Representation of Women in the Works of William Shakespeare
The Elizabethan era dates back to years 1558-1603, during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This period was called the golden age of English literature, thanks to various prominent writers, developments and innovations in literature and theatre. The image of women in the works of this era was presented in a variety of ways, as fragile, innocent and restrained by society, but also as strong, intelligent and powerful human beings.
In ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’, written by William Shakespeare, misogyny is noticeable throughout different sections of the work. In the very first act of the play Hamlet says, “Frailty, Thy name is woman!” (1.2.146), by these words he states the weakness of a woman’s character and discloses his attitude towards them. One of the tragic figures presented in the play is Ophelia, innocent and pure, whose chaste is questioned by Hamlet. He asks her, “Are you honest? / Are you fair? / That if you are honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty” (3.1.103-108).
During that period, females were expected to stay pure, those who were unchaste or were caught engaging in sexual behaviour were punished and labelled as prostitutes. Moreover, Hamlet makes sexual comments towards Ophelia, “That’s a fair thought to lie between a maids’ legs” (3.2.117). By saying, “I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God/ has given you one face and you make yourselves another.” (3.1.142-144) Hamlet criticizes women who deceive men by wearing make-up to mask their ugly and therefore they are dishonest. Relations between people in those days were patriarchal, it meant that men were the leaders, superior to women. This belief often resulted in hatred for women and their frequent criticism, as it is presented in ‘Hamlet’.
In Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Hermia, unlike Ophelia, is portrayed as a strong, developed female character, but she has to deal with various restrictions on the part of her father and society. Her father, Egeus, is objectifying Hermia and tries to keep her under his control “As she is mine, I may dispose of her” (1.1.43). Women for many years continued to live as men’s possession. One of the leaders of Protestants wrote: “Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man” (Knox 1558:15). Such beliefs resulted from social attitudes that perceived the ideal woman as submissive and unable to object to the generally prevailing norms and principles. (Brown, McBride, 2005:79). Egeus controls emotional, as well as sexual life of his daughter, and he would prefer his daughter died, rather than allow her to marry the man she loves. The only choice she has is to force herself to marry Demetrius or to become a nun.
She finally decides to defy against the patriarchal world she lives in, and to run away with her true love, Lysander. Although not everything went according to plan, Hermia demonstrated her strong character and powerful autonomy, which at that time was a huge feat. High-born women were regarded as possessions passed from fathers to husbands, and were not worthy of the same privileges and rights, since “were prone to demonic and lustful actions than men and therefore, needed to be controlled, silenced and domesticated.” (Brown, McBride 2005:83). Hermias’s sudden disappearance at the end of the play can be considered as punishment and necessity to silence her, because of her rebellious behaviour.
Another woman presented by Shakespeare is Rosalind, the heroine of the play ‘As you like it’. She is an intelligent, strong and clever woman, who disguises herself as a man in order to get more freedom. While disguised as a boy, Rosalind obtains liberty, men listen to her and respect her opinion, and she is not a victim of gender discrimination anymore. Furthermore, as a man, she is finally able to watch wrestling, because in Touchstone’s opinion it is not a sport for women, “It is the first time that ever I heard breaking of ribs was sport for ladies.” (1.2.108-109). Females are, to some extent, excluded from social life because of their gender, however, Rosalind does not give up what she craves and tries to fight against injustice.
Not only Shakespeare was presenting society issues within his play. In Thomas Dekker’s comedy ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday’, the heroine deals with a similar situation that was presented in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Rose is not permitted to engage in any relationship with his lover, Lacy, since she is from a lower class. Her father constantly interferes in her life, and by saying “Too mean is my poor girl for this high birth” (1.1.11), he emphasizes there is the class barrier, which cannot be broken. Unfortunately, at that time, following the feelings was rare, and sometimes impossible, because having a relationship with a lower-class person was considered shameful.
Since the earliest times, women have been considered weaker than men and have not been granted equal rights for a long time, however, Elizabethan authors, through the heroes of their plays, created a picture of a powerful, strong and wise woman. Nonetheless, women cannot fully use their qualities and willingness to achieve higher goals, as they are restrained by society and men. Females are not always depicted as victims of the era, quite the opposite, they fight for what they desire, as Hermia and Rosalind, and they show extraordinary courage.
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