Becomes a Woman Best: Female Prophetic Figures in Shakespeare's Plays
Cochrum, Alan Morris
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This dissertation argues that female characters in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Henry VIII, Richard III, Macbeth, and 1 Henry VI function as prophets in the style of the Old Testament. In a culture that venerates Holy Writ but also devalues women, a dramatic exemplar wrapped in the mantle of a biblical prophet becomes a potential model for playgoers as well as an embodied critique. Paulina, Katherine of Aragon, and Margaret of Anjou condemn injustice, uphold the cause of the vulnerable, challenge the abuse of royal and spiritual authority, and frequently echo aspects of biblical figures such as Moses, Isaiah, and Amos. In so doing, these women and the plays of which they are a part highlight the ability of women to point out the misuse of political power as well as women’s vulnerability to marital wrongdoing—and their capacity to resist it. However, the plays also demonstrate that women, like men, are subject to the temptation to use force and power wrongfully; in yielding to that temptation, they compromise their ability to speak out credibly. In addition to female prophetic figures who “speak truth to power,” Shakespeare also creates characters who act as “false prophets”—Lady Macbeth, the Weird Sisters, and Joan Puzel promote the veneration of ambition and press the cause of political upheaval. Aside from clarifying the possibility of greater female agency and pointing out its potential pitfalls, this reading of the plays also underlines the complex picture of Catholicism that emerges on Shakespeare’s stage. Although 1 Henry VI and Macbeth echo fears of “popery” as a theological and political threat to an officially Protestant England, Henry VIII presents a positive view of a Catholic and Spanish-born queen, and Joan Puzel is a French antagonist capable of engending respect. This study thus enlarges academia’s understanding of the intersection of stage and Scripture, contributing to scholarship on women and religion in the early modern world.