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.
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
- 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
- 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.
- 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. 
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
- 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.
- 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'.
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.
 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.
 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).