Role of Women in Shakespeare’s Plays

1 January 2017

William Shakespeare (baptized 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) was an English poet William Shakespeare and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet and the “Bard of Avon” (or simply “The Bard”). His surviving work consist of 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and several other poems. His plays have been translated into every major language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.

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Scholars have often noted four periods in Shakespeare’s writing career. Until the mid -1590s, he wrote mainly comedies influenced by Roman and Italian models and history plays in the popular chronicle tradition. His second period begin in about 1595 with the tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” and ended with the tragedy of “Julius Caesar” in 1599. During this time, he wrote what are considered his greatest comedies and histories.

From about 1600 to about 1608, his “tragic period”, Shakespeare wrote mostly tragedies, and from 1608 to 1613, mainly tragicomedies called romances. “William Shakespeare” – Wikipedia) Shakespeare’s plays are famous for many different reasons. The plot, characterization, dialogues, the use of metaphors and symbolic tone and the supernatural element found in many plays. Here the characterization with respect to women’s role in Shakespeare’s plays is discussed. The role of women varies in each play. The women evil found in Lady Macbeth, beauty and wisdom found in Portia, daughterly love and sacrificing nature found in Cordelia and the weak nature and dependence on others found in Gertrude, each one of them has her own uniqueness.

Role of Women Two main characters i. e. Lady Macbeth and Portia are discussed to highlight the role of women in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “The Merchant of Venice”. Both these characters are very important and main female characters in these plays. Lady Macbeth Lady Macbeth is a fictional character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c. 1603–1607). She is the wife to the play’s protagonist, Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman. After goading him into committing regicide, she becomes Queen of Scotland, but later suffers pangs of guilt for her part in the crime.

She dies off-stage in the last act, an apparent suicide. The character’s origins lie in the accounts of Kings Duff and Duncan in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), a history of Britain familiar to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth appears to be a composite of two separate and distinct personages in Holinshed’s work: Donald’s nagging, murderous wife in the account of King Duff, and Macbeth’s ambitious wife in the account of King Duncan. Lady Macbeth is a powerful presence in the play, most notably in the first two acts.

Following the murder of King Duncan, however, her role in the plot diminishes. She becomes an uninvolved spectator to Macbeth’s plotting, and a nervous hostess at a banquet dominated by her husband’s hallucinations. Her fifth act sleepwalking scene is a turning point in the play, and her line, “Out, damned spot! ” has become a phrase familiar to most speakers of the English language. Analysts see in the character of Lady Macbeth the conflict between femininity and masculinity, as they are impressed in cultural norms.

Lady Macbeth suppresses her instincts toward compassion, motherhood, and fragility — associated with femininity — in favor of ambition, ruthlessness, and the single minded pursuit of power. This conflict colors the entire drama, and sheds light on gender-based preconceptions from Shakespearean England to the present. (“Lady Macbeth” – Wikipedia) Ambition, Cruelty and Guilt Lady Macbeth is far more ambitious than her husband is. When she hears about the prophecies by the witches, she becomes determined to kill King Duncan.

This ambition is very clear from these lines of Act I, Scene V: “Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,   And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full   Of direst cruelty! ”(Shakespeare) She urges her husband, Macbeth to kill the king by saying “she had given suck, and knew how tender it was to love the babe that milked her; but she would … dashed its brains out, if she had sworn so to do it…” (Shakespeare: Act I, Scene VII) This was the height of her ambition and cruelty.

Later on, after the murder, she could not resist her guilt and walked in her sleep, washing her hands murmuring “Out, damned spot! ”(Shakespeare: Act V, Scene I) Then, she committed suicide. Portia Portia is the main female character who is dominated all over the play. She is one of the most beautiful and perfect heroines of Shakespeare’s plays. Young and Beautiful “Portia, the heroine of the play, is the lady of Belmont, richly left by her father. She is cultured, refined, young and beautiful. The fame of her beauty spreads far and wide and a number of lovers are eager to marry her. (Naque: 127)

As Bassanio says: For the four winds blow in from every coast Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks Hang on her temples like a golden fleece, Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strond, And many Jasons come in quest of her (Shakespeare: 14) Intelligent, Resourceful and Practical: Masculine Self Confidence She is intelligent and prompt, can take quick decisions, and forms intelligent plans of action. It is she who directs Bassanio to go to Venice to the help of his friend, and as soon as he is gone, she decides to go to Venice herself to save Antonio.

She handles the situation with great resourcefulness and presence of mind. A servant is at once sent to Padua to get legal advice from a cousin, it is given out that she is going out to some monastery to pray there for the success of her lord, the house is put under the charge of Lorenzo and Jessica, and then promptly she assumes the masculine disguise of a lawyer and with Nerissa, also disguised as a lawyer’s clerk, at once leaves for Venice. Through the trial, she conducts herself with rare masculine self-confidence. There is no masculine shyness and diffidence. (Naque: 128) Her Complete Womanliness

The complete and perfect womanliness of her character is very impressive. Her womanliness appears at its best in the casket scene when Bassanio became successful in choosing the right casket. Her surrender before love is the natural and exquisite self-expression of the steady and balanced soul. For herself she would not be better than what she was; and yet for Bassanio’s sake, she would be “trebled twenty times herself”. She knew that she was “an un-lessoned, unschooled and unpracticed”; but she was Happy in this, she is not so old But she may learn… Happiest of all that her gentle spirit

Commits itself to you to be directed As from her lord, her governor, and her king Surely, it is not the heiress of Belmont that speaks in these lines of felicity and grace – but a woman, the innermost core of whose being has been filled through and through with the becoming spirit of love. (Siddiqui, Syed: 20) Conclusion Comparing both Lady Macbeth and Portia, both are very different from each other. Apparently there is no similarity between them except some similarities. Both are beautiful, shrewd and they have hidden masculine qualities but Portia is the protagonist and Lady Macbeth is the antagonist.

Both are standing at two extremes i. e. Portia at the “good extreme” and Lady Macbeth at the wrong or “evil extreme”. These two extremes show that how diverse female characters are there in Shakespeare’s plays.

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