Frailty, thy name is woman!
When looking at the way Shakespeare portrays women in plays like The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, it seems that despite the fact that the “ideal of women’s chastity, silence, and obedience was proclaimed far and wide in early modern England” the women of Shakespeare are strong and outspoken, still ultimately yielding to male power, but firm and cunning enough to outwit the opposite sex in the most critical situations. But does Shakespeare create champions of the fairer sex as a commentary on the strength and the untapped potential of women as equals to men, or is his temporary empowering of female characters merely another element of comedy, something comparable to the harsh treatment of outsiders, like the cruel handling of Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice? Perhaps it merely goes beyond the normal, moral comprehension of this day and age to find the idea of a strong, willful woman to be so scandalous as to be hysterically funny, but when we look past our modern interpretations, or more specifically, those that have been handed down from the nineteenth century, when “editions of Shakespeare were produced especially with the female reader or listener in mind.” and “any passage ‘that might wound a feminine sense of delicacy’ was cut” we begin to see the seeds of something much more insidious and misogynistic in Shakespeare’s original work. Viewed within the context of their original environment, expertly crafted as productions designed to appeal to the strongly male-dominated society of Shakespeare’s time, a time when women weren’t even allowed on stage, we as readers (and viewers) cannot deny that plays like The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night were in fact written as uproarious comedies, and that perhaps a large part of their comedic value was included in poking fun at willful women who were brazen enough to step beyond the confines of their roles in society and take on or challenge the well-defined roles of the male world.
A classic example of a female character that Shakespeare has given license to “act outside her role” as a woman (at least, until she is “appropriately” reined in at the end of the play) is the lady Olivia of Twelfth Night. When she falls in love with Viola disguised as the young page Cesario, she works hard to try to woo him, taking on the role of the hunter where she would normally be the hunted. This gives her incredible appeal as a strong and empowered woman, as does the fact that she has no real reason to reject the advances of the Duke Orsino– in fact she even admits that he’s quite handsome, saying that he is “of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth;” (1.5.261) as well as “in dimension and the shape of nature / A gracious person” (1.5.263-264) but like Hermia of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when faced with the love of Demetrius, Olivia refuses to back down and submit to the man she doesn’t want. She is strong, and she rules over her household with an unquestioned hand, with servants at her beck and call and even her live-in uncle (an older, male relative, who by all accounts should be in charge) firmly under her thumb. Even while the strong, shipwreck surviving Viola, or the wise and dangerous lady Portia of Merchant of Venice are forced to go into disguise in order to protect themselves as they wade in among the dangers of the male world, Olivia steps forth undisguised and unchallenged, as firm against the tide of the misogynistic elements of society as the Elizabethan era’s own “Virgin Queen” was. Like Shakespeare’s Olivia, Elizabeth too stood as a pinnacle of female power, refusing all suitors as she sat at the helm of her nation (not just her household) with control over many older males, including members of the clergy and the military, unwilling to yield her power to any would-be king.
In the end however, despite all of Olivia’s power and feminine flame, despite all her similarities to the “Virgin Queen” who never fell to the wiles of suitors or ambitious men, the Lady of Illyria is easily undone, and her end is perhaps fitting for the eyes of an audience of Shakespeare’s era, reducing her to a mewling kitten-like shadow of her former self, one who cries out “What shall you ask of me that I’ll deny” (3.4 219) in the hopes of winning the love she now desperately seeks to see returned (instead of valiantly denying or hunting it.) It takes only the easy agreement of Viola’s brother Sebastian (who Olivia doesn’t really know at all when it comes right down to it) to reign her in and put her under the knuckles of male domination (where members of the audience at that time in history would probably argue she truly should be) as the wife of a penniless “gentleman” who is most certainly beneath her. Whether this is a veiled critique, stab, or worse– hope for the future inserted by Shakespeare in regards to the “Virgin Queen” and her refusal to marry, we can only guess, though I still think it bears mentioning as something to consider when we read Twelfth Night and witness first hand the way the mighty Olivia is brought low by a young man who, like so much refuse and dead seaweed, was found and brought into the city by an enemy of the ruling elite after he washed up on the shore of Illyria.
Another woman who bears mentioning as an empowered transcender of roles that is raised and torn down by the poetic machinations of our playwright is Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who shines brilliantly, if briefly, in the comedy entitled The Merchant of Venice. While Jessica is, like Olivia of Twelfth Night, very assertive when it comes to love, she takes her feminine power a step further and defies her father’s wishes outright, going so far as to forsake and rob him blind in the same moment that she turns her back on her entire faith. In this sense, she appears far stronger than Olivia, or more probably, simply more reckless, as she immediately gives over the power she has seized (and the male clothing she temporarily dons) when she submits to marrying the Christian gentleman Lorenzo and taking his faith as her own. Her rise and fall as a woman of strength and power is brilliant, but short-lived, and though the repercussions of her actions extend beyond the scope of the play and can only be guessed at, Shakespeare seems to indicate with lines like the candid warning of Lancelet Gobbo: “I fear you are damned both by / father and mother” (3.5.14-15) and the sad mood she acquires by the end of the play, that she will not be spared the dose of “comeuppance” an audience of Shakespeare’s time might feel she surely deserves.
But Jessica is not the only woman in The Merchant of Venice who transcends her seemingly “expected” role in society as a demure and submissive woman and stretches her wings in the forbidden world of men– another, perhaps even brighter star is the lady Portia of Belmont, a woman of such renowned beauty and status that men are willing to risk the fate of their very lineage for a chance to win her hand. True, she stays strong to her dead father’s wishes when it comes to the decision of who she will marry, but no one is more cruel or manipulative in the legal arena than she is. Even though the intended audience of the play would probably feel that Portia has no business entering the male-dominated world of law, it turns out that she knows the intricacies of the law better than anyone, even the Duke of Venice himself. When the events of the play become most critical, and it looks as though no one can keep the Jew from taking what is his and killing Antonio in the process, only Portia has the wit to dissuade and defeat Shylock on his own ground, and she does so mercilessly, if not with some of the most bizarre, questionable and even second-rate legal loopholes any fool might have managed to fish out of his hat on a moment’s notice. While we might be inclined to see this triumph through a modern lens and idealize it as an inspirational, empowering message penned by a Shakespeare whose aim was to change the perception of a male-dominated audience by writing Portia as the young woman who saves the entire male community in its most desperate hour and proves the agility, intelligence and untapped potential of her entire sex, it is equally possible that his true motive was much more sinister, or perhaps merely fitting, for a comedy of it’s time. After all, what could be more humorous than a clown or a fool who stands up dressed in obvious disguise and easily leads on, dazzles and outwits a whole chorus of fools who, for all intents and purposes, would be expected to know the ins and outs of the law better than anyone, much less a woman, even if she is the lady of Belmont. She even inspires other women to transcend their normal roles, as evinced by the way Nerissa immediately follows in Portia’s footsteps when the two decide to test their future husbands’ loyalties by skillfully manipulating them into giving the pair of “legal men” their rings. Eager to trick her husband-to-be in much the same manner and with the same deftness that her lady does, Nerissa even seems to have the excited tones of a good student when she says aside to Portia “I’ll see if I can get my husband’s ring, / which I did make him swear to keep forever.” (4.2.16-17) Being cruel and making fools of these closest of men even after the events in the Venetian court doesn’t save these two would-be feminists in the end however– like Olivia, Jessica, or indeed any member of the female cast of Twelfth Night or The Merchant of Venice, both Portia and Nerissa are once again reined in by men as the curtains fall, and now, bound in marriage, the great Bard and playwright leaves them utterly subservient to their new male attachments.
When we look at Shakespeare’s plays through the more enlightened eyes given us by a twentieth century upbringing, I think it’s safe to say that few authors can write a more inspiring, passionate or dangerous heroine than the Elizabethan bard did. Shakespeare is and was, however, still a product of his environment as much as any of us are today, and when we truly look into the mechanisms of his plays, set aside the pretty poetics, witty repartee, and the lenses of a better time to truly dig into the guts of pieces like Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, a darker side of these famous works emerges. It in this darker side that we see strong heroines raised up only to fall again, and where we find comedy stolen at the expense of a gender mistakenly believed to be the inferior one by the mainstream society of a sadly androcentric time– but did Shakespeare really pen these plays with a misogynistic agenda in mind, or is our modern view of the plays more than just mere flattery of a man (and a stage in the growth of society) long dead? Left with only the plays and meager records that have survived the rigors of the last four centuries, it’s a shame that we cannot simply ask Shakespeare himself.