The position of women in two of Shakespeare’s Plays
Published 17 Jan 2017
The position of women in two of Shakespeare’s Plays `As You Like It` and `Merchant of Venice`
We found that women in these works of Shakespeare, on the whole, are winning and charming. They occupy a dominant position in the action of the play and are almost always in the forefront. Ruskin’s remark is amply justified in respect of these two works of Shakespeare as well as for his other comedies: “Shakespeare has no heroes, but only heroines.”(56) It is certainly not justified for his tragedies and histories. This sort of dominance of women is nearly absent in Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies.
The tragic heroines are helpless, pathetic figures, and play comparatively low profile roles as compared to the towering personality of the hero: Ophelia, Desdemona and Cordelia are all helpless, pathetic figures. The heroines of these two works of Shakespeare, on the other hand, are bright, sparkling, beautiful and witty and hold the central stage in the action of the play. Despite this beautiful characterization, Shakespeare is influenced by the cultural tradition of the male-dominant Elizabethan society in the portrayal of Portia, Rosalind, Celia etc.
Critics have called Portia, the heroine of “Merchant of Venice”, as one of the most perfectly developed female characters of Shakespeare. S. A. Brooke has called her, “the queen of beauty”. (234) She possesses physical beauty as well as the beauty of character. She is so beautiful that suitors come to woe her from distant lands, “For the Four winds blow in from every coast, / Renowned suitors” like so many Jasons in search of the Golden Fleece.
Shakespeare has endowed Portia with nobility of soul and beauty of heart and mind, along with physical beauty. She is an ideal woman, the embodiment of the very essence of womanhood. She is dutiful, loving and self-effacing as a perfect woman should be. Despite all these qualities, Portia remains passive in the domestic and emotional domain. She has no identity of her own and all her domestic and amorous matters are directed by her father. His father endeavors to fashion the life and attitude of Portia according to his own wishes. He considers his desires as her desires and tries to tailor her approach by various means. She obeys the will of her dead father, and does not violate, even a little, any of the conditions of the lottery of the caskets.
Though it is hard on her that she should have no freedom in the choice of her husband, yet, like a dutiful daughter, she obeys his wish and acts accordingly. She loves Bossanio, but still gives him no hint regarding the right casket. She loves him but her maidenly modesty prevents her from expressing that love frankly, she speaks hesitatingly, contradicts herself, and thus reveals her heart with all reserve and restraint becoming in a maiden. In this respect, her conduct is in sharp contrast with that of Jessica, and she shines much brighter as a result of this contrast.
So “Merchant of Venice” is a manifestation of gender discrimination prevailing at that time. It clearly refer to sexism that is not only inclined toward male chauvinism but also a degraded social status of women in the contemporary society. All the major female characters of the play epitomize this gender discrimination and manifest female victimization. These characters represent different classes and illustrate that gender discrimination and maltreatment of women were not subjected to social class as it prevalent from rascals to royals.
Despite this male chauvinism and conformity to Elizabethan social norms, the women in these plays of Shakespeare have been given clear-thinking minds. They are frank, impulsive and practical in their thoughts and behavior. Rosalind and Portia, though both of them are rich in witty and eloquent discourse, are frank and simple in thought. They are never deceived by their own eloquence and never forget the ends they have to achieve. Portia eloquence and and wit can be best demonstrated by these lines;
The quality of mercy is not strain’d. /It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. (Act IV Scene 1)
When Antonio’s life has got to be saved, it is Portia who rises to the occasion, displays marvelous resourcefulness, energy, determination and practical ability, while her Lord and Master can do nothing but stand helpless and talk. She arranges all the necessary details with an almost masculine self-confidence and practical commonsense. She conducts the case with perfect ability and ease. All take her to be a clever lawyer.
She leaves Shylock no loophole for escape and uses he trump card only when he has shown himself entirely merciless and brutal. She can hold her own against the cleaver Shylock unlike Ophelia who failed to understand the clever and disguised entreaties of her father for destroying her lover for Hamlet. We found that these heroines speak on the impulse of the moment, and simple unadorned truths come out of their sweat soft mouths. There is no Hamlet-like conflict within their souls they don’t spend endless time in purposeless procrastinations. These heroines think, decide and take action.
The intellectual ability of Portia has led critics, like Hazlitt, to accuse her of being unfeminine, masculine and pedantic. They point out that it is immodest and masculine on her part to appear in the court in man’s clothing. She has the boldness to face the entire court full of strangers. This criticism is however unjustified. Her truly feminine nature is seen even in the trial scene. Only a true woman, with a deeply religious nature can make the famous, “quality of mercy” speech. This action of Portia speaks volumes of feminine self-sacrifice, and boldness in times of crisis.
Jessica also plays an important role in the drama” Merchant of Venice”. She helps in the progress of story. But her role is in stark contrast to that of Portia’s. She is in a sense a foil to Portia. She is undutiful and treacherous towards her father, killed him by stabbing him on his back, while Portia is a dutiful daughter who obeys the wishes of her father to the very latter. In the conduct of her love affair, Jessica is bold and forward, indiscreet and unmaidenly.
It is she who proposes the elopement, and arranges for it. Portia’s conduct towards Bossanio, on the other hand, is right and proper, such as is desirable in a maiden. Jessica’s home was like a “hell” to her, where she is denied of all freedom and all pleasure. Life in such a home would be intolerable for any one, and so Jessica may be excused if she revolts and elopes with Lorenzo whom she truly loves.
Of all the characters in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”, Rosalind is the most elaborately and vividly drawn. She is one of Shakespeare’s most convincing and life like characters, and she dominates the whole play in which she figures. She is a vibrant and dynamic personality, pulsating with a zest for life. Her gaiety and playfulness are infectious; and her talk as well as her outlook upon life has an invigorating effect even upon the aged and the feeble to whom she imparts an illusion of youthfulness.
Rosalind is not the type of the girls who is ready to accept the things lying down. She knows her rights and defends them with utmost power and energy. She spiritedly defends herself against Frederick’s accusations. He banished Rosalind from her court and palace. Rosalind questions him for the reason. On listening Frederick’s answer she replied spiritedly that her father was no traitor and that, in any case, treason is not something that sons and daughters inherit from their fathers.
Rosalind’s intervention in the Silvius-Phebe affair shows not only her wit but also the stern side of her temperament, and her capacity for admonishing others and administering a rebuke. This intervention shows also spirit of initiative. She feels so upset by Phebe’s callous attitude towards Silvius that she takes an initiative with the object of bringing about Silvius’s union with Phebe. She tells Phebe that that she has no right to insult her wretched lover or to exult over his distress. She scolds Silvius for being too servile to Phebe. Her wit is apparent in these lines. “You foolish shepherd, wherefore do you follow her/like foggy south puffing with wind and rain?
You are a thousand times a properer man/than she a woman.’Tis such fools as you/that makes the world full of ill-favour’d children. ‘Tis not her glass but you that flatters her, / and out of you she sees herself more proper/Than any of her lineaments can show her.”(Act 3, Scene 5, Lines 49-56) Eventually, Rosalind does bring about Silvius’s union with Phebe. This episode shows her spirited and confident nature that wants to help others. She plays important role in the life of others.
Shakespeare has made Rosalind with a strong stuff. She has full control over her feelings. This is apparent from her love relationship with Orlando. The strength of her character is apparent from the fact that despite the intensity of her passion for Orlando, she does not betray her real identity to him and also keeps her feelings under proper control. A weaker woman would, after exchanging a few jokes, have given way to her passion and would have melted in her lover’s arms. But Rosalind did not do that. And yet, when she learns a about Orlando’s wound from Oliver and sees Orlando’s blood-stained handkerchief, she swoons. In this situation we recall her words to Celia: “ Dost thou think, though I am caparisoned like a man, I have a doublet and hose in my disposition?”(Act III, scene II, lines186-188).
The importance of Celia in the play “As You Like It” cannot be denied. She is absolutely essential to the play. It is true that the main plot of the play would remain unaffected even if there were no Celia in the story. But, with Celia absent, the play would lose one of its greatest attractions. It is, indeed, a pleasure to meet a simple-minded, good hearted, and jovial person like Celia. Apart from that, Celia serves to offset the excellent qualities of Rosalind. Celia possesses all of Rosalind’s good qualities, but in a lesser measure, so that Rosalind shines all the more by being in the company of a lesser light. Besides, Celia reinforces the theme of love at first sight.
Celia’s presence enhances the interest and appeal of all those scenes in which she appears; and she is almost inseparable from Rosalind, as she had told her father. In the earlier scenes of the play, Celia adds to the dramatic effect when, for instance, she intervenes on Rosalind’s behalf, or when she suggest the idea of running away from the court and leaving the city in disguise. Towards the close of the play, her love for Oliver introduces a new sub-plot so that the play becomes all the richer.
So women characters in these plays are an epitome of traditional feminist expressions of the age that require chastity, compliance and acceptance of male dominancy from women. Additionally Shakespeare further induced a spirit of inpiduality in them by inculcating certain behavioural competencies and habitual formations in them i.e. intelligence, witticism, frankness and a passion to move ahead in life. Furthermore, women are portrayed with glowing colors and not negative terminology or abuses are attributed to them. Shakespeare’s characterizations of females in these plays are paradoxical as it challenges as well as complements the contemporary social traditions and norms.
- Ruskin, John. Sesame and Lilies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.1996.
- Brooke. Stopford A. Ten Plays of Shakespeare. London: Constable.1905.
- Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Penguin: New York. 1996.
- Shakespeare, William. Merchant of Venice. Penguin: New York. 2002.