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Shakespeare and the suffragettes

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were famously the age of “Bardolatry,” Shakespeare-worship that permeated artistic, social, civic, and political life. As Victorian scientific advances including Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in On the Origin of Species (1859), destabilised Christianity as ultimate arbiter of truth, rhetoricians invoked Shakespeare’s plots and characters to support their arguments.

The Victorians weren’t the last to appropriate Shakespeare for political purposes. At World War I recruitment rallies, actor Frank Benson (1858–1939) performed Henry V to encourage patriotic young Englishmen to sign up to fight in France and Flanders. During the Third Reich, the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer compared Hamlet to recent German history. Claudius’s usurpation of the Danish throne, denying Hamlet his rights, supposedly recalled the Treaty of Versailles (1919), which had financially crippled Germany in the wake of the First World War. But in the Edwardian era, another group found it powerfully useful to turn Shakespeare’s plays – and above all Shakespeare’s heroines – to their political advantage. These were the suffragists.

Looking at fin-de-siècle and Edwardian theatrical debates about gender roles, Ibsen’s trapped but rebellious heroines are one important focus of debate. But the suffragists and militant suffragettes had inherited Shakespearean heroines like Ophelia (Hamlet), Imogen (Cymbeline), and Hermione (The Winter’s Tale) as beloved Victorian icons of female fidelity, passivity, and suffering. Yet the burgeoning suffrage movement co-opted Shakespeare, claiming that his plays supported independent, rebarbative women.

Portrait of Ellen Terry (1847-1928). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Beloved Victorian actress Ellen Terry (1847–1928), whose daughter Edith Craig (1869–1947) was an ardent suffragist, argued in her lectures that Shakespeare’s women “certainly have more in common with our modern revolutionaries” than with early Victorian literature’s “fragile domestic heroines.” A prologue spoken by suffragist actress Fay Davis at an 1911 Actresses’ Franchise League matinee suggested that if Ophelia had had the franchise – “If instead of suicide-suggestion, / To vote or not to vote had been the question” – Ophelia would have met Hamlet’s “male insolence of sneer and doubt” with “mocking flout,” not madness.

However, The Winter’s Tale proved the suffragists’ favourite Shakespeare play. Shakespeare’s late romance sees Hermione, queen of Sicilia, groundlessly accused of adultery and imprisoned for treason by her husband Leontes. Hermione gives birth to a daughter, Perdita, in prison, whom Leontes rejects. Weak from childbirth, Hermione is exonerated in court by the Oracle at Delphi; however, when Leontes unjustly dismisses the overwhelming evidence of her innocence, both Hermione and her eldest child, Mamilius, suddenly die. Remorse-stricken, Leontes mourns for sixteen years, until Perdita is found, and Paulina, Hermione’s gentlewoman and outspoken supporter, reveals that she has been secretly protecting Hermione, who’s been in hiding since faking her death. The family is miraculously reunited (apart from Mamilius, who stays dead).

In 1912, Lillah McCarthy played Hermione in her husband Harley Granville-Barker’s Royal Court production. McCarthy was an Actresses’ Franchise League member, and inspired Emmeline Pankhurst as Ann Whitfield in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman (1906). She had also portrayed Justice in Cicely Hamilton’s feminist Pageant of Great Women (1910). In 1912, suffragist newspapers saw McCarthy’s Hermione as an imprisoned suffragette, sent to “Holloway” by Leontes’s “Cabinet Minister.” The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) newspaper Votes for Women entitled its review “The Conspiracy Trial of Hermione” and identified Esmé Beringer’s Paulina as a character who “could have been written since 1905.” For the Suffragette newspaper, Paulina was not just an activist, but “the eternal Suffragette whom the greatest geniuses of all ages have loved to portray.”

Paulina reminded suffragettes of their own experience supporting friends in prison. The Votes for Women critic gave Paulina’s Shakespearean lines an intensely modern setting:

Waiting in the ante-room to see the Governor, and filled, as so many of us have been at the gates of Holloway since 1905, with a sense of the irony of such imprisonments, she exclaims: “Good lady, / No court in Europe is too good for thee, / What dost thou then in prison?”

Paulina inspired the suffragettes because she wasn’t an icon of passive endurance like “dignified, patient, unprotesting Hermione.” As the Suffragette newspaper noted, if ‘all women’ were as docile as Hermione, “Hermiones would continue to be unjustly degraded, Perditas to be unjustly abandoned.”

The suffragists weren’t only fascinated by Shakespeare’s heroines. They attended Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Festival and annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebrations (still held today). In 1909, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) adopted Shakespeare’s heraldic colours for one Stratford banner, which they decorated with the words “To be or not to be.” They also insisted in participating in the annual processions to Shakespeare’s grave. In the same year, the WSPU were “undoubtedly the most conspicuous figures in the procession,” carrying bouquets of flowers in their union colours of green, purple, and white.

On Shakespeare’s birthday, the 23 April edition of Votes for Women reported that leading suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Laurence, newly-released from prison, had “read the historical plays of Shakespeare” during her imprisonment. At a celebratory meal, Pethick-Lawrence recited Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech to fellow-activists, telling them that the spirit of Agincourt was “the spirit that dwells in us.” Where Henry V told his followers that “I would not lose so great an honour, as one man more, methinks, would share from me,” Pethick-Lawrence extrapolated: “that’s what I want you to feel. Don’t let one more go to prison without your being there.” Frank Benson wasn’t the only Edwardian to appropriate Henry V for political purposes. For the activists of the WSPU, Shakespeare was undoubtedly a suffrage playwright. Perhaps that is why the suffragettes’ militancy, despite rumours in 1913, never extended to vandalising Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Some cultural icons, it seems, retain their sanctity.

Featured image credit: Photo shows a woman suffrage meeting in New York City, where British suffragist leader Emmeline Pankhurst addressed a crowd near the Subtreasury Building on Wall Street, New York City, on November 27, 1911. Bain News Service. Public domain. Library of Congress.

Recent Comments

  1. Richard M. Waugaman, M.D.

    Fascinating. Including the role of Darwin in creating bardolatry. Yes, it makes sense that decline in traditional religious belief created a faith vacuum, as it were, and Shakespeare often filled that void. And Shakespeare inspires awe with his apparent omniscience, understanding us better than we understand ourselves.

    All we need now is to combine our quite reasonable love of Shakespeare with non-faith-based, objective re-examination of who wrote these works. Those of us who have been researching this question are regularly denied a hearing. The vehemence with which Shakespeare traditionalists enforce their taboo against examining new evidence that is unfavorable to their authorship candidate smacks of the worst sort of religious fundamentalism, and bears no relationship to scholarly inquiry and objectivity.

  2. Steve Grilli

    I was taught many decades ago by a feminist that the term “suffragettes” was demeaning; the correct term is “suffragists.” Certainly, the “-ette” suffix denotes a diminution, which does a disservice to these brave women. I suppose you can’t expect the popular media to change its usage, but why not the OUP?

  3. Sophie Duncan

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for the comments!

    Steve – it’s an issue of affiliation rather than respect, I think. “Suffragettes” were explicitly the women who formed the wing of the “suffragist” (i.e. pro-suffrage) movement that espoused militant tactics. For example, Millicent Fawcett was a suffragist, while Emmeline Pankhurst became specifically a suffragette. Her organisation, the WSPU, began its militant campaign in 1905. “Suffragette” was certainly intended as a demeaning term when coined by a Daily Mail journalist, but it was swiftly reclaimed by proud militant activists including Emmeline Pankhurst, Kitty Marion, and Emily Davison. The WSPU newspaper was actually called “The Suffragette”.

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