Macbeth can declare, “I am a man again” (III.iv.110). Macbeth on the other hand, is dignified with a death worthy of a soldier; he refuses to yield to Macduff and is slain on the battle field, sword in hand. His bravery in death restores his manhood and Scotland is at peace, asserting Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s assertion that “It is Macbeth, after all, who is noble; Lady Macbeth is a monster.”[10]

[1] Watson, R.N. “Thriftless Ambition: Foolish Wishes, and the Tragedy of Macbeth” [1] Bloom, H. Modern Critical Interpretations: Macbeth. New York: Chelsea House Publications, 1987, p.141

[2]  Engendering a Nation, p.72

[3] “Thriftless Ambition: Foolish Wishes, and the Tragedy of Macbeth”, p.132

[4] “Thriftless Ambition: Foolish Wishes, and the Tragedy of Macbeth”, p.140

[5] Bourne Taylor, J. and Shuttleworth, S. Embodied Selves. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p.189

[6] “Thriftless Ambition: Foolish Wishes, and the Tragedy of Macbeth”, p.122

[7] “The Late Tragedies” p.266

[8] “The Late Tragedies” p.266

[9] “The Late Tragedies” p.268

[10] Gilbert, S. and Gubar, S. The Madwoman in the Attic. London: Yale University Press, 1979, p.68

Sexuality and Gender in the Tragedies of Shakespeare

On the construction of masculinity and femininity in Renaissance England, Rebecca Ann Bach asserts that “were no firm biological distinctions between men and women”[1] but rather

Manhood was measured in terms of its relation to femininity, but it was also measured in terms of rank, service relations (duty), bravery, adherence to religious codes, age, nationality and race. Manhood had to be achieved in Shakespeare’s England.[2]

Accordingly, men who violated the codes of masculinity were subsequently deemed effeminate. In contrast with today’s dominant culture in which heterosexual desire is associated with manliness, Renaissance codes of behaviour considered sexual lust for woman as the sign of an effeminate man. The disapproval of desire between men and women was rooted in Shakespeare’s service culture,[3] the implication being that expressing love and desire for a woman put a man in the position of serving her, and since women were of lower social status than men, such service degraded him.

There was an anxiety towards women with power, with John Knox declaring that female rule was unnatural, even monstrous.

Whatsoever repugneth to the will of God expressed in his most sacred word, repugneth to justice: but that women have authoritie over men repugneth to the will of God expressed in his word… all such authority repugneth to justice.[4]

Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Goneril and Regan are characters who, in the pursuit of power, transgress their expected gender roles to the detrimental effect of the male characters around them. Since power was ultimately a male privilege, the steps necessary to acquire it- and subsequently maintain it- led to them inevitably adopting the behaviour associated with masculinity and abandoning the codes of femininity.

Kate Horney sums up the power struggle of the sexes as thus:

At any given time, the more powerful side will create an ideology suitable to help maintain its position and to make this position acceptable to the weaker one. In this ideology the differences of the weaker one will be interpreted as inferiority, and it will be proven that these differences are unchangeable, basic or God’s will. It is the function of such an ideology to deny or conceal the existence of a struggle.[5]

As patriarchal society is predicated on the difference between the sexes, men and women must conform to their expected roles in order to maintain this difference. To rebel or to transgress this is to threaten the balance of the power and subsequently, those who possess power. Shakespeare’s dramatic action is dependent on conflict so his tragedies focus on social disorder whereby the protagonists are thrown into some sort of chaos, often expressed through the upturn of the gender hierarchy. Because the protagonists of his tragedies are high ranking, sometimes even royal, conflict transcends the domestic sphere and disrupts entire kingdoms.

[1] Bach, R.A. “Manliness Before Individualism: Masculinity, Effeminacy, and Homoerotics in Shakespeare’s History Plays”. Dutton, R. and Howard, J.E. A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Histories. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006, p.220

[2] “Manliness Before Individualism: Masculinity, Effeminacy, and Homoerotics in Shakespeare’s History Plays”, p.220

[3] “Manliness Before Individualism: Masculinity, Effeminacy, and Homoerotics in Shakespeare’s History Plays”, p.221

[4] “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women”, Shakespeare, W. Edited by Loomba, A. Antony and Cleopatra. London: W.W. Norton, 2011, p.162

[5] Horney, K. Feminine Psychology. New York: W.W. Norton, 1973, p.116.