|Was Shakespeare Sexist or a Feminist?|
In actual fact, just as feminism is an inaccurate phrase to use in relation to Shakespeare's work, so is sexism. As a twentieth century concept, it would be meaningless to Shakespeare himself and his contemporaries. But that doesn’t prevent us from taking that stance in a modern analysis.
The Role Of Women in Elizabethan And Jacobean Society
Firstly, it’s important to realise that, if we think Shakespeare’s plays are sexist, then they are only so in as much as a large proportion of the world was sexist during that era. Much like Benny Hill, Shakespeare was playing to the accepted stereotypes and conventions of his day. It is only in hindsight that watching a pervy old man chase some scantily-clad, buxom beauty round and round a field seems so very, very wrong.
And, despite the fact that England had a queen between the years of 1533 and 1603 (which encompassed the majority of Shakespeare’s career), women had a pretty raw deal. They are a long way from having any rights (although admittedly, at this time, so are an awful lot of men) and are, in one way or another, the property of men: either their fathers or their husbands. Their purpose in the world is twofold: to please their husbands and procreate.
Of course, this poses two problems. One, if a woman is made a widow, she runs a very real risk of becoming destitute - unless she can find another husband, which becomes more unlikely the older she gets. And two, it raises lots of questions about the nature of the ‘transaction’ between a man and a woman. Keep in mind, many women didn’t have much say over the men they married, the choice was made for them. In order to secure a roof over their heads women were, effectively, forced to sell themselves.
Shakespeare’s Most Sexist Plays
So, there can be no question that Shakespeare was writing during an era that we would now, unquestionably, describe as sexist. But what about his plays?
Well, we see evidence of the above, in much of his work. However, perhaps the most overtly ‘sexist’ plays are: The Taming of The Shrew, Hamlet, Othello and The Merchant of Venice. All of them very clearly represent a woman as a man’s property.
|Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in |
The Taming of The Shrew
Then we have poor Ophelia, who is used as a weapon by both Claudius (with her father’s permission) and Hamlet. She’s treated like an object, a toy, without any feelings. Of course, eventually, she is quite literally broken; the death of her father driving her to suicide.
And for the girls of Othello and The Merchant of Venice, we have a very similar story. All three women: Desdemona, Jessica and Portia, have their lives ruled over by their fathers, even though Portia’s is dead! Of course, Desdemona and Jessica choose the same way out. Just like their sister in crime, Juliet, they run away from their fathers and elope.
For Desdemona, as for Juliet, this does not culminate in a ‘happy ending’, smothered to death, as she is, for an imagined infidelity. The really interesting question, however, is: if she really had done the dirty on Othello, would there have been any guilt or remorse? Or would he have felt entirely justified in his actions?
But Are Shakespeare's Women Really Helpless Victims?
Well, as we’ve already established, Jessica and Desdemona are what you might call ‘unruly’. They want to marry for love, and who can blame them, so they have no qualms about sticking two fingers up at their fathers and, in both cases, at social convention. Even Desdemona, who is so easy to view as a simpering victim, actually displays much more gumption than she’s often given credit for. Bear in mind, when Othello starts to go a little loco, she could run to her father or the Duke…or any other man around for that matter, and got herself out of Dodge.
Instead, she chooses to stay. She loves her husband and, because she thinks she knows him, is convinced that the little blip in their relationship will blow over. Now, you can call her a fool; one of the many women who make idiots of themselves over a man, but you cannot call her weak nor can you call her a victim. She certainly doesn’t consider herself to be one. When asked who has suffocated her, she replies, “Nobody; I myself.”
|In many ways, Portia is smarter than the male|
characters of The Merchant of Venice
For poor Ophelia, the argument is a little more tricky. Or is it? Is her parting shot, the taking of her own life, an act not simply motivated by mind-numbing grief, but also a desire for revenge? Does she know that Hamlet does, in his own warped way, love her and that her death will affect him more greatly than he would have her believe? Was her suicide the act of a woman who is refusing to be the property and plaything of men?
And as for The Taming of The Shrew, it’s quite clear that Kate can give as good as she gets. Intellectually, she is Petruchio’s equal and this, more than anything else, is what makes the play such a joy to watch. However, it’s also worth considering the fact that Petruchio’s behaviour, which we know is an act put on solely for Kate’s benefit (he’s not usually quite that much of an arse) and, by the same token, Kate may well be putting on a bit of a performance. Who is to say that the final scene and her soliloquy are not done with tongue firmly planted in cheek? Is she really suggesting that men are more important than women? Or is she giving an argument for equality?
So, are Shakespeare’s plays sexist? Well, you can certainly find evidence of sexism (although we’re taking the plays out of context) within them, but are they inherently negative about girls? I would argue not, but what do you think?