Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

What Happened… First?

In my extra-curricular reading travels, I’ve recently come across a lovely book from the 19th century entitled The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines by Mary Cowden Clarke. One must wonder where the characters for these very strong (-minded, -willed, -convictioned) women came from, and she provides a clean, clever, and interesting viewpoint for the women Shakespeare wrote. From Helena to Ophelia, several characters are explored in rich detail because she noted that girls were not relating to Shakespeare very well, and wanted to show them that women were very much represented with many faces in Shakespeare’s canon.

Mrs. Cowden Clarke was actually quite a remarkable woman: at 18, the year after she married, she set to work on a 12-year project, the Concordance to Shakespeare’s works, a Verbal Index to all the Passages in the Dramatic Works of the Poet, which she published under her own name. After then writing the 15-essay collection, Girlhood, she set to work with her husband to edit all of Shakespeare’s works (she was the first woman to do so). She did not appreciate the “Bowlderization” of Shakespeare’s work by a different female editor, Henrietta Bowlder, who “cleaned up” Shakespeare’s text. THEN, Mrs. Cowden Clarke  continued to work with her husband on The Shakespeare Key, unlocking the Treasures of his Style, elucidating the Peculiarities of his Construction, and displaying the Beauties of his Expression; forming a Companion to The Complete  Concordance to Shakespeare.

My main interest in this collection lay in Katherina Minola – she was the reason I had sought out the book in the first place because of a quote in Shakespeare Inside, by Amy Scott-Douglass. In it, Scott-Douglass notes that after Katherina’s temper lands her in a convent as a prisoner (she’s locked in a dark, quiet room to keep her tamer), Katherina becomes enthralled with a painting of Saint Catherine, and spends many hours sitting and looking at the painting in order to memorize the face of the saint. The nuns admonish her for being irreverent and enjoying the painting,  and not praying on her knees to it instead.

Two parallels come to mind for me, and take them as you will: 1) as Scott-Douglass notes, that Art in a Prison is a welcome escape from the walls of the place, into a spiritual haven of sorts. 2) that worship of a work of art and studied enjoyment of the same work are not one and the same experience. The former misses the beauty and versatility of the work, and the latter grows from the experience of studying it.

Katherina is an interesting character for many reasons, and over the coming weeks as our Theatre rehearses their production of The Taming of the Shrew, I’m sure we’ll have lots more to talk about for her. Suffice to say, a character as unruly as Katherina has a long history of being portrayed in a myriad of ways, with a plethora of sympathies, and continues to be a controversial character today. I’ll refer you, here, to her profile from the Folger’s 1997 exhibit “Shakespeare’s Unruly Women.”

All of the links to Mrs. Cowden Clarke’s works are to Google Play, where Free E-versions are available to download to your mobile devices or computers. What are your thoughts on Katherina’s experience with the painting of Saint Catherine? How does her experience in the convent relate to your students’ experience with Shakespeare’s plays? What captures them about the work?

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