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When thinking of Shakespearean leads most names that come to mind are names like Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth. Without a doubt most of Shakespeare’s plays mostly feature male leads. There are some though that feature prominent female leads. When there are female leads they are strong and smart. These female leads include Portia from Merchant of Venice, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford from Merry Wives of Windsor, Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra, Viola from Twelfth Night, Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, Rosalind from As You Like It, and Katherine from Taming of the Shrew.
These women were put in a situation where they had to either to protect themselves, make a situation go their way, or to attain something from a man. Some of these women used manipulation or disguising themselves as a man to achieve these goals. There is a lot of significance behind these women, their reasons for cross-dressing, and the role they played in William Shakespeare’s plays.
Of all the female leads in Shakespeare plays, a good number of them had to disguise themselves as a man at some point during the play. In a piece written by Philip Stubbes in the sixteenth century, the time of Shakespeare, he states that “Our apparel was given us as a sign distinctive to discern betwixt sex and sex, and therefore one to wear the apparel of another sex, is to participate with the same, and to adulterate the verity of his own kind” (Anatomy 336).
It was as if what you wore defined you. When a man dressed as a woman, he gave away his power, his manhood, and his dignity. When a woman dressed as a man she would then assume all the power and responsibilities of being a man. The women that cross-dressed in Shakespeare’s play tend to be strong women who take charge. This could be because they are adapting the traits of the man: strength and power. In Merchant of Venice, Portia and her handmaiden are the women who disguise themselves as men. Portia does this to free Antonio. While in the guise of the lawyer she convinces her fiancée to give up his ring to the ‘lawyer? When Bassanio comes back to Portia she makes a scene and points out that since the lawyer has the ring she should sleep with the lawyer.
I’ll not deny him anything I have,
No not my body nor my husband’s bed.
Know him I shall, I am well sure of it.
Lie not a night from home. Watch me like Argus;
If you do not, if I be left alone,
Now, by mine honor, which is yet mine own,
I’ll have that doctor for my bedfellow. (5.1.227-33)
In this section Portia implies that she slept with the doctor. This puts her in a position of power over her husband. She uses her time as a man to really take control of many things in her life. Portia steals the power from the men during her time spent as one. With the clothes of the lawyer, Portia inherits the status of one. Another example of a woman taking a man’s power by taking on a man’s clothes is in Cleopatra and Antony. In this play, Cleopatra takes Antony’s sword. In Dr. Peter Platt’s book entitled Shakespeare and the Culture of Paradox, he discusses how in loosing his sword to Cleopatra; Antony also looses his manhood, strength, and power. Cleopatra had the power in the relationship between Antony and herself due to her control over the house and the taking of the sword. In the same article it talks about how another way Cleopatra takes away Antony’s masculinity is in act two scene five.
Dr. Platt states that “Antony’s cross-dressing in his love-play […] and his sense that just living with Cleopatra has robbed him of his sword” (Platt, 187). Stephen Orgel gives another purpose to the role of sexuality in Shakespeare’s work in Orgel’s book, Impersonations, The performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England. Stephen states that in the time of the Renaissance men were attracted to men and women equally. He said this is why men continued to play the women even when there were women actresses. This look into the reality of homosexual relationships can be evidenced to link to the relationships between Rosalind and Orlando (As You Like It) and Viola and Orsino (Twelfth Night). The women in these relationships fall in love and make their respective partners fall in love with them all while in the disguise of a man or boy. The homosexual relationship does lead to some humorous situations however these relationships also read into a bigger idea of the underlying urge to participate in a same sex relationship that Stephen Orgel states most men of the time shared. Though it is important to note that if any of these homoerotic scenarios were acted upon it would be considered sodomy, a punishable crime in the time of Shakespeare (Bullion). Orsino and Viola/Cesario’s relationship on the surface can be seen as a manipulation of gender roles.
Viola/Cesario is a woman, although Orsino does not realize this. Their relationship develops quickly. Orsino often comments on the attractiveness of Viola/Cesario. Orsino also chooses Viola/Cesario as his favorite manservant. This is odd because they only jut met. Viola also falls in love with Orsino. She even tries to persuade him out of begin in love with Olivia “Sooth, but you must. Say that some lady as perhaps there is, hath for you as great a pang of heart as you have for Olivia. You cannot love her; you tell her so. Must she not then be answered?”(Twelfth Night II.iv.98-102). In a journal written by Raea DiMassino about the male relationships in Twelfth Night, DiMassino says that there is a line between friendship and a homosexual relationship that the characters of Orsino and Viola/Cesario tend to blur.
Rosalind and Orlando’s relationship is more complicated. Rosalind was in love with Orlando but was humiliated when her uncle exiled her to be with her father. She then disguises herself so that she does not have to be exiled. During her time spent as a man she teaches Orlando how to woo a woman. As seen in the relationship between Orsino and Viola, this relationship hints to a homosexual relationship that lends itself to comedic situations. Unlike Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Rosalind and Viola do not use their manly disguise to gain any power; rather they use it for protection. Viola does not want to be taken advantage of so she disguises herself as her brother and Rosalind uses it to hide from her uncle who exiled her. In both these scenarios, the men’s clothes offered a form of protection for these women. These women were able to hide their womanhood and save their own lives by sacrificing their gender and sexualities.
In another of Orgel’s essays entitled “Nobody’s Perfect; or Why did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?” he states that a majority of the audience viewing the play would have been female. This made it important to have these strong female leads, or characters that would entertain the majority of the audience. Also since Queen Elizabeth was the monarch that Shakespeare was writing for it would have been important to not upset her. Stephen Orgel says, “…under the queen’s patronage—theater in this respect, as in so many others, was an extension of the court” (Nobody’s Perfect). This is to say that the theatre and the plays that are performed there have to be up to the queen’s liking and standards.
Some examples of strong women leads in Shakespearean plays include Mistress Ford and Page (Merry Wives of Windsor), Plays like Merry Wives of Windsor would appeal more to the women in the audience than the men. This is because the women win in the end. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page use tricks and wit to humiliate the knight Falstaff. The knight Falstaff is an oaf. He is full of himself and thinks he can win any woman he meets. He sets his gaze upon Mistress Ford. She decides to take this opportunity, rather than say no out right, to mess with him. The women in this play are portrayed as smart. They are able to avoid their husbands who tend to come across as quite dumb and suspicious of being cheated on. In an article written about the play, Robert Brazil discusses how the play revolves around the fact that women could be merry and faithful, an idea that was not well recognized in sixteenth century England. Another play that features a strong and independent woman is Taming of the Shrew.
In this play Katherine is the shrew. She is wild and unruly. She is also unwed and has no desire of changing her marital status. This makes her threatening to the patriarchy. Throughout the play she loses her bitterness and falls in love. But she makes her choice of whom she is going to love and she doesn’t lose herself in marriage. This makes her a strong feminine figure and model of what would be pleasing to a mostly female audience. Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing is another example of a strong female lead. Her story and character is similar to Katherine’s from Taming of the Shrew. However in the ending she does not lose her bitterness like Katherine does. She still is fighting with her betrothed, Benedick, until the end. She holds her own with witty banter and shows her intelligence and strength. She is another example of a strong female lead in Shakespeare’s works.
Another leading lady who shows a lot of strength is Lady Macbeth. By the end of the play she ends up losing her mind. But prior to that she is cold and strong. She makes fun of her husband for being weak. “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be what thou art is promised. Yet I do fear thy nature. It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great; art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it.” (I.v.15-20) She makes herself the dominate person in the relationship through this. Despite the fact she is considered a villain, Lady Macbeth can for sure be argued to be a strong female lead. Another way gender is bent in Shakespeare’s work is a metaphorical one. A man loses he masculinity when he loses his mind to love for a woman. This is a stereotype that is still present today. If a man shows emotion and expresses love to a woman in an eccentric way, it can be implied that they are whipped, or have surrendered their masculinity to their woman.
Two major examples of this in the works of William Shakespeare are Romeo from Romeo and Juliet, Orlando from As You Like It, and Antony from Cleopatra and Antony Romeo loses his manhood first with his sickening love for Rosalind and then to his love for Juliet. Romeo is portrayed as wimpy boy who is stuck in love. The first part of the play Romeo spends mopping around about how Rosalind is not returning his love. He quickly is over this and turns his time pining after the fair Juliet. The only evidence of his manhood is when he kills Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt. Romeo ends up perishing due to his love for Juliet. It can be argued that due to his love for Juliet, Romeo lost his manhood and his life. In a less obvious manner Orlando loses his manhood to Rosalind. He confesses his undying love for her saying he would die rather than lose her. Rosalind replies by saying
No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is
almost six thousand years old, and in all this time
there was not any man died in his own person,
videlicit, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains
dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he
could to die before, and he is one of the patterns
of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair
year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been
for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went
but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being
taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish
coroners of that age found it was ‘Hero of Sestos.’
But these are all lies: men have died from time to
time and worms have eaten them, but not for love. (4.1.81-94)
In this speech Rosalind is telling Orlando he is being dramatic. In this instance she becomes the dominant person in the relationship causing Orlando to loose his masculinity. Antony loses his masculinity to Cleopatra. This can be seen metaphorically through the scene where she steals his sword. A sword was seen a man’s manhood. So when she steals his sword she is castrating him metaphorically. His love for her takes away his power and masculinity (Platt). Overall throughout Shakespeare’s works there are clear themes that involve sexuality and genders. Authors such as Stephen Orgel and Dr. Peter Platt agree that there are reoccurring themes involving sexuality and sexual identities. They all surround the basic idea that the female is a frail figure and that the man holds all the strength. This patriarchal viewpoint is one that dominates most of Shakespeare’s work, though there are some shining examples of female leads in his work.
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