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Tamed Shrews and Twelfth Nights: The Role of Women in Shakespeare

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It is curious to note the role of women in Shakespearean literature. Many critics

have lambasted the female characters in his plays as two-dimensional and unrealistic

portrayals of subservient women. Others have asserted that the roles of women in his

plays were prominent for the time and culture that he lived in. That such contrasting

views could be held in regards to the same topic is academic. It is only with close

examination of his works that we are able to suppose his intent in creating characters that

inspire so much controversy. Two works, Taming of the Shrew, and Twelfth Night, stand

out particularly well in regards to Shakespeare's use of female characters. After

examining these two plays, one will see that Shakespeare, though conforming to

contemporary attitudes of women, circumvented them by creating resolute female

characters with a strong sense of self.

The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, and has

weathered well into our modern era with adaptations into popular television series such as

Moonlighting. For all the praises it has garnered throughout the centuries, it is curious to

note that many have considered it to be one of his most controversial in his treatment of

women. The "taming" of Katherine has been contended as being excessively cruel by

many writers and critics of the modern era. George Bernard Shaw himself pressed for its

banning during the 19th century (Peralta). The subservience of Katherine has been labeled

as barbaric, antiquated, and generally demeaning. The play centers on her and her lack of

suitors. It establishes in the first act her shrewish demeanor and its repercussions on her

family. It is only with the introduction of the witty Petruchio as her suitor, that one begins

to see an evolution in her character. Through an elaborate charade of humiliating

behavior, Petruchio humbles her and by the end of the play, she will instruct other women

on the nature of being a good and dutiful wife.

In direct contrast to Shrew, is Twelfth Night, whose main female protagonist is by

far the strongest character in the play. The main character Viola, has been stranded in a

foreign land and adopts the identity of her brother so that she might live independently

without a husband or guardian. She serves as a courtier to a young, lovesick nobleman

named Orsino. Throughout the play she plays as a go-between for him to the woman he

loves. In the course of her service, she falls in love with him. Only at the end, does she

renounce her male identity and declares her love for him.

Both plays portray female characters unwilling to accept the female role of

passivity. Katherine rebels against this stereotype by becoming a "shrew", a violently

tempered and belligerent woman. Viola disguises herself as a man for most of the play in

order to preserve her state of free will. Katherine endures reprimands, chiding, and

humiliation in the course of her chosen rebellion. Viola enjoys life and position as a man,

and does not reveal who she is until the last scene of the play. Curiously enough, both

women voluntarily accept the roles that society would impose on them again at the close

of the plays. It is important to note though, that they freely resume these roles, and that

they do so out of their own sense of self. For each woman, it is a personal choice based

on their desires. In the case of Katherine, she realizes that propriety is as much a signature

of self-respect as respect for others, and she has a husband whom she need prove nothing

to because he already respects her. In the case of Viola, she is in love with the young

Orsino. Having found the man she would be willing to wed, the pretense of her male

identity is no longer necessary, as she desires to be his wife.

Having seen the similarities between Viola and Katherine, one should take notice

that

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