One story, two readers

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These two students are reading the same text, but are they interpreting it in the same way?

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?

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    Good point, I am actually a strong believer in the social construction of personality, gender and all that goes with that. Which by no means diminishes the power or reality of personality differences. Social construction is (I think) very powerful indeed. ^liz

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    Good point, I am actually a strong believer in the social construction of personality, gender and all that goes with that. Which by no means diminishes the power or reality of personality differences. Social construction is (I think) very powerful indeed. ^liz

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    Hello Christian, thanks for your comment. Your engagement with Shakespeare’s plays is wonderfully diverse. It is actually quite unusual to be able to enjoy the same thing both on the emotional level and on the analytical level. Students sometimes feel that the analytic style of the lecture room, spoil the emotional impact of the texts being studied. Its lovely to from someone who enjoy’s Shakespeare on so many levels, and in ways stereotypically masculine and feminine. Perhaps you are an example of Duncan’s theory above that in the modern world masculine and feminine responses are less polarized. Thanks ^liz

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    Hello Christian, thanks for your comment. Your engagement with Shakespeare’s plays is wonderfully diverse. It is actually quite unusual to be able to enjoy the same thing both on the emotional level and on the analytical level. Students sometimes feel that the analytic style of the lecture room, spoil the emotional impact of the texts being studied. Its lovely to from someone who enjoy’s Shakespeare on so many levels, and in ways stereotypically masculine and feminine. Perhaps you are an example of Duncan’s theory above that in the modern world masculine and feminine responses are less polarized. Thanks ^liz

  • Christian Smith

    To ask which of the plays I like the best is like asking which of my children I love the most. To choose would be a betrayal of my love for them all. If I were given a Sophie’s Choice, I would say Hamlet. I love the feelings that Shakespeare’s plays cause in me. I enjoy flowing along the stream of the poetry in his lines. I get emotionally entangled in the character relations. I thrill at the words and images that split prism-like into an array of meanings. I also enjoy analyzing them. The construction of meaning – that hard-hat-required area of literary studies – satisfies me. A word about Timon, in response to an earlier comment. In a way, this is one of Shakespeare’s (with help from Middleton) most successful plays. Timon is the epitome of the reifed man. He is inhuman as a philanthropist and equally inhuman as a misanthropist. One theme in this play, which Karl Marx used at key locations in the development of his economic theory, is that a money economy causes commodity fetishism, alienation and reification. Every character in Timon of Athens, except Flavius, is a disgusting alienated being. We are meant to dislike this play!

  • Christian Smith

    To ask which of the plays I like the best is like asking which of my children I love the most. To choose would be a betrayal of my love for them all. If I were given a Sophie’s Choice, I would say Hamlet. I love the feelings that Shakespeare’s plays cause in me. I enjoy flowing along the stream of the poetry in his lines. I get emotionally entangled in the character relations. I thrill at the words and images that split prism-like into an array of meanings. I also enjoy analyzing them. The construction of meaning – that hard-hat-required area of literary studies – satisfies me. A word about Timon, in response to an earlier comment. In a way, this is one of Shakespeare’s (with help from Middleton) most successful plays. Timon is the epitome of the reifed man. He is inhuman as a philanthropist and equally inhuman as a misanthropist. One theme in this play, which Karl Marx used at key locations in the development of his economic theory, is that a money economy causes commodity fetishism, alienation and reification. Every character in Timon of Athens, except Flavius, is a disgusting alienated being. We are meant to dislike this play!

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    Now that’s a very interesting speculation. Instinct tells me that I do feel that the gap between ‘male’ and ‘female’ responses has narrowed, but I have no evidence, and know of no research on the topic. However I do know academics who are saying that in some circles the more ‘feminine’ way of reading is becoming more accepted into academic discourse. Learning from each other is always good though!
    Liz

  • Duncan

    Men and women working together in an academic environment at a more or less equal level is a relatively new phenomenon. It is possible that over time they will learn from each other and these masculinised and feminised responses will converge.

    It might therefore be interesting to look at any generational difference in response.

  • http://twitter.com/ShakespeareBT Shakespeare B Trust

    Thanks for the link Duncan, I agree with many of Cordelia’s points. Men and Women may tend to respond differently to stories because of the the way they are socialised as children. Parents reading with their children, or talking about fiction TV or Drama with their children may tend to use different language and encourage different responses from boy and girl children. Social influence and cultural ideology certainly has a huge impact on our development and our development of ‘male’ or ‘female’ behaviour. Thanks for sharing.
    p.s. your focus on the questions underlying the blog is typically male
    ^liz

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    I’m glad someone posted that link! It’s worth noting though that Fine doesn’t argue that men and women don’t have different responses but that gender roles are learned and social, not innate and biological as indeed feminists have been arguing since 1949 when Simone de Beavoir wrote in The Second Sex “One is not born a woman but becomes one”.

  • Duncan

    I think it's apt that the most recent contribution to the brain/gender debate has come from one Dr *Cordelia* Fine:

    “…claims that men are naturally analytical and competitive while women are compassionate and nurturing are, according to a new book, based on bad science – and, at worst, are “monstrous fictions”.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/sep/10/gender-gap-myth-cordelia-fine

  • http://www.facebook.com/julia.rivington Julia Rivington

    Having seen Henry VIII at The Globe this year without any previous reading/study, it was the the female roles that stood out to me. Is that significant because I am female and was responding to the emotional positions of the Queen Katherine and Anne Bullen? Or could it have been down to the directing?

  • Liz Woledge

    It could be the chosen focus of the director, but we are not passive in our engagement with directed theatre, so my thought would be that it was probably mostly some good acting and directing and your own inclination to respond to the women in the play. Thanks for your feedback ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    It could be the chosen focus of the director, but we are not passive in our engagement with directed theatre, so my thought would be that it was probably mostly some good acting and directing and your own inclination to respond to the women in the play. Thanks for your feedback ^liz

  • http://twitter.com/ShakespeareBT Shakespeare B Trust

    Timon is certainly a 'masculine' play by my reckoning! Cymbeline and Measure are both good examples of plays with something for everyone, they weave personal and political plots together. But its WHY you like Cymbeline and Measure that might tell us whether you enjoy them for typically feminine reasons…^liz

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Annie-Martirosyan/100000005026549 Annie Martirosyan

    I adore the whole canon! An exception is Timon of Athens, which I rather dislike. As for statistics (if it counts) – I never understood the exceptional universal enthusiasm about 'Much Ado…' and 'Twelfth Night' – I'm rather fascinated by 'Cymbeline' and 'Measure for Measure' instead. But they never get the proper attention and frequency of production, unfortunately.

  • http://twitter.com/ShakespeareBT Shakespeare B Trust

    Thanks for your feedback Jessica. I expect that 'Fun' probably transcends gender boundaries. Women tend to love or hate the Taming of the Shrew, depending on whether they see it it as 'fun' or something much darker. Never the less there is plenty of the 'feminine' in that play – all about the complex interpersonal dynamic between two people. Your response is also typically feminine in that you responded to the play in an personal and emotional way, it reminds you of the fun YOU can have… Thanks
    ^liz

  • http://www.facebook.com/Jessica.S.Noble Jessica Susan Noble

    I always found Taming of the Shrew to be so mischievous and lots of fun – always sticks with me and reminds me just how much fun you can have.

  • http://twitter.com/ShakespeareBT Shakespeare B Trust

    Thanks for that feedback. I hate to say this, but your response is typically feminine, you responded to the interpersonal relationships in the text in a personal and emotional context. I read somewhere that King Lear and The Tempest were the most popular plays amongst women, because of their depiction of father/daughter dynamics. Thanks again for your feedback. Liz

  • http://twitter.com/DianaJOwen Diana Owen

    its hard to have one favourite but Lear always resonates most strongly with me, partly because of my own personal experience with my father and because it is so much about family relationships.

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