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UNIT: The Shipwrecked Woman in Shakespeare's Plays and Popular Film

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July 2004
Janet Field-Pickering is Head of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Plays/Scenes Covered
Twelfth Night, Shakespeare in Love, Titanic
What's On for Today and Why
The following unit makes for a useful gender and cultural studies approach to a Shakespeare play and to two popular contemporary films with strong women protagonists. In the three works studied in this unit, the protagonists are shipwrecked. What happens to each character after she is shipwrecked is either the entire concern of the play in which she appears, bookends the film in which she appears, or is merely alluded to at the end of the film. Besides the fact that each character is presented as both shipwrecked and alone, needing to forge some sort of new life for herself, each character also lives in a cultural milieu where there are very strict rules about what women can and cannot do. By examining both the attitudes of characters in the play and looking at primary sources to research larger societal attitudes, a greater depth of understanding of gender issues in the work can be achieved.
What You Need

Folger edition of Twelfth Night
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts


Shakespeare in Love 1998
Titanic 1997 Primary Sources:

The good and the badde, or Descriptions of the vvorthies, and vnworthies of this age by Breton, Nicholas, 1545?-1626? London : Printed by George Purslowe for Iohn Budge, and are to be sold at the great south-dore of Paules, and at Brittaines Bursse, 1616 STC (2nd ed.) / 3656

Of domesticall duties by Gouge, William, 1578-1653. London : Printed by George Miller, for Edward Brewster, and are to be sold at the signe of the Bible, neere the north doore of Saint Pauls Church, 1634 STC (2nd ed.) 12121

To be researched on the Internet: A woman's role in early 20th century society: early 20th century etiquette books

What To Do
1. In a study of the entire play of Twelfth Night, pay particularly attention to the character of Viola and her soliloquies. How does her cross-dressing both affect her character and reflect on the societal mores of Illyria?

2. View selected scenes from Shakespeare in Love  to introduce the character of Viola de Lessups. The film to a certain extent acts as an imaginative prequel to Twelfth Night. Discuss how this works and then compare both character, Viola and Viola de Lessups. There are several points of comparison—cross-dressing as a solution to one's problems is perhaps the most obvious—but analyze both characters completely.

3. Then refer to the two sixteenth century primary sources. Read these sources and create a list of positive attributes for a young maid of upper-class parentage in regards to deportment and rules of love and marriage. Compare both Violas to see how they stack up to their contemporary cultural expectations. Write a list of ways in which they fought the system and ways in which they obeyed social strictures. How does cross-dressing figure into this?

4. View scenes from Titanic, discussing the narrative framework which introduces an old woman survivor of the wreck  to tell the story of Rose DeWitt Bukater. Analyze her character as you did for both Violas. Be careful to examine the evidence of how Rose acted after the wreck of the Titanic, and realize that clues to this behavior bookend the main action of the plot.

5. Discover your own primary sources by researching on the internet for early twentieth century cultural stereotypes about women. Rules of etiquette would also prove very helpful. Did Rose meet contemporary societal expectations form young women of her time? Why or why not?

6. Compare and/or contrast all three heroines by creating a chart where you list each woman's primary actions throughout her plot. 8-10 points of comparison/contrast are a good goal. Share your findings in small groups and then as a class. What did you discover about all three heroines?
How Did It Go?
After comparing all three works and their main characters, does the act of shipwrecking serve as a metaphor or a symbol for what happens to these women? What do these characters share in common, besides being shipwrecked? How did they survive in the world in which they inhabited? How did prevalent social attitudes of the day affect these heroines? In what ways did they buck these attitudes? In what ways did they acquiesce?

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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