Friday, 13 January 2012

Shakespeare’s Women | Feminism and Shakespeare

Feminism is a 20th Century
Concept: The "We Can Do It!"
Poster Known as Rosie
the Riverter (1942)

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

Othello and Desdemona Painted
by Theodore Chasseriau

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.
Goneril and Regan from
Shakespeare Illustrated (1902)

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.
Ada Rehan as Katharina in
The Taming of The Shrew (1887)

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.


  1. Thank you very much for writing and posting these articles they have been very helpful to me. I am doing Romeo and Juliet in school and have to answer a question on how Shakespeare presents the treatment of women, this has been most helpful and has given me lots to think about, thank you Xx

    1. Hi there! Thanks for taking the time to let me know this was useful to you. I'm glad you found it helpful, and I wish you luck with your assignment.

  2. Thank a lot. this was very helpful. I'm currently doing my course work on ' Much ado about nothing and ' the rover' do you also think Aphra Behn could be a 'proto-feminist' ? My piece is on the patriarchal system

    1. Hi there. Good to hear you're studying Aphra Behn; she's not widely known, which is a shame. Modern feminists and writers (like Virginia Woolf), have certainly 'claimed' her, and there's little doubt she blazed a trail for future female poets, playwrights and novelists.

      She really was quite a woman - before her time in MANY ways, and not afraid to do (or write), things that were deemed 'improper'. To me, regardless of gender issues, she was a rebel; fighting against convention. Partly that's being a product of her era, celebrating the looser times that came with the Restoration - not only are the theatres open again, but also, for the first time, women are allowed on stage. So, it's a slightly (very slightly), freer time for women in general.

      When it comes to the The Rover, it's not difficult to see Behn's Valeria, Hellena and Florinda alongside Shakespeare's unruly girls. But what's probably more interesting is her portrayal of men: hot-headed, ruled by impulses of sex and violence, and pretty flighty in their feelings of 'love'. It's all done in a comedic way, but it's got some serious undertones - is she making a social comment on the way women are valued? Beauty and sexuality are the only things held at any worth?

      In any case, I can't help feeling sorry for Hellena. Willmore isn't exactly a prize catch all things considered. But perhaps she knows, better than he, that marriage is more a 'business' arrangement, and is well aware of what she's getting herself into. If we believe her when she says she doesn't love him, perhaps its her head and not her heart that's ruling her...or maybe she's fooling herself when she says she doesn't love him! Who knows?

      Anyway, the short answer to your question is, 'yes', Aphra Behn can be seen as a proto-feminist.

      Hope that helps.

  3. Thank you so much, I've written my essay now and used your argument( Don't worry I gave you the credit). thanks again

    1. You're most welcome. Thanks for taking the time to come back and say, 'thanks', it's very much appreciated. Hope the essay goes down well.

  4. Thankyou for this, I am analysing Cleopatra and perceptions of women for school, so very useful :)

    1. Hi there,

      Very glad to hear that. It was kind of you to take the time to let me know it's been handy to you. Good luck with your work on Cleopatra, she's a fascinating gal.

      Best wishes.