Social and Feminist Influences of Austen and Shakespeare
|✅ Paper Type: Free Essay||✅ Subject: English Literature|
|✅ Wordcount: 5437 words||✅ Published: 18th Sep 2017|
By Khalil Jetha
Feminist thought is a movement truly indicative of a dynamic society. When manifested in literature, it signifies the breaking of old traditions, and the manner in which feminism is presented reflects the attitude of the writer and society to the aforementioned changes. In the case of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), presenting empowered females was of marked significance as the Elizabethan era marked the strongest female monarchy England had ever seen. However, upon closer inspection it can be inferred that Shakespeare had an innate disregard for female authority, reflected by examining the characters Desdemona (from “Othello”), Kate (from “The Taming of the Shrew”), and Rosalind (from “As You Like It”). The prevailing approach in Shakespeare’s time was one of trepidation for the “wild” woman, or a female who did not conform to social expectations. The so-called “feminist” characters merely served to lend form and dimension to male characters and patriarchal themes. In contrast, later authors such as Jane Austen (1775-1817) used empowered characters such as Elizabeth Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice), Elinor Dashwood (from Sense and Sensibility), and Catherine Morland (from Northanger Abbey) to present feasible realities within the context of the society in which Austen lived. Working her characters into the framework of her era, Austen used women not as a means but as her end. Unlike Shakespeare’s characters, whose wiles and individuality served as gimmicks to promote patriarchy, Austen’s characters showed women who existed independently of male-dominated societies.
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Through careful dissection and comparison of texts, Shakespeare’s “Othello”, “The Taming of the Shrew” (TOS), and “As You Like It” (AYLI), exemplify females whose independence and unorthodox qualities are eventually extinguished by overbearing male figures. Desdemona, Kate, and Rosalind are all radically different characters encompassing various aspects of the female psyche. Desdemona represents a rebellious daughter and sexually insatiable wife whose wiles cannot be controlled by men, a characteristic which drives her husband insane. Kate, “the shrew”, is the empowered woman who succumbs to the power of society, forgoing her independence to become a wife, in the process experiencing a “miraculous” metamorphosis instigated by her husband’s subjugation. Rosalind is unique among the three, an omniscient whose altruist nature cedes dominance to her alter ego, Ganymede.
A more accurate description of the term “feminist” applies to Austen, whose characters do not serve to alter or develop male characters. While successfully writing novels whose plots and characters fit in 18th century England, Austen manages to show a different side of women, a side that is adversely affected by the character weaknesses of men. Her novels Northanger Abbey (NA), Pride and Prejudice (PP), and Sense and Sensibility (SS) present females whose pensive minds help them maneuver through the tumultuous and impractical societies in which they find themselves living. NA’s Catherine Morland, PP’s Elizabeth Bennet, and SS’ Elinor Dashwood are subtly different; however, the three female characters share their firm morals and unwavering integrity in common. Catherine Morland finds herself growing up in a world of first glances and vagaries, the sharp-witted Elizabeth Bennet spites the English bourgeois for their pride, finding that she herself has prejudice to overcome. SS’ Elinor Dashwood finds that throughout her life she cannot rely solely on men though society wills her to do so; all three women overcome tribulation to grow into worldly individuals, unlike Shakespeare’s who either compromise their personality or lives in the course of their respective texts.
Shakespeare’s Characters and Works
Shakespeare’s “Othello” is notable among Shakespeare’s tragedies because it presents a unique setting and character establishment. The namesake and protagonist, a Moor (a Muslim of African descent), transcends racial and religious boundaries to enter and lead the elite of Venice. The relationships between Othello and other Venetians communicates Shakespeare’s disdain for society, manifested in the villain Iago. From a feminist standpoint, however, the most prevalent victim of tragic circumstance is not the Moor of Venice, but rather the woman he marries. Desdemona is the classic martyr for feminist ideals, encumbered both as a woman struggling to pursue a life with the one she loves of another race and as a woman living in a man’s world, struggling to defend her marital fidelity and personal integrity. As a feminist martyr, she is “helplessly passive,” can “do nothing,” unable to “retaliate even in speech” because “her nature is infinitely sweet and her love absolute” (Bloom 1987, p. 80). When Othello accuses her of compromising her fidelity, she is insulted and maintains her integrity by refusing to even answer such allegations. Viewed by the reader, this action is one of pride and confidence. However, when she counters Othello, slightly mocking his insecurities by inquiring “[what he] could ask [her], that [she] should deny/Or stand so mammering on,” he perceives it as her attempts at masking her own desires to seek sexual satisfaction outside the bonds of matrimony (Act III, Scene iii, lines 69-71).
Desdemona is constantly struggling with her environment. On the one hand, she fits into society as a married young woman. On the other, she presents a threat to the stability of patriarchal society. By marrying outside her race and religion, Desdemona defies custom by posing the scandal of miscegenated offspring. Confronted by her father, Desdemona vehemently rejects his concerns and contentions, favoring Othello despite the fact that she perceives “a divided duty”; Desdemona rationally argues in favor of Othello, professing that she should show Othello the same preference her “mother show’d/To [Brabantio]” (Act I, Scene iii, lines 178-188). In her argument that presupposes her assertiveness, Desdemona reveals social boundaries a woman faces: first she is bound by allegiance to her father, then she grows to devote her life to her husband.
From a gender issues standpoint, her identity as a sexually charged, erratic newlywed earns her little more than violent encounters with Othello and her eventual murder. Her charged sexual nature “catalyze Othello’s sexual anxieties” through not fault of her own, as Iago manipulates Othello’s marital instability to begin with (Bloom 1987, p. 81). Ultimately, it is Othello’s indecision, his inability to “voice his suspicions directly” that further fuel his insanity and manipulation at Iago’s hands; Desdemona pays the ultimate price for her loyalties, both in marriage and to herself (Bloom 1987, p. 88). Throughout the play, Desdemona, like the other female characters of the play, never requires validation or reassurance of her value as a person. Othello represents the need for public respect, a reason why Iago’s suggestions of Desdemona’s infidelity drives him insane. Desdemona is further degraded as Othello gives Iago more credit than he does his own wife. In all his deceptions, “Iago’s feigned love gives him power which Desdemona’s genuine love cannot counteract”; Shakespeare shows his audience that female character is surpassed in importance even by spurious male camaraderie (Bloom 1987, p. 91). A victim of male circumstance, Desdemona is tragically caught between the Iago’s insecurities as a soldier surpassed by an outsider and Othello’s insecurities as an outsider seeking social acceptance. Othello’s marriage to Desdemona objectifies her; Iago spites Othello for marrying Desdemona as it completes what Iago perceives as Fate’s transgression against his station in life. Othello, in turn, is never sated, as his marriage to Desdemona should have consolidated his “power” as a man; instead, he resents Desdemona’s confidence and the power that even a suggestion of her infidelity asserts over him. The feminist criticism of the institution of love revolves around love’s existence as a means of control; when Othello’s male autonomy is compromised and he begins to speculate on his nature as secondary to his wife’s sexual power, he goes insane, ironically smothering her to death using the same sheets used during the night of their marriage’s consummation. Desdemona’s erstwhile functional marriage serves as the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, as Othello “finds the scorn due the cuckold almost as difficult to bear as the loss of Desdemona” (Bloom 1987, p. 90). Shakespeare’s presentation of Desdemona as a pawn in Iago’s manipulation can be presented as his disdain with society’s misogyny. However, Desdemona’s portrayal as the helpless victim serves to further discredit female strength.
While the tragic death of Othello surpasses Desdemona’s in literary importance, Desdemona becomes more tragic a character than her estranged husband. She has done nothing to earn the contempt of her husband, whose murderous intent and eventual suicide serve as the only means of self-validation. She has become an object in Othello’s “self-sacrifice”, nothing more than another factor in Shakespearean tragedy. In his portrayal of Desdemona, Shakespeare may have been able to present a feminist case for the station of women in society and their abuses at the hands of men. But Othello is not made the villain: Iago is the person portrayed as destroying a life, not in Desdemona’s passing but in Othello’s fall from grace. Desdemona, though a possible case for the argument of feminist characters in Elizabethan theatre, is ultimately too passive to be a feasible feminist. Had she asserted herself and called Othello’s insecurity, her husband’s pride may have been compromised, but it would serve as a means for him to identify the primary culprits at hand. That Desdemona confronted her father and not her own husband plays the feminist argument into doubt; marriage, not self-sufficiency, was Desdemona’s final goal. She sought neither to validate herself nor her sense of self-worth, but rather chose a life of devotion to the Moor she loved. In essence, she presented herself as a victim from the very beginning.
Unlike other Shakespeare plays, TOS can be taken both in its historical context and simultaneously be applied to the modern social constrictions women face. In its historical context, the play presents a comical obstacle standing between a man and the object of his affection. In a more contemporary setting, however, TOS is a story of one man’s conquest over a woman’s social and emotional independence and the domestication of a free spirit. The aforementioned setting makes sport out of breaking Kate’s will and reveals a theoretical rebuttal of radical feminism.
As TOS unfolds, the audience sees Kate as a social pariah, unfit for society as she spurns the institution of marriage and the idea of love. An independent, sharp-tongued woman, she is demonized by the local male population who sees her as a barricade preventing courtship of the demure, younger, more favorable Bianca. It is not completely dismissible a notion that Shakespeare wrote TOS with the intent of exposing the farce of certain types of marriage. Shakespeare may have juxtaposed the stubborn, resilient, and often violent Kate with the desirable Bianca to show the duplicity of social marriages. In his article entitled “The Taming of the Shrew Mocks the World Mercantile Marriage”, Gareth Lloyd Evans describes the world of TOS as “mercantile to the end,” showing how “even at the conclusion of its biggest transaction (the marriage of Bianca), the gambling element remains” (Marvel 2000, p. 69). In the end, Kate becomes docile to the will of Petruchio, leaving Bianca flabbergasted at her sister’s change of heart. Kate’s radical change from self-avowed hater of all things love and marriage hence becomes the locus of the question of her nature as a feminist character: was Shakespeare’s portrayal of Kate as a virulent misanthrope a comic device or a social message? If Shakespeare intended to use Kate in the same manner with which he employed the character of Desdemona in Othello (that is, as a means to the plot’s end), then TOS takes on an entirely new direction. Using Kate as a comic device makes female independence the object of scorn and ridicule, and Shakespeare’s tone toward feminist issues would be dismissive and, condescension not withstanding, misogynist. As the object of a social statement, Kate would become a testament to the futilities of female cynicism and rejection of society.
Examining Kate’s transition lends credibility to the said stance. If Shakespeare was a feminist writer, creating Kate’s character with the purpose of communicating a message to society at large, the “shrew” being tamed would be Petruchio. Instead, “Petruchio’s taming of Kate” is an act of instilling humility in “a spoiled, egotistical, well-fed, rich girl” and forcing her to accept “a will other than her own” (Marvel 2000, p. 147). The feminist standpoint would rather be one of prevailing contempt for Petruchio, a self-avowed social climber whose desire to marry Kate stems from expansion of his family’s wealth. Like Desdemona, Kate’s independence and strength as a female character are stifled by marriage; unlike Desdemona, Kate’s marriage to the ruffian Petruchio is one with ulterior motive. Kate’s wedding is “a travesty and a sacrilege,” marred by Petruchio’s intoxication and unruly garb (Marvel 2000, p. 152). Almost indicative of Petruchio’s goal of “taming the shrew,” he further suppresses Kate by kissing her at the “‘will’ of ‘I will not’” (Marvel 2000, p. 152). Ironically, the kiss represents more than the overbearing will of an intoxicated groom. The significance of pacifying Kate’s ill will with a kiss is utterly symbolic of her contentions toward TOS’ opening. Standing at the altar, her final cry is one against a life of pacification and subjugation under the supremacy of a husband. The actual “taming” does not begin until after marriage, a further explanation of Kate’s disdain.
What is more intriguing about Kate’s “taming” is the means in which she is subdued. Following her outrage at the spectacle of the wedding, Petruchio denies Kate food, insisting that it is for her own good. Later, he denies her access to the ornate clothing provided by the tailor. Before leaving for their return to Padua, Kate implores her husband that they make haste, as they are late. Petruchio sputters that he will not go, and that she is reading the time incorrectly; Petruchio condescendingly states that whenever they leave it will be at “what o’clock [he says] it is” (Act IV, Scene iii, line 189). The means denied Kate in her “taming” are food, clothing, and free will. Kate begins to rely on her husband for survival, warmth, and freedom of motion. Essentially, Petruchio becomes not only her husband but also her guardian, leaving Kate with the independence of a small child. It is almost as if he is brainwashing her, torturing her by keeping her hungry, clothed in what way he sees fit, restricting her motion and even forcing her sense of time under the fetters of his will. Shakespeare’s only message here is not simply the futility of female emancipation, but the repercussions of atypical female action. Kate is portrayed as earning her fate through her belligerence and the days she spent terrorizing society with her outbursts and sporadic violence. The more a woman strays from the path society sets out for her, the harsher the “punishment” in an inescapable future marriage.
The only negating aspect to the misogyny of Shakespearean assertion is Kate’s nature. Though stubborn, Kate is “intelligent, too”; in her apparent surrender to her husband’s mad will, Kate realizes “she can take the wind completely out of his sails, deprive his weapon of its power, even turn it against him—tame him in his own humor” (Marvel 2000, p. 52). By entertaining his strange whims, Kate can turn the tides against Petruchio, calling his bluff, so to speak. After all, Petruchio’s madness is forced, as he is trying to irk his wife and break her composure. As the entertaining, submitting wife, Kate also tames Petruchio; she conceivably leaves him no reason to be as erratic as the wife whose will he set out to break. In this sense, Kate is Petruchio’s equal, and in their social obscurity, they are made acceptable through the bonds of marriage.
On the surface, Rosalind is socially acceptable, like most of Shakespeare’s characters. She is almost altruistic, exuding transcendent knowledge about life and love. She chastises Silvius for his devotion to Phoebe, yet swoons for Orlando and does not grow embittered at the prospect of love in the manner TOS’ Kate does. As one of the more engaging characters of the play, Rosalind, like “Othello’s” Desdemona, goes against her uncle’s wishes in the pursuit of her love, in this case manifested by Orlando. Unlike Desdemona, however, Rosalind is more congenial, coaxing her uncle by imploring his forgiveness. Rosalind testifies to Duke Frederick that if she offended him in her affections for Orlando, it was “[never] so much as in a thought unborn” (Act I, Scene iii, lines 49-50). As a lady and a daughter, Rosalind is the ideal woman to show society. She is polite, reserved, and wise beyond her years. Her personality, however, shifts to a point unparalleled by other Shakespearean characters. Rosalind’s power as a possible feminist character is best exemplified in her interactions while cross-dressed as Ganymede (“Ganymed”). After she assumes the identity of the male Ganymede, Rosalind’s character unfolds as one who is both enticing and mysterious, alluring to the romantic, erotic, and homoerotic aspects of theatre. She begins to take a more aggressive stance in her interaction with Orlando, preventing him from kissing her despite her desire, insisting that he should “speak first” (Act IV, Scene i, lines 69-74).
As mentioned previously, men were exclusive actors as women were not permitted entry into the world of Elizabethan theatre. Homoeroticism was naturally an unavoidable subtext to any Shakespearean play. The choice of the Greek mythological figure of Ganymede is indicative of Shakespearean homoeroticism. In Greek myth, Ganymede was a shepherd boy with whom Zeus (Jove) fell in love. Rosalind on an Elizabethan stage would therefore be a male actor cross-dressed as a woman, who in the play cross-dresses as a homosexual man beguiling and perhaps slightly manipulating the unsuspecting Orlando. When taken into this context, “As You Like It” reveals new depth and content. Michael Shapiro delves into cross-gender devices in his book Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines & Female Pages. Rosalind adopts “three separate and distinct layers of identity—Rosalind, [Ganymede], and ‘Rosalind’” (Shapiro 1994, p. 119). The sole purpose behind her schizophrenic metamorphosis is her love for Orlando, a man she has barely met. The first Rosalind is the vibrant character attracted to Orlando. Ganymede serves as a mentor to Orlando, a giver of advice; in her assumption of Ganymede’s identity, Rosalind alters her own nature as a woman living in a patriarchy as she takes the role of a mentor, giving “man-to-man advice to Orlando on the behavior of wives” (Shapiro 1994, p. 124). This ascension to egalitarian status with Orlando is reflective of the first feminist objective: to attain total social equality with men.
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The third Rosalind is the one who acts according to the advice she gives Orlando as Ganymede, and incidentally is the most intriguing of the three identities. As Ganymede, Rosalind has a control over Orlando’s emotions and thoughts. She can influence him whichever way she so pleases by suggesting, as a man, how Orlando ought to behave or react to women as wives. As the third Rosalind, she can indirectly affect Orlando by either corroborating through her actions any advice she gave as Ganymede, or further discredit Ganymede by acting opposite. Rosalind ultimately has the choice of how she wants Orlando to accept her. Rosalind can covet Orlando’s trust and affections as a man, and in doing so mold him to her liking so that she may later win him over as a woman. Ganymede’s presence as a trusted friend of Orlando is significant as it is perhaps the only way Rosalind can enjoy equality. This aspect of her cross-dressing is wholly non-feminist in its nature. From a radical feminist standpoint, there should be no gender labels, in which case Rosalind has failed to identify herself as such as she is forced to become a man. From a liberal feminist standpoint, gender labels can exist and differences should be respected. In the liberal feminist mindset, Rosalind has failed to gain equality as she is only given credibility as a man; the nature of the advice Orlando seeks regarding the nature of women as wives can only be trusted as coming from a man.
Equally plausible is that Rosalind is forced to act the way she does to get what she wants. Rosalind may have taken the initiative to achieve her goals no matter the cost of identity. Furthermore, her male identity had the potential to liberate her female identities; as Ganymede, Rosalind had the power to dictate to Orlando the manner in which women should be approached. Shakespeare had the opportunity to relay a message through his cross-dressing female hero, but failed to endeavor to such communication. Though working within the limits of his society, Shakespeare did not address issues through Rosalind’s characters in the manner Austen does with her female protagonists. While heavy-handed techniques are not necessary, Shakespeare only flirted with the notion of empowered females as it augmented the situational comedy in AYLI.
Shakespeare’s characters cannot be accurately described as feminists, even with respect to the social norms they challenge in his works. The Webster Dictionary defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.”
Though her marriage to Othello was one of controversy, it was one that tested the boundaries of race and religion-relations. Miscegenation, not misogyny, was addressed in their relationship. Desdemona was perpetually a victim whose life rested solely in the hands of her insane husband. For Desdemona to be a feminist or even have feminist characteristics, she would have picked up a sword and joined Othello in the military. The Venice in which she lived only economically endowed her with a dowry, which would then be paid upon marriage. From a social standpoint, Desdemona may have been able to petition her fellow Venetians for help when she suspected Othello’s violent tendencies. However, she chose to leave her destiny in the hands of her husband, no matter the outcome.
Kate, though constantly haranguing the general public for the institution of love, does not take her stance for feminist reasons. The traditional feminist attack on the institution of marriage focuses on marriage as forcing certain roles on women (motherhood and subjugation under a husband in particular). There is no indication that Kate took any of these stances; more plausible is that she is embittered by the fact that society forces marriage and not why it is forced.
Rosalind is perhaps the strongest character of the three in question. That she is assertive has little to do with her identity as a feminist character. While there is little doubt that she is a hero and one of the foci of AYLI, and still less speculation on the strength of her character, she still does not actively seek political or economic equality. There is no mention of her stance on women in society. The most feminist aspect of Rosalind is her ability to transcend gender. In cross-dressing, she reflects new treatment by Orlando. Though not more positive or negative than her treatment when Orlando acknowledged Rosalind as a woman, as Ganymede, Rosalind shows that Orlando approaches her with similar respect. Rosalind’s sexual empowerment does deify her to a certain degree; it is as if she has the power to evoke feelings in men that would erstwhile not exist.
With the exception of TOS’ Kate, Shakespearean females are usually composed individuals who contribute to the development of a plot or male character. However, all three Shakespearean characters can be described as heroes to a degree. Carol Pearson defines a hero in her book The Female Hero in American and British Literature as one who “departs from convention and thereby either implicitly or explicitly challenges the myths that define the status quo” (Pearson 1981, p. 16).
Desdemona, though sexually more forward than other Shakespearean women, is at home in her surroundings. She is a born Venetian of high stature, and though she keeps her relationship with Othello secret, she has no conflicting interests in Venice. Her marriage to an outsider challenges the “myth” of requisite same-race marriage. Othello, on the other hand, is a man of different race and religion, struggling to make a name for himself in a new land. He is not nearly as self-assured as Desdemona, his physical differences weighing on his conscience and costing him peace of mind. Where Desdemona has made peace to accept her own death (she requests the wedding sheets be placed on the bed), Othello is never composed to the measure Desdemona exudes. In short, Desdemona acts as foil to Othello in every way; their union is one that naturally causes friction, without which Iago would never be able to manipulate the situation.
Kate and Petruchio are very unique among Shakespearean couples; though Petruchio is hardly a hero by the Shakespearean norm of gallantry, he is the man who “tames the shrew.” However unorthodox a hero, Petruchio is the perfect match for Kate in his gruffness, his unkempt demeanor, and his social shortcomings. The two have only their resilient personalities in common; Kate is more polished and presentable than her wily husband, but the two both have a natural contempt for life that can only be quelled by their marriage. Their relationship is one of servant and master, the power balance shifting constantly. Though Kate detested the pandering of her past suitors, her attraction for Petruchio budded because he was precisely the opposite of what society (and her father) wanted for her. To keep her interest piqued, Petruchio naturally appealed to Kate and had to maintain a certain air about himself. Following their marriage, Kate became subservient, accepting Petruchio’s odd tendencies and orders to pacify him (he never would have expected a docile Kate, and receiving one shifted manipulation back into Kate’s hands). Though their personalities are strong, society’s favor puts the advantage in to Petruchio’s hands as in addition to a wife he also gained financial means. Kate is merely a means to an end for Petruchio, whereas Petruchio is the only means for Kate to attain what society expects of her.
Rosalind and Orlando are another anomaly, though in the end, Rosalind exists more for Orlando than vice versa. Cross-dressing aside, Rosalind’s sweet temperament and witty rapport make her the ideal mate. Orlando, with the exception of his privileged birth and notable wrestling skills, is rather normal in every respect. Rosalind exists only to marry Orlando, and while her transsexual tendencies are a force with which to be reckoned, her antics merely delay what an inevitable relationship and existence. Her previously mentioned teasing was a perfect metaphor for a life whose direction she could not control.
Shakespeare as a Feminist
Whether in tragedies or comedies, Shakespeare’s female characters vary greatly in their nature and the social mold they fit. Given the Elizabethan era in which Shakespeare lived, most of his more wily and energetic female characters went against the grain of society. However, most all of Shakespeare’s more powerful female characters occurred in comedies, begging the question of whether or not they could be taken seriously as characters that could exist outside the realms of stage narrative. That these strong female characters exist only in comedies does not question any aspect of society. In keeping with his comedies’ humorous undertones, Shakespeare may very well have made his female characters strong because their existence would be laughable. After all, Elizabethan stage actors were all male; women were never allowed in theatre. Furthermore, the tendencies of comedic so-called “feminist” characters are to either succumb to society’s restraints, or to be smothered by overpowering male dominance. The women of Shakespeare’s plays are usually the ones who change, often when they become married. Katherina, for example, succumbs to marriage, settling for Petruchio, a drunkard whose ostentatious personality and strong sense of deviance outweighs her own rejections of conformity and domestication. Her resilience goes unrewarded, and she once again becomes a subservient figure in the archetypal patriarchy of the time. A large reason behind female suppression in Shakespearean plays was also public acceptance. No patron, male or female, would return to Shakespeare’s productions if the prevailing themes were the emancipation of women. Female assertion was a taboo, a reason why it was so popular in comedies. The greatest aspect of comedies is the aversion of tragedy; negative happenstances that reach fruition are tragedies, and the same happenstances that are avoided are comedies. As the defining characteristic of a comedy, the resolution of a problem is mirrored in the pacification of said comedy’s female rogues. The strength of women in Shakespeare’s plays, therefore, is a literary tool used to build up the glory and triumph of men and the patriarchies in which they exist.
What cannot be dismissed, however, is the context in which Shakespeare wrote the plays. Speculation of his historical surroundings denote Shakespeare’s tendency to pander to leadership, in this case, England’s greatest female monarch, Elizabeth I. Though society was largely patriarchal, the monarchy led by queen who did not marry. It is not completely unlikely that Shakespeare pandered to the female monarch, emulating her reluctance to wed in his “The Taming of the Shrew.” Queen Elizabeth, after all, did not marry, nor would she fit into society’s mold of the typical woman. Shakespeare’s characters were daring for the time, as they also broke the mold of Elizabethan women. Unlike Queen Elizabeth, however, the strong female characters of Shakespeare’s plays were exemplified by their ability to manipulate, control, and overpower men. In many ways, the strength of women served as a means to make women antagonists. For example, Desdemona’s power existed to drive Othello mad with her unchecked sexuality. She exhibited a power over men, one that would not be contained or controlled by men. Though Iago manipulated the characters of “Othello”, it was extreme jealousy that drove the play’s namesake mad, causing him to kill himself and the woman he could not control. The message conveyed in Othello could be construed to be a foreboding one to women in society and the men that dominated them: losing control of women and compromising male dominance leads to tragic consequences.
Shakespeare’s Rosalind was unique, different from Desdemona and Katherina in her omniscience and enlightened state. Though the complexity of her emotions and thoughts is unrivaled in “As You Like It,” she takes on a darker side, one of manipulation and social subversion. Though laudable, her social deviance still leaves the play wanting for a male counterpart to complement her. She cannot criticize the respective stations of men and women for too long without succumbing to love’s fetters herself. It is as though Shakespeare is communicating the futility of female nonconformity. Shakespeare’s penultimate message in comedic female characters is one of concession. Though women are welcome to mock and society and live outside its bounds, they all must eventually “grow” into wives and docile domesticates
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