Strong Women of Shakespeare's Plays The Merchant Term Paper

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strong women of Shakespeare's plays, "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Taming the Shrew."

Shakespeare's Women

For a man who became the most quoted author in literature and left volumes of work for the world to read, William Shakespeare's early years are a bit of a mystery. Historian's still speculate the 'lost years,' 1578-1582 and 1585-1592, of his life, although most agree that he "must have been perfecting his dramatic skills and collecting sources for the plots of his plays" and then began to "write magnificent plays that had plots-based entirely on Latin stories" (Shakespeare pg).

Moreover, one has to assume that during this time, Shakespeare formed his views of women. Many modern critics claim he was a feminist, and some refer to him as "the noblest feminist of them all" (Lewis pg). However, feminism is essentially means that women should have equal right and opportunities as men, legally, socially, politically, economically, and religiously (Tarqfrler pg). Thus, a man or woman who challenge to change women's conditions regarding this class struggle is a feminist (Tarqfrler pg). Therefore Shakespeare, as some claim, was not a true feminist, but rather an anti-feminist, producing plays with female characters that were weak and meek, romantic and shallow (Tarqfrler pg). Still there are those who feel Shakespeare was a genius at portraying human behavior and depicted "the condition of women within a patriarchal system and created women characters which in their richness, transcend the limitations of his time" (Lewis pg). Yet, regardless of whether Shakespeare was a true feminist or even an anti-feminist, his female characters are undeniably some of the most famous and memorable in the history of literature.

Portia in "The Merchant of Venice" is wealthy, beautiful, and witty. She is a typical Shakespearean heroine and her virtues are used as a counterpart to Shylock's malice. Although, Portia is freespirited, she is also loyal and obedient. James Bayer and Dr. Margaret Kean in "Shakespeare's Not Quite Universal View of Women" write that this play "clearly separates the world of men from that of the world of women" and is evident from the first scenes (Bayer pg). Bayer and Kean point out that the serious world of male bonds and business is introduced with Antonio and Bassanio as they speak to Shylock, using such words as contracts, bonds, friends, and forfeiture (Bayer pg). Portia and Nerissa introduce the women's world, as Portia complains and declares her unhappiness saying, "my little body is aweary of this great world" (Merchant I, ii). Portia's unhappiness stems from her obedience to her father in his choosing her husband, "I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father...I will die as chaste as Diana unless I be obtained by the manner of my father's will" (Merchant I, ii). Bound by obedience to her father's will, Portia does not come across as a strong-willed woman. When Bassanio chooses the correct casket, her response is submissive, "Myself and what is mine to you and yours is now converted" (Merchant III ii). However, Portia's submissive role is transformed into one of liberation and domination by sheer ingenuity. Bayer and Kean state that the scene in which Bassanio becomes distraught over Antonio's capture perhaps sparked a tinge of jealousy that caused her to have a change of attitude, for they believe that it is at this point at which she begins to take control and liberation begins (Bayer pg).

Bayer and Kean explain that when Portia discover the bond was only for 3,000 ducats her response indicates a transformation. She says, "What, no more? Pay him six thousand and deface the bond" (Merchant III ii). Having been given the letter from Antonio to read, Bassanio says, "Since I have your good leave to go away, I will make haste" (Merchant III ii). Here, according to Bayer and Kean, Bassanio indicates that he would have stayed had she wanted, thus showing that the relationship between Portia and Bassanio has changed. Furthermore, it shows how Portia has left the world of women and fantasy and crossed into the world of men, and moreover, manipulating it to her will. "She goes from male-dominated to male dominating" (Bayer pg). Akther Tarqfrler states that Portia is "the wittiest female character of the play who rises to the occasion and displays marvelous resourcefulness, energy, determination and practical ability, while her lord and master can do nothing but stand helplessly and talk" (Tarqfrler pg). Portia proves brilliantly cunning and brave, an equal match to the best of men.

Katherine in "Taming of the Shrew" is perhaps Shakespeare most famous female character. She and Portia are opposite in initial character. Katherine is ill-tempered and scoffs at obedience. She is prone to tantrums and physical attacks on the victims of her rage. Just as Portia is miserable from obedience despite her charm, Katherine too is unhappy, despite her foul disposition. Katherine's unpleasant nature may stem from fear of her own feminine desires and feelings of inadequacy. She may also be anxious that she will never marry, thus sealing her fate and her role in society as the maiden daughter. Katherine is intelligent and her spirit surely recoils at the thought of such a fate. In fact Katherine's spirit seems out of place amid an era when women were considered nothing more than property. In "Horses and Women in the Taming of the Shrew," Joan Hartwig discusses the treatment of women as commercial value. One example Hartwig uses is that of Grumio's statement that to find Katherine a husband he would have been willing to pay the price of the best horse, a gesture that would have allowed him to bid for Bianca (Hartwig 286). Hartwig likens this to a horse auction. Moreover, Hartwig claims that when Petruchio speaks of taming Katherine, he makes her sound as if she is a some wild horse that needs to be broken. According to Hartwig, this was common doctrine for that era. If a woman was beaten by her husband, she kept it to herself for fear of public humiliation in which she would be paraded through the streets wearing a contraption that would rip her tongue out if she tried to speak (Hartwig 290). An outspoken woman like Katherine was definitely out of step with the times and would certainly have been miserable in such a restrictive barbaric society.

Katherine unhappiness and unpleasant nature may also be rooted in the way she is treated by her father and sister (El-Haggan pg). Her father humiliates her in public at every chance. One example is when he announces publicly that Bianca can marry no one until Katherine has married, thus, offering her as bait for the sister. The father acts as if he wants to be rid of her, and the only way that is going to happen is with the help of Bianca's suitors (El-Haggan pg). He has publicly and officially humiliated Katherine.

When she protests, she is scolded by Horensio, and this only causes her to rage even more. Her temper seems to stem from embarrassment, as a child who is teased on the playground will lash out and start a brawl (El-Haggan pg). She endures further humiliation when Baptista announces his concern for Bianca's education and deliberately makes no mention of Katherine's. He then even further insults her by declaring that he wishes to speak with Bianca alone (El-Haggan pg). Perhaps Katherine acts out due to painful neglect.

Where Portia left the women's world of fantasy, Katherine learns to embrace it. Submissiveness affords her a marriage and allows her a respectable social role, a far better fate than she would otherwise face. Although, a less than ideal existence, Katherine seems to reason that…

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