Tamed Shrews and Twelfth Nights: The Role of Women In Shakespeare


Shrews and Twelfth Nights: The Role of Women In Shakespeare

It is curious to note the role of women
in Shakespearean literature. Many critics have lambasted the female characters
in his plays as two-dimensional and unrealistic portrayals of subservient
women. Others have asserted that the roles of women in his plays were prominent
for the time and culture that he lived in. That such contrasting views
could be held in regards to the same topic is academic. It is only with
close examination of his works that we are able to suppose his intent in
creating characters that inspire so much controversy. Two works, Taming
of the Shrew, and Twelfth Night, stand out particularly well in regards
to Shakespeare’s use of female characters. After examining these two plays,
one will see that Shakespeare, though conforming to contemporary attitudes
of women, circumvented them by creating resolute female characters with
a strong sense of self.

The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s
most famous plays, and has weathered well into our modern era with adaptations
into popular television series such as Moonlighting. For all the praises
it has garnered throughout the centuries, it is curious to note that many
have considered it to be one of his most controversial in his treatment
of women. The "taming" of Katherine has been contended as being excessively
cruel by many writers and critics of the modern era. George Bernard Shaw
himself pressed for its banning during the 19th century (Peralta). The
subservience of Katherine has been labeled as barbaric, antiquated, and
generally demeaning. The play centers on her and her lack of suitors. It
establishes in the first act her shrewish demeanor and its repercussions
on her family. It is only with the introduction of the witty Petruchio
as her suitor, that one begins to see an evolution in her character. Through
an elaborate charade of humiliating behavior, Petruchio humbles her and
by the end of the play, she will instruct other women on the nature of
being a good and dutiful wife.

In direct contrast to Shrew, is Twelfth

Night, whose main female protagonist is by far the strongest character
in the play. The main character Viola, has been stranded in a foreign land
and adopts the identity of her brother so that she might live independently
without a husband or guardian. She serves as a courtier to a young, lovesick
nobleman named Orsino. Throughout the play she plays as a go-between for
him to the woman he loves. In the course of her service, she falls in love
with him. Only at the end, does she renounce her male identity and declares
her love for him.

Both plays portray female characters unwilling
to accept the female role of passivity. Katherine rebels against this stereotype
by becoming a "shrew", a violently tempered and belligerent woman. Viola
disguises herself as a man for most of the play in order to preserve her
state of free will. Katherine endures reprimands, chiding, and humiliation
in the course of her chosen rebellion. Viola enjoys life and position as
a man, and does not reveal who she is until the last scene of the play.

Curiously enough, both women voluntarily accept the roles that society
would impose on them again at the close of the plays. It is important to
note though, that they freely resume these roles, and that they do so out
of their own sense of self. For each woman, it is a personal choice based
on their desires. In the case of Katherine, she realizes that propriety
is as much a signature of self-respect as respect for others, and she has
a husband whom she need prove nothing to because he already respects her.

In the case of Viola, she is in love with the young Orsino. Having found
the man she would be willing to wed, the pretense of her male identity
is no longer necessary, as she desires to be his wife.

Having seen the similarities between Viola
and Katherine, one should take notice that they do have different circumstances
regarding their behavior. The reason for Katherine’s shrewish demeanor
is never given in the play, though many directors have interpreted it as
an act to discourage suitors, much like Hamlet’s feigned madness. Others
have attributed it to sibling rivalry between Katherine and her sister

Bianca. In any case, no clear rationale is given to the audience as to
the reason for Katherine’s behavior. It is enough to say that the actions
of her father and sister