Shakespeare’s Women – Breaking the Mold

Shakespeare discards the notion of the subservient female and introduces us to women of intelligence, wit, power, and character

A still from Cleopatra

While it would not be accurate to say that Shakespeare attempts to embody all of the characteristics of the ideal Renaissance woman in all of his female characters, it is certainly accurate to say that he introduces us to female characters who go against the grain of the Elizabethan notion of what a woman should be. Shakespeare discards the notion of the subservient female and introduces us to women of intelligence, wit, power, and character. One writer of the Elizabethan era compared a woman with an education to a madman with a sword: “…you just couldn’t tell what she’d do with it!” Shakespeare not only provides some of his female characters with a sword but shows that they can wield it quite effectively. This article will focus on four of Shakespeare’s women: Lady Macbeth, Cressida, Rosalind, and Cleopatra. In doing so, we will explore how Shakespeare “breaks the mold” of the common Elizabethan perception of the female.

Before we examine the characters, it is important to provide a brief summary of these commonly held perceptions. A woman in sixteenth-century England had no vote, few legal rights, and an extremely limited chance of an education, much less a job. Freedom enjoyed by an Elizabethan woman was granted, and taken away, by her husband. He was the prince with power, and his wife was the loyal, loving subject. Both church and state supported this premise of wifely inferiority and it got a further endorsement from the law. When a woman married, she traditionally lost control over her property. Any legal loopholes that might have left some doubt as to women’s inferior status were amply filled in by the teachings of biology and the theory of the four humors, which stated that women’s bodies had a greater proportion of the cold and moist humors. This meant that women were passive, timid, and hesitating-fit to be dominated by men. When the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe died in 1601, his funeral eulogist praised him for “keeping his sons to their studies and his daughters to spinning and sewing”. As we will see in the four women we are about to examine, they hardly fit into this mold.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth Wikimedia Commons
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
Wikimedia Commons

We shall begin with Lady Macbeth who can be described as a formidable version of a woman who dominates her weak-willed husband. However, it would be wrong to see her as a monster. On the contrary, she is perhaps more than usually feminine. She is conscious of her woman’s breasts, her mother’s milk; knows “How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me”; and, when she thinks to carry out the murder herself, fails because Duncan reminds her of her father. Macbeth calls her his dearest “chuck”, and she speaks, when sleepwalking, of her “little hand”. In more modern terms, she might be described as an “iron butterfly”-delicate yet strong.

It is apparent from the moment we meet Lady Macbeth reading her husband’s letter that she is not going to conform to the role of a subservient female. When she cries out to the spirits to “unsex” her, and when she brags that if she had vowed to do a murder she would follow through, we see that she does not conform to the ideal of the nurturing woman. Even if it were her own baby she “…would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you / Have done to this”.

The resourcefulness and self-control of Lady Macbeth throughout the play is extraordinary, and hardly resembles the character of a dainty woman. It is only in private that she shows her weariness, and only after her mental collapse that she relents control. This does not, however, negate the power and fortitude that she has shown to this point.

Cressida - Edward J. Poynter Wikimedia Commons
Cressida – Edward J. Poynter
Wikimedia Commons

Cressida is a completely different personality from Lady Macbeth, but no less strays from the accepted Elizabethan ideal. In Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, the female character is less crafty, less self-possessed, less sensual, and less intelligent than Shakespeare’s Cressida. Here again, Shakespeare takes a hammer to the mold. Cressida’s soliloquy at the end of Act 1.2 reveals her as a sophisticated young lady who is expert at manipulating the emotions of men. We later find her wit to be far superior to that of Pandarus as they banter while watching the return of the Trojan soldiers.

Cressida’s skill at the love game is derived from the knowledge that with her surrender will come a loss of power. However, Cressida retains her power through her unfaithfulness to Troilus and her subsequent games with Diomedes. Muir implies that Cressida’s uninhibited behavior on her arrival in the Greek camp may perhaps be ascribed to a reaction from the strain of being put on a pedestal, but whatever the reason, we see a woman who is in control of herself and, more often than not, in control of those around her. If there were ever a character that wandered from the Elizabethan ideal of a subservient, uneducated, yielding woman, it is Cressida.

A still from Cleopatra
A still from Cleopatra

Perhaps the two women of these four who most dramatically usurp the power of a male-dominated society are Rosalind and Cleopatra. I believe that one of the reasons for this is that significant parallels can be drawn between these two characters and the most powerful “real” woman of her time-Queen Elizabeth. Before we explore these parallels, we should first take a brief look at the background of this powerful English monarch.

While most Elizabethan women were spinning and sewing, Queen Elizabeth was proving that a woman was more than capable of mustering a kingdom-and showing herself to be an almighty exception to the rules that governed women’s lives. Elizabeth realized early on that marriage meant a loss of power, so she never married. Once the scepter was in her hand, she was determined not to relinquish it. The Pope later expressed surprise at Elizabeth’s formidable authority: “She is only a woman… and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France… by all”.

The most obvious parallel between Elizabeth and Rosalind is in donning the mask of masculinity. Much of the lavish praise that gushed over the queen in her lifetime exalted her “masculine” virtues of courage and intellect. Much like Rosalind, Elizabeth almost had to become a man at times in order to get anything done. Rosalind certainly understands how the game is played-“…in my heart / Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will / We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside”. Elizabeth knew as well as Rosalind that she had to maintain that swashing and martial outside. To call attention to womanliness in the wrong way would have been political suicide.

The obvious parallel between Elizabeth and Cleopatra is that they both had the disadvantages of being a woman ruler in a male-dominated court. Elizabeth gained control of the court by capitalizing on the fact that she was a woman-initially a young and attractive one. She, like Cleopatra, had to play a double role, alternating between the earthly woman and the divine majesty. If this is an accurate depiction of the young Elizabeth, then she shared Cleopatra’s practical understanding in winning the court over with her “feminine wiles” and flirtatiousness, but both women rose far above the ordinary definitions of the feminine.

In the scene where Cleopatra questions the messenger about Octavia’s physical appearance, Shakespeare may have been trying to show an example of her pettiness. According to Irene G. Dash, recent scholarship has revealed that this behavior runs parallel with that of Queen Elizabeth. If Shakespeare’s audience knew of these incidents, this scene would have served to strengthen the impression that he was describing a real queen-a woman of power. Dash also points out that the people of Shakespeare’s time wrestled with the problem of Elizabeth’s refusal to marry. Surely, Shakespeare must have incorporated this experience into his portrait of Cleopatra. Queen Elizabeth ruled far beyond her “salad days” and never completely relinquished control of power. Through analogy, Shakespeare would have been reinforcing the image of a known woman monarch.

Rosalind and Ceiia Wikimedia Commons
Rosalind and Ceiia
Wikimedia Commons

Now that these parallels have been drawn, we will explore the characters of Rosalind and Cleopatra in more depth. As You Like It is Rosalind’s play as Hamlet is Hamlet’s. As Harold Bloom denotes, Rosalind is Hamlet’s equal in wit, intellect, and vision of herself. As the heroine in the comedy, Rosalind exemplifies the best of virtues to be found in a Renaissance English woman. She is intelligent, warm, witty, and strong of character. Touchstone and Jaques are poor wits compared to her, and her androgynous allure can appear so attractive, her virtuosity of wit so engaging, that all our attention becomes focused on her as if nothing else matters. Her ability to talk circles around Orlando seems sufficient proof of her complete triumph. The sense of Orlando being mastered creates a one-sided relationship in which the woman has control.

However, it would be a mistake to bestow the “scepter of Arden” on Rosalind just yet. Shakespeare does not completely ignore the sexual politics of his time. As Bloom points out, in order to love, Rosalind must reveal herself to Orlando, but in giving up the disguise, she also gives up the power it symbolizes. The liberation that Rosalind experiences in the forest has built into it the conservative countermovement by which, as the play returns to the normal world, she will be reduced to the traditional woman who is subservient to men. This presents a paradox of sorts because Rosalind is the architect of the play’s resolution, but the resolution phases out the power she has wielded. But does it really? Her submission is explicit but not ironic when she declares: “To you I give myself, for I am yours”. Bloom proposes that the casting of herself in the role of male possession is all the more charming because she does not have to be forced to adopt it; her self-taming is voluntary.

In the forest of Arden, both men and women are permitted an expansion of sexual identity that transcends restrictive gender rules. Just as Rosalind gains access to the traditional masculine attributes of strength and control, Orlando gains access to the traditional female attributes of compassion and nurturing. It is important to note, however, that Rosalind’s possession of the costume and the power that goes with it is only temporary, whereas Orlando does not have to give up the emotional enlightenment that he has experienced in the forest. This causes Bloom to raise the question: What is Shakespeare’s relation to the sexual politics in As You Like It? Is he taking an ironic and critical stance toward the patriarchal solution of his characters, or is he heavily invested in the solution himself?. I tend to lean toward the former because Shakespeare’s women in Love’s Labor’s Lost do not give up their independence in the end. Perhaps the two elements of female power kept managable, and male power kept loving provided a solution that was, at the time, “As Shakespeare Liked It”.

Cleopatra, to me, is the most complex character of the four women discussed in this essay, due in part to the dramatic range of emotions that she displays. Cleopatra is voluptuous, ostentatious, conscious, boastful, intelligent, haughty, tyrannical, fickle, tender, and loving. All of these traits combine to form an extremely complex woman and her complexity is further exemplified when Octavia is introduced as a dull foil to her. Shakespeare presents the prototypical acceptable woman in Octavia, and the independent woman of self-sovereignty in Cleopatra. Shakespeare suggests that a woman of power has the unusual opportunity of combining her sexual and political selves. Cleopatra commands others and is sovereign over herself.

The image of Cleopatra riding the great beats of Antony’s heart, “…in the scuffles of great fights hath burst, / The buckles on his breast”, sets forth an image of Cleopatra as conqueror and he her captive. This, however, oversimplifies the situation. As Bloom shows us, Cleopatra is a study in contrasts. She loves Antony, yet sends him word that she has killed herself. She can be teased by her serving women, but threatens her messenger with a knife. She grandly speaks of having Herod’s head, trades bawdy jests with her eunuch, dreams of lovers who were kings, taunts Antony, flatters Caesar’s servant, outwits Caesar, and quarrels with Enobarbus. She is what she is because of her complete lack of resemblance to a typical, acceptable woman.

Nevertheless, since she lives in a patriarchal society, like Rosalind, she may still be limited by stereotypes for female behavior and subject to the rules established by the dominant group. In fact, Shakespeare creates male characters who express the views of society. They challenge her right to self-sovereignty. She is a “strumpet” and a “gypsy” to them. Enobarbus frequently denigrates Cleopatra as a person of power. Enobarbus offers his perceptions of Cleopatra when he is joking with the group surrounding the soothsayer; he suddenly warns, “Hush, here comes Antony”. Bloom submits that Enobarbus’ reference to Cleopatra as “Antony” reflects his own critical attitude toward this woman whose strength and self-confidence continually assaults and confuses him. It is exactly these traits, though, that make Cleopatra who she is-a sexual being and a person of power. She sees no need to “unsex” herself to prove her role, and she ultimately uses the male perception of a woman to outwit Caesar who plans to take her back to Rome as a hostage. Intent on dying, she knows that she must persuade Caesar of her desire to live if he is to be careless about guarding her, and she achieves her goal with cunning and genius.

The character of Cleopatra suggests the potential for women if they could have self-sovereignty and function as complete people, not in a sexless world where, like Queen Elizabeth, they must choose between marriage and career, but in a world where true mutuality might exist between men and women. Shakespeare forces us to observe Cleopatra as the one character who spans the entire drama. Capable, politically astute, and imaginative, it would be laughable to see her as a character who should lose her identity in a hierarchical society because she is a woman.

In conclusion, it would be fair to say that while Shakespeare does, in fact, break the mold of the commonly held perception of an Elizabethan woman, he does not allow his characters to completely avoid the bias of a male-dominated society. I believe that this only serves to lend more authenticity to the characters. Perhaps, as Bloom suggests, Shakespeare speculated with an ideal, wondering what might result if the concept of marriage and gender were not hierarchical, but more equal. What if the kind of relationship he envisioned meant mutual respect between two equals, like Antony and Cleopatra, who also loved one another? Would we not then have a richer society because one-half of it was no longer limiting the role of the other half? If this is the ideal that Shakespeare had in the back of his mind, then it is indeed, “As We Like It”.

Source by Rick L. Huffman

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