Representation of Women in Shakespeare's Plays, an Occasional Paper


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Representation of Women in Shakespeare's Plays, an Occasional Paper

  1. 1. Rosielyn Mae T. Bolon October 17, 2013 III-13HC BSE English EngLitt/ Prof. Marla Papango Occasional Paper no. 2 The Representation of Women in Shakespeare’s Plays While Shakespeare portrayed the stereotypical representations of women in the Renaissance society through his immortal plays, he too, challenged and modified these representations by depicting women as capable of defying social norms and notions. In Shakepeare’s time, England was a highly patriarchal society. In this light, women are considered physically and emotionally weaker than men (Schram, 2009). They are bound to subject to their male counterparts as wives or daughters. According to Gerlach (1996), women were expected to assume a more passive role. Shakespeare depicts this kind of thinking by a scene in Romeo and Juliet where Samson, one of Capulet’s servants, remarks: "And therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall”. This line shows male dominance and female repression which caused them to be “thrust” by men. In line with society’s view that women are weaker vessels, they are expected to be submissive, chaste and fine in manners. Bianca in Taming of the Shrew is an ideal woman in this men-dominated society, beyond her beauty and grace she was described as “a maid of mild behavior and sobriety” (I.I). Women who conform to such image are favored and recognized. Katherina reveals her aversion to this custom when she retorted Baptista Minola: “She is your treasure (referring to the ideal Bianca)… I must dance bare-foot on her wedding day, And, for your love to her, lead apes in hell” (II.I). Furthermore, Shakespeare emphasized the time’s misogynistic views on women when Hamlet
  2. 2. exclaimed: "Frailty, thy name is woman!" (I.II).Ironically, while the society disparages women for being frail in physique and intellect, it also demands them to conform such stereotype. Shakespeare seems to condemn this traditionalist view on women by creating strong characters out of his female protagonists. At some point in their stories, they went against the social norm and defied their male protectors. Take for example Hermia from A Midsummer Night’s dream. Despite the possibility of losing her life or being sent to the nunnery, she still refused to obey her father’s will. Hermia: But I beseech your grace that I may know The worst may befall in me in this case, If I refuse to wed Demetrius Theseus: Either to die the death, or to abjure For ever the society of men… If you yield not to your father’s choice You can endure the livery of a nun Hermia: Unto his Lordship, whose unwished yoke My soul consents not to give sovereignty (I.I) Since the family is dominated by the males, it is but unusual for a daughter to defy her father. Males in the family believe that their opinion is the only one that matters. Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet, expressed such confidence when he assured Paris of Juliet’s love: “Sir Paris, I will make a desperate tender of my child’s love: …she will be ruled in all respects by me; nay, more I doubt it not” (III.IV). Consequently, when Juliet reasoned out and refused to marry Paris, Lord Capulet disregarded Juliet’s pleading.
  3. 3. Juliet: Good father, I beseech you on my knees, Hear me with patience but to speak a word Lord Capulet: Hang thee, young baggage! Disobedient wretch! I tell thee what: get thee to church o’ Thursday Or never after look me in the face (III.III) Notwithstanding the power that male’s possess, Shakespeare’s women were able to manifest female emancipation and resistance to established standards of conduct. In Othello, Desdemona also disobeyed her father when he married the African soldier, Othello. Jessica, in Merchant of Venice, eloped with Lorenzo, thus leaving her father, Shylock, behind. In addition, Shakespeare challenged the idea that women are unintelligent. He modified the notion of women being intellectually inferior by creating witty the characters such as Kate and Portia. In a verbal duel with Petrucio, Kate outwits and mocks him by saying: “Asses are made to bear, and so are you.” (II.I) Portia on the other hand, exhibited her intellectual prowess by singlehandedly saving Antonio’s life from Shylocks bond. She exhibited her brightness by ironically using the quality of mercy as an argument: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d ;/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.(IV.I) Hence, because of Portia’s extraordinary intellect, Shylock surrendered and Antonio was freed from the bond. “I take this offer then: pay the bond thrice/ And let the Christian go” (IV.I)
  4. 4. Conclusively, Shakespeare was able to show the different facets of women during his time. His female protagonists are not the insipid and uneducated type’s common in a patriarchal society, but instead are interesting, witty and intelligent. It’s not therefore surprising that Shakespeare’s plays are revered up to this moment. Remarkable, indeed, that amidst a society where women are not supposed to speak and be heard, Shakespeare gave them voice. <582>
  5. 5. Works Cited: Gerlach J., Almasy R., and Daniel R. (1996). Revisiting Shakespeare and Gender. Retrieved on October 1, 2013 @ Morpugo D. (2008) The Roles Women Play in Shakespeare’s Works. Retrieved on October 1, 2013 at Sramm Magnudottir, L. (2009). Shakepeare’s Heroines: An examination of how Shakepeare created and adapted specific heroines fron his sources. Retrieved on Oct.1, 2013 @ The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (1994) (pdf from Project