Shakespeare's Representation of Women
Shakespeare's Representation of Women
Shakespeare's representation of women, and the ways in which his female roles are interpreted and enacted, have become topics of scholarly interest. While seldom occupying the center of his plays (the few exceptions include Rosalind in As You Like It and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra), Shakespeare's heroines encompass a wide range of characterizations and types, from the uncompromising frankness of Cordelia, the quick wit of Beatrice and of Kate, and the intelligence of Portia, to the ruthlessness of Lady Macbeth, the opportunistic unkindness of Regan and Goneril, and the manipulative power of Volumnia. Within this gallery of female characters, critics note similarities, especially among Shakespeare's young women characters, who commonly display great intelligence, vitality, and a strong sense of personal independence. These qualities have led some critics to herald Shakespeare as a champion of womenkind and an innovator who departed sharply from flat, stereotyped characterizations of women common to his contemporaries and earlier dramatists. Contrastingly, other commentators note that even Shakespeare's most favorably portrayed women possess characters that are tempered by negative qualities. They suggest that this indicates that Shakespeare was not free of misogynistic tendencies that were deep-seated in the culture of his country and era. Within the texts of the plays, charges of promiscuity are often leveled against young women, for example, and women occupying positions of power are frequently portrayed as capricious and highly corruptible.
Irene G. Dash (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Introduction: Their Infinite Variety," in Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays, Columbia University Press, 1981, pp. 1-6.
[In the following essay, Dash discusses the depth, individuality, and variety of Shakespeare's female characters, and the ways in which stage portrayals of these women have been ruled by gender stereotypes of different eras.]
Strong, attractive, intelligent, and humane women come to life in Shakespeare's plays. They not only have a clear sense of themselves as individuals, but they challenge accepted patterns for women's behavior. Compliance, self-sacrifice for a male, dependence, nurturance, and emotionalism are the expected norms. Yet independence, self-control and, frequently, defiance characterize these women. In The Winter's Tale, for example, Hermione disdains tears although unjustly imprisoned; her husband, Leontes, weeps in self-pity. In Othello and Romeo and Juliet, women, exercising their independence, defy their fathers as well as the mores of their society.
Shakespeare's women characters testify to his genius. They are drawn with neither anger nor condescension. In personality they vary. Some are warm, delightful, friendly; others cold, aloof, and scornful. Some speak with confidence; others with diffidence. They range in age from the youthful,...
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Types Of Shakespearean Women Characters
John W. Draper (essay date 1965)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Ladies-in-Waiting," in Neophilologus, Vol. XX, No. 285, July, 1965, pp. 255-61.
[In the following essay, Draper examines the dramatic functions fulfilled by ladies-in-waiting—high-born women attendants of noblewomen—in Shakespeare's plays.]
From the feudal Middle Ages, the Elizabethans inherited a supposedly fixed scheme of society in which each generation of the noble, and even of the bourgeois, classes was trained in a sort of apprenticeschip to occupy its special niche in the immutable order of things. The knight's or nobleman's son became a page usually at seven, and about fourteen, a servingman, generally in the household of his father's suzerain, where he was supposed to be perfected in courtesy and arms: Chaucer's Squire shows how well this sometimes worked; and Havelok the Dane, how badly. The nobleman's daughter, likewise, became in due course a lady-in-waiting to the suzerain's wife until her father, if he could, raised the needful dowery for her marriage. This arrangement had much to say for it if the suzerain did his part and the father had the money or the influence to get knighthood and all its accoutrements for the youth at twenty-one and an appropriate portion for the maid sometime in her teens; but, as this was not always the case, the kings and dukes and counts both in the Middle...
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Linda Woodbridge (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Civilian Impotence, Civic Impudence," in Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620, University of Illinois Press, 1984, pp. 152-83.
[In the excerpt below, Woodbridge contends that transvestite disguise in Shakespeare's plays tends to reinforce, rather than undermine, traditionally perceived differences between the sexes.]
During the 1590s, Shakespeare frequently used transvestite disguise in his plots; other dramatists used it occasionally. It is true that, as Juliet Dusinberre says, [in Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, 1975], "disguise invites the dramatist to explore masculinity and femininity"; it is probable, however, that the feminism resulting from such explorations has been over-estimated. Writing that "Shakespeare's feminism is not optional, to be taken or left according to the critic's taste," Dusinberre notes that "disguise freed the dramatist to explore … the nature of women untrammelled by the custom of femininity." But most dramatists … regarded femininity as a matter of nature rather than custom; and as such it could never be sloughed off with clothes. Granted, masculine disguise gives heroines certain unwonted freedoms: sometimes a woman travelling alone adopts male clothing to discourage rape ("Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold," As You Like It,...
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Michael Jamieson (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Celibate Stage," in The Seventeenth-Century Stage: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Gerald Eades Bentley, University of Chicago Press, 1968, pp. 70-93.
[In the following essay, Jamieson explores ways that ihaving young male performers enact female role affected Shakespeare's presentation of women characters.]
The Characters of Women, on former Theatres, were perform'd by Boys, or young Men of the most effeminate Aspect. And what Grace, or Master-strokes of Action can we conceive such ungain Hoydens to have been capable of? This Defect was so well consider'd by Shakespear, that in few of his Plays, he has any greater Dependance upon the Ladies, than in the Innocence and Simplicity of a Desdemona, an Ophelia, or in the short Specimen of a fond and virtuous Portia.
Colley Cibber, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian
Much could be said for the restoring of the celibate stage; but the argument, one fears, would be academic.
Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare
A discussion like the present one, which is concerned less with literary values than with stage practice, has to be conjectural in its...
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Adelman, Janet. "'Born of Woman': Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth." In Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, edited by Majorie Garber, pp. 90-121. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, 216 p.
Explores the tension in Macbeth between male fear of "a virtually absolute and destructive maternal power and the fantasy of absolute escape from this universal condition." In this play male identity is lost when men are faced with powerful maternal characters and regained only when women have been eliminated.
Andresen-Thom, Martha. "Thinking about Women and Their Prosperous Art: A Reply to Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women." Shakespeare Studies XI (1978): 259-76.
Examines the issue of whether Shakespeare's women characters are either idealizations or relatively realistic depictions of the women of his era.
Barton, Anne. "The Feminist Stage." Times Literary Supplement, No. 3841 (October 24, 1975): 1259.
Review of Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women that finds fault with her method of argumentation and assumptions about the existence of feminism in the Renaissance.
Case, Sue-Ellen. Feminism and Theatre. New York: Methuen, 1988, 149 p.
Includes discussion of Shakespeare's treatment of women characters in his plays...
(The entire section is 843 words.)