ESSAY 2 (http://www.shakespearefellowship.org/virtualclassroom/essaycontest/sh&education%20of%20women%28essaycontest%2705win%29.htm)
First Prize Winner, 2005 Shakespeare Fellowship Essay Contest Shakespeare and the Education of Women
By Jamie Bence
If Renaissance writers sought to accurately portray humanistic ideals and construct true to life portraits using words, then the women of Shakespeare's plays embody the apex of this intention. Shakespearean dramas often attribute cunning intellect, calculated control and enigmatic beauty to his female protagonists. In modern reflection, they are revealed as forerunners of contemporary women who aptly proved their ability to rival men in wit and intellect. Rarely powerless or ambivalent, Shakespeare's women often drove plots in which they served as the contrivers of the play's central focus. Undoubtedly, the frequently disputed author must have been someone who held education in the highest of esteem; he clearly believed the powers thereof could be used for iniquity or self-betterment. As will be shown, Shakespeare depicts the genius of which women are capable as well of the unspeakable evil in which some of literature's most recognizable females indulged. This dichotomy is perhaps best illustrated in two of Shakespeare's most recognizable plays: "Macbeth" and "The Taming of the Shrew." In the former, Lady Macbeth conceives a massacre of the existing royal family in order to elevate her husband to the throne of Scotland. The second play exemplifies the struggle of a spinster to derail the nuptials of both her sister and herself by warding off but eventually submitting to Petruchio's courtship. Both women are delineated by the candor and cleverness of their speech and in due course must face the fate they least desired. However, rarely in any Renaissance play does there exist a woman as remarkably intelligent and beautiful as Portia in "The Merchant of Venice". A female protagonist, she almost certainly embodies what the author believed the ideal woman should be. Lady Macbeth's manipulative instigation of the central murders in "MacBeth" illustrates the naked ambition which a woman was capable of. As authoritarian and devious as any of Shakespeare's characters, Lady Macbeth symbolizes the ability of ethical weakness corrupted by power to lead to corruption by immorality. A descendent of regal blood both historically and in the play, her education is presumed equal with any other woman of such status in the Renaissance. In order to understand the background of aristocratic ladies in the fifteenth century, it is critical to examine the socio-cultural transformation affecting women throughout Europe. As noted by Margaret L. King in Women of the Renaissance, the course of a changing balance of power, brought on by education being made more widely available to women, resulted in men beginning to respect their wives and look to them as a source of guidance, often in secular and domestic matters. It was with reference to this period that Marie de Guarnay wrote The Equity of Men and Women, in which she questioned the values of an uneducated woman and suggested that only women of culture could have a true sense of themselves. Another noted female writer, Christine de Pizan, wrote The City of Ladies, which was translated into English in 1521, around the time Shakespeare wrote his plays. The most significant of Pizan's twenty works, the author detailed the significance of her own education and the instruction of other women. Though only limited education was sought out by commoners, Lady Macbeth would have been part of an elite class whom were fortunate enough to have the benefit of private instruction. Lady Macbeth's eloquence hints at her implied learnedness. An articulate woman was a rarity among the working classes and was therefore a valued sign of class supremacy among the aristocracy. In Act I, Lady Macbeth's monologue in scene five epitomizes both her ruthlessness and...
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