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Girls with attitude

06 May 2016

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WHEN the editors of The Girl’s Own Paper of 1888 launched a competition for its readers to identify the most inspiring of Shakespeare’s heroines, little did they know what ideas they were putting into young ladies’ heads. The feminine virtues which the Victorians identified in Shakespeare were those of humility and modesty, devotion and piety.

And yet the essays that the magazine received lauded the likes of Portia and Beatrice, while disapproving of Juliet and her emotional investment in the love of a man. To 21st-century readers, the pages of Shakespeare teem with assertive, strong-willed women. To the Suffragette generation, these readings were bold and political.

Sophie Duncan’s contribution to The Essay (Radio 4, Monday of last week) provided yet another insight into the transformative effect of Shakespeare’s work over the centuries. Suffragettes read Shakespeare in prison; they staged the plays as feminist polemic; and bowdlerised it into shows such as “Shakespeare’s Pageant”, in which the characters deliver hortatory speeches to the leaders of the movement.

In an elegant conclusion to the piece, Duncan revealed how the “girls” whose essay entries had been so startling had gone on to pursue significant, gender-challenging careers.

That equality in the eyes of the law is not a universal human right would have been obvious to the late Victorians; and protesting against it does not make it so. Since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we have made assumptions about what constitutes basic rights, and thus, paradoxically, neglected to interrogate them.

In Are Human Rights Really Universal? (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Helena Kennedy delivered a typically fine-tuned polemic, in which she debated whether the notion of human rights or “natural laws” helps or hinders our progress towards more egalitarian societies. Not even Mahatma Gandhi was convinced by the notion of inalienable rights, since rights are contingent on the existence of states; and critics of universal rights as a concept might well point out that the United Nations that made the 1948 declaration had comparatively weak representation from Islamic and African countries.

Kennedy began her programme with a passage by Hannah Arendt: speaking of the displaced peoples of the Second World War, she observed that the problem was “not that they are equal before the law, but that no law exists for them”. As boats containing the displaced of Syria and elsewhere begin again to arrive on European shores, Arendt’s implicit critique of the universality of human rights is as compelling as ever.

If you ever wondered why academics do not make great screen-writers, then last week’s episode of Soul Music (Radio 4, Tuesday) might have given a hint. The subject was Mozart’s final work, his Requiem, left incomplete at his death. Now, as everybody who has watched the movie Amadeus knows, Mozart was driven to the grave by his arch-rival, the talentless Antonio Salieri. But, for the guest professor on Soul Music, the truth is cruelly pedestrian: Mozart caught a bug. “There was something going around.”

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