Women in the Plays of Shakespeare
By paying close attention to the woman's part in Shakespeare's plays, we can see his works with a new perspective. But we must remember that we are examining a male dramatist of extraordinary range writing in a remote period when women's position was in obvious ways more restricted and less disputed than in our own period. Sandra Gilbert writes in The Madwoman in the Attic that literature is defined as a mirror held up to society and nature, "the mimetic aesthetic that begins with Aristotle and descends through Shakespeare implies that the poet, like a lesser God, has made or engendered an alternative, mirror-universe in which he actually seems to enclose or trap shadows of reality" (Madwoman 5). While some artists do not necessarily duplicate in their art the "realities" of their culture, they may exploit them to create character or intensify conflict, or struggle with, criticize, or transcend them. Shakespeare, it would seem, "encompasses more and preaches less than most authors, hence the centuries-old controversy over his religious affiliation, political views, and sexual preferences" (Lenz 4). His attitude toward women are equally complex and demand as much examination.
As we begin to study the female characters, we must overlook the male superiority that patriarchal misogyny implies in the literature of his era, as evidenced in many studies. In "Shakespeare: on Love and Lust", Charney explains the stance taken by critics such as Janet Adelman in "Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest", and Kahn's "Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare". He claims that these two authors, as many others do, view Shakespeare's attitude toward women is misogynic (Charney 3). But there are some critics who believe that "Shakespeare liked women and respected them" (Park 101) in a time where not everybody did. Some critics feel that "We do not find him, like Milton, luxuriating in the amoebic submissiveness of an Eve in Paradise, and we can surmise that he would have found little interest in the dim Marias and complaisant Catherines whom Hemingway found nonthreatening. He is not afraid of the kind of assertiveness and insistence on her own judgment that Eve displays when she gets busy bringing death into the world and all our woe; the evidence of the plays is that he positively enjoyed it" (Park 101). By examining their multi-faceted personalities, and some of their unorthodox actions, we find prominent motifs that suggest that Shakespeare might have been more liberal in his views of women. And in delving into the life of Shakespeare from a historical aspect, and understanding the respect he showed toward the ideology of natural order, we can understand why.
Bianca and her type do not interest Shakespeare. When he brings this kind of woman to full individuality it is, significantly enough, not to present her as an...