I'm curious what your thoughts on Shakespeare and feminism are. I have such wildly different opinions myself because I think he wrote some very strong female characters, and then he wrote Taming of the Shrew (there are other examples- but that one is the worst in my mind). Anyway I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter!
I’m flattered you’d want to hear my opinion on this because I am not a Shakespeare scholar and am by no means an expert! I haven’t read all the plays yet, and I haven’t read Taming of the Shrew, although I’m aware it involves a man ‘taming’ a woman into conforming with patriarchal notions of gender roles. I need to read the play before I can form an opinion, but my question would be this: does Shakespeare endorse the actions of his characters? Is this ‘taming’ presented in an uncritical light? Could it be read in a different way, as a critique of gender roles and what women are forced to endure? Could it in any way be highlighting the artificiality of gender roles, and suggesting that they’re a social construct and not inherently natural? (I could be, and probably am, way off with this, but these are the questions I’ll be thinking about when I read the play). In Hamlet, Ophelia seems to lack agency and is obedient to the male characters. But her story is a very powerful one and is often read as a critique of patriarchal court culture and the enormous pressure it places on women, which seems to drive Ophelia out of her mind.
From the plays I have read, my opinion is that Shakespeare writes very interesting, compelling, and complex female characters. Lady Macbeth. Portia. Juliet. Cleopatra. Goneril and Regan. Ophelia. They’re not the silent plot devices one often finds in Greek and Roman comedy, for example. They have their own desires and passions and motivations and goals. They have a voice. They act. Even quiet, passive Ophelia has her moment. They are all intelligent and strong in their own way, and often they defy or subvert gender conventions.
But what does this tell us about Shakespeare and his attitude towards women? I don’t think we can really judge what his personal views were from his plays. Because his characters’ beliefs and opinions are not necessarily his beliefs and opinions. To what extent does any particular character’s views and beliefs reflect Shakespeare’s own views and beliefs? To what extent (if any?) does Shakespeare endorse or uphold a particular character’s views and beliefs and/or actions? I made a similar point about Euripides. His Medea gives a wonderful speech about the inequalities and double standards imposed on women in Greek society, but some of his other characters express a lot of misogyny. How can we tell what Euripides’ own view was? We can’t. We definitely know that neither Shakespeare nor Euripides were feminists, because the feminist movement didn’t exist in their times. To call either of them a feminist would be anachronistic, I think. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they (or others living in their times) were unaware of the inequalities and struggles women faced, or that they unquestioningly accepted prescribed gender roles. The fact that Medea’s speech exists at all is proof of this, I think. Shakespeare was writing under Elizabeth I (and later James), the daughter of a woman accused of adultery and witchcraft, a highly educated woman in a position of power, who defied gender conventions by refusing to marry and ruling in her own right.
I think what Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians do is question things and make people think. Rather than endorsing one view over another, their plays usually seem to present both sides of an argument.
Whatever his personal beliefs about the appropriate position of women in society, Shakespeare’s plays suggest that he at least saw women as individual human beings, separate from their husbands and male relatives, with their own minds, wills, and capabilities.