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Essay/Term paper: Tamed shrews and twelfth nights: the role of women in shakespeare

Essay, term paper, research paper:  The Taming of the Shrew

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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 do not relieve the situation as well.

Throughout the whole of the play, her father treats her as a commodity to be bargained

away to whoever is willing to take her. Granted that he doesn"t view Bianca as anything

more than a commodity as well, but he clearly favors her over Katherine as unspoiled

merchandise. Bianca has a rather small role to play in the whole of things. She seems to

be the archetypal young lady of quality. Her lack of understanding for her sister causes

them to quarrel and results in Bianca taking the physical worst of it, whilst Katherine is

blamed for her belligerent nature. The entire presence of family in the play gives

Katherine her motivation and explains much of the whole situation in the dialogue.

Contrast this with the isolated Viola. She is shipwrecked and has no one to connect with

at all. Her situation is implicitly understood by the Shakespearean audience as being an

awkward one for a young woman. Lacking anyone to provide for her, she is forced to

take measures to protect herself and her estate. The understood reason for her deception

is to insure for herself, and it is clearly stated by Viola at the end of Act I .Scene 3.

Obviously, the two women are very different individuals. Yet they share the

same characteristics that Shakespeare imparted onto many of his heroines. Each is

resolute and knows her own mind. Though society demands certain behavior from them,

they each chose to undertake a different path to deny that behavior. The self is promoted

over the public image. Yet, each is not averse to returning to society"s established roles if

it serves their needs and wants. The entire concept of choice and free-will, of which

Shakespeare was so fond of, applies as equally to his feminine characters as to his

masculine. It is this very important point which establishes the conclusion that

Shakespeare did indeed create realistic and meaningful female characters.

Sources Cited

Peralta, T. "The Taming of the Shrew." English 28: Shakespeare"s Plays. Cerritos

College. Norwalk, CA, Fall semester 1996.  

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