What Would William Think?

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On Monday our class spent an awful lot of time talking about whether or not we personally liked Shakespeare's plays and/or sonnets.  As an English major, sometimes I feel like good ol' Will gets talked to death.  However, one question that we never discussed was whether or not Shakespeare would have appreciated Ann-Marie MacDonald's interpretation of both his plays.  I think it is obvious that MacDonald takes a feminists viewpoint with Shakespeare's work.  But wait, wasn't Shakespeare a sexist?  Everyone in this class knows that Shakespeare never had equal male and female roles.  He also created some pretty weak and pathetic female characters.  Juliet kills herself over her love for Romeo and Desdemona is tricked and suffocated...While that may be true, I personally believe that William would have clapped his hands and had a good belly laugh in his tight little spandex pants if he was able to watch the play, just as long as he could hold out his hand to collect the money rolling in. 

Shakespeare was working as a playwright to have enough money to put food on the table and drink some good mead after the show.  He wasn't interested in being-The Great William Shakespeare-he was simply interested in putting on a good performance.

Without prior knowledge of gender differences and societal roles in England during 1500-1600s, it is easy to understand why women may regard Shakespeare as a sexist because of the way he portrays women.  In all thirty-seven of his plays, without exception, women play fewer roles and their lines never exceed their male counterparts.   For example, in Much Ado About Nothing there are fourteen male roles and four females.  A Midsummer Night's Dream stars fifteen men and six women, and Macbeth only has seven female roles compared to 25 male characters.  As David pointed out, women were not allowed to act on a stage, and as a result every female role in Shakespeare's plays was acted by a man.  Often a young boy who had not grown a beard would play the female role.  Ease of costume and thespian accessibility ultimately explains why Shakespeare used fewer female roles and why the cross-dressing humor added to his comedies and lightened the mood of a few tragedies. 

In the context of the Elizabethan Era, Shakespeare's portrayal of women is actually quite forward thinking.  It would have been impossible for him to sell theater tickets while blatantly flaunting equality for women, but he certainly gave women a voice.  I never had the opportunity to read Othello, so I don't know very much about Desmona's character, but there are plenty of examples of strong female roles in many of his other plays.

In a time when men ruled and "Father Knows Best" was not a comedy sitcom, the plot of Romeo and Juliet was scandalous.  In today's society, it does not seem odd or dramatic that Juliet sneaks out at night to meet Romeo.  Most would give her disobedience an excuse because she is young and in love for the first time.  Conversely, the sin of insubordination in 1594 was enough to make any audience viewer gasp.  Their love ends tragically but Juliet's decision to actively disobey her father is romanticized and subsequently brings the Montague and Capulets, two warring families together.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena also defies her father's authority when she runs away with Lysander. She risks her life and her reputation to follow her heart.  According to Elizabethan era societal rules, Helena should have faced dire consequences.  Not only did she disagree with her father, she compromised her reputation by running away into the woods with him.  At the end of the play, Helena does not get punished; instead, she gets exactly what she wants to the chagrin of her father.

Titania is also an example of a misbehaving woman.  Even though Oberon and Titania are king and queen of the fairies, they are still a married couple.  Oberon says, "Terry, rash wanton.  Am not I thy lord?" (II. ii. 65.). Titania is expected to submit to his authority, yet talks back to Oberon and refuses to submit to him by not giving him the changeling boy.  She has no qualms about rejoining, nor is she concerned with maintaining the "proper role" of a subservient wife.

In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is certainly not the docile lady that the Shakespearean audience would have expected from nobility.  She is intelligent and calculating.  It can be argued that her manipulation caused Macbeth's previous heroic warrior character to transform into a murderer.  She wanted to be a powerful queen, and in order to achieve her goal, she controlled her husband's emotions and convinced him to commit regicide.  Her character convinces audiences that woman can have a substantial amount of control over men.  Her evil role was powerful in the Elizabethan Era because men were already terrified of the power that the female gender possessed.  Women were constantly told that they were subservient to men and that they were not intelligent enough to attend school or a university.  These facts prove that men were simply scared of what women could do if they were given the power to do it.  The easiest way to control a person is to withhold education.  Lady Macbeth was the perfect example of what an intelligent, if evil woman could do if she set her mind to it.

The Merchant of Venice's Portia is arguably one of Shakespeare's strongest female characters.  Even after his death, her father wrote his will so that he maintained control over his daughter.  Portia was a wealthy heiress, but she did not have the power to choose her husband because of the casket game stipulation he set forth in his will.  At first she felt like a prisoner to her father's wishes, but after she meets Bassanio, she falls in love and finds the motivation to discover loopholes in the will.  Portia disguises herself as a man and acts like a lawyer to defend Antonio.  Her quick wit and intelligence prove to be unmatchable even for Shylock.  Her confidence was unchallenged and as a result, Antonio went free.  Portia was a heroine because of her intelligence, an asset that Elizabethan society adamantly tried to suppress in women.

Shakespeare was an incredible artist.  Even under strict societal rules of the time period, he was able to create daring characters that a modern reader like Constance can easily relate to and admire.  Desdemona's strength, Juliet and Helena's passionate love, Titania's power struggle within her marriage, Macbeth's manipulation, and Portia's quick wit continue to give women a powerful voice upon the stage.  

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