Thursday, 12 November 2015

"I Grant I am a Woman" | Are Shakespeare's Women Really Women?

I received an interesting, and very lovely, email from a student who's writing her dissertation on the representation of women in Shakespeare.

She asked me a few questions, and we tossed a couple of ideas back and forth, and she caused me to think about Shakespeare's women in a way that I hadn't (and perhaps should have) done before.

Are Shakespeare's women real women? Is the representation of women in Shakespeare's plays grounded, in any sense, in the reality of female experiences of Elizabethan and Jacobean eras?

Shakespeare's Strong Female Characters

Okay, so there's no denying that I adore the women Shakespeare created. I don't think a single one of them is two-dimensional; they are not window-dressing; and they are wonderful characters to watch, to read, and to play.

I've mentioned before that one of the characteristics universal to Shakespeare's women is that they refuse to do as they're told. And I believe there is a case to be made for some of Shakespeare's characters to be deemed proto-feminists.

I'm not going to take any of that back now. But...and there is a big but (and I cannot lie, nor can you other brothers deny)...there's a different way of looking at it.

Shakespeare's Women aren't Representative of Women

Portia's stronger than her sex
The very thing I love about Shakespeare's girls is the very thing that means they're not really representative of the rest of their gender. 

Mould-breakers? Definitely. 

Unruly? No question. 

But they're very atypical women. Lady Macbeth literally wants to renounce her femininity - or believes she has to anyway. Viola and Rosalind mask theirs by dressing as men. 

And perhaps it's Portia in Julius Caesar who explains it best.

"I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex...?"

Shakespeare's women all, to my mind, have this in common. They are stronger than their sex. Or, at the very least, stronger than their sex is 'expected' to be. And, in many ways, that's to be applauded. Unlike some of Shakespeare's contemporaries, he didn't write insipid, weak female roles. 

Yet, unfortunately, this means he's not telling 'real' women's stories, either. These are girls who are breaking men's rules in order to play in a man's world. But what about all of those women who couldn't do that? Well, the fact is, their stories wouldn't have been anywhere near as entertaining!

The Sexism of Shakespeare's Era

In Shakespeare's day, it would have been
men playing women, Miss Bernhardt!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suddenly changing my tune and decrying Shakespeare a sexist. I don't think he was. He did, however, live and work in a sexist era. And he had to make his plays as popular as possible. 

Of course, there were plenty of women in Shakespeare's audiences, but then, as now, women seemed/seem perfectly happy to enjoy male-centric stories, while men were/are not as readily willing to enjoy female-centric stories. So, to appeal to the bigger crowd, you would quite naturally incline to male-centred plots. 

There's nothing wrong with that, but it is worth remembering, despite all the kudos Shakespeare unquestionably deserves for his female characters, there are no plays were woman are at the centre - Twelfth Night is close, but it is very much an ensemble affair. Likewise, As You Like It.  

And, as the lovely, dissertation-writing, Anto, pointed out, Shakespeare was not only writing to appease as large an audience as possible, but he was also writing roles for male performers. 

These may be female characters, but they were played (for a long time) by men. And these men would probably prefer a good juicy role, like Portia from The Merchant of Venice, to sink their teeth into!

So What's the Point of All This?

Well, I think the point is that trying to decide whether Shakespeare's work is feminist or sexist is complex. 

Partly because those concepts are so far removed from the era he knew. And partly because it depends how you look at it, and exactly what you're looking for. 

If we're looking for women who refuse to capitulate to the patriarchal system into which they were born, then we'll find them in spades. And that could be deemed proto-feminist.

However, if we're looking for a representation of what it actually was to be an ordinary woman of the Elizabethan or Jacobean era (or any of those earlier periods Shakespeare wrote of), then, I fear, we're out of luck. 

Whether that's a good or a bad thing isn't easy to decide. Would the plays have been as entertaining if Shakespeare had given us 'real' women? Or do we still, to this day, need the women written for our entertainment to be "stronger than [their] sex" in order to be worthy of our time and attention?