Where Art Thou Feminism? A Modern Look at Gender Representation in Shakespeare
Was Shakespeare a feminist?
A rather inquisitive question worthy of consideration. Although right about now, you are probably examining the fact modern feminism was not officially birthed until approximately 232 years after Shakespeare’s death. Subsequently, rendering Shakespeare a textbook humanist not a feminist. Well, I’m here to challenge this sentiment. Shakespearean plays are riddled with gender ‘norm’ discrepancies, giving way to a wide variety of kick-ass, stereotype busting, burn-your-bra heroines worth rooting for.
But first, let’s evaluate what it really means to be a feminist. Modern day feminism is advocacy based on the desire for equality between the sexes. Contrary to popular opinion, feminism is not the belief in female superiority, nor does it equate to the hatred of men. Commonly, the term feminism and misandry are mistakingly interchanged. Misandry is prejudice towards the male sex, whereas feminism is solely a movement for equality, and believing that such equality should not be confined on the basis of anatomical genitalia. However, in Shakespeare’s time period, the concept of modern feminism was entirely non-existent. Therefore, we refer to any movement resembling feminism before the official birth of feminism as proto-feminism.
Now, despite the fact that England was currently being ruled by a female monarch, the role of the Elizabethan woman remained anything but progressive. Naturally, the perfect woman had the intellectual capacity of a houseplant. Submissive, graceful, and really quite dull. However, Shakespeare made a deliberate attempt to challenge these views, creating a wide variety of brilliant female characters of great emotional as well as intellectual complexity. These weren’t your average houseplants. These women were the Bonsai of houseplants.
Now, before we really dig in, it is important to note that there is quite a lot of speculation in regards to these characters being comprised merely as comic relief for the masses. Were these women simply punchlines in the name of prejudice? Gosh, after all, there is nothing funnier than a good woman joke. It’s almost up there with that one about the two Catholics and a Jew who walked into a bar. Oh, you haven’t heard that one? Good, me neither.
So, for the sake of personal optimism, let’s give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt and assume that these were very literal characters, with real human depth and political purpose.
Observe, Portia, from the comical yet ironically not so actually comical play The Merchant of Venice. Let’s be honest here, the men in this play, not the brightest. Antonio has co-dependency issues, Bassanio is a man with a money spending problem, and Shylock just really wanted his pound of rotting flesh. Meanwhile, while the men of the play are busy denying their sexual orientations and playing poke the Jew, Portia dresses up as a man and completely saves the day. Considering that even the idea of a female lawyer was unfathomable during the Shakespearean era, this must have absolutely radical. Watch out Elle Woods, Portia coming through!
Oh, and let’s not forget Desdemona from Othello. After entering into a biracial marriage, Desdemona essentially tells her own father to go squat on a big fat cactus. And sure, she ends up being strangled to death. But that’s all semantics, folks. Desdemona knew what she wanted, and like a true heroine, fiercely and unapologetically took control over her own destiny. Despite their difference in race, she looked past these socially constructed expectations for a woman of her status and married the man of her dreams. She also had about nine lives, which is equally as impressive. Passionate, and resilient. What a woman!
Nevertheless, a prime example of Shakespeare’s recognition of the maltreatment of women can be found in The Taming of the Shrew. Now, a few weeks ago I had a run in with this particular piece during class. Upon discussing the storyline of the play, I promptly blurted out —
“It’s you know, that play where the guy tries to tame the shrew.”
With my professor ultimately responding with something along the lines of —
But in all actuality, this little slightly embarrassing occurrence shed light on a few very important questions. Why is Katherine given the rather terrible label of a shrew? After all, her character is refreshingly blunt, opinionated, and just a total firecracker. Katherine is sassy. And sassy women are interesting.
Bianca, on the other hand, lacks spirit and dimension. Although she is beautiful, she is submissive and intellectually plain. Bianca is the idealistic dream girl of a vastly misogynistic society. And at a glance, this play could appear to be extremely oppressive, downright offensive even. However, what if Shakespeare was actually putting sexism on full display? What if, instead of a comedic figure, he actually wanted us to see Katherine as a victim of a deeply flawed culture who devalues and ostracizes strong, outspoken women? Katherine was relentlessly mocked using stereotypical attributes of what defines a ‘difficult’ woman. Could this bias have been intentionally exaggerated? Dare we even say, that Petruchio himself wasn’t the one to ultimately force Katherine into submission, society was?
Last but not least, who could overlook Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing? Hands down, Beatrice has to be one of my absolute favorite proto-feminist characters. She is such a wildcard, and her honestly and quick wits are nothing short of rebellious. Here is a woman who is going against all possible gender stigmas, and truly has her own grounded sense of personhood. Beatrice really isn’t letting the patriarchy bring her down. She can hurl an insult with the best of them, and isn’t afraid to let her voice be heard. Beatrice is that girl who sits next to you in Women’s Studies with a shirt that reads “Not your babe.” And although she is skeptical of marriage, and men for the matter, she ultimately meets her match in the form of Benedick. Both are competitive, terrified of commitment, blissfully hostile. I bet that they have really fun Thanksgivings and fight over liberal politics.
Conclusively, while William Shakespeare may not fit into the modern day mold of a “feminist,” he wasn’t necessarily putting his female characters into the same historically restrictive boxes either. He found women to be relevant, important, and just if not more entertaining than that of any man. He was proto-feminist, a humanist, and a revolutionary mind. Here was an individual that was deeply curious about the intellectual, sexual, and personal fulfillment of women. Throughout his career, he continuously challenged outdated stigmas surrounding women, and instead painted them to be complex, strong, and interesting creature’s worthy of love and public fascination. And while not all of his female characters triumphed in their endeavors, each retained a very distinct quality — actual humanity. You go Shakespeare!