SHAKESPEARE, POPULAR CULTURE, and CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Sunday, March 30, 2014
The Role of the Female Character in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries
Why are Shakespeare's women so feeble? by Lloyd Evans
There’s a problem, as we all know, with female roles in the theatrical canon, and it reaches all the way back to the Bard. Shakespeare’s women lack the richness and variety of his male characters. Modern theatre practitioners have tried all kinds of ploys to correct this imbalance. Next month the RSC launches a season of dramas, Roaring Girls, written during Shakespeare’s lifetime and featuring women in pivotal roles. This is bound to reopen the question of Shakespeare’s approach to women and their subordinate position in his work.
It’s easy to argue that Shakespeare’s art simply reflects his habitat. Wealth, freedom and influence were the preserve of men, so he tended to leave women on the sidelines. As a dramatist, he was unusually fixated with power and kingship, and this led him to explore the male principle at the expense of the female. He was also, I suspect, aware that the convention of all-male casting undermined the credibility of female characters on stage. He could dash off a terrific role for a woman but the part would be played by a heavily rouged choirboy in his early teens. The craftsman in him must have recoiled at the absurdity of a gangly pipsqueak impersonating a tragic heroine. And yet this doesn’t fully explain why a writer who built a play around a Jew, and another around a Moor, never did the same for a woman.
Even where a female is given a title role, she has to accept second billing.Romeo and Juliet,Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida. A script likeThe Merry Wives of Windsor suggests an all-female focus but the largest part belongs to Falstaff. And Shakespeare’s women operate within a remarkably limited emotional landscape. Broadly, there are two categories: the violent maverick and the simpering martyr. The mavericks include Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Goneril, Regan and Juliet. The martyrs, who form a far larger sorority, include Cordelia, Desdemona, Ophelia, Lady Macduff, Hermione (inThe Winter’s Tale), Lady Anne (in Richard III), Katherine (in Henry V), Calpurnia (in Julius Caesar), and many others. Only one female character, Kate in the Shrew, straddles both categories. And her descent from rebel to victim is among the most troubling journeys in all drama. Hamlet’s mother Gertrude is an enigmatic exception. She may be a bloodstained schemer or an innocent dupe but the audience isn’t permitted to know which. ‘Leave her to heaven,’ says the Ghost, effectively closing down the investigation into her complicity in the murder of her husband.