William Shakespeare Shakespeare's Representation of Women - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 Desdemona …), or who attempt to seize physical supremacy from the male (like Queen Margaret or Cleopatra).

The individuality of Shakespeare's portraits is buried beneath the generalizations in this statement.

Editors, too, rely on stereotypes, but they also react to the intellectual and moral climate of their era. Thus, Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century decries the frequent use of bawdy language in Love's Labour's Lost and wonders how the work could have been performed before a "maiden queen." The play, whose characters include outspoken, independent women, did not appear on the stage of his time. J. W. Lever, writing in our twentieth century, wonders what all the fuss is about in Measure for Measure. He can't understand why Isabella should refuse to capitulate to the threats of a rapist-seducer. This editor writes: "Chastity was essentially a condition of the spirit; to see it in merely physical terms was to reduce the concept to a mere pagan scruple."

Actor-managers, directors, and producers have difficulty transferring Shakespeare's vision of women to the stage. Shaped by the cultural mores of their particular society, they too conform to its biases. With sometimes slight, sometimes massive changes of the text, these men of the theater reshape the woman's role in the image of the age. Promptbooks—records of plays as performed—recapture those performances. They also permit comparison of the acted play with the original. Lines are cut, roles excised, scenes transposed, and stage directions interjected. The cumulative effect of these changes is usually an altered portrait of the woman character Shakespeare had intended.

In the dramatist's age, stage props were minimal: a tree, a table, a chair, and language that cued the audience in to the exact location of the action. In later times, large stage sets were devised. Striving for grandeur, the designers created costly scenery that took time to move. The uninterrupted performance of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage gave way to productions with long intermissions. But the cost of moving scenery also inspired producers to try to consolidate scenes occurring in one place. Antony and Cleopatra provides an excellent example. The scenes shift back and forth in kaleidoscope fashion between Rome and Egypt. Shakespeare's actors probably had no difficulty with such shifts. People listened to the language, looked at the costumes, and imagined. Later audiences, however, demanded verisimilitude. They wanted to see Rome and Egypt. To shift from Egypt to Rome then back to Egypt and again to move for a brief interlude in Rome before returning once more to Egypt required massive shifts of scenery. How much simpler it was to consolidate these many short scenes into a few long ones. But the intricacy of Shakespeare's method for developing a portrait was lost—and with it the subtlety of the statement.

Stage business also affects responses to a character. Ellen Terry, the famous Shakespearean actress, writing early in this century, tells of playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. When Beatrice's cousin swoons at being falsely slandered on her wedding day, Beatrice's suitor, Benedick, quickly goes to the aid of the fainting woman. Mr. Lacy, an old actor with the company, advised Terry to attempt to prevent Benedick from being of assistance:

"When Benedick rushes forward to lift up Hero after she has fainted, you 'shoo' him away. Jealousy, you see. Beatrice is not going to let her man lay a finger on another woman." I said, "Oh, nonsense, Mr. Lacy!" "Well, it's always been done," he retorted, "and it always gets a laugh." I told him then that not only was it impossible for me to do such a thing, but that it was so inconsistent with Beatrice's character that it ought to be impossible for any actress impersonating her to do it!

Terry triumphed on that occasion. But not all actresses are in that commanding a position. And even she, at other times, had to bow to the wishes of Henry Irving, the renowned actor-manager of the end of the nineteenth century, when he insisted that they play for a "gag" rather than be true to Shakespeare's portrait of a woman character. The word of the director usually prevails.

M. C. Bradbrook, the contemporary critic, observes that theatrical practices today—the open stage, the swift shifts of setting, and even the absence of scenery—most nearly approximate those of Shakespeare's age. The potential exists to recapture the quality of his dramas on the stage. But receptivity to Shakespeare's technique does not assure receptivity to his voice—his ideas and attitudes. A recent production of Richard III testified to this. Audiences should comfortably enjoy hissing Richard, one of Shakespeare's unrepentant villains. Instead, a 1979 audience applauded when Richard, through guile, won for his wife a woman whose life that audience knew would be tortured and tragic. The misogynistic tone of the production indicates that technical knowledge has little to do with substance. In this production, Shakespeare's vision was ignored and his insights into women's lives lost. Instead of seeing the powerlessness of Anne, a woman tragically marked by Richard for his bride, the audience saw a cold, aloof c' aracter who seemed to deserve her fate. And the one woman character with courage enough to challenge him openly, Margaret, never appeared. Absent too was the choral lament of the wailing widows—powerless queens. The production failed to show how Shakespeare dramatized the ways in which power impinges upon and shapes a woman's life.

The sweetest power a woman can possess is that over herself. Simone de Beauvoir calls it the sense of one's self as "subject, active, free." Virginia Woolf symbolizes it with the phrase, "five hundred pounds a year and a room of one's own," admonishing women to achieve economic and political independence. But this power is incomplete. As de Beauvoir later notes, a woman loses this freedom when she discovers her own sexuality. She then realizes that to fulfill herself sexually, she must think of herself as "Other," or secondary, and of man as primary, for she lives in a patriarchal society. Marriage dramatizes this power of one human being over another. John Stuart Mill, the Victorian philosopher, notes that the reason the majority of men refuse to relinquish this power is that they are still too much afraid of living with an equal. He reasons for a sexual equality that will free both men and women to enjoy the full value of life.

Shakespeare focuses on this inequity. Men and women confront the same experience from opposite perspectives. By creating confident, attractive, independent women whom we like, he questions the wisdom of a power structure that insists they relinquish personal freedom. Some of his dramas question accepted patterns of behavior. Some stress the value of mutual respect between a man and a woman. Some reveal the confusion in a woman's mind when she seeks to understand the limits of her world. Occasionally, a drama documents the tragedy of a woman who loses her way and her sense of self when she seeks to conform. To hear his voice, however, one must recognize the individuality and three-dimensional quality of his women characters. Like the men, the women too respond to a variety of forces in their environment and are troubled by the world they see. But that world differs from the one perceived by men.

Living at a time when a woman sat on the English throne, an artist of Shakespeare's sensitivity must have been affected by this extraordinary circumstance. Not only was Elizabeth I a remarkable woman and a person of power, but she remained unmarried, thus preserving that power. Her reign began before Shakespeare was born and extended well into his playwrighting years. C. H. Williams, the historian, describes the impact of her presence as monarch for forty-six years:

From the moment of her accession until the time of her death Elizabeth I was a phenomenon—it is not too strong a word—in European history. She was at once a crowned monarch and an unmarried woman. To such an unconventional conjunction some of the stiffest problems of the reign must be attributed. The Queen's methods of dealing with them often bewildered her contemporaries. They have not been any clearer to historians.

The Queen's life dramatized a woman's potential for greatness and the subordination that a patriarchal society mandated for her if she were to marry. With great skill, Elizabeth evaded marriage and avoided that possible loss of power. She refused to share her life or her throne with any man. As she knew by observing her sister monarch, Mary of Scotland, in a patriarchal society, marriage transforms even a queen's power. If Elizabeth is an enigma to historians, perhaps it is because they have difficulty understanding the effect of this inequity on a woman's thinking and acting. Surely the dramatist drew on this example.

Today, Shakespeare's women characters have a relevance and vitality. They offer insights into women's perceptions of themselves in a patriarchal world. They reveal the conflict women know as they move from that early awareness of themselves as "essential" to that later eroding of self-confidence when they discover that they are merely "Other." Shakespeare's plays show the diversity of the mind of a sixteenth-century man whose understanding of the human condition extended beyond his own sex and beyond his own time.

Marianne Novy (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Demythologizing Shakespeare," in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1981, pp. 17-27.

[In the following essay, Novy examines Shakespeare's presentation of a range of female character types from a feminist critical perspective.']

I begin with a question: what is it about the experience of feminist Shakespeare criticism that is different from the experience of feminist criticism of Spenser, Milton, Hemingway, or Virginia Woolf? Suppose that feminist critics of all these writers are interested in the relationships of characters and imagery (and other literary elements) to sex roles and expectations, and refuse to take conventional stereotypes for male and female behavior for granted as normative. Are there any experiences specific to the Shakespeare critic?

In addition to demythologizing masculine and feminine stereotypes, the feminist Shakespeare critic must also deal with two other stereotypes that are polar opposites: Shakespeare as the uncritical adherent of the most conservative views of his time, and Shakespeare as the universal genius who totally transcends all historical and psychological limitations. If feminist Shakespeare criticism is to continue its growth towards more significant insights, I believe we must demythologize these stereotypes as well. In some ways Shakespeare's choice of the drama, where the writer's position is more elusive than in a lyric or epic poem, contributes to the temptation to adhere to one or other of these stereotypes; Shakepeare's ability to give life to widely different characters increases it. Corresponding to the variety of Shakespearean characterization is the variety of the critics who have found their own attitudes in Shakespeare's plays—a discovery sometimes mediated by the image of the transcendent genius, sometimes by the image of the conversative, and sometimes even by a paradoxical blend of the two. On the other hand, feminist critics who see Shakespeare as only the celebrant of conservative orthodoxy about male dominance may still reduce his complexity. We can find a range of attitudes in Shakespeare partly because a range of attitudes really exists in his work. In short, both because of Shakespeare's unique status in our culture and because of the particular complexity of his attitude toward women, the feminist critic of Shakespeare confronts a somewhat different situation than the feminist critic of the other authors I have mentioned.

My own thinking about Shakespeare's women started, I suppose, in adolescence, before I read any feminist literary or social criticism. The first occasions that I remember hearing discussions of Shakespeare's women that did not take conventional stereotypes of femininity for granted were in the early sixties, when I heard (three years apart) an actress and my college Shakespeare teacher, Nancy Pollard Brown, talk about The Taming of the Shrew. In different ways, both were calling attention to important aspects of a play that many critics still take as simply a cautionary tale for the uppity woman. Kate is not a conventional subservient passive woman, and both of them, in their interpretations of the play, made clear that they liked her unconventional spirit, much preferred her to her more traditionally feminine sister Bianca, and felt that the way Shakespeare wrote the play encouraged this preference. Neither one saw Kate as defeated by the ending: the actress emphasized the attraction and love between Kate and Petruchio, and the teacher suggested that Kate is the real victor because she has learned how to control him.

When I wrote my dissertation on Shakespeare's comedies, I wanted to express a positive view of the play as combining an attractive, strong, unconventional woman and a happy ending, but I found my writing becoming rather strained. Love is hard to demonstrate in the farcical text, and if Kate is manipulating Petruchio by belittling herself at the end, I could no longer see such a modus vivendi as happy. Eventually I tried to justify the last scene by describing it as a game. Proud of finally discovering a way to deal with it, I described Kate's satisfaction at being able to use patriarchal language in the last scene in terms that applied to my own satisfaction at being able to write about the play without being rendered incoherent by conflicting emotions. My dissertation chapter was basically an attempt to understand the play in its own terms—not to point out any of the problems with the patriarchal elements in those terms—and in that sense I was using patriarchal language very much as Kate was, and remaining within the mythology of Shakespeare as transcending all limitations.

Whenever I saw or taught the play, however, my discomfort with it came alive again. I would insist that directors removed key scenes, or that actors' gestures distorted them. It was hard to admit that elements in the play lent themselves to interpretations suggesting that Kate was forced into submission. But eventually, having read more in feminism and Elizabethan social history, having lived more, and having been prodded by arguments with colleagues and friends, I wrote a paper that tried to confront this problem. The Shrew uses imagery of play and games, I concluded, partly to make us feel that the institutions of patriarchy can be as freely entered into and as enjoyable as play. It may suggest that they are also as arbitrary as play and that other modes of play, such as Kate's wit combat with Petruchio, are also enjoyable and valuable, but it leaves us with a situation in which Petruchio's power as husband coalesces with his power as leader of games, and the audience may take as primary whichever definition of Kate's relationship to him they prefer—patriarchal or playful. This ambiguity seemed to me to reflect and respond to the tension in Elizabethan attitudes toward marriage between patriarchy and companionship. Whether the situation of Elizabethan women was better or worse than that of their predecessors, historians may argue, but such tension clearly existed in practice and in ideology. For example, the popular preacher Henry Smith fills his Preparative to Marriage, published in 1591, with images suggestive of marriage as equal partnership. Husband and wife are like a pair of oars, a pair of gloves, and even David and Jonathan. Yet he also declares that "the ornament of a woman is silence; and therefore the Law was given to the man rather than to the woman, to shewe that he shoulde be the teacher, and shee the hearer."

After I had finally confronted and named the patriarchal elements in Shrew, however, my tendency was still to see that play as essentially an anomaly. (As I still do, but not as much as when my Shakespeare mythology was stronger.) In most Shakespearean comedies the women control the games, and most of them are easy to see as models of strong, intelligent, resourceful women attractively portrayed. Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola all escape the trials that Kate undergoes, and none of them give long speeches on their duty to their husbands. Surely any playwright who can create four heroines like these is affirming female activity. He even allows them to criticize the limits that their society places on them as women—both by their words and by their competence in the masculine disguise that removes some of these limits.

But the masculine disguise sometimes breaks down. Shakespeare's women simply cannot fight a duel, except with words. Furthermore, even the strongest, most resourceful of the heroines end their comedies with ritual gestures of submission, as Clara Claiborne Park has shown [in American Scholar 42, Spring 1973]. Rosalind says to Orlando and her father, "To you I give myself, for I am yours," and after a few more ritual lines she is uncharacteristically silent until the end, where she comes back to say the epilogue. Benedick says to Beatrice, "Peace! I will stop your mouth," and after his kiss she says nothing more, while he goes on talking. Although the women are active throughout the plays, and the relationships are presented as developing by a mutuality of dialogue by women and men, nevertheless, as Park says, in all of the comedies female assertiveness is tempered, at least verbally. Beatrice explicitly recants her pride when she responds to the story of Benedick's love for her. Portia has a long speech of submission to Bassanio. One can argue that these heroines regain or retain their assertiveness in spite of what they say; but the need for a rhetoric of modesty must still be taken into account. Even male disguise can be taken as a softening of female assertiveness because it permits us to take anything a woman says or does while in disguise as only playing a role. And, as Carolyn Heilbrun has pointed out, we may take the relationships created by these couples as allowing the women more freedom only because their condition is still courtship and not marriage. Thus again Shakespeare gives us an ambiguous picture in which those who emphasize patriarchy and those who emphasize female activity can both find some elements to satisfy them and, if they wish, take those as the essentials. It seems that Shakespeare's ideal woman—the kind he presents in the most depth in the comedies—is active but willing to subordinate herself, like the ideal woman of the protestant preachers discussed by the Hallers. She can harmoniously combine strength and flexibility, individualism and compromise.

Tragic heroines like Juliet, Cordelia, and Desdemona also combine both of these qualities attractively. Desdemona, for example, bravely chooses Othello and defends her choice before Venice, but she uses the argument that she is acting just as her mother did in following her father. She stubbornly tries to carry out her promise to plead Cassio's case, but she lies about her handkerchief. She defends herself stoutly on her deathbed but she has put herself in the vulnerable position in which Othello can kill her. Her combination of qualities makes it possible for critics on both sides to praise her or criticize her, contrasts with the simple images Othello has of her, and contributes to the ultimate disaster.

If the women Shakespeare presents most attractively, different as they are, combine these seemingly opposed qualities of self-assertion and self-subordination, can we make any similar generalization about the women he presents as most destructive? What interests me about these women—Goneril, Regan, Lady Macbeth, Volumnia—is that all...

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Types Of Shakespearean Women Characters

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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-waitinghigh-born women attendants of noblewomenin 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...

(The entire section is 24763 words.)

Gender Issues

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 16162 words.)

Performance Issues

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10915 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 843 words.)