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Shakespeare uses his skills to present his audiences with many different types of female characters. He does not underestimate them but must play to his audience and therefore, although they are often instrumental in developing the plot of many of his tragedies and they do invite argument, Shakespeare must ensure that they fit into the cultural context within which they exist.
In Othello, the main conflict centers on Othello and his mistrust of the gentle Desdemona. Desdemona shows real love and there is no reason to doubt her integrity and yet, Othello finds her behavior suspicious. She will suffer a violent end. Although Desdemona is innocent and certainly unaware of the existence of "any such women" (IV.iii.81) who would betray their husbands, Emilia is not so convinced and even suggests that "it is their husbands' faults if wives do fall" (84). Emilia's character is certainly not standard and Shakespeare sends a clear message that men should beware because "the ills we do their ills instruct us so" (101). He is warning men that they cannot set one standard for themselves and another for their wives, whereas in fact it was normal for men to do just that. Emilia highlights this but Shakespeare makes sure that it is not his main female character who feels this way because female submission is still an expectation and so Shakespeare does not disappoint or offend his male audiences. Emilia will also suffer at her husband's hands.
In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth drives Macbeth's obsession and Shakespeare makes no apologies for creating a woman so full of "direst cruelty" (I.v.40) that audiences are shocked by her lack of compassion. However, he does create a conflicted soul, one who can only be this harsh if she is stripped of all maternal instinct (except towards her husband as would be expected of a dutiful wife) first. Furthermore, the guilt which consumes her will lead to her madness and death. This reveals how Shakespeare plays to his audience. He presents women who do not necessarily conform but who ultimately are subject to Elizabethan principles and treated as objects. It is notable that Lady Macbeth is overlooked as a threat because she is only a woman whose sensitivities must be protected—and this contributes to the plot of Macbeth.
In Hamlet, Ophelia meets the expected standard of women when the audience is first introduced to her. She agrees to "obey" (I.iii.135) her father and stay away from Hamlet. Both Laertes and Polonius warn her that Hamlet's expressions of love are not sincere and that she must "tender yourself more dearly" (107) or she may ruin her family name. The audience expects this and her complete submission to this idea. Ultimately, she will not be able to withstand the uncertainty of her situation, despite how she supports Hamlet to the point of her own madness.
In The Merchant of Venice, Portia is classically trapped in a situation created by "the will of a dead father" (I.ii.23). She is obedient and loyal and will find her husband via this "lottery of my destiny" (II.i.15). Shakespeare portrays Portia as being able to remain a good and dutiful daughter while at the same time saving the other characters from their own selves and their schemes. It is necessary for her to take on a masculine role, however, in order to save the day, confirming how women were treated as objects and with limited usefulness.
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