Friday, 13 January 2012

Shakespeare’s Women | Feminism and Shakespeare

Feminism is a 20th Century
Concept: The "We Can Do It!"
Poster Known as Rosie
the Riverter (1942)

There is, of course, one significant problem with exploring Shakespeare’s plays from a feminist perspective: Feminism is very much a 20th century concept.

Nevertheless, we are often drawn to viewing Shakespeare’s women from a modern angle. Why? Well, partly, because many of them don’t seem to conform to the social and gender conventions of their own eras.

Boys Who Play Girls, Who Play Boys Like They’re Girls

Firstly, my apologies to Blur.

Secondly, it’s easy to forget that when Shakespeare wrote his plays, there was no such thing as a female actor. Women were not allowed to perform, so all female roles were played by boys or young men - something the audiences were, obviously, well aware of.

So, whenever you’re exploring the portrayal of Shakespeare’s female characters, it is worth keeping this at the back of your mind. It adds an additional layer of humour to the comedies, particularly the cross-dressing plays, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, for example.

I Don’t Give a Damn ’Bout My Bad Reputation

Othello and Desdemona Painted
by Theodore Chasseriau

However, the added humour of men playing women, can’t account for the regularity with which Shakespeare gives his female characters pluck, mettle and power; the likes of which would not necessarily be associated with femininity, during the 16th and 17th centuries.

There are precious few female Shakespearean characters who don’t go against the grain in some way. But it’s not always in an overt way, like the ‘shrewish’ Kate from The Taming of The Shrew.

Oh, no. Even the more docile girls, such as Juliet, Jessica and Desdemona, are ‘unruly’ in that they disobey their parents and elope with their respective beloveds.

Was Shakespeare a Feminist?

Well, no. We can’t call Shakespeare a feminist, because the concept didn’t exist in his lifetime, or for approximately three hundred years following his death.

On the other hand, did he demonstrate an understanding of women’s subjugation by men, a realisation that women were not necessarily the “weaker sex” and create characters that could be described as protofeminists? Yes.

However, there is a school of thought which suggests that Shakespeare’s championing of disobedient, cunning, wilful women was merely for the benefit of comic effect, just as the cruelty towards an ‘outsider’ like Shylock was all in the name of comedy.

Now, you could, of course, fall on either side of this debate - because there really is no way of knowing exactly what Shakespeare had in mind. But for my money, it is the former rather than the latter.

Uncomfortable Mix of Tragedy and Comedy

My reason for saying that is two-fold. Firstly, I don’t think that Lady Macbeth, Portia (from Julius Caesar), Regan, Goneril, Volumnia, Desdemona, Queen Margaret, and a whole string of other Shakespearean women, are meant to be funny.
Goneril and Regan from
Shakespeare Illustrated (1902)

It can’t be denied that there are uncomfortable shifts between tragedy and comedy in many of the Bard’s plays. However, if these women are intended to be figures of fun, then it drastically alters our commonly held perceptions of the plays.

Secondly, it is very clear that not all instances of disobedience, wilfulness or empowerment are designed to make the female character in question appear foolish.

For example, Cordelia’s refusal to play the “who loves Dad most?” game is clearly not intended to turn her into a comedy foil. Instead, it demonstrates that, despite the significant amount she stands to lose, she is more concerned with being truthful. Now, some people might call that foolish, but I wouldn’t.

What About the Women Who Win?

There are also many instances of a female character’s wilfulness winning out. Portia in The Merchant of Venice for example, or Maria in Twelfth Night. In both cases, these women outwit their male counterparts. In the case of Portia, saving Antonio’s life and, in the case of Maria, outfoxing the pious Malvolio.

But, then these spunky girls have a habit of deferring to their husbands (although, for Portia, not before she teaches Bassanio a lesson).

What About the Women Who Submit?

 One of the main culprits where ‘submission’ is concerned is Kate from The Taming of the Shrew. And you might use her closing soliloquy, which extrapolates on the virtues of conforming to the label “fair sex”, as a decisive blow to argue that Shakespeare was, surely, no kind of feminist.
Ada Rehan as Katharina in
The Taming of The Shrew (1887)

However, what isn’t clear and, therefore, completely open to interpretation is whether or not Kate is sincere or sarcastic. Moreover, it’s worth keeping in mind that she gives as good as she gets and, you could say, she tames Petruchio, just as much as he tames her.

So, in fact, the two have a pretty equal relationship from the moment they meet.

It is possible and, in my opinion, likely that her closing soliloquy is done with a nudge, a wink and her tongue firmly in cheek.


  1. Thank you very much for writing and posting these articles they have been very helpful to me. I am doing Romeo and Juliet in school and have to answer a question on how Shakespeare presents the treatment of women, this has been most helpful and has given me lots to think about, thank you Xx

    1. Hi there! Thanks for taking the time to let me know this was useful to you. I'm glad you found it helpful, and I wish you luck with your assignment.

  2. Thank a lot. this was very helpful. I'm currently doing my course work on ' Much ado about nothing and ' the rover' do you also think Aphra Behn could be a 'proto-feminist' ? My piece is on the patriarchal system

    1. Hi there. Good to hear you're studying Aphra Behn; she's not widely known, which is a shame. Modern feminists and writers (like Virginia Woolf), have certainly 'claimed' her, and there's little doubt she blazed a trail for future female poets, playwrights and novelists.

      She really was quite a woman - before her time in MANY ways, and not afraid to do (or write), things that were deemed 'improper'. To me, regardless of gender issues, she was a rebel; fighting against convention. Partly that's being a product of her era, celebrating the looser times that came with the Restoration - not only are the theatres open again, but also, for the first time, women are allowed on stage. So, it's a slightly (very slightly), freer time for women in general.

      When it comes to the The Rover, it's not difficult to see Behn's Valeria, Hellena and Florinda alongside Shakespeare's unruly girls. But what's probably more interesting is her portrayal of men: hot-headed, ruled by impulses of sex and violence, and pretty flighty in their feelings of 'love'. It's all done in a comedic way, but it's got some serious undertones - is she making a social comment on the way women are valued? Beauty and sexuality are the only things held at any worth?

      In any case, I can't help feeling sorry for Hellena. Willmore isn't exactly a prize catch all things considered. But perhaps she knows, better than he, that marriage is more a 'business' arrangement, and is well aware of what she's getting herself into. If we believe her when she says she doesn't love him, perhaps its her head and not her heart that's ruling her...or maybe she's fooling herself when she says she doesn't love him! Who knows?

      Anyway, the short answer to your question is, 'yes', Aphra Behn can be seen as a proto-feminist.

      Hope that helps.

  3. Thank you so much, I've written my essay now and used your argument( Don't worry I gave you the credit). thanks again

    1. You're most welcome. Thanks for taking the time to come back and say, 'thanks', it's very much appreciated. Hope the essay goes down well.

  4. Thankyou for this, I am analysing Cleopatra and perceptions of women for school, so very useful :)

    1. Hi there,

      Very glad to hear that. It was kind of you to take the time to let me know it's been handy to you. Good luck with your work on Cleopatra, she's a fascinating gal.

      Best wishes.

  5. Thankyou very much! This page has helped me with my "The Taming of the Shrew" essay! You helped me get across my argument that Shakespeare displayed feminist-like views. :)

    1. I'm very pleased to have been of help. Thanks so much for coming back to let me know. Hope the essay goes well.

  6. I was wondering if you could help me with discussing not only if Shakespeare was a feminist but also if he was an lgbtq+ ally for a uni assignment, thanks

    1. Hello there,

      It's a tricky subject, because, of course, these are concepts that would have been (largely) alien to Shakespeare. But I have written a bit about whether Will could have been gay himself, which might be interesting to you - Was Shakespeare Gay?

      And, of course, all the cross-dressing in several plays, does suggest a certain playfulness to gender roles. Although, whether he would truly have been an advocate for the LGBT community is difficult to imagine and impossible to guess given the era he was living in. I think the thing to remember is, as I mention in the post I've linked to, homosexuality and what constituted it were different in the 16th and 17th centuries - and for hundreds of years before, and some time after.

      That said, Shakespeare seems to have ostensibly little prejudice: sexual, racial or religious at least. So it's definitely something you can argue and is a fascinating subject to discuss.

      Feel free to contact me again if I can be of any more help, though.

  7. Thank you so much. I Am doing an essay on how Shakespeare viewed women and how he portrayed them in his plays. This is perfect and helped me get a much better understanding of this subject.

    1. Glad to be of help! Thanks for letting me know, and I wish you the best of luck with your essay.

  8. Hey!
    So i have to study Hamlet at school and i was thinking of taking a feminist perspective of it but im not sure that theres that much to talk about. Do you believe Ophelia is a strong female character even though she goes mad and commits suicide?
    thanks for the website though, it's really interesting

    1. Hey there!

      Thank you for your kind words. Yes, I absolutely think Ophelia's a strong character. Her descent into madness and her suicide don't preclude her having a lot of strength. In fact, you could argue that her suicide was an act of strength - her way (and the only way available to her) of taking control of her fate.

      But, more than that, she says what I think is possibly one of the most feminist (or proto-feminist to be more accurate) things Shakespeare ever wrote. After Laertes has finished his little speech advising her to guard her virtue, she says:

      I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
      As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
      Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
      Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
      Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
      Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
      And recks not his own rede.

      In other words, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Or to put it even more simply, women and men shouldn't be held to different standards of morality and virtue. That is, in my mind at least, an incredibly feminist and forward-thinking thing for a 17th century writer to espouse.

      I also think the way she verbally parries with Hamlet for a good chunk of the play shows that she's not one to be easily pushed around. Although she may seem like a less 'unruly' girl than a lot of Shakespeare's, and there's no question that she's keen to please both her father and Hamlet (whom she loves), she is far from a weak character.

      Just my take on it all, mind you! Hope that's helpful.
      Good luck with the assignment.

    2. thank you so much for the quick and incredibly helpful response. I really like the idea that Ophelia committed suicide to control her own fate. Do you believe Gertrude married Claudius because she wanted to be in power or because she really loved him and murdered Hamlet senior to be with him

    3. It's a pleasure. I'm glad that was helpful. As far as Gertrude is concerned, it could be either of those things. Or it could be neither. What we have to bear in mind is that women (especially ones of noble birth) had to be rather pragmatic about who they married; very rarely was it for love. One would think, if Hamlet had become king as he should have done, he would have taken good care of her...but maybe she wasn't so sure of that. Perhaps she was worried about her future, and so married Claudius to try to secure it. But maybe she did love the power of being queen, or maybe she loved him. What's your hunch telling you?

  9. Thank you for the insight delivered by the post itself and the several responses. Would it at all be possible to ask you for the sources you used to write your abstract about Shakespeare and the feminist approach?
    I ask because I am due to finish my exams next month and will be examined on Shakespeare and the representation of women in his plays.
    As the gruntwork of my knowlege is nearly done, the points you raise would make a for a useful argumentation structure. I need to quote my sources, and where i can quote you I will.

    Sincerest Thanks and kindes regards


    1. Hello, Jan.

      I'm sorry for the long delay in reply - I don't check back here as often as I should.

      The post and all of my comments are my own work and, although I have done some reading around the plays in my time (so mine are not 'radical' theories), none of the above is directly sourced from anywhere other than my noggin.

      You can by all means use anything on the site as a source, referenced in the usual way.

      Good luck with your exams.

  10. I love this essay. I was wondering if you could provide some evidence for people who think role of women as being witty and clever, is just for a comedic effect. Thank you!

    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I'm afraid I can't offer any sources for authors/actors/scholars who feel the 'witty' women are predominantly for comedic effect. You could probably find some if you needed to, though.

      But to elaborate, I suppose what I mean is, if Katherina weren't witty, the Taming of The Shrew wouldn't be anywhere near as funny. Petruchio needs a jousting partner, so it wouldn't be out of the realms of possibility to think the primary reason Shakespeare wrote Kate as he did was for comedic purposes.

      In fact, it might be reaching to say this was a grand feminist statement on Bill's part. The 'feminist' - and we need to be a bit careful about using that word retroactively - undertones might even be incidental to Shakespeare. That's not to say he wasn't a fan of strong women, because I think he was. And, by all accounts, his mother (Mary Arden) was a wonderful female role model of strength and smarts. Mostly, though, he was just writing good theatre.

      But these are all interesting things to mull over and debate.

      Thanks again.

  11. thank you so much for writing this! I appreciate it. I'm writing an IB Extended Essay on how Romeo and Juliet broke the gender convention back in the 1590s

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write. I'm glad the post was helpful to you, and I wish you luck with your essay!

  12. Hello, i am an English literatur student and your passage helped me organize my ideas but can you tell me more about how women affected shakespeare or why he viewed them in this way ! Since i have to choose a topic for my research and it should be related to literature so i chose ' role of women in shakespeare's plays ' help me please to organizs my ideas
    Thanks waiting you reply

    1. Hi there,

      Sorry for the delay. I hope this isn't too late to still be useful to you. 'The role of women in Shakespeare's plays' is a huge subject that can be tackled from a number of angles (none of them right or wrong). So if I were you, I think I'd start by focusing on what your impressions of Shakespeare's women are - and then think about how Shakespeare is achieving that.

      When it comes to how women affected Shakespeare, I don't want to get Freudian, but I'd say a great place to start would be his mother, Mary Arden. From what we know of her, she seems to have been a strong, spirited and intelligent women, especially for her era. No doubt she was influential in Shakespeare's life and in shaping his views of women.

      I've got several more posts on Shakespeare's women, some of them might be useful to you. Just click on the 'The Gals' tab under the header. And best of luck with your assignment.

    2. Hello
      May you explain more about shakespeare achieved that ( us being affected by women's role )
      In addition, you mean that his mom was his inspiration of all the women in his plays ?

    3. Hi Kheba,

      I can't say Mary Shakespeare (Mary Arden before she was married) was the inspiration for all of the women in the plays. But I think it's fair to say she was definitely influential in his overall perception of women. She was, apparently, a very intelligent, creative (she used to tell her children, including young William, stories) and strong woman. As far as it's ever possible to say, she seems to have meant a great deal to him.

      I'm not sure what you're asking with your first question. Please feel free to clarify. If you're still in need of more information, I'll offer any if I can.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Hey, it is so good to see you take time and reply to each person here and solve their problems. It is a beautiful gesture. S. A. Markham. Just a comment of appreciation.