MOTTO: Know you not that I must be about my mother's business

  • INQUEST (The Inquiry into the Quaternary
    Evolution in Shakespearean Thought
    ) will
    critique scientists, philosophers and commentators
    who have failed to appreciate the philosophy in
    Shakespeare's Sonnets, poems and plays.

    The Institute for the Quaternary Evolution in Shakespearen Thought
    The Quaternary Institute
    Quaternary Institute & Quaternary Imprint



    Roger Peters Copyright © 2005


    The first edition of the 4 volume set William Shakespeare's Sonnet Philosophy [2005] is still available.


    Inquiry into the Quaternary Evolution in Shakespearean Thought

    Germaine Greer - Women Issues

    In his Sonnets, Shakespeare articulates a consistent and comprehensive philosophy based in nature. By recognising nature as logically female (the ‘sovereign mistress’), and by accepting the priority of the female (the ‘Mistress’) over the male (the ‘Master Mistress’) he re-establishes the logical priority of female over male.
          By intentionally restoring the priority of nature over the male God of religions, Shakespeare challenges millennia of male-based prejudice. In the Sonnets and in the poems and plays he demonstrates that the literal interpretation of the traditional mythological priority of male over female perpetuates an inconsistency in human understanding, and perpetrates an injustice on woman.
          Shakespeare’s plays not only demonstrate the inconsistencies that arise when the male is given priority over the female, they also show how to recover the natural logic of female priority within the dynamic of female/ male relationships. Each play, whether comedy or tragedy, dramatises the process of gender reconciliation. Typically, a play begins with an imbalance toward male-based prerogatives from which Shakespeare constructs a resolution where the natural priority of the female contextualises the conceit of male independence.
          In his Sonnets Shakespeare recovers the natural logic that connects the biology of the female/male relationship and the mythic as the highest form of human expression. In the plays and poems he shows how to write at a mythic level without falling into the contradictions of traditional male-based beliefs.
          The elevation of the male over the female in societies where there is a belief in the priority of a male God results from two basic misunderstandings. The first misinterprets the non-biological elements in the logic of myth and the second inverts the male’s evolutionary function.
          In the first case, myth openly exhibits its logical status as an imaginative account of origins by representing relations between female and male entities as erotic rather than sexual. The erotic logic of a mythology employs all forms of secondary sexual desire but precludes the direct biology of procreation. Hence a myth can represent human origins by having a male God who appears ex nihilo to create man from clay and then himself be born again of a virgin. But the erotic dynamic, which serves to indicate the conceptual or mind-based role of mythology, becomes a source of contradiction if it is read literally. Logically, the male God cannot be prior to the female in nature.
          The second confusion arises because the male, as a consequence of the differentiation of the male sperm from the primacy of the female cell, is in effect at the leading edge of the evolutionary possibility. While the role of the male, or the masculine dimension in human understanding (in male or female), enables humankind to develop in ways not available to single sex species, Shakespeare makes the point in the Sonnets that it all comes to naught if, like the idealistic Master Mistress or youth, all males refuse to increase. Then, as he argues in sonnet 126, nature would prevail without humankind.
          Even though male-based idealism is symptomatic of a highly competitive societal model, the belief in the supremacy of the male can create the expectation that the male will become self-sufficient or independent of the female and ultimately nature. But the idealistic scenario ignores the logical consequences of denying increase and the priority of nature and the female in nature.
          In the Sonnets Shakespeare makes the logical point that increase is the fundamental condition for human persistence. The point is logical because he does not insist that humankind should persist, only what it should do if it wishes to persist. The logical connection between persistence and existence is descriptive not prescriptive.
          The illogical representation of the human relation to nature in beliefs based on traditional mythologies affects both sex and gender. The Sonnets examine the tendency of the male to become isolated in his male dynamic but they also consider the consequences for the female who over-exercises her masculine persona.
          Some feminists, for instance, in their drive to gain equality with men, forget the significance of the logic of human persistence. While there may be short-term benefits from such a stance, ironically the denial of the logic of increase allies them to traditional beliefs in male-based mythologies that give men priority over women.
          Shakespeare also recognises (as did Darwin) that the logic of increase is prior to the possibility of human understanding or the dynamic of ‘truth and beauty’. Shakespeare argues that only by acknowledging the logic of increase can human understanding achieve consistency and hence justice.
          The Sonnet philosophy clarifies millennia of confusion. Human nature is based in nature and any male-based system of Gods or ideals is secondary and at best visionary. So the question arises as to how such misunderstandings have developed and persisted. It could be that the transmission of ideas in the medium of writing led to the reification of beliefs in a way not previously known in oral culture. Certainly, great schisms and sectarian wars have occurred and are still occurring over the too literal interpretation of words committed to paper, as in the Bible, the Koran, etc.
          The consolidation of male-based religions, particularly in the Middle East, and specifically the monotheistic male-God religion of the Hebrews, coincided with the development of writing. When such religions encourage a fundamentalist belief in the mythological word, intolerance and persecution result. Thomas Jefferson, objecting to religious intolerance in Europe, acted against the iniquities of faith by separating Church and State in the fledgling United States. It might be appropriate now to enact a constitutional article to assert the priority of the female over the male.
          The work of Shakespeare offers the most consistent, comprehensive and sustained challenge to the illogicality of male-based determination. Only by recognising the logical conditions for sexual persistence out of nature can the feminine and masculine gender relationship be understood and addressed. (See also essay 10 on Riane Eisler.)

    Germaine Greer

    This essay compares the attitude of a leading feminist to the natural logic of Shakespeare’s Sonnet philosophy. Germaine Greer lends herself to the discussion of the relation of women’s rights to Shakespeare’s philosophy because in her professional life she combines a persistent advocacy of feminist issues with her status as an internationally recognised Shakespeare scholar. It should be possible to align her statements on women’s issues from over the last 35 years with her statements about Shakespeare’s works to see if her understanding corresponds to Shakespeare’s philosophy.
          It is not the intention in this essay to outline or even summarily critique Greer’s writings on feminism or to examine feminism generally. Rather, the idea is to listen to her hopes for feminism and her concerns about the fate of feminism in the period between The Female Eunuch of 1970 and its sequel, The Whole Woman of 1999. Because she makes mention of Shakespeare in these volumes it should be possible to show how her understanding of Shakespeare misses his logical recovery of the female over the male, with its relevance for challenging the continued adherence to mythological beliefs inherently contrary to female rights.
          In her ‘Recantation’ that serves as a preface to The Whole Woman, Greer expresses her concern that feminists of her generation were beginning ‘to assert with apparent seriousness that feminism had gone too far’. (1) Yet it is she who goes nowhere near far enough in The Female Eunuch, Sex and Destiny of 1984, and The Whole Woman in challenging the illogicalities of the beliefs and values of a Bible-based society in which women have been denied their natural priority.
          The impression gained from reading Greer’s feminist writings is reinforced by her attitude toward Shakespeare in the 130-page monograph Shakespeare that she produced for Oxford University Press in 1986. While there is some attempt to acknowledge the significance Shakespeare gives to his female characters, Greer meekly conforms to the orthodox prejudice of passing him off as an idealist and even a Christian. Because she is ignorant of the Sonnet philosophy, with its logical critique of Platonic and biblical idealism, she attributes to Shakespeare an attitude and values contrary to woman’s logical status and rights.

    The Sonnet philosophy in The Phoenix and the Turtle

    To begin to understand how Greer can be a tireless advocate for women’s rights yet attribute to Shakespeare a ‘Christian scepticism’ (2) or suggest that Hamlet exhibits a ‘Christian spirit of resignation’, (3) or that The Phoenix and the Turtle ‘is the most perfect statement of the Platonic ideal in English poetry’, (4) an appropriate starting point is The Phoenix and the Turtle.
          As Shakespeare based his philosophy in nature, he was trenchant in his criticism of the Platonic inspired claims for a prior ideal world. For Plato an ideal world must exist to account for the imperfections of life. But for Shakespeare all ideal worlds are phantasms of the human mind, which is logically dependent on nature. Instead, the evidence of his works suggests he was sympathetic to Aristotle’s regard for the natural world.
          So Greer’s statement, while in keeping with other attempts to convert Shakespeare to Christianity or Neo-Platonism, is diametrically opposed to the Sonnet philosophy and hence contrary to the meaning of The Phoenix and the Turtle.
          Traditional attempts to patronisingly convert The Phoenix and the Turtle to Platonic/Christian values have not gone unnoticed. William Matchett’s line-by-line examination of The Phoenix and the Turtle reveals not a perfect expression of Platonism, but Shakespeare’s devastating critique of idealism. Matchett’s reading rejects the traditional idealistic gloss on the fate of the two birds, and shows that the poem, with its original punctuation, is a satire on the birds’ futile expectations. (5)
          Unfortunately, while Matchett makes a number of comparisons between The Phoenix and the Turtle and the Sonnets, he is unable to show how the philosophy of the Sonnets informs every aspect of the poem. Instead, as with many who are at a loss to understand the Sonnet philosophy, he speculates that the poem comments on the intrigues of the Elizabethan court.
          If The Phoenix and the Turtle is examined from the vantage of the Sonnet philosophy, then Matchett’s anti-Platonic reading is readily vindicated. Consistent with the natural logic of the Sonnets, the poem mentions ‘Nature’, sexual ‘Division’, a sexual ‘lay’, ‘posterity… and …married chastity’, and ‘Truth and Beauty’.
          Greer, however, does not bother to itemise her evidence for thinking the poem is a ‘perfect statement of the Platonic ideal’. Instead she turns to a 1601 account from a law student’s diary, which reports that Shakespeare upstaged Burbage for the favours of a woman who frequented the Globe. To forestall challenges to her prejudicial reading of the poem she prefers to cite unverifiable student gossip, and allude to the ‘bawdy strain’ (6) in Shakespeare’s plays.
          By asserting that such behaviour is ‘not in the least incompatible with Platonic idealism’ (7), and by dismissing in simplistic terms as ‘bawdy’the erotic logic of the plays and poems, Greer blindly promotes the orthodox view that Shakespeare conforms to the Platonic ideal.
          And if, as Greer claims, the poem glorifies the eternal happiness of two birds in a ‘perfect statement of the Platonic ideal’, Shakespeare rebuts such a reading at every turn. The sole Arabian Bird witnesses a ‘Tragic scene’, ‘Love and Constancy’ are reckoned ‘dead’, ‘love was slain’, the two birds lie in ‘cinders’, their ‘infirmity…was married Chastity’, ‘Truth and Beauty’ are ‘buried’, and the last line laconically suggests the reader ‘sigh a prayer’ for the ‘dead Birds’.
          Ironically, those like Greer who wish to convert Shakespeare’s devastating critique of idealism in The Phoenix and the Turtle into a ‘perfect statement of the Platonic ideal’ frequently characterise the poem as symbolically opaque and cryptically obscure. Rather, the poem reveals its brilliant natural logic when viewed as an expression of the Sonnet philosophy. (A full analysis of The Phoenix and the Turtle is available in Volume 3.)

    Christian apologetics

    Greer not only brings to her Shakespeare a Platonic expectation for The Phoenix and the Turtle, she also peremptorily presumes Shakespeare adheres to Christian beliefs and values throughout his works. Even if she is ignorant of the nature-based philosophy of the Sonnets, her presumption of a Christian meaning ignores the evidence of the plays, which most commentators acknowledge are based in nature rather than the male God of the Bible.
          For instance, Christian sympathisers such as A. C. Bradley and Blair Leishman have to admit there is no evidence in the complete works for presuming Shakespeare was a Christian. Yet, despite the lack of evidence, they still feel compelled to convert him to Christianity by suggesting he was a closet believer. Greer even quotes Orwell as saying that ‘from Shakespeare’s writings it would be difficult to know that he had any religion’, (8) but persists in her Christian interpretation. Having branded Shakespeare a Platonic idealist, she is far less circumspect than many in her determination to read Christian intentions into the plays and poems. (9), (10)
          The intention of this essay is to redress injustices done to Shakespeare by a scholar who might be expected to be sympathetic to Shakespeare’s nature/female philosophy. As examples of Greer’s Christian misinterpretation of Shakespeare’s works are considered, it must be asked how an inveterate feminist such as Greer can be so blind to Shakespeare’s prioritising of the female over the male, which challenges the self-righteousness of the male-based beliefs of religions such as Christianity.
          Greer operates principally as a polemicist who uses hyperbole for immediate advantage. While her timely but overstated claims and challenges have forced her to alter her opinions over time, this essay does not discount the importance of the polemic moment. But because Shakespeare held to and argued logically for his nature-based philosophy throughout his life, it might be hoped that even a perennial polemicist such as Greer might reflect on the evidence and argument for a consistent and comprehensive philosophy in Shakespeare’s works.
          When Greer titles Chapter 5 of her Shakespeare ‘Teleology’, she signals her intent to interpret the play in terms of an intentional God. Throughout the chapter, which examines King Lear at some length, she proceeds to convert Shakespeare to Christianity. Typically she insists on the ‘emergence and gradual transcendence of Lear’s soul’. (11) But if the Sonnet philosophy is based in nature, and the natural processes brilliantly represented by Darwin, the idea of a God directed purpose is logically redundant.
          Instead, according to the logic of the Sonnet philosophy, King Lear is about a conceited, paternalistic male idealist who has lost touch with the natural logic of life. In the Sonnet logic the goals of life are immanent in nature. Lear reveals his conceit when he demands the total love of his daughters. Lear ostracises Cordelia when she responds with the natural logic of the increase argument (1.1.102-10) (as does Desdemona in Othello, 1.3.527-36). Cordelia identifies love as a boon passed from generation to generation so it cannot be the sole preserve of a selfish male King who demands absolute love.
          Shakespeare then takes Lear through the process of recovering his natural logic by literally exposing him to the elements and by subjecting him to the aggrieved anger of the bastard Edmund, who likewise has been denatured by his conceited father, Gloucester. Shakespeare removes the Christian allusions from the original play King Leir, to force his characters to face the natural world without the compensating psychology of the paternalistic idealism of Christianity.
          Greer, in her revisionary misinterpretation of the play, excuses Lear by claiming he is ‘senile’. (12) Neither does she appreciate the significance of the roles of Cordelia and Edmund as differing expressions of the same reaction to male-driven injustices. But most significantly she misrepresents the role of the Fool. Whereas Shakespeare removed references to God from his play, in Greer’s discussion of the Fool’s status she reintroduces them with a vengeance.
          She begins by referring to ‘Erasmus’s fool in God’. Such a fool must be ‘as a child, for unless we become as little children we cannot enter heaven’. (13) And she threatens, in the style of the self-serving First Commandment, ‘It ill behoves man to vaunt before God of his intellectual achievements and the temporal wealth and power he has managed to secure, for all was done by grace of God and is as nothing compared to the wisdom and power of God’. (13)
          She then refers to the Fool as ‘a ‘natural’, simple as we say, and by extension, still in a state of nature. We are all born in this condition’ (her emphasis). With further references to God, and ‘born idiots…touched by God’, (13) Greer completely inverts the intent of the play as a critique of the adolescent conceitedness and inconsistency of the Christian belief in biblical mythology. Instead she says, in complete contradiction of the nature-based Sonnet philosophy ‘Shakespeare’s wise fools moved, (in) a frame of reference which is profoundly sceptical and profoundly Christian’. (13)
          Not content with that, she also characterises Edmund as a ‘natural’. 14 Even though she has to acknowledge the ubiquitous presence of nature in the play, she avoids the inference that Shakespeare bases the play in the logic of nature by claiming there is an ‘intricate play on mutually contradictory notions of what constitutes nature’. (14) She further dismisses Shakespeare’s nature-based logic by maintaining ‘every character in King Lear bandies the word ‘nature’, and in no two cases does it quite mean the same thing’. (14)
          And when Edmund refers to nature as a ‘Goddess’, with Shakespeare alluding to Venus from Venus and Adonis who exacts nature’s justice on the idealising male Adonis (and also alluding to 'Nature the sovereign mistress' of the Sonnets), Greer presumes ‘the Elizabethan audiences would have been shocked at such idolatry’. (14) Shakespeare, in sonnet 105, identifies idolatry as the literal belief in the primacy of the male God, so it is wonderfully ironical that Greer, the inveterate feminist, would characterise as ‘idolatry’ Shakespeare’s decision to stage the play within the context of the natural world, and pervert his advocacy of natural logic as the basis for recovering of female rights.
          Greer’s frequent interpolation of the idea of God and Christian values, and her claim that they are consistent with Shakespeare’s intent, is patently contrary to a more judicious reading of King Lear. No doubt it would please the Christian Church to have a prominent feminist who, under the guise of polemicising social injustices, is an apologist for Christian illogicalities. She effectively collaborates with the religious hierarchy of the Church in the perpetrating the priority of the male God over humankind, and particularly over womankind.
          Throughout her commentary, Greer never misses an opportunity to advocate for the Christian God. From her recital of such simplistic and outmoded beliefs as ‘God, when he created and continues to create all that is’, (15) to the threat against ‘the adequacy of reason to scrutinise the ways of God’, (16) to her assertion that ‘we witness the emergence and gradual ascendance of Lear’s soul … (and that) Shakespeare draws out Lear’s soul, even as his mind decays’, (17) to her delusion that ‘Gloucester dies the joyous death of the faithful’, (18) she warns that ‘it would be a mistake to interpret the futility of Lear’s appeals to his Gods as evidence of atheism on Shakespeare’s part’. (19)
          Greer’s complete misreading of King Lear in her Shakespeare is symptomatic of her unwillingness to hear Shakespeare’s case for the priority of nature over the male God of religion and the priority of the female over the male. She claims ‘the goddess nature is an amoral pagan personification, her laws harsh and ineluctable’. (20) Nature at large is not a goddess, and do not the divine duo of God and Satan incite a worse immorality through their self-serving laws.
          In Venus and Adonis Shakespeare argues that natural events, while capable of causing great distress, are unavoidable, whereas the evil consequences of prioritising an idealised God are completely avoidable. He argues that if excessive idealism is circumscribed (as Jefferson did to the Churches in the American Bill of Rights), then the inevitable evil of idealistic beliefs would be diminished. It is not possible to worship nature as a Goddess in the same bloody way that overly committed Christians worship their male God, totally and blindly. Greer’s misrepresentation of Shakespeare’s use of nature as ‘idolatry’ is typical of the way in which absolute male God worship perverts even a concerned polemicist for women’s rights.

    Shakespeare’s women

    Greer’s willingness to associate Shakespeare’s works with the God of Christianity also affects her appreciation of the role of Shakespeare’s female protagonists. She pleads that ‘it must be remembered that while Shakespeare’s concept of virtue tends to be the active rather than the contemplative, his view of redemptive action is Christian. Christ, the paradigm for both men and women, redeemed humanity by suffering and dying on the cross’. (21) Greer’s inability, in her commentary in Shakespeare, to free herself from the Christian prejudice against nature and the female could not be more succinctly expressed.
          She deepens her association of Christianity and Shakespeare with the claim that ‘the Christian concept of passive heroism places a high value on endurance, which in Shakespeare’s ethic is cognate with constancy and hence truth’. (22) She goes on to suggest that ‘while he may make reference to a contemporary stereotype of women as fickle as in sonnet 20, and allows both Isabel and Viola to animadvert on women’s malleability, of all Shakespeare’s plays only Troilus and Cressida deals with a genuine case of female treachery’. (22)
          Not only is Greer determined to blacken Shakespeare’s references to natural processes as idolatry of a pagan Goddess, she calls the primacy of the female over the male (as defined in sonnet 20) ‘fickle’. She does not appreciate that if Isabel and Viola criticise ‘women’s malleability’ they do so from completely different vantages. In Measure for Measure, Isabel the novice nun is a blind idealist who regains her natural logic under the tutelage of the Duke, and Viola, throughout Twelfth Night, applies the Sonnet philosophy to help Orsino and Olivia recover their natural logic. If the ‘treacherous female’ in Troilus and Cressida is Cressida and not Helen, then Greer is blind to the lesson in natural logic that Cressida teaches the overly idealistic Troilus.
          When Greer turns to the ‘33 year separation in perfect celibacy’ of the Abbess in the Comedy of Errors, she claims ‘Shakespeare places a high value on chastity’. (23) Yet the arguments of the increase sonnets, the pleasures of the maid in A Lover’s Complaint, the sexual love between the Duke and the novice nun Isabel, the liberation of Olivia from her ‘dead love’ toward brother, the marriage of Juliet at 14 in Romeo and Juliet, the destruction of the male celibacy of the four Lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and then the imposition on them of retributive celibacy by the princesses as punishment, speak to the contrary. Why, then, does Greer claim Shakespeare places a high value on chastity unless she projects her own values on to his works.

    Shakespeare’s philosophy

    Greer seems determined to paste a male-based Christianity over Shakespeare’s natural logic, just as she seems willing to plaster a false set of expectations on his women. But not only is Shakespeare made to seem a servant of the Church, who creates ‘stereotypes’ of women, another of Greer’s refrains is that he has no philosophy or no systematic method for producing his works. This last claim is the most serious because it reduces Shakespeare to putty in the minds of those who wish to undermine his devastating criticism of religion and sexism evident in the Church, and in those elements of the State devoted to the Church.
          Because Greer cannot, or for the sake of her apologetics will not, see a philosophy in Shakespeare, it is ironical that she quotes from the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. (24) Wittgenstein’s philosophy, and particularly his later philosophy, is a determined attempt to rid philosophy of apologetics and return it to an expression of the relation of the world and mind and recover its role as an investigative tool into the use and misuse of concepts. If Greer understood Wittgenstein’s intent she would be better able to appreciate that 400 years earlier Shakespeare approached philosophy in a similar spirit but more consistently and comprehensively.
          Greer dismisses the philosophic depth that pervades Shakespeare’s works through disparagement and innuendo. She bypasses the deeply philosophic disposition in Shakespeare’s plays alluded to by scholars such as Coleridge, Benedetto Croce, and Lytton Strachey. Despite calling The Phoenix and the Turtle an expression of the Platonic ideal, she believes Shakespeare’s philosophy would at best be ‘philosophical or literary conceits and conventions’. She resorts to biographical speculation to claim, ‘we do not even know whether the sonnets are correctly interpreted as revealing Shakespeare’s life and self primarily or whether they deal principally with philosophical or literary conceits and conventions’. (25) She allows only that if Sir Walter Raleigh could write a poem to Queen Elizabeth expressing his ‘loyalty in terms of love melancholy’, Shakespeare must be at least that ‘sophisticated’. (26)
          Little can be expected of Greer’s assessment of Shakespeare’s philosophic depth if her highest expectation of the Sonnets is that they express ‘conceits and conventions’, and this of a playwright who penned the greatest dramas in the language that do not sink into conceits and conventions. She allows against fellow polemicist George Orwell’s claim that Shakespeare had no philosophy that she would not argue Shakespeare’s work contains no thought at all. She says ‘it may not be possible to extract a nugget of thought, which we usually think of as a series of interrelated propositions’ concluding that ‘Shakespeare knew, as we have forgotten, that feeling is as intellectual as thinking’. (27)
          Unfortunately, she leans on the most apologetic of poets, T. S. Eliot, to portray Shakespeare as an ‘intact non-dissociative sensibility’. (27) The Shakespearean idea, she says, ‘is inseparable from the mode of its expression’. But her apologetic disingenuousness ignores the persistent presence of argument throughout the Sonnets, and that each play is constructed as an argument with the characters as the logical premises, with mock arguments interspersed. It ignores the arrangement of the Sonnets into discreet argumentative parts, with the grouping of sonnets such as the 14 increase sonnets, the 5 poetry and increase sonnets, the 9 rival poet sonnets, and the division of the Mistress sonnets into parts that explicitly deal with beauty (127 to 137) and then truth (138 to 152), not to mention the precise numerological relationships within the set.
          Greer’s tendency to characterise Shakespeare as a dramatic divine, conveniently avoids his devastating criticism of excessive idealism in general and the Christian Church in particular. She allows that ‘Shakespeare’s perceptions were more comprehensive than those of more disciplined minds but they are not the products of intuition and Shakespeare is not merely the conduit of some kind of divine inspiration’. (28) Rather he ‘was profoundly aware of and interested in intellectual issues, which he chose not to simplify, codify, reconcile, or resolve, but rather to dramatise’ so that he could give his audiences the ‘thrill’ of an ‘imaginative dimension’ (28) to their daily lives.
          Greer’s apologetic intent and her patronisation of Shakespeare’s audience cannot conceal her profound ignorance of a philosophy that more comprehensively and logically than any other philosophy argues for the priority of the female over the male and the priority of nature over the male God. She casts Shakespeare as a latter-day post-modernist post-structuralist (a tertiary mindset from which her polemical style has benefited) claiming that the ‘strength of Shakespeare’s position is that he refrains from coming to conclusions but leaves that to those who complete his utterance’. (24)
          Greer persists in denigrating the man by denying Shakespeare the right to be anything more than a mouthpiece for commonplaces of thought. ‘Shakespeare’s achievement as a thinker, then, is not that he formulated original notions or erected a new system of philosophy, but that he took the commonplaces of Elizabethan thought and made them actual’. (29) In her attempt to straddle the unbridgeable divide between women’s rights and male-God based Christianity she cannot help but, like the Christianity she defends, be pre-emptory and patronising.
          There is no respite from her assault on Shakespeare’s worth. She says, ‘Shakespeare does not provide us with a map of an ethical system’. (30) What about the extensive treatment of truth and beauty in sonnets 20 to 126 and 127 to 152, and the unrelenting critique of male-based injustices in the plays and poems? She says ‘there is nothing innovative in Shakespeare’s idea of history, no ideology or philosophy which he imposed on the material that he organised’. (31) The commentaries on the Sonnets and plays in these volumes demonstrate overwhelmingly that the logical/ethical structure articulated in the Sonnets is the basis for all his poems and plays.
          In Shakespeare’s most deliberately philosophic play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which the four princesses challenge and correct male-based conceits, he presents the most exacting expression of the rights of women in the face of the hierarchical patronisation of the type practised by the idealising Church. But Greer, the arch feminist, does not note and approve of Shakespeare’s intent to right millennia of male-driven wrong. Instead she slights the role of Jaquenetta, who carries the logical inevitability of increase through the play. More significantly, she disparages the logic of the female challenge to the ‘narcissistic’ lords as being their part in a ‘game’. She says, ‘the young lords accost the ladies of France with more evolved versions of the same convention, but the ladies treat the whole business as a game, and a rather narcissistic and misconceived game at that’. (32)


    Greer concludes her final chapter in Shakespeare with the subheading ‘The achievement of marriage’. She claims ‘for Shakespeare marriage was not simply a cliché for ending the action, although it became so in his lifetime. He was profoundly interested in the paradox of creating a durable social institution out of the volatile material of lover’s fantasies’. (33) And a little later she insists ‘Shakespeare was giving form to the Protestant ideology of marriage’. (34) But both these claims are contrary to the Sonnet logic.
          Shakespeare’s natural philosophy seeks to resolve not simply ‘lover’s fantasies’ but to naturalise through the increase argument and the logic of truth and beauty the fantasies and delusions of those who believe literally in the mythological stories of the Bible and other religious tracts. Only when an attempt has been made to address religious delusions are the characters in the plays assigned a state of union appropriate to their psychological maturity.
          Because Shakespeare bases his philosophy in nature, he does not lead all his characters into the institution of marriage as a holy union sanctified by the Christian Church, Catholic or Protestant. The characters in the plays who achieve a mature appreciation of natural logic do not, as Greer suggests, enter a bond where ‘no other witness except God was required’. (35) Shakespeare’s natural philosophy moves beyond the psychological dependence on an idealised male God.
          Shakespeare’s own marriage occurred after he and Anne Hathaway were pregnant with their first child. Possibly something in his youthful experience of both the logic of increase and the role of marriage led him to realise marriage that is conferred without an appreciation of the logic of increase in nature is no more than a conceit or a convenient contract.
          While Greer notes that the Church had for centuries established marriage as a second rate state compared with ‘virginity, celibacy and widowhood’, (36) her claim that Shakespeare led his characters toward a ‘durable social institution’ is not consistent with the endings of plays such as Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night. These plays have been called problem plays in the literature because their endings are not consistent with Christian expectations of the type espoused by Greer. They are consistent, though, with the Sonnet philosophy.
          Shakespeare, in his Sonnets and in his plays and poems, argues persistently for marriage as a possible contract between couples after they have achieved an awareness of natural logic. The first 14 sonnets, for instance, have traditionally been dismissed as ‘marriage sonnets’ in which Shakespeare was doing his duty by encouraging a Lord to marry. Yet the theme of the 14 sonnets is increase and not marriage. At no point do the increase sonnets encourage the youth to marry. In Shakespeare’s philosophy the sexual division in nature is followed logically by the requirement to increase if humankind wants to persist and love without prejudice. Marriage, by contrast, is a social/religious contract that does not guarantee a loving or procreative union.
          Greer’s misreading of the Sonnets carries over into the misinterpretation of Shakespeare’s intent in the plays. In some plays in which marriage is a possibility, one of the female characters is pregnant before the action begins, at least one of the characters has an attitude inconsistent with the logic of increase, and at least one of the characters is charged with bringing the others to an awareness of natural logic. Only then is marriage entertained as a possibility.
          And consistently, in those plays, Shakespeare uses marriage either as a fitting climax for characters who have achieved a philosophic resolution of the relation to nature away from their previous capture by idealistic or religious prerogatives (Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing). Otherwise he either ensures that idealising or selfish partners are married as a punishment for their previous divorce from natural principles (Angelo in Measure for Measure) or, if the characters have a psychological disposition that makes it difficult for them to come to such an understanding, he acknowledges their psychological problem by allowing them a Christian marriage (Olivia and Sebastian in Twelfth Night).
          The other possibility is reserved only for those characters who control the action and pair off with a partner who gains complete freedom in their natural understanding. In those cases the play ends with them agreeing to cohabit without a mention of marriage (Viola and Orsino in Twelfth Night), much like the best of de facto relationships existing now. If anything, Shakespeare should not be complimented by Greer for giving marriage a new meaning but for creating the philosophic climate in which the modern mature agreement between consenting couples prevails without the marriage sanctions and prejudices of the male God driven Church. Shakespeare’s treatment of the idealising Isabel and Angelo in Measure for Measure typifies his desire to relieve such characters of the burden of conceit and deceit.
          When Greer notes the prevalence of nature in King Lear, and others note its ubiquitous presence throughout all his works, Shakespeare’s intent is not to institute another idolatry to replace the idolatry of the male God, but for the philosophic purpose of bringing reason and sensibility into the relationships of those characters at odds with nature.


    In her Shakespeare Germaine Greer accepts the traditional misreadings of Shakespeare as a Platonist and Christian. She misrepresents the challenge to male-based conceit by many of Shakespeare’s women, she misunderstands Shakespeare’s attitude to marriage, and dismisses the possibility of a coherent philosophy articulated in Shakespeare’s works. In doing so she remains blind to a critique of male-based prejudice that would give consistency to her vacillating polemics as a professional feminist and would eliminate her unthinking support for attempts to convert Shakespeare to Platonism and Christianity.
          For instance, Greer is unable to develop Bronislaw Malinowski’s Freudian analysis of the mythic basis of patrilineal Christian/Roman presumption into a critique of paternalistic morals.

    The complex known to the Freudian school, and assumed by them to be universal, I mean, the Oedipus complex, corresponds essentially to our patrilineal Aryan family with the developed ‘patria potestas’, buttressed by Roman law and Christian morals, and accentuated by the modern economic conditions of the well-to-do bourgeoisie. (37)
          Instead, in her desire to accommodate the obvious harshness of some of Shakespeare’s characterisations of religious hypocrisy in many of the plays, Greer, at a number of points in her Shakespeare, offers the oxymoronic notion of ‘Christian scepticism’. But even she demonstrates, through her unrelenting conversion of Shakespeare to Christianity, that belief in an ideal God cannot be conditional. And moreover, the history of philosophical scepticism since the time of Hume runs counter to Christian belief. In response, Christianity, undermined by its mass of inconsistencies, has attempted to excuse itself by asserting that all other paradigms of understanding must also be inconsistent.
          Greer unwittingly buys into the charade. When she disparages some of the references to nature in the plays as idolatry, she characterises Shakespeare’s philosophy, which is based on common sense and logical acuity, as another religion like Christianity. The circuitousness of her polemic is a sad reflection on her lack of confidence in nature and womanhood.
          A much more consistent analysis of the history of the usurpation of women’s rights is available in the writings of Riane Eisler, Merlin Stone, and Marija Gimbutas. They argue that for 30,000 years the female priority was recognised and celebrated in Goddess-based religions. Only in the last 3000-4000 years has there been a perversion to a male God based priority. While neither Eisler, Stone nor Gimbutas have fathomed Shakespeare’s recovery of the logic of female priority at the mythic level of expression, their thinking is free of the oxymoronic cul-de-sacs that bedevil Greer’s polemic.
          Ironically, in the current climate of the recovery of women’s rights, it is to males such as Shakespeare and Duchamp that the kudos goes for addressing the logical heart of the problem. They, as males, have been prepared to take responsibility for the history of male-based injustices by acknowledging the priority of the female over their masculine sensibilities. Their works exhibit respect for the logic of sexuality in nature and paradoxically they have been able to achieve a consistent level of mythic expression denied to male driven prophets and evangelists.
          It is unfortunate for women’s rights, then, that Greer’s social criticisms and political polemic have been supported by inadequate arguments and, in the case of Shakespeare, such a bewildering blindness to his achievement. When the template for Shakespeare’s natural logic is placed above a version reworked to represent the traditional male God based belief, it is apparent Greer has attempted to understand the world from the inadequacies of the God template.

    Nature Template

    Nature Template

    God Template

    God template

          The singular God at the head of the God template has no leverage on the world. God can only reveal his true nature by first casting out the false in the form of Satan. The dynamic of God’s goodness is logically linked to the characterisation of the sensuous as evil. As in Greer’s analysis, when nature is made secondary to the absolute God, it is reduced to an Eden-like state lacking the natural complexity represented in the Nature template.
          Greer’s attack on nature idolaters is ironic, considering the idealisation of nature in the Garden of Eden. But worse is the traditional prioritisation of the male over the female, which leads to the denigration of the natural dynamic of increase. In the illogical God template, the life of a child ends in a singular non-reproductive death that conveniently requires divine intercession to gain ‘eternal life’.
          Greer’s determination to convert Shakespeare’s natural philosophy to a male God Christian reading does an injustice both to Shakespeare and to the women whose causes she has championed. It is a sad reflection on human understanding that a person dedicated to women’s rights is so willing to submit Shakespeare’s female-based natural logic to a retro-active inquisition.


    1 Germaine Greer, The Whole Women, London, Doubleday, 1999, p. 1. Back
    2 Germaine Greer, Shakespeare, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 99. Back
    3 Ibid., p. 58. Back
    4 Ibid., p. 11. Back
    5 William. H. Matchett, The Phoenix and the Turtle: Shakespeare's Poem and Chester's 'Love's Martyr', The Hague, Mouton, 1965. Back
    6 Germaine Greer, Shakespeare, p. 12. Back
    7 Ibid., p. 12. Back
    8 Ibid., p. 107. Back
    9 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, Cleveland, Meridian Books, 1963, p. 30. Back
    10 J. B. Leishman, Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets, London, Hutchison, 1968, p. 177. Back
    11 Germaine Greer, Shakespeare, p. 96. Back
    12 Ibid., p. 88. Back
    13 Ibid., p. 91. Back
    14 Ibid., p. 92. Back
    15 Ibid., p. 95. Back
    16 Ibid., p. 94. Back
    17 Ibid., p. 96. Back
    18 Ibid., p. 98. Back
    19 Ibid., p. 99. Back
    20 Ibid., p. 103. Back
    21 Ibid., p. 112. Back
    22 Ibid., p. 113. Back
    23 Ibid., p. 114. Back
    24 Ibid., p. 40. Back
    25 Ibid., p. 13. Back
    26 Ibid., p. 14. Back
    27 Ibid., p. 125. Back
    28 Ibid., p. 17. Back
    29 Ibid., p. 59. Back
    30 Ibid., p. 67. Back
    31 Ibid., p. 84. Back
    32 Ibid., p. 118. Back
    33 Ibid., p. 119. Back
    34 Ibid., p. 120. Back
    35 Ibid., p. 121. Back
    36 Ibid., p. 123. Back
    37 Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, London, Paladin, 1970, p. 224. Back

    Roger Peters Copyright © 2005

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