If you were planning to ask UA professor Meg Lota Brown about whether Shakespeare is a feminist, don’t. The answer is as complex as the society he lived in.
In William Shakespeare's "As You Like It," Rosalind famously cross-dresses as a man to learn more about the man she loves, to teach him how to be a better lover and to protect herself from other males. She's smart and subversive, like many of the women in Shakespeare's 36 First Folio plays.
But if you were to ask University of Arizona English professor Meg Lota Brown if Shakespeare was a feminist, don't.
"That's a weirdly uninteresting question," she says with a smile.
"To ask if he's a feminist is to say, 'Which toggle switch is it? Yes or no?' Shakespeare was less interested in 'yes or no' than he was in the vast area in between. He was fascinated with the messiness of human nature and the variety of human potential — whether man or woman. His characterization was always multifaceted, and poignant, and insightful."
Basically, he's complicated, and so was the society he lived in.
Shakespeare's original works, preserved in the 1623 First Folio, will be on exhibition at the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona from Feb. 15 to March 15, and Brown will give a talk on Tuesday about Shakespeare's women.
According to Brown, in many ways the Renaissance was not all that different from 2016: "As is the case now, the Renaissance was a time of incredible instability: social, economic, religious, political, scientific. Just cultural instability."
Women had the legal status of property. "Like tables and pigs," Brown says.
They were defined by the man they belonged to. For unmarried women, this was their father; for married women, their husband. In courts, they had the same status as children, imbeciles and peasants.
And yet, women such as Desdemona in "Othello," Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet" and Portia in "The Merchant of Venice" — and numerous other women Shakespeare depicted — were significant.
"In a culture that legally defined women as property on the grounds of their inferiority, many of Shakespeare’s most vividly complex, powerful, subversive and intelligent characters were women," Brown says.
However, "there are many ways to read his work," she adds. "It's like the Bible. You can find evidence to support contradictory positions in the Bible."
And while some call Shakespeare a radical feminist and others a sexist pig, to Brown it’s the way Shakespeare engages the contradictions that’s so interesting.
"It's not that women are simply an ideological petri dish," she says. "(Shakespeare's women) couldn't have the depth and the range that they do if they were just an intellectual arena for investigating an idea."
Shakespeare, she argues, both reinforces (by marrying and killing off some of his most powerful female characters) and subverts (by creating powerful women in the first place) his culture's assumptions about gender.
"We are all untidy — not just one thing or the other — and Shakespeare was very good at exploring the three-dimensionality of people as well as culture," Brown says.