Shakespearean women: Were they truly independent? | Ananya Bharadwaj

William Shakespeare is often regarded as one of the greatest pioneers to have contributed to English literature. Rightfully called ‘The Bard’, his work encompasses various genres like drama, tragedy, comedy, and irony—sometimes all in one piece. Best known for his plays, he is credited with inventing some of the most commonly used words in our vocabulary, like assassination, dishearten, cold-blooded, etc. However, one of the reasons his work is studied and analysed carefully to this day, centuries later, is because of the characters he has fleshed out expertly.

While seldom portrayed as the centre of his plays (the few exceptions include Rosalind in As You Like It, Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra), Shakespeare’s heroines encompass a wide range of characterisations and types. With distinctive personalities, be it the quick wit of Kate and Beatrice, the ruthlessness of Lady Macbeth, or the keen intellect of Portia, his female characters are extremely individualistic and strong in their characterisation. They often display great intelligence, vitality, and a strong sense of personal independence, mostly defying patriarchal authority.

Not only do they have an unwavering confidence in themselves as individuals, but they challenge the traditional norms of women’s behaviour. Compliance, self-sacrifice for a man, nurturance, dependence, and emotionalism are the expected norms from women. However, the women are known to defy these norms and show individuality. In Othello and Romeo and Juliet, the women defy their fathers. In The Winter’s Tale, for example, although unjustly imprisoned, Hermione disdains tears; her husband, Leontes, weeps in self-pity.

His distinctive styles of characterising women

The bawdy women are those characters that are sexualised, cheeky, and flirtatious. They are often working-class characters and are portrayed to be as aforementioned because they have no reputation or status to lose. The tragic and innocent damsels are often pure and chaste at the beginning of the play, and tragically die once their innocence is lost. Even though the scheming and conniving femme fatales are appreciated by Shakespeare for the intelligence and the wit that allow them to manipulate the men around them, his retribution for them is brutal and unforgiving. The witty and ‘unmarriable’ women are presented as clever, bold, and independent but are put in the place dictated by society by the end of the play.

The married off and domestic women are often very young and passed from their father’s care to that of their new husband. Some women are dressed as men during the course of his plays. As ‘men’, these characters have more freedom, highlighting the lack of social liberty for women in Shakespeare’s time. The last category is that of the women accused of adultery. It appeared that Shakespeare’s women are judged by their sexuality even when they remain faithful to their husbands and husbands-to-be.

Decoding the rationale

His female characters are etched with neither obvious anger nor condescension. True to his genius, they are vastly different in their behaviour and nature. Some are warm, delightful, nurturing; others cold, aloof, and scornful. They even range in age from the youthful, joyous, and naïve Juliet to the wizened, bitter, and cynical Margaret. However, most have an undeniable zest in them that they grow and develop during the course of the play. Their actions spring from a realistic portrayal of life as they comprehend the meaning of an identity of ‘self’ for a woman in a patriarchal society.

The essence of varied emotions in the women

By creating confident, attractive and independent women whom the readers support, and are invested in, Shakespeare rebels against the supposed wisdom of a power structure that would insist that women relinquish their personal freedom. Some of his dramas question traditionally accepted patterns of behaviour while others stress the necessity of mutual respect between a man and a woman. Some reveal the consternation in a woman’s mind when she seeks to understand the limits of her world. Sometimes, a drama depicts the tale of a woman who loses her way and her sense of self when she seeks to conform to the norms that are expected from her.

Speaking about one of his most outrightly rebellious characters, Kate, from Taming of The Shrew,is not a conventionally submissive or passive woman, and many critics have made it clear that her unconventional spirit made her much more modern and progressive than her more traditionally feminine sister Bianca, and felt that the way Shakespeare wrote the play encouraged this preference. Very few people actually perceive Kate to be defeated by the ending; even though she ended up changing herself for Petruchio, Kate can be declared the real victor because she had learned how to control him.

Instances of patriarchy abound

In most Shakespearean comedies, the women are often the kingpins who control the games, and most of them are easy to see as models of strength, intelligence, and resourcefulness. But the masculine disguise often crumbles apart to give way to the perceived soft feminine interior. Women cannot fight a duel, except with words. Furthermore, even the strongest and most resourceful of the heroines end their comedies with ritual gestures of submission—be it to their husbands or their fathers.

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 an 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 show that he should be the teacher, and she the hearer.”

The power in the hands of Shakespearean women

Positioning women over men have both, domestic and political connotations. Lady Macbeth’s dominance over Macbeth reflects the larger issue of female involvement in the political structure and a woman’s possible domination as monarch over men as the subject. However, the pattern of the male monarch as saviour was a strong sentiment throughout the sixteenth-century England, such that the fears caused by female rule manifested themselves in a longing for the safety and tradition of the king. Shakespeare reflects this cultural anticipation through Lady Macbeth’s tragic fall from power.

It is thus evident that social and political power was monopolised in the hands of the men in Elizabethan England and particularly, well-born men. Both women and men in the lower classes were powerless but women in the upper classes were in a rather unenviable position since their worth was generally perceived to be a rich or powerful man’s path to more riches or more power. Daughters were considered to be possessions and were passed from fathers to husbands to forge alliances between the rich and powerful families. Once she was married, her function was to produce an heir and daughters who could be used for the family’s further advancement.

A twist in tale

We cannot, therefore, talk about Shakespeare’s powerful women in the social or political sense, but there are a number of very powerful women in Shakespeare, as have been discussed. They have an influence on their husbands to bring about some political result, working as puppeteers behind the scenes. Also using the Elizabethan theatre convention of women disguising themselves as men, Shakespeare has been able to present some women in a way that allows them to be taken seriously. Perhaps, even Shakespeare failed to imagine the model of equality that is so familiar to us and which we take for granted.

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