The life of Eleanor Marx is imbued with references to Shakespeare – as is the case for so many women of the nineteenth century. For the Victorians in general the dramatist’s female characters, in particular, seem to have taken on an iconic, occasionally even a hagiographic, status and function, and to have acted as archetypes and parameters of the possibilities of contemporary femininity. In the unjustly notorious ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ section of Sesame and Lilies (1864), John Ruskin compares Shakespeare’s men and women thus:
Shakespeare has no heroes; – he has only heroines. There is no one entirely heroic figure in all his plays … Whereas there is hardly a play that has not a perfect woman in it, steadfast in grave hope, and errorless purpose: Cordelia, Desdemona, Isabella, Hermione, Imogen, Queen Catherine, Perdita, Sylvia, Viola, Rosalind, Helena, and last, and perhaps loveliest, Virgilia, are all faultless; conceived in the highest heroic type of humanity. 1Ruskin, of course, omits such troubling heroines as Lady Macbeth, and even Beatrice, women clearly not seen by him as an integral part of Shakespeare’s testimony to the timeless virtues of womanhood, which in a sleight of hand designed to flatter his listeners, and to collapse the distance between them and Shakespeare’s characters, he makes into a universalized ‘testimony to the position and character of women in human life’. Ruskin goes on: ‘[Shakespeare] represents them as infallibly faithful and wise counsellors,– incorruptibly just and pure examples – strong always to sanctify, even when they cannot save’. 2 There is no recognition of a gap between Shakespeare’s women and their Victorian counterparts: they both occupy a continuum of idealized femininity.