Friday, 13 April 2012

Are Shakespeare’s Plays Sexist?

Was Shakespeare Sexist or a Feminist?
Not so long ago, I looked at the way Shakespeare can, and has been, viewed as a proto-feminist. So, let’s have a look at the argument from the other side.

In actual fact, just as feminism is an inaccurate phrase to use in relation to Shakespeare's work, so is sexism. As a twentieth century concept, it would be meaningless to Shakespeare himself and his contemporaries. But that doesn’t prevent us from taking that stance in a modern analysis.

The Role Of Women in Elizabethan And Jacobean Society

Firstly, it’s important to realise that, if we think Shakespeare’s plays are sexist, then they are only so in as much as a large proportion of the world was sexist during that era. Much like Benny Hill, Shakespeare was playing to the accepted stereotypes and conventions of his day. It is only in hindsight that watching a pervy old man chase some scantily-clad, buxom beauty round and round a field seems so very, very wrong.

And, despite the fact that England had a queen between the years of 1533 and 1603 (which encompassed the majority of Shakespeare’s career), women had a pretty raw deal. They are a long way from having any rights (although admittedly, at this time, so are an awful lot of men) and are, in one way or another, the property of men: either their fathers or their husbands. Their purpose in the world is twofold: to please their husbands and procreate.

Of course, this poses two problems. One, if a woman is made a widow, she runs a very real risk of becoming destitute - unless she can find another husband, which becomes more unlikely the older she gets. And two, it raises lots of questions about the nature of the ‘transaction’ between a man and a woman. Keep in mind, many women didn’t have much say over the men they married, the choice was made for them. In order to secure a roof over their heads women were, effectively, forced to sell themselves.

Shakespeare’s Most Sexist Plays

So, there can be no question that Shakespeare was writing during an era that we would now, unquestionably, describe as sexist. But what about his plays?

Well, we see evidence of the above, in much of his work. However, perhaps the most overtly ‘sexist’ plays are: The Taming of The Shrew, Hamlet, Othello and The Merchant of Venice. All of them very clearly represent a woman as a man’s property.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in
The Taming of The Shrew
In The Taming of The Shrew, Kate vehemently states her disapproval at becoming Petruchio’s wife. However, her father has struck a deal with the man, so marry him she shall. And, of course, after the wedding, she is subjected to his attempts to ‘tame’ her, as though she were a horse that needed to be broken in - and we’re not talking about the kind of technique used by Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer. Yes, it makes for some very humorous moments, but should we be laughing?

Then we have poor Ophelia, who is used as a weapon by both Claudius (with her father’s permission) and Hamlet. She’s treated like an object, a toy, without any feelings. Of course, eventually, she is quite literally broken; the death of her father driving her to suicide.

And for the girls of Othello and The Merchant of Venice, we have a very similar story. All three women: Desdemona, Jessica and Portia, have their lives ruled over by their fathers, even though Portia’s is dead! Of course, Desdemona and Jessica choose the same way out. Just like their sister in crime, Juliet, they run away from their fathers and elope.

For Desdemona, as for Juliet, this does not culminate in a ‘happy ending’, smothered to death, as she is, for an imagined infidelity. The really interesting question, however, is: if she really had done the dirty on Othello, would there have been any guilt or remorse? Or would he have felt entirely justified in his actions?

But Are Shakespeare's Women Really Helpless Victims?

Well, as we’ve already established, Jessica and Desdemona are what you might call ‘unruly’. They want to marry for love, and who can blame them, so they have no qualms about sticking two fingers up at their fathers and, in both cases, at social convention. Even Desdemona, who is so easy to view as a simpering victim, actually displays much more gumption than she’s often given credit for. Bear in mind, when Othello starts to go a little loco, she could run to her father or the Duke…or any other man around for that matter, and got herself out of Dodge.

Instead, she chooses to stay. She loves her husband and, because she thinks she knows him, is convinced that the little blip in their relationship will blow over. Now, you can call her a fool; one of the many women who make idiots of themselves over a man, but you cannot call her weak nor can you call her a victim. She certainly doesn’t consider herself to be one. When asked who has suffocated her, she replies, “Nobody; I myself.”

In many ways, Portia is smarter than the male
characters of The Merchant of Venice
Portia, on the other hand, goes along with her father’s rather peculiar method of finding her a husband, but, it seems, the old duffer knew what he was talking about, because she does, in fact, marry a man she would have chosen herself: a man who, in the process, proved that he is not merely interested in aesthetic worth. And then, of course, she quite literally goes and saves the day. So, she is more of a heroine than a representation of women without any status or value.

For poor Ophelia, the argument is a little more tricky. Or is it? Is her parting shot, the taking of her own life, an act not simply motivated by mind-numbing grief, but also a desire for revenge? Does she know that Hamlet does, in his own warped way, love her and that her death will affect him more greatly than he would have her believe? Was her suicide the act of a woman who is refusing to be the property and plaything of men?

And as for The Taming of The Shrew, it’s quite clear that Kate can give as good as she gets. Intellectually, she is Petruchio’s equal and this, more than anything else, is what makes the play such a joy to watch. However, it’s also worth considering the fact that Petruchio’s behaviour, which we know is an act put on solely for Kate’s benefit (he’s not usually quite that much of an arse) and, by the same token, Kate may well be putting on a bit of a performance. Who is to say that the final scene and her soliloquy are not done with tongue firmly planted in cheek? Is she really suggesting that men are more important than women? Or is she giving an argument for equality?

So, are Shakespeare’s plays sexist? Well, you can certainly find evidence of sexism (although we’re taking the plays out of context) within them, but are they inherently negative about girls? I would argue not, but what do you think?


  1. Interesting viewpoint. I cringe when I watch the final scenes of "The Taming..." but have seen it performed where Kate plays it tongue in cheek...

    1. Hi there! Thanks very much for the comment.

      It's so difficult to know what Shakespeare's intention was, and we have to keep in mind it was a VERY different world for women. Kate's certainly been bought down a peg or two by the end of the play, and, arguably, she needed to be! But whether she's done such a volte face as to believe Petruchio is her 'lord, king and governor', I don't know.

      To most of us today, it's thoroughly depressing to think of her urging the other women to put their hands under their husbands' boots, but she's a sixteenth century gal, who is supposed to be obedient. Funnily enough, and on the up side, (at the end of the play at least), she's one of Shakespeare's most complaint women. All the rest are pretty good at not behaving as they're 'expected' to, so maybe that makes up for Kate's final speech.

      Thanks again!

  2. Some believe that Shakespeare was actually a feminist. It could be possible..

  3. I've been reading through all your posts about Shakespeare and Feminism as I have an assignment to do on the impact of feminism on studies of Shakespeare and I was wondering what your thoughts on Ophelia are? You write often about female characters all doing what they want to a great extent. What do you think of Ophelia in this context?

    1. Hello there,

      Ah, Ophelia. Poor Ophelia - you've got to wonder (or at least I do) whether things would have turned out differently if she had her mum or an older sister around. But, you know, although she's certainly used as a pawn in the 'games' her father and Hamlet are playing, she's not a complete push over. For example, when she's taking Laertes' advice to watch herself with Hamlet, she's quick to tell him not to be a hypocrite with his own behaviour (I.iii.530ish). So that suggests she doesn't think men and women should be held to different standards, which you could say is very feminist especially for the era.

      In terms of the 'unruliness' in Shakespeare's girls, Ophelia's perhaps not the unruliest Shakespearean chicken in the coop. But, as I mentioned, she doesn't blindly obey her brother. And although she does obey her father, she makes it known that she's doing so out of duty rather than an inclination to just do as she's told. And she gives as good as she gets as far as Hamlet's 'banter' is concerned in III.ii

      And, ultimately, she does take charge of her own life. Not in the most ideal way, perhaps, but after she's been pushed to the edge by Hamlet's shenanigans (and the general lunacy in the whole of the Denmark court), and then her father's death, the only control she has over her life is her death.

      She's a very sad character, and it does feel that she's treated like a commodity - a pretty one at that - by most people around her. But she fights it! And that's got to count for something.

      Just as an aside, I really enjoy Helena Bonham Carter's performance in the Franco Zeffirelli Hamlet. Watching that might help you get a feel for what I mean.

      Hope that's helpful! But don't hesitate to get in touch if you'd like to ask anything else.

      Best wishes,

  4. I have to write appendix about shakespeare that is he really a feminist or not?.. Can u plz help me to write it ...the play I read is ..othello...Julius Caesar ..measure for measure..the tempest and king lear

  5. I have to write appendix about shakespeare that is he really a feminist or not?.. Can u plz help me to write it ...the play I read is ..othello...Julius Caesar ..measure for measure..the tempest and king lear

    1. Hello Farzana,

      If you scroll back up in the comments, to the one I wrote on the 12th March, 2015, you'll find links to other posts I've written on the subject. Hope they help. But if you have any other specific questions, don't hesitate to ask.

  6. What evidence would you use to prove that Shakespeare was actually a sexist from his play Othello? Putting aside the factors of the time period being one of the main contributors to his perspectives in his plays?

    1. Hello, Lana.

      I'm sorry for the very late response, and I realise perhaps my answer is of no use to you now. But I'll try to offer one anyway.

      First off, though, a lot of the sexism in the play is inextricably tied to the period. So the fact Brabantio sees his daughter as his property to marry off to whomever he sees fit is less 'sexist' on the writer's part, and more typical of the era.

      If I were you, I'd look at the fact Othello believes Iago about Desdemona's "infidelity" with what is, let's be honest, pretty flimsy evidence. And he never asks her what happened, he doesn't seek her side of the story at all. This again, though, is influenced by the era; men's opinions weighed more heavily than women's. But still... wouldn't a husband ask his wife if she'd been messing about?! Of course, to be practical, Othello's choice not to speak to Desdemona is as much about dramatic convenience (what would happen at the end if D and O talked it all out and realised they were being manipulated?) as it is about sexism.

      However, to play devil's advocate, because I feel I must, I'd say Emilia in particular (and Desdemona to a different extent) is a proto-feminist character. So there's a lot of complexity to the portrayal of women in the play.

      Hope it's a case of better late than never!

      Thanks for the question.

  7. I have an essay due about how women are treated nowadays vs. how they were treated in Shakespeare's day. I've decided to be a bit controversial and write that nothing much has changed. What is your take?

    Also: This post helped a lot, thank you :)