Today We Learn About: Modern Feminist Arguments Regarding Women in Shakespeare

‘Are We Reading the Same Play?’

“A feminist editor of Shakespeare… must interrogate the assumptions made about gender in the text itself and in the previous transmission and elucidation of the text, drawing on feminist studies of the ways in which Shakespeare has been reproduced and appropriated by patriarchal cultures.”
~ from Ann Thompson’s essay “Feminist Theory and Editing Shakespeare”

Audiences still flock to showings of The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet. These modern audiences judge these pieces, applying them to their lives and interpreting them how they will. The ability to do this has helped Shakespeare’s plays stay popular despite the fact that he would have celebrated his 445th birthday this year. Many contemporary feminist scholars, however, take issue with Shakespeare’s treatment of strong female characters and portrayal of weak ones. Books and essays have been published and plays have been rewritten in an attempt to undo the damage done by a well-loved form of entertainment that celebrates taming a woman who is honest and does not put up with anything she does not want to. These plays show women as individuals poisoned by their sexual passions and eager to secure their place among power and wealth.

I do not intend to argue the truths I just stated, but I do intend to challenge the context and interpretations in this pick-and-choose method of reading Shakespeare. In my research of feminist arguments, I found many of them to lack completion in their analysis. Many spent pages analyzing one scene or even one line, but did not take into consideration either a deeper possible meaning or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the possibility that these scenes, passages and lines are not anything more than what it on the page; that “I love you” may be a genuine expression of feeling and nothing more.

Shakespeare’s plays age well so long as one looks at the broader themes inhabiting them. They are reflections of their time period as much as they are exhibits of timeless human nature, and both the big picture and the little details must be taken into consideration before Shakespeare can be labeled a misogynist for breaking down women that are labeled as strong female characters by contemporary feminist critics and regularly showcasing what they consider to be weak, unintelligent and immoral women.

In Elizabethan England, a woman was expected to have at least one man to watch over her at any given stage of her life. Her father was generally the first of these keepers, and her brothers, uncles, or male cousins would either help or, in the case of the father’s death, take over the role until she was married and the responsibility of protecting and providing for her was transferred to the husband. Daughters could not inherit money or property themselves, so their only access to money was from their father or from their husband, who would hope to receive a dowry. Once married, husbands were allowed to chastise their wives, but this was in no means an invitation to abuse or enslave them. The highest responsibility of a husband was to provide for his wife and make her happy.

Those that did not marry were usually shunned, an odd reaction considering the unmarried Queen on the throne at the time. Single women had few options, and the two main ones were living as a dependent of their male relatives or getting a job themselves. They could not hold jobs in the professional sphere and were instead limited to jobs in the domestic sphere, such as cooking and cleaning. Convents were closed after the Reformation, eliminating nunneries as an option (Elizabethan Women).

The Taming of the Shrew is the most controversial of Shakespeare’s plays within the realm of feminist criticism. Many of his other female characters are viewed as submissive or commodified, but Katherina seems to represent a character that could have been a welcome departure from these other women. Katherina subverts the patriarchal society she lived and did so with bold honesty. She does not resort to trickery to cover her true intentions or get away with her subversion without being caught. She is open about her wants and intentions.

Such a character would have worried Shakespeare’s audience, and it likewise worries the characters in the play. Her abrasive personality and its eventual clash with Petruchio is forshadowed in Act I Scene II when Petruchio explains that he is willing to marry any women, “Be she as foul as was Florentius’ love / As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd / As Socrates’ Xanthippe or a worse” (I.ii.66-68). Without knowing, he is claiming he can take on the challenge that is Katherina.

Petruchio uses cruel methods to “tame” Katherina (whom he calls Kate without her permission). He starves her and does not allow her to sleep, playing mind games with her until she is nearly hysterical. After he successfully puts an end to her defiance, he has her publicly announce that her proper place, that every woman’s proper place, is happily serving her husband.

Katherina’s ending speech is a key aspect of the play and is the moment, in the opinion of many feminist scholars, in which patriarchal society has succeeded in crushing a strong woman before she could continue to challenge the gender dichotomy. Ann Thompson calls this moment “the defeat of the threat of a woman’s revolt” (86). Katherina professes to every woman that her husband should be “thy lord, thy king, thy governor” (V.ii. 142), demonstrating an unbalanced new perspective regarding the power structure of a marriage.

Despite the manipulation, denial, and near-brainwashing that takes place in this play, it is still among Shakespeare’s most popular. Thompson believes it offers a safe haven for audiences to “revel in and reinforce their misogyny while at the same time feeling good” (86). Though many believe that the tropes existing in this play are outdated, it fails to differ too much from modern romantic comedy. Critic John C. Bean notes that romantic comedies have never lost the classic plot wherein “characters lose themselves in chaos and emerge liberated in the bonds of love” (66). In short, Shakespeare’s misogynistic message has remained a staple in today’s society, celebrating the mental breakdown and subsequent brainwashing of a woman attempting to challenge the patriarchy.

The above-mentioned arguments, though thorough in their analysis of key scenes, are based on very specific interpretations and disregard many other scenes in the play. The most shocking thing I came across in my research was the complete lack of any mention of Katherina’s abusive behavior. She physically strikes multiple characters in the play, including her own sister, who Katherina had tied up. After researching the criticisms of twelve writers, I found one brief mention of this. In Penny Gay’s book, As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s unruly women Gay interviews an actress named Fiona Shaw who played Kate in the 1980’s. Shaw uses the act to gain pity for Katherina, however, stating that “She may knock Bianca about, but she also takes it out on herself.” Shaw mentions that when she played Katherina, she used certain stage directions to convey that Katherina was hurting emotionally, including “snipping locks from her hair… and cultivating a bent posture that expresses agonies of self-contempt” (117). In my opinion this does not equate to the physical pain she inflicts on her sister and those around her. Even with an adaptation that includes Katherina punishing herself in these small ways, it is difficult to pity her. She is physically abusing those around her, a behavior never once reciprocated, even in the “taming” scenes.

On that subject, the “taming” scenes are often referred to as “torture” by feminist critics, but Petruchio never once harms, insults or raises his voice at Katherina. Arthur Quiller-Couch, a critic often under attack from feminists, points out that while Petruchio is shown to have the capacity for aggressive behavior at other points in the play, “…to [Katherina] his speech remains courteous and restrained” (Rackin, 60-61). Instead of being equally aggressive, Petruchio plays into Katherina’s previously elevated sense of self-worth to hyperbole, effectively employing the method of killing her with kindness. Quiller-Couch also points out that contemporary audiences find the degree to which Petruchio pays attention to Katherina to be unhealthily obsessive and controlling, because in today’s society couples spend for more time apart as a result of professional routines (Rackin, 61). On the contrary, as stated above, men were expected to attend to their wives and keep them happy. In context, Petruchio is simply making a farce out of then-common marriage practices.

The farcical aspect of the play is also something that needs to be taken into consideration before labeling Shakespeare as a misogynist. The Induction sets the tone of the play, which is being performed to entertain a drunk man named Sly who has been tricked into believing he is a lord. The entire set-up is ridiculous, including a canonically cross-dressing young man who must act as Sly’s wife. This is paralleled by the fact that, in Shakespeare’s time, it was a young man who was playing the role of Katherina, which is another hint to the farcical nature of the play. This crossdressing element has the potential to give an entirely new meaning to Katherina’s ending speech (Rackin, 54). Having it spoken by a man dressed as a woman turns the speech from depressing to comical. To take the play seriously, one would have to ignore this entire context.

The Induction and its satire of aristocrats also introduces the possibility that Shakespeare is using the play to represent a broader idea than the events of the play itself. Critic Andrew Rissik noticed that the portrayal of marriage in The Taming of the Shrew was “surprisingly close to [Shakespeare’s] views on political stability. Happiness is hard-won, and has much to do with accepting the limitations and the advantages of the role which society allots you” (Gay, 119).

Both the initial and the ongoing popularity of The Taming of the Shrew are not surprising when one realizes the exaggerated portrayal of authentic marriage customs and also the timeless plot device in which a crass woman learns to love, coupled with hilarious verbal sparring. Feminists worry that contemporary audiences will learn destructive and outdated behaviors from the play, but there is plenty of evidence that this is not the case. The film 10 Things I Hate About You, for instance, is a modern adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. It changes many aspects of the play, mainly regarding Kat/Katherina. The Kat in the film is a guarded young woman who finds she genuinely likes Patrick/Petruchio. He, too, has feelings for her, and the money becomes unimportant to him. When modernizing The Taming of the Shrew, people are easily able to separate the aspects of the play that represent basic human nature with those the represent the common practices existing when the play was written.

At the time when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, the issue of remarriage after the death on one’s husband was a sensitive topic. Mean feared post-mortem emasculation and did not want their wives to remarry. The idea of having another man in their marital bed was considered disrespectful to the memory of the husband. People in Elizabethan times also worried about widows because they were women with the potential to be independently wealthy, giving them a rather unprecedented level of power in society. In these cases, remarriage was a possible solution, ensuring that another man would help reestablish commonplace patriarchal norms (Chedgzoy, 171-172). This was not too widespread of an issue, however. Childbirth was a high-risk stress to the body that took the lives of many women in Shakespeare’s time.

Contemporary feminist critics take issue with Shakespeare’s portrayal of weak women as much as they do his manipulation of strong ones. Hamlet’s mother Gertrude in the play Hamlet, is their example of Shakespeare’s illustration of how immoral and characteristically weak women can be. After the death of her husband, Gertrude quickly marries his brother. The act, described by Ann Thompson as “the adulterous union between Gertrude and the villainous usurper who murdered her former husband” (136), arouses suspicion in both the play’s characters and the audience. Many critics claim that Gertrude had been sleeping with Claudius even during her marriage to King Hamlet, and that she knew Claudius was going to murder her husband. This is supported by the Ghost of the deceased King Hamlet, who calls Gertrude an “incestuous… adulterate beast” (I.v. 43). In modern performances, and throughout most of history, she has been played as a sensual and deceitful woman (Lenz, 194). Shakespeare, through Gertrude, demonstrates for the audience the selfishness and immorality of women.

Gertrude is accused, both in the play and by critics, of being an uncaring mother. Thompson notes that there are few mothers in Shakespeare’s plays, and the ones that do appear are unsatisfactory (134). She does not allow Hamlet time to morn before she remarries (she does not even grant him enough time to arrive in Denmark) and she replaces his father with someone disliked by both Hamlet and the audience. Thought the audience only has second-hand accounts to pull information from, it is implied that King Hamlet was a good and well-liked king.

And yet, despite her hand in causing the issues plaguing Denmark, Gertrude is given little to say. Statistically she only speaks 3.8% of the play’s lines (Lenz, 199). Shakespeare demonstrates his misogyny by portraying, through Hamlet’s accusations, that Gertrude is the root of the problem, yet giving her very little as far as presence in the play.

Again, these interpretations of the play’s intended message take from some parts of the play and ignore others. There is a substantial amount of evidence that proves Gertrude had no involvement in King Hamlet’s death. The argument that the Ghost confirms her guilt is false, because he tells Hamlet not to hurt her (Lenz, 196). The Ghost, being other-worldly, is assumed to be at least semi-omniscient and would have known if she was involved. Another indicator of her innocence is her tendency to ask questions. Of Gertrude’s few lines, about a quarter of them are questions (Lenz, 199), a behavior not typical in a character who is aware of what is going on. Also, Claudius makes attempts to hide the murder from her, an effort he would not have needed to go through had she been involved. She is not a murderer or an adulteress, therefore Shakespeare cannot be a misogynist for portraying her as one.

She is, however, a woman with sexual desires. As mentioned before, the idea of women remarrying was very taboo because men, though they would be dead at the time, still feared an affront to their masculinity. In reality, it is unfair to ask a woman to never be touched by a man again. Gertrude, in my opinion, epitomizes feminism when she challenges this double-standard and remarries anyways. Not only is she a woman who is seeking sexual gratification, but she is an older woman. She is a mother and a widow, but she still does not deny her physical needs. This seems to be what Hamlet is most disgusted with in the play. John C. Bean agrees, and is of the opinion that “Gertrude’s aging sexuality is conceived, at times, as a violation” and represents, to Hamlet, “an unnaturalness, a rebellion in the body politic” (Chedgzoy, 172). Also, in being ignorant to the crimes of her new husband, Gertrude has no reason to dislike Claudius. He speaks to her respectfully and does make attempts to make her happy (Lenz, 198).

It is this relationship with Claudius that allows Gertrude to be a good mother to Hamlet. Claudius begins to lose patience with Hamlet early in the play, and it is Gertrude’s pleas that keep the new king at bay. Even after watching her son murder someone, Gertrude is still worried that her son is unwell and needs help. As far as the complaint regarding the low number of mothers in Shakespearean plays, that is easily explained by the aforementioned fact that childbirth killed many women in Shakespeare’s time.

After taking into consideration the straightforward facts that exist in the text of the play, it leads one to question why critics began to vilify her. Rebecca Smith suggests that critics read the statements of the men around Gertrude and accepted them as fact, arguing that they have “simply taken the men’s words and created Gertrude based on their reactions” (Lenz, 194). Understanding Gertrude requires a closer reading and a greater understanding of the play’s cultural context, especially when she has so few lines.

The low number of lines allotted to Gertrude is not necessarily a sign of misogynistic decisions with the writing. When she does speak, Gertrude says a lot and does so with an air of intelligence. Her words are poetic and she speaks of virtues with a good deal of imagery. Her tone seems soft and feminine, a good counterbalance to her pursuit of sexual fulfillment; an attribute that would have been (and still sometimes is) considered masculine. She is a well-balanced character who I find to be far batter of a feminist character than Katherina.

It is easy to link aggression and strength, especially when interpreting Shakespeare. There is no denying that he wrote his plays during a time when men were considered the stronger sex and women were not treated or thought of as equals. Aggression, however, is not what I believe equates to a strong female character. Katherina’s abusive behavior and Gertrude’s defiance of her society’s restrictions on her sexuality are what make me disagree whole-heartily with modern feminist interpretations of these women.

Works Cited

Chedgzoy, Kate, ed. Shakespeare, feminism and gender. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001.

“Elizabethan Women.” Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Web. 2 Dec. 2009. <http://www.elizabethi.org/us/women/&gt;.

Gay, Penny. As she likes it Shakespeare’s unruly women. London: Routledge, 1994.

Lenz, Carolyn R., Gayle Greene, and Carol T. Neely, eds. The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1980.

Neely, Carol T. The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed. Carolyn R. Lenz and Gayle Greene. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1980.

Orgel, Stephen, and Sean Keilen, eds. Political Shakespeare. Shakespeare: The Critic Complex. Vol. 9. New York: Garland, 1999.

Rackin, Phyllis. Shakespeare and Women. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

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