WHEN WE FIRST meet Mira, she is hiding in a booth in a Harvard john, feeling helplessly stupid as she perches fully clothed on the open toilet seat. Thus begins The Women's Room, Marilyn French's very long first novel about Mira's experiences and chums in the combat zone: every man's land. The book made a big splash three years back. Another novel, The Bleeding Heart, has lately appeared. French now comes to us with an ambitious work of Shakespeare criticism. She has the credentials for it -- Harvard PhD, teaching experience at several colleges, scholarly articles, even a book on James Joyce's Ulysses. Her timing is right too. Shakespeare's Division of Experience has -- not unexpectedly -- a feminist slant. Women's studies are big these days on campus, and they haven't yet been staled by Establishment absorption; they can still convey the fresh excitement of interpretative discovery. French's book, whatever one's reservations (and I have some), does just that.

Gender is her game. French sets up her theoretical scaffolding in two preliminary chapters on "masculine" and "feminine" principles, which (taking a lead from philosopher/linguist Benjamin Whorf) she traces back to the division of labor in primitive societies. Certain values attach to the genders. Woman, the bearer of children, is tender, nutritive, compassionate; man -- the tamer of nature and women -- exercises dominion confirmed by status, wealth, and prowess. The feminine principle is in turn bifurcated into what French terms "outlaw" and "inlaw" aspects. The outlaw, associated with sexual pleasure, tends to subvert masculine goals; it furnishes a rationale for the misogyny she sees as characterizing Western culture. The inlaw principle, on the other hand, exalts humility and compassion, community above the individual, feeling above action. At the outset I worried a little about French's polarities, recalling how some years back the late Irwin Edman, in a review of Arthur Koestler's Insight and Outlook, remarked that it is the hallmark of the amateur philosopher that he cannot resist dividing everything up into two categories. But French is more sophisticated than that. She accepts what is after all common knowledge: that the gender principles aren't gender-specific -- biological males can accommodate feminine values, and females aren't exempt from masculine power struggles. And, along with overlap, there exists the possibility for synthesis.

Her quest carries her through the Shakespeare canon, beginning with the early plays on Henry VI and Richard III -- dramas of power -- and The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, comedies about marriage. Then on to the romantic comedies centering on constancy, money and the realm of emotion; the problem comedies and Hamlet, which question ideals; and the major tragedies, from Othello on, which banish ideals. With the late romances culminating in The Tempest, Shakespeare reconciles the warring gender principles. Inevitably there are omissions -- French has so much on her plate. But I missed any discussion, passing allusions apart, of Titus Andronicus, in which two extraordinary women figure: the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, who marries a Roman emperor, beds a black lover, bears his child, and is deeply implicated in the atrocious villainy of the play; and Lavinia, her victim, who is raped and has her tongue cut out and hands lopped off by Tamora's sons. In this play outlaw and inlaw principles operate with a vengeance. French also passes over the non-dramatic poems, never even mentioning the Dark Woman of the Sonnets.

And what is the upshot of it all? Shakespeare, French sums up in her last paragraph, "never stopped searching for a way to reintegrate human experience. But because he -- and his tradition -- saw experience in terms of polar opposites, his work has been important in perpetuating the very division he sought to reconcile. At the same time, because he captured in poetry the fluid, emotional moment, making it permanent; because he gave powerful expression to values found insubstantial in the world; his work itself achieved the synthesis that the moral dimension of the plays strove for."

Despite reintegration and synthesis, however, Shakespeare never overcame his abhorrence of female sexuality.

French makes heavy weather of this presumed nausea. Sex is "bestial and filthy," "that snake in the grass," "a sulfurous pit." In Measure for Measure Isabella's hatred of sex is her creator's hatred. The dramatist's loathing was "pathological," although many shared the pathology. French underscores the expression, sometimes vehement, of sexual loathing in the plays. But the revulsion is of course expressed not by Shakespeare in his own person but through the agency of his imagined characters. More than fiction or lyric poetry, drama is a communal medium; the naked "I" remains buried, the libido discreetly covered over by the rationalizations of art.

Shakespearean dramaturgy glories in a great ongoing dialectic; theme is opposed by countertheme; as the play unfolds, the audience's perceptions are continually modified by subsequent perceptions. Directors allow themselves -- and who shouldn't they? -- liberty of interpretation. Less legitimately critics, too, choose their exhibits selectively as they pursue their theses. Sex nausea? In Lear, fair enough, and in Hamlet and others too. But how do we respond to Juliet, aged 14, imploring "love-performing night" to spread her curtain and allow Romeo to leap into her arms so that these two virgins may perform their "amorous rites"? Ask any resonably sensitive adolescent who has responded to the play in the classroom, or seem the Zellirelli movie, how we should feel about sensual love in Shakespeare, and the answer won't be French's. But, then, she doesn't discuss Romeo and Juliet nor, despite all her authorities, does she mention C. J. Sisson's classic British Academy lecture of almost half a century ago, "The Mythical Sorrows of Shakespeare," setting forth with urbane good humor the fallacies of subjective biography. That might have set her straight.

Along with sex, politics. "Worldly power in women," French declares, "was for Shakespeare an abomination and bore overtones of sexual corruption." But in his England a woman exercised worldly power with absolute authority for almost half a century. Far from being associated with sexual corruption, Elizabeth was venerated by her countrypersons as the Virgin Queen. Shakespeare alludes to Elizabeth flatteringly in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and her baptism provides the glorious occasion celebrated in the last act of Henry VIII. Does French want us to believe that Shakespeare regarded Elizabeth as guilty of abomination? Surely not. And what are we to make of the simple fact of Elizabeth's masculine power in a misogynistic society? Such questions the author does not address. The queen barely receives mention in the book; in fact, the historical context hardly figures at all. French passes over major historical studies, including Lawrence Stone's seminal The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800.

I wouldn't want, though, to overstress deficiencies. There are many good things in this book. French is not surprisingly at her best in dealing with the wonderful range of Shakespeare's major and minor female characters -- the three women in Othello, for example, who inhabit three moral levels: the "divine" Desdemona, the earthy Emilia, and the camp follower Bianca. But French is almost as insightful on the currents that run between Othello and Iago. Were I to name my favorite section, I suppose it would be the one on Antony and Cleopatra, which for French (as for me) is a favorite play. She sees inconstancy -- "variability, betrayal, and flox" -- as the defining characteristic of this play's world; Antony and Cleopatra is Shakespeare's dramatic Mutability Canto. But even when French is traversing familiar ground in these endlessly discussed -- and endlessly discussable -- works, her perspective succeeds in presenting them in a sometimes unexpected light.

On points of detail French is now and then untrustworthy, or at the least questionable. Thus Shylock is not, as the author would have it, like Antonio a merchant of Venice but a money-lender. French seems to see Claudius, in Hamlet, as not really such a bad fellow -- handling state business with intelligence and dispatch, concerned about the welfare of the country, trying to be agreeable to his nephew and Laertes. This reviewer finds Claudius a slimy bastard. The terrible scene in 3 Henry VI in which Queen Margaret taunts York, bound and helpless, over the death of his young son, is misread as "equivalent to Lady Macbeth's avowal that she would dash out an infant's brains had she sworn to do it"; but clearly Lady Macbeth is imagining the most appalling thing possible -- she isn't, like Margaret, gloating.

French isn't a fastidious stylist. Her syntax can be sloppy. She says "mitigated against" when she means "militated against." Arid stretches sometimes make reading a slog. In a single paragraph the author is capable of citying by title just two plays -- Errors and Shrew -- 12 times. Little lightness or wit comes through; jargon oppresses. French is extremely earnest: she doesn't attempt to engage her readers, to entice them away from received critical values. Shakespeare's Division of Experience is well organized, aggressive, hard driving. In these respects it seems itself to manifest the masculine principle rather than the feminine in its dual aspect, seductive and nutritive, although there is sufficient nourishment here for those without digestive problems.