Portrayal of Women in Shakespeare’s Comedies





Portrayal of Women in Shakespeare’s Comedies

Question four

Literature is denoted as the mirror of the society. With this regard, the writers mainly tend to narrate their interpretations of the society they are living in. Shakespeare is no different from other artists since he mirrors the issues and lifestyles depicting his world in his works of art. With time, comes change in all aspects of life. Over the years, cultures, environments and even language have experienced great changes. Similarly, the women folk of the Elizabethan times have changed a lot when contrasted to ordinary modern women. The female leads in comedy seem to be very different from ordinary women in today’s society especially in the developed nations.

The female leads in Shakespeare’s comedies are portrayed as being manipulated in contrast to the women in the modern society. The women folk in the modern society have been completely revolutionized. The women have taken up lead roles that have been previously left for the preserve of men. It can be seen even in the modern families where the bills are now being split between the husband and the wife, the provision of education to the girl child has specifically played a major role in this revolution. This has led to women qualifying in the corporate market and it now normal to see women in managerial positions and even sitting at interviews interviewing and assessing potential candidates (Shakespeare, Stephen, and Andrew, 2008).

This is very different from the women in the Elizabethan society as portrayed by Shakespeare. It is expected that having an unmarried woman at the throne of Elizabethan England would ensure more rights and privileges from the womenfolk. On the contrary, this is not the case. From his works, we find that the women in the society were not in any way regarded as equals but rather seen as inferior people who needed to be taken care of by men. However, there lies a dim similarity with some of the women in Shakespeare world who seem to enjoy a greater degree of autonomy and power in contrast with a patriarchal society. This highlights a contrasting image of the portrayal of women in the Elizabethan times. There is the conception of women empowerment depicted by those who seem to be strong and independent while there are the rest who are inferior and submissive. The character traits of both however, seem to be developed by theme or plot rather than the qualities of the leads themselves (Shakespeare, Stephen, and Andrew, 2008).

The way Shakespeare portrays the women in his comedies is a strong indication of both how he perceives them and how the men of the Elizabethan society perceived them. The women are portrayed as having limited freedom in comparison to the male characters. Although there are a few of the women who tend to dominate their husbands in manipulating them, their schemes always end up in futility indicating that women in the Elizabethan society are utterly inferior and when given the opportunity to show their leadership skills, all their efforts and plans are in futility. This is evidenced by two of Shakespeare’s tragedies, “Hamlet and Macbeth,” where we see women in some sense of power but their use of this power does not benefit the society in any way. This is a strong difference between women in today’s society, who have used their power and influence to bring changes and benefits to the women who are still oppressed in the society.

The high-born women in the comedies are depicted as “possessions” that can be passed on from the father to the husband. The daughters do not have a say on whom to marry nor do they have the privilege of exploring the world freely. When this is done, it is often in the presence of chaperones. Many of the women in the Elizabethan society are manipulated and coerced to perform the bidding of the men folk. Shakespeare however, portrays the lower class women to have more freedom and also allows them to have the freedom of exploring their sexuality. This is probably because their low-status in society does not seem to pose any harm to the society. Those who seem to have some bit of power are untrustworthy and are always portrayed as having questionable motives or morals. As an example, we find Gertrude in Hamlet who decides to get married to the murderous brother to her husband and also find Lady Macbeth manipulating her husband to commit murder to acquire the throne. The end of their scheming lives mostly ends in death. Their efforts are of course fruitless therefore questioning their ability to lead uprightly.

By closely examining the texts, it can be interpreted that this may not be necessarily the case. In most of Shakespeare’s works, appearances can tend to be deceiving. There are instances where the behavior exhibited is a façade and is simply a means to an end. The facial expressions are a simply a façade to the person’s real feelings. There are those who are conniving enough to use the façade as an acculturated veneer to manipulate the play’s events. The examination of these archetypes indicates that the only difference between them and the modern woman is their cunningness in using humility and submissiveness as deceptions for achieving a greater end.

In Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet”, we find Hamlet who is submissive to the men in her patriarchal society. She ends up being easily manipulated and seems unable to express her own feelings. She therefore ends up living up to the expectations of the women folk in her life as opposed to her own. She gives in to her father’s demands and proceeds to marry his choice of a suitor. Even in her married life she submits to the will of her husband and dutifully performs his bidding. Were she independent and resistant to the control in her life, she could have possibly ended up with the man of her desire.

We also find Miranda in “The Tempest’” whose voice is utterly silenced in the entire play. She indicates royalty and submission to the men in her patriarchal society. She plays the role of an individual who is only supposed to be seen but never heard. Even though she is royalty in that her father is the king, the male characters disregard this fact and treat her like a commoner who does not have a say. This is reflection of the patriarchal society in which, Shakespeare lived in. Her actions are completely in contrast with ordinary women who fit her stature and in similar circumstances. Women from the royal families contrast with Miranda’s character by far. They exhibit great independence, confidence and whose opinion is always valued. Such women are never likely to be married off to suitors against their wishes but are mostly independent and marry at the time and person of their bidding. Even in Elizabethan times, the then reigning queen, Queen Elizabeth was so independent that she could not share her ruler ship with anybody. She therefore ended up being unmarried all her life since getting married would require to submit to her husband.

Desdemona, in “Othello” takes up the role of a rebellious individual to indicate that such individuals also existed in the Elizabethan society. She refuses to heed to her father’s obligation and instead proceeds to marry Othello against the wishes of her father. However, this dominion in her life was short lived when her husband had to hit her and therefore could not afford protection from him. This also shows that most of the decisions made against the father’s in a patriarchal society always end in dismay.

Shakespeare portrays female characters that seem submissive and easily controlled. They can therefore be given the term dutiful daughters and submissive mothers who offer themselves over to patriarchal repression without complaint. When analyzing the role that Hero plays in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing” we find a lady who is completely submissive and controlled by the father Leonato. This is specifically on the issue of finding a suitable suitor. During the second act, we find the father perceiving that Don Pedro is interested with the daughter and may proceed to ask her hand in marriage. He instructs Hero not to decline the Prince’s advance regardless of the difference in age between the two. This indicates the patriarchal aspects of the society because at first the man is one who makes the advances and the tone of the father does not give room for the daughter to give any objections (Shakespeare, Stephen, and Andrew, 2008).

The patriarchal society has suppressed Hero greatly that she is submissive to not only her father but to the rest of the male characters in the play. Hero is easily wooed and does not get the chance to choose her mate. The prince easily flatters her and therefore effortlessly manipulates her into becoming her wife. The same effort is involved in undoing her when she refers to her as her as an adulteress. The prince manipulates her through his nefarious schemes close to the point of death. Even in the presence of the influence of a more liberated Beatrice, Hero never seems to stand up to her self and doesn’t act under her own volition.

In “The taming of the shrew”, we also find Kate who often submits to the patriarchal figure of her father. She has given in to her father’s demands regarding her behavior and courtship. On the other hand, we also find Bianca who submits willfully to the bidding of the patriarchal society. She even states, “[W]hat you will command me will I do/So well I know my duty” (II.i.6-7). Her submission to her father’s demands show a greater contrast to the women in today’s society who would find themselves in similar situations. This is because she offers to stand aside and wait until her sister Kate to be married off first and wait for her turn in line with the demands of her patriarchal society.

The final scene however brings in a contrast to the archetypal characterizations. We find Bianca changing from her submissive nature once she has been married to Lucentio. This seems to spark her into becoming willful and utterly disobedient to the husband and refuses to heed to his summons. We also find Kate fitting well into the wife material as she is dutiful to Petruchio and heeds to his summons. When requested by Petruchio, she heeds and fetches Bianca and instructs her on how to obligate to her wifely duties.

This can be interpreted that the women in the tragedies are mainly portrayed as conniving since they use the submissive masks to accomplish their own ends. Bianca puts on a façade of a dutiful and submissive daughter so that she can end up with husband of means. Once she has attained her ends, she drops the façade to become a pampered and petulant child. Kate’s shrewd and withdrawal nature can be interpreted as her own means of ridding off the disliked suitors. This can be form of ensuring the survival of the fittest in that the one who persists is the ideal mate for her. When Petruchio persists and resolves to marry her, she realizes that this is the ideal suitor and therefore drops the façade to be the loving and caring wife. This is unlike the women of today who would outright detest what they do not want instead of putting up facades (Shakespeare, Stephen, and Andrew, 2008).

Although Shakespeare attempts portray a strong, independent female character in the comedy “As you like it,” there is still the nuance of a patriarchal perception of women being people who cannot be independent and are easily manipulated. This is evidenced by the character of Rosalind who is portrayed as having a sense of independence and control over her life but this is only attained when disguises herself as a male figure.  This shows that being her very self as a woman cannot afford her the success unless she takes up the figure of a man. This further indicates that there are women in the patriarchal societies who have the same potential as the male counterparts but cannot make any accomplishments because they are not afforded the opportunities.


Work cited

Shakespeare, William, Stephen J. Greenblatt, and Andrew Gurr. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. Print.

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