Depressing sound of the week was The Misogyny Book Club (Tuesdays, 9.30am). Surely not the utter tedium and small-mindedness of a whole series on supposed underexamined sexism in the canon of western literature? Yes! A five-part complaint about “how women have been treated on the page and in real life”. In the second programme (1 December: the first dissed the Bible; the next one, fairy stories) Hamlet’s crazed dressing-down of Gertrude in Act III was frowned over by the presenter Jo Fidgen and the actress Charlotte Cornwell, who played the part for the RSC in 2013 at Stratford and found it all a bit upsetting.
“You cannot call it love,” says Hamlet, of his mother’s new and evidently libidinous union with her dead husband’s brother; “for at your age/The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble,/And waits upon the judgment . . .” Fidgen described the speech as a “verbal assault” and “hateful”, and both she and Cornwell particularly decried how unaccepting Hamlet was of his mother’s sexuality – how clearly he felt that women of a certain age ought to keep their knickers on. The whole staggering scene whittled down into a feeble little dribble of sexism. And absolutely no oppositional voice. So much for the BBC’s commitment to balance – but then, this is an area where balance is all too often forgotten.
So, there was nobody to point out the head-lollingly obvious: that Gertrude had probably helped poison her son’s father, and then quickly married his uncle! Or to say that Hamlet may well be horrible to the two women in his life, but kills his friend Laertes (and Polonius, and Claudius, and has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed).
There was nobody of the stature of Janet Adelman, the great and now sadly deceased feminist critic of Shakespeare, who might have suggested that if you wanted to discuss the aspects of Hamlet that are not “misogynist” then you’d need a thousand episodes, or even a whole year.
Instead, it was just people agreeing with each other for half an hour, horribly intoxicated by a mutual and narrow disgust. Literature degraded to the spotting of “errors” according to conventional taboos. Analysis for babies.
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires