A Feminist Perspective on the Female Characters of William Shakespeare

Topics: Gender, Gender role, Transgender Pages: 5 (1809 words) Published: November 11, 2009
Throughout Man’s history, women have always been at a disadvantage socially, economically, and politically. Shakespeare realized this and sought to bring the controversy that comes with Androgynous issues—to life. Through strong female characters and the implications of disguises, Shakespeare exposes gender issues. Many critics believe Shakespeare poorly represents women in his plays through intentional exploiting of women with his boy-girl-boy disguises. When in fact, I see Shakespeare as exploiting how women were/are treated through that very use of disguises and— the strength he gives his female characters, especially that of Portia (Merchant of Venice) and Viola (Twelfth night)—is representative of his personal admiration of intelligent, strong women. It is also important to mention that the idea of a transsexual theme did not exist during Shakespeare’s time, as in the same sense that one would have now. Men playing the part of women—playing the part of men was simply accepted by the audience. Shakespeare was able to use this acceptance as an opportunity to give female characters strong and important roles. Portia is so strong of a character, she would have been considered a devil woman in the eyes of her peers—humor for the boy-girl-boy disguise for the audience of the time. Yet, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Portia and Viola, is heroic in today’s terms. By the mid-eighteen hundreds, Shakespeare’s female characters were starting to be analyzed. Shakespeare was over two hundred years ahead of his time on gender issues. Although Shakespeare also used “feminine men” to illustrate the characteristics given to men were also confined to certain social critique, he focused more on the roles women played, or were not socially nor by way of law allowed to play, during his time. Through the will, strength, virtues, and intelligent mind of Portia to the will, sweetness and deep need for survival of Viola, Shakespeare embraces Androgyny and exposes his own feminine side for future generations to analyze and feminists to explore. Robert Kimbrough, in his 1982 essay: Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare’s Disguise, provides several definitions of Androgyny. The definition most fitting to the contemporary time is, “Androgyny is the capacity of a single person of either sex to embody the full range of human character traits, despite cultural attempts to render some exclusively feminine and some exclusively masculine” (1). Some believe androgyny is a secular dream and unattainable, but through structural change of institutional and social organizations—it can be attained. How does Shakespeare then expose his audience to androgyny? What was his purpose for doing so? A partial answer could be that Shakespeare believed in total equality for men and women and through characters in his plays he could take on the forbidden taboos of gender crossing within his social society. Sex does not equal gender. Through Anthropology we know that every culture has their own Modal Cultural Personality definition, one for the male and one for the female. Modal Personality is static in nature and ascribes women and men certain roles. Women do women’s work and men do men’s work, for example. This was necessary for primitive society to survive but stigmas of these role requirements linger still today. Women are still socially required to look pretty, wear make-up, smell nice, be virtuous, motherly, sisterly, feminine, show little to no masculine traits, and the all important nurturer. Shakespeare used Portia and Viola’s character’s to liberate women from one certain set of characteristic traits by broadening their human characteristic traits through their male disguises. In a sense then, Portia and Viola are liberated “from the confines of the appropriate” (1). Portia and viola are both aware of the social posturing of men. Each is very careful to hide her true self. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia devises a scheme to protect her wealth, status and power she...
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