In the Shakespearean tragedies we have studied, we have been exposed to tragic male protagonists who create their own downfall. Within these tragedies, Shakespeare's female characters are vested with varying degrees of power in relation to the tragic heroes. In looking back at Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, The Winter's Tale can be seen as an extension of the exploration into the nature of women and power broached in his earlier tragedies, as well as an amendment for the misogynistic attitudes they contain.
In our class discussions, we were vexed by a condition we found prevalent in both Othello and King Lear; both of these plays end with the deaths of two innocent women: Desdemona and Cordelia. Not only are these women innocent, they are by far the most benevolent and forgiving female characters in the play, little deserving their violent ends. During this discussion, we also added Ophelia to the list of innocent women who die at Shakespeare's hand and questioned whether the playwright was rewarding, punishing, or martyring these women. Although the question was raised, we were not able to come up with a satisfactory answer.
In examining the "evil" female characters we have encountered in Shakespeare's tragedies -- Regan, Goneril, and Lady Macbeth, the primary corrupting factor that links these women is their desire for or exercise of power. When comparing these women with Desdemona and Cordelia, who relinquish their power to men, the concept of "good" and "bad" women in Shakespeare's tragedies becomes overly simplified.
But tragedy, itself, seems to contribute to this over simplification. In a genre that must end with the deaths of its principle characters, the...
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...y, Mary and Jane Caputi. Webster's First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.
Dash, Irene. Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.
McLuskie, Kathleen. "The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare." Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, editors. London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985.
Neeley, Carol Thomas. "The Winter's Tale: Women and Issue" (1985). Reprinted in the Signet Classic Edition of The Winter's Tale. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Pyle, Fitzroy. The Winter's Tale: A Commentary on the Structure. New York: Routledge & Paul, 1969.
Schweickart, Patrocinio. "Reading Ourselves." Speaking of Gender. Elaine Showalter, editor. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1989.
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