In ShakespeareIt is curious to note the role of women in Shakespearean literature. Many criticshave lambasted the female characters in his plays as two-dimensional and unrealisticportrayals of subservient women. Others have asserted that the roles of women in hisplays were prominent for the time and culture that he lived in. That such contrastingviews could be held in regards to the same topic is academic.
It is only with closeexamination of his works that we are able to suppose his intent in creating characters thatinspire so much controversy. Two works, Taming of the Shrew, and Twelfth Night, standout particularly well in regards to Shakespeare’s use of female characters. Afterexamining these two plays, one will see that Shakespeare, though conforming tocontemporary attitudes of women, circumvented them by creating resolute femalecharacters with a strong sense of self. The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and hasweathered well into our modern era with adaptations into popular television series such asMoonlighting.
For all the praises it has garnered throughout the centuries, it is curious tonote that many have considered it to be one of his most controversial in his treatment ofwomen. The “taming” of Katherine has been contended as being excessively cruel bymany writers and critics of the modern era. George Bernard Shaw himself pressed for itsbanning during the 19th century (Peralta). The subservience of Katherine has been labeledas barbaric, antiquated, and generally demeaning. The play centers on her and her lack ofsuitors. It establishes in the first act her shrewish demeanor and its repercussions on herfamily. It is only with the introduction of the witty Petruchio as her suitor, that one beginsto see an evolution in her character. Through an elaborate charade of humiliatingbehavior, Petruchio humbles her and by the end of the play, she will instruct other womenon the nature of being a good and dutiful wife.
In direct contrast to Shrew, is Twelfth Night, whose main female protagonist is byfar the strongest character in the play. The main character Viola, has been stranded in aforeign land and adopts the identity of her brother so that she might live independentlywithout a husband or guardian. She serves as a courtier to a young, lovesick noblemannamed Orsino. Throughout the play she plays as a go-between for him to the woman heloves. In the course of her service, she falls in love with him. Only at the end, does sherenounce her male identity and declares her love for him. Both plays portray female characters unwilling to accept the female role ofpassivity.
Katherine rebels against this stereotype by becoming a “shrew”, a violentlytempered and belligerent woman. Viola disguises herself as a man for most of the play inorder to preserve her state of free will. Katherine endures reprimands, chiding, andhumiliation in the course of her chosen rebellion.
Viola enjoys life and position as a man,and does not reveal who she is until the last scene of the play. Curiously enough, bothwomen voluntarily accept the roles that society would impose on them again at the closeof the plays. It is important to note though, that they freely resume these roles, and thatthey do so out of their own sense of self. For each woman, it is a personal choice basedon their desires. In the case of Katherine, she realizes that propriety is as much a signatureof self-respect as respect for others, and she has a husband whom she need prove nothingto because he already respects her. In the case of Viola, she is in love with the youngOrsino.
Having found the man she would be willing to wed, the pretense of her maleidentity is no longer necessary, as she desires to be his wife. Having seen the similarities between Viola and Katherine, one should take noticethat they do have different circumstances regarding their behavior. The reason forKatherine’s shrewish demeanor is never given in the play, though many directors haveinterpreted it as an act to discourage suitors, much like Hamlet’s feigned madness.
Others have attributed it to sibling rivalry between Katherine and her sister Bianca. In any case,no clear rationale is given to the audience as to the reason for Katherine’s behavior. It isenough to say that the actions of her father and sister do not relieve the situation as well. Throughout the whole of the play, her father treats her as a commodity to be bargainedaway to whoever is willing to take her. Granted that he doesn’t view Bianca as anythingmore than a commodity as well, but he clearly favors her over Katherine as unspoiledmerchandise. Bianca has a rather small role to play in the whole of things.
She seems tobe the archetypal young lady of quality. Her lack of understanding for her sister causesthem to quarrel and results in Bianca taking the physical worst of it, whilst Katherine isblamed for her belligerent nature. The entire presence of family in the play givesKatherine her motivation and explains much of the whole situation in the dialogue. Contrast this with the isolated Viola. She is shipwrecked and has no one to connect withat all. Her situation is implicitly understood by the Shakespearean audience as being anawkward one for a young woman. Lacking anyone to provide for her, she is forced totake measures to protect herself and her estate. The understood reason for her deceptionis to insure for herself, and it is clearly stated by Viola at the end of Act I .
Scene 3. Obviously, the two women are very different individuals. Yet they share thesame characteristics that Shakespeare imparted onto many of his heroines. Each isresolute and knows her own mind. Though society demands certain behavior from them,they each chose to undertake a different path to deny that behavior. The self is promotedover the public image. Yet, each is not averse to returning to society’s established roles ifit serves their needs and wants.
The entire concept of choice and free-will, of whichShakespeare was so fond of, applies as equally to his feminine characters as to hismasculine. It is this very important point which establishes the conclusion thatShakespeare did indeed create realistic and meaningful female characters.Sources Cited Peralta, T. “The Taming of the Shrew.” English 28: Shakespeare’s Plays. CerritosCollege. Norwalk, CA, Fall semester 1996.