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Feminism in Shakespeare

Feminism in Shakespeare Part 1 - Feminism in Shakespeare Part 2

Was shrewish Shakespeare a feminist bard?

One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, The Taming of the Shrew, has become a bit of a problem for modern audiences because of the heroine's rough treatment at the hands of her husband. But was a celebration of Kate's 'taming' Shakespeare's true intent?

Dr. Ed Berry (English) takes a new look at the play in "Falcons, Feminism, and Shakespeare's Shrew" on Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m. in the 1996 Classroom Building, room C103. The Provost's UVic Faculty Series presentation is free and open to the public, but seating is limited.

"Some try to evade the play's thoroughly chauvinistic message that a subservient woman is a happy woman by dismissing the play as a farce, but I disagree with that," says Berry. "Some try to romanticize the ending and say that Kate and Petruchio are truly in love. I find that attractive, but not compelling."

In his upcoming presentation, Berry, a Shakespeare scholar, takes a completely different approach to explaining the play. Pivotal to Berry's interpretation of the play is a soliloquy by Petruchio on his taming technique.

"His metaphor for his relationship with Kate is the taming of a falcon. I'm going to ask the audience to think about Elizabethan methods of taming falcons and the implications of that metaphor. The more we learn about falconry, the more insidious the metaphor becomes. Falcon taming produces a strong bond of 'affection' between bird and falconer, but it's a bond forged out of coerciveness and manipulation, resulting in the falcon doing the handler's bidding. This makes the play even a greater problem for feminists."

Berry's story does not end there, however. In the play's allusions to falconry and other kinds of hunting, he finds a way of reading the play that is much more palatable to modern audiences. To do this, he focuses on the play's induction, two short scenes that are often omitted in stage and film versions. In these scenes, a hunting lord and his entourage visit a tavern and decide to play a joke on one of its drunken patrons.

"The lord decides to make the drunken man believe that he too is a lord and stages a play for his entertainment," says Berry. The result turns out to be The Taming of the Shrew, which becomes a play within a play, and, in some respects, a play about the hunting culture of the time.

"This isn't the only time Shakespeare used a hunting metaphor in his work," says Berry who is in the process of writing a book, tentatively titled Shakespeare and the Culture of the Hunt.


By Donna Freitas, Ph.D.

If as Boom asserts, Shakespeare invented personality, i.e., what it means to be human, he would have endorsed Aristotle's hypothesis that the soul oftragedy is plot, an imitation of a serious action, the seriousness of course being the dramatization of universals. In agreement, Sir Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry likewise suggests that poetry must not only teach awareness of them, but also delight, thereby involving audience reaction: the pragmatic theory.

Although Keat's negative capability contends that we cannot with certitude know the mind of the poet, we may perhaps assume dialectically that Shakespeare opted to dramatize those universals--beauty, truth, love, justice, honor etc. that define what is means to be human in a way that exemplified the horrible effects of their absence. Bradley believes that the soul of Shakespearean tragedy is the wrenching of the universe wracked with agony as it struggles to excise evil. In so doing, he observes that much good is lost, but ultimately regeneration occurs, a notion not inconsistent with Medieval and Renaissance poetics.

Thus Shakespeare hated tyranny, and in many respects the dramatization of that premise in the histories and tragedies foreshadowed the rise of democracy within the context of divine right (Ironically Macbeth was written for James I.) So...

      Hamlet kills the "incestuous damned Dane," and Denmark slowly recovers,

      Macduff and company remove the "butcher" and his "fiend-like queen" to restore Scotland,

      Iago ensnares everyone, but the essential nobility of Othello survives, and

      Lear must learn that he is the cause of his daughter's tyranny.

Might we not extend this to a feminist perspective? Certainly, Shakespeare inherited a mysognistic ethic. The Medieval - Renaissance perspective defined women as seductively responsible for man's sin; after all Genesis literally said so: Eve's lower reason corrupted Adam's higher reason, and in an age which fashioned macrocosmic / microcosmic analogies,


and if the child were a woman, then Capulet was more than justified in threatening to disclaim Juliet as Lear attempts later with his daughters. Certainly the old king's agony becomes all the more acute to him as he rages that a women could "shake his manhood," to tears, and Polonius mandates that his "green" daughter Ophelia have no voice in her dating Hamlet: "He is a prince out of thy star," and that is that.

Let us posit, however that Shakespeare imagined a universe without such moral aborations.

In CULTIVATING HUMANITY, Martha Nussbaum suggests that "the prism of gender" perpetuates the very kind of stereotype Shakespeare inherited:

A prominent that the male head of household
is a beneficent altruist who adequately represents the interest of
all his family members, and can be relied to distribute resources
fairly. (p. 189)

She believes that "any question which challenges deeply rooted habits seems threatening, especially when the challenge is to entrenched structures of power." (p. 190). In this case, the power is white and male: the Polonius - Capulet archetype. Does Shakespeare deconstruct the archetype, and if so how did he dramatize its intrinsic injustice?

Dr. Donna Freitas in her lectures and writings has noted:

I.The male author and women
A. listening for silences--women need a voice
B. the need for a women's voice--to fill in the gaps

II. Literature and history
A. literature as a "revealer" of history
B. reconstructing an understanding of gender through literature

III. Women as designed by sexuality
A. women as wives and mothers--property
B. women as promiscuous: the prostitute
C. women as virgins--and liberation

IV. Women as defined by passion
A. women as barred from becoming knowers.

V. Women and madness
A. psychology and entering into the male-dominated, symbolic order: giving up one's self
B. conscious (symbolic order/ discourse) and unconscious (realm of repressed desire) and masculinity / femininity
C. repression of the feminine and hysteria / madness / the irrational
D. madness as a disruption of discourse
E. VIrginia Woolf as example.

Dr. Freitas' outline brilliantly characterizes Ophelia. She has no voice and is seen as property. (Notice how often Polonius treats her as a prostitute--she will "tender" him a fool, she will be "loosed" on Hamlet by him.) She certainly cannot be a knower. "My Lord, I do not know what to think," she tells her father. Ophelia's repressed consciousness finding no expression explodes into madness.

Dr. Freitas cites Toril Moi's Sexual, Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory: New York: Routledge, 1984, pp. 57-58:

"...the dominant patriarchal ideology presents artistic creativity as a fundamental male quality. The writer 'fathers' his text; in the image of the Divine Creator he becomes the Author--the sole origin and meaning of his work...Since creativity is designed as male, it follows that the dominant literary images of femininity are male fantasies too. Women are denied the right to create their own image of femaleness, and instead must seek to conform to the patriarchal standards imposed on them...the ideal woman is seen as a passive docile and above all selfless creature...But behind the angel lurks the monster: the obverse of the male idealization of women is the male fear of femininity. The monster women is the woman who refuses to be selfless, acts on her own initiative, who has a story to tell--in short, a woman who rejects the submissive role patriarchy has reserved for her."

Enter Shakespeare.Dr. Freitas asks:

    1. What commentary is Shakespeare making about women?

    2. Does Shakespeare's portrayal of women reflect reality? Is it mimetic?

    3. Is there such a thing as an authentic portrayal of women in literature?

These questions are profound and far-reaching. Nussbaum in her chapter on the Narrative Imagination believes that, "...the narrative imagination is an essential preparation for moral interaction...This is so because of the way in which literary imagining both inspires intense concern with the fate of characters and defines those characters as containing a rich inner life; not all of which is open to view; in the process, the reader learns to have respect for the hidden contents of that inner world, seeing its importance in defining a creature as fully human...Compasison requires one thing more: a sense of one's own vulnerability to misfortune. To respond with compassion, I must be willing to entertain that thought that this suffering person might be me." (pp. 90-91).

As a classicist interested in applying the dialectical process to a reconstructionist educational philosophy for the new millennium, Nussbaum knows she is describing catharsis. For our time and Shakespeare's, the purgation must bring joy resulting from the assertion of the belief that a morally just universe cannot exist when any member is denied fundamental respect.

Does Shakespeare dramatize the universals needed to meet Dr. Freitas and Nussbaum's criteria of authenticity? Shakespeare simultaneously reflected and transformed Medieval and Renaissance values. He inherited mysognistic behaviors, but did he deconstruct them?

We know what Shakespeare appears to dramatize:

  1. Denied the power of rational expression by men, Ophelia goes mad.
  2. Lady Macbeth consorts with demons and takes her life
  3. Cordelia's assertions of love's true meaning result in her death.
  4. Desdemona falls to Iago's depravity when Othello kills her.

A reconstructionist dialectic, however, might suggest, that just as he opposed tyranny by dramatizing monarchies in decay within the context of Divine Right, then perhaps he does the same for women within the context of cultural mysognism.

Bolingbroke in RICHARD II tells Carlisle,

        In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne.

    To which he replies...

        Marry God forbid...
        What subject here can give sentence to his king?
        And who sits there that is not Richard's subject?
        And shall the figure of God's majesty,
        His captain, steward, deputy elect,
        Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
        Be judged by subject and inferior breath...
        My lord of Hereford here whom you call king
        Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford's King [Richard II]
        And if you crown him, let me prophesy
        The blood of English shall manure the ground
        And future ages groan for this foul act,
        Peace shall go to sleep with Turks and Infidels...

Hence the Tudor Myth: did Shakespeare ironically deconstruct it in the context of affirming its viability? Given the outcomes of the tetrologies and the tragedies, he certainly must have:

  • Bolingbroke on his deathbed laments taking the crown and wonders why Hal would desire it.
  • Richard II thinks of the death of kings and their "sad stories."
  • Claudius murders his way to power, and his admonition to Horatio that no subject would dare harm a monarch deconstructs divine right with its irony.
  • Macbeth's "Tomorrow" soliloquy coming as it does after Lady Macbeth's suicide and his own death also negates myth in the context of preserving it!!
  • Hal, the so-called ideal king (Bloom disagrees) becomes a commoner pro tem to learn his subjects' feelings--they do seem to matter.

A feminist reading of Shakespeare then might follow the same idea. What is being revised?


1. Ophelia goes mad because males deny her a voice.
2. Her mad songs articulate wisdom that transcends Claudius and Polonius' shallow platitudes.
3. Her assessment of what males should be ("O what a noble mind...") is sadly deficient in Denmark, and she knows it, but male brutality prevents a clear articulation.


1. We know Lady Macbeth consorts with demons, and dies damned as a fiend, but is this the male-inflicted punishment for a women who asserts equality with men? The witch hunts so popular with James I defined women as evil: Pope Innocent VIII's Bull of 1484, the Malleus Maleficarum, and James I's own Daemonologie condemn women as dangerously seductive. James of course argued that witches had to be women due to their moral weakness.
2. Suppose that Shakespeare used the possession- jargon of the day to create a strong-willed, intelligent women, who was driven to consorting with devils because the male demons of her own culture prevent her from doing what men assumed by right? Ironically, she certainly is more strong - willed than Macbeth, whose "Bring forth men - children only" observation clearly supports.


1. Emilia wonderfully portrays what Shakespeare knew of women being repressed. Married to Iago, she endures much brutality.
2. I once asked a feminist friend who knew the play well why Emilia did not earlier expose Iago when she certainly surmised his malevolence?
3. My question came from a male perspective and in and of itself, reflected ignorance of what women are forced to endure. My friend replied with an intelligent feminist perspective: Emilia is a battered women. Possessed with sensibilities that craved recognition, she endured Iago's torments because negative attention is better than none. Importantly, she does expose Iago, but a feminist critique would have encouraged her to do so sooner, and more importantly to embrace the universals of justice and love which would of necessity eschew battering.


1. One would be hard put in the canon to find scenarios more brutal to women. Isabella's plight defines sexual harassment: have sex with me or your brother won't like the consequences, warns Angelo! (What an interesting name), but ironically not inappropriate. When degrading and threatening Isabella, he mocks her with his male persona of impeccable virtue--"Who will believe you?" he responds to her warnings of exposure. Expecting better behavior from Claudio yields no better results. After all pleads the prisoner, why would compromising your virtue matter if I am freed?
2. Interestingly, Shakespeare portrays Isabella as the female counter part of Angelo. Although in a cloistered convent as a novice, she demands the rules be more strict.
3. What can a feminist reading reveal? The play is comedy, although critics have remarked not much different in tone and expected outcome from the tragedies (It is very close to Hamlet ), but nonetheless its classification demands a happy ending, meaning opposites are reconciled and harmony restored.
4. From a feminist perspective, does that happen? The response is complicated. Isabella and Mariana ask the Duke / Friar to forgive Angelo, and kneel anticipating Lear and Cordelia. Naturally the brutalization should never have occurred, but given the many biblical allusions obviously including the title, forgiveness is the universal Shakespeare dramatizes, but the denouement still remains difficult.
5. The Friar / Duke proposes to Isabella? Does she accept? If yes, a feminist reading might be that women can remain safe only if men (Friar-church / Duke-state combined?) grant them protection. If true, that may be a necessary condition legally, but hardly a sufficient one morally. Even today laws for rape favor men, implying the old misogynist premise that women seduce. Women are still at the mercy of what men dictate. Dr. Freitas' third point addresses that:

          III. Women as designed by sexuality
          A. women as wives and mothers--property
          B. women as promiscuous: the prostitute
          C. women as virgins--and liberation

If Isabella refuses to marry thereby defying male authority, will she continue to enjoy the rights males have? Why did Shakespeare write the sonnets? Regardless of the "W.H." dilemma, the procreation sonnets are a plea for the young man to marry. Women, however, are not asked--they are told: defined by their passions in Dr. Freitas' sense:

          IV. Women as defined by passion
          A. women as barred from becoming knowers.

Women are still barred from becoming knowers. Their choices, circumscribed by males, remain either limited or nonexistent. Morally, that will not do.


1. Lear who had always demanded unconditional obedience from his subjects must learn the essence of love as a universal, and he begins to so in the storm scene. He comes to know that he is not "more sinned against than sinning," and that he must accept responsibility for how his daughters behave. He brutalized them.
2. Perhaps the greatest tribute that Shakespeare gives to women is Lear's kneeling to Cordelia, begging her forgiveness. In the macrocosmic sense, the male thus asks forgiveness of the female, and it is a tribute to Shakespeare's treatment of women that she grants it.


1. As in Measure for Measure, one would be hard put, apparently, to find a play more likely to irk and outrage feminists.

2. An anti-feminist perspective is easy, too easy: Petruchio must tame his Kate, regards her as property, compares her to falcon that must be tamed, and even Kate herself in Act V, suggests the role of a wife be obedience and subservience to her husband's will.

3. However, as Marjorie Garber notes in Shakespeare After All, the poet's depth and breath of expression may accommodate a variety of sociological perspectives, and even Harold Bloom describes Shakespeare's women as more intelligent than the men.

4. Perhaps due to the political and religious and social complexities of the Renaissance, Shakespeare learned to present multiple perspectives. As Bob Newhart noted, comedy can be subversive, and in Taming, was Shakespeare pointing the way to equality. Consider:

1-Kate's anger stems from her intellectual sophistication. She loves puns, and her wit longs for an equal who will respect her.

2-Petruchio sees this straight away, and the two immediately find common ground.

3-The famous "moon and sun confusion" may be dramatized as a tongue in cheek battle of wits between lovers that respect and admire each other's skill.

4-The wooing scene, replete with puns and innuendos, contrasts sharply with the Polonius like financial motifs used by Bianca's father to 'auction' her off to the highest bidder. Certainly, he is no feminist, and Shakespeare, while giving him his moment, certainly is capable of creating more sophisticated relationships as he does with Kate and Petruchio whose defiance of social norms (Why is the wedding not dramatized?) makes for better entertainment and drama.

5-Thus Kate's "obedience" speech in V may be seen not so much as subservience, although a Renaissance misogynist might take it literally, but rather a mature and intelligent ironically and with great wit, thanking her husband for the equality of treatment she deserved as an inalienable right.

6-Indeed Shakespeare dramatized this little "play" at the end by ironically having the compliant and demur Bianca defying her husband, and the feminist Kate professing obedience, so in the tradition of negative capability, autobiographical clues not withstanding, the audience must determine what is fair and foul.

Shakespeare wished to excise the moral atrocities perpetuated by the male-dominated archetype; thereby allowing all humanity, regardless of gender, to render the universals meaningful.

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