Shakespeare: A Comparison Of The Role Of Women In His Plays, And In Society At The Time

2041 words - 9 pages

If we were to look at studies today, we would have to say that feminist criticism is, unfortunately, not yet a methodology; these critics can be new, psychoanalytic, historical, or textual. Although feminist critics are, broadly, feminists, they are usually male as well as female, political as well as scholarly, theoretical as well as practical. Unlike Marxism or psychoanalysis, feminism lacks the single influential figure and the foundation of theoretical texts from which basic assumptions and methodology are created. Feminist criticism of Shakespeare is also deficient in its own unique subject matter. Even though critics of later literature brought women writers back into the canon, ...view middle of the document...

The first, compensatory criticism focuses on assertive women. On the powerful, prominent, eloquent women characters in Shakespeare's plays; we celebrate their virtues, compensate for traditional criticism, which minimizes or stereotypes them. These include the shrewish-ness of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, the manipulative power and witty assertiveness of heroines like Rosalind and Portia, and, of course, Cleopatra. This may also lead to the reinterpretation of the characters and roles of apparently more subordinate women, by stressing the healthy sexuality, realism, and courage of Desdemona and Emilia.We can also call attention to the extraordinary power Gertrude has in Hamlet to draw, deter, manipulate, or obsess all the men in the play - not only Hamlets father, Hamlets son, and Claudius but also Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. We can look at Ophelia's madness as dramatically and psychologically revelatory, and not just pretty and passive. Ophelia presents to the court of Elsinore fragmented images of her own desires for Hamlet and her fears of his sexual betrayal ("Men will do't if they come to't/By Cock, they are to blame" [4.5.61-62]), punning references to her father's death ("They bore him barefaced on the bier" [4.5.165]), signs of the court's corruption (as she gives the courtiers fennel for flattery, columbines for cuckoldry, daisies for dissembling), and of the values that have been renounced by the Court ("God be at your table!" [4.5.44]).The second, justificatory criticism, emphasizes what the first mode neglected - women's inferior position and the frequency of male power in Shakespeare's plays and in the period. In this, we must acknowledge that women characters are as often victims as heroines, that they are in the end defined and also define themselves in relation to men - most often to men they love. This justifies, or at least accounts for, the inadequate roles of women. In this, we see that the heroines are silenced by the marriages at the ends of the plays, that the bravery of Emilia and of Desdemona is helpless to prevent their deaths, that Lady Macbeth evaporates as a character when her connection with Macbeth is lost, and finally, that even Cleopatra dies for love. Ophelia, until the mad scene, is subjugated and submissive, repeatedly an object of male rebuke, exploitation, and control. Her chastity is controlled by her father and brother control; and Claudius uses her to trap Hamlet. Reinforcing earlier mixed messages, Hamlet labels her a whore and orders her to a nunnery.The third, transformational mode examines the relative position and authority of men, women and the relations between culture and literary texts. It loosens the interaction between the confining culture and the witty heroines, between the idealization and humiliation of women, between patriarchal structures and female sub-cultures. The goal is not only to balance the omissions and inadequacies of traditional criticism by supplementing it...

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