Shakespeare's plays chronicle the human condition. Their success over time is a testament to their applicability to the Sixteen and Seventeenth as well as the Twentieth Centuries. It is the universal nature of Shakespeare's writing that allows the presentation of characters, large and small, to parallel our own experiences.
This essay will explore the "minor" female roles in The Taming of the Shrew and Othello, showing how they contribute to the themes and action in the plays and the characterization of the major characters. In doing so, this essay contends that all the characters are integral to the complexity of the whole, the stories and parables that Shakespeare wishes to portray. Written at different times in Shakespeare's own development, the two plays differ in format and purpose; they both, however, portray the composite of the emotional and physical life of the actors in their social context.
It is easy to argue that there are no minor roles in Shakespeare's plays. Each character is necessary for the action to progress along the intended lines. Shakespeare was a careful writer whose characters all intertwined to develop the story. Still, Shakespeare introduces characters who advance the story and their presence forms the basis of the action. The minor characters, as in life, provide the context for the major characters: they are the community and the society in which the story's "stars" interact. The roles of the minor female characters are particularly telling in each of these plays, and form the basis for a discussion of the role of women during Shakespeare's time and our own.
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare's earlier plays, thought to be written around 1593-94. It is essentially about the relationships between the sexes, although it is also a metaphor for human relations in general: between the sexes, among differing peoples, between men and between women. The play within the play acts to emphasize points in a farcical manner; the real story of the lovers and the need to marry the sisters and tame the shrew form the basis of a story that presents a spirited view of relationships in colors of all shades.
The major characters in The Taming of the Shrew are Petruchio and Kate, around whom the story revolves, Bianca and her suitors, Gremio, Tranio, Horteniso and Lucentio. The household of lesser characters — the father, the servants, the tailor, the Pedant — are male characters. In this sense, minor female roles are defined according to the argument the we wish to present. Certainly, Bianca can be seen as minor when compared to Kate. Involved in a conventional love story, her role is crucial and juxtapositional to the main action of Kate and Petruchio. The marriage of one depends on the other. The farce of the play is that nothing is quite what it seems. The switching of identities forces the reader to consider the actual roles of the characters in the society they inhabit. Sly, starting to believe that he is a Lord, masks the leveling mechanism that has taken place: he has switched places with the Lord himself. Initially resisting his new role as Lord, he finally succumbs to the reversal of roles:
Lord [to Sly]. Thou art a lord a nothing but a lord.
Thou has a lady far more beautiful
Than any woman in this waning age.
First Serviceman. And till the tears that she hath shed for thee
Like envious floors o'errun her lovely face,
She was the fairest creature in the world,
And Yet she is inferior to none.
Sly. Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?
I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak,
I smell sweet savors and I feel soft things.
Upon my life, I am a lord indeed
And not a tinker not Christopher Sly.
Well, bring our lady hither to our sight,
And once again a pot o' th1 smallest ale (53) .
The act of leveling, of switching status's of the actors, proves that human beings are capable of many differing places in society, able to be powerful and powerless. The leveling between Sly and the Lord is also an analogy of the leveling between men and women. The structure is what becomes paramount. What is important, then, is the difference between what is supposed to be and what actually is. The reader is presented with the way a wife is supposed to act through Bianca and the Widow, and ultimately Kate. But what is taking place is entirely different. The minor characters here, both male and female, act as the medium through which these contradictions occur. They validate the difference between appearance and reality.
In Othello, written later (1604), the characters are tighter in their characterization. Again we are presented with roles that are not exactly what they appear to be. We are once more given a picture of human nature that where reality is in contrast to the ideal; where flaws are necessarily a part of the hero's makeup. These contradictions are clearer in Othello than in The Taming of the Shrew, and this may simply be a function of Shakespeare's maturity and experience in characterization. Iago is presented to us as honest, Othello as a hero. Neither is close to the truth. But what causes these images to fall apart? The major characters -- Othello, Iago, Desdemona -- are off-set by Emila, Bianca, Roderigo, Brabantio and Cassio. Unlike The Taming of the Shrew, there is also the minor character of The Turks, for this play is set contextually within the confines of war, and as such the action is not merely personality driven but pushed by the needs of the society in which they operate. The Turks act as the mitigating factor, constantly trying to undermine Christian beliefs and actions and acting as a metaphor for the
confusion that exists in everyday ideology. Here as in The Taming, the minor characters do not completely lend themselves to being separated by gender. To do so artificially splits the story into pieces that potentially destroys the integration of the whole. There are, however, some statements that can be made.
In The Taming of the Shrew, as mentioned, the surface story focuses on marriage, the role of the sexes, and the underlying resistance to those expected roles. Kate and Petruchio are constantly at odds with each other, confined by their roles but cognizant of their limitations. Again on the surface, the play presents the masculine over the feminine. We are clearly left with the impression, however, that Kate is not acting in full faith when she gives her famous speech on the responsibilities of wives:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign — one that cares for thee,
And for the maintenance commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li'st warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience:
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband,
And when she is freward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she buyt a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to he loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Inapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms,
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown.
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot,
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease. (151)
The lead to this speech is contentious. Her sister, a minor character, is not going to easily accept her words. Once seen, with the widow, as the example for the expected behavior for a dutiful wife, Bianca now thinks these words foolish, she plays the reason to Kate's mania. In switching roles with her, She is her alter-ego. In doing so, Shakespeare is showing us both sides of the argument, he is also showing us that both sides are possible. We are left to wonder whether Kate's vision will hold and we are left to wonder what her motivation might actually be. Certainly she has pleased her audience. But has she pleased herself?
In Othello, his wife plays a major part in bringing out the hidden madness in his personality. It is with her, apparently, that he is free to express his true personality, without the posturing he presents to his colleagues. Desdemona is committed to her husband. Unlike Emilia, who is arguably part of Desdemona's hidden personality, she is totally faithful. Emilia's redemption at the time of Desdemona's death reveals her to be a generous soul beneath the callous exterior. She becomes Desdemona. Her role in the story is to counter Desdemona's personality, to abet Iago's treachery from a feminine position. But she is not entirely successful, and again here we are shown the complexity that Shakespeare successfully presents. Othello's tragedy is his surface trust of Iago and his inherent jealousy of his innocent wife.
It is notable that the action of Othello is military; almost all the characters are male. The female characters represent the ambivalence of the war effort. Desdemona is a victim of Othello's frustration, and outlet for his ambivalence. Iago uses this ambivalence towards his own ends. While he is grooming Othello's trust, he is undermining his position. Iago uses Desdemona to triangulate with Othello, and there is no love lost between them. Emilia, for her part, is faithful to Desdemona, and too encounters Iago's disdain [Upon Emilia's entering a room]:
Cassio: Welcome mistress.
Let it not gall your patience, good Iago.
That I extend my manners. 'Tis my breeding
That gives me this bold show of courtesy [Kisses
Iago. Sir, Would she give you so much of her lips
As if her tongue she oft bestows on me,
You would have enough.
Desdemona. Alas, she has no speech.
Iago. In faith, too much.
I find it still when I have leave to sleep
Marry, before your ladyship, I grant,
She puts her tongue a little in her heart and chides with thinking.
Emilia. You have little cause to say so.
Iago. Come on, come on! You are pictures out of door,
Bells in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.
Desdemona. 0, Fie upon thee, slanderer!
Iago. No, let me not.
Desdemona. What wouldst write of me if thou shouldst praise me?
Iago. 0 gentle lady, do not put me to't,
For I am nothing if not critical. (70).
Unlike The Taming of the Shrew, where the supporting female characters act as counterbalances to the story, in Othello, Emilia plays a role of support. It is perhaps because the story is so determinably male-centered that Shakespeare considered it important for Desdemona to have added substance. Without Emilia, her character would be so isolated as to be an unbelievable victim. Othello's tragedy is that he trusts Iago over Desdemona. It is a statement about the dangers of "male-bonding" in a way that cuts across the time of Othello and reads well in the twentieth century.
Ultimately, Shakespeare is arguing in both Othello and The Taming of the Shrew that the importance of the woman's role cannot be underestimated or ignored. There is, thus, an intrinsic equality of the sexes. In one play he shows the power of the female psyche and the control that is exerted, even if it appears, on the surface, that she loses in the end. In the other, the inability to trust the woman leads to tragedy for both. In each, the woman's role is central to the development of the morals of the story, whether as a parable for the war between the sexes or, ultimately, as a condemnation of war. The minor characters support the characterizations, add body to the outnumbered female roles. Without them, the female characters would be incidental and there would be only a partial story.