Shakespeare, it is claimed by many modern critics, was a feminist. Shapiro for example goes so far as to claim that Shakespeare was ‘the noblest feminist of them all’. In this essay I will explore chiefly A separate peace essays’s treatment of the three heroine’s Ophelia, Desdemona and Cleopatra, of the tragedies Hamlet, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra, beginning with an exploration of Shakespeare’s representation of the effects of a patriarchal system upon the characters.
Ophelia, it would seem, wholly at the mercy of the male figures within her life, is certainly a victim figure. Although it has been claimed by critics that Hamlet is unique amongst Shakespeare’s tragic heroes for not being to blame for the tragedy of the play, if we are to consider the death of the heroine as part of this tragedy then surely we must question Hamlet’s innocence. To examine this culpability more deeply however, it could be suggested that it is Queen Gertrude’s behaviour that has instigated Hamlet’s unforgivable treatment of Ophelia: She transgresses the patriarchal bounds of femininity by marrying so soon after her husband’s death and not remaining in passive grief and obedient devotion to his memory. This provides Hamlet with a model of women’s inconstancy. With regard to her father and brother, the two direct ruling male forces in her life, Ophelia is also very much a victim. Unquestioningly obeying their remonstrances against pursuing a relationship with Hamlet, she rejects his advances – which of course she believes to be genuine – and thus when he pretends to be mad she believes it to be her fault. Polonius’s conviction, in which one can’t help believing, stems from a mercenary desire to marry his daughter off to such an eligible husband as the prince of Denmark, rather than a genuine belief in his daughter’s role in causing Hamlet’s madness.
Thus when Hamlet murders her father, Ophelia enters a double realm of guilt, believing herself to be to blame for both Hamlet’s madness and her father’s death. As a result she becomes mad. Although at one level this decline into madness sets Ophelia up indisputably as a victim figure, on a deeper level perhaps her madness itself can be seen as Ophelia’s active rejection of patriarchal restraint. In the later tragedy, Othello, it can also be argued that the tragedy occurs from adherence to patriarchal rules and stereotypes.
Gayle Greene summarises this position in her claim that the tragedy of Othello stems from ‘men’s misunderstandings of women and women’s inability to protect themselves from society’s conception of them’. With regard to men’s misunderstandings of women, Greene points out that Iago’s manipulation of Othello – the cause of the tragedy – occurs only because of ‘the views of women the moor already possessed’. This is certainly a convincing argument, for Othello all-too-easily accepts a stereotypical view of his wife based on the authority of a male voice. At the close of the play Othello attempts to vindicate himself from intentional murder by claiming that he did nothing ‘in malice’, but is simply a man ‘that loved not wisely but too well’. This speech illustrates the precarious position of love in a society submerged in stereotypes.
Othello’s excessive, ‘unwise’ love for Desdemona is tied up with his perception of her as representing perfect womanhood, and his underlying fear of her – endorsed by society – as whore. I think my wife be honest, and think she is not. I think thou art just, and then think thou art not. In Othello’s refusal to hear Desdemona’s own protestations of innocence, Othello is very much a tragedy in which the female is subordinated by the male. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare again explores the idea of the victim within a patriarchal society.
However, in this play the gender roles are inverted and it is Antony who is the true victim. Stifled by the rules of the patriarchal society of Rome which expects him to retain a masculine side only, and not to adopt the feminine qualities of passion, emotion, and love, Antony’s control over his life diminishes. Surprisingly, in modern-day readings of the play, this attitude still exists: in W. She has robbed me of my sword.
In the conflict between love and politics – love wins. Cleopatra’s masculine qualities counterbalance the play, so Shakespeare provides us with a relationship of surprising equality. Neither Cleopatra nor the relationship can be stifled within the confines of the patriarchy of the seventeenth century. The distinctions between masculine and feminine are blurred – in a sense Antony and Cleopatra swap roles, continually embracing both their masculine and feminine selves and thus experiencing a full bonding of souls. Cleopatra, unlike Othello and Ophelia, is the dominating force of the play in terms of theme and also her personal presence. Novy claims that Antony and Cleopatra is the only tragedy that ‘glorifies woman as actor’.
Through his treatment of Cleopatra, Shakespeare provides us with a ‘real’ woman rather than a stereotype. Velma Richmond claims further that in Cleopatra we can find Shakespeare’s ‘finest embracing of the feminine’. Cleopatra’s sexuality, despite condemnation by the patriarchal men – she is referred to as ‘strumpet’ and ‘whore’ on various occasions throughout the play – is unhidden and unrestricted. Her sexual power over men is conveyed boldly, for example, in her descriptions of her former conquests ‘great Pompey’ and ‘Broad-fronted Caesar’. Cleopatra’s sexuality is not a thing to be locked up, as in Hamlet and Othello, but is celebrated as a positive force. Nor custom stale her infinite variety.
Refusing to adhere to the stereotypes of patriarchal society, Cleopatra transforms her natural sexuality into part of her power, rather than as a diminishing of her goodness. Cleopatra thus forces her access into the male arena, where Ophelia and Desdemona do not – and cannot of course, in the same way, for in her status as a middle aged woman and Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra naturally has more freedom. She is not dependent upon anyone financially, as are Ophelia and Desdemona. Ophelia, the dominated daughter, is completely dependent. Although a flash of her potential self-will shines through at the beginning of the play, when we learn that Ophelia has entertained Hamlet unchaperoned or without paternal consent, this is stifled very quickly by Polonius and Laertes – the double voice of the patriarchy – telling her that she is naive and that her behaviour is unsuitable. While Ophelia then, silently and obediently accepts the oppression of male power, turning her distress in upon herself in her madness, Desdemona does display some traces of a more Cleopatra-like self-assertion.
In her choosing of Othello as her husband, she exercises her own desire, subverting the female role of passivity within the patriarch, and marries him without parental consent. This is a rather courageous act of will, which could have resulted in much strife. I do perceive here a divided duty. To you I am bound, for life and education . Due to the Moor my lord. Desdemona by her cleverness thus appears obedient in her disobedience.
Shakespeare shows Desdemona’s behaviour in her relationship with Othello before the marriage to be slightly manipulative also. However, when she is married she slips into the role of the submissive wife. Obedience and silence were very much part of the patriarchal conception of femininity. A conception to which Cleopatra refuses to adhere. Cleopatra replies, ‘Thou teachest like a fool, the way to lose him’.