Presentation and Treatment of Women in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure
Examine the presentation and treatment of women in Shakespeare’s play ‘Measure for Measure.’ Consider other writers’ views in your response.
When Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure around 1604, society was very sexist towards females, and men were seen as the stronger gender, women were regarded as subservient to men. They were seen as only being useful for sex, caring for their husband and children and doing all the household chores. In this play, Shakespeare uses the typical stereotypes of the way women are presented in literature. Bertens suggests these stereotypes include, “an immoral and dangerous seductress, the woman as cute but helpless, the woman as an unworldly, self- sacrificing angel.” These stereotypes can be reflected upon characters within Measure for Measure. Isabella could be considered as the “self-sacrificing angel” as this suggests that women should yield to please men; this is seen in the play when Claudio asks his sister to let him live even though he knows it will affect her vocation as a nun. Mistress Overdone could reflect on the “immoral seductress” as she doesn’t follow society’s moral guidelines, exchanging money for sex.
In this play, women are represented in a variety of ways, such as prostitutes, religious icons and deceitful characters; however, the treatment of them remains the same as they are all seen to be disrespected and degraded to a lower status than men. Each of the women in the play is restricted and dominated by the forces of a male dominated society. Although the women in the play are vastly different, their social status is determined by the men in their lives. They can be seen as victims of patriarchal control, for example, Isabella, a novitiate nun is blackmailed; Mariana is abandoned for not having a large enough dowry; and Julietta, who is pregnant is compromised by the attitudes and judgement she will face if she has an illegitimate child. Also, women are seen as the weaker sex to men, Angelo states to Isabella that “women are frail,” this shows the negative attitudes towards the female characters of this play as they could be seen as incapable or too delicate and inadequate. Women in this play seem to be used for one thing only: sex. The place where Measure for Measure is set, Vienna, is filled with drugs, violence and most of all, prostitutes. Mistress Overdone is the owner of a successful brothel where men gather to use women for sex. This accentuates the fact that women were degraded, used purely for a man’s selfish needs.
In addition to this, Isabella, a novitiate nun is blackmailed by Angelo, he offers her Claudio’s life in return for sex. This shows the lack of respect for women and religion at this time as Angelo is asking Isabella to sacrifice her virginity for his own selfish reasons. It could be argued that Isabella can be seen to use her womanly charms to her advantage. When speaking to Angelo, she attempts to seduce him which could be interpreted as hypocritical as she criticises Claudio for having sex outside of marriage but she is seducing men, this contradicts her role as a novice nun. Nevertheless, Isabella is confident that Angelo wants her and she is playing on this to try and save her brother’s life, “I had rather give my body than my soul.” Isabella is tempting Angelo to imagine her body, making herself seem more sexually desirable to him. When speaking to Angelo, Isabella takes the role of a submissive woman, portraying the views that women are weak, “For we are as soft as out complexions are,” here, Isabella is exploiting her femininity and beauty so she may seem more desirable, she is also presenting herself as “soft,” making Angelo feel dominant. Similarly, Isabella’s strength is accentuated when she claims that she could denounce Angelo by revealing his immoral scheme to the world, “with an outstretch’d throat,” this is Isabella suggesting the damage that it could do to his reputation is distressing. This shows how women were always expected to obey men and additionally demonstrates how women adopted and achieved their form of dominance and independence.
In the 17th Century, virginal women were respected as they were considered honourable and innocent. This attitude draws attention to the contrasting characters of Isabella and Mistress Overdone, as Mistress Overdone owns a brothel, she is considered as being lower class compared to Isabella who is a novitiate nun. An example of this is when Isabella declares to Angelo, “There is a vice which most I do abhor and most desire should meet the blow of justice,” this could show how much Isabella disagrees with the sin that Claudio has committed. Mistress Overdone is supportive of Claudio as she could be seen to sin frequently, so she may be used to this behaviour, this putting emphasis on the contrasting characters of Mistress Overdone and Isabella. Shakespeare could have been trying to present the different types of women in this period, the respectable, pure religious icon and prostitutes who are presented as unhygienic and not worthy of admiration. Conversely, it could also be seen that they are very similar in a way that they are both strong women which differs from societal views at this time. This can be seen when Mistress Overdone responds to the first gentleman that tries to mock her, “Well, well there’s one yonder arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all,” this shows how she is strong and not intimidated by men. This same confidence is reflected by Isabella in her language use whilst talking to Angelo, “Sign me a present pardon for my brother or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the word aloud what man thou art.” Isabella is quite serious in her threat to Angelo, proving that she is a woman of intelligence and power, much like Mistress Overdone.
It would also be legitimate to suggest that the character of Mariana is presented as isolated and broken after Angelo’s treatment of her. Angelo left Mariana due to her dowry being lost at sea, this shows that men only wanted women for their wealth and for the women to obey the men and serve them along with their family. “But mark how heavily this befell to the poor gentlewoman.” The fact that Mariana is presented as a damaged, “poor” woman and Angelo is shown as a successful, powerful man could demonstrate the contrasting gender representations. Women are shown as pathetic without a man in their life but a man is still shown as authoritative, even without a woman by their side. This echoes the strong attitudes towards women in the Jacobean era.
Although Julietta plays a minor part in the story, the treatment she suffers through is quite reflective of men’s views of women as a whole in the Jacobean era. Julietta, who is pregnant, is kept in terrible conditions as she was pregnant outside of marriage, it is stated in the play that the only reason she hasn’t been executed is due to her pregnancy. Usually, if a woman is pregnant, they should be cared for, yet, the treatment of Juliet is due to Angelo’s patriarchal control, highlighting how women were seen as the minor sex, leading to the degrading treatment of them. Consistently, it would also be reasonable to suggest that this male dominated society could be reflected through the use of stichomythia, Isabella uses the phrase “please you to do’t” then in Angelo’s speech, he uses the similar phrase “pleas’d you to do’t.” This could suggest that Angelo is attempting to claim his dominance over Isabella, showing that he is in control. This accentuates this idea of women’s place in society at the time.
Examining the play as a whole, women are presented as having limited roles, particularly in a discussion between the Duke and Lucio, “Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?” In this, they are saying women without a title of either “maid, widow or wife” are nothing and they assume that without this title, women are prostitutes or the equivalent. Additionally, it could also be seen that the men of the play, such as Claudio and Angelo are able to disobey social customs, with varying levels of success, however it is difficult to find a woman who challenges social prescriptions. For example, Mariana appears to be coerced into following the Duke’s “bed trick” to seduce Angelo as she lacks any alternative. Her most reasonable motivation for sleeping with Angelo is to legitimise the relationship that he neglected. Isabella is also controlled by societal expectations, she seems to be panicked when her two roles as both sister and nun demand conflicting commitments. Correspondingly, the views of women in the Jacobean era suggest that women were expected to obey their ‘superiors’ who in this time, would be men and this is reflected in the play. In Measure for Measure: the women are presented as either religious icons, widows or sexually transgressive females. They are treated as inferior to men, following the roles that the men set for them. Whilst the constraints faced by female characters may not be described in much detail within the play, other characters behaviour makes it clear that women in Measure for Measure are lacking in great power and influence. Lucio’s contemptuous attitude towards prostitutes, for example, indicates there is hardly any room to deviate from the roles that are assigned to them by the male dominated society that they live in.
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