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...
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