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Essay on Female Characters in Shakespeare's Plays

In: Shakespeare free essays

Essay on Female Characters in Shakespeare's Plays

In many of Shakespeare's plays, Shakespeare creates female characters that are presented to be clearly inferior to men. Shakespeare gives each of them a sense of power by giving their minds the ability to change words around, use multiple meanings and answer wisely to the men surrounding them. Although The Merchant of Venice and Othello describes more than one woman in their storylines, the women that stand out particularly in both plays are The Merchant of Venice's Portia and Othello's Desdemona. Both Portia and Desdemona represent women of the seventeenth century who surpassed the norms of sexual morality set for Venetian women of that time. In a time period where the theme of “the outsider” flourished (whether it due to race, gender, religion, etc.), both of these Shakespearean characters stepped outside their roles as “the outsider” to chase their dreams and fulfill their needs. Portia and Desdemona break the molds of Elizabethan women and pursue their goals with force and a unique indifference to traditional behaviour. These women use their independence, intelligence and want for gender equality in different manners to gain a sense of power and control, which they originally would not have been able to acquire.

Shakespeare's Portia displays all the graces of the perfect Renaissance lady. She is not ambitious; she is quiet rather than restrictive. She is also modest in her self-estimation. Portia is thought of as “a perfect angel” possessing no flaws. Although Portia's personality is strong-willed and determined, her independence is restricted rather than Desdemona's unreserved self-determination. While Portia has limited freedom, she is still able to appear as though she is a free spirit in her position. As a rich heiress, she is obliged by the terms of her father's will to set a puzzle to all prospective suitors, forcing them to choose between three caskets (of gold, silver and lead). Portia is beautiful, gracious, rich, intelligent, quick witted and with high standards in men. She obeys her father's will while having a determination to obtain Bassanio. Although she appears independent, we are told that she feels tightly bound by her dead father's will, which limits her freedom. Additionally, a critical article (“The Rival Lovers in the Merchant of Venice”) suggests that the primary action of The Merchant of Venice is centered on the struggle between Portia and Antonio for Bassanio's affection, or the competition between friendship and marriage. The critic proposes that Antonio's bond with Shylock represents the merchant's attempt to retain Bassanio's love. As well, the critic describes the fact that Shakespeare creates dramatic tension in the trial scene not only between the rival relationship of Antonio and Shylock, but also through the rivalry nature of Portia and Antonio for Bassanio's love. According to the critic, Antonio's willingness to submit to Shylock's bond reflects his desperate attempt to maintain his relationship with his friend, although he has already been partially displaced by Bassanio's marriage to Portia. The climax of the play, the critic declares, is also the “high point” of Portia's triumph over Antonio. Not only does she ruin Shylock's revenge, but by rescuing Antonio with a legal technicality, she also breaks the bond which holds her husband emotionally responsible to the merchant. This article suggests that Portia must have required independence in order to win the love of Bassanio and to triumph over Antonio. Without Portia's distinctive independence, she would have not been able to take in upon her own to participate in the suggested rivalry. This is highly unlikely of a woman in Shakespeare's time due to the fact that it would have been the man who selected a partner. The woman would have been required to act passive and inactive in the start of the relationship. Furthermore, Portia is apparently a set of contradictions. She is a free spirit enduring the strict rules of the time period. She is feminine but strong; and she is happy to rid of many of her suitors yet saddened by her powerlessness to control her nuptial prospects. Her free-spirited manner, strength and happiness to rid of her suitors are traits that emphasize her independence and difference in attitude from the women of that time period. To conclude, Portia can effortlessly make situations work in her favour. Although she is unable to go out into the world and search for what she truly desires, she is able to manipulate the issues around her in order to get what she wants. Portia was able to successfully test her husband fidelity in the courtroom scene and she freely chose to go to court disguised in order to help her husband's close friend. From this, it is obvious that Portia struggled in breaking away from the restrictions she required enduring, however, she was able to summon up her strength and audacity in order to achieve what she sought after.

Shakespeare's Othello presents the reader with a male world in which women have an especially rough time. Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca are all rejected by their respective partners, and all three love their men unselfishly and unreservedly even when confronted by behaviour that one would consider a reason for divorce. All of these women are engaged in unbalanced partnerships as well. Unlike Portia's restricted and reserved attempt at independence, Desdemona pushes for her own independence ardently and without reservation through various actions in the play. Desdemona appears remarkably forward and aggressive in Othello's account, particularly in relation to the Renaissance expectations of female behavior. She “devour[s] up” his discourse with a “greedy ear”, and is the first of the two to hint at the possibility of their loving one another. Othello almost seems uncertain about whether he or Desdemona played the more active role in the courtship. This could mean that he is somewhat uncomfortable (either embarrassed or upset) with Desdemona's aggressive pursuit of him. The choice of mate made by Desdemona deviated her further from the role in which Venetian society would have traditionally cast her. A critical article (“Shakespeare's Desdemona”) gives explanation to Desdemona's character while maintaining that Shakespeare cautiously balanced the other characters' accounts of her as a goddess or a whore to present an intricate portrayal. The critic also points out that Desdemona's liveliness and boldness are confirmed by her marriage to Othello and that these positive traits become a fatal responsibility. In conclusion, the critic ends with a discussion of Desdemona's powerlessness in the face of her husband's accusations, which eventually leads to her death. One may propose that it was Othello who was responsible for Desdemona's rebellious behaviour and her magnification of independence. Moreover, Desdemona also shows her independence while challenging her father and the court while proclaiming her love for Othello. Desdemona lived with her father in Venice before secretly marrying Othello. She stands up to her father before the Duke and Council, proclaiming her love for Othello and her father reluctantly accepts the union. When Desdemona left her father's house to wed the Moor, it was the first step in redefining her role as a woman. Desdemona, instead of asking her father's permission, decided on her own to marry Othello, and it seems as though Desdemona was breaking away from the strictness imposed by Brabantio. She denied her father any right in choosing or granting allowance to Othello to marry her. Instead, she chose the man who she wanted to marry and felt it unnecessary that her father interfere with their relationship. This act of independence by Desdemona tore away the gender barriers of the Venetian patriarchal society and posed a threat to male authority. The critic from the aforementioned article points out that before the senators, Desdemona answers her father's charges powerfully and convincingly, without shyness or discretion. Arguments that see Desdemona as stereotypically weak and submissive ignore the conviction and authority of her first speech (“My noble father, / I do perceive here a divided duty” [I.iii.179-180]) and her abrupt fury after Othello strikes her (“I have not deserved this” [IV.i.236]). Lastly, Desdemona's independence is displayed convincingly when she requests to go Cyprus with her husband. Desdemona wanted to accompany Othello in his voyages but she is a typical, upper-class female under her father's protection. She naturally would not have been allowed to go outside without someone by her side. Desdemona is rebelliousness due to the fact that she requests something outside of the norm for a woman in the time period. To review, it is clear from Desdemona's keen behaviour that she strives to be independent in a world that thrives in limiting her abilities and capacity for knowledge.

Portia is one of Shakespeare's great heroines, whose beauty, lively intelligence, quick wit, and high moral seriousness have blossomed in a society of wealth and freedom. She is known throughout the world for her beauty and virtue, and she is able to handle any situation with her sharp wit. Even though Portia might have been perceived as an unschooled girl, her inner self possesses the strength, cleverness and experience that enables her to do what she does. The essence of Portia's contribution to the plot can be found in Shakespeare's notoriously discussed court scene. The reader is able to see Portia's intelligence in her outwitting Shylock in the courtroom, her ability to handle situations with quick wit and her desire to marry a non-coloured man. Disguised as Balthasar, she effectively imitates a man who has been educated through law school. There is a strong suggestion that Shakespeare intended Portia to be not only “learned” but wise as well. Her trial scene reveals a keen sense of manipulation which allows Portia to deal with both sides without bias. Portia is indeed a woman of great eloquence who adapts gracefully to her role as a lawyer. She used her grace and bluntness to make a brilliant case for Antonio's life. Balthasar turns the case around entirely and by the end of the trial Shylock is begging for mercy from Antonio. Portia stunned the courtroom with her arguments and saved the life of her husband's companion. The protagonist efficiently used her wits and skill to deliver justice to an innocent man and to antagonize Shylock's greedy scheme. Likewise, Portia possesses the intelligence to use and manipulate words, the beauty to entice men, and a soul that stands above others. Her appearance adds to her angelic reputation and her wisdom allows the audience of the play to acknowledge the theme of deceptive appearances. Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses the characters to illustrate to the audience that a person can not be judged by how they appear to the eye and that a person can truly be identified by their inner soul. The reader is able to witness Portia's unlimited wit and sharpness in her speech about 'mercy' in Act Four. Even as she follows the typical procedure of asking Shylock for mercy, Portia reveals her skills by engaging Shylock's meticulous mind. She draws her arguments on a process of reasoning, rather than emotion. Portia first states that the gift of forgiving the bond would benefit Shylock, and that it would raise Shylock to a divine status. She warns Shylock that his quest for justice without mercy may result in his own damnation. Portia's speech is well-measured and well-reasoned, and portrays 'mercy' as the major issue between Judaism and Christianity. In this speech, one is able to witness Portia's uncanny ability to manage any circumstance with sharp wit. Conjointly, in Act One, the reader learns that Portia has a close relationship with her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa. In their conversation, Portia proves herself as sharp and witty as they discuss her many suitors. However, we also learn that Portia is a racist: “let all of his complexion choose.” Portia is such a fabulously wealthy heiress that the only men eligible to court her are from the highest end of the social strata. As a result, the competition between her suitors is international, including noblemen from various parts of Europe and even Africa. At the end of the scene, the arrival of the prince of Morocco is announced, introducing a suitor who is racially and culturally more distant from Portia than her previous suitors. The casket test seems designed to give an equal chance to all of these different noblemen, so the competition for Portia's hand and wealth is fair to men of many nations. Portia's remarks about the prince of Morocco's “devilish skin colour” show that she is searching for a husband who is culturally and racially similar to her. In fact, she hopes to marry Bassanio, the suitor with the background closest to hers. Perhaps her strict appeal for a fair-skinned partner is smart for the time period where race was unchallengeable. It would have been considered illogical and irregular to marry “an outsider” during that time. In conclusion, it is apparent from the reader's perspective that Portia is a woman uncharacteristically intelligent and clever for the time period. Generally, through her use of words she is able to manipulate those around her to gain control.

Desdemona is a lady of spirit and intelligence. Her speeches are not as lengthy as those of the men, but with Desdemona every word counts. It is typically in Desdemona's actions that her cunning intelligence is presented to the reader. Desdemona is able to make her own decisions, she makes an effort to stand up to her husband and she gains knowledge from her experiences with her husband of a different culture. The critic from the aforesaid article maintains that Desdemona must have recognized the dignity, energy and power in Othello that all the people around her lack. Since these qualities attribute to his heritage, she may be said to choose him because he is “an outsider”. The critic also feels that Desdemona shows courage and an aptitude for risk in choosing Othello because it puts her in a dangerous arrangement, cutting her off from her father and the other countrymen. Desdemona is the daughter of Brabantio, a man of some reputation in Venice, and therefore, she is part of the upper class of Venetian society. It appeared that she had many suitors competing for her hand in marriage, but she freely chose to marry Othello. Additionally, the critic observes that Desdemona's liveliness, assertiveness, and sensuality are confirmed in her marrying Othello. Without the intelligence that Desdemona possesses, she would not be able to make her own decisions and chose her own fate. As well, before their marriage, Desdemona was a strong-willed, explorative equal to Othello while she conversed and related to him as a peer.  Her ideas and abilities appealed to him and he regarded her as person capable of creative thought and personal aptitude. Desdemona was constantly striving for her voice to be heard and she demonstrated her intellect through word and deed. One is able to detect the power of Desdemona's intelligence through Othello's keen interest in conversing with her. Othello is not only a man of high rank and he too is an intelligent individual. His choosing Desdemona as a wife is viable due to the fact that he would have wanted to marry a woman who could reflect and discuss without great effort. Desdemona's desire to please her husband can be attributed to her intelligence and liberation. When Othello finally confronts Desdemona about cheating, she does not merely listen to his accusations, but instead tries to explain her situation. She could have very easily let Othello control her but she made her point known and told the truth about her circumstance. Desdemona, just before her death, challenges Othello as she had challenged her father and defends herself with the same straightforward precision she used before the Senate. Additionally, Desdemona shows her desire for new experiences and growth of knowledge when she chooses a husband from another race and culture. Race was not an issue to Desdemona and this was a result of her intelligence and determination to become liberated. Desdemona craved to listen to Othello's accounts of his adventures and of what he had learned in his travels. To summarize, it is evident that Desdemona is uniquely bright compared to the women in her time, and that through her actions, one is able to observe her ingenuity and cleverness.

In the context of women's education, Portia exemplifies that with knowledge, women may be as effective as men. Though she is clearly capable of being as effective as any male lawyer, Portia is forbidden to do so unless she poses as a man (in the court scene). Shakespeare is thus providing a strong review of the limitations of gender roles and satirizing male superiority (a concept quite radical for his time). Not only is Portia inferior to her father and her father's will, she would typically be inferior in the courtroom. Women would not have been allowed to participate in the procedures of the court. Additionally, Portia is treated as a 'prize' by the many suitors that visit her in hopes of becoming her husband. In Act One, Nerissa lists the suitors who have come to guess-a Neapolitan prince, a Palatine count, a French nobleman, an English baron, a Scottish lord, and the nephew of the duke of Saxony-and Portia criticizes their many faults. Each of the suitors had left without even attempting a guess for fear of the penalty for guessing wrong. This fact relieves Portia, and both she and Nerissa remember Bassanio, who had visited once before, as the suitor most deserving and worthy of praise. Portia is a wealthy heiress and a beautiful young woman who would have been viewed as a 'prize' by her suitors. Her being treated as a 'prize' by these men is an additional occurrence in which she is treated lower than the men in the play. What's more, a significant quality that both The Merchant of Venice and Othello have in common is the relationship between fathers and daughters. In the first act at Belmont, Portia complains to Nerissa that she is weary of the world because, as her dead father's will specifies, she cannot decide for herself whether to take a husband. Instead, Portia's various suitors must choose between three chests, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead, in the hopes of selecting the one that contains her portrait. The man who guesses correctly will win Portia's hand in marriage. After we see more of Portia, her compliance with her dead father's instructions may seem odd, as she proves to be an extremely independent and strong-willed character. Nevertheless, her adherence to her father's will establishes that she plays by the rules. It is obvious in her behaviour that Portia wishes to select a husband for herself. The restricted relationship that Portia obtains with her deceased father advances her struggle to play an equal role as men. Furthermore, in the court scene, Portia appears as an unbiased legal authority, when in fact she is married to the defendant's best friend and is in disguise under a false name. Dressing as a man is necessary since Portia is about to play a man's part, appearing as a member of a male profession. The demands placed upon her by her father's will are gone, and she feels free to act and to prove herself more intelligent and capable than the men around her. It can be concluded that these points are clearly observable proofs that Portia wants to be as equal as the men around her.

Desdemona is very honest, upright and moral and it seems that in this time period she should be submissive to her husband and the men around her. Through Desdemona's craftiness, one is able to conclude that she is attempting to stand up against her inferiority to men. Desdemona is inferior to her husband, her father and other characters including Iago. Desdemona is striving to be equal in her choosing a husband for herself, rather than her father choosing a husband for her. Othello opens with a discussion between two men concerning the fate of Desdemona. One of the men is distraught, having tried to win her love but miserably failed, and the other agrees that she is quite a prize. A 'prize' is not a desired name for Desdemona because in calling her a 'prize', she loses her humanity. Both men are angry and want to seek revenge against the man who won her, slandering Desdemona's name in the process. The men in Othello generally have varying attitudes to women, from Othello, who idealizes Desdemona, to Iago, who sees love as "merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will". Desdemona feels unappreciated and substandard to men, and she desires being looked upon as an equal to the men around her. Desdemona's actions were not necessarily based on the desire to be a man, but more so a desire to have the equal powers of men. By marrying Othello, Desdemona was demonstrating that she was strong and educated enough to break the societal confines of submissiveness for women. Once again, the father and daughter relationship in Shakespeare's plays perform an important role. Desdemona's father, Brabantio, feels betrayed when Othello marries his daughter in secret. Brabantio twice accuses Othello of using magic to seduce his daughter and he repeats the same charge a third time in front of the duke. Even though Shakespeare's audience would have considered elopement with a nobleman's daughter to be serious, Brabantio insists that he wants to arrest and prosecute Othello specifically for the crime of witchcraft, not for eloping with his daughter without his consent. Desdemona decided to take the relationship into her own hands and ignored the tradition of receiving her father's approval. Moreover, women seem not to be favored in Shakespeare's plays. In Othello, Shakespeare writes his male character's to view women in a demeaning way. In the seventeenth century, the family of the daughter had all rights to say whom she shall marry. Desdemona unfortunately sealed her own fate by destroying the gender barriers. Although she is an intelligent woman seeking liberation, she fell into Iago's trap because she loved Othello and was upset that he had considered her a “whore.” She was a very trusting person and did not think that Iago would her hurt. Although she was striving to be play an equal role of the men in Venice, at times her sensitivities overpowered her desire to break the gender barriers. The aspect of playing the same role as the men in the Venetian society also explains Desdemona's marriage to Othello. In conclusion, instead of Brabantio taking the initiative in the marriage, Desdemona took the initiative in the courtship because she envied the power that her father had over her and the power of Othello's bravery and masculinity. One could consider that Desdemona wished to be a man as brave and as noble as Othello.

The Merchant of Venice's Portia is seemingly a series of contradictions. Othello's Desdemona tears away the gender barriers of the Venetian patriarchal society and poses a threat to male authority. Portia uses her restricted independence, and her clever and knowledgeable words to reveal her intelligence and her struggle to play an equal role as men. On the other hand, Desdemona applies her unreserved and ardent self-determination, and her cunning and crafty actions to expose her astuteness and her attempt to attain a role as equal as men. Portia and Desdemona break the molds of Elizabethan women to chase their goals with force and a unique lack of concern to traditional behaviour. In Shakespeare's time, intelligent women were often viewed as a threat to male superiority. However, it seems their attributes often made them capable of dominating their relationships with men and their logic proved equal. As their education increased, so did women's ability to play a significant role in society. The women of Shakespeare's plays were forerunners of the present while they represented triumph of ability and intellect over firm gender roles.

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