I love Shakespeare. Always have.
Always Will ...puns aside.
(sorry - that was awful).
And one of the main reasons I love Shakespeare... is because his WOMEN are wonderful!!
They really are. Viola. Rosalind. Beatrice.
They are funny, clever, witty, strong, independent, rebellious, eloquent, poetic, and outrageously sexy women!
These are not women subjugated or intimidated or disempowered by men. Not at all. Shakespeare depicts them with such admiration. Such love. Such humour. One gets the impression he is much more a fan of the fairer sex, actually.
Admittedly, Ophelia is weak and wet. But she has a mental illness. And she really is an exception. Lady Macbeth is almost depicted as female power in the extreme - too "masculine" - in fact, to make up for Macbeth's weakness.
And nobody can tell me that Taming of the Shrew isn't totally tongue in cheek.
And then there is always Cleopatra and Venus.
Anyway here are some nice discussions on the topic. (links in purple).
Well, no. We can’t call Shakespeare a feminist, because the concept didn’t exist in his lifetime, or for approximately three hundred years following his death. On the other hand, did he demonstrate an understanding of women’s subjugation by men, a realisation that women were not necessarily the “weaker sex” and create characters that could be described as protofeminists?
Yes. However, there is a school of thought which suggests that Shakespeare’s championing of disobedient, cunning, wilful women was merely for the benefit of comic effect, just as the cruelty towards an ‘outsider’ like Shylock was all in the name of comedy. Now, you could, of course, fall on either side of this debate – because there really is no way of knowing exactly what Shakespeare had in mind. But for my money, it is the former rather than the latter.
Portia is by no means on her own. ‘In Much Ado About Nothing’, we find a feisty, quick-witted, bright character in Beatrice, and it must be said that Rosalind in ‘As You Like It‘, and ‘Viola in Twelfth Night’ are illustrative of powerful females in the ways in which they are in command of and manipulate the action. Rosalind is truly sharp, and strong of character, long-suffering, and reveals unwavering integrity. Furthermore she is able to mount a staggering defence when wrongly charged with treason. Viola, too, is intelligent and very much in control; hence by acts of clever manipulation she is able to win the hand in marriage of the man she has chosen and perhaps the strongest of all is Lady Macbeth. Portia is very much akin to them and this is clearly demonstrated throughout the play and most clearly by her control over the final scene of The Merchant of Venice .
Similarly, in an essay on ''Romeo and Juliet,'' Prof. Coppelia Kahn of Brown University argues that Shakespeare used the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets to depict the cruelty and destructiveness of the male-dominated order, one that subordinated love to masculine pride. The feud, Professor Kahn writes, was a ''peculiar expression of patriarchal society'' that led youths to commit acts of ''phallic violence,'' following the authority of their fathers.
When Romeo duels with Tybalt and kills him, an act that leads to his own and Juliet's destruction, he is, Professor Kahn writes, forsaking the feminine influence that is his love for Juliet and obeying the brutal requirements of patriarchy.
Shakespeare’s Women | Feminism and Shakespeare Feminism is a 20th Century
Concept: The "We Can Do It!"
There is, of course, one significant problem with exploring Shakespeare’s plays from a feminist perspective: Feminism is very much a 20th century concept.
Nevertheless, we are often drawn to viewing Shakespeare’s women from a modern angle. Why? Well, partly, because many of them don’t seem to conform to the social and gender conventions of their own eras.
Boys Who Play Girls, Who Play Boys Like They’re Girls
Firstly, my apologies to Blur.
Secondly, it’s easy to forget that when Shakespeare wrote his plays, there was no such thing as a female actor. Women were not allowed to perform, so all female roles were played by boys or young men - something the audiences were, obviously, well aware of.
So, whenever you’re exploring the portrayal of Shakespeare’s female characters, it is worth keeping this at the back of your mind. It adds an additional layer of humour to the comedies, particularly the cross-dressing plays, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, for example.
I Don’t Give a Damn ’Bout My Bad Reputation
However, the added humour of men playing women, can’t account for the regularity with which Shakespeare gives his female characters pluck, mettle and power; the likes of which would not necessarily be associated with femininity, during the 16th and 17th centuries.
There are precious few female Shakespearean characters who don’t go against the grain in some way. But it’s not always in an overt way, like the ‘shrewish’ Kate from The Taming of The Shrew.
Oh, no. Even the more docile girls, such as Juliet, Jessica and Desdemona, are ‘unruly’ in that they disobey their parents and elope with their respective beloveds.
Was Shakespeare a Feminist?
Well, no. We can’t call Shakespeare a feminist, because the concept didn’t exist in his lifetime, or for approximately three hundred years following his death.
On the other hand, did he demonstrate an understanding of women’s subjugation by men, a realisation that women were not necessarily the “weaker sex” and create characters that could be described as protofeminists? Yes.
However, there is a school of thought which suggests that Shakespeare’s championing of disobedient, cunning, wilful women was merely for the benefit of comic effect, just as the cruelty towards an ‘outsider’ like Shylock was all in the name of comedy.
Now, you could, of course, fall on either side of this debate - because there really is no way of knowing exactly what Shakespeare had in mind. But for my money, it is the former rather than the latter.
Uncomfortable Mix of Tragedy and Comedy
My reason for saying that is two-fold. Firstly, I don’t think that Lady Macbeth, Portia (from Julius Caesar), Regan, Goneril, Volumnia, Desdemona, Queen Margaret, and a whole string of other Shakespearean women, are meant to be funny.
It can’t be denied that there are uncomfortable shifts between tragedy and comedy in many of the Bard’s plays. However, if these women are intended to be figures of fun, then it drastically alters our commonly held perceptions of the plays.
Secondly, it is very clear that not all instances of disobedience, wilfulness or empowerment are designed to make the female character in question appear foolish.
For example, Cordelia’s refusal to play the “who loves Dad most?” game is clearly not intended to turn her into a comedy foil. Instead, it demonstrates that, despite the significant amount she stands to lose, she is more concerned with being truthful. Now, some people might call that foolish, but I wouldn’t.
What About the Women Who Win?
There are also many instances of a female character’s wilfulness winning out. Portia in The Merchant of Venice for example, or Maria in Twelfth Night. In both cases, these women outwit their male counterparts. In the case of Portia, saving Antonio’s life and, in the case of Maria, outfoxing the pious Malvolio.
But, then these spunky girls have a habit of deferring to their husbands (although, for Portia, not before she teaches Bassanio a lesson).
What About the Women Who Submit?
One of the main culprits where ‘submission’ is concerned is Kate from The Taming of the Shrew. And you might use her closing soliloquy, which extrapolates on the virtues of conforming to the label “fair sex”, as a decisive blow to argue that Shakespeare was, surely, no kind of feminist.
However, what isn’t clear and, therefore, completely open to interpretation is whether or not Kate is sincere or sarcastic. Moreover, it’s worth keeping in mind that she gives as good as she gets and, you could say, she tames Petruchio, just as much as he tames her.
So, in fact, the two have a pretty equal relationship from the moment they meet.
It is possible and, in my opinion, likely that her closing soliloquy is done with a nudge, a wink and her tongue firmly in cheek.
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