In ShakespeareIt is curious to note the role of women in Shakespearean literature. Many critics
have lambasted the female characters in his plays as two-dimensional and unrealistic
portrayals of subservient women. Others have asserted that the roles of women in his
plays were prominent for the time and culture that he lived in. That such contrasting
views could be held in regards to the same topic is academic. It is only with close
examination of his works that we are able to suppose his intent in creating characters that
inspire so much controversy. Two works, Taming of the Shrew, and Twelfth Night, stand
out particularly well in regards to Shakespeare’s use of female characters. After
examining these two plays, one will see that Shakespeare, though conforming to
contemporary attitudes of women, circumvented them by creating resolute female
characters with a strong sense of self.
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and has
weathered well into our modern era with adaptations into popular television series such as
Moonlighting. For all the praises it has garnered throughout the centuries, it is curious to
note that many have considered it to be one of his most controversial in his treatment of
women. The “taming” of Katherine has been contended as being excessively cruel by
many writers and critics of the modern era. George Bernard Shaw himself pressed for its
banning during the 19th century (Peralta). The subservience of Katherine has been labeled
as barbaric, antiquated, and generally demeaning. The play centers on her and her lack of
suitors. It establishes in the first act her shrewish demeanor and its repercussions on her
family. It is only with the introduction of the witty Petruchio as her suitor, that one begins
to see an evolution in her character. Through an elaborate charade of humiliating
behavior, Petruchio humbles her and by the end of the play, she will instruct other women
on the nature of being a good and dutiful wife.
In direct contrast to Shrew, is Twelfth Night, whose main female protagonist is by
far the strongest character in the play. The main character Viola, has been stranded in a
foreign land and adopts the identity of her brother so that she might live independently
without a husband or guardian. She serves as a courtier to a young, lovesick nobleman
named Orsino. Throughout the play she plays as a go-between for him to the woman he
loves. In the course of her service, she falls in love with him. Only at the end, does she
renounce her male identity and declares her love for him.
Both plays portray female characters unwilling to accept the female role of
passivity. Katherine rebels against this stereotype by becoming a “shrew”, a violently
tempered and belligerent woman. Viola disguises herself as a man for most of the play in
order to preserve her state of free will. Katherine endures reprimands, chiding, and
humiliation 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, both
women voluntarily accept the roles that society would impose on them again at the close
of the plays. It is important to note though, that they freely resume these roles, and that
they do so out of their own sense of self. For each woman, it is a personal choice based
on their desires. In the case of Katherine, she realizes that propriety is as much a signature
of self-respect as respect for others, and she has a husband whom she need prove nothing
to because he already respects her. In the case of Viola, she is in love with the young
Orsino. Having found the man she would be willing to wed, the pretense of her male
identity is no longer necessary, as she desires to be his wife.
Having seen the similarities between Viola and Katherine, one should take notice
that they do have different circumstances regarding their behavior. The reason for
Katherine’s shrewish demeanor is never given in the play, though many directors have
interpreted 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 is
enough 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 bargained
away to whoever is willing to take her. Granted that he doesn’t view Bianca as anything
more than a commodity as well, but he clearly favors her over Katherine as unspoiled
merchandise. Bianca has a rather small role to play in the whole of things. She seems to
be the archetypal young lady of quality. Her lack of understanding for her sister causes
them to quarrel and results in Bianca taking the physical worst of it, whilst Katherine is
blamed for her belligerent nature. The entire presence of family in the play gives
Katherine 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 with
at all. Her situation is implicitly understood by the Shakespearean audience as being an
awkward one for a young woman. Lacking anyone to provide for her, she is forced to
take measures to protect herself and her estate. The understood reason for her deception
is 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 the
same characteristics that Shakespeare imparted onto many of his heroines. Each is
resolute 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 promoted
over the public image. Yet, each is not averse to returning to society’s established roles if
it serves their needs and wants. The entire concept of choice and free-will, of which
Shakespeare was so fond of, applies as equally to his feminine characters as to his
masculine. It is this very important point which establishes the conclusion that
Shakespeare did indeed create realistic and meaningful female characters.

Sources Cited
Peralta, T. “The Taming of the Shrew.” English 28: Shakespeare’s Plays. Cerritos
College. Norwalk, CA, Fall semester 1996.

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