The Bard of Avon, aka, William Shakespeare time and again seems to hit the nail on the head. Once, as a young student, I was set the task of finding a plot or theme that he hadn’t explored: atrend he hadn’t popularised from star-crossed lovers to political assassinations-there are lots of both in his plays, based on realities but the details arising from his imagination.
The gender thing must have been a challenge for all playwrights at a time when women were not welcomed on stage and apprentices and schoolboys were pulled in to impersonate the Juliets, Violas and Katherines.Any soupcon of a real petticoat might have invited closure and a ban on performances. Nowhere does this ban seem to have written down which has led to decades if not centuries of speculation, almost like many speculations to follow viz; ‘are women really human beings? Do they have souls? And, what is more important—do they actually have brains?
Leaving early speculations aside, let’s get back to boys playing the roles of women. You find allusions to this in plays of the period. The most quoted one is from Antony and Cleopatra, an unusual play in away because it presents passion between two middle-aged potentates. That middle age could excite such sexual passion was probably distasteful to Augustus Caesar whose sister Octavia is described by Antony as having ‘a holy cold and still disposition.’ Just the kind of disposition one would think that someone who was the scion of a ruling family needed to survive the plots and bargaining, trading off one’s female person by men of the dynasty to secure more power. As a woman one needed a ‘cold and still’ disposition to hold one’s own in such environments.
There’s no doubt women of a ‘certain class’ were brave. Cleopatra prepared herself for her grand finale just as Rajput princesses used to prepare themselves for a possible ‘sati’ by handling hot ghee and sticking their hands in the flames. When Antony has gone into the great beyond, Cleopatra contemplates, momentarily, what would happen if she surrendered to Octavius/ Augustus and was paraded through the streets of Rome. The Romans would, she tells Charmian, her maid:
“ Bring forth some squeaking Cleopatra to boy my greatness.”
Of course her captor promised to treat her with honour; but then, he was a man. He had no intention of treating her with honour at all! He probably would have traded the Queen of Egypt to the highest bidder. So, mindful perhaps of ‘all the vows that ever men had broke’; and Cleopatra had a plethora of examples to draw on, she applied a poisoness asp to her body and died; her maid following suit!
Part of this tragic story Shakespeare based on Holinshed’s ‘Lives’ so for him it was second hand. Cross- checking with scribes writing the annals of the court of Egypt at the time, nevertheless, gives us the same or a similar story.
Could such incidences happen today? Could one imagine people taking their own lives over broken promises? Are promises broken easily? Now as a prime example of ‘all the vows that ever men have broke’ on our very own doorstep we have a bit of backtracking on the citizenship provisions in the new Constitution! Truly, our so-called lawmakers cannot make a decision and keep to it! It reminds me of one of my favourite sayings:
“ Ask a man for a decision and watch him tremble.”
Chairman Mao claimed that we, the women, held up half the sky.
I believe a majority of women in this country are holding up the whole welkin (sky).
In my maternal land it is a well-known fact that our ancestors feared most of all that the sky would fall on their heads! Thunder and lightening were dragons that sent them scurrying. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it’s written that ‘Dragons were seen over Northumbria;” and the clap and bang of thunder were duly described. That was 14 centuries ago but the fear still lingers in our northern idioms. As one opens an umbrella to poke out of the back door and test the climate, it’s not unusual to hear an elder greet you with;
“ I hope it keeps up for you.” This means of course that he hopes the weather stays fine, but behind these time-honoured words is the ancestral memory of the fear we had of the sky falling on ourheads!
It just might, of course, as here in Nepal we try to wrestle with the significance of being given certain rights as women only to have them taken away at the next turn in the bend!
Trust the lawmakers of our beloved country to give with one hand and take away with the other. They fulfil the words of the Bard of Avon, written almost 6 centuries ago:
‘By all the vows that ever men have broke,
In number more than ever women spoke.”
Try not to open your mouths so often gentlemen. You might just put your feet in them!
* This piece was written after listening to the misogynist comments about Mrs. Clinton’s candidature for President of the USA.