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TOPIC: Help needed for profile paper Shakespeare & feminism

Help needed for profile paper Shakespeare & feminism 3 years 8 months ago #6911

  • EmRo
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Hi everyone!
We're in our last year of grammar school and before we graduate, we have to hand in a profile paper, about any subject we would like. For our paper, we chose Shakespeare and especially the women in his plays. We also discuss in our paper the feminist views with regard to Shakespeare's plays. We have read three plays: Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and Twelfth Night and we discussed the feminist aspects of each play.
For our paper, we also have to do some research and we thought it was the best idea to interview some Shakespeare experts and ask them what their visions are on Shakespeare's women. Our teacher advised us to mail some websites and we happened to find this forum!

These are our questions:
· Who do you think is the most powerful woman in Shakespeare's work?
· Who do you think is the most feminist of all of Shakespeare's women?
· Which play do you think has the most modern/feminist women in it and why?
· Who do you believe is the most powerful woman in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night", Viola or Olivia and why?
· Do you think Lady Macbeth is a powerful woman or just really ambitious? Does she follow her heart or her head?)
· Who do you think turns out to be the most independent woman in Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew", Bianca or Katherine?
· In general, do you believe that Shakespeare was a feminist writer or did he just make the women in his plays powerful, for the comic effect?

It would be great if any of you could answer these questions!

Thank you in advance!
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Help needed for profile paper Shakespeare & feminism 3 years 8 months ago #6913

  • J. A. Macfarlane
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Hmm. What a lovely set of questions. Before I go any further, I should emphasise that these replies are more or less off the top of my head. However:

1) Who do you think is the most powerful woman in Shakespeare's work?

To a certain extent, this depends on what definition of power you're using: for instance, Cleopatra is objectively the most powerful, being a sovereign queen and all, not to mention how much she dominates Antony. But she's to a large extent tossed about by fate, subjected to her love for Antony, and politically ruined by the end of the play. A number of people would argue for As You Like It's Rosalind, but while she may be the most emancipated woman in Shakespeare, I'm not sure that that necessarily correlates to power. Likewise, some would think of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, who shows off great skill in saving Antonio's life; but she's completely subjected to her father's will, and never challenges it, which is rather a definition of powerlessness. You can also think of Queen Margaret in the Henry VI plays, who acts as if she's powerful but actually isn't.

A case can be made for King John's mother (the historical Eleanor of Aquitaine], but while it's a wonderful role, it's a rather short one. Whether she can qualify, being such a bit part, is again sort of up to exactly how you're looking at things. Another strong candidate is Tamora in Titus Andronicus. Tamora manages to move from being a slave to being Empress of Rome, all the while encouraging or manipulating her entourage to exact her revenge on those who have wronged her. But she is undone by the end, and she is incapable of hiding her affair with Aaron because her baby by him is black, just as in the end all of her children (except for the one by Aaron) have been murdered before she is killed herself. Whether her undeniable power counts when, in the end, she fails, is again dependant on how you're looking at things.

When it comes down to it, however, I think I'd have to vote for Volumnia in Coriolanus. Her hold over her son -- the macho-iest of macho men in a hypermasculine society -- is demonstration enough of power; but she adds to this strength, including the strength to abase herself. In the end, of course, she loses her son for whom she has done everything, but she has saved Rome by finding it within herself to do that to her son. She demonstrates that she holds the power to save the city by using her power over her son, and however much this might wound her, of the powerful women I've mentioned she's the only one who ends her play somewhat victorious (at least if we ignore Cleopatra cheating Caesar by committing suicide, which is probably best described as too little, too late).

The other option is Helena from All's Well That Ends Well, who wraps most people in the play around her little finger and continually gets what she wants. It's a different sort of power, of course, but it seems present, though there's quite a debate over whether or not she ever actually manages to convince Bertram she's worthy of him. Paulina in The Winter's Tale is also an extremely powerful woman, and makes herself so through sheer moral authority -- though depending on which critic you listen to, she may lose that by the end of the play.

2) Who do you think is the most feminist of all of Shakespeare's women?

Personally I think it's a tie between Emilia in Othello and Rosalind in As You Like It. Emilia has one of the great feminist speeches when she argues that if men cheat on their wives, wives should not be more looked down on if they reciprocate; beyond that, she suits the action to the word when she refuses to obey her husband Iago's injunction to be silent and insists on revealing the truth. Essentially she moves throughout the play from being subjugated by various patriarchal norms to rejecting them, even though she's aware this may cause her death.

(It's worth remembering that Comedy of Errors also has a very fine speech preaching a wife's rights.)

Rosalind, on the other, manages things much more subtly and interestingly. Firstly, there's her sheer independence, her insistence on dressing as a man and continuing to do so, and her general insubordination towards all forms of authority -- the patriarchal assumption would be that as soon as she meets her father in the forest, she would toss off her disguise and let him take things from there. But not only does this not happen, we don't even see her first meeting with her father. That's the sort of thing that I think makes her such a strong candidate for the title. The clincher, though, is the epilogue. As she says herself, 'It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue', but clearly she doesn't care in the slightest. This is where she becomes really interesting from the feminist point of view, because it's not just in the world of the play that she's taking on such a strong role -- it's in the real world. You have to remember that the convention of the epilogue is that the speaker, while s/he (usually he) may still be a character, is also an actor asking for applause, and therefore talking directly to the epilogue. Of course there's the whole factor that originally Rosalind would have been played by a boy, so the epilogue becomes even more convoluted -- but if we preserve the fiction, that's arguably Rosalind's most startling moment, at least in terms of gender roles.

Others to consider are, of course, Beatrice in Much Ado -- who can rival Rosalind, but does not have that metatheatrical dimension that I think puts Rosalind ahead -- and Paulina in The Winter's Tale, whose utterly rejects any form of domination that is unjust, whether it is based on gender or on social rank (or both, when she defies Leontes).

3) Which play do you think has the most modern/feminist women in it and why?

Now that's a fascinating question. Of course, it depends to a huge extent by what you mean by 'modern' or 'feminist'. As You Like It has both Rosalind and Celia, who, it shouldn't be forgotten, is a rebellious daughter. But there is usually a balance: Winter's Tale, for instance, has the taking-no-guff Paulina, but she is matched by the extremely insipid Perdita, Tamora is balanced by Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Beatrice is matched by Hero, and for that matter Macbeth balances Lady M. with Lady Macduff.

The question also depends on whether we're looking at the overall effect of the characters, or simply at numbers of parts. If we're just looking at how many, then Love's Labour's Lost is the clear winner. There are four women there, who fully enter into the game and utterly dominate it: at every point they best their four suitors. Not only do they do so while it's all still fun and games, at the end they demonstrate their moral superiority over the four men, as well as their greater patience and, generally speaking, greater strength of character. From that point of view, LLL could actually be argued for as the most feminist of Shakespeare's plays, because though they've willingly joined in with the men's game throughout, at the end the women change the rules and impose their own, and the men can find no answer.

All's Well is an interesting one to consider in this light, as it contains several very strong women: the Countess and Helena as well as Diana and the Widow. (Diana may seem a rather pale figure, but she is willing to deceive Bertram.) However, however strong Helena is, everything she does is in service to a patriarchal ideal. Her transgressions are more to do with social order than with gender roles.

The cursing scene in Richard III is very interesting from this point of view, because we've got a group of women who are so revolted by Richard that they break the patriarchal mould. But I don't think this actually counts, especially since while it may be shocking to see a mother curse her son, it's well-established that the Duchess of York never liked Richard anyway.

We should also remember that the ladies in Merry Wives of Windsor are clearly superior beings to all the men.

I'm aware this doesn't actually answer your question, but let's just say that in terms of numbers I'll go for Love's Labour's, even if that isn't necessarily Shakespeare's most feminist play -- having the most feminist characters does not necessarily make the play match that description.

4) Who do you believe is the most powerful woman in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night", Viola or Olivia and why?

The most powerful woman in Twelfth Night is Maria.

Think about it. Maria is one of the lowest-ranking characters in the play. Since she's a waiting-gentlewoman to Olivia, she's clearly not just some peasant off the estate (Queen Elizabeth's waiting-women were drawn for the aristocracy, and this went on down through the social ranks), she's still a servant. But she manipulates everyone she comes in contact with, arranges for Malvolio's downfall, has both Sir Toby and Sir Andrew on their knees to her, can bully Feste into playing the curate -- and, to top it all, gets Toby to marry her, a distinct social step upwards, given that he's a knight and Olivia's cousin. She also gets off scot-free -- she is not brought forth to answer for what she's done at the end.

By contrast, Viola is at first so terrified and then so besotted that she hides who she is and does absolutely everything that is asked of her. She is a very strong character, but that does not make her a powerful one. After all, she fails in everything she sets out to do until she reveals herself to be a woman and Orsino is able to accept her.

Olivia, on the other hand, starts out with the advantage of social position: she is a countess, and, by all accounts (no pun intended), quite good at her job. It can be argued that she uses her grief at her brother's death as an excuse to step away from the ordinary world of being wooed by a duke (the difference in social ranks would usually mean that his proposals would be immediately acquiesced to), which can be seen as a form of proto-feminism -- finding patriarchally-acceptable ways of stepping back from that societal construct. But within a page of meeting her, she is so overcome by Cesario/Viola that she essentially abdicates her strength and becomes a rather ridiculous character. Half the joke, of course, is that Cesario is actually a woman; but if Cesario were a man, Olivia's behaviour would not be any less ridiculous. Her lack of self-control leads me to deny that she's all that powerful.

5) Do you think Lady Macbeth is a powerful woman or just really ambitious? Does she follow her heart or her head?

I don't see that there's necessarily a contradiction between power and ambition (in fact, some would argue that just the opposite is true, and that ambition leads to power), or that Lady M is an either/or proposition. Certainly, she's powerful: she is very much in the ascendant over her husband. If you look at the stage history of the play, it's really quite fascinating: in the 19th century, for instance, she was often portrayed as a complete battle-axe (in fact, sometimes wielding a battle-axe) who bullied her husband into the murder. (One look at Charlotte Cushman's Lady M, and seriously, no-one would dare stand up to her.) More recently, it's become much more likely that Lady M will seduce her husband into going forward with the murder. That demonstrates a great deal of power. But while she uses her brain on her husband to get him to do the deed, the reasoning behind her doing so remains unclear. Is it due to her own ambition, or to her ambition for her husband -- which is entirely plausible, and which makes her an inadequate feminist, as everything she does in that case is for him, not for her? Both interpretations work, which is among the things that makes the character fascinating. In fact, personally I find the interpretation that she does it all for her husband's sake -- including bullying him -- much more multi-layered and interesting. But that's just me. The idea that she does so because she's trapped in a patriarchal society where she has to live vicariously through her husband is also obviously entrancing.

But what is clear is that while she uses her head to convince Macbeth to go through with the assassination, her conscience -- which may well be her heart -- has issues with her doing so. It's repressed until the deed is done. One of the cruxes of interpreting the play has to do with her fainting in Act 2 Scene 2: does she faint on purpose to keep the nobles from working out who did it (using her head) or does she faint because it strikes her what they've just done (her heart)? Both interpretations work, which is why it's difficult to answer your questions. Certainly, by the time the sleepwalking scene comes around, her conscience (heart) has caught up with her; but partly this has to do with the fact that Macbeth has started to isolate her. While once she egged him on to murder, he starts to commit massacres while wanting to keep her unaware of it. It's the great irony of her life that once Macbeth becomes king, which she has enabled him to do, she loses her influence over her. As queen, she is officially powerful, but she loses her power over her husband, who goes running back to the witches for advice instead of asking her. It could also be argued that she's an ambitious woman who achieves her ambition and then doesn't know what to do.

6) Who do you think turns out to be the most independent woman in Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew", Bianca or Katherine?

Huh. That is really very much a matter of interpretation. The general trend of the play is clear: Bianca starts out as the patriarch's perfect little daughter, and then as soon as she's married she stops, while Katherine does exactly the opposite. But this can be played in so many ways! For instance, some productions have gone all out and presented Katherine at the end as a battered woman who slavishly repeats whatever her husband wants her to say; others present her as saying it all ironically, even sarcastically -- there was a film from 1929 when Katherine winked at the audience during the last monologue, as if to say 'This is what husbands want to hear, just say it to them, it'll keep them happy'. Another, medium interpretation is often tried that found its best explanation in the BBC's 'Shakespeare Retold' series, where the Katherine figure states that she'd be willing to put her hand under her husband's foot if he asked -- but she knows he'll never ask. Either way, at the end of the play she's not independent -- the main question is whether Petruchio is independent at the end or not.

Bianca, on the other hand, can be played as either the ultimate patriarch's dream girl, or as a scheming little minx who's figured out how the system works and is playing it for all it's worth. Whether she ends up as independent is, again, entirely up to interpretation. How does she react to her sister's speech? Is her refusal to come when her husband calls a signal that she's finally done with all the standards she's had to deal with as a young girl and finally feels free to be herself, while Katherine has spent her left being herself and now realises that she has to compromise? If so, Bianca might be the more independent of the two sisters -- but it depends on how she reacts to her sister's search, and that's very much something that ends up being decided in the theatre -- with neither option being wrong. (This is what's so great about Shakespeare -- there are so many ways of doing things, and none of them are wrong.)

7) In general, do you believe that Shakespeare was a feminist writer or did he just make the women in his plays powerful, for the comic effect?

I don't think this is a fair question. Shakespeare was writing a good two centuries before anything even resembling feminism existed, so I don't think one can argue either that he was or that he was not. Secondly, by no means are his powerful women all comic.

One example should suffice for my point: Paulina in The Winter's Tale. When she challenges the King, Leontes, the latter tries to make her a joke by turning on her husband and asking if he can't control his wife. Everything is in balance at that moment: the henpecked husband is, after all, a comic figure. But Paulina essentially refuses to let the situation devolve into comedy. That is, in fact, a source of her power. She demonstrates at this moment both power over her husband (who can't stand up to her) and moral superiority over the king (which is another form of power).

Of course, one has to make a distinction between powerful women and roles that make a powerful effect on the audience. When Hermione makes her plea at her trial, it is an extremely powerful moment, but she herself is powerless at that point -- as is everyone else. It takes the gods to bring the king back to his senses, but too late. Margaret in the Henry VI plays acts like a powerful person, but however justifiable her fears of the Yorkists, she is not powerful in the scene when she is finally able to kill the Duke of York, because by her savage mockery of the duke (turning him into a Christ-figure), she abdicates moral superiority at that point, and that makes her weak.

It also seems that you're equating feminism with power, which I think is a tendencious proposition. Certainly, empowering women in a patriarchal context is a feminist act; but simply presenting powerful women is not necessarily feminist. As mentioned above, there are many powerful women, or women who seem powerful, in Shakespeare's works; but even the ones who are not comic do not imply a feminist agenda on the author's part. For that matter, even within a decade of his death some people clearly thought that Shakespeare had been rather a misogynist: John Fletcher, who co-wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen with Shakespeare, wrote a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew in which a widowed Petruchio is put in his place by his second wife. The existence of The Woman's Prize, or the Tamer Tamed does seem to argue against Shakespeare as a feminist author. What seems a more logical proposition is that Shakespeare was an eminently human author, which may help explain why he's lasted quite as long as he did. When writing The Merchant of Venice, he succeeded in placing some extremely unanswerable ethical questions about racism in the mouth of a rather loathsome racial caricature; that he was able to give his female characters equivalent parts does not prove that he was not a misogynist.

Then again, it doesn't prove that he was.

Anyhow, assuming you actually read through the entirety of this absurdly long screed, I hope it helps. (This is what you get when you decide that the best idea is to interview some Shakespeare nerds.)
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Help needed for profile paper Shakespeare & feminism 3 years 7 months ago #6919

  • EmRo
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Dear sir,
Sorry for this late reply, we had a little miscommuncation with the e-mail
Thank you very much for replying. We would like to thank you for your time and the trouble you have took to answer all of our questions. Your answers are very helpful for our paper and it gives us the oppertunity to see certain things from a new perspective.

We cannot thank you enough for your help.

Kind regards,
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