2.5 WOMEN OF SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS

The women of Shakespeare’s plays exemplify both the traditional role of the women of the Middle Ages and the changing role of the women of the Elizabethan Age of Renaissance England. This duality in the personalities of the women in the plays mirrors the changing role of women in the times in which Shakespeare lived as they struggled with their strengths, weaknesses and the expectations of their societies.

The women of the Middle Ages, as dictated by the Catholic Church, were expected to be more concerned with their families than with themselves, were fairly naive and uneducated, had read few if any books, and received little if any education in anything other than the art of needlework and housewifery.

The women of the Middle Ages were firm believers in the church, the devil, and punishment for the wages of sin. They were property, owned by their husbands, without any rights of their own.

The Renaissance women of Elizabeth I’s reign benefited from many of the chivalric codes of the Middle Ages. However, Shakespeare presented in some points another type of women. I think it is due to the fact that Elizabeth I was definitely a unique, free-thinking woman when she responded to the many attempts by Parliament to marry her to suitable prospects by saying that she was not married to her country.

Shakespeare as a writer during the Elizabethan Age had witnessed the consequences of speaking out against the customs of the time. He had seen other writers fall on hard times after criticising the nobility. However, like the other writers of the times, he could not resist the new freedom fostered by Eizabeth’s love of literature. Anyway, he used the disguise to show strong women in the vast majority of his plays, being Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing an exception.

Shakespeare knew women were still not treated as equals by men in the society of the time despite the many changes brought about by Elizabeth I. So, he portrayed women such as Rosalind, Beatrice and Viola. As Juliet Dusinberre said: ‘Shakespeare was a mirror of the struggles of the women of his times from Elizabeth I to the lowliest of peasant women as the struggled to gain more freedom, rights, education and respect.’ (Crump 1993:11) I think these words by Dusinberre describe perfectly what I am pursuing to show in this paper.

On the other hand, we must take into account that in Elizabethan times people regarded female cross-dressing as a manifestation of women’s illicit sexual behaviour, but Shakespeare demonstrates that women who cross-dressed were not prostitutes but adopted male appearance in order to go unrecognized as women for very specific purposes of their own. From my point of view, cross-dressing gave women greater social freedom than they had previously enjoyed in the Middle Ages. In the plays I have analysed, Rosalind and Viola use the disguise’s technique to rejoin the man they love although previously they used it to survive (Viola from a shipwreck and Rosalind from the court which banished her). Being disguised they speak freely and it provides for them the opportunity of being more authoritative in society.



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