An Analysis of Strong Female Characters Among:
As You Like It
Much Ado About Nothing
The Taming of the Shrew
May 30, 2007
There are several female characters throughout Shakespeare’s plays that represent strong, intelligent and free willed beings. Through their discourse, these women often show a mental capacity that is not only equal to that of a man’s, but at times it can also be shown as superior. Their actions are also much more aggressive than those of a normal high class Elizabethan woman who was expected to be passive. Shakespeare’s idea of women was very much in contrary to that of Elizabethan society in that they believed women were not only inferior to men, but also property of men. It is for this reason that Shakespeare used disguises and humor in order to allow his female characters their freedom of speech and their right to refuse the constraints imposed upon them by men in such a society. However, in order to relate his plays to the audience of his time he had to write these strong female characters into a humorous context that was to be played out by a male actor. Therefore, the most aggressive of his female characters that had the strongest sense of self are found in his comedies (Peralta). Four examples of these characters are Rosalind of As You Like It, Viola of Twelfth Night, Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing and Katherine of Taming of the Shrew. These four women share many of the same character traits, including: adaptability, intelligence and self-awareness.
They are all able to adapt themselves to their particular situation or circumstance. This is because women were never allowed control of their own circumstances or futures. Women were often thrust into situations in the moment when it best suited men. Thus, in order for a woman to be considered one of Shakespeare’s strong female characters, she must be able to make quick and calculated decisions in order to change the situation from the inside. That is to say that she must change the situation in a passive way so as not to reveal her true desires to anyone, except for in some cases another single confidant. For example, Rosalind and Viola changed their identities to become men in order to protect themselves and therefore their own destinies. However, Rosalind had Celia as a confidant and Viola had the sea captain. Beatrice and Kate behaved in a demeanor that dissuaded any suitor from pursuing them, albeit the one they chose for themselves. These two women did not have confidants because they went about controlling their own lives through a more direct method of witty discourse.
This manipulation of their circumstance also required these women to be not only intelligent, but intelligent in an imaginative way because they had to figure out ways to change an outcome over which they were allowed no direct control. All four of these women demonstrate their intelligence through discourse and ability to foresee the reaction of others. Rosalind and Viola do so by changing their manner of dialogue to fit their new identities as men. Beatrice and Kate do so in their dialogue by constantly walking the thin line of insolence, but being careful not to cross it. Their linguistic ability allows them to say things to convince others without the others actually realizing that they have been convinced. For example, Rosalind trains Orlando to be a better husband while she is disguised as a man in the forest. Orlando believes that this gentleman is simply helping him cure his own lovesickness. Viola parallels Rosalind in this aspect because she also explains her idea of a perfect love to Orsino while she is dressed as a man. Viola is allowed to truly express her ideas of love to Orsino because she is a man. Orsino falls in love with her pure and unselfish perspective of love. Beatrice and Katherine make even more use of double meaning than most of Shakespeare’s characters so as to be able to insult those who attack them personally and preserve their self respect. They also use their linguistic wit in order to argue with men in order to attract one who is an equal in the realm of intelligence and self respect.
This ability to express oneself with such clarity proves the idea of these women’s self-awareness. They know what society expects, but they also know their own minds. They are made to change genders and speak in riddles in order to preserve their right to decide their own fate. These women are made to play so many games that it would be easy for anyone weak of mind to become confused about who they really are. However, all four women prove faultless in knowing who they really are and what they really want. All of these women are able to handle their extenuating circumstances because these plays are comedies. For example, had Twelfth Night not been a comedy Viola would have probably had a nervous breakdown by the end of the play because of all the conflicting gender identity issues that surrounded her (Kimbrough).
Rosalind is arguably the strongest of all of Shakespeare’s female characters. One of the reasons is because she is allowed more lines than any of the other female characters. Secondly, she is the one who controls the majority of the plot’s outcome by arranging four marriages and also because, in a sense, she is able to create her own perfect husband. She convinces Orlando to come and woo her everyday and while he does this she gives him advice on how to be a better mate. The fact that they were in the forest and that she was disguised as a man allows her to claim her ability to “exorcise” his emotions of love that are torturing him and effectively tame him. Thirdly, and lastly, her character is considered one of the strongest females of Shakespeare because her character would have been so shocking to the audience that Shakespeare added an epilogue in which Rosalind reminds everyone that she is not a woman, but rather an actor. Within the play itself Rosalind’s deception is accepted because the final scene, in which she sheds herself of her male identity, takes place in the forest in the presence of Hymen, the god of marriage. The mystical connotation of the forest and presences of a god reminds the audience that this is only fiction and in this fictional context the impossible was accepted as possible. Without using a fictional environment and humorous context, Shakespeare may have caused a public uproar with such futuristic ideas of gender equality.
Viola also acquires freedom by escaping her gender. When she is washed up on the beach she is left without a male figure in her life. She no longer has a father nor a brother to protect her. The audience accepts her gender change because she is alone and it is done for her own protection. Without it she would have been left to the mercy of the townsmen in a foreign land. This act shows her adaptability and strength because she was all alone and had to completely reinvent herself to survive. It is in this way that she is allowed to be on her own and take control of her own destiny. She too is allowed to choose the husband that she desires because she shapes the outcome of the plot before renouncing her male identity. Which she is only allowed to renounce once her brother appears and is able to protect her. With his presence Viola has also acquired the right to marry because she has a man to give her away to Orsino. Without a man to speak in the name of Viola the marriage would not have been legitimate for a woman of her status.
Beatrice, however, does not use a male disguise to allow herself the freedom of speech. Her character is allowed freedom because it is done in a context of humor. Her battles of wit in which she partakes with Benedict normally would not have been allowed, but because the arguments resulted to be humorous, the audience accepted her sharp tongue. Although Kate’s character is not as funny as Beatrice’s, their characters do parallel each other because they are both considered witty shrews. The two also share the same motivation for such an aggressive rejection of societal constraints; their family. Both characters have a foil that emphasizes the way women were expected to act. Beatrice was compared to Hero just as Katherine was compared to Bianca. It is because of their foils that Beatrice and Katherine are able to see the folly involved with blindly accepting what others are willing to force upon you. These two females refuse to settle for whatever comes along first and they behave rudely until they are shunned by the suitor. They are both looking for a partnership without domination and will submit to no man that does not fit the description (Almasy). Both Beatrice and Kate are forgiven for their previous insolence because they end up married and, by all outward appearances, conforming to society’s expectations. However, their marriage is more of a declaration of a tie between the two. If one can not be proved wittier than the other, they might as well be married and live happily ever after. Although, it can be interpreted that these two couples are the happiest of any of Shakespeare’s couples because they come together in a mutual understanding and are able to argue and be more honest about the expectations of one another within their true identities before being married.
All four of these characters end up becoming wives because Shakespeare had to adhere somewhat to the expectations of Elizabethan society in order for the public to like his plays and not name him as a heretic. It may seem to some that the marriages are still socially imposed on these female characters, but marriage for them during that time could not be avoided. At least in the cases of these females it is more so on their own terms than in most circumstances. It seems that by the end of the play these women are freely willing to accept the roles that would have otherwise been imposed on them, but by this time they are able to do so out of a sense of self (Peralta). Rosalind was able to train her husband through her use of a male disguise in order to mold him into what she wanted of a husband. Viola was able to postpone society’s infringement on her personal choices until her brother appears at her side and she had already fallen in love with Orsino. Beatrice and Katherine are able to ward off their suitors until they came upon a man that could appreciate their wit and would be able to respect them as individuals. It can also be understood that society accepted these women’s refusals of societal expectations because in the end the problems were all resolved by the acceptance and protection of men. Rosalind is saved because her father is willing to accept her back and allow her to marry Orlando. Viola is saved by her brother’s return and his allowing her to marry Orsino. Beatrice and Katherine are saved because Beatrice’s uncle and Katherine’s father are willing to grant permission for these women to marry the suitors whom they have chosen and these suitors also desire to be married to them.
Even though it is clear that Shakespeare believed that women were able to be the equals of men, he was unable to express it in a realistic context. He allowed his strong female characters to be the center of the action in his comedies and allowed them lengthy speeches and numerous lines of dialogue, but only under certain context (Latorre). It had to be done in jest or in another realm, such as the forest. In the extreme case of Rosalind he even renounces her womanhood by reminding the audience that it was a male actor throughout the play. It may have been because of Shakespeare’s admiration for Queen Elizabeth that he had such fondness for independent and intelligent women, but at any rate his futuristic ideas were so advanced that they are still applicable to the gender issue confronting society today.
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