Shakespeare As A Feminist: Writer Of Unconventional
Shakespeare belonged to the Elizabethan era when women were expected to behave in a quiet and demure way. But Shakespeare’s plays differed from the norms of the then prevailing rules and conventions made for women. Female characters in his plays covered a variety of women-chasing after what they desire, damsels in distress, or fighting for what they deserve but often an active character. The main aim of this term paper is to explore the dynamics in which the female characters of Shakespearean plays are portrayed. Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew are the main plays I am going to focus on through which I will explain the range of women characters Shakespeare has built.
In the Elizabethan era women were under the rule of patriarchy, they belonged to their father before marriage and then to their husbands after the marriage. They were not allowed to own any property which would give them a sense of power. Men were supposed to protect them because women were not deemed fit to fight their own battles. These unequal values of the Elizabethan society have always been a topic of discussion amongst feminists as they fight against gender inequality, discrimination and oppression. Feminism came into existence in the twentieth century but Shakespeare’s writings were far ahead of its time as he showcased a different image of women characters in his writings which were contrary to the Elizabethan society. Not every female character of Shakespeare is bold and fearless but I have focused on the ones who are. When faced with problems these women had the guts and courage to fight them. This term paper comprises of the situations in which the female protagonists find themselves and the power they hold over men. Power in Shakespearean plays is a major factor which weaves plot twists in a play however it is not only enjoyed by men but women also know how to use it to their benefit.
Portia from The Merchant of Venice, Lady Macbeth from Macbeth and Kate from The Taming of the Shrew are some of the most fierce and ambitious female characters belonging to Shakespearean plays. Women characters as antagonists are really popular since they exhibit a very powerful aura around them which converts the situation in their favor. Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband into murdering King Duncan; Macbeth is ambitious but not more than his wife, it is Lady Macbeth who holds more power as compared to any male character in the play which challenges the traditional norms of Elizabethan writings.
But what characteristics or actions define the character of Lady Macbeth as Powerful is the way in which she persuades Macbeth into doing what will lead to her desired result. She has control over Macbeth’s mind who is reluctant to commit the action his wife convinces him to do. Though after the murder of King Duncan Lady Macbeth loses her sanity but still she is able to be an active and powerful female character that is successful in achieving her goal. Macbeth is her puppet and she throws questions at his masculinity provoking him into doing what she wants. In the following lines Macbeth pleads to her to stop telling him to do this sin:
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.” (1.7. 46-47))
There is a great contrast between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth when it comes to making the plan to kill Duncan, Macbeth is conscious enough to realize that murdering someone for their personal motif is wrong thus he spends the days leading up to the murder of the king in a tense situation but after committing the act his whole demeanor changes he no longer gives a thought to the crime he did Lady Macbeth on the other hand is quiet ambitious in the beginning in manipulating her husband to kill King Duncan however she loses her sanity in the later part of the play and dies. Macbeth in the start tries to make Lady Macbeth understand that he cannot do morally incorrect deeds as he says these lines to his wife “Prithee, peace: I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none.” And committing a murder will not make him more of a man to which Lady Macbeth replies cunningly:
“What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.” (1.7. 48-52)
Lady Macbeth throws shade at the morally correct thoughts of Macbeth by rejecting his request. She questions his manhood and courage, saying that he was not a saint or a man when he put forth his desire to sit on the throne of King Duncan. She says it was then you were more of a man when you had the courage to kill him. Time and place, she says were not in our favor then but if they were you would have murdered him by now. In this way she manipulates him and controls most of the play with her wit and ruthlessness.
In Elizabethan era women rarely had any control over anything let alone their life but Portia is one female character who changes the whole fate of Antonio. In The Merchant of Venice it is not a damsel who is in distress rather a man who is anxiously trying to avoid his inevitable death at the hands of a Jew. The Merchant of Venice challenges the norms of Elizabethan society in a way that Portia had the power to change the dynamic of the play. In this play it is not a “he” who saves a damsel but a “she” who saves Antonio. Portia has money and wit which gives her the power to do what she wants and she overpowers the male characters. The very basis of Venice’s law is what Portia turns into her favor and saves Antonio from the same law which was going to punish him. In the famous Trial scene, when Antonio is in the court Portia enters the scene disguised as Antonio’s lawyer bringing along a false letter that their previous lawyer fell sick. Her quick wit and clever mind finds the loophole in the bond and saves Antonio. In the following excerpt from the trial scene in the Merchant of Venice, Portia having found the solution to Antonio’s solution lays down her plan and completely turns Shylock’s game upside down:
“Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh.
Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more
But just a pound of flesh. If thou takest more
Or less than a just pound, be it but so much
As makes it light or heavy in the substance
Or the division of the twentieth part
Of one poor scruple—nay, if the scale do turn
But in the estimation of a hair,
Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate” (4.1. 316-324)
When Shylock accepts the three times penalty, Portia insists that he gets the justice he deserves thus telling him to cut the pound of flesh, he mentioned in the bond, but on one condition that not a single drop of blood is shed in the process and that it should be the precise amount not less or more but the pound of flesh Shylock wanted in the deal or his entire property will be confiscated. But it is impossible to cut flesh and not draw blood which leads to Antonio being released from the puncishment. Portia thus becomes Shakespeare’s one of the strongest female characters.
The next unconventional heroin of Shakespearean plays is Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Although the title of this play has been a topic of controversy since the feminist critics are of the view that animals are tamed not humans or women in this case. However Shakespeare brings out the wild character of Katherina Minola in the wide range of other more sophisticated and conventional female characters. Kate is nothing like other women characters that are oppressed by men or under the rule of patriarchy. She refuses to submit to any man which reflects her fierceness in contrast with her younger sister who is sweet and adored by everyone. Shakespeare presents two types of women in this play one that fits in the usual standards of a lady and the other as an angry and ill-tempered woman. Kate is not afraid to say what she has in her mind nor is she concerned about who she is speaking in front of, her personality emerges out in these lines:
“Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak,
And speak I will. I am no child, no babe.
Your betters have endured me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart
Or else my heart, concealing it, will break,
And, rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.” (4.3. 75-83)
Kate says these lines to Petruchio explaining to him that she has every right to speak so she will speak her mind. She says men better than Petruchio has heard her speak her opinions and if he cannot bear to hear he should just plug his ears because she would not stop. Kate has a lot of anger inside her which she cannot hide moreover according to Kate; her heart would not be fine if she does not let the anger out through her words. Kate feels free only when she expresses her thoughts. Kate defies all the suitors who pursue her; she does not want to be under anyone’s control. Her character can be seen as defiance to Patriarchy nonetheless she has to “submit” to Petruchio.
Shakespeare while being a man was able to reflect a bold, independent and courageous image of women in his works which feminist critics find fascinating as men of that age did not support such thinking. The amount of male characters is definitely bigger than the women characters in his plays but it is the personality and unique nature of every female character, less they might be in number, which stands out. Shakespeare created women characters that were ambitious, intelligent and driven. There is inequality, repression and patriarchy in his plays which goes against the values of Feminists but his characters oppose these hard set rules in their own ways. At that time women were not allowed on stage but Shakespeare use the role of disguise as a way to include his heroines in the action of the play. Portia disguises as lawyer in order to save her husband’s friend Antonio, Rosalind in As You like It uses disguise to find a way to her father who is in exile. Hence Shakespeare can be considered a feminist writer as he created a number of free thinking and vivid female characters.
- Shakespeare, William. Macbeth, Ed. George Hunter. (Penguin Classics, 2015.)
- Shakespeare, William, et al. The Merchant of Venice. (Yale University Press, 2006.)
- Shakespeare, William, et al. The Taming of the Shrew. (Yale University Press, 2005.)