How Are Women Portrayed in Measure for Measure?

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  • Topic: Woman, Gender role, South Carolina's 4th congressional district
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  • Published : March 17, 2013
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In ‘Measure for Measure,’ Shakespeare portrays women as a reflection of the opinion of women in society at the time - that opinion being that women are lesser in society than men. The three women with active roles in Measure for Measure are: Mistress Overdone, a bawd who is arrested for her occupation; Isabella, whose ambition is to become a nun; and Mariana, who was jilted by Angelo for not having a large enough dowry.

Mistress Overdone is presented as a strong, independent character, which contrasts the societal views of women during the 17th century. This can be seen when she retorts to the first gentleman who attempts to mock her “Well, well; there’s one yonder arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all,” (Act 1 sc 2 line 152) showing her ability to hold her own comfortably against men. However, her occupation as a bawd immediately brings her down, as such an occupation is not respectable and reinforces the idea of women being objects of pleasure for men. She is also a somewhat voice of reason; for instance when she is informed by Pompey that claudio has ‘done,’ woman (Act 1 Sc 2 lines 179-80) which is considered a crime in Vienna, she simply replies “But what’s his offense?” (Act 1 Sc 2 line 181). However, the aforementioned example may only really portray her as a voice of reason to a modern audience, where sex is accepted as a normal act.

In performances in the 17th century, the roles of women were often played by men as women could not work on stage. This meant that female characters were often seen as comical whether or not they were actually a comical role. Mistress Overdone is seen as a comical character, and so her role could simply be a mockery of women, which can also be entailed by her name. Though ‘Mistress,’ was a title given to bawds, to a modern audience a ‘mistress,’ is the title given to a woman who is a sexual partner to, usually, a married man - who is often simply used for sex by the man. ‘Overdone,’ has...
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