Feminist thought is a movement truly indicative of a dynamic society. When manifested in literature, it signifies the breaking of old traditions, and the manner in which feminism is presented reflects the attitude of the writer and society to the aforementioned changes. In the case of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), presenting empowered females was of marked significance as the Elizabethan era marked the strongest female monarchy England had ever seen.
However, upon closer inspection it can be inferred that Shakespeare had an innate disregard for female authority, reflected by examining the characters Desdemona (from “Othello”), Kate (from “The Taming of the Shrew”), and Rosalind (from “As You Like It”). The prevailing approach in Shakespeare’s time was one of trepidation for the “wild” woman, or a female who did not conform to social expectations. The so-called “feminist” characters merely served to lend form and dimension to male characters and patriarchal themes.
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In contrast, later authors such as Jane Austen (1775-1817) used empowered characters such as Elizabeth Benet (from Pride and Prejudice), Eli nor Dash wood (from Sense and Sensibility), and Catherine Moorland (from Northanger Abbey) to present feasible realities within the context of the society in which Austen lived. Working her characters into the framework of her era, Austen used women not as a means but as her end. Unlike Shakespeare’s characters, whose wiles and individuality served as gimmicks to promote patriarchy, Austen’s characters showed women who existed independently of male-dominated societies.
Through careful dissection and comparison of texts, Shakespeare’s “Othello”, “The Taming of the Shrew” (TOS), and “As You Like It” (AYLI), exemplify females whose independence and unorthodox qualities are eventually extinguished by overbearing male figures. Desdemona, Kate, and Rosalind are all radically different characters encompassing various aspects of the female psyche. Desdemona represents a rebellious daughter and sexually insatiable wife whose wiles cannot be controlled by men, a characteristic which drives her husband insane.
Kate, “the shrew”, is the empowered woman who succumbs to the power of society, forgoing her independence to become a wife, in the process experiencing a “miraculous” metamorphosis instigated by her husband’s subjugation. Rosalind is unique among the three, an omniscient whose altruist nature cedes dominance to her alter ego, Ganymede. The critics used in this examination are limited to the twentieth century. Assembled criticisms by scholars such as Harold Bloom, Alexander Leggett, and Laura Marvel focus on the intricacies of Shakespeare’s female characters, while Michael Shapiro counters with non-traditional surveys of sexuality manifested in Shakespearean plays.
A more accurate description of the term “feminist” applies to Austen, whose characters do not serve to alter or develop male characters.
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