A Feminist Perspective of Shakespeare
Although William Shakespeare reflects and at times supports the English Renaissance stereotypes of women and men and their various roles and responsibilities in society, he is also a writer who questions, challenges, and modifies those representations. His stories afford opportunities not only to understand Renaissance culture better but also to confront our own contemporary generalizations about gender, especially what it means to be female. In his own time, Shakespeare seems to have been raising questions about the standard images of males and females, about what the characteristics of each gender are, about what is defined as masculine and feminine, about how each gender possesses both masculine and feminine qualities and behaviors, about the nature and power of a hegemonic patriarchy, and about the roles women and men should play in acting out the stories of their lives. Since feminist criticism today focuses on many of these same issues, we can bring such critical inquiry into the classroom by asking straightforward questions of and about Shakespeare's stories.
Defining what a female was supposed to be and do was an act of Renaissance culture, as it has been for other times. For Shakespeare, as well as for most of Renaissance society, women as the feminine represented the following virtues which, importantly, have their meaning in relationship to the male; obedience, silence, sexual chastity, piety, humility, constancy, and patience. However, gender characteristics were socially constructed and there was an easy cross-over of masculine and feminine traits to both genders.
Defining masculine and feminine characteristics allowed writers like Shakespeare to draw males with certain "feminine" characteristics and females with certain "masculine" characteristics. This merging of masculine and feminine in both males and females might help to explain how easy it was for the Elizabethan stage to employ and accept all male casts and utilize men to play strong female characters like Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, and Kate, the Shrew. Contemporary audiences, so set on separating female from male, would have great difficulty returning to this standard practice of the Renaissance.
Indeed, both masculine and feminine characteristics were parts of what the Renaissance considered "human nature" and each gender participated in both sets of characteristics to varying degrees. For example, take the act of weeping. Although both genders cried and were "allowed" by the culture to weep (think of all the tears men shed in Julius Caesar over the deaths of other men), tears were thought of as "feminine" but not exclusively female. In Hamlet, when Laertes learns of the death of his sister Ophelia, he weeps in sorrow, with genuine feeling, but exclaims, "The woman will be out," meaning his tears represent his "womanly" part that cannot be suppressed (or repressed) by his masculine strength." ...