The Portrayal of Female Character Empowerment in Shakespeare’s Plays
Shakespeare makes use of gender in Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice to show, through his characters, different types of power. Power can differ depending on a person’s gender and the different ways which this power can be shown. My aim in this essay is to find out whether gender has an effect on power within the context of the plays, which are set in patriarchal societies compared to today.
Both Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice are difficult to compare as they are set in different time periods, different societies and with different outcomes. Macbeth is a brutal tragedy, while The Merchant of Venice is more of a romantic comedy. However, both plays have strong female characters, Lady Macbeth and Portia. Lady Macbeth is evil and dies because of it. Portia is more kind-hearted, which allows her to succeed at the end of the play. Upon initial reading, it is difficult to assess the significance of power and gender in influencing the outcome of the play.
Macbeth was set in the 11th century in Scotland. The role of women at that time was generally that of inferiority to men, with society focused on social hierarchy – God, the King and nobles, following the natural order. This is shown through use of armies to gain power and wealth. Women in power were rare and most had subservient roles in the household. In Macbeth, I will be discussing the female characters Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff.
The Merchant of Venice was set in Venice and Belmont. At the time, Venice was a trading centre and had many different nationalities, as shown in the play. The town of Belmont, where Portia resides, was slower-paced in comparison to Venice. In The Merchant of Venice, I will be discussing the female characters Portia and Jessica.
In Macbeth, power is shown in a number of different ways. Through heroic deeds (Macbeth), social status (Macbeth, Lady Macbeth), power over the mind (Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff) and others.
At the start of the play, Lady Macbeth is introduced by reading a letter from her husband regarding his meeting with the witches and also hears of King Duncan’s visit from Macbeth. She decides to hasten the prophecy by plotting to use her husband to murder King Duncan in order for her to become Queen of Scotland and of course his desire to be king.
To achieve her ambition, Lady Macbeth takes on a more masculine role. She is consumed by the ambition of being Queen and this desire causes her to dehumanize herself as reflected in Act 1 Scene 5 (“Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor, / Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter, / Thy letters have transpoted me beyond / This ignorant present, and I feel now / The future in the instant.”). She also shows power over her husband who in the earlier scenes is portrayed publicly as a courageous war hero. However, Lady Macbeth calls him a coward and refers to his weaknesses and uses this to manipulate him into murder. She plays a key role in planting the idea in Macbeth’s mind but goes further in Act 1 Scene 5 whether the scene ends with her indicating “To alter favor ever is to fear. Leave all the rest to me”. Lady Macbeth takes charge of the situation, taking on more of an active (male) role with her husband being the more passive (possibly female) role. This is in contrast to when Macbeth plans to murder Banquo, where Lady Macbeth is initially unaware and takes a weaker role. This shows a loss of power through a reversal of roles.
After the murder of Banquo, Lady Macbeth is able to handle the guilt that came with her actions. She comforts Macbeth and tells him that he “lack(s) the season of all natures, sleep” (Act 3 Scene 5). This is ironic in that at the end of the play, it is her own guilty conscience that causes her sleeplessness and causes her to confess to her part in the murders. She is no longer able to keep up the facade of masculinity that she has put on, and is in fact the cowardly one. The weaknesses which she had identified in her husband in the earlier scenes were actually her own and caused her downfall.
Throughout the play, ambition and power are key motivations for Lady Macbeth. Her desire for more power as queen leads to an eventual loss of power, when she loses control over herself, even confessing to her part in the murder. This is in stark contrast to our earlier impression on Lady Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth has power as she got into Macbeth’s mind, she does this why getting in his ear [refer Shakespeare]. She has power over mind rather than over the physical human. This is similar to the witches through the prophecies.
In contrast with Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff is not portrayed as evil. She is protective over her children and needs Macduff to protect them. She is the opposite to Lady Macbeth showing the clear contrast between the two characters.
When Lady Macduff is finds out that Macduff has left her in Macduff’s castle, she feels angry and abandoned. He comforts her young son, but is also being taken care of by him. Her son shows that he is brave when it comes up that his father might have betrayed them. . In this scene, where Ross is aware of what Macduff is doing, he attempts to justify Macduff’s departure to England, calling him “noble, wise, judicious”, but cannot give away the true reason for him leaving. When Ross is gone, Lady Macduff’s son says that the world is full of dishonest men. This statement is ironic in that moment later, the family is killed by some of these men.
Lady Macduff plays a small role in the play. Her gender keeps her at home protecting her children and dependent on her husband. Her power seems more apparent when she is dead. After Macbeth murders her, he cannot murder her husband (Act 5 Scene 8 – “Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped”) because of the witches’ prophecy. (Act 4 Scene 1 – “laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth”) Lady Macduff’s power you could say is over Macbeth’s mind because of this he does not want to fight Macduff who then kills him.
Lady Macduff was warned by Ross and the messenger to escape, but she says “Whither should I fly? / I have done no harm. But I remember now / I am in this earthly world where to do harm / Is often laudable, to do good sometime / Accounted dangerous folly. Why then, alas, / Do I put up that womanly defense, / To say I have done no harm?” as it is Macduff who has deserted Macbeth and gone to England to raise an army against him. She abdicates responsibility indicating she is not in the world of men.
Macbeth’s killers get to her first, and murders Lady Macduff and her children. She leaves a world under the tyranny of Macbeth where there is uncertainty where “to do harm” is praiseworthy (Macbeth) and to do good is dangerous (Macduff).
In The Merchant of Venice, Portia lives in Belmont and is a beautiful, intelligent and wealthy heiress; and in many ways is therefore powerful.
Portia is smart and unlike Lady Macbeth is not evil [refer to Shakespeare]. She is an heiress however she only inherits if she marries. It seems in the period the play is set it is her husband who would inherit her father’s fortune. This reflects the status of women at the time. The 3 caskets used appear to show even though her father has passed away he still has power or control over her. Even over the suitors he has power because if the suitor chooses the wrong casket he cannot marry. This limits the number and type of suitors.
Portia dresses like a man to go to court in Venice to defend Antonio. She can only enter the court based on the recommendation of her uncle a well-known lawyer. The males have control [refers to Shakespeare]
In The Merchant of Venice power is shown in a number of ways. Through money (Shylock, Portia’s father and Antonio), religion (Shylock and Jessica she elopes and becomes Christian), court authority (Portia saves Antonio’s life), love (Portia and Jessica), the grave (Lady Macduff and Portia’s father) and the power over the mind (Portia).
It appears that gender is important in terms of which form of power a person can use. Lady Macbeth has power over Macbeth’s mind to be Queen by using the prophecies. Power for males is more external while for women it is more internal. Men can show this through heroic acts (Macbeth), money and position where societies are more male dominant. This is why Portia and Jessica dressed as men so fit into society and have power outside the home.
She does not have control over her own life as her father’s will forces her to choose a potential suitor using caskets. She can marry only the man who chooses the correct one of three caskets — one gold, one silver, and one lead; one contains her portrait and that is the lucky casket. She is tired of the stream of suitors who are after her and her wealth. It seems none of her suitors has decided to risk choosing one of the caskets, which is probably good for Portia given none are of her liking.
As a woman she seems to be bound by her father’s will and does not have the power to make
this decision on her own. This is not the case of Bassanio he did “receive fair speechless messages” from her eyes. Portia appears controlled especially in front of her potential suitors but shows anxiety and confusion when Bassanio arrives at her mansion and is choosing one of the caskets. She suggests delaying for “in choosing wrong, / I lose your company” making sure he knows that she about him. At this point she is at her most vulnerable indicating “This house, these servants and this same myself / Are yours, my lord: I give them with this ring.” She has fallen completely in love.
She gains control of herself and controls the situation until the end of the play. This is reflected when she disguises herself as a male in order to save Antonio’s life in court. This change also symbolizes a change in her power. When she pretends to be a male, she has power in court and this gives her the power to save Antonio’s life. She attempts to convince Shylock to have mercy on Antonio, out of kindness, as she knows the outcome if he took the matter to court.
However, as she has power to control the fate of some characters in the book, she uses this power for good by convincing the Duke not to execute Shylock. She then convinces Antonio to have mercy on Shylock and not take all of his wealth. This reflects her character and her ability to forgive. She passes this on to other characters in the play, showing her command over others.
At the end of the day we see Portia’s power in full force when she shows a letter from Padua, which explained all that was going on, and she continued to explain and entertain them inside. This highlights her intellect and courage to travel to Venice to speak honestly to Shylock about mercy, to speak for what she believes in.
Jessica is Shylock’s daughter, he is a Jewish moneylender. Lorenzo falls in love with her and elopes by disguising her as a boy which angers Shylock as does Jessica’s theft of some of Shylock’s money.
In Act 2 Scene 3, Jessica is introduced. She is talking to her father’s servant and indicates “Our house is hell” and thou a merry devil / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.” She also give the servant a secret letter for her lover Lorenzo whom she plans to elope with. This means becoming a Christian and renouncing her faith as a Jew. Jessica’s comments portray her father negatively, effectively a villain of the play. Whilst in Act 2 Scenes 4 and 5, Shylock’s concern is with his possessions and obsesses about locking and guarding the house, which he entrusts to Jessica, while Jessica plans to elope dressed as a page boy carrying a torch at the banquet and gold and jewels. She closes the scene with:
Farewell; and if my fortune be not crossed, I have a father, you a daughter, lost.
This highlights the sacrifice she is making for love which is in contrast to her earlier negative comments.
She was embarrassed of being dressed as a boy when eloping with Lorenzo, but he makes the situation romantic when saying that “Cupid himself would blush.” Along a similar theme, other characters, Portia and Nerissa also disguise themselves as boys later on in the play, as a lawyer and a clerk. Being disguised as a boy or man gives them acceptability and power. For Jessica this seems less the case but it highlights the link between gender and power. This is probably more so for the period in which The Merchant of Venice is set versus today.
Power comes in many forms. Lady Macbeth had power over Macbeth despite is heroic acts and victories. She even taunted him over his courage and his other perceived weaknesses. However this power changed through the course of the play. She deliberately took on a more masculine role which involves controlling or suppressing her underlying feelings and behaviors. It seems the weaknesses she attributes to Macbeth are in many ways her own weaknesses which she reveals later in the play.
This power over Macbeth changes when Macbeth reveals his plot to murder Banquo which Lady Macbeth is surprised by. She later struggles to suppress the guilt she has and in fact confesses to her involvement in the murders. She becomes more feminine and can no longer mask her ill intent. In many ways, both she and Macbeth are morally corrupted by the desire for power. She is using Macbeth as an instrument to become Queen of Scotland, which never lasted.
In understanding Lady Macbeth I feel although she possessed a soft power in that she is able to influence Macbeth’s actions to a point; there was also an element of fate. The fate as reflected in the prophecies of the three witches, which is important to consider as it appears drives the outcomes. Power was clearly important but without the right fate it is as if you are pushing again god, against the inevitable, a natural order.
While in The Merchant of Venice, both Jessica and Portia dress as males. This gives the greater acceptability and power. Both characters retain their femininity with Jessica falling in love with Lorenzo and Portia with Bassanio; both defying the wishes of their fathers which takes real courage.
Portia maintains her independence throughout the play. She does not rely on others to handle issues and stands up for what she believes in. Similar to Lady Macbeth, they both take on male personas, either figuratively and, or literally. However, Portia’s power mainly comes from her wealth, intellect and beauty, which is shown throughout the whole play. Being tested in love and in defending Antonio, she appears to have moral power, based on honesty and good intent.
Power is interwoven with gender. The characters I have analyzed are of strong women, who were still able to exercise power in their own ways, different maybe than if they were men. I recognize being a woman can make it difficult to be powerful when social structures are more male-dominant.
If power is abused and used for evil instead of good, it can corrupt a person, regardless of gender. If gender matters how does this affect each power situation in the plays? Simply there appears to be male situations and female situations.
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