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Essay on Shakespeare's Marginalization of Women

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William Shakespeare has often been criticized for his depiction of women in his plays and stories. And for good measure; his plays' female leads are often antagonists, or at best secondary to their male counterparts. While this is quite simply a byproduct of the time in which Shakespeare lived, it nonetheless raises questions about the English author's ideologies and personal beliefs.

Check out this sample essay on the Shakespearean marginalization of women. It offers a great deal of insight into some of the author’s most famous plays, such as Hamlet and Twelfth Night, and comments on why the famous Englishmen chose to write they way he did.  If you would like to buy a custom essay sample on a Shakespearean work or any other topic, consider working with a talented writer from Ultius.

The Shakespearean treatment of women

The depiction of women in literature has varied significantly in relation to the historical context and authorship. In writing many works that incorporated the roles of women in society, Shakespeare’s works have been influential in using women as scapegoats to idealize broader themes of marginalization and complicity. Mainly, works like Hamlet, Twelfth Night and The Tempest depicted women in a negative light with respect to how feminine qualities and sexuality were either tools of deceit or inherently negative facets of womanhood.

To begin, it is important to realize that Shakespeare’s audience reflected entertainment oriented towards males. Indeed, Shakespeare’s ubiquitous usage of sexual themes and plots defines the extent to which males are going to have a strong interest. Jami Ake argued in “Glimpsing a ‘Lesbian’ Poetics in ‘Twelfth Night’” that Shakespeare profoundly uses sexual themes in order to “solidify elite, male homosocial bonds” (Ake, 377). Essentially, many works that share sexual themes are tailored to represent a male perspective. These male perspectives work by personifying women as having traits that represent male frustration. One of the major themes explored that shares this facet is the concept of Petrarchan, or unattainable love. This theme is evident throughout Shakespearean works and very clearly depicts women as being the paradigm of male frustration and angst. 

Hamlet - Love as an example

Indeed, it is important to realize that Shakespeare’s personifications of women as deceitful are also based on the notions that love and feminine traits are painted negatively. For tragic works like Hamlet, this is especially evident as the main character is often portrayed as being weak on the basis of having female traits. For instance, his cowardice when walking past Claudius is indicative of his passivity, an attribute that is associated with women. In fact, James Stone argued in “Androgynous ‘Union’ and the woman in Hamlet” that Hamlet spent the greater portion of the play trying to rid himself of feminine qualities like cowardice, sexuality and desire through suicide (Stone, 72-27). Surely, in using male characters to characterize feminine traits as being negative dimensions of Hamlet, Shakespeare was subtly reflecting his attitude towards women and their role in frustrating males. Aside from using this character in order to depict women’s traits as negative, Shakespeare also focused on perverting Gertrude’s presence. 

Related Sample: Read a sample on Hamlet: The Youthful Interpretation.

The portrayal of Gertrude idealized women’s roles as being that of sexual desire and the evils that stem from it. As Hamlet struggled to rid himself of his innate feminine qualities that he exhibited throughout the play, Shakespeare spared no mercy in depicting Gertrude as one of the more despicable characters in any of his plays. For example, Stone characterized Gertrude’s presence as having no limits to the brink of human disgust: “nothing is taboo, including incest, adultery and murder” (Stone, 72). Indeed, the role of Hamlet’s mother was that of a woman who married her husband’s brother after he was killed. The driving force behind Gertrude’s behavior could have easily been political, social or for another reason; however, Hamlet’s interpretation and Shakespeare’s depiction of the story based the event on Gertrude’s lustful behavior. To exemplify, Stone remarked that “Hamlet curse[d] the lust that hasten[ed] Gertrude to an incestuous remarriage, a lust that patently belie[d] her masking self-representation…” (Stone, 75). The negative connotations that are ascribed to Hamlet’s mother transcend any notion of her being a good wife, mother or family oriented individual. By being portrayed as driven by lust and desire, Shakespeare effectively illustrated that man’s frustration with women stems from their inability to reason and think critically without adhering to their personal desires.

Twelfth Night

In the Twelfth Night, women are portrayed in a much more deceitful and racy light, albeit much more subtly and without murderous implications. For instance, the whole notion of love is perverted in itself. While the Petrarchan conventions of wooing are followed directly by Orsino in his pursuit of Olivia, the relationships carried on the by the women and other character represent manipulation, seduction and power more than love. David Schalkwyk argued that the concepts of love and service are bound to this play because “power and desire-have replaced love” (76). For being a Shakespearean Comedy, themes of power and desire surely carry much more serious undertones. The much more serious dimensions of this play reflect Thomas Clayton’s characterization that this work is more adequately labeled as a “quasi-Dark comedy” (354). Of course, the darkness is in that the Duke is fooled and subject to chasing a woman while she is also being pursued by the Duke’s serviceman, Viola. The fact that the women stereotypically occupy roles of deceit and male frustration highlight the notion that women are portrayed in a negative light. The male audience is much more inclined to perceive this work as a story of male deceit and treachery as opposed to one of comedy.

Of course, women are also personified as being inherently deceitful and racy for the fact that Shakespeare introduced homoerotic concepts into it. Again, despite the story being primarily focused on being a love story of longing and wooing on behalf of the Duke, Shakespeare found an interesting way to negatively portray women by including what Ake remarked as being  “pastoral poetics of female desire in Viola’s conversation with Olivia” (Ake, 376). Because Viola was a woman, she openly had opportunities to display her emotional feelings towards Olivia, despite the Duke’s intentions. Again, the context of love, desire, eroticism and relationships are skewed towards being done in deceit, treachery and at angst for the male involved. Just like Hamlet’s mother practiced her desire in a form that made her look immoral, the same applied to Viola and Olivia’s relationship. The tendency for Shakespearean works like these to perverse romance and love exemplifies the notion that the author surely attacked traits that fall into the realm of womanhood.

The Tempest

In addition, The Tempest is another great example that illustrates the same perversion of core womanly traits and societal reinforcement of gender roles through literary depictions of women. Throughout the play, the notion of romance is used as driving force for driving critical plot pivots where the action takes place. However, the marginalization of romance, and simultaneously women, is a common literary trait of Shakespeare’s works in which women bear the pain of having love become a facet of tragedy or absurdity. For example, Katrin Trüstedt argued that “romance has…become an object of attack, a reference point that is taken up, transformed, and turned into something of a grotesque, absurd, comic, witty kind” (Trüstedt, 350). While this is a literary tool is effective in developing the plot and creating a more interesting story line, it is nonetheless indicative of Shakespeare’s common themes that he brings up. By consistently utilizing womanly facets of behavior and emotion like romance, love and desire for the sake of depicting deceit and schism, the author paints a negative portrait of women in which they are almost always subject to criticism and moral indignation. So, even while the character Miranda is depicted as being the paradigm of chastity and virtue, the fact that romance as a genre and facet of Shakespearean themes is perverted shows that women still inherit a marginalized role, one way or another. 

Whether central or secondary, romance or womanly roles are a common facet of Shakespeare’s plays. Even when love, romance and womanhood is not related to the central issue in the story, women are marginalized. The author finds opportunity to create problems or moral issues at the expense of women. This is analogous to a comedian making jokes in which a secondary theme or detail always oppresses a certain demographic. Nonetheless, it is indicative of the essential role that women did play in the aforementioned plays. Even when the play takes the form of a comedy or tragedy, women are subjected to personifications that express negative traits. Whereas masculinity can embrace many different traits and values, the final analysis of women among the plays represented a clear polarization in terms of broad literary themes; in short, women represent “the opposition between romance and reason” (Salingar, 120). Of course, the latter refers to logic, manliness and clear thinking while the former is indicative of clouded judgment, lust, treachery and womanhood.

Related Blog: Gender socialization still exists today, read this post to learn more about it.

Even when utilized as a secondary theme, womanhood was ultimately degraded as a consequent. This drastically affected women’s roles because their behavioral patterns within the story did not matter. In effect, if the whole concept of being a woman is implicitly or explicitly tied into the play as a core theme, then it is irrelevant if the woman carries herself with piety and justice. The cultural connotations of love, romance and eroticism as being associated with the female sphere of behavior still taint the viewer or reader’s perspective of women as being in a negative light. Consequently, womanhood in itself is arguably attacked in almost every facet of Shakespeare’s plays that were analyzed. This theme would surely validate the former notion that Shakespeare catered his plots to fit the archetype of male audiences. By depicting women’s actions or qualities as explicit or implicit forms of negative behavior, the role of the woman is wholly marginalized.

What does this say about Shakespeare?

As we have seen, Shakespeare’s themes arguably suggest that his audience was catered towards providing entertainment for men. The strong use of sexual content for his plays was suggestive of love and desire as a central facet of his work. From there, the womanly associations to romance and love related to stories like Hamlet where feminine traits that Hamlet had were personified as being negative. Lustful depictions of treacherous women like Gertrude epitomized the notion of a sick and incestuous woman who was a character subject to moral judgment. Twelfth Night also utilized sexuality and male frustration as a core theme because power and desire were placeholders for genuine love.

Additional reading: Shakespeare also utilized dark Machiavellian themes in his writings.

These womanly attributes were then further perverted as Shakespeare introduced notions of deceit and homoeroticism on behalf of women. Either way, while this may have not been the central facet of the play, women’s roles were surely marginalized. Finally, while The Tempest offered only one woman as a testament of virtue and subservience to men, the theme of romance became an object of attack that still marginalized a core womanly attribute. The consistent negative connotations towards women throughout Shakespearean plays truly glorified the negative perception of women as an inherent literary theme.

Did you enjoy this sample essay? You might be interested in our sample essay on A Midsummer's Night Dream.

Works Cited

Ake, Jami. "Glimpsing a "Lesbian" Poetics in "Twelfth Night"." Studies in English Literature 43.2 (2003): 375-394. Print.

Clayton, Thomas. "Shakespeare at The Guthrie: Twelfth Night." Shakespeare Quarterly 36.3 (1985): 353-359. Print.

Salingar, L.G.. "The Design of Twelfth Night." Shakespeare Quarterly 9.2 (1958): 117-139. Print.

Schalkwyk, David. "Love and Service in "Twelfth Night" and the Sonnets." Shakespeare Quarterly 56.1 (2005): 76-100. Print.

Stone, James. "Androgynous "Union" and the Woman in Hamlet." Shakespeare Studies  23.71 (1995): 71-99. Print.

Trastedt, Katrin. "Secondary Satire and the Sea-Change of Romance: Reading William Shakespeare's The Tempest." Law and Literature 17.3 (2005): 345-364. Print.

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