Shakespeare creates heroines that have full characters, contrary to conventional writings that show women as sexual objects only. Shakespeare’s women are not only presented as sexual objects; his heroines have all kinds of human qualities like innocence, seductiveness, ambition, commitment, obedience, frustration, etc.
Whether playfully resolved in the comedies or brutally exposed in the tragedies, at some level, all Shakespeare’s works symbolically explore the conflict between male and female, or control and emotion, within society and the individual self.1
Two important heroines of Shakespeare are Lady Macbeth and Rosalind, who are famous for transgressing the boundaries drawn for women at that time. However, while Lady Macbeth becomes the victim of a tragedy, Rosalind becomes the architect of a happy ending comedy, which arouses a suggestion that Shakespeare’s tragedies are misogynist, whereas his comedies are feminist.
Lady Macbeth is the wife of Macbeth, who kills King of Scotland in order to be the king with the temptation of Witches and his wife. The role of Lady Macbeth in this tragedy is nearly as important as Macbeth’s role. He is presented as a transgressive woman, who rejects her gender and wants to be ‘unsexed’ in order to achieve her ambitions. When she learns that King Duncan will come their court, which will give them a perfect opportunity to kill him, she wants to be saved from her feminine qualities.
“…Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers” (1.5 39-47)2
She follows the stereotype of her time, which associates “masculinity with control, strength, and success; and femininity with weakness, loss of control, and disorder.”3 Although she is a woman, she is somewhat an androgynous person because she does not conform with the conventional qualities of a Medieval woman, a “female bird” who takes care of her husband and children and does housework without meddling in men’s jobs like politics. This is the definition of a domestic woman that is seen as natural in the society. However, Lady Macbeth is not a mother and furthermore, she has hostile feelings against children and motherhood.
“…I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me-
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out…” (1.7 54-58)4
Lady Macbeth’s political ambition is greater than her husband’s in the beginning of the play. She uses her sexuality in order to persuade Macbeth to kill Duncan, and besides, she always touches on his masculinity by blaming Macbeth for not being a man, as he hesitates to commit murder. Contrary to the conventional patriarchal family, we see that Lady Macbeth is dominant over her husband, partly due to his nature which is “full o’th’ milk of human kindness” (1.4 16)5 and partly due to Lady Macbeth’s skill in using her sexual charm. When she reads Macbeth’s letter informing about the prophecies of the witches, she becomes afraid that the potential good in her husband’s nature will prevent him from killing the King, then she comforts herself by thinking that she can persuade her husband easily.
“…Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal.” (1.5 24-29)6
Her influence upon her husband and her great ambition for power cause her to go mad when she loses both of them. When Macbeth kills Duncan, with the encouragement of Lady Macbeth, he abandons the potential good in him and gives less and less importance to his wife, once his “dearest partner of greatness.” (1.5 10)7 He doesn’t inform her about his later crimes -killing Macduff’s family and Banquo, as he doesn’t need her anymore to commit murder.
With the change in Macbeth’s character, their marriage loses its passion, as Macbeth loses his emotional intimacy to his wife, being only concerned with keeping his seat. However, Lady Macbeth has predicted different conclusions when they kill Duncan. She has aspired for being queen and meddling in politics and feeling power. Also she has thought that their marriage would be more intimate when Macbeth says her “Bring forth men-children only!/For thy undaunted mettle should compose/Nothing but males…”8 However, Macbeth loses all his emotions and passions for Lady Macbeth when he is entrapped in his evil actions. She loses not only her husband but also her access to power; therefore she goes mad and commits suicide as a result of her unnatural acts.
Shakespeare introduces us the character of Lady Macduff, so that we can understand how unnatural Lady Macbeth is. Lady Macduff is a domestic woman, the accepted role for women in the Medieval age (actually in all ages), looking after her children, sitting at home waiting for her husband faithfully and not meddling in politics. She is just the opposite of Lady Macbeth, who rather behaves like a male.
The common characteristics of Lady Macbeth and the witches, reflects the Medieval understanding that sees non-domestic women as witches and burns them alive. Just like Lady Macbeth, the witches are hostile towards children, as they put “finger of birth-strangled babe” (4.1 30)9 into their magical mixture in a cauldron. They also meddle in politics by the prophecies they make, and cause Macbeth to usurpe the crown by killing the gentle and trustful King Duncan. Macbeth kills all those people because of their prophecies, that Banquo’s children will become kings and Macduff will be a threat to him. Both the witches and Lady Macbeth are shown as the temptators, similar to the Christian teaching that Eve seduced Adam to commit the original sin. The death of Lady Macbeth reflects the victory of male-dominated society, which does not tolerate an unnatural woman challenging to their power and condemn it as a witch. In Shakespeare’s patriarchal world,
the ideal woman is seen as a passive docile and above all selfless creature…But behind the angel lurks the monster: the obverse of the male idealization of women is the male fear of femininity. The monster women is the woman who refuses to be selfless, acts on her own initiative, who has a story to tell–in short, a woman who rejects the submissive role patriarchy has reserved for her.10
Shakespeare creates this “monster” -Lady Macbeth- with his own hands, but he decides to kill her in the tragedy of Macbeth. Whereas, we see that he welcomes this “monster”, Rosalind, in his comedy of As You Like It.
First of all, he makes her the most dominant character in the play, among many male characters such as Orlando, Jacques or Touchstone. Rosalind’s wit and rhetoric puts her a higher place than all male and female characters, which is really revolutionary in the conventional idea that grudges knowledge for females. In Christianity, the tree of knowledge is considered a sin for women; however we see Shakespeare creating a female character that has the most knowledge in the play. Although she is disguised as a young male in order to protect herself in an unknown forest, she frees herself from the restrictions imposed upon women in this way, and she shows that she has the equal -and perhaps more capacity of knowledge and intelligence with men.
Rosalind provides us a real perspective of a female on the issues of love and male-female relationships, which shows the androgynous mind of Shakespeare, who can use his brain’s female part and give a correct female perspective. Rosalind challenges the stereotype that women want Platonic love, which means the men’s woving to love them forever, writing love poems for them and expressing their love in a highly emotional way.
She doesn’t like them. Although she is “many fathom deep..in love” (4.1 201)11 with Orlando, she tries to dissuade him from loving her by telling about the bad sides of marriage disguised as Ganymede. She says that if they marry, Rosalind would be more jealous of him “than a Barbary cock-pigeon over his hen, more clamorous than a parrot against rain, more new-fangled than an ape, more giddy in..desires than a monkey.” (4.1 145-148)12 Of course she won’t behave like that. But she doesn’t want a blind lover like Orlando, who says she will love her “forever, and a day” (4.1 140)13, which she protests with a rhetoric answer that expresses the evolving nature of relationships.
“Say ‘a day’ without the ‘ever’…No, no, Orlando, men are April when they woo, December when they wed; maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives…” (4.1 141-144)14
Rosalind has the control in her relationship with Orlando and she instructs him in order to mature his immatured love for her, which is really unnatural for the conventional society. In fact, a conventional reader would think Rosalind as a male and Orlando as a female, if he/she only read their words without knowing their sexes. She has the male attributed qualities of reason and strength, while Orlando has the female attributed qualities of emotion and weakness, which show us that all of these characteristics are universal to human beings and they should not be appropriated for a single race.
Rosalind is an admired figure among feminists for “her ability to subvert the limitations that society imposes on her as a woman.”15 She is dominant in all aspects of the story; and her masculine behaviour, which leads Lady Macbeth to disaster in the end of the tragedy of Macbeth, results in happy ending in the comedy of As You Like It. Therefore, it is possible to claim that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is misogynist and As You Like It is feminist.
Although it is difficult to generalize this idea for all the tragedies and comedies of Shakespeare, when we look at his Winter’s Tale, which is half tragedy and half comedy, it is also half misogynist and half feminist.
In the first part of the play, the great misogynist Leontes rises as a paranoid, who makes himself believe that his wife Hermione is cheating him with his best friend Polixenes while there is no reason. Leontes’ despotism over Hermione, and Hermione’s docile obedience to her husband reflect the conventional situation of women and men’s hegemony over them. When Leontes accuses her of being an adultress and puts her into prison, Hermione remains passive and obedient with expressing her belief in providence:
“… if powers divine
Behold our human actions, as they do,
I doubt not then but innocence shall make
False accusation blush and tyranny
Tremble at patience…” (3.2 23-33)16
The other woman character, Paulina strikes the reader with her fearless criticism of Leontes, the King of Sicily, whom the Queen Hermione can not say a word. When she learns that Hermione gives birth a daughter in the prison, she takes the baby to Leontes, hoping that she would soften him. She insists on calling Hermione “good queen” in spite of Leontes’ rage, and she says “Good queen, my lord, good queen, I say ‘good queen’, /And would by combat make her good, so were I / A man, the worst about you.” (2.3 72-74)17Leontes can not tolerate her apparent insolence and accuses Antigonus of not controlling his wife, which is the requirement of masculinity. When Leontes threatens Paulina by saying “I’ll ha’ thee burnt” (2.3 146)18, she answers with a courage no man an show:
“I care not.
It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in ‘t. I’ll not call you tyrant;
But this most cruel usage of your queen,
Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savors
Of tyranny, and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world.” (2.3 147-155)19
In this manner, we can see Paulina as a transgressive woman, who challenges the king regardless of her place determined by the male society. Although she is unsuccessful in the first part of the play, which is a tragedy, she becomes the chief advisor of Leontes in the second half of the play, which is a comedy. Being repentant of what he has done, Leontes obeys her this time, when she urges him not to remarry. Also the happy ending of the play, the resurrection of Hermione takes place in Paulina’a house, which shows the dominance of a strong female in the comedy part of the play.
By looking at the three plays by Shakespeare, we can conclude that the unnatural and transgressive women always lose in tragedies, whereas they become successful and have a happy ending in comedies. Therefore, it is possible to say that Shakespeare’s tragedies are misogynist and his comedies are feminist.