I am finishing off teaching Much Ado About Nothing at the moment, and we have just looked at the famous denunciation scene of Act IV scene 1 and then the follow up when Hero's innocence is proven in Act V scene 1. Generally the opinion of my class is that Claudio is a fortune-hunting, pride-obsessed individual who is not worthy of Hero. It makes me think of a few other Shakespeare "heroes" who show themselves to be unworthy of the brilliant, beautiful, talented, witty and intelligent women they end up with. Bassanio, Orlando Orsino... any others? What do you think Shakespeare is trying to say by allowing Shakespeare heroines to show themselves to be superior in so many ways to the men they intend to marry and then settling down to a quiet, submissive marriage where they are under their husband's authority? Or am I reading too much into this...
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There are probably several ways to look at this question. If we can loosely define Shakespeare's heroes as also "tragic" heroes, I would look closer at Hamlet. As mentioned above, Gertrude and Ophelia seem to be victims, and I would agree with this regarding Ophelia. She is young and knows so little of court life.
However, with Gertrude, I have to admit that I have always felt Gertrude was pretty shrewd, even as she tried to walk a line between making sure she was taken care of and watching out for her son. She does marry (scandalously, the Elizabethans thought) her brother-in-law. And if Hamlet can see a vast difference between the two men (Old Hamlet and Claudius), certainly so can Gertrude. However, in a society where women were NOT the masters of their own fates, Gertrude may do what is necessary to continue to live a life as she is accustomed to, while also keeping an eye on her son. Had Claudius continued to rule and some day died, it stands to reason that Hamlet would become King. And perhaps our girl Gertrude had a mother's desire to protect not only her son from "the changing fortunes" of court life, but to watch over his inheritance as well. Even when Gertrude knows the whole truth about her new husband, she artfully keeps the knowledge from him, showing that perhaps she is not as weak as one might think. Did Shakespeare mean to make her a strong female character? Who knows? But once art is released to the "public arena," especially in a more modern setting, she may take on a totally new dimension beyond what the Bard intended. Gertrude has my vote as a strong woman—though she also is taken down by her scheming husband who is more treacherous than she is loving and supportive of her son, and mindful of watching out for herself.
So many people think that Shakespeare's female characters are weak. This idea must come from Hamlet, a play in which both Ophelia and Gertrude seem quite submissive to the men in their lives. However, I agree with you. Many of Shakespeare's women are strong and independent. Unfortunately, many of those who are strong and independent do not end up settling into a quiet marriage in which they are the submissive partner. More often, they die for their values. Take Emilia in Othello, for instance. She tells Iago that she will not obey him. She will tell the truth about her mistress Desdemona even if it cost her her marriage, even if it cost her her life. Iago kills her, but not before she brings him down. Emilia becomes, to me, the most heroic character of the play. It seems that Shakespeare portrays both males and females trapped in their particular social roles. The attempt to break free of these roles, in a tragedy at least, often results in death.
Well, I'm not so sure the end result of the examples you suggest will be a "quiet, submissive marriage," though assuredly, legally, the women will be "under their husband's authority." The role of the squelched woman grew and grew over the centuries--authors of Western Civilization suggest archaeological evidence indicates that the squelching of women's personal (as opposed to legal) rights and power began innocently enough after the great plague of the 14th century when the marriage contract came to include the promise to the father from the groom that the woman would be protected and kept safely at home--and away from the killing plague--all her life. Compare Wealhtheow of Beowulf to Shakespeare's Rosalind then to a Victorian woman and--if looking through an unbiased perspective--it must come clear that personal power is a hallmark of both Queen Wealhtheow and Shakespeare's heroines--even our shrew as she manipulates her situation after allowing her husband to "charm" her.
This is an interesting idea. To me, it almost seems that he is pushing at the barriers of society but not taking them down. The women experiment with freedom and complexity, but in the end can't quite get it over the finish line. They end up settling.
Sure, Hero's innocence is proven, but she isn't really a strong, independent woman figure. I think that if Beatrice married Claudio, that would be a different story.
The fact that women often don't end up with their ideal match, I think, is nothing deeper than the real life notion that often, women are better than the men who "win" them, but they love the men despite their flaws. Shakespeare was a bit of a feminist after all. It's part of the comedy of the comedies.
My opinion is that Shakespeare's women are often portrayed much like his tragic heroes, especially in tragedies... they might be strong or intelligent, but they have a flaw. For Lady Macbeth- guilt. For Desdemona- loyalty.
I think it is true of Katherine in Taming of the Shrew, as well, even though many will argue that they have learned to love one another. Katherine, in my opinion, was angry at the lack of eligible and intelligent bachelors in her age bracket, and fuming at the thought of having to live as a spinster or worse, with a clearly inferior man.
I came to a similar conclusion when analysing 'Othello' and Iago as the ultimate villain. I looked for the ultimate Shakespearian hero as a contrast, and found that the women were characterswho came to the fore across many plays. I could see heroic deeds in Emilia and Desdemona in 'Othello' which balanced out the malice of Iago. I certainly believe that there is some message in Shakespeare's work about the strength of women and their independent spirit as admirable qualiities.
In most of the plays as far as I can remember, Shakespeare portrayed his heroines as intelligent, sharp women. Take the example of Portia in The Merchant Of Venice, who is afraid to marry a man not of her own choice. But she is also very clever and sharp-minded as she saves Antonio by changing her disguise. WE see other examples of intelligent sharp women of Shakespeare as Desdemona and Katherine. But, do you think ?that in this way, when these intelligent women accept ordinary men in their lives , isn't it accepting in the end that women have to accept what ever they can get? The women are intelligent and maybe superior to men but, still they accept ordinary men as their husbands..... maybe showing male superiority in the end that is ----- an intelligent woman submitting herself to a man. Or it can be sad fact of life that although women are more sharp and alert , atill, they need men in their lives.
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