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Many critics have lambasted the female characters in Shakespeare's plays as two-dimensional and unrealistic portrayals of subservient women. Others have asserted that the roles of women in his plays were prominent for the time and culture that he lived in. Two works, Taming of the Shrew, and Twelfth Night, stand out particularly well in regards to Shakespeare's use of female characters. After examining these two plays, one will see that Shakespeare, though conforming to contemporary attitudes of women, circumvented them by creating resolute female characters with a strong sense of self.
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, and has weathered well into our modern era with adaptations into popular television series such as Moonlighting. For all the praises it has garnered throughout the centuries, it is curious to note that many have considered it to be one of his most controversial in his treatment of women. The "taming" of Katherine has been contended as being excessively cruel by many writers and critics of the modern era. George Bernard Shaw himself pressed for its banning during the 19th century (Peralta). The subservience of Katherine has been labeled as barbaric, antiquated, and generally demeaning. The play centers on her and her lack of suitors. It establishes in the first act her shrewish demeanor and its repercussions on her family. It is only with the introduction of the witty Petruchio as her suitor, that one begins to see an evolution in her character. Through an elaborate charade of humiliating behavior, Petruchio humbles her and by the end of the play, she will instruct other women on the nature of being a good and dutiful wife.
In direct contrast to Shrew, is Twelfth Night, whose main female protagonist is by far the strongest character in the play. The main character Viola, has been stranded in a foreign land and adopts the identity of her brother so that she might live independently without a husband or guardian. She serves as a courtier to a young, lovesick nobleman named Orsino. Throughout the play she plays as a go-between for him to the woman he loves. In the course of her service, she falls in love with him. Only at the end, does she renounce her male identity and declares her love for him.
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Both plays portray female characters unwilling to accept the female role of passivity. Katherine rebels against this stereotype by becoming a "shrew", a violently tempered and belligerent woman. Viola disguises herself as a man for most of the play in order to preserve her state of free will. Katherine endures reprimands, chiding, and humiliation in the course of her chosen rebellion. Viola enjoys life and position as a man, and does not reveal who she is until the last scene of the play. Curiously enough, both women voluntarily accept the roles that society would impose on them again at the close of the plays. It is important to note though, that they freely resume these roles, and that they do so out of their own sense of self. For each woman, it is a personal choice based on their desires. In the case of Katherine, she realizes that propriety is as much a signature of self-respect as respect for others, and she has a husband whom she need prove nothing to because he already respects her. In the case of Viola, she is in love with the young Orsino. Having found the man she would be willing to wed, the pretense of her male identity is no longer necessary, as she desires to be his wife.
Having seen the similarities between Viola and Katherine, one should take notice that they do have different circumstances regarding their behavior. The reason for Katherine's shrewish demeanor is never given in the play, though many directors have interpreted it as an act to discourage suitors, much like Hamlet's feigned madness. Others have attributed it to sibling rivalry between Katherine and her sister Bianca. In any case, no clear rationale is given to the audience as to the reason for Katherine's behavior. It is enough to say that the actions of her father and sister do not relieve the situation as well. Throughout the whole of the play, her father treats her as a commodity to be bargained away to whoever is willing to take her. Granted that he doesn't view Bianca as anything more than a commodity as well, but he clearly favors her over Katherine as unspoiled merchandise. Bianca has a rather small role to play in the whole of things. She seems to be the archetypal young lady of quality. Her lack of understanding for her sister causes them to quarrel and results in Bianca taking the physical worst of it, whilst Katherine is blamed for her belligerent nature. The entire presence of family in the play gives Katherine her motivation and explains much of the whole situation in the dialogue. Contrast this with the isolated Viola. She is shipwrecked and has no one to connect with at all. Her situation is implicitly understood by the Shakespearean audience as being an awkward one for a young woman. Lacking anyone to provide for her, she is forced to take measures to protect herself and her estate. The understood reason for her deception is to insure for herself, and it is clearly stated by Viola at the end of Act I .Scene 3.
Obviously, the two women are very different individuals. Yet they share the same characteristics that Shakespeare imparted onto many of his heroines. Each is resolute and knows her own mind. Though society demands certain behavior from them, they each chose to undertake a different path to deny that behavior. The self is promoted over the public image. Yet, each is not averse to returning to society's established roles if it serves their needs and wants. The entire concept of choice and free-will, of which Shakespeare was so fond of, applies as equally to his feminine characters as to his masculine. It is this very important point which establishes the conclusion that Shakespeare did indeed create realistic and meaningful female characters.
Barton, Anne. Introduction to Twelfth Night. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974. 403-407.
Barton, Ann. "The Taming of the Shrew." The Riverside Shakespeare 2nd ed. Ed. Dean Johnson et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 138-141.
Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1975.
Fox, Levi, ed. The Shakespeare Handbook. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1987.
Peralta, T. "The Taming of the Shrew." English 28: Shakespeare's Plays. Cerritos College. Norwalk, CA, Fall semester 1996.
Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Edited Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Longman, 1997.