Shakespeare is often praised as someone who appeals to both sexes, someone whose writing is universal able to cut across the barriers of historical time, sex and gender. Although Shakespeare clearly appeals to both man and women the two sexes do not respond identically to the plays. Perhaps women prefer the plays they see as focussing mostly on interpersonal dynamics and men those that they see as focusing on an individual or a quest. Or perhaps men and women tend to focus on different plot elements within the plays. Many of Shakespeare’s plays appear to contain both a ‘masculine’ and a ‘feminine’ plot. Even the most ‘masculine’ plays, the history plays, often contain short scenes focussed on interpersonal dynamics such as Henry 5th wooing Princess Katherine.
Two academics, Patrocinio schweickart and Elizabeth Flynn, conducted a very interesting piece of research related to this question. They asked both men and women to read the same short extract from Faulkner’s short story ‘Barn Burning’.
and then to retell it explaining what it was about. They found that men and women responded to the task in very different ways. Men tended to explain the story by talking about the author’s construction of it and women tended to retell it by describing their response to the characters and situations. Women were more inclined than men to make inferences about the human relationships explaining the story in terms of ‘interpersonal motives, allegiances and conflicts rather than in terms of the perspective of a single character or the author.’
I would love to conduct similar research with Shakespeare, do men and women tend to retell Shakespeare’s stories differently? Or are they drawn to different elements within Shakespeare’s stories? Men tending to focus on the construction of the text, or an individual’s journey, and women on the social and psychological bonds between the characters? This would have repercussions at many levels from directors of the plays to teachers of the plays, and might help explain an interesting bias. Statistically more people who study Shakespeare at school, college, university, or informally are female and yet at the top level more scholars of Shakespeare are male. Is it possible that men tend to respond to the text analytically (a way suited to academic discourse which usually pretends emotional detachment) and women tend to respond in a more emotional and speculative way less suited to the traditions of academic culture?
Be part of the debate by telling me which of Shakespeare’s plays you like the best, and most importantly why you are drawn to that play. Do you support the statistics or are you the exception which proves the rule?