Empowerment of Women in Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and The Taming of the Shrew

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Empowerment of Women in Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and The Taming of the Shrew

In Shakespeare’s comedies, many – possibly even most - of the female characters are portrayed as being manipulated, if not controlled outright, by the men in their lives: fathers, uncles, suitors, husbands. And yet, there are women inhabiting Shakespeare’s comedic world who seem to enjoy a greater degree of autonomy and personal power than one would expect in a patriarchal society. Superficially, therefore, Shakespeare’s comedies appear to send mixed signals regarding the notion of female empowerment. Some women are strong and independent, others are completely submissive, and the behavior of either seems to be influenced more by theme or plot than by any qualities within the characters themselves.

A closer look, though, should make it evident that this is not the case; as in many of Shakespeare’s plays, appearances can be deceiving. In some cases, the exterior behavior is a deliberate façade to mask the character’s real feelings; in others, it is an acculturated veneer that is burned away as a result of the play’s events. Despite their outward appearances, though, most of these comedic women belong to one of two opposing archetypes. An examination of these archetypes allows the reader to see past such deceptions to the real personality beneath.

The “Daughter” and “Niece” Archetypes

Within Shakespeare’s comedies, many of the female characters are portrayed as submissive and easily controlled. Like dutiful daughters, these women submit to patriarchal repression with little complaint.

Perhaps the best example of a “daughter” character in Shakespearean comedy is the role of Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. Hero is completely under the control of her father Leonato, especially with regard to courtship. When, in Act Two, Leonato believes that Don Pedro may seek Hero’s hand in marriage, he orders Hero to welcome the prince’s advances despite the difference in their ages: “Daughter, remember what I told you. If the Prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer” (II.i.61-3). Thus we see that Leonato controls not only Hero’s actions, but even her words as well.

In fact, Hero is so thoroughly repressed by the male-dominated society in which she lives that she submits not only to her father’s will, but to that of nearly every other man in the play. She is easily wooed and won by Don Pedro posing as Claudio (II.
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