HIGH POINT, N.C., Dec. 9, 2010 – Dr. Jim Casey, assistant professor of English at High Point University, recently published a chapter, titled “A Man’s Office, a Woman?s Shield: The Ethics of the Body in Shakespeare” for Cambridge Scholar’s “Literature and Ethics: From the Green Knight to the Dark Knight,” edited by William Rossiter.
Casey’s essay examines the ethical requirements of early modern bodies and the moral judgments tied to them, especially in the plays of Shakespeare, where the impositions of male privilege force men to engage in dangerous enactments of manhood. Male identity becomes formed and informed by the sociocultural expectation of masculine violence; although characters may be classified initially as male by their physical attributes, their appellative and effective manhood depends on their ability to perform the offices of men. Alongside this masculine definition, the plays reveal an ethics of violence that is grounded in corporeal reality: male bodies represent appropriate sites for violence, but non-male bodies must be protected, not attacked.
Teresa de Lauretis argues that the subject of violence is always, by definition, masculine, and the object of violence is always, by definition, feminine. But if we look at the actual bodies in Shakespeare’s plays, we see an imperative to protect female bodies from violence coupled with repeated exhortations for male bodies to enter into the myriad dangerous arenas of manhood. A woman cannot engage in violence because, as Beatrice notes in “Much Ado About Nothing,” “It is a man’s office.” At the same time, however, female bodies are shielded from violence, even when their actions might deserve violent retribution. As Albany observes in “King Lear,” howe’er they are fiends, a woman’s shape doth shield them.
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