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The Tainted Muse: Prejudice and Presumption in Shakespeare and His Time


This book is a masterful and engaging exploration of both Shakespeare's works and his age. Concentrating on six recurring prejudices in Shakespeare’s plays—such as misogyny, elitism, distrust of effeminacy, and racism—Robert Brustein examines how Shakespeare and his contemporaries treated them. More than simply a thematic study, the book reveals a playwright constantly exploiting and exploring his own personal stances. These prejudices, Brustein finds, are not unchanging; over time they vary in ...

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This book is a masterful and engaging exploration of both Shakespeare's works and his age. Concentrating on six recurring prejudices in Shakespeare’s plays—such as misogyny, elitism, distrust of effeminacy, and racism—Robert Brustein examines how Shakespeare and his contemporaries treated them. More than simply a thematic study, the book reveals a playwright constantly exploiting and exploring his own personal stances. These prejudices, Brustein finds, are not unchanging; over time they vary in intensity and treatment. Shakespeare is an artist who invariably reflects the predilections of his age and yet almost always manages to transcend them.

Brustein considers the whole of Shakespeare's plays, from the early histories to the later romances, though he gives special attention to Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and The Tempest. Drawing comparisons to plays by Marlowe, Middleton, and Marston, Brustein investigates how Shakespeare’s contemporaries were preoccupied with similar themes and how these different artists treated the current prejudices in their own ways. Rather than confining Shakespeare to his age, this book has the wonderful quality of illuminating both what he shared with his time and what is unique about his approach.

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Editorial Reviews

Dramatics Magazine
"Especially smart, provocative, and engaging....readers can enjoy the author's wicked political wit....[and his] tough but nuanceed commentary." —Dramatics
Folger Magazine

"[A] thoughtful analysis of perennially provocative issues."—Amy Arden, Folger Magazine

— Amy Arden

Theatre Journal

“Brustein’s great strength is his historical approach to Shakespeare . . . When [he] focuses on the recurring prejudices in Shakespeare’s works and in his time, his readings of these cankerous and often eruptive moments are astute, witty, political, modern, inspired, and brilliant.”—Colleen E. Kennedy, Theatre Journal

— Colleen E. Kennedy

American Theater

"Fascinating to read."—Gerald Weales, American Theater

— Gerald Weales

Christopher Walken
“A wonderful book—once again Robert Brustein gives us fresh insights and new information in a most entertaining way.”—Christopher Walken, actor
Carey Perloff
“Brustein’s lucid and immensely readable study invites us to encounter Shakespeare’s plays as reflections of a man wrestling both with his society and with the failures and longing of his own spirit.”—Carey Perloff, Artistic Director, American Conservatory Theater
Bill Rauch
“By exploring the possibility of Shakespeare’s own personal prejudices, Robert Brustein pulls off the miracle of making him even more human in our eyes.”—Bill Rauch, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Robert Pack
“Readers of Robert Brustein's books will welcome this tough-minded analysis of Shakespeare's plays and the prejudices of his age. Brustein's bold and brilliant book is must reading for Shakespeare's most ardent admirers as well as for those who are troubled by some of Shakespeare's views on sex, race, and religion.”—Robert Pack, author of Willing to Choose: Volition and Choice in Shakespeare’s Plays
Morris Dickstein
“As a panoramic view of Shakespeare’s universe as it evolved from the early history plays and Marlowe imitations to mature comedies, searing tragedies, and relatively benign, autumnal romances, this book is an unalloyed pleasure.”—Morris Dickstein, Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Stephen Greenblatt
"An exemplary work of criticism and appreciation"—Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard University
James Carroll
The Tainted Muse is an untainted lens through which to see Shakespeare as never before—what sets him firmly apart from us, and also what makes him more ours than ever. An elegant argument, a profound elucidation, and a stirring appreciation—yet another indispensable Brustein achievement.”—James Carroll, author of House of War
Folger Magazine - Amy Arden
"[A] thoughtful analysis of perennially provocative issues."—Amy Arden, Folger Magazine
Theatre Journal - Colleen E. Kennedy
“Brustein’s great strength is his historical approach to Shakespeare . . . When [he] focuses on the recurring prejudices in Shakespeare’s works and in his time, his readings of these cankerous and often eruptive moments are astute, witty, political, modern, inspired, and brilliant.”—Colleen E. Kennedy, Theatre Journal
American Theater - Gerald Weales
"Fascinating to read."—Gerald Weales, American Theater
Dramatics Magazine

"Especially smart, provocative, and engaging....readers can enjoy the author''s wicked political wit....[and his] tough but nuanceed commentary." —Dramatics

Library Journal

Brustein, the founding director of the Yale and American Repertory theater, admits to riding the wave of recently published books that attempt to analyze the inner workings of the Bard's mind. He argues that though Shakespeare's writing transcended its time in many ways, its timelessness is nonetheless undermined by "hidden imposthumes," or secret obsessions, common during his lifetime. With commendable thoroughness, Brustein traces the progression of these six imposthumes (misogyny, effeminacy, machismo, elitism, racism, and religion) chronologically through all of Shakespeare's work. In a direct rebuff to many critics and scholars who have long maintained that Shakespeare shared many modern values and ideals, Brustein argues that this conceit is possible only by pulling him out of historical context. His text is liberally laced with quotations by Shakespeare's contemporaries to this effect, making it possible to judge how he reflected his time and yet remained the singular writer he actually was. Ultimately (and convincingly), he implies that these insights should increase rather than diminish our appreciation for the man and his oeuvre. Highly recommended for all academic libraries.
—Megan Hodge

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300115765
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/23/2009
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Brustein was founding director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and of the American Repertory Theatre and was drama critic for the New Republic for almost fifty years. He is the author of six plays, eleven adaptations, and sixteen books, including The Theater of Revolt and Millennial Stages: Essays and Reviews, 2001–2005, published by Yale University Press. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Read an Excerpt

The Tainted Muse

Prejudice and Presumption in Shakespeare and His Time
By Robert Brustein

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Robert Brustein
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11576-5

Chapter One


But to the girdle do the gods inherit; Beneath is all the fiends'. -King Lear,

The quotation belongs to a British king, but the words could have come from the mouth of a Danish prince. Nowhere is Shakespearean sex hatred expressed more openly than in the play he called Hamlet, and nowhere more forcefully than in the colloquy between Hamlet and Ophelia in act III, scene i.

In this scene, Ophelia has been enjoined by Polonius and Claudius to encounter Hamlet, while they secretly look on, in order to discover the root cause of his mysterious melancholy. The torrent of abuse Hamlet subsequently pours on this hapless woman, and not just on her but on her entire sex, is shocking in view of their past relationship, though it would hardly have shocked many of Shakespeare's misogynistic contemporaries. Let us look at this peculiar outburst, first in the context of the play, and later in its historical context.

I have seen any number of brilliant actors undertake the scene: John Gielgud singing it, Leslie Howard purring it, Laurence Oliviershouting it, Richard Burton barking it, Nicol Williamson nasalizing it, Mark Rylance (in pajamas) sleepwalking through it, Simon Russell Beale camping it-none can soften its unbridled cruelty. After denying the truth of an obvious fact, that he had ever given her gifts, Hamlet assails Ophelia with repeated negations of any links between beauty and honesty, or for that matter between women and chastity-"for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof" (III.i.113-16). What was a paradox in the Golden Age has now been proven truth, and not just truth but, even more poignantly, truism, undermining all traditional Platonic links regarding inward and outward beauty. Claiming that he never loved Ophelia, exhorting her to breed no more sinners like himself, Hamlet urges her to enter a nunnery. Only in a cell sheltered against unchaste behavior can beauty be cloistered from corruption.

Some critics have suggested that Hamlet is using nunnery here in its colloquial Elizabethan meaning, as a whorehouse, but that makes nonsense of the scene. He is clearly warning Ophelia either to find refuge in the celibate life or risk falling victim to the "paradox" of the time, the contamination of a fair outside by inward lust and lechery. Can beauty ever coexist with purity? The answer is moot. Beauty by its very nature invites abuse. The plague Hamlet gives Ophelia "as a dowry" is that no matter how "pure" she may be, she will not escape "calumny." Ironically, Hamlet himself has become her chief calumniator. If women are to be slandered and defamed, it will be by the likes of him.

Hamlet completes his dowry of plagues by showering insults upon Ophelia, indeed upon her entire sex, for "painting" or using makeup, dancing, behaving seductively, and (in a curious anticlimax) nicknaming God's creatures. These "vices" he identifies as the cause not only of his despair but also of his weakened mental state-"Go to, I'll no more on't. It hath made me mad" (III.i.145-46). He concludes by calling for a moratorium on future marriages. All but one already wedded couple "shall live. The rest shall keep as they are" (147-48). The exception to this universal divorce, of course, is Claudius and Gertrude, who will not be "allowed to live" as husband and wife, or, in the case of Claudius, as a mortal being. Again exhorting Ophelia to withdraw to a nunnery, he makes his exit, leaving the girl shaken and in tears. How to explain this peculiar outburst by a man thought to be in the very "ecstasy" of love?

The most common explanation is Freudian. Hamlet, having interpreted Gertrude's "o'er hasty marriage" as a form of infidelity dishonoring not only her husband but her son, generalizes it into a common failing of every woman, including Ophelia herself. It has also been suggested (and enacted in Olivier's film version) that Hamlet knows that Ophelia has been functioning as a stalking horse for Claudius and reacts as if to a personal betrayal. But if this were true, Shakespeare, who is never hesitant to indicate when conversations are being overheard (as, for example, when Othello eavesdrops on Cassio and Iago), would surely have suggested as much. No, the verbal assault on Ophelia can best be interpreted as another expression of Hamlet's belief in the undependability of womankind, motivated in turn by his anguish over his mother's adulterous behavior. His obscene exchanges with Ophelia during the play-within-the-play, when he is lying with "my head upon your lap," punning about what lies between "maids' legs" (III.ii.103, 107), constitute yet another instance of his denigration of the female sex in general and Ophelia in particular, with Gertrude's hasty marriage as the motive: "For look you how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within's two hours" (114-15).

Is Ophelia a virgin? Hamlet says she is, but addresses her as he would his whore. At least one version of the play (the Kenneth Branagh film) includes a flashback showing the two of them making love. Whatever happened in the past, however, Ophelia now evokes only Hamlet's anger and sex nausea. When she remarks on his comments regarding "The Murder of Gonzago"-"You are as good as a chorus"-he responds with coarse innuendo: "I could interpret between you and your love, if I could see the puppets dallying." When she remarks on his keen wit, he responds with obscene sneers: "It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge" (III.ii.224-26, 228). Hamlet naturally assumes that-like his mother-Ophelia will have multiple husbands.

When Hamlet, bypassing Claudius at his prayers, goes to Gertrude's closet to rebuke his mother for adultery and lust, his generalizing instinct at last has found a more appropriate target. He offers to set up a glass where she will see her "inmost part," not a self-regarding mirror reflecting cosmetic surfaces but the face of reality itself. He is so intent on showing her the spiritual reflection of her tainted soul that even his rash and inadvertent murder of Polonius fails to interrupt his moral hectoring. For him, at the peak of his fury, a murder is less deplorable than an adultery, for the adultery is incomprehensible. He will not call it love, for "at your age the heyday in the blood is tame, it's humble" (III.iv.67-68), and it is not reason either, for sense would reserve some quality of choice. Eager to endorse his culture's identification of women and demonic spirits, Hamlet charges that only the devil could allow Gertrude to live

In the rank sweat of an enseam? bed, Stewed in corruption, honeying, and making love Over the nasty sty. (82-84)

The closet scene contains some of the nastiest examples of sex nausea in the language, among them images of mildew, blisters, ulcers, infection, rankness, and contagion. This is a man for whom sexuality no longer holds a hint of pleasure or love or healthy human connection.

When Ophelia goes mad, "divided from herself and her fair judgment" (IV.v.81), she becomes as sex-obsessed as Hamlet. Indeed, in Ingmar Bergman's 1988 production, the whole court is sex-obsessed. Claudius takes Gertrude from behind in full view of the court, and in the prayer scene is seen cavorting with a besotted hag who turns out to be the Player Queen, her lipstick-smeared face fixed in a grotesque drunken grin. As for Bergman's Ophelia, she falls into a degenerative psychosis-mutilating her hair with a dangerous pair of shears and distributing heavy iron nails in place of flowers. Ophelia's elegies for her father alternate with bawdy songs riddled with sexual puns and phallic allusions ("Young men will do't if they come to't, / By cock, they are to blame" [59-60]). The songs also acknowledge that premarital sex can invalidate marriage vows:

Quoth she, "Before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed," "So would I 'a done by yonder sun, An thou hadst not come to my bed." (61-64)

No such obstacle prevented the marriage of Shakespeare himself, who tumbled Anne Hathaway and then fulfilled his wedding promise when she was three months pregnant. But the Valentine maid of the song enters as a virgin at her lover's door and leaves as a castaway, discarded in the same way that Hamlet rejects Ophelia.

At her funeral ceremony, Hamlet publicly swears he loved Ophelia, but he has shown little sign of that in the play. After killing Polonius, in the mistaken belief that he is killing Claudius, he calls the father of his former love "a foolish prating knave" (III.iv.189), demeans his corpse as "guts" to be "lug[ged]" into the neighboring room, and fails to apologize for, or even mention, the murder to his grief-stricken daughter. Except for that odd early moment Ophelia describes in act II, when Hamlet comes to her, "doublet all unbraced ... pale as his shirt" (II.i.79-82), as if mourning his lost passion, she functions mainly as a conduit for his hatred of her sex. Bergman's Peter Stormare caught this quality exactly, playing Hamlet as an edgy, agitated, entirely unpleasant brute, who mauls and almost rapes Ophelia in the play scene. Claudius is correct to reject the spurned-lover motive for Hamlet's madness: "Love? His affections do not that way tend" (III.i.161).

Indeed, there is a real question whether Hamlet's melancholy state of mind permits him to have erotic feelings at all. At her graveside, he expresses hyperbolic grief. And leaping into her grave after Laertes, he shouts,

I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not, with all their quantity of love, Make up my sum. (V.i.254-56)

He goes on to enumerate all the extreme things he would do to prove his love, including burying himself alive with her corpse. Yet when the scene is over, he does not appear to give Ophelia another thought, being more concerned with informing Horatio about the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Nor does he drop a tear either for these old, albeit treacherous, school chums, showing as little remorse over their executions as he did over Polonius after stabbing him through the arras-much less over the death of the one woman he claims to have loved, and drove to a watery grave.

Commentators have given this play a very special place in Shakespeare's works, regarding Hamlet as a particular kind of sex-obsessed melancholiac. But although Hamlet's motiveless brutalizing of Ophelia is the clearest expression of misogyny in Shakespeare's works, it is far from the only example. From this point on, there is hardly a single play that does not contain some expression of animus against women. And although the charges are more often baseless than not, and the woman is innocent, they echo Hamlet's obsession in intensifying form. No doubt, these sentiments belong first and foremost to the characters Shakespeare created. But let us acknowledge that they have also been inhaled from the cultural air, and, if we are to credit the biographical nature of the sonnets, that they may have been disturbing the peace of the playwright himself. That such feelings are expressed so nakedly in the sonnets, the most autobiographical of his writings, where (in his persona as "Will") Shakespeare inveighs against the faithless woman commonly known as the Dark Lady, would suggest that Shakespeare's misogyny had a personal as well as a literary stimulus.

Of course, it would be absurd to suggest that all of Shakespeare's women are objects of suspicion, or that all of his sexual relationships are tainted. Only the faithless female characters-or those assumed to be faithless, however wrongly-arouse the scorn of their husbands or lovers and stimulate their misogyny. "'Tis brief, my lord," says Ophelia, referring to an actor's prologue (III.ii.137-38). "As woman's love," replies Hamlet, referring to a woman's inconstancy ("Frailty, thy name is woman" [I.ii.146]). But when a woman's love is steady and honest-when, like Viola, she is willing to wait for her lover "like patience on a monument"-Shakespeare will regard her as an almost holy vessel.

Being examples of spotless women, falsely accused, such characters as Desdemona and Ophelia run the risk of displaying a cloistered virtue, lacking a strong feminine dynamic. But there are few more appealing women in literature than Shakespeare's heroines, Desdemona and Ophelia included, and rarely because they are demure or feminine. Shakespeare obviously admired (indeed, he may have invented) the literary type that Bernard Shaw would centuries later call "the unwomanly woman"-that witty, independent, spirited heroine personified by Rosalind in As You Like It, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Helena in All's Well That End's Well, and pre-eminently perhaps by Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, in Antony and Cleopatra-whose chief quality is her refusal to be defined by male concepts of virtue and domesticity. And he often endorsed, though not without a touch of irony, the conventions of Petrarchan courtly love, along with its idealized bucolic variant, pastoral romance.

At the same time, an astonishing number of his male characters continue to express a powerful anti-Petrarchan revulsion against any woman who deviates from the strict prevailing views of female virtue, while the sexual love he dramatizes as taking place at court is usually identified with adultery. (As for Shakespeare's pastoral lovers, they sometimes seem like the "country copulatives" dismissively described by Touchstone in As You Like It (V.iv.53). Shakespeare's more misogynistic passages, framed in language as extreme as any in the time, are stimulated not only by such "lustful" creatures as Gertrude in Hamlet and Cressida in Troilus and Cressida. They touch such supremely chaste women as Desdemona (Othello), Imogen (Cymbeline), and Hermione (The Winter's Tale), and, of course, Ophelia. The accusations against the particular woman, however mistaken, almost always become attacks upon the entire sex. Thus while a misogynistic character, such as Othello or Leontes, may ultimately be disabused of his libels on his innocent woman victim, his more general accusations continue to linger in the tainted air.

But this chapter is not about the extraordinary appeal of Shakespeare's heroines, which has been sufficiently celebrated elsewhere; rather, it is an account of his numerous sexist assaults on their imagined (and sometimes real) departures from virtue. This fixation, which I have called The Hamlet Obsession, appears most often in Shakespeare's later career, though even in an early romantic tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet a character like Mercutio will ironically deprecate some of the very women the playwright would later celebrate, along with the whole convention of courtly love: "Now is [Romeo] for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in. Laura, to his lady [Rosaline] was a kitchen wench ... Dido a dowdy, Cleopatra a gypsy, Helen and Hero hildings and harlots, Thisbe a grey eye or so, but not to the purpose" (II.iii.35-38).

This is spoken in jest, but the trace of misogynistic blood in Mercutio's veins colors those fractious outbursts against the real or assumed infidelity of women we find throughout Shakespeare. Shakespeare was hardly alone in expressing this attitude. He was echoing a prejudice of his age. Male suspicion of female virtue, particularly toward ladies of the court, was almost pandemic in the last years of Elizabeth's rule and increased exponentially during the reign of her successor, James I. Even some of the age's favorite theatrical conventions gave some playwrights extradramatic opportunities for antifemale expression.

Take the issue of women in male disguise, a common enough convention of the time, partly dictated, and considerably complicated, by the fact that all the younger female roles in this period were invariably played by boys. Shakespeare himself seemed to have no trouble with the convention. Some of his most charming and intelligent heroines-Viola, Rosalind, Imogen, Helena-take off their gowns and put on doublet and hose (or, in Portia's case, a lawyer's robe), often in order to follow their male lovers into foreign or forbidden territories. Their cross-dressing was chosen primarily to avoid the perils that women faced abroad in dangerous times, but their male disguise sometimes led to human encounters of considerable sexual ambiguity, most notably in Olivia's scenes with Viola in Twelfth Night, where the countess, mistaking Viola for a man, seeks to claim her for her husband. (Orsino's feelings for the disguised Viola reflect a similar ambiguity.)


Excerpted from The Tainted Muse by Robert Brustein Copyright © 2009 by Robert Brustein. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Hidden Imposthume....................1
1. Misogyny: The Hamlet Obsession....................13
2. Effemiphobia: The Osric Courtier....................53
3. Machismo: The Hotspur Model....................92
4. Elitism and Mobocracy: From Jack Cade to Caliban....................134
5. Racialism: The Moor and the Jew....................173
6. Intelligent Design: Lear's Abyss....................204
Afterword: Lancing the Canker....................243
Selected Bibliography....................263
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