Shakespeare’s women

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28 February 2016

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This research paper is an appreciation of Shakespeare’s portrayal of women in his plays. It examines how Shakespeare’s writings reflect the treatment of women during the 16th century. Does he reveal himself as being sexist and misogynist? In how far are his views about the sexes influenced by the conceptions of gender in the Elizabethan time, and does he support, question or even reject them? Ch. 1 posits the oppression of women as being a representation of the society in the Renaissance. Further, it criticizes the violence and cruelty inflicted in a patriarchal system. Ch. 2 points out that negative quality is part of human nature and that attribution of strength to women was unacceptable in Elizabethan time. Ch. 3 gives a definition of the ideal woman in the Tempest and the Two Gentlemen of Verona. Ch. 4 rejects the idea that Shakespeare has excluded women by giving them insignificant roles in his plays. Ch. 5 shows evidence that Shakespeare defy the norms for his female characters. Ch. 6 argues that Shakespeare might be protesting against the treatment of women rather than expressing his own misogynistic and sexist views regarding the female gender.

Literature Review
With the emancipation of women from the 16th to 21st century, it is common to find that many critics claim that Shakespeare has shown much disrespect towards womanhood in his plays. They suggest that he displayed misogynistic and sexist tendencies towards women. According to the research carried out, It has been observed that Shakespeare’s portrayal of women in his plays reflect to a large extent the conception of women in his era. While some researchers focused mainly on the roles of the female characters and the language used by the male characters to denigrate women, others go beyond what is reproduced in the plays. Those critics took into consideration the factors that influenced the dramatist in the 16th century. In a critic Barton (1997) affirms that Shakespeare doesn’t support the violent treatment of women nor does he walk in streets to voice out their conditions but rather makes use of a comedy like The Taming of the Shrew to capture the attention of his audience. He skillfully ridicules the attitudes of men towards women. In contrast, George Bernard Shaw completely disapproves the ‘domineering cruelty’ of Petruchio regarding Katherina and remarks that his attitude is shameful. Similarly, some literary critics state that Petruchio’s dialogues are insulting and too harsh to laugh at. Other critical approaches considers that the attempt of Shakespeare was merely to entertain his audience and point out that The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s earliest work, qualifying him as being immature. Das (2012) points out Gertrude’s behaviour could have influenced Hamlet to a large extent in his treatment of Ophelia. She suggests that the sudden marriage of Gertrude with Claudius has had an impact on the perception of women by Hamlet.

Other critics claim that the portrayal of Ophelia and Gertrude reflects human nature and society at that time. Allan Bloom and Harry V. Jaffa said that Shakespeare took his source from what he could see around him. Some critics debate that Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as a wicked character but it is must be noted that the attribution of strength and the involvement in politics by women were unacceptable views in the Renaissance. Some critics assert that Shakespeare exclude women by giving them insignificant roles while others critics debate that Shakespeare didn’t created much roles for women because they were not allowed to act on stage. A more plausible approach is that, a playwright would be more concerned about creating and developing interesting plays than inspiring his ideas according to acting abilities in a sadly androcentric time. Although, plays such as The Taming of the Shrew and Othello definitely contain sexist and misogynistic ideas, Twelfth Night and Anthony and Cleopatra remarkably clear the assumptions that Shakespeare hated women. This work posits that Shakespeare showed the mistreatment of women in his plays to make the audience recognize it, not agree with it. Shakespeare reflects and at times supports the stereotypes of women and their various roles and responsibilities in society but he is also a playwright who questions, challenges and modifies their representation.

Shakespeare portrays women in different ways in his plays. He has attributed to them both strengths and weaknesses to make them look real. His plays apparently project an image of the conception and treatment of women in Elizabethan time. Through his female characters, Shakespeare reflects to a large extent the social and marital status of women according to his era, the Renaissance. History reveals that during the Elizabethan time, women have been remaining meek and submissive. In the Renaissance, the majority of women had been uneducated unless they came from a wealthy family. Women had to devote themselves to their family and household tasks. Shakespeare’s writings provide an analysis of the conditions of women in the 16th century. However, the presentation of women in his plays is being debated, as critics argue that he has shown much disrespect towards womanhood. Shakespeare has been even qualified as sexist and misogynist as it appears that his plays emanate negative attitude towards women. Shakespeare is being criticized as most of his heroines seem to be emotionally weak, inferior compared to men and dominated by the male characters. Women have been shown as being victims of men, who torture them mentally and physically. In contrast, many strong women have been presented as being wicked, immoral and disloyal.

Chapter 1. The oppression of women in society

1.1 A representation of submissive women by Hermia, A Midsummer’s Night Dream The female characters in Shakespeare’s plays have been observed to be dominated by males. In A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Hermia is forced to marry Demetrius in accordance to her father’s wish although she is in love with Lysander. She must obey her father and cannot revoke his decision or else she will be subdued to death. Demetrius is regarded as richer and nobler compared to Lysander, so, he is considered to be a suitable husband for Hermia. The following statement of Egeus, the father of Hermia denotes how he ascertains his rights to decide for her: “I beg the ancient privilege of Athens:

As she is mine, I may dispose of her,
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.” (1. 1.41-45)
Egeus’ expression of ownership towards his daughter clearly reflects the perception and attitude towards the female gender in the Renaissance. In contrast, it seems that Hermia’s refusal of marrying Demetrius could be an attempt by Shakespeare to protest against the gender inequality. It is possible that Shakespeare makes use of Hermia to defy the law that society imposes on women, thus reflecting his own opinion on feminism.

1.2 An analysis of violence cruelty against women in the Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet The Taming of the Shrew demonstrates the domination of a husband over his wife; Katherina is manipulated to the will of Petruchio and is deprived of food and sleep. She is tortured in a cruel way for her harsh words and lack of manners to become a submissive wife. Referring to Petruchio’s soliloquy on the ‘taming’ of his new bride, his lines show his intentions of exercising power in arbitrary way: “She eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat; Last night she slept not, nor to-night she shall not ;”( 4.1.178-179) In a critic, Ann Barton (1997, cited in Thorne S, 2003) says in her introduction to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew: “Shakespeare does not support this violent treatment of women, nor does he walk through the streets of London campaigning for their better treatment. Instead, he writes a comedy entitled The Taming of the Shrew and uses humor to gain the attention of his audience.” By emphasizing the ridiculous nature of both Petruchio’s extreme and abusive taming methods and Katherina’s outrageous and shrewish behaviour, Shakespeare cajoles the audience into reconsidering its ideas about and its treatment of women. Satire has always been a writer’s tool for pointing out flaws in society.

George Bernard Shaw condemns Petruchio for his “domineering cruelty.” He said: “No man with any decency of feeling can sit [the final act] out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed.” In contrast, some critics point out that The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s earliest work, considering him to be immature and with a mere intention of making his audience laugh.

They convey a different opinion of Petruchio’s true purpose of ‘taming’ Katherina, not to denigrate her but rather to build their relationship. Nonetheless, it seems that the play has some misogynistic elements even though it is regarded as a comedy; this can be further enhanced with the statement of Petruchio who tells Katherine: “Women are made to bear, and so are you.” The statement could be an interpretation that women are made just to have a child and be an object to be used not anything else. Literary critics point out that this dialogue is an insult to female gender and indeed too crude to laugh at.

1.3 A reflection of women, victims of male dominancy
History reveals that in Shakespearean time, women have been regarded as weak human beings. Ophelia in Hamlet symbolizes a vulnerable woman, who acts as per her father’s will and order. Her dutiful role is taken advantage of and Polonius uses her to spy on Hamlet. This is probably what caused the failure of the relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet. The belief that he is the victim of women’s foul and deceiving nature could be the reason behind his anger. Although Ophelia loves Hamlet, she rejects him as an act of obedience towards her father. But when Hamlet insults Ophelia with his vulgarities, “It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge. “ She feels betrayed and disgraced and she cannot overcome those emotions. She is totally put down and loses her mental balance. It could be suggested that it is Queen Gertrude’s behaviour that has instigated Hamlet’s unforgivable treatment of Ophelia. (Das P, 2012) Ophelia’s song reveals that she is not chaste and that she has lost her virginity to Hamlet: Quoth she “Before you tumbled me,

You promised me to wed.”
He answers:
“So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.” (4.5.67-71)

As Hilsky says “Hamlet kills Ophelia before he kills Polonius’ body” (p.508). With the death of her father, her brother away and a feeling of having been abused and rejected by Hamlet, Ophelia doesn’t seem to have any future. “Through Ophelia we witness Hamlet’s evolution, or de-evolution into a man convinced that all women are whores; that the women who seem most pure are inside black with corruption and sexual desires” (Mabillard A, 2000). Her act of suicide clearly shows the lack of strength of women, highlighted by Shakespeare. It is possible that he uses her as a reflection of woman as being naïve and victimized in the Renaissance. In context with the Elizabethan era, women have been seen as the ‘weaker sex’ in terms of physical strength and endurance. Perhaps, Shakespeare purposely plots Ophelia’s inevitable suicide to mark the importance of chastity during that period. Furthermore, Hamlet’s revelation of his love for Ophelia in Act Five Scene One confutes the idea of Shakespeare’s hatred for women. Another female character of Shakespeare who is created as being weak is Gertrude, in Hamlet. Hamlet has a low opinion about his mother when she soon marries her late husband’s brother. He refers to her as “Frailty, thy name is woman!” Hamlet regards this act of marriage as being a sign of Gertrude’s weakness and he is so angry that he states “beast […] Would have mourned longer!”

Chapter 2. Female characters portrayed negatively

2.1 Gertrude, an insensible woman in Hamlet
Shakespeare also characterizes Gertrude as an immoral character. It appears that she is less sensible to her husband’s death and more interested to jump into a second marriage with Claudius. It seems that this wedding has a bad influence on Hamlet, forcing him to doubt his mother’s prior love for his father. Many critics claim that Gertrude had been unfaithful during her marriage to King Hamlet, and that she also knew Claudius will murder her husband. This is supported by the Ghost of the deceased King Hamlet, who calls Gertrude an “incestuous… adulterate beast.”(I.5.43) However, other critics argue that adulterate by definition, means to change to a worse state by mixing; to contaminate with base matter. And Claudius has indeed, according to the Ghost, contaminated his precious Gertrude, but this does not mean that Claudius did so before Hamlet’s father died. If Gertrude was an adulteress, she would have been almost certainly been involved in Claudius’ plot of murder, and therefore she would be the play’s villainess and not its child-like victim. When Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her closet and announces all her crimes, he does not once even imply that she has committed adultery.

Shakespeare had the power to make Gertrude out to be a dignified character, even perhaps a martyr for Hamlet’s cause (avenge his father’s murder). However every time that she witnesses something that causes her concern, she refuses to stay strong in her opinion of critical matters. This lack of backbone is evident when Hamlet is accused of stalking Ophelia. The Queen responds to this accusation by saying “I doubt it is no other than the main, his father’s death and o’er-hasty marriage” (2.2.56-57). It would seem natural that a mother would stand beside her son over the objections of her new husband, and certainly over a courtier, Polonius. Nevertheless, the response from Polonius, backed by Claudius, is that Hamlet is truly in love with Ophelia and it is the root of his perpetuating madness. Gertrude simply does not have the gumption to stand up to these men, and she surrenders to their ploy.i Some critics claim that Shakespeare successfully portrays Gertrude as a poor mother and a lustful lover, thus most likely reflecting human nature and society at that time.

2.2 Powerful woman portrayed as wicked in Macbeth
Shakespeare has given power to his female character Lady Macbeth, yet she suggests the danger of women involvements in politics. From the beginning of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth appears as a character creating rebellious plots; she is portrayed as a strong character that influences Macbeth to kill the king Duncan. Shakespeare portrays Lady Macbeth as an ambitious woman, greedy for power. “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be

What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.”(1.5.16-21)
However, it is possible that Lady Macbeth is an image of women during Elizabethan reign; her only way to legitimate power is through her husband. John Wain, the author of the Living World of Shakespeare states that “the English scene, viewed from an Elizabethan standpoint, was dominated by one urgent need: the need for political stability, guaranteed by an undisputed monarchy.”ii This refers to the instability of the Monarchy, pertaining to the problems of Henry’s succession, the failed marriage of Mary and the ambivalence of Elizabeth’s feelings towards matrimony. Critics refer to Lady Macbeth as the one who changes a hero like Macbeth into a tyrant and also as someone who turns a conqueror into a despicable traitor. Unlike Hermia and Katherina, mentioned earlier, Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband to commit treason by killing the king and claiming an offered crown. Readers state that though most Shakespeare’s female characters are vulnerable and dependent, Lady Macbeth breaks the mold. But, the mental agony of Lady Macbeth in the play implies that she is like any woman, she utters “All the perfumes of Arabia couldn’t make my little hand smell better”, which reveals her inner guilt that the blood of king Duncan is irremovable on her hands. This further reinforces the idea that Shakespeare female gender is viewed by the society as being feeble.

Allan Bloom and Harry V. Jaffa said that: “The poet is an imitator of nature; he reproduces what he sees in the world, and it is only his preoccupation with that world which renders him a poet.”iii However, it seems that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth as a negative character is justified by her attribution of strength, not accepted by the society during the Elizabethan era. Chapter 3. A definition of the ideal woman in Elizabethan time 3.1 A representation of virtuosity in The Tempest and Two Gentlemen of Verona According to Shakespeare and his era, a good woman was supposed to be obedient, chaste, virtuous and demure. Miranda in The Tempest claims that her modesty is her most important quality, “the jewel in my dower.” A reflection of Shakespeare’s feelings towards women could be conveyed when Launce from Two Gentlemen of Verona admits that “To be slow in words is a woman’s only virtue.” This statement emphasizes the idea that talkative women who expressed themselves openly were not appreciated by men and were considered to be unpleasant.

Chapter 4. Inequality of gender

4.1 Discrimination against women in Shakespeare’s plays
Scholars claim that Shakespeare has given insignificant roles to his female characters, thus excluding women. In Antony and Cleopatra there are only two female characters compared to men and in The Merry Wives of Windsor only four female characters have important roles relatively to the thirteen male characters. This seems to create doubt about Shakespeare’s insights regarding women; critics argue that young boys have enacted the roles of women, so it must have been difficult for Shakespeare to create more female roles. But, other critics debate that the fact that women’s roles being played by young boys seems to have mattered little on Shakespeare’s writings. Chapter

5. Shakespeare’s defy social and conventional norms

5.1 Empowerment of woman represented by Olivia and Viola in Twelfth Night
Shakespeare has tried to accentuate women’s strengths and abilities and there is a difference between hating women, and simply using them as characters to further a plot. He permits some of the female characters to exist fully outside of conventional norms; Olivia and Viola in Twelfth Night enjoy certain social privileges compared to other female heroines as a benefit of their social class. Olivia and Viola are strong female characters who hold true to their convictions. Shakespeare allows Viola to take man’s attributes when she is disguised as Cesario. She demonstrates her inner strength when taking the job of Orsino’s workman. She remains completely loyal to the Duke in her task of wooing Olivia on his behalf until she realizes that the latter has fallen in love with Cesario. She tries to protest against the Duke’s angry accusations that she has deceived him: “My lord, I do protest […]” (5.1.161) Viola is portrayed as a strong willed and intelligent woman throughout the play. Though, Viola masquerades as a man for most of the play, her feminine qualities shine through and appeal to everyone she encounters. Her swagger might be masculine, but her wit and touch are unmistakably that of a woman’s. Olivia is determined to love who she wants and even marries Sebastian as per her will. She asserts her autonomy and what she believes is her right to make decisions about love and marriage on her own terms. Shakespeare empowered both female characters in Twelfth Night and portrayed them as independent. At a time when women have been considered as inferior and objects, Shakespeare remarkably presents women in a different way. It is possible that he has been trying to change the conception about women during the 16th century.

5.2 Shakespeare’s portrayal of Cleopatra from Anthony and Cleopatra Cleopatra has been a seductress and whore according to various sources from which Shakespeare has built his play on. She is referred by historians and roman poets as someone who uses her beauty to get what she wants. Cleopatra is blamed for Anthony’s destruction in Cleopatra. (Cinthio G G.B, 1583) However, Shakespeare portrays her in a more sympathetic way. In Act three, she is depicted as composed compared to Anthony who goes in a jealous rage. Futhermore, Shakespeare describes her death scene in a tragic way and awed her courage and bravery whereas Anthony lacks the courage to kill himself. He asks his servant to do it but as a refusal, he is therefore obliged to stab himself. Perhaps, Shakespeare has tried to present Cleopatra differently to let his audience be more compassionate towards her. He even portrays Anthony as the ‘weaker sex’ compared to Cleopatra who appears as the strong woman. Chapter

6. An analysis of misogynistic and sexist views towards women in Othello

6.1 A representation of Desdemona as a victim of her gender
Although, being a creative playwright, it appears that Shakespeare has been trying to make his female characters seem real. Desdemona in Othello is one female character who has been portrayed as a submissive wife. She is completely devoted to her husband but still she is killed by him because he believes that she is having an affair with Cassio. Desdemona tries to convince Othello that she has not cheated him, but he is too engulfed by jealousy and is unable to trust her. In spite of her assertiveness in choosing her own husband, Desdemona ‘accepts her culture’s dictum that she must be obedient to males’ and is ‘self-denying in the extreme’ when she dies. (French M, 1982) Perhaps, Shakespeare could be emphasizing that doubt and suspicion lead to tragedy. Although the death of Desdemona reinforces the idea that Shakespeare has misogynistic views towards women, it is also possible that he uses his female characters to protest against repression of women during the 16th century. However, Iago’s statement “when she is done with his body, she will see the mistake that she made. She must have variety…” implies that Desdemona is a whore and is with Othello only for sex and not love. The language used by Shakespeare creates a doubt whether Iago is a sexist and misogynistic character in the play or is Shakespeare expressing his own views towards women. Conclusion

Taking into account the characters analyzed, it can therefore be concluded that Shakespeare‘s intention of depicting women as submissive, weak and inferior was most probably an attempt to raise the question about gender inequality and voice out their oppression. Attributing to his female characters, the power and the freedom to express their opinions and desires was unacceptable in Elizabethan time. He places women like Lady Macbeth in the role of power but, perhaps intentionally makes her vulnerable and mentally unstable because he was writing for an audience in the 16th century. However, Shakespeare uses comedies to defy the norms of the society at that time, by allowing characters like Hermia to disapprove the choice of husband made by her father. Shakespeare has created other unconventional female characters like Viola, through the device of using the theme of cross dressing and also provides an opportunity for women to assert their autonomy in the character Olivia. It should also be considered that Shakespeare could have been prosecuted by the law for expressing unacceptable views in his plays. So, he carefully makes use of comedy like Twelfth Night to exhibit that women have equal proclamation to a man.

It would be absurd to assert that Shakespeare was sexist and misogynist as evidence shows that he portrays Anthony as the ‘weaker sex’ and in Anthony and Cleopatra. It could be that Shakespeare used misogynist terms and ideas in his plays because the society at that time held such views and being a commercial dramatist, he had to earn his livings. Shakespeare was a creative playwright and it is difficult to distinguish between behaviour that is parodied and behaviour that is presented as an ideal. There is not enough proof to claim that he has expressed his own views of hatred towards women in his plays. In the absence of credible evidence, it is therefore inappropriate to assert that Shakespeare has shown disrespect towards womanhood and that he was sexist and misogynist.

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End notes

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"Shakespeare’s women" StudyScroll, Feb 28, 2016. Accessed Dec 5, 2023.

"Shakespeare’s women" StudyScroll, Feb 28, 2016.

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