Austen and Shakespeare | English Literature Dissertations
- 1 The Social and Feminist Influences of Austen and Shakespeare
- 2 Abstract: The Social and Feminist Influences of Austen and Shakespeare
- 3 Shakespeare’s Characters and Works
- 4 Desdemona in “Othello”
- 5 Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew”
- 6 Rosalind in “As You Like It”
- 7 Findings: Shakespeare’s Characters as Feminists
- 8 Comparing Shakespearean Female Characters with Heroes
- 9 Shakespeare as a Feminist
- 10 Austen’s Characters and Works
- 11 Catherine Moorland in Northanger Abbey
- 12 Elizabeth Benet in Pride and Prejudice
- 13 Eli nor Dash wood of Sense and Sensibility
- 14 Findings: Austen’s Characters as Feminists
- 15 Comparing Austen’s Female Characters with Heroes
- 16 Austen as a Feminist
- 17 Conclusion
- 18 Bibliography
The Social and Feminist Influences of Austen and Shakespeare
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 Benet (from Pride and Prejudice), Eli nor Dash wood (from Sense and Sensibility), and Catherine Moorland (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.
Abstract: The Social and Feminist Influences of Austen and Shakespeare
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. The critics used in this examination are limited to the twentieth century. Assembled criticisms by scholars such as Harold Bloom, Alexander Leggett, and Laura Marvel focus on the intricacies of Shakespeare’s female characters, while Michael Shapiro counters with non-traditional surveys of sexuality manifested in Shakespearean plays.
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 manoeuvre through the tumultuous and impractical societies in which they find themselves living. NA’s Catherine Moorland, PP’s Elizabeth Benet, and SS’ Eli nor Dash wood are subtly different; however, the three female characters share their firm morals and unwavering integrity in common.
Catherine Moorland finds herself growing up in a world where first glances and well-timed gossip can make or break a reputation, the sharp-witted Elizabeth Benet spites the English bourgeois for their pride, finding that she herself has prejudice to overcome. SS’ Eli nor Dash wood 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. Critics such as Claudia Johnson, Roger Gard, Harold Bloom, and Ian Watt discuss Austen’s characters within the social context in which she created them, while feminist critics such as Carol Pearson, Susan Morgan, and Rachel Brownstein opt to dissect Austen’s heroines from a feminist perspective.
Shakespeare’s Characters and Works
Desdemona in “Othello”
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 no 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.
Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew”
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 notwithstanding, 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.
Rosalind in “As You Like It”
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.
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.
Findings: Shakespeare’s Characters as Feminists
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.
Comparing Shakespearean Female Characters with Heroes
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.
Austen’s Characters and Works
Catherine Moorland in Northanger Abbey
Catherine Moorland is a socially respectable individual. Her pleasant demeanor and child-like charms are reminiscent of literature’s ideal girl, and as she comes of age, Catherine becomes the most desirable wife. As a girl, Catherine’s naïveté sets her apart from most of Austen’s heroines. It drives the novel, making her shift in attitude toward friends and lovers believable. Catherine’s innocence (or ignorance, depending on the attitude of the critic) leads her into Isabella’s world of balls, galas, and gossip.
A pretty, demure girl, there are few boundaries that hamper her social ascension through Isabella. Catherine’s indomitable sanguinity separates her from PP’s Elizabeth, whose sharp wit and spite would never afford her the same level of acceptance Catherine so easily enjoys with the upper class. NA’s “[heroine is] deficient, lacking discrimination” (Bloom 1987, p. 61). The reader observes Catherine befriending the elitist Isabella and, after a brief separation from Henry, becoming enamored with John. Her innocence is a catalyst for the crux of the novel, wherein she decides to be happy and forgo privileged financial establishment.
Susan Morgan, in her “Guessing for Ourselves in Northanger Abbey”, studies Catherine’s character as most indicative of “human nature, at least in the midland counties of England”. Though Catherine makes noble decisions in her marriage to Henry and friendship with Eleanor, she has “by nature nothing heroic about her” (Bloom 1986, p. 109). She neither sets out to marry like Desdemona, nor does she adamantly oppose it like Kate. It as is if Catherine is completely indifferent to her life’s choices once her mind is set.
The fluidity of her personality and compatibility with such contrasting characters as John and Henry or Isabella and Eleanor suggests a complete lack of bias. Catherine’s aloofness may very well have served to make an opposite shift; had she met Eleanor first and established a healthy relationship with John, she may very well have stayed friends with Isabella and would never have married Henry. It is her ambiguity of character that prevents her from being feminist; characters like Eli nor Dash wood and Elizabeth Benet assert themselves in ways Catherine does not.
Morgan makes the point that “in the first chapter of [NA] Austen assures us that Catherine Moorland is unpropitious for heroism”, suggesting Catherine’s literary allure is her similarity to ordinary people (Bloom 1986, p. 111). An accommodating description of Catherine’s deficiency in perception and maturity in character goes so far as labeling Catherine as an inferior character, begging the question of her pliancy in living in a patriarchy.
Catherine’s indifference suggests her acceptance of the conditions that surround her; she feels no need to harangue society like Kate of TOS or Elizabeth of PP. Catherine’s growth and change is comparatively limited when juxtaposed to that of the female protagonists of PP or SS. Morgan asserts Catherine’s sanguinity as indicative of her static character; “the freedom, naturalness, and spontaneity” Catherine exudes at ten remain “qualities Catherine still has at seventeen” (Bloom 1986, p. 111).
The subtlety in Catherine’s change is not unlike that of Elizabeth Benet; Elizabeth Benet only changes in her approach to Darcy, just as Catherine only changes in her approach to people. Catherine, like Elizabeth of PP, “fails twice in her judgments of people, first in thinking Isabella good and General Tilney evil” (Bloom 1986, p. 112). While Elizabeth’s epiphanic shift in her relationship to Darcy reverted her to a mature state, Catherine remains lacking in assertion. She is almost a product of the coterie gossip to which Isabella introduces her. Like Elizabeth, Catherine jumps to conclusions prematurely, but unlike Elizabeth, Catherine’s conclusions are drawn from other people’s persuasions, observations, and opinions. Morgan purports Austen’s employment of Catherine’s unbelievable passivity as a literary tool exemplifying “what she loses when she accepts other people’s views” (Bloom 1986, p. 112).
Finally able to separate deception from reality, Catherine marries Henry, a man of sound integrity and good character. However, Catherine still does not grow in the same manner as her fellow Austen protagonists. Austen used Catherine to convey a point as she uses her other characters. The difference with NA is the roundabout fashion in which Austen conveys her themes through Catherine’s lack of judgment.
Eli nor and Elizabeth assert themselves in their respective novels, making Austen’s points through direct action. Catherine, on the other hand, reveals themes through the precise opposite, that is to say, through her very inaction. Though Catherine may be a feminist in the making, her de-prioritization of class status was not so much indicative of her moral fiber as it was a preference for the characters of Henry and Eleanor Tilney themselves. It is Catherine and Eleanor’s mutual love for books that bring them together; while Catherine is not attracted to people because of their wealth or social status, she does not exude the prejudice of Elizabeth Benet, either.
Elizabeth Benet in Pride and Prejudice
Elizabeth Benet is not the social pariah of the likes of Kate in TOS. Elizabeth, like her male counterpart Darcy, is polished and surprisingly mature. She is respectful of her father, and though her mother is overbearing and obsessed with marrying off all her daughters, Elizabeth never crosses the bounds of propriety in dealing with her mother. Elizabeth is naturally “morally sound,” evident “in her thoughts about marriage, which are characterized by a concern with establishing a proper relationship between the demands of personal feeling and the need for financial security” (Bloom 1987, p. 60).
Despite her harsh critiques on marriage and the English bourgeois, Elizabeth concedes that she has faulty judgment and owns up to her erroneous conclusions. Throughout her development, Elizabeth is found in many ways to be a classic feminist figure; her natural disdain for the wealthy Bingley women is representative of the feminist ideology of social equality, and her reluctance to get married to the wrong man is a strong allusion to the feminist eschewing of marriage. Elizabeth’s eventual relationship and marriage to Darcy represents the transcendence of class, one of the constant themes throughout PP.
What separates PP from the typical Shakespearean drama is the direction of the protagonists’ interactions. As a central focus of the play, Elizabeth never faces impossible odds in life, never having to conquer demons of any sort. Instead, the “union of wit and drama is achieved with complete success only in the central sequence of [PP], in the presentation of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s revaluation of each other” (Watt 1963, p. 63). As a testament to gender equality, both Darcy and Elizabeth have their reservations about each other’s backgrounds and intentions.
For example, Elizabeth is constantly wary of Darcy as an urban snob who too quickly makes assumptions about country life. She is guarded as his opinions involve her family. Elizabeth’s suspicions of Darcy grow into spite, culminating with her brief friendship with Wickham, who Darcy regards with a certain degree of spite. Austen introduces the characters of Elizabeth and Wickham carefully, making sure that Elizabeth never fully becomes enamored with him for his kind facade. Instead, Austen portrays Elizabeth as “completely and willfully [misjudging] Darcy’s character, [overlooking] Wickham’s faults simply because he is Darcy’s enemy” (Bloom 1987, p. 60).
Darcy almost mirrors Elizabeth, who in turn suspects the Benet family of intending to marry Jane Benet to the wealthy Charles Bingley solely for his money. Though his suspicions are largely born out of concern for his friend, Darcy admittedly concedes his prejudice toward the lower classes just as Elizabeth admits to her prejudice toward the bourgeois.
Austen brilliantly weaves the two characters together, who are spiteful and immature only to each other throughout the novel. The mirrored character development of Elizabeth and Darcy overlap as Darcy reveals Wickham’s dubious past, leading to the “revaluation” and budding relationship they share. The paralleling of Darcy and Elizabeth serves as an added allusion to the concept of equality. Though both characters are “extremely mature people by the time [they] meet,” both characters develop and overcome what small flaws in judgment they exhibit despite their good intentions (Bloom 1987, p. 60).
Somewhat more heavily symbolic is Elizabeth’s journey to Netherfield, where Jane has taken ill from the rainy weather. During her trip, Elizabeth’s carriage is stuck, and not one to waste time while her sister ails, Elizabeth sets off to the Bingley’s estate, fully dressed and marching through grass and mud in order to reach Jane. In doing so, she risks her health as she traverses the landscape in similar weather.
What is most notable is that Elizabeth leaves the comfort of the carriage sent for her by the Bingleys, a testament to her indomitable pride and air of independence. Furthermore, Elizabeth leaves the coach driver, abandoning male “protection.” As she walks through, ruining her clothes, Elizabeth makes the reader “feel that the rules of propriety prohibiting solitary cross-country hikes for young ladies—rules which are concerned with the neatness of the lady’s appearance and the possible danger to her consequent upon making a practice of walking long distances alone—ought rationally to be set aside in this unusual situation” (Bloom 1987, p. 9).
Thus, Austen presents Elizabeth, a socially acceptable female, in a socially unacceptable position. Feminism is often viewed the same way, a socially acceptable idea usually presented in what are perceived to be socially unacceptable ways. Walking through the countryside, Elizabeth “breaks no moral law”; she instead makes Miss Bingley uncomfortable with her disheveled, muddied appearance (Bloom 1987, p. 10). The juxtaposition of the muddied Elizabeth and the prim Miss Bingley illustrates the disparity between the social coteries of the proletariat and bourgeois.
Elizabeth’s status as a lower-class individual is accentuated by her ragged appearance and the circumstances that forced her to walk to Netherfield. The stalled coach is representative of the stationary lower class, unable to ascend through the social ranks. Elizabeth’s walk is an accurate image of the tribulations experienced at the beckoning of the rich, and Miss Bingley’s disgust is indicative of the bourgeois prejudice to the lower class, unaware of the causes for their state and being.
Elizabeth and Jane’s marriages to Darcy and Charles Bingley (respectively) are an effective means of communicating Austen’s desire to overcome economic disparity. PP is not a fairy tale; the romances were fraught with Jane’s illness, Elizabeth’s suspicions, and the influence of Darcy’s insecurity over Charles Bingley. The human development of both Elizabeth and Darcy show Austen’s feminist sentiments of economic and social equality. Austen could have conceivably switched roles, with the Benet family being wealthy and the Bingleys the less economically-advantaged, but Austen had to work within the social boundaries of her time: men may marry women of lower social class, but women rarely ever marry men of lower stature.
Eli nor Dash wood of Sense and Sensibility
Impoverished by the unfair will and testament of her father and neglect by her newly financially endowed brother, Eli nor Dash wood is more of a social outcast than her contemporaries in the Austen literary canon. Representing the “sense” aspect of SS, Eli nor would be socially respectable were it not for her family’s economic dependence on men. From the very start, her father’s death sets her up to be one of the more independent Austen characters, though her independence is not the kind most would condone in Austen’s time.
Eli nor, her sisters, and mother find themselves without a male in the house. Following Henry Dashwood’s death, the errant son John inherits the bulk of the Dash wood estate and leaves his sisters and stepmother with almost nothing. A reflection of the times, Austen shows the reader her disdain for the reliance women have on the men of their families. The estate was not left to the three daughters or his widow; Henry Dash wood instead opted to leave everything to his only son, a testament to the patriarchal English century.
That John Dash wood was feeble-minded and a money-grubbing fool did not disqualify him from inheriting his father’s estate. More alarming are the Dash wood sisters’ natural integrity and the isolated state in which they found themselves; society did not intervene in the unfairness of the Dash wood inheritance. Austen shows the reader through this simple truth that women can depend on no one to maintain themselves.
The circumstances facing Edward’s secret engagement to Lucy Steele, the gold-digging female counterpart of John Dash wood, are ambiguous at best. Edward’s mother threatened to disown him and write him out of his rightful inheritance upon hearing of his engagement to Lucy, therein leaving everything to his younger brother Robert. Mirroring Elinor’s initial predicament, Edward is faced with losing everything unrightfully to his sibling. Edward, then, takes advantage of the situation and concedes to his mother’s will in order to remain financially stable, a measure Eli nor was unable to pursue. This is another indication of the inequities of patriarchy, a reflection of the feminist cause of social equality.
Of Lucy, Eli nor, and Edward, only Eli nor “must labor under the weight not only of her broken heart but of all the social duty” (Bloom 1987, p. 51). When tending to Marianne’s sickness, Mrs. Jennings leaves Eli nor with Lucy, which takes a comic turn as Edward is called into the room. Edward can say nothing, and Lucy is empowered in the situation as the upper class woman engaged to the love of Elinor’s life.
An entirely unique situation, the two women are at odds as the man, Edward, is left impotent, unable to say anything to change the situation for fear of losing face. Eli nor does not “labor under the weight of social duty” in the sense that she has to remain the dutiful woman, subjugated under the oppressive will of a male-dominant society. Rather, she is bound by the propriety that binds all Austen works as works of manners. In this unique struggle, Austen presents a unique woman-versus-woman situation, exemplifying a new protagonist/antagonist relationship.
Most works involve male heroes who have to conquer some evil, usually manifested by villains or circumstance. With Eli nor and Lucy, the conflict changes to a class struggle. Binding the lower class Eli nor and aspiring bourgeois Lucy is Edward, a pawn and object of affection flaunted in order to further state supremacy. For the first time, it is a man objectified and not a woman. Just as Desdemona was a spoil of social climbing in “Othello”, Edward becomes a prize shown off by Lucy in order to consolidate her social supremacy over Eli nor.
Therefore, Elinor’s marriage to Edward becomes not a social triumph of woman marrying man, but a sexual class competition between two women of different backgrounds. Lucy aims to prove to Eli nor that she cannot rise above her modest social accommodations by marrying her beloved Edward, and Eli nor can only consolidate what dignity she has left by not conceding to Lucy’s attempts to elicit a reaction. Ironically, the harder Eli nor tries to remain composed, the more Lucy succeeds; it is a social paradox indicative of the childishness of social class. In this case, Eli nor is not a feminist as she does not assert herself on behalf of her own happiness or well being, though the circumstances are of feminist nature (two women struggling over a man).
Findings: Austen’s Characters as Feminists
Catherine is perhaps the only Austen character here examined who is not a feminist. As with Rosalind of AYLI, Catherine’s inability to assert herself or address the issues surrounding her determines her not to be a feminist. While she exudes certain aspects of positive female character growth, it is not, by the strictest definition feminist. Catherine’s indifference and naïveté prevent her from assuming the feminist role; she does not go out of her way to express her chagrin at any aspect of society, though she does transcend the limits of callous upper class living.
Unlike Elizabeth and Eli nor, she fails to confront the more abrasive characters in her life. Her preference of Henry and Eleanor Tilney is more of a reflection of her own desires and preferences superceding the impetus of wealth and social class; it is not a moral choice or conscientious action made as a statement of value.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, is the archetypal feminist. She has a razor-sharp wit and does not hesitate to let her voice be heard. Her marriage to Darcy was one of her own decision, one made after an extended period of time and of her own volition. Unlike her mother, who represents the contingent of female society entrenched in the race for male domination, Elizabeth asserts her freedom as a woman, both intellectually and personally. Austen’s portrayal of Elizabeth paralleled with Darcy (revealed, in turn, at the end of the novel) enhances Elizabeth’s feminist character as she is made an equal with Darcy in her maturity and growth. Both Elizabeth and Darcy overcome their “pride and prejudice,” showing that while they are exceptional people, they both are fallible and subject to criticism at times.
Eli nor is a lesser degree of feminist. However, she exudes a reliance on men, manifested through her desire of Edward despite his secret engagement to Lucy Steele. Though not his fault, Edward was allowed free reign to commit as many social mistakes as possible. This reveals a natural inequity between male and female characters, and shows Eli nor as subservient to the desire to be wed.
So dependent is Eli nor that her desire to marry eclipses her own clarity of thought. Though Austen portrays Eli nor as having sense, Eli nor does not push the social envelope to the degree Elizabeth Benet does. Rather, the feminist struggle is forced on her through the situation left by her dead father and negligent brother. A true feminist would not have relied on the patriarchal system to save her well-being; however, Elinor’s cooperation with the social framework of the time was due to desperation and the impoverished state in which she suddenly found herself.
Comparing Austen’s Female Characters with Heroes
Elizabeth and Darcy are the most equal couplings in Austen’s novels. Their developments as people mirror each other and complement the other’s character. In a unique turn of events, Darcy assumes the hero role only after he reveals Wickham’s true nature and apologizes for encouraging Bingley to abandon Jane. Elizabeth is as heroic, evidenced by her Netherfield march through grass and mud, compromising her femininity to reach her ailing sister. She stands in the face of criticism and disdain, first by her marriage-obsessed mother and then by the disgust and disapproval of Miss Bingley.
Eli nor and Edward also mirror each other, but to a different degree than Elizabeth and Darcy. Where Eli nor remains sensible and morally upright, it can only be speculated that Edward breaks off his engagement to Lucy Steele following his mother’s threats upon discovery of the relationship. It is never intimated whether or not Edward acted on his true feelings, and what those feelings were. Was Eli nor a second choice? Edward may very well have cared for Eli nor, but at the same time devoted his energies to courting Lucy Steele. Edward actually only becomes a hero after he marries Eli nor; his status on the book reflects Shakespeare’s women and their role in drama. Edward is unique in that he exists only to develop the plot and enhance Elinor’s character.
Henry is much more assertive and morally sound than Catherine, primarily because the reader never witnesses him faltering in his character. Though a manifestation of his existence as a secondary character, Henry does not oscillate between social circles in the same manner as Catherine. As an indecisive and immature character, Catherine’s allure to the reader is that she is not a heroine; her commonplace appearance and character are intentionally offered to show the reader the spoils of integrity and the losses of character compromise. What makes Catherine an effective character is her ability to show the reader, through her action as well as inaction, the morals behind her circumstances. The freedom of the reader to infer sets Catherine apart from her fellow Austen female protagonists.
Austen as a Feminist
Austen’s work reflects a shift in attitudes toward female characters. Unlike Shakespearean plays that utilized women as a literary device, Austen’s novels put women in the forefront. Austen’s female protagonists not only featured multiple dimensions in character, they also showcased the manipulation of women by duplicitous men. Where Shakespeare’s tragic heroes like Othello were led astray by evil men or driven insane by the beguiling sexuality of women, Austen’s women are morally upright people whose good intentions are marred by the ill will of men.
NA is unique among Austen’s works, even among its contemporaries here examined. Austen takes a female coming-of-age novel and makes it extraordinary; where she could have opted to make NA an endorsement of English patriarchy, she instead focused on the development of Catherine as a human. Shakespeare’s female characters were often of a single dimension in their characterization.
No epiphany led to a significant change in a Shakespearean female character. Austen, on the other hand, presented a versatile Catherine, one who abandoned a wealthy John (not to mention a marriage into fortune) in favor of Henry, the modest clergyman. Women of the age would have swooned for a man of John’s wealth, as a woman’s life was either spent in a convent or raising children on an estate. With Catherine’s humility and genuine character, Austen places importance on marriage as an institution of mutual affection rather than one of financial gain.
In doing so, Austen shows her audience a deeper side of female characters, revealing women who grow as people with lives outside the realm demarcated by social boundaries. Through Catherine, Austen communicated hopes and dreams that went against the grain of society, but were nurtured and pursued all the same. More important than the substance of the message was the media; Austen managed to relay these subtleties within an 18th century context specifically from a woman’s point of view.
The reader observes Catherine, like her counterparts Eli nor and Elizabeth, from an entirely female perspective, delving into the world girls and women experience on a daily basis. Whether Catherine’s wild imagination and its comical hold of her logic, the protagonist’s total personality is revealed in NA’s pages. In addition, Catherine’s growth takes place in all stages of life; as an unwed girl, her friendship with Isabella dissipates despite Isabella’s introduction of Catherine into the upper class and their social coterie.
Catherine favors the meek Eleanor Tilney for the same reason she loved Eleanor’s older brother Henry; despite her meager background and the assurance that Eleanor would not help Catherine ascend social ladders as Isabella had, Catherine befriended Eleanor for her personal worth and measure. Later in life, Catherine pursues her desires as a woman desiring marriage, but does so within society’s dictates, waiting for General Tilney’s blessing.
PP showcases Austen’s opining on the challenges women face. The imagery of Elizabeth’s muddied dress presents a change in the way women are perceived; contrary to the other women in her society, Elizabeth leaves the security of her coach and hikes three miles to reach her ailing sister.
The imagery of a woman abandoning male attendance is symbolic in two distinct ways: 1) it shows a woman who has the power to determine what she wants no matter the cost, and 2) it presents a woman who shirks the socially-accepted and expected image of an effeminate woman. As Elizabeth leaves her coach, she abandons its physical shelter, risking her health as her sister had previously. In addition, marching through the grasses and ruining her dress ascribed her a sort of soldier-like image. That she was scorned upon her arrival to the Bingley estate is a testament to the social asphyxiation exerted by women upon other women; Miss Bingley is disgusted that Elizabeth would have such disdain for traditionally feminine things (her dress and male protection).
Feminine independence is a recurring theme throughout SS, and once again, Austen communicates her points in an 18th century-appropriate manner. Austen portrays women who are constantly abandoned by men, manifested first in the death of Henry Dash wood, leaving his widow and three daughters in a world of financial instability. Later, Marianne’s John Willoughby abandons her for financial reasons, leaving her while he deviates from their attachment in London. Eli nor later discovers Edward’s secret engagement to Lucy Steele, and following the end of the first half of the book, men have failed women in Austen’s world in every sense: romantically, financially, and matrimonially.
Men are made painfully mortal and are hardly the beacons of society portrayed in Shakespeare plays. Austen’s portrayal of women as dynamic characters evokes rigidity in favorable male characters; in developing and exposing all aspects of her female characters, Austen’s developing male characters become the manipulators and the literary devices that contribute to the plot and the betterment of female protagonists. The “good” male characters never change: what changes is Eli nor and Marianne’s perception of them.
Edward remains a victim of social circles, where John in turn is revealed to be exactly what everyone other than Marianne had known him to be. His debauchery and duplicity grows, culminating in his declaration of engagement to Miss Grey. Following John’s engagement to the wealthy heiress, Marianne weds Colonel Brandon, the man who all along had stood by his word and remained the static “good guy”.
Austen was a feminist writer, however limited by the constraints of her day and age. Unlike Shakespeare, whose characters’ powerful female presence may have served as a comical or tragic device in the course of a play, Austen’s female characters were the protagonists, and served no purpose other than simply to exist. Their development and existence may have been influenced by male interaction, but the women of Austen’s plays were reliant upon no auxiliary male character.
While Shakespeare created unforgettably empowered female characters, his writing did little to influence society outside writers he inspired. It is more likely that Queen Elizabeth changed the outlook of society on women, as it was under her rule that the arts, including theatre, flourished. Female empowerment, after all, does not connote feminist thought; it is only an aspect of feminism. In order for characters to be feminist, they must seek equality with men on the grounds of society, economy, and politics.
Shakespeare’s characters worked only to exemplify the patriarchal traditional values of marriage, family, and chastity. The male characters of Shakespeare, like Iago, are more likely to be truly evil yet accepted by society. Petruchio, a slovenly drunk, is far less grating to an audience than Kate, whose sharp tongue and violent outbursts earn her the title of “shrew”. Rosalind’s sexual empowerment, though unique among her contemporaries, is more a reflection of male desire than feminist assertion. The three Shakespearean characters all exist to serve in a patriarchy; none of the plays revolve around them exclusively.
As stipulated by several critics, Desdemona exists only to drive Othello insane, completing his tragedy. Kate exists solely as a challenge to be overcome in order for Lucentio to wed Bianca; she is the most understated pawn in any Shakespearean work. Rosalind, though defiant of her father in her choice of Orlando, exists solely to further her relation with him, and though indicative of feminist empowerment, her actions lead to her marriage and subsequently neutralize the power of her sexuality.
Austen’s characters, on the other hand, showcased more depth of character. All three characters examined were portrayed as challenging social norms on the three aspects of feminism previously discussed. Catherine, the most passive feminist, removed herself from the materialist social coterie engrossing her throughout her friendship to Isabella. Though her happiness relied greatly on Henry, Catherine exhibited feminist independence in her brief relationship with John. Elizabeth was the most outspoken feminist of Austen’s characters, asserting both her disdain for the institution of marriage as well as her equality to Darcy both on gender and social lines.
A true heroine, Elizabeth overcame her own “pride and prejudice” to better herself as a person, not as a woman. She relentlessly engages Darcy, never allowing him to gain the upper hand in conversation. She is so empowered that she befriends Wickham, forcing Darcy to assume a demure composition and to hold his tongue. Not only does Elizabeth change the role of women, but she also alters the fabric of society, proving that class is secondary to humanity in her acceptance of Darcy’s account of Wickham as truth. With Eli nor Dash wood, the reader is shown the potential of gender equality through her relationship with Edward.
In removing and re-introducing Edward throughout the novel, the reader can observe the effects of love removed from Eli nor; very rarely in any text do objects of affection come and go. It is a testament to Austen’s statement that women can still exist without men, evidenced by Rachel Brownstein and Carol Pearson’s contentions. What is so unique about Eli nor is how her relationship with Edward defines him as a hero. Just as Desdemona’s status as a tragic heroine is due to Othello’s madness, Edward becomes a hero because he re-enters Elinor’s life and marries her.
Ultimately, what determined the feminist nature of Austen’s characters was how they engaged their male counterparts as equals, and in the case of PP’s Elizabeth, doing so while crossing gender and social lines. Furthermore, Austen’s impact on society was more profound. As a celebrated British author, Austen’s works were radical enough to note a change in the portrayal of women, but not so heavy-handed as to be rejected by the people of her time. The discrepancies between Shakespeare and Austen’s characters reflect a shift in society; however, only Austen’s literary paradigm shift was significantly feminist in nature.
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