Representation of Women in Shakespeare's Plays, an Occasional Paper
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
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.
Juliet: Good father, I beseech you on my knees,
Hear me with patience but to speak a word
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)
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.
Gerlach J., Almasy R., and Daniel R. (1996). Revisiting Shakespeare and Gender. Retrieved on
October 1, 2013 @ http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/old-WILLA/fall96/gerlach.html
Morpugo D. (2008) The Roles Women Play in Shakespeare’s Works. Retrieved on October 1,
2013 at http://www.helium.com/items/1367162-shakespeares-portrayal-of-womenshakespeares-view-of-women-shakespeares-female-characters
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 Guttenberg.com