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Shakespeare’s Heroines: Dualism In The Status Of 16th Century Women

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“We know what we are but know not what we may be.” -Ophelia, Hamlet (1603)

The rising power of Queen Elizabeth as the monarch which had traditionally been a male preserve, resulted in “destabilizing the structure of a society” (Carole Levin 93) which always expected a man to be the ruler. The renaissance society did not traditionally value the freedom of women. With Queen Elizabeth I’s reign and Puritanism which believed in spiritual equality among the sexes questioning the old Catholic doctrine of female subordination, questions and doubts were being raised about women’s place in society. In keeping with the chaotic and complicated state of matters Shakespeare introduced to the readers two unique heroines who respond to the confines of the society differently. Katherine in The Taming of The Shrew is an example to show the conventional suppressed and inhuman treatment conferred upon women whereas Portia in The Merchant of Venice shows the advent of the new, strong, independent woman.

There were only two socially acceptable positions for Renaissance women, marriage and entering a convent. Marriages, according to Martin Ingram, was “the site for the exercise of patriarchal authority” (114). In both the plays we witness the fathers of the heroines having a strong influence on the life of the daughters regarding marriage, otherwise they are thought of as a burden. Baptista feels “Was ever gentleman thus grieved as I?” (2. 1. 37) as he fails to get his sharp-tongued daughter Katherine married. Katherine feels humiliated when she is treated like a commodity put up for auction in front of Gremio and Hortensio. We see a similar situation in The Merchant of Venice, where Portia laments over not having a choice in choosing her husband- “I may neither choose whom I would nor /refuse whom I dislike—so is the will of a living /daughter curbed by the will of a dead father” (1. 2. 22-24). But unlike Katherine she has a strong hold of the situation as she possesses immense wealth. She quite wittily tries to warn Bassanio of choosing the wrong casket through music thus displaying intelligence, influence and control over her actions and its consequences. We do not witness this in Katherine who had no chance of voicing her opinions in her marriage.

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Marriage was not just a social convention but it paved way for economic growth and financial stability as well, in the form of dowries. Martin Ingram says, “Sons had more freedom of movement than daughters…when they were of age were often expected to take an active part in marriage negotiations on their own account…” (118). In The Taming of the Shrew Petruccio blatantly asks the wealth Katherine would bring to the marriage upon which decided whether he was at all interested in her or not. The discussion of dowries and exchange of wealth between Baptista and Petruccio in Act 2 scene 1 demean the sacred institution of marriage as a mere business deal where Katherine has no say. He clearly states in the beginning he has agreed because of the dowry “you shall be my wife, your dowry ’greed on,” (2.1. 267). He does not mention of loving her but just “like thee well”. He does not care for Katherine’s will. He frankly states he was born to tame her and talks about her like a commodity he has just bought. Although quite similar, The Merchant of Venice paints a different picture. Bassanio is no doubt drawn towards Portia because of her enormous inheritance of wealth which would bring him out of debt and allow him lead a luxurious life. But as he has nothing to give Portia in exchange, which gives Portia the control and superior power. Although Portia declares her entire property to be Bassanio’s- “This house, these servants, and this same myself…”, yet Bassanio asks her permission to greet his friends when they arrive with Antonio’s sad news. It is as if Portia is the “Lord” and Bassanio her mistress. The authority with which she orders Bassanio to go to Venice and save Antonio by paying his debt reflects power and domination which is usually seen in the males.

Following the settlement of dowry and inheritance of wealth, courtship before marriage was considered to be an important and essential step which not only reflected the love for the woman but also the strong masculine nature of men showing power and wealth to woo his beloved. It was “also of prime public importance.” (Martin Ingram 116). A major source of humor is Gremio, the older suitor trying to capture the younger Bianca’s hand. By mocking this situation Shakespeare is objecting to the widely accepted practice of families arranging for men to marry significantly younger women. Signifying the old ideal of marriage, Hortensio vows to marry a nice, but wealthy widow (4.2.37) Throughout the play Katherine struggles for control of her own destiny. Although Baptista very modernly insists upon her consent to the marriage, she never really gave it. The interaction between Petruccio and Katherine in Act 2 scene 1 displays the strong dominating nature of Petruccio who wants Katherine’s hand in marriage and the dowry at any cost. It seems he is “fascinated by, the sharpness of women’s (Katherine’s) tongue” (Martin Ingram 124). He sees a chance of proving his masculine power by taming Katherine to be his wife. He tricks Baptista in to believing that she consented in the marriage, thus leaving Katherine’s voice unheard. On the contrary in The Merchant of Venice Portia is seen to woo Bassanio the first time they meet in Act 3 scene 2. She urges Bassanio to “pause a day or two” before choosing the casket as she does not wish to “lose your [Bassanio’s] company”. Portia openly and boldly declares her love for Bassanio, communicates her deep inner desires of loving Bassanio even before he could court Portia. Unlike Katherine, Portia reflects the age of new women taking control of their lives and voicing their choices unreservedly. She is not attracted to any of the masculine qualities in the other suitors- horse riding, drinking, travelling, philosopher, scholar, nothing attracts her. Due to her strong inner masculinity in herself, she is attracted towards romantic, soft, charming, feminine gestures of Bassanio. Instead of Morocco’s victory in fierce battles, Portia is more inclined towards Bassanio’s submissive nature, which is usually desired by a man.

Katherine’s marriage in The Taming of the Shrew justifies Stephen Greenblatt’s statement- “Early modern writings about women and the family constantly return to a political model of domination and submission, in which the husband and father justly rules over wife and children”. Katherine and Petruchio’s relationship shows a glimpse of a social contract between a master and slave- rewarding the slave when he/she obeys and punishing when the slave resists. Similar treatment is being conferred upon poor Katherine. She is fed when her master thinks its fit, she is dressed as he pleases, even her speech is controlled. Whenever she tries to defy him, she is being penalized. She is starved till her freewill is curbed and she blindly follows her husband around. We pity her when we see such a headstrong Shakespearean heroine accepts the sun to be a moon and a gentleman to be a “fair lovely maid”, obeying whatever Petruchio commands her to do, just like a servant. She is stripped of any form of social identity. At the end of the play in Act 5 scene 2, we grieve on seeing Katherine totally submissive to her authoritative husband- “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper”, “true obedience”, “they[wives] should kneel for peace…they are bound to serve, love, and obey”. It is as if she is admitting “the husbands’ dominance in the family was the justification for the common law rule that prohibited married women from possessing property, administering land…” (Stephen Greenblatt).

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Shakespeare’s Heroines: Dualism In The Status Of 16th Century Women. (2021, September 10). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/shakespeares-heroines-dualism-in-the-status-of-16th-century-women/
“Shakespeare’s Heroines: Dualism In The Status Of 16th Century Women.” Edubirdie, 10 Sept. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/shakespeares-heroines-dualism-in-the-status-of-16th-century-women/
Shakespeare’s Heroines: Dualism In The Status Of 16th Century Women. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/shakespeares-heroines-dualism-in-the-status-of-16th-century-women/> [Accessed 3 Dec. 2022].
Shakespeare’s Heroines: Dualism In The Status Of 16th Century Women [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 10 [cited 2022 Dec 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/shakespeares-heroines-dualism-in-the-status-of-16th-century-women/
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