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, joyous Juliet to the wizened, bitter Margaret. But most have a vitality; they grow and develop during the course of a drama. Their actions spring from a realistic confrontation with life as they learn the meaning of self sovereignty for a woman in a patriarchal society.
But critics, limited by their own perceptions of a woman's role, fail to hear all the texts' cues and wrestle with interpretation. Simplification or evasion results. Some of the women are castigated as shrews; others are removed from the human sphere and their resemblances to deities or goddesses are emphasized; still others are considered as merely personifications of ideas. Occasionally a critic asserts, as [Hugh Richmond, in Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy] did recently, that Shakespeare's women are "the conscious sustainers of society and culture, as are Modern American Women." This critic, however, then continues:
The prime sources of disaster in Shakespeare's plays are to be found in women who neurotically forget their biological role … or their social tact (like...
(The entire section is 62,260 words.)