Cristina León Alfar. Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Associated University Presses, 2003. 254pp. ISBN 0 87413 781 0.

Rebecca Nesvet
University of Gloucestershire

Nesvet, Rebecca. "Review of Cristina León Alfar, Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy." Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006):7.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-3/revalfar.htm>.

  1. In Sargent's 1889 portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, the new queen of Scotland appears physically monstrous. In her slinky, scaly, green gown, she seems not 'unsexed' so much as dehumanised. How did this idea evolve? Was it present in Shakespeare's text? In Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy (2003), Cristina León Alfar contends that some Shakespearean women are social and political provocateurs. Those of The Winter's Tale are typical: 'Hermione speaks too well, as Paulina too powerfully' for Leontes's ears (63). Other Shakespearean 'evil' women, such as Lady Macbeth, follow with tragic vigilance the rules laid down by their societies and states for the maintenance of the status quo. For scholars and theatre practitioners, this is an innovative and necessary book.

  2. Alfar contextualises her study of the plays with a survey of didactic prose ranging from the early sixteenth-century Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives's pedagogy through the multiple Jacobean and Caroline editions of Joseph Swetnam's Arraignement of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women. In these, women are especially susceptible to evil because, when '[v]irtue became the common denominator for sexual propriety', countless 'social violations' were 'branded unnatural to feminine conduct' (32). Evil was not mundane so much as the mundane-in woman-became evil.

  3. Throughout the period, women's subjection was basic to civil and religious law, which both appropriated and reinforced existing expectations of women. So did the self-presentation of England's most famous woman, Queen Elizabeth, who publicly claimed two personas: the fantastically passive virtuous 'woman', and the proactive and sometimes ruthless 'king' (57). This part of Alfar's study is strongest where it shows how Elizabeth and her handlers work to neutralise potentially damaging cultural icons of female virtue, such as the biblical heroines, by appropriating them for her. However, I did not understand in what sense either Judith, the seductive assassin, or the warrior-judge Deborah could be classified as 'a non-threatening female power' (57). They are threatening, surely, but to the enemies of their state, and not the state itself-just like Elizabeth, in her chosen view, of course. I was similarly uncertain that the queen's 'refusal to marry […] was a move that preserved her power' (61). According to Susan Dolan (1998), political circumstances, not merely personal choice, kept the queen unmarried until middle age, when she began circulating the myth of her chosen autonomy. [1] Nevertheless, in the succeeding chapters, Alfar shows that Shakespeare's Juliet, Goneril, Cleopatra, and Lady Macbeth reveal 'his culture's contradictory worship and fear of female power, especially,' as exemplified and problematised by Elizabeth.

  4. Alfar makes a strong case for Juliet as an 'evil woman'-in the subjective view of her megalomaniacal father. In Romeo and Juliet, 'female desire and self-determination do not constitute evil', but patriarchal attempts to contain these forces may cause it. Juliet radically 'redefines her commodification', imagining herself as purchaser and beneficiary of her commodified lover as well as the commodity that is 'sold' to him to be 'enjoyed' (II.2.12-3). Alfar is right to judge Juliet's suicide as political sabotage, since she removes herself from the vital economy of procreation (103). Haunted by the memory of Sylvia Plath, we might not be comfortable reading suicide as a feminist action, but León Alfar persuasively unpicks how Goneril and Cleopatra's suicides and Hermione's false death frustrate their adversaries' political aims.

  5. Alfar recuperates Goneril and Regan as conservative, legitimate rulers who mount an 'appropriate and necessary defense of England' against the invasion led by Cordelia and her foreign husband. 'The kingdom that Goneril and Regan inherited is under siege, and anyone caught acting in sympathy with Lear or France is a traitor' (97). Even their adultery with the warrior Edmund can be seen as political pragmatism: they need him to defeat the rebels (99). Most intriguingly, Alfar finds Lady Macbeth to be an ideal early modern wife, 'most effective at remasculinizing and consoling' Macbeth (129). As Penny Farfan has just shown in a study of modernist women in theatre published later (2004) than Alfar's, Terry similarly considered Lady Macbeth 'a mistaken woman [...] first of all a wife' who acts 'all for her husband'.[2] Unlike Terry, Alfar supports this argument with a meticulous close reading of Macbeth. One testament to Alfar's scholarship's necessity to the living theatre is that she addresses the very question of interpretation that bothered Terry, a frequent and attentive performer of Shakespearean female roles-including the one that inspired Sargent's reptilian lamia.


[1] Susan Dolan, 'Why Did Elizabeth Not Marry?' in Julia M. Walker, ed., Dissing Elizabeth: Negative Representations of Gloriana, (Chapel Hill: Duke UP, 1998), 30-59.

[2] Penny Farfan, Women, Modernism, and Performance, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 23.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk

© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).