Shakespeare's Female Characters

Topics: Elizabeth I of England, Macbeth, William Shakespeare Pages: 8 (2840 words) Published: January 7, 2009
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25 November 2008
Shakespeare’s Female Characters
“Come, you spirits, That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty!” demanded one of them furiously (Shakespeare 853). “If I be waspish, best beware my sting,” sneered the other (Shakespeare 333). Although they emerged nearly five centuries ago, the women who said these lines are undeniably two of Shakespeare’s most famous female characters. Lady Macbeth and Katherine are still known today as conspicuous figures in Shakespearean plays. The first stands out as a strong, manipulative, cunning woman; so ambitious to achieve her goal that she even becomes fear-provoking (Corwin). The latter is prominent for her temper and feral exhibitions of rage. She is repulsed by men’s attitudes toward her and repeatedly spits degrading insults at them in fury. She is revolted at the idea of having to comply with her father’s wish of her wedding one of her wooers. Considering the time period Shakespeare lived in, one can conclude that the female characters in his plays behaved ways that was came as a shock to such a patriarchal society (“Shakespeare’s Unruly Women”). Shakespeare portrayed them in roles that, for his era, were reserved strictly for men. Women of this era were not the strong, powerful, intelligent females we see in Macbeth, nor were they the like the ironic Katherine, who we meet in Taming of the Shrew, who even dares to strike Petruchio upon being angered by his insolence. Females were not at all thus; they were creatures raised to believe themselves inferiors to men (“Elizabethan Women”). However, despite all this criticism, Shakespeare portrayed his female characters in a way that they transcended the pre-established constraints of his time. This portrayal of women is due to the Elizabethan period’s influence. By having an unmarried woman as a monarch, he was inclined towards writing plays that pleased her. In order to understand Shakespeare’s representation of women, it is necessary to take into account the era he lived in. One must consider the roles and expectations for women in his society. As mentioned above, Shakespeare lived in the Elizabethan period. Queen Elizabeth Tudor I assumed the throne as an unmarried woman and remained unmarried throughout her entire life (Thomas). Her reign brought innovative ideas about women to England. Even though they could not attend universities, some upper class females were able to receive a basic education. Some were even taught to speak different languages, play instruments, and dance (“Elizabethan Women”). However, the Elizabethan era is rather paradoxical. The irony of it lies in the fact that despite having a single woman as a monarch, the situation for women in society, particularly for single women, did not improve significantly. Women were expected to be the stereotypical stay-at-home mothers that they had always been. The unmarried women of the Elizabethan society remained limited to certain roles. At a certain point, women had two alternatives; marriage or life at a nunnery. However, after monasteries were terminated, the only option left for them was marriage; household service (“The Role of Unmarried Women…”). When Shakespeare was hired by an acting company called Lord Chamberlain’s Men, he first came into close contact with the queen (Feneley). Queen Elizabeth was a frequent spectator of the company’s plays. Shakespeare was faced with a slight dilemma. He had to write plays to please both an unmarried monarch, and a patriarchal society (Richardson). As a result, Shakespeare’s female characters turned out as something untraditional, yet by some degree, still the typical females of his era (Rackin 67). Shakespeare’s female characters did depend on the male characters on some level (Corwin). They depended on either on their fathers when they were young or on their husbands...

Cited: Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. New York: St. Martin 's Press, 2003.
"Elizabethan Women." William Shakespeare Info. 2005. 11 Nov. 2008 .
Feneley, Adam. “Shakespeare’s Portrayal of Women.” 2004. 16 Nov. 2008. .
Mallibiard, Amanda. “Was Shakespeare a Feminist?” Shakespeare Online. 1999. 16 Nov. 2008
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Rackin, Phyllis. Shakespeare and Women. New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated,
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"The Role of Unmarried Women in the Elizabethan Society." William Shakespeare Info. 1997.
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Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. London:
Wordsworth Editions, Limited, 1996
“Shakespeare’s Unruly Women.” Aug. 1997. Folger Shakespeare Library. 16 Nov. 2008.
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